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Friday, December 23, 2011

Side Trip From Merída-- Beautiful Campeche... How Safe?

Lovely Campeche... ready for tourists to start arriving

We picked the Yucatán for our December vacation for a few reasons-- from curiosity about the Mayan culture to the warm weather; it's around 90-something by mid-day, although the early mornings and nights are cool. We rented an indoor-outdoor living house in ancient downtown Merída, the capital of the province. The house is so alluring, whole days pass when no one even thinks about unbolting the big doors and gate and going out. The house is it's own biosphere. And it feels very safe (not counting the damn mosquitos). In fact, we picked the Yucatán because of it's reputation as a safe haven in the never-ending Mexican violence maelstrom. But that was before we read about eleven decapitated bodies found just outside Merída a few years ago.

Yesterday we took an ADO bus-- a nice comfy one-- from Merída to the capital of the next province over Campeche. The city is also Campeche and it's sleepy, charming, a world heritage site and all painted and cobbled and ready to be discovered by tourists. But tourists are mostly afraid of Mexico in general so Campeche, just two and a half hours from Merída, is still sleepy. They don't care; they found oil off the coast. About 200,000 people live in the gem of a baroque colonial city, which was founded in 1540 on top of the ruins of an old Mayan city Canpech. Anyway, back to the bus. It was around $20 each way if I remember correctly and it took about 3 hours to get back because the nice highway stops every now and then for construction and you have to trundle along slowly in one lane-- harder in the dark. And police roadblocks stop you and search the vehicles, ostensibly looking for Guatemalan "illigals" who would like to get jobs in the glittery tourist mecca, Cancún. But Roland told me that Los Zetas, a paramilitary drug cartel, sometimes pull buses over and rob everyone. It made for some excitment every time we got pulled over. But nothing happened. Apparently, Los Zetas-- or some facsimile thereof-- were busy just north of where we were yesterday.
Three U.S. citizens traveling to spend the holidays with their relatives in Mexico were among those killed in a spree of shooting attacks on buses in northern Mexico, authorities from both countries said Friday.

A group of five gunmen attacked three buses in Mexico's Gulf coast state of Veracruz on Thursday, killing a total of seven passengers in what authorities said appeared to be a violent robbery spree.

...Rocha said the other bus passengers killed in the attacks were a young Mexican couple, who left behind a three-month-old baby boy, who survived the attack. A bus driver was also killed.

Five gunmen who allegedly carried out the attacks were later killed by soldiers.
Earlier in their spree, the gunmen shot to death three people and killed a fourth with grenade in the nearby town of El Higo, Veracruz.

On Thursday, the U.S. Consulate General in Matamoros, a Mexican border city north of where the attacks occurred, said in a statement that "several vehicles," including the buses, were attacked, but did not specify what the other vehicles were.

The consulate urged Americans to "exercise caution" when traveling in Veracruz, and "avoid intercity road travel at night."

On the other hand, Merída is nicknamed the city of peace, the real estate market is booming, and the food is yummy, ... but I feel like I should report on that next time.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Danger Lurks For Airline Passengers-- Germs Are Out To Get You

Last week Lee Rogers, a Los Angeles-based physician running for Congress, explained why he would work to ban airport x-ray body scanners. The health concerns are legitimate and powerful and the risks are imposed on us by government. There's another more immediate health risk involved with flying and this one isn't imposed by government. Today's Wall Street Journal runs through the viruses and bacteria that wait in prey for airline passengers, especially at this time of the year. And all government has done are make some toothless recommendations to the airlines-- recommendations the bottom-line oriented airlines routinely ignore.
Air travelers suffer higher rates of disease infection, research has shown. One study pegged the increased risk for catching a cold as high as 20%. And the holidays are a particularly infectious time of year, with planes packed full of families with all their presents--and all those germs.

Air that is recirculated throughout the cabin is most often blamed. But studies have shown that high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters on most jets today can capture 99.97% of bacterial and virus-carrying particles. That said, when air circulation is shut down, which sometimes happens during long waits on the ground or for short periods when passengers are boarding or exiting, infections can spread like wildfire.

One well-known study in 1979 found that when a plane sat three hours with its engines off and no air circulating, 72% of the 54 people on board got sick within two days. The flu strain they had was traced to one passenger. For that reason, the Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory in 2003 to airlines saying that passengers should be removed from planes within 30 minutes if there's no air circulation, but compliance isn't mandatory.

Much of the danger comes from the mouths, noses and hands of passengers sitting nearby. The hot zone for exposure is generally two seats beside, in front of and behind you, according to a study in July in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A number of factors increase the odds of bringing home a souvenir cough and runny nose. For one, the environment at 30,000 feet enables easier spread of disease. Air in airplanes is extremely dry, and viruses tend to thrive in low-humidity conditions. When mucous membranes dry out, they are far less effective at blocking infection. High altitudes can tire the body, and fatigue plays a role in making people more susceptible to catching colds, too.

Also, viruses and bacteria can live for hours on some surfaces--some viral particles have been found to be active up to a day in certain places. Tray tables can be contaminated, and seat-back pockets, which get stuffed with used tissues, soiled napkins and trash, can be particularly skuzzy. It's also difficult to know what germs are lurking in an airline's pillows and blankets.

Research has shown how easily disease can spread. Tracing influenza transmission on long-haul flights in 2009 with passengers infected with the H1N1 flu strain, Australian researchers found that 2% passengers had the disease during the flight and 5% came down within a week after landing. Coach-cabin passengers were at a 3.6% increased risk of contracting H1N1 if they sat within two rows of someone who had symptoms in-flight. That increased risk for post-flight disease doubled to 7.7% for passengers seated in a two-seat hot zone.

...[S]ome basic precautions passengers can take to keep coughs away.

Hydrate. Drinking water and keeping nasal passages moist with a saline spray can reduce your risk of infection.

Clean your hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. We often infect ourselves, touching mouth, nose or eyes with our own hands that have picked up something.

Use a disinfecting wipe to clean off tray tables before using.

Avoid seat-back pockets.

Open your air vent, and aim it so it passes just in front of your face. Filtered airplane air can help direct airborne contagions away from you.

Change seats if you end up near a cougher, sneezer or someone who looks feverish. That may not be possible on very full flights, but worth a try. One sneeze can produce up to 30,000 droplets that can be propelled as far as six feet.

Raise concerns with the crew if air circulation is shut off for an extended period.

Avoid airline pillows and blankets (if you find them).

...You think the plane is bad? Security checkpoints harbor a host of hazards as well, researchers say.

People get bunched up in lines, where there is plenty of coughing and sneezing. Shoes are removed and placed with other belongings into plastic security bins, which typically don't get cleaned after they go through the scanner.

A National Academy of Sciences panel is six months into a two-year study that is taking samples at airport areas to try to pinpoint opportunities for infection.

With limited resources, airports and airlines have asked researchers to help figure out where best to target prevention, said Dr. Mark Gendreau of Boston's Lahey Clinic Medical Center who is on the panel.

Check-in kiosks and baggage areas are other prime suspects in addition to security lines, he said.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ever Wonder What Medical Doctors Have To Say About Airport X-Ray Body Scanners?

Dr. Lee Rogers is the Simi Valley surgeon running for the L.A.-area House seat which GOP fossil Buck McKeon is still clinging to. Although his campaign has focused like a laser beam on the economy, jobs and housing, it's always fascinating when he gets into topics that sit at the intersection of politics and medicine. This week his campaign called for a ban on airport body scans.
"Currently, there are about 250 body scanners that use X-rays placed in American airports by the Transportation Security Administration which have screened millions of passengers. Last year, a report by the Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety, which includes the European Commission, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nuclear Energy Agency, and the World Health Organization, concluded that pregnant women and children should not be subject to the scanning, even though the radiation dose from body scanners is small. The Committee also stated that governments must justify the additional risk posed to passengers and should consider other technologies to achieve the same end without the use of radiation. Recently, the European Commission banned the use of X-ray body scanners in all European Union airports, citing the health and safety concerns.”

“The TSA’s use of these devises violates an important principle in radiation safety: humans should not be radiated unless there is some possible medical benefit. The devices used for security screening are not subject to FDA regulations for safety, unlike X-ray machines in a doctor’s office. Additionally, TSA officers are prohibited from wearing radiation dosimeter badges, as worn by healthcare workers to track their radiation exposure.”
“It is obvious that the use of this risky X-ray technology is the result of the culture in Washington. The manufacturer of the X-ray device is a California company called Rapiscan Systems which has more than tripled their lobbying cash in the past 5 years. The health and well being of our citizens should not be for sale.”

“As Congressman, I would work to stop the use of radiating devices for human screening that serve no medical benefit and I call on others in Congress to do the same. I would ensure that any future research on X-ray screening devices for humans meets the same ethical and safety standards that are required of medical devices emitting radiation. I would also fight to allow workers who operate X-ray machinery for baggage screening to wear radiation detector badges for their safety.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mérida-- In The Heartland Of The Mayan People... Or What's Left Of Them

Roland loves Guatemala, especially the people, and he's always pushing that we go down there. We're about the leave for the other half of the Mayan homeland, Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. We rented a house with our friends Helen and Michael for a few weeks in Mérida, the sleepy, romantic, tropical old colonial capital. I have a very queasy feeling about the Mayan people, primarily because how horrifically they're been treated by my government which-- let's be real-- represents me.

Roland and Helen seem to always feel validated when some NY Times travel writer does a piece on one of our destinations. My response is always "Yecchhhh." These Times travel writers are clueless and always between a year and ten years late to any travel trend. But Helen and Roland both forwarded me the lame, even embarrassing 36 Hours in Mérida story from two weeks ago. Like all their "36 Hours In" stories it's written by an idiot for idiots and is never anything like our own excursions to the same places. If we happen to eat in one of the same restaurants or go to one of the same sites they recommend, it's either a coincidence or despite their recommendation. "Yucatecans," the piece begins, "are fiercely proud of their culture, sprinkling their Spanish with Mayan words and quick to recount the stories of resistance and revolution that set this region apart from the rest of Mexico for centuries." Nothing, though about the exploitation and slaughter of Mayans in our own lifetimes, and not by Spanish conquistadors, but at the direction of our own glorious CIA. More of that below, from a post I ran this weekend at DownWithTyranny. The Times travel section isn't political and they continue that Mérida is "one of the safest in Mexico, is an architectural jewel, and has one of the country’s largest historic centers outside Mexico City. Block after block of houses dating to the mid-19th century and earlier are in the midst of a restoration boom, and the city’s cultural and restaurant scenes are flourishing." We rented a house in the middle of town and all I can think of is resting, relaxing and, at some point, when I'm rested and relaxed-- the weather is balmy and the temperature around 90-- we'll go explore the old Mayan ruins in the vicinity-- on the Mexican side of the border.

It's always very sad to be writing about Guatemala-- sad and, as an American, shameful. What we've done to the people of that country is beyond conceivable and probably damns every single one of us to a special collective circle of hell. Last summer, in the context of our heroic unleashing of the hounds of hell on Libya, we looked at Glen Yeadon's observations of the bloody U.S. intervention in Guatemala in 1953
In 1953 the CIA also intervened in Guatemala, and regarded the action as a success. For what reasons they regarded the operation as success can be only guess at for what followed was a bloody civil war that lasted 36 years. Once again this intervention fits the model perfectly. The legally elected government of Arbenz was reform minded. The center piece of his reforms was land reform. In an overwhelmingly rural nation only 2.2% of the population owned 70% of the land. Prior to the 1944 revolution and ousting of the dictatorship of Ubico, the army was used to rope farm labors together for delivery to low-land farms where they were kept as debt slaves. The expropriation of large uncultivated tracts of land to landless peasants, improvement in the rights of unions and other social reforms were hurting the bottom line of United Fruit. Arbenz even constructed a port on the Atlantic to compete against the port controlled by United Fruit, likewise a public hydro-electric plant was constructed for the same reasons.

The position of United Fruit inside Guatemala was essentially one of a country within a country. United Fruit owned the country's telephone and telegraph systems, administered the country's only Atlantic port, monopolized banana exports and a subsidiary owned the rail system. In the US United Fruit had close ties to the Dulles brothers, various state department officials, congressmen and the US Ambassador to the UN. The former CIA Director, Walter Bedell Smith was seeking an executive position with United Fruit at the same time he was planing the Guatemala coup. He later was named to the board of directors of United Fruit.

The first plan to oust Arbenz was given by Truman as a response to Guatemala receiving arms from Czechoslovakia and the implied communism threat but was canceled. After the election of Eisenhower the plan was put into effect. The Guatemala coup also provides and ideal example of how the CIA manipulates the American opinion. After first being tried in Guatemala this technique has been employed throughout South America. It involves the CIA planting an article in the foreign press the article is then picked up by the news wires and newspapers in other countries. Besides the obvious multiplier effect upon the potential audience it has the appearance of an independent world opinion. Incidentally it was the same tactic that Bush tried to use against Clinton in the 1992 election.

The immediate after effects of the coup was draconian, within four months 72,000 was labeled as communist, many who were tortured and murdered. It is known that the U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy had a long list of names of leaders that the successor government was to assassinate. Agrarian reform was stopped and the land already expropriated was given back to United Fruit. Union leaders turned up dead. Three quarters of the population was disenfranchised by barring illiterates from the polls and all political parties, unions and peasant organizations were outlawed...

The blood bath and carnage that followed for the next 36 years can only be described as horrific A genocidal war was carried on against the native Indians. Murders, kidnappings and disappearances became widespread and everyday occurrences as right wing death squads roamed the countryside. The report on Guatemala as a first step to reconciliation states that the army is blamed for over 200,000 deaths and disappearances. Below are some extracts from that report:
"Of the 42,000 deaths investigated in the report, the army was found to be responsible for 93 percent. Three percent were the work of the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, and 4 percent were unresolved. The report found that 29,000 of the investigated deaths involved summary executions.

Most of the victims were civilians and Mayan Indians... [T]he government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations."

It was "clearly genocide and a planned strategy against the civilian population," said Christian Tomuschat, a German citizen who heads the three-member commission. "Government forces... blindly pursued the anti-communist fight, without respecting any legal principle or even the most elemental ethical or religious values."

In 626 massacres, the report found that government forces "completely exterminated Mayan communities, destroyed their dwellings, livestock and crops." The guerrillas were blamed for 32 such massacres, the report said."

Guatemala also provides us with the first example of the right wing death squads that have became so much a part of South American politics. Those death squads and the dictators that employ them are products of the CIA-Military intelligence system of the US. They lead directly to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.

In reading Corey Robin's new book, The Reactionary Mind I came across a review he wrote for the London Review of Books in 2004 of Greg Granlin's Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War. How could any serious examination of the reactionary mind-- particularly the American reactionary mind-- not deal with the enormity of what was visited (by reactionary minds) on the Mayan native people of Guatemala, the ones whose ancestors had managed to escape being slaughtered in previous centuries by Spanish imperialists? And whose reactionary mind-- albeit an extraordinarily weak one-- would be better to start with than Ronald Reagan's?
On 5 December 1982, Ronald Reagan met the Guatemalan president, Efraín Ríos Montt, in Honduras. It was a useful meeting for Reagan. ‘Well, I learned a lot,’ he told reporters on Air Force One. ‘You’d be surprised. They’re all individual countries.’ It was also a useful meeting for Ríos Montt. Reagan declared him ‘a man of great personal integrity... totally dedicated to democracy’, and claimed that the Guatemalan strongman was getting ‘a bum rap’ from human rights organisations for his military’s campaign against leftist guerrillas. The next day, one of Guatemala’s elite platoons entered a jungle village called Las Dos Erres and killed 162 of its inhabitants, 67 of them children. Soldiers grabbed babies and toddlers by their legs, swung them in the air, and smashed their heads against a wall. Older children and adults were forced to kneel at the edge of a well, where a single blow from a sledgehammer sent them plummeting below. The platoon then raped a selection of women and girls it had saved for last, pummelling their stomachs in order to force the pregnant among them to miscarry. They tossed the women into the well and filled it with dirt, burying an unlucky few alive. The only traces of the bodies later visitors would find were blood on the walls and placentas and umbilical cords on the ground.

Amid the hagiography surrounding Reagan’s death in June, it was probably too much to expect the media to mention his meeting with Ríos Montt. After all, it wasn’t Reykjavik. But Reykjavik’s shadow-- or that cast by Reagan speaking in front of the Berlin Wall-- does not entirely explain the silence about this encounter between presidents. While it’s tempting to ascribe the omission to American amnesia, a more likely cause is the deep misconception about the Cold War under which most Americans labour. To the casual observer, the Cold War was a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, fought and won through stylish jousting at Berlin, antiseptic arguments over nuclear stockpiles, and the savvy brinkmanship of American leaders. Latin America seldom figures in popular or even academic discussion of the Cold War, and to the extent that it does, it is Cuba, Chile and Nicaragua rather than Guatemala that earn most of the attention.

But, as Greg Grandin shows in The Last Colonial Massacre, Latin America was as much a battleground of the Cold War as Europe, and Guatemala was its front line. In 1954, the US fought its first major contest against Communism in the Western hemisphere when it overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz, who had worked closely with the country’s small but influential Communist Party. That coup sent a young Argentinian doctor fleeing to Mexico, where he met Fidel Castro. Five years later, Che Guevara declared that 1954 had taught him the impossibility of peaceful, electoral reform and promised his followers that ‘Cuba will not be Guatemala.’ In 1966, Guatemala was again the pacesetter, this time pioneering the ‘disappearances’ that would come to define the dirty wars of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil. In a lightning strike, US-trained security officials captured some thirty leftists, tortured and executed them, and then dropped most of their corpses into the Pacific. Explaining the operation in a classified memo, the CIA wrote: ‘The execution of these persons will not be announced and the Guatemalan government will deny that they were ever taken into custody.’ With the 1996 signing of a peace accord between the Guatemalan military and leftist guerrillas, the Latin American Cold War finally came to an end-- in the same place it had begun-- making Guatemala’s the longest and most lethal of the hemisphere’s civil wars. Some 200,000 men, women and children were dead, virtually all at the hands of the military: more than were killed in Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua and El Salvador combined, and roughly the same number as were killed in the Balkans. Because the victims were primarily Mayan Indians, Guatemala today has the only military in Latin America deemed by a UN-sponsored truth commission to have committed acts of genocide.

And one more thing from Corey Robin about what this whole reactionary mind actually wrought for us-- us being Americans... American taxpayers... we, us... you and me. What we defeated in Guatemala and Latin America wasn't "Communism." It was, in Robin's words, "the defeat of a continental social democracy which would allow citizens to exercise a greater share of power-– and to receive a greater share of its benefits-– than historically had been their due... [and] the defeat of that still elusive dream of men and women freeing themselves, thanks to their own reason and willed effort, from the bonds of tradition and oppression." Remember what we saw about the end of serfdom in Russia last week? The U.S. fought hard to preserve that in Guatemala into very recent times.
[I]n Latin America, Grandin shows, it was the left who took up the Enlightenment’s banner, leaving the United States and its allies carrying the black bag of the counter-Enlightenment. More than foisting on the United States the unwanted burden of liberal hypocrisy, the Cold War inspired it to embrace some of the most reactionary ideals and revanchist characters of the 20th century.

According to Grandin, the Latin American left brought liberalism and progress to a land awash in feudalism. Well into the 20th century, he shows, Guatemala’s coffee planters presided over a regime of forced labour that was every bit as medieval as tsarist Russia. Using vagrancy laws and the lure of easy credit, the planters amassed vast estates and a workforce of peasants who essentially belonged to them. Reading like an excerpt from Gogol’s Dead Souls, one advertisement from 1922 announced the sale of ‘5000 acres and many mozos colonos who will travel to work on other plantations’. (Mozos colonos were indebted labourers.) While unionised workers elsewhere were itemising what their employers could and could not ask of them, Guatemala’s peasants were forced to provide a variety of compulsory services, including sex. Two planters in the Alta Verapaz region, cousins from Boston, used their Indian cooks and corn grinders to sire more than a dozen children. ‘They fucked anything that moved,’ a neighbouring planter observed. Though plantations were mini-states-– with private jails, stockades and whipping posts-– planters also depended on the army, judges, mayors and local constables to force workers to submit to their will. Public officials routinely rounded up independent or runaway peasants, shipping them off to plantations or forcing them to build roads. One mayor had local vagrants paint his house. As much as anything Grandin cites, it is this view of political power as a form of private property which confirms his observation that by 1944 ‘only five Latin America countries-– Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica and Colombia-– could nominally call themselves democracies.’

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I Hope You Used Up All Those American Frequent Flier Miles-- I Wish I Had

AMR filed for bankruptcy early this morning in New York City. Their Frequent Flier miles are now what is called "a general unsecured claim" and it's far from certain that they'll be useable. Or maybe they'll make a deal-- like a million miles for an upgrade to business class or an extra checked bag-- maybe even a roundtrip on a day you don't want to fly to a destination you would never want to go. Rothschild, Inc., one of the sleaziest and most predatory Wall Street financial firms anywhere in the world is their financial advisor. Rothschild specializes in advising their clients how to screw everyone, especially consumers. From their press release:
"But as we have made clear with increasing urgency in recent weeks, we must address our cost structure, including labor costs, to enable us to capitalize on these foundational strengths and secure our future. Our very substantial cost disadvantage compared to our larger competitors, all of which restructured their costs and debt through Chapter 11, has become increasingly untenable given the accelerating impact of global economic uncertainty and resulting revenue instability, volatile and rising fuel prices, and intensifying competitive challenges.

"Our Board decided that it was necessary to take this step now to restore the Company's profitability, operating flexibility, and financial strength. We are committed to working as quickly and efficiently as possible to appropriately restructure American so that it can emerge from Chapter 11 well-positioned to assure the Company's long term viability and its ability to compete effectively in the marketplace," Horton stated.

Sounds like the first target will be the airline's labor unions. Bloomberg reminds us that American was the last major airline in the United States to resist filing for Chapter 11 in an effort to shed contracts, a move that analysts said left it less nimble than many of its competitors. They had to sit out "a round of mergers that dropped it from the world’s largest airline to No. 3 in the U.S."

They'll be operating normally and they claim that they'll honor all Frequent Flier miles. Board chair Gerard Arpey is retiring and Thomas Horton has been named new chairman and chief executive. Last year American was the only major carrier not to turn a profit and looks like it will announce losing numbers for 2011 as well.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Visit Ancient, Exotic Mali? Safety Revisited

Amanar restaurant, smack in the center of Timbuktu

Almost 3 years ago to the week, I posted a story I wrote from Mali, How Safe Is Mali For American Tourists? At the time, I concluded that it was very safe and I even made light of the State Department prohibition on Peace Corp volunteers traveling to Timbuktu or anywhere north of there-- not that really is anything other than the vast wastes of the Sahara Desert north of there anyway. But Timbuktu is one of the best destinations in Mali and a major reason to travel to that country. Turns out, though, the State Department knew what they were talking about. Four tourists were kidnapped from a central Timbuktu restaurant, Amanar, in broad daylight and one was executed when he refused to get into the kidnappers' truck in front of the restaurant. The dead man was German and the three now missing are from Sweden, Holland and South Africa. The government of Mali ordered a plane to evacuate foreigners back to Bamako, the capital.
Until a few years ago, Timbuktu was one of the most visited destinations in Africa, but it is now one of the many former tourist hotspots in Mali that have been deemed too dangerous to visit by foreign embassies because of kidnappings by the local chapter of al-Qaida.

Friday's incident comes after two French citizens were grabbed in the middle of the night from their hotel in the Malian town of Hombori on Thursday. French judicial officials have opened a preliminary investigation into their kidnappings.

Neither kidnapping has yet been claimed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, whose members have kidnapped and ransomed more than 50 Europeans and Canadians since 2003.

If Friday's kidnapping is by AQIM, it will mark the first time they have taken a hostage inside of Timbuktu's city limits. Thursday's kidnapping would be another first-- the first hostage taking south of the Niger River.

In October the State Department issued a new travel alert warning against all travel to the north of the country due to kidnapping threats against Westerners.
The Department of State notes that the U.S. Embassy in Bamako has designated northern regions of Mali as "restricted without prior authorization" for purposes of travel by U.S. government employees, contractors, grantees, and their dependents.  Prior to traveling to these areas, U.S. government employees in Mali are required to have the written approval of the U.S. Ambassador to Mali. This designation is based on the presence of AQIM, as well as banditry in the region. This restriction does not apply to travelers who are not associated with the U.S. government, but should be taken into account when planning travel. The restriction is in effect for the regions of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu.

U.S. citizens are specifically reminded that these areas include the Timbuktu site of the popular Festival au Desert music festival, as well as the sites in the regions of Kidal and Gao where many other musical and cultural festivals are traditionally held between December and February. It should be noted that-- in addition to the potential terrorist and criminal threats-- these festivals are located in particularly remote locations, and the Malian authorities would have extreme difficulty rendering assistance should an emergency occur at any of them.

And it isn't only the U.S. State Department warning tourists away from Mali. European countries have been telling their nationals since April that Mali is too dangerous to visit.
• We advise against all travel to the northern provinces of Mali. This includes the provinces of Kidal, Gao, Koulikoro (north of Mourdiah), Ségou (north of Niono), Tombouctou (including the city of Tombouctou (Timbuktu)), Mopti, and areas bordering Mauritania east of Nioro in the Kayes province.

• There is a high threat from terrorism in Mali. Terrorists have been involved in kidnaps in the region, on a number of occasions leading to the murder of the hostages.  We believe that further kidnap attempts are likely.

• On 19 April the Embassy of France in Bamako (Mali) alerted its nationals of a “very high risk” of being kidnapped in Mali and Niger particularly between the city of Mopti and the border with Burkina Faso.

• There have been reports of kidnap threats against westerners attending festivals in Mali.  The festival in Anderamboukane, which takes place in an area of Mali that we advise against all travel to was postponed earlier in the year due to security concerns. In 2009 a British national who attended this festival was subsequently kidnapped and murdered. Bookings are already being taken for 2012 festivals in areas of northern Mali to which we currently advise against all travel.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bangkok Under Water

I lost count of how many times I've been to Thailand years ago. It's been one of my favorite countries for decades and-- aside from specific Thailand trips-- any time I go to Asia, I always try to spend at least a week in Bangkok or Phuket or Chiang Mai. A few weeks ago we saw how there is a big threat of flooding and of Bangkok sinking into the sea, but we looked at predictions that Bangkok would be underwater by 2030. Looks like the timetable got moved up by two decades!
Severe flooding in Thailand on Friday threatened central areas of Bangkok, a bustling capital barely above sea level and facing inundation at the next high tide predicted at 13 feet.

Residents who decided to stay in their homes despite government pleas to get out waited anxiously to see if the highest tide, forecast for Saturday afternoon, would overwhelm defenses along the Chao Phraya River and its many canals.

Bangkok's outer suburbs were already submerged but the central city had been largely spared the misery Thailand has been suffering for months in the nation's worst flooding since 1942.

...The high tide Saturday, the Red Cross said, will put "extreme pressure" on Bangkok's elaborate system of dikes and other flood defenses.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ordered work crews Friday to cut channels in roadways to allow faster water drainage, according to the state-run MCOT news agency. But the plan was rejected late in the day in favor of dredging canals and using pumps, the Bangkok Post reported.

Health concerns were rising with the water.

Bangkok residents waded through murky waters without knowing what lurked within, the risk of infection and communicable disease worrying health officials. The government sent out crocodile hunters after reports of crocodiles and snakes in the filthy floodwater.

"We were hearing disturbing reports of dangerous animals such as snakes and crocodiles appearing in the floodwaters and every day we see children playing in the water, bathing or wading through it trying to make their way to dry ground," said Annie Bodmer-Roy, spokeswoman for the humanitarian agency Save the Children.

With the Chao Phraya River overflowing its banks, virtually all the city's best hotels are having flooding problems and the old airport-- mostly used for domestic flights these days-- is also flooded. The main tourist areas (Silom and Sukhumvit) are having serious flooding problems. We're talking about a multi-billion dollar industry. Now we rent an apartment (on the river) when we're in Bangkok but one of the hotels we used to always stay at-- the Shangri-La-- reports that their 70-90% occupancy rate for this time of the year is now down to 30%.

UPDATE: Worst Flooding In Generations

Thais are making the best of it but... what else could they do? The flooding has gotten worse, both around Bangkok and in the city itself. Extensive damage to automotive parts factories, computer parts factories and a major pharmaceuticals center are starting to impact the worldwide supply chain, a quarter of the country's rice crop has been wiped out, and the death toll rises every day.
Thousands of people in Thailand have been living in filthy floodwater for some three months-- the most devastating flood the country has seen in decades caused by unusually heavy monsoon rains. More than 400 people have died in the Thailand floods, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes.

As a protracted battle to stay dry unfolds until the massive pool of stinking water and garbage drains into the Gulf of Thailand, which could take months still, even simple things like disposing of human waste can become complicated.

Tourism is the only thing that's dried up in Bangkok and now it's beginning to impact Phuket and other tourist areas in the southern part of the country. And things could well get worse.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Sex Tourism-- Philippines... And Jamaica: Unrestrained Capitalism Taken To The Extreme

Snow means Sweden

One of my friends has taken to fantasizing out loud about "Swedish girls." He should just go get a dvd; I'm sure there are scores of them on the topic. Instead he keeps asking me about planning a trip with him to Sweden. I should probably tell him that since 1999 it's been illegal to hire a prostitute in Sweden-- and that 10 years later Norway adopted the same approach. It's not illegal for the prostitutes to offer their services... it's illegal for the johns to buy them though (the Kvinnofrid law... try the Google). Brothels are also illegal. I suggested he take his fantasies to Bangkok. I don't know if they have Swedish girls in the brothels-- Roland tells me there are foreign girls working there these days-- but I suspect that if you have enough money to spend, you can get whatever you'd like there... kind of a Randian Republican dream market. Alas, he's programmed against Asian women. Plenty of Caucasians aren't. Asian sex tourism is rampant.

The other day the U.S. Ambassador to the Phillipines, Harry Thomas, was forced to apologize to the whole nation after claiming that 40% of male tourists to that country are there for the sex. He sent a cellphone text Friday to Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who was on a visit to Vietnam, expressing regret for his comments.
"I should not have used the 40% statistic without the ability to back it up. I regret any harm that I may have caused," Thomas said in the text message, which was released to journalists.

The US embassy spokeswoman Tina Malone said Thomas "offered his deep regret" for his comment made during a conference last month.

The US would continue to be a "strong and dedicated partner of the Filipino people in combating the global scourges of human trafficking and sexual tourism," she added.

Thomas also told the conference on human trafficking in the Philippines last month that the sex tourists included Americans and that it was "something I'm not proud of." He urged Philippine authorities to prosecute all foreign sex tourists, including Americans.

The Philippines is trying to revive its tourism industry and erase its reputation as a sex tourism hotspot.

Wikileaks had posted several U.S. diplomatic cables about the rampant sex trade industry-- including the exploitation of children-- in the Philippines. "Sex tourists reportedly came from Asia, Europe, North America, and Australia to engage in sexual activity with minors," said a leaked embassy cable dated February 17, 2010... "In 2009, the Bureau of Immigration deported two foreign sex offenders and pedophiles, and in a joint program with the Australian Federal Police denied entry to 19 Australian sex offenders upon their arrival in the Philippines. The government also cooperated with the US in prosecuting American nationals under the terms of the U.S. PROTECT Act of 2003, which criminalized the commission of child abuse by American nationals overseas, including child pornography and other sexual offenses against a minor." Another leaked cable named Sabang Beach in Puerto Galeraand the province of Mindoro Oriental as well known destinations for sex tourism.

Trafficking of Philippine women and children for sex is an international business. And according to Rene Ofreneo, a former Philippine labor undersecretary and an expert on the sex trade, "the number of prostituted persons in the Philippines is about the size of the country's manufacturing workforce." That same report cites a recent study that showed there are about 75,000 children, who were forced into prostitution due to poverty. The Washington Times reported that "Teen-age girls are being forced into prostitution due to the Asian economic crisis. In Davao City, the Philippines, there are more than 1,000 prostituted teen-age girls; customers pay as little as from 50 cents to $2.50. This rise in prostitution increases the spread of AIDS, especially as contraceptive costs have gone up with the currency collapse and bankrupt government cuts in distribution programs." Most of the customers are Filipinos but the country is one of the top destinations for pedophile sex tourism, much of it financed with Japanese capital.
A Philippine Adventure Tour costs $1,645, including round trip airfare, hotel accommodations and guided tours to the bars where men purchase sex from prostitutes for as little as US $24. Tour owner and operator Allan Gaynor promises that customers "never sleep alone on this tour" and recommends that the customer have sex with a different girl every day "two if you can handle it."

...13,000 Australians, second in number to Americans, a year visit Angeles City, a center of prostitution surrounding the former Clark U.S. Air Force base in the Philippines... Men from Australia and Great Britain are primary suspects as perpetrators of child prostitution in the Philippines. Two of the three-pedophilia cases recently decided by Philippine courts involved British nationals, although there are reportedly more Australian suspects.

Maybe this is where Ambassador Thomas got his statistics:

Maybe while hubby's away exploiting child prostitutes in southeast Asia, his wife is off on a little sex tourism of her own though:

Monday, October 03, 2011

Traveling While Non-White

A fascinating series of question-- and responses-- were posted in Reddit's travel section recently. The correspondant, who describes himself or herself as an ethnic Chinese who grew up in the U.S., is trying to figure out if it's better to travel abroad as a Chinese or an American citizen. I recall the brisk business in little Canadian flags that American travelers used to sew on their backpacks and jackets at one time-- mostly when there were especially hated and warlike American presidents like Nixon, Reagan and Bush. I'm not sure how far Obama has moved in that direction.

The questions, though, aren't just about Chinese people, not by a long shot.
I'm wondering if non-white travelers face additional challenges while traveling, whether it's racism, unwanted attention, unexpected assumptions by the locals, etc.

For instance:

• What kind of discrimination would non-white travelers face in overwhelmingly white countries like Poland or Russia?

• Are blacks able to blend in while visiting Africa? How about Latinos in Latin America and the Caribbean?

• Are Asians subject to the vicious inter-Asian rivalries while traveling in Asian countries? Do the locals try in vain to converse in their native language?

• Are Indians treated well in Pakistan and vice versa? Do Arabs or Iranians get refused service in Israel?

And, of course, it's the 100+ responses that make the link above worth clicking. No matter what race you are, you'll find these shared experiences worthwhile.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Cusco-- A Video Tour

Incredible food, profound culture, friendly people, mysteriously impressive history and... free alcohol. Where can you go to find this? Peru. Roland loved it; I missed it but I've been assured that when considering travel plans, Peru and the city of Cusco, in particular, offers something for everyone (not to mention that it's quite affordable). Everything from camping, hiking, bungee jumping, paragliding, fine wine, excellent food and mind boggling scenery can be explored all within a 100 mile span. 

If the short blurb above hasn't convinced you, take a peak at this online web-series I've discovered that sets the pace as two young American travelers set forth to explore, the ancient imperial city of the Incas, the town of Cusco. Explore22 is an online travel series from San Francisco's BaseStudio, geared towards all audiences with a focus on helping, discovering and exploring unique communities. You can begin your journey with part 1 of this 4 part web series. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

There's More To Australia Than Sydney, or Even Melbourne... Canyoneering With Mark Jenkins

© Carsten Peter/National Geographic. Cascades of mammoth ferns flourish in the humid air trapped between the narrow walls of Claustral Canyon.

Tuesday the new issue of National Georgaphic comes out with a fascinating essay by one of my favorite adventure travel writers, Mark Jenkins. His 1997 book, To Timbuktu was one of the inspirations for my own trip there two years ago. I doubt however, I'm up to following his trail into Australia's Blue Mountains. "The Swiss," he writes, "have mountains, so they climb. Canadians have lakes, so they canoe. The Australians have canyons, so they go canyoneering, a hybrid form of madness halfway between mountaineering and caving in which you go down instead of up, often through wet tunnels and narrow passageways."
Unlike other places with slot canyons, such as Utah, Jordan, or Corsica, Australia has a rich, deep heritage of canyoneering. In a way, it's an extreme form of bushwalking, something Aborigines were doing tens of thousands of years before Europeans arrived. But without ropes and technical equipment, Aborigines couldn't explore the deepest slots.

Today perhaps thousands of Aussies hike canyons, hundreds descend into them by ropes, but only a handful explore new ones. These driven individuals tend to have a rugby player's legs, knees crosshatched with scar tissue from all the scratches, a penguin's tolerance for frigid water, a wallaby's rock-hopping agility, and a caver's mole-like willingness to crawl into damp, dark holes. They prefer to wear Volleys-- canvas, rubber-soled Dunlop tennis shoes-- ragged shorts, ripped gaiters, and thrift-store fleece. They camp beside tiny campfires and make "jaffles" for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Jaffles are sandwiches containing all manner of ingredients-- including Vegemite, a nasty-tasting yeast extract-- cooked inside fire irons over the flames. Above all they search for the most remote, difficult to access canyons. "The darker, the narrower, the twistier the better," says Dave Noble, one of the most experienced canyoneers in the country. "People say, What if you get stuck in there? But that's what you are after. To be forced to improvise to get yourself out."

His story in National Geographic is set about 4 hours west of Sydney in Kanangra-Boyd National Park and down the Mount Thurat fire trail and then up to the top of Danae Falls. He and his companion are traveling with wet suits, helmets, a rope, harnesses, and lunch in their packs. "It's like rappelling off the edge of a green-cloaked Grand Canyon," he writes.
The walls are covered with moss. Sliding to the inside of the giant stone turns out to be like squeezing into a narrow, ten-story elevator shaft pouring with water. We're forced to swing into the pounding waterfall, an awkward maneuver that slams us both into the rock. But it's worth it: Standing in a pool at the bottom, we easily pull our rope down.

Below the big boulder the slot closes up, and the silky water flows horizontally along the cavelike chamber back out to the edge of the cliff. We still have a thousand feet of air below us. We rappel directly into the bludgeoning waterfall. Halfway down I make the mistake of looking up, and the blast of water almost tears my head off.

The next three descents are just as extraordinary and drop us into hanging ponds of frigid water, like swimming pools midway up a skyscraper. We backstroke across these ponds, using the dry bags in our backpacks for flotation.

I like adventure travel-- a lot; this however is beyond my capacities these days. I'll stick with the thrill of reading about it in National Geographic... and hoping they filmed it and it winds up on TV. Canyoneering is popular in Tasmania too. Looks easy, doesn't it?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Deadly Earthquake In Sikkim And Nepal

We are often speculating and ruminating about safety and dangers inherent in foreign travel. Somalia, Yemen and Nuevo Laredo are probably better left unvisited these days. Syria too. But how do you factor natural disasters like earthquakes into your travel plans. Today, for example, had you been walking by the British Embassy in Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, you might have been one of the 5 people killed by falling bricks when a disastrous earthquake struck on the Nepali-Sikkim border. Hundreds are injured and 18 are reported dead so far but the death total is expected to rise after the 6.8 magnitude quake.

Or you might have been walking along far from the quake, somewhere in northern India-- the whole region shook-- and been trampled by a panic-stricken mob... which is just what happened to a man in Bhagalpur in Bihar. And then there were the two persons were injured in Kathmandu's Central Jail when they tried to make their escape when the quake struck.

We were just in Nepal. The infrastructure-- like all of it-- is fragile and precarious... at best. And the quake rocked the whole country, which is historically marked by what various earthquakes have done in the past, but still totally unprepared for earthquakes from any perspective. Our favorite part of the trip-- aside from trekking in the mountains-- was our visit to Bhaktipur. Here's a photo from Bhaktipur I just found:

We'll update this post as more news comes in on the damage. Meanwhile, remember, disaster can strike almost anywhere. In March Kiplinger offered a list of the 10 American states most at risk of natural and unnatural disaster. It was done in terms of insurance risk but I guess you can take it into account when you make travel plans as well! Top on the list, predicatbly, are hurricane alley states, Louisiana, Florida, and Texas and #4 is New York (terrorist attacks), followed by-- back to hurricanes-- Mississippi. Now tornadoes and cyclones put Oklahoma at #6, tornadoes (no mention of domestic right-wing terrorism) and they close out with Alabama, California ("floods, earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis and strong Santa Ana winds that fuel wildfires"), Missouri, and Ohio ("more than 30 earthquakes between 2002 and 2007").

The death toll continues to rise and Monday morning there were 48 reported deaths throughout the region. Rescue operations are hampered by bad weather and impassable roads.

24 hours in and the latest death toll is 74 people in India, Nepal and Tibet. It's expected to continue rising as outside forces make their way to outlying regions.

UPDATE: Kathmandu Earthquake Risk Is Something To Take Into Consideration

I loved Kathmandu when I was there in 1971 and I was eager to go back. In the '90s it wasn't as good-- but which place ever is?-- but still fascinating enough for another trip. This summer I was back again-- and that was the last time. The pollution alone is enough to keep anyone sane away. And now scientists are warning that Kathmandu is "a high-risk city unprepared for the next 'Big One'."
Experts say Kathmandu is one of the most vulnerable cities in the world with an overdue earthquake predicted to kill tens of thousands of people and leave survivors cut off from international aid.

British geologist Dave Petley described the latest tremor, which killed eight people in Nepal, as a "wake-up call" for the overcrowded capital, home to two million people and connected to the outside world by just three roads and one airport runway.

...Nepal is a highly seismic region, lying above the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates that created the Himalayas, and major earthquakes have hit the Kathmandu Valley every 75 years on average over recent centuries.

One quake destroyed a quarter of homes in Kathmandu 77 years ago, and geologists believe the area is at immediate risk of an 8.0-magnitude tremor-- ten times the size of last year's Haiti quake which killed more than 225,000 people.

Downtown Kathmandu is a maze of narrow, winding roads where rickshaws and cars jostle with cows to squeeze past dilapidated clay, brick and timber houses.

"The building stock is not seismically strengthened, suggesting that in a big earthquake there will be large numbers of building collapses," said Petley, of the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at Britain's Durham University.

GeoHazards International, a US-based research group, has measured the likely death toll from a quake of 6.0 magnitude or higher hitting cities in Asia and the Americas.
Kathmandu topped the list of 21 cities with 69,000 potential deaths, ahead of Istanbul and New Delhi.

The Kathmandu Valley has experienced rapid, uncontrolled urbanisation in the past few years and the lack of infrastructure and deep-rooted poverty leaves it desperately under-prepared for an earthquake, experts say.

Building codes are rarely enforced, few emergency drills are carried out, and the fact that Kathmandu lies on the site of a prehistoric lake filled with soft sediment also exacerbates the risk.

The one single-runway airport and all three access roads would likely be destroyed in a major quake, meaning the city could be stranded.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Mexican Gangsters Have A Warning For Bloggers

I was still a teenager when I started traveling abroad. My first trip was a harebrained decision to spend a summer hitchhiking to the North Pole with my lovely Alabama girlfriend Chris. We actually made it as far as Montreal. The next hitchhiking extravaganza was to Mexico City with my most adventurous school buddy, Robert. After all of our possessions were stolen by our host in San Antonio while we looked at the Alamo, we were assaulted by a knife wielding desperado at the Nuevo Laredo foot bridge who got Robert's watch. We still made it all the way to Mexico City!

I hadn't thought about that bridge, or Nuevo Laredo for that matter, in a number of decades... until this week. I just finished all the details of a trip to the Yucatán-- from renting a great house in Mérida to navigating the treacherous waters of airline booking. (I paid $540 directly on the Continental Airlines website after a Continental phone rep assured my-- several times-- that the cheapest tickets were $1,260.) This week something far worse than being robbed at knifepoint happened on that Nuevo Laredo bridge. The last time I wrote about Mexico it was to mention how safe the tourism bureau claims it is:
[W]e acknowledge there are some issues in some pockets, in some specific locations. To give you an example, Mexico has 2,500 counties. Eighty of those have issues. So does that mean that the entire country has issues? Of course not. Eighty of 2,500 is less than 5 percent. Ninety percent of Americans go to six destinations. The tourist destinations are very far from where we have these issues.

...For us in Mexico, when we talk about the U.S., we don’t say the U.S., we say Orlando, L.A., Washington. If something happened last week, if there was a shooting in East L.A., does that mean you can’t go to Washington? Of course not.

Apparently Nuevo Laredo is one of those pockets with issues.
Placards left with the tortured bodies of two people hanging from a Nuevo Laredo overpass warn that the same fate awaits social media devotees who keep information flowing by text, Twitter, blogs and other means as gangsters muzzle the news media in much of Mexico.

"This is going to happen to all the internet busybodies," said one of the notes signed with a Z, presumably for the Zetas gang that controls Nuevo Laredo. "Listen up, I'm on to you."

Many Mexican newspapers and broadcasters have self-censored under constant gangster siege. Reporters have been killed, newsrooms attacked. Government officials often prove less than forthcoming with timely and accurate information. Twitter, Facebook, blogs and text messaging all have filled the void, becoming primary news sources in scores of Mexican communities, even for family members in the U.S., as gangs battle cartel rivals and security forces.

The messages found in Nuevo Laredo on Tuesday, with the bodies of a man and a woman in their 20s, directly threatened two popular blogs that specialize in reporting gang-related violence.

A post on one of those blogs, Al Rojo Vivo, counseled readers on Wednesday, "Don't be afraid to inform ... It's very difficult that they know who is informing. They are only trying to frighten society." The blog is carried by the website of the Monterrey newspaper El Norte.

While valuable to many residents, social networkers also spread rumors that have panicked communities. Prosecutors last month jailed and charged two people [a math teacher and a grandmother] with "terrorism" for tweeting false reports of gangster attacks on schools in the Gulf Coast port of Veracruz.

Social media reports of other gangster attacks emptied the streets of Veracruz's capital, Xalapa, and other towns last weekend. Suggesting that the terrorism charges were overblown, Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte nevertheless announced Tuesday that he would propose a new state law against "upsetting the public order."

But governments elsewhere have turned to social media in efforts to keep people informed. City officials in Reynosa, on the Rio Grande downriver from Nuevo Laredo, began tweeting several years ago to warn residents of gangster roadblocks and shoot-outs, blandly referring to them as "risky situations."

Early this year, mainstream media executives agreed with federal officials to scale back on coverage of the criminal slaughter that has killed more than 40,000 people in less than five years.

Many newspapers no longer print photographs of murder victims nor report the contents of threats or other messages left with bodies or in public places. Executives reason that publishing specifics-- including the beheading, dismembering or flaying of victims-- only encourages the gangsters and helps them spread their propaganda.

But Blog del Narco, the second site threatened by the Nuevo Laredo messages, religiously carries close-up shots of the carnage, as well as messages left with bodies or elsewhere. Many of the blog's anonymous posts seem likely to have been penned either by the gangsters themselves or investigating police.

The blog Wednesday published the text of a banner draped by a local criminal syndicate in the violent city of Apatzingan, in western Michoacan state. The sign warned residents to avoid Thursday night's public celebrations that kick off Mexico's Independence Day.

"Be alert for possible threats from the Zetas," reads the banner, signed by local gangsters who call themselves the Knights Templar. "Together we can guard our city and our people from persons who only want to cause harm."

Bloggers, of course, aren't the only people who need to be alert in regard to the Zetas. Yesterday they killed the family of a policeman in connection to the deadly fire-- 52 people died-- they had set at a casino in Monterrey August 25. Is Mexico becoming a failed state? Is it already a failed state?
The murder of the family came on a day of violence in and around Monterrey, in which at least 15 people were killed.

Monterrey and the state of Nuevo Leon have seen rising bloodshed as the Zetas and Gulf cartels vie for control of trafficking routes to the US.

The casino attack was one of the deadliest episodes of violence since President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on drug gangs in late 2006.

Gunmen burst into the crowded casino in broad daylight and doused it in petrol before setting it alight.

Panic ensued as people rushed for the exit. Many were overcome by smoke as the building was engulfed in flames.

The attack caused outrage in Mexico, a country that has become accustomed to drug-related violence, with around 40,000 killed in less than five years.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Urban Gadabout reminder for NYers: James Renner's series of Northern Manhattan walks starts tomorrow (Sept. 11)

Morris-Jumel Mansion, on Jumel Terrace in Washington Heights

by Ken

For six Sundays at noon, starting tomorrow and running through October 16, the official historian of Manhattan Community District 12 is offering walking tours of selected locations in "WAHI," the Northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood, plus little Marble Hill, which on maps looks like it should be part of the Bronx but is actually part of Manhattan. (I listed the subjects of the individual tours in my last post on the subject.)
Sunday, September 11, 2011, 12:00 noon

JUMEL TERRACE HISTORIC DISTRICT & SUGAR HILL are noted for the Morris-Jumel Mansion, Sylvan Terrace and the moes of famous African American entertainers Paul Robeson, Count Basie and Duke Ellington at 555 Edgecombe Avenue. The area is home to a local bookstore and the Washington Heights branch of the New York Public Library. Nearby Coogan's Bluff is where baseball fans watched the New York Giants play at the Polo Grounds at 155th Street.

There is an admission fee to the Morris-Jumel Mansion; $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and students.

DATE: Sunday, September 11, 2011
TIME: 12:00 noon
MEET: 160th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue in front of the Library

I've been grappling with scheduling conflicts for a number of the six WAHI tours (which are $15, $10 for seniors and students) but have managed to keep tomorrow clear for this one, which syncs wondefully with the free "Highbridge Park Hike" -- essentially along the upper edge of Coogan's Bluff -- I did in July with expert urban geologist Sidney Horenstein. We started that walk at the lower edge of the park (and the bluff), on 155th Street opposite the northern edge of the famous northern Harlem enclave of Sugar Hill.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Maybe You'd Better Move That Trip To Bangkok Up A Little Sooner

Anyone who's been following this blog has probably noticed that I'm a big fan of Thailand. I gave up counting how many times I've been there after a dozen. Whenever we go to Asia, we always try to spend some time in Bangkok on the way there or on the way back, like we just did on our trip to Nepal a couple months ago. The people, the food, the varied cultural offerings make Thailand one of the world's-- if not the world's-- best tourist destinations. So I'm sure I wasn't the only person alarmed at the headline in today's Guardian proclaiming the risk of Bangkok sinking into the sea. No doubt Pat Robertson or Michele Bachmann will soon by croaking that it's God's punishment for a pervasive climate of tolerance there-- though no one seems to be addressing God's decision to burn down Texas, despite big-tent prayer events led by the state shaman, Rick Perry. But no matter the craziness of American right-wing politics, the gloomiest assessments are that parts of Bangkok will be underwater by 2030.

Driving into town from the new airport, I'm always struck by the number of new highrises that are always going up in Bangkok-- all those huge cranes... more than I've ever seen in an American city. It's almost like China! But then there are parts of Thornburi on the other side of the river, way up beyond where the tourist hotels are, where life is entirely on the water. We love spending days in longtail boats cruising the canals and getting into the slow pace of life in these parts of the city-- even though it feels like you're in the countryside. Regardless of delusional Republican Party ideology and their bizarre self-destructive dogma, Thai's know why their capital city is sinking.
Several factors – climate change, rising sea level, coastal erosion, shifting clay soil-- are threatening the great city on the Chao Phraya delta, founded in April 1782 by the first monarch belonging to the Chakri dynasty, still ruling today.

The population has greatly increased, with about 10 million people now living in the city and its suburbs. Even the weight of the skyscrapers, constantly on the rise in a conurbation in the throes of perpetual change, is contributing to Bangkok's gradual immersion. Much of the metropolis is now below sea level and the ground is subsiding by 1.5 to 5cm a year.

In the medium to long term more than 1m buildings, 90% of which are residential, are under threat from the rising sea level. In due course the ground floors of buildings could be awash with 10cm of water for part of the year, according to the Asian Institute of Technology.

In the port of Samunt Prakan, about 15 km downstream from the capital, the residents of detached houses along the river already spend several months a year up to their ankles in water.

A joint report published in December by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and Japan's International Co-operation Agency highlighted the threat from climate change to three Asian mega-cities: Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and Manila.

Illegal tapping of groundwater is one of the causes of the capital's misfortunes, according to Jan Bojo, a World Bank expert based there. Not all the specialists endorse this view, but they do agree the situation is bound to deteriorate over the next few years. Smith Dharmasaroja, the head of the National Disaster Warning Centre, is predicting that by 2100 Bangkok will have become a new Atlantis. However gloomy this may seem, Dharmasaroja's forecasts are taken seriously. In the 1990s he predicted the fearful tsunami which devastated countries round the Indian Ocean in 2004.

Dharmasaroja maintains that "no decision has been taken" at government level "to stop the problem." And, he adds, if nothing is done Bangkok could be underwater by 2030.

One of the solutions he has suggested is to build a series of dykes along the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, a scheme which would cost well over $2bn. He says work should start immediately, otherwise it will be too late to halt the chain of events leading to disaster.

Anond Snidvongs, an oceanographer and specialist on climate-change impacts in southeast Asia, takes a more cautious line. "No one can predict how long it will take for Bangkok to be flooded and how this process will unfold," he says. He sees no point in building huge dykes. "The rise in sea level is not that great and climate change only plays a fairly small part-- about one-fifth-- in the current scenario," he adds.

"It's pointless," he stresses, "to try to protect the coastline which is being eroded by three to four centimetres a year. But there are plenty of other ways of combating flooding, such as better management of building land in the city."

Friday, September 02, 2011

Urban Gadabout: NY Transit Museum tours announced plus those "WAHI" Upper Manhattan tours

Wikipedia offers this view of Washington Heights beyond the George Washington Bridge, from the west. For a listing of historian James Renner's upcoming tours of the Northern Manhattan neighborhoods of Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill, see below.

by Ken

Since I last wrote, the New York Transit Museum tour schedule has been announced (you can find it on the Calendar of Events page of the website, and the early registration period for members is in full swing. As I mentioned, all the regular tours on the fall schedule are offered at least twice, and some of the especially popular ones, which in the past were generally already offered more than once, are offered even more often.

The four I pounced on start with two led by peerless "urban geographer" Jack Eichenbaum. With Jack you not only begin to understand why neighborhoods and regions have developed the way they have, but you see things you just wouldn't see with less tuned-in tour leaders.

Saturday, September 17, 10am-12n, and Sunday, October 9, 1-3pm
Constructed in a once squalid are known as the "Tenderloin," Penn Station united rails from Long Island, New Jersey and points south that previously terminated on the other side of the Hudson. Urban geographer Jack Eichenbaum will lead this walking tour through the remnants of the neighborhood's past and look at its proposed future, including the Farley Post Office building, the historic Hotel Pennsylvania, Herald Square, and "Koreatown."

Saturday, October 15, 10am-1pm, and Saturday, November 19, 10am-1pm
Since its expansion to 8th Avenue in Manhattan in the 1930s, the L line has stimulated gentrification along its route. We will explore the West Village and Meatpacking District -- including a portion of the new Highline Park -- and on to Bushwick and Williamsburg, noting the continuous transformation of each of these neighborhoods.

By the way, Jack has announced some additional fall tours of his own, including an on-the-ground survey of the area he's currently watching with perhaps the greatest fascination, What's New in Long Island City? (Saturday, October 22, 11am-1pm) and one in his home area, which has already undergone an unrecognizable transformation, Religion on the Land: Polytheologic Flushing (Saturday, November 12, 12n-2:30pm). I've already done a fair amount of wandering in both Long Island City and Flushing with Jack, and I can assure you it's a special experience. (I would definitely do LIC with him again if I weren't already registered for the Municipal Art Society tour of the Chinatown-Little Italy Historic District at the same time.)

Jack also invites us to "hold the dates" for a pair of cold-weather tours ("both partially indoors"), with details to be announced: Keeping Off the Streets of Midtown Manhattan (East Side) (Saturday, December 3) and Flushing's Chinatown (Sunday, December 18).

The other two tours I couldn't resist are:

Saturday, November 5, 10am-12n, and Saturday, December 3, 10am-12n
As part of subway construction in 1904, the 59th Street Powerhouse was built to supply the massive amounts of power required to move trains and light tunnels in the new subway. Robert W. Lobenstein, former General Superintendent of New York City Transit, will take us inside magical Substation No. 13 and lead a sidewalk tour of the 59th Street Powerhouse.

Sunday, November 13, 11am-2pm, and Saturday, December 10, 11am-2pm
Seventy-five years ago the Independent Subway System was extended from Jackson Heights to Jamaica under Queens Boulevard, now a shopping mecca. Ridership at Forest Hills station now ranks 40th out of the system's 468 stations. Ride sections of this line and walk its surrounding neighborhoods with subway historian and retired LIRR manager Andrew Sparberg.

These are all $30 for NYTM members, $45 for nonmembers.

Two perennial favorites are offered four times each but are so popular that they're likely still to be tough to book.

At some point I will definitely do the CONEY ISLAND YARD tour again, and prepare for it better by schooling myself on the various kinds of subway cars that are serviced in this giant maintenance facility, and how exactly they work, to better appreciate this unparalleled close-up view of how that maintenance done. But the pièce de résistance is the visit to the tower where New York Transit personnel oversee the extraordinary coming together at Coney Island of four separate subway lines.

This is a must. It's being offered Tuesday evenings, 6-8:30pm, on September 13, October 11, November 8, and December 13 ($30 for members, $50 for nonmembers), and you're going to need photo ID -- they take security very seriously at the Coney Island Yard. (Anyone who didn't understand how essential the subways are to the life of the city got a demonstration when they were shutdown in anticipation of Hurricane Irene.)

The visit to THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN: OLD CITY HALL STATION is also enormously popular. When the old City Hall station was built, it was the anchor of the original subway line, and the station was built on a decorative scale that was never repeated. You're really traveling back in time here, and the station may be less "wow"-inspiring than you expected. (For one thing, it's not that large. The trains of the time were only five cars, cars that were much shorter than later ones.) But more than anything, you're seeing history here. The station was abandoned both because of lack of use and because the extreme track curve on which it sits could never have been adapted to handle the much larger, multiple-trains that became standard on the NYC subways.

You can glance at the station by staying on a no. 6 train after its last southbound stop at Brooklyn Bridge, when it makes the loop that turns brings it onto the northbound local track of the station -- and you are allowed to stay on the train, we were told, unless Transit personnel tell you the train is going out of service -- but you won't see much. The tour is the only way to get out onto the station platform and actually see what there is to see. This is the one NYTM tour that's members only, and may be itself be reason enough to join, though there seem to me plenty of other reasons, not least all those other tours. (Note that in addition to using my early-registration privilege, I paid $120 for my four tours, which for nonmembers would be $180.)

And oh yes, as I mentioned last time, there's one more of the museum's famous day-long NOSTALGIA RIDES, once again riding the old IRT lo-V cars up the Lexington Avenue line to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (Sunday, October 23, 10am-3pm; $35 for members, $50 for nonmembers). This time it's offered as a package deal with a box lunch and a tour of this final resting place of some of New York's Fanciest citizens (with cemetery architecture by some of New York's fanciest architects).

And I haven't even mentioned the museum itself, in downtown Brooklyn, which is terrific, both for its permanent exhibitions and the special ones offered for limited periods. (I was grateful at the two cracks that the summer Nostalgia Rides that departed from the museum gave me at the incredible exhibition on the Triborough Bridge, an amazingly thorough documentation with photos, archival documents, models, plans, etc. of how the concept for this complex of structures took shape and how it was executed, including what it displaced.)

Nor have I mentioned the numerous other special events, including all sorts for kids (many of whom are incredibly knowledgeable about the subways; at the Coney Island Yard, the youngsters on the tour knew everything about those trains!). Or the Museum Annex at Grand Central Station, which has free admission and is currently hosting an exhibition called "The Once and Future Penn Station." If you're visiting the city, you should definitely try to get to one if not both locations, and if you live here and haven't been yet, you really should go. For basic information, the Transit Museum website is a great starting place.


Well, I've gotten my copy of James Renner's Washington Heights, Inwood, and Marble Hill, and it's a terrific book. But it didn't register for me before that it's part of the valuable Images of America series, which means it's basically a book of photos. There are lots of fine historical photos, informatively captioned, but alas no, it's no substitute -- as I was hoping -- for the tours I'll have to miss, owing to schedule conflicts, in this six-Sunday September-October series offered by the official historian of Manhattan Community District 12.

By way of overall introduction, James writes:
Washington Heights and Inwood (WAHI) are communities that have, over the years, gained recognition in massive demographic changes. People from other parts of the city are visiting and moving here because of its affordable housing and beautiful parks. These tours will demonstrate to the resident and visitor alike how upper Manhattan has changed and adapted to suit the needs of its new inhabitants and tourists.

You can find the full schedule with tour descriptions here. There are parts of the city it's easy to find covered by multiple walking tours; these aren't among them. The tours on the schedule ($15, $10 for students and seniors) are:

Sunday, September 11, 12n (additional fee for Morris Jumel Mansion admission)

COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER (Washington Heights; 165th to 168th, Broadway to Haven Avenue)
Sunday, September 18, 12n

FORT GEORGE (Washington Heights; 190th to 193rd, Amsterdam and Audubon Avenues)
Sunday, September 25, 12n

Sunday, October 2, 12n

TUBBY HOOK (Inwood; Dyckman Street, Riverside Drive and Broadway)
Sunday, October 9, 12n

Sunday, October 16, 12n