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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Delta Sinks To New Levels Of Passenger Rip-Off

As usual, Delta won the dubious honor this year of being this blog's Worst Overall Airline... again. They really just suck on every level. Turns out the service is so bad because upper management is such a bunch of greed-obsessed reactionaries. Today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution went on and one about how that city's biggest carrier pulled a fast one on its customers after the right-wing ideologues in Congress shut down the FAA. The shutdown keeps the FAA from collecting about $200 million a week in ticket taxes. But instead of letting that accrue to fliers, Delta gobbled it up itself by increasing the base fares it charges.
Airlines have complained for years that taxes added to ticket prices drive up the cost of travel. But when those tax collections stopped last weekend and airlines had a rare chance to give fliers a break, most opted to keep prices the same and pocket the difference.

“It just seems like it was the perfect chance for the airlines to throw a bone in consumer satisfaction,” said CEO Rick Seaney.

“Consumers feel like they’ve been nickel-and-dimed in the past, (and) this is a windfall that wasn’t expected... “Why wouldn’t [airlines] give consumers at least half the benefit?” Seaney said.

The suspended taxes include a 7.5 percent excise tax, a $3.70 tax per flight segment and other taxes for international flights.

As the partial shutdown continued this week, some public officials have criticized the airlines’ decision, and two U.S. senators wrote a letter of complaint to Delta’s chief executive, who also is chairman of a major airline lobbying group.

Delta, as always, started whining about the high price of jet fuel. They little windfall at customers expense amounts to between $4 and $5 million a day. In the U.S. Senate, Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) lashed out at their greed:
I wish I understood why the policy objections of one company-Delta Air Lines-mattered more than the livelihoods of thousands of people. Last year, the CEO of Delta made $9 million. Delta paid its top executives almost $20 million. Yet, it is fighting to make sure its employees cannot organize for fear that they may secure a few extra dollars in their paychecks. At the same time it is pushing for special interest provisions in the FAA bill, Delta announced it was abandoning air service to 26 small rural communities-leaving many of them without air service.

Delta then had the gall to announce publicly it would seek EAS subsidies to continue this service.  Maybe Mr. Anderson and his colleagues could forgo some of their salary to help subsidize this air service. Maybe they could use some of the millions of dollars they are collecting in a tax holiday windfall to pay for this service. Their actions are shameful.

Let me be clear, House Republicans and their Senate allies have thrown nearly four thousand FAA employees out of work, stopped critical airport safety projects, hurt hundreds of small businesses, and gutted the Aviation Trust Fund, all so that Delta Air Lines doesn't have to allow its employees to organize in a fair and timely manner.

The needs of one company should not dictate the safety and soundness of our aviation system. We need to pass a clean extension that will get people back to work, and businesses and their employees back to work building out critical airport infrastructure.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

How Important Is Food In Determining Where You Travel? Hygiene?

I was 15 the first time I hit the road and hitchhiked from Brooklyn to Miami Beach. I had the wanderlust. It never left me. When I was 15 Florida seemed exotic-- and my grandparents were down there for Passover/Easter so I knew I'd have a (free) place to stay. Motivations and destination targeting has changed for me over the years. Delicious food is always an incentive when I think of going to Italy, Morocco, Turkey, France or Thailand. A poor cuisine or an unavailability of healthy food is always a detriment when I think about Egypt, Mongolia, Cuba and, oddly enough, China. (We decided to go to Mali anyway and managed to survive well enough... and then found an absolutely fantastic restaurant-- serving traditional food-- in Bamako.)

China? With it's world famous cuisine? Well, I have to say, I was just in Hong Kong for a few days and every meal was really excellent. I was also in Nepal and... well, no one goes there for the food. And the amoebic dysentery I picked up only lasted for 8 or 9 days. But China... David Sedaris put it so very elegantly in the Guardian this past weekend:
I have to go to China." I told people this in the way I might say, "I need to insulate my crawl space" or, "I've got to get these moles looked at." That's the way it felt, though. Like a chore. What initially put me off was the food. I'll eat it if the alternative means starving, but I've never looked forward to it, not even when it seemed exotic to me.

...I think it hurt that, before landing in China, Hugh and I spent a week in Tokyo, where the food was, as always, sublime, everything so delicate and carefully presented. With meals I drank tea, which leads me to another great thing about Japan-- its bathrooms. When I was younger they wouldn't have mattered so much. Then I hit 50 and found that I had to pee all the time. In Tokyo, every subway station has a free public men's room. The floors and counters are aggressively clean and beside each urinal is a hook for hanging your umbrella.

This was what I had grown accustomed to when we flew from Narita to Beijing International, where the first thing one notices is what sounds like a milk steamer, the sort a cafe uses when making lattes and cappuccinos. "That's odd," you think. "There's a coffee bar on the elevator to the parking deck?" What you're hearing, that incessant guttural hiss, is the sound of one person, and then another, dredging up phlegm, seemingly from the depths of his or her soul. At first you look over, wondering, "Where are you going to put that?" A better question, you soon realise, is, "Where aren't you going to put it?"

I saw wads of phlegm glistening like freshly shucked oysters on staircases and escalators. I saw them frozen into slicks on the sidewalk and oozing down the sides of walls. It often seemed that if people weren't spitting, they were coughing without covering their mouths, or shooting wads of snot out of their noses. This was done by plugging one nostril and using the other as a blowhole. "We Chinese think it's best just to get it out," a woman told me over dinner one night. She said that, in her opinion, it's disgusting that a westerner would use a handkerchief and then put it back into his pocket.

"Well, it's not for sentimental reasons," I told her. "We don't hold on to our snot for ever. The handkerchief's mainly a sanitary consideration."

Another thing one notices in China is the turds. "Oh please," you're probably thinking. "Must you?"

To this I answer, "Yes, I must", for if they didn't affect the food itself, they affected the way I thought about it. In Tokyo, I once saw a dog pee on the sidewalk. Then its owner reached into a bag, pulled out a bottle of water and rinsed the urine off the pavement. As for dog faeces, I never saw any trace of them. In Beijing, you see an overwhelming amount of shit. Some of it can be blamed on pets, but a lot of it comes from people. Chinese babies do without diapers, wearing instead these strange little pants with a slit in the rear. When a child has to go, its parents direct it towards the kerb or, if they're indoors, to a spot they think of as "kerby." "Last month I saw a kid shit in the produce aisle of our Chengdu Walmart," a young woman named Bridget told me.

This was the seventh day of my visit and so desensitised was I that my first response was, "You have a Walmart?"

There are the wild outdoor turds of China, and then there are the ones you see in the public bathrooms, most of which feature those squat-style toilets, holes, basically, level with the floor. And these bathrooms, my God. The sorriest American gas station cannot begin to match one of these things.

In the men's room of a Beijing subway station, I watched a man walk past the urinal, lift his three-year-old son into the air and instruct him to pee into the sink-- the one we were supposed to wash our hands in.

My trip reminded me that we are all just animals, that stuff comes out of every hole we have, no matter where we live or how much money we've got. On some level we all know this and manage, quite pleasantly, to shove it towards the back of our minds. In China, it's brought to the front, and nailed there. The supermarket cashier holds out your change and you take it thinking, "This woman squats and spits on the floor while shitting and blowing snot out of her nose." You think it of the cab driver, of the ticket taker and, finally, of the people who are cooking and serving your dinner. Which brings me back to food.

If someone added a pinch of human faeces to my scrambled eggs, I may not be able to detect it but I would most likely realise that these particular eggs taste different from the ones I had yesterday. That's with something familiar, though. And there wasn't a lot of familiar in China. No pork lo mein or kung pao chicken, and definitely no egg rolls. On our first night in Chengdu, we joined a group of four for dinner – one Chinese woman and three westerners. The restaurant was not fancy, but it was obviously popular. Built into our table was a simmering cauldron of broth, into which we were to add side dishes and cook them until they were done. "I've taken the liberty of ordering us some tofu, some mushrooms and some duck tongues," said the western woman sitting across from me. "Do you trust me to keep ordering, or is there anything in particular you might like?"

I looked at her thinking, "You whore!" Catherine was English and had lived in China for close to 20 years. I figured the duck tongues were a sort of test, so I made it a point to look unfazed. Excited even.

When I was eventually forced to eat one, I found that it actually wasn't so bad. The only disconcerting part was the shape, particularly the base, from which dangled tentacle-like roots. This reminded one that the tongues had not been cut off but, rather, yanked out, possibly with pliers. Of course the duck was probably dead by then, wasn't it? It's not as if they'd jerk out the tongue and then let it go, traumatised and quackless but otherwise whole.
It was while eating my second duck tongue that the man at the next table hacked up a loud wad of phlegm and spat it on to the floor. "I think I'm done," I said.

The following morning, and with a different group, Hugh and I took a drive to the mountain where tea originally came from. It was late January, and the two-hour trip took us past countless factories. Mustard-coloured smoke drifted into the sky and the rivers we passed ran thick with waste and rubbish. Eventually we hit snow, which improved things visually but made it harder to move about. By the time we headed back down the mountain, it was almost three. Most restaurants had quit serving lunch, so we stopped at what's called a Farming Family Happiness. This is a farmhouse where, if they're in the mood, the people who live there will cook and serve you a meal.

One of the members of our party was a native of Chengdu, and of the five Americans, everyone but Hugh and I spoke Mandarin. Thus we hung back as they negotiated with the farm wife, who was square-faced and pretty and wore her hair cut into bangs. We ate in what was normally the mah jong parlour, a large room overlooking the family's tea field. Against one wall were two televisions, each tuned to a different channel and loudly playing to no one. On the other wall was a sanitation grade-- C-- and the service grade, which was a smiley face with the smile turned upside down.

As far as I know there wasn't a menu. Rather, the family worked at their convenience, with whatever was handy or in season. There was a rooster parading around the backyard and then there just wasn't. After the cook had slit its throat, he used it as the base for five separate dishes, one of which was a dreary soup with two feet, like inverted salad tongs, sticking out of it. Nothing else was nearly as recognisable.

I'm used to standard butchering: here's the leg, the breast, etc. At the Farming Family Happiness, rather than being carved, the rooster was senselessly hacked, as if by a blind person, a really angry one with a thing against birds. Portions were reduced to shards, mostly bone, with maybe a scrap of meat attached. These were then combined with cabbage and some kind of hot sauce.

Another dish was made entirely of organs, which again had been hacked beyond recognition. The heart was there, the lungs, probably the comb and intestines as well. I don't know why this so disgusted me. If I was a vegetarian, OK, but if you're a meat eater, why draw these arbitrary lines? "I'll eat the thing that filters out toxins but not the thing that sits on top of the head, doing nothing?" And why agree to eat this animal and not that one?

I remember reading a few years ago about a restaurant in the Guangdong province that was picketed and shut down because it served cat. The place was called The Fangji Cat Meatball Restaurant, which isn't exactly hiding anything. Go to Fangji and you pretty much know what you're getting. My objection to cat meatballs is not that I have owned several cats, and loved them, but that I try not to eat things that eat meat. Like most westerners I tend towards herbivores, and things that like grain: cows, chickens, sheep, etc. Pigs eat meat-- a pig would happily eat a human-- but most of the pork we're privy to was raised on corn or horrible chemicals rather than other pigs and dead people.

There are distinctions among the grazing animal eaters as well. People who like lamb and beef, at least in north America, tend to draw the line at horse, which in my opinion is delicious. The best I've had was served at a restaurant in Antwerp, a former stable called, cleverly enough, The Stable. Hugh was right there with me, and though he ate the same thing I did, he practically wept when someone in China mentioned eating sea horses. "Oh, those poor things," he said. "How could you?"

I went, "Huh?"

It's like eating poultry but taking a moral stand against those chocolate chicks they sell at Easter. "A sea horse is not related to an actual horse," I said. "They're fish, and you eat fish all the time. Are you objecting to this one because of its shape?"

He said he couldn't eat sea horses because they were friendly and never did anyone any harm, this as opposed to those devious, bloodthirsty lambs whose legs we so regularly roast with rosemary and new potatoes.

The dishes we had at the Farming Family Happiness were meant to be shared, and as the pretty woman with the broad face brought them to the table, the man across from me beamed and reached for his chopsticks. "You know," he said, "this country might have its ups and downs but it is virtually impossible to get a bad meal here."

I didn't say anything.

Another of the dishes that day consisted of rooster blood. I'd thought it would be liquid, like V8 juice, but when cooked it coagulated into little pads that had the consistency of tofu. "Not bad," said the girl seated beside me, and I watched as she slid one into her mouth. Jill was American, a Peace Corps volunteer who'd come to Chengdu to teach English. "In Thailand last year? I ate dog face," she told me.

"Just the face?"

"Well, head and face." She was in a small village, part of a team returning abducted girls to their parents. To show their gratitude, the locals prepared a feast. Dog was considered good eating. The head was supposedly the best part, and rather than offend her hosts, Jill ate it.

This, for many, is flat-out evil but the rest of the world isn't like America, where it's become virtually impossible to throw a dinner party. One person doesn't eat meat, while another is lactose intolerant, or can't digest wheat. You have vegetarians who eat fish and others who won't touch it. Then there are vegans, macrobiotics and a new group, flexitarians, who eat meat if not too many people are watching. Take that into consideration and it's actually rather refreshing that a 22-year-old from the suburbs of Detroit will pick up her chopsticks and at least try the shar pei.

I'd like to be more like Jill, but in China something kept holding me back. In clean, sophisticated Japan the rooster blood, arranged upon a handmade plate between the perfect, tempura snow pea and a radish carved to look like a first trimester foetus, would have seemed a fine idea. "We ought to try making this at home," I'd have said to Hugh. Here, though, I thought of the sanitation grade, and of the rooster, pecking maggots out of human faeces before being killed. Most of the restaurants in China to me smelled dirty, though what I was smelling was likely some unfamiliar ingredient, and I was allowing the things I'd seen earlier in the day-- the spitting and snot blowing, etc-- to fill in the blanks.

Then again, maybe not.

While on our trip we ate at normal, everyday places, and sometimes bought food on the street. Our only expensive meal was in Beijing, where we went alone to a fancy restaurant recommended by an acquaintance. The place was located in an old warehouse and had been lavishly decorated. There was a wine expert and someone whose job it was to drop by every three minutes and refill your water glass. We had the Peking duck, which was expertly carved rather than hacked and was served with little pancakes. Towards the end of the meal, I stepped into the men's room to pee and there, disintegrating in the western-style toilet, was an unflushed turd, a little reminder saying, "See, you're still in China!"

Back at the table I asked for the bill. Then I remembered where I was and amended it to "the check". In France, you can die waiting to pay for your meal, which is something I've never understood. "How can they not want me out of here?" I'll think. Ten minutes might pass. Then 20, me watching as the waiter does everything but accept my goddamn money.

I'll say that for China, though-- offer to pay and before you can stab a rooster with a rusty screwdriver someone has taken you up on it. I think they want to catch you before you get sick, but whatever the reason, within minutes you're back on the street, searching the blighted horizon and wondering where your next meal might be coming from.

Asian culture doesn't subscribe to the germ theory. I'll never forget the first time, decades ago, I visited Thailand and watched our beautiful, smiling waitress coming towards us with a huge platter of delicious looking food. She sneezed all over it, and kept smiling beautifully as she served us. My friend Digby, who lived in Thailand for many years, suggests you kill whatever bacteria you can by using plenty of hot sauce... on everything.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Thailand-- The Monks vs The Katoeys

Thailand has the most wide-open sex trade scene I've ever observed in any country I've visited. I suspect it's why Thailand gets so many millions of tourists every year, tourists from every corner of the world. And now, not just tourists from every corner of the world, but-- a new thing as far as I can tell-- prostitutes from every corner of the world. Russian, Eastern European and African prostitutes are now competing with the native ones in Bangkok's Pat Pong district-- which is, at least superficially, more like a Disneyland than a traditional red-light district. Even without the sex trade, Thailand is one of the most beautiful, varied and rewarding destinations anyone could hope to find anywhere. But, like I said, I suspect all those elderly European single men and determined Arabs aren't in Bangkok to visit Wat Po or sample royal court cuisine. I was a little dubious when Roland told me he saw Russian girls working as "hostesses" in the Pat Pong "bars." A few days later I saw a "masseuse" from Romania offering his services at a gentleman's club in a more staid part of town, the "boy's town" gay bars in Pat Pong long ago having lost any allure for all but those looking for laughs.

In the video above, you see something about how Thais are more accepting of a "gender-bending" approach than red state Americans. But that doesn't mean that it's all clear sailing for Thai katoeys, or ladyboys. Yesterday I found this story about Thai monks trying to teach maleness to ladyboys.
The 15-year-old aspiring "ladyboy" delicately applied a puff of talcum powder to his nose-- an act of rebellion at the Thai Buddhist temple where he is learning to "be a man."

"They have rules here that novice monks cannot use powder, make-up, or perfume, cannot run around and be girlish," said Pipop Thanajindawong, who was sent to Wat Kreung Tai Wittaya, in Chiang Khong on the Thai-Laos border, to tame his more feminine traits.

But the monks running the temple's programme to teach masculinity to boys who are "katoeys," the Thai term for transsexuals or ladyboys, have their controversial work cut out.

"Sometimes we give them money to buy snacks but he saved it up to buy mascara," headteacher Phra Pitsanu Witcharato said of Pipop.

Novice monks' days pass as in any other temple-- waking before dawn, collecting alms and studying Buddhism-- but every Friday attention turns to the katoeys at the attached school.

"Were you born as a man or a woman or can you not specify your gender-- not man or woman?" asked Phra Pitsanu at a recent assembly. "You cannot be anything else but your true gender, which is a man. As a novice you can only be a man."

The temple has a stricter interpretation than others of rules governing behaviour during Buddhist training that is a key childhood experience for many Thai boys.

Pupils are banned from using perfume and make-up and prohibited from singing, playing music and running.

"We cannot change all of them but what we can do is to control their behavior to make them understand that they were born as a man... and cannot act like a woman," said Phra Pitsanu.

The Kreung Tai temple has run the course for boys aged between 11 and 18 since 2008, after former principle Phra Maha Vuthichai Vachiramethi devised the programme because he thought reports of katoeys in the monkhood had "affected the stability of Thai Buddhism."

He told AFP that he hopes the teaching methods will be rolled out to other temple schools to "solve the deviant behavior in novices."

It is an attitude that enrages gay rights and diversity campaigner Natee Teerarojanapong, who said trying to alter the boys' sense of gender and sexuality was "extremely dangerous."

"These kids will become self-hating because they have been taught by respected monks that being gay is bad. That is terrible for them. They will never live happily," he told AFP.

Gay and katoey culture is visible and widely tolerated in Thailand, which has one of the largest transsexual populations in the world, and Natee said the temple's programme is "very out of date."

But Phra Atcha Apiwanno, 28, disputed the idea that society accepted ladyboys and said he joined the monkhood because of social stigma about his sexual identity.

"The reason I became a monk is to train my habits, to control my expression... I didn't want to be like this," he told AFP.

Monks have had limited success in their project-- three of the six ladyboys to have graduated from the school are said to have embraced their masculinity, but the remaining three went on to have sex changes.

Pipop said he has struggled with his sexuality at the temple.

At home in Bangkok he dressed like a girl, putting on make-up and taking hormones until he developed breasts, but he has since stopped the treatment and wears only a surreptitious dab of powder at the temple.

He does not believe he will live up to his family's hopes that he will become more manly.

"I can make them proud even I'm not a man," the teenager said, adding he had given up his ambition to be an airhostess and now aspires to work in a bank.

He thinks he will have a sex change after graduation.

"Once I leave the monkhood the first thing I want to do is to shout, to scream out loud saying: 'I can go back to being the same again!'"

Sunday, July 10, 2011

When To Go-- Worth Paying Attention To

You know how standard travel guides always have a little chapter or subchapter towards the front about when the right time to visit is? There's a reason it's always there and there's a reason it's in the beginning and, most of all, there's a reason we need to pay attention. The first time I was in Bangkok it was in the summer. I mean summer's a good time for a vacation, right? Yeah, but not there. And not Kathmandu either. I sore I'd never visit either in the summer again-- but I just got home from a trip to both.

The trip didn't start out that way. It started out as a trip to Tibet with a stopover in Kathmandu on the way and a stopover in Bangkok on the way home. Two weeks out the government of China, the occupying power in Tibet, suddenly canceled all foreign visas. The smart thing at that point would have been to just cancel the whole trip... or change it to a trip to Ethiopia, a country of eternal spring. But... well who doesn't love Kathmandu?

In 1971, the first time I visited, it really was like some kind of a Shangri-La with a hippie tinge. That was then. Even in the early '90s, the last time I was there, it was still fascinating and worthwhile. A lot has changed. For example it used to not be all that polluted, let alone the most polluted city on earth. And last time I was there it was during an invigorating December. Summers in Kathmandu are steamy, rainy and muddy. It's monsoon season, not a good time to visit. More to the point, Kathmandu's many charms-- balanced with the inconveniences-- is probably best savored just once. It's not a place for a casual tourist to go over and over, not like, say, Bali or Paris.

The best times we had on the trip were all outside the city-- visiting nearby Bhaktipur and Patan and, better yet, trekking in the mountains. I know sloshing around in the mud up in the mountains during a monsoon might not sound wonderful, but it actually was. Being lost, wandering around on unmarked paths at the top of the world, coming across little villages and spectacular temples where no one spoke a word of English except small children has its own special charm. And we had high rubber boots. It doesn't make any sense to visit Nepal without trekking. The Darbar Squares are all nice (photo of me up top at the Patan Darbar Square) but the mountains are what Nepal's really all about. Just avoid the leeches... and better to go when it's not monsoon season.

The civil war drove a million rural people into Kathmandu. There's been no increase in infrastructure. So it's too crowded and verging on uninhabitable. Another big difference is that the tourists aren't western hippies any more. The tourists are now basically all from India and China. And the tourist trade caters to them and to their tastes. It's a big change. Asia's changing that way. It's not as overwhelming in Bangkok because there are so many tourists there and it's such a major cosmopolitan city. But that's also a place best visited during our winter. In the summer, the weather is unbearable. It's sweltering hot and the humidity is beyond anything in Houston at its worst. You step outside and you're soaked in sweat within minutes. And then if you go inside anything-- a building, a taxi, a train... it's bone-chillingly freezing and deadly dry. No one understands the settings on the AC between zero and 10. It's always 10. So you're never dressed properly. Outdoors you want as little clothing as possible. Inside you need to be bundled up. December is the best time to visit, when it's still warm but not sweltering and the skies aren't prone to open up and release sheets of rain every now and then the way they do during the summer.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Urban Gadabout: Newark Bay or bust! (Is there anyone else whose pulse is sent racing by the prospect?)

A nice overview of the waters in and around New York City (which is in light gray), pretty much all really inlets of the Atlantic Ocean: 1. Hudson River; 2. East River, though the number indicates the wilder upper portion, which has more in common with -- 3. Long Island Sound, to the east (between Long Island and Connecticut); 4. Newark Bay; 5. Upper New York Bay, and on the other side of the Verrazano Narrows -- 6. Lower New York Bay; 7. Jamaica Bay (that big purple splotch along its shore being JFK Airport); 8. Atlantic Ocean. Newark Bay (4) connects via the Kill Van Kull (to the northwest of Staten Island) to the Upper Bay and via the Arthur Kill (to the southwest of Staten Island) to Raritan Bay, at the bottom-left corner of the map.

by Ken

Here's the news in a nutshell: a New York Harbor tour that targets . . . Newark Bay!

I realize it's a pretty small subset of readers who will share even a fraction of my excitement about this news. Newark Bay? The more or less inland harbor -- hidden from view from the outer coast by the big land blob that is Staten Island -- that is the, the industrial hub of North Jersey? Would it help to think of it as the maritime heart of Sopranos country?

It's still not exactly glamorous, but Newark Bay is now where the hottest action of New York Harbor, since despite its remove from the open ocean, thanks to diligent dredging of the Kill Van Kull and Arthur Kill, its outlets to that ocean, it can handle all many of the larger ocean-going freight vessels, and its western shore gives them access to the North American mainland, a major saving in shipping costs.

Maybe it's just this thing I've developed, this late-life fascination with the real geography of the harbor,now going beyond the obvious part that's on display from the Battery (the southern edge of Manhattan Island) and from the New York City Department of Transportation's gift to harbor hounds, the Staten Island Ferry. That's the Upper Harbor, 5 on the map --

* lying between Manhattan to the north, Brooklyn to the east, Staten Island to the south, and New Jersey (north to south: Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne) on the west;

* with Governors Island sitting just south of Manhattan and east of Brooklyn, and with Liberty and Ellis Islands just east of the New Jersey coast;

* and with the Hudson River projecting north on the west side of Manhattan, separating it from New Jersey;

* and the East River to the east of Manhattan, separating it from Brooklyn (spanned in these lower reaches by the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg Bridges) and as it continues northward separating Manhattan and the Bronx from Queens;

* and just visible from standard Upper Bay outposts, the Kill Van Kull separating Staten Island on the northwest from New Jersey (with views from some angles of the Bayonne Bridge over the kill);

Nowadays there seem to be all sorts of boats cruising the upper harbor, and I've done those tours. Mostly, though, they seem to be about what you do besides harbor-viewing, like dinner, or brunch, or fireworks (or sailing on a yacht, or a sailboat, or . . .). In the summer there's now free ferry service to Governors Island. (In fact I'm headed to Governors Island tomorrow.)

I've been trying to fill in my picture of the harbor and the coastline. To the east I did my pilgrimage to Plum Beach, Brooklyn (on Rockaway Inlet, more or less midway between 6 and 7), to observe horseshoe crabs with Urban Park Ranger Andrew. Farther east I took advantage of an Urban Park Rangers walk along Rockaway Beach, and still farther east there was a Shorewalkers walk along Jones Beach.

Farther up the East River, I seized the opportunity of a Municipal Art Society walk to get a close-up view, and actually walk over, Newtown Creek, which forms four-plus miles of the border between Brooklyn (to the south) and Queens (to the North), the NYC boroughs that occupy the western end of Long Island.

For the harbor itself, for Jane's Walk weekend in May, the tour I chose took me to the north shore of Staten Island, with a good view of the working harbor, even on a Sunday -- you're reminded that ships don't get "days off" while they're at sea and under intense pressure to make their schedules), including my best view as of then of the Kill Van Kull separating Staten Island and New Jersey, including a pretty good view of the Bayonne Bridge spanning the kill.

By now it should be clear that a major role in the geography of the southern part of the harbor is played by Staten Island, and for that reason, and also for my shocking ignorance of this borough of the city of New York, I've been undertaking a sort of crash course in Staten Island, taking advantage of Municipal Arts Society tours to Snug Harbor, on the Kill Van Kull shore (though we didn't get much of a view of the water): Tottenville, on Raritan Bay, at the southern tip of the island (to which I recently returned for the Second Annual Raritan Bay Festival), and Stapleton Heights. (In fact, I'm about to head out to an MAS tour of the budding cultural scene in Staten Island's St. George.)

In my mind, at least, all of this was pointing me toward -- what else? -- Newark Bay, but I honestly had no idea how I might tackle it as a destination. That is, until I was, as usual, perusing the week's listings in Time Out New York and found myself staring at this listing:
Hidden Harbor Tour: Newark Bay Tour

South Street Seaport, Pier 16, Tue 6:15pm. Fulton St (at South St)
Subway: A, C to Broadway-Nassau St; J, M, Z, 2, 3, 4, 5 to Fulton StGet directions
$29, seniors $22, children $15

As one of three of its New York Harbor tours, this trip around Newark Bay on Circle Line's Zephyr includes views of the Red Hook Container Terminal and Bayonne Bridge, a passage through Kill Van Kull, which divdes Staten Island and New Jersey, and an exploration of the busy container ports across the water.

Sure enough, the Circle Line Downtown website lists the three Hidden Harbor Tours:
Tour 1 - The Newark Bay Tour
Feauturing the Kill Van Kull, Bayonne Bridge and The Giant Container Ports of Newark Bay

Tour 2 - The Brooklyn Tour
Featuring Brooklyn's Maritime Heritage & Future - Brooklyn Navy Yard to Sunset Park

Tour 3- North River Tour
The Changing Waterfront of North River - Passengers Ships to Kayaks

There are much more detailed descriptions of each onsite. Still-to-come dates for the Newark Bay Tour, in addition to July 12, are August 9 and September 13; for the Brooklyn Tour, July 26 and September 27; and for the North River Tour, August 23. If there was any financial advantage to booking all three tours, which I was certainly prepared to do, I couldn't find any trace of any, but you better believe I went ahead and booked Tuesday's epic trip to Newark Bay.

Luckily for me, I work within walking distance of Pier 16, so with just a little fudging I'll be able to make that 6:15 departure. I've already printed my ticket, but I'm still supposed to be there 30 minutes before departure time. Can you tell that I'm excited?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Urban Gadabout: Inside the Revolutionary Apple with a co-author of "Inside the Apple"

James explained that the fence around Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan is not only one of the city's oldest surviving artifacts but a participant in some key historical events.

by Ken

Is there any traveler who hasn't become wholly dependent on the Internet? Whether it's for scouting destinations, gathering information, finding timetables, making reservations -- even for a humble urban gadabout, it's hard to imagine doing it these days without the staggering range of resources online.

Online is how I do essentially all of my planning with my "regular" tour providers, New York's Municipal Art Society, New York Transit Museum, and Urban Park Rangers. I'm so booked up for the summer that I have hardly a weekend "day off," and on a lot of those days I'm doubling up. Still, I'm aware that this only scratches the surface of what's available out there, so Friday, with a thinned-out schedule thinning for the 4h of July Weekend, I did some online searching, and stumbled onto,, the blog of Michelle and James Nevius, wife-and-husband authors of a combination history of New York and guidebook called Inside the Apple, and learned that on July 3rd James would be doing a "Revolutionary War Walking Tour" in Lower Manhattan, for which, as of a post from a couple of days previous, they still had places.

So I followed the instructions for e-mailing a reservation request and soon got back a confirmation, which left only the consideration of weather, which today started out dreadful, with intermittent heavy rain and overcast, and a not especially sunny forecast. Nevertheless, James sent out an e-mail to the reservation list expressing the hope that the storms would pass through by our scheduled assembly time, 4pm said, "Thus, I am going to be at the meeting place at 4PM to lead the tour and I do hope you will be too! Bring an umbrella, of course, and good humor, and I'm sure will have a great time."

So as soon as I finished puttering around with Bruno Walter and the Siegfried Idyll, I set out for Peter Minuit Plaza, in front of the Staten Island Ferry, and incredbily, just about the whole group of 25 walkers turned up. (As James pointed out, you're apt to get a bunch of no-shows even in perfect weather.)

And through intermittent, sometimes heavy rain, our hardy band trooped through a host of locales where way back in Revolutionary New York events of significance happened, though as is true of almost all of our two centuries of colonial history, first Dutch and then English, hardly anything except streets (and many street names) survives from that time. (A particular bĂȘte noire of James, we discovered, is the relative lack of attention that's been given to our four-century-old city's English century. Everybody loves the Dutch century, he points out, and of course the two centuries-plus since the Revolution are wildly popular. But the English century may be too closely connected with English rule, the city itself having been not just the site of the English military command but a center of Loyalist sympathy and activity.

James himself is wildly charming and personable, and an easygoing fount of information, so the tour was a resounding success. We wound up walking up Broad Street to the corner of Broad and Wall, and the Federal Hall that's not the Federal Hall where George Washington was inaugurated as our first president but occupies the same site (in much the way that what now passes for Fraunces Tavern, a famously favorite hangout of George Washington, is a re-creation of the building from Washington's time. Walkng up Broad Street we passed my office building, 20 Broad, and by then I had learned that there wasn't any great canal-like purpose to the canal that originally ran up the middle of Broad Street, as is described in the history of the street that's engraved in the new curbside that was created when the street was repaved with stones -- and security outposts -- from Beaver to Wall Streets a couple of years ago.

I was happy to buy a copy of Inside the Apple from James (I like the idea of a larger chunk of the purchase price going into the authors' pockets), and am just starting to get to know it. In an introductory note, Michelle and James explain:
The goal of Inside the Apple is to give you a different pathway into the city's long and rich history. While there are many books that focus on New York's notable events and famous people, ours is instead organized around the places where those events took place. By grounding the narrative in sites that you can see and visit, we provide concrete, tangible, connections between the city of today and its intriguing past.

People have long tried to answer the question: What makes New York unique? We feel the answer is deceptively simple: more than any other American city, it is primarily experienced on foot. . . .

As this suggests, the history-based narrative is grounded in places, with lots of cross-referencing to related chapters, and there are 14 full-fledged walking tours at the end. I'm looking forward to getting to know the book better.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Danger In Thailand?

Saturday night Pat Pong was was relatively quiet. Like all bars in Thailand, Bangkok's tourist-oriented, even Disneyland-like, red light district wasn't serving alcohol... and many of the hostesses and hosts were back in their hometowns to vote Sunday. Sunday is election day.

Sunday voting is a great idea-- working people have the day off-- something American conservatives have always adamantly opposed as a way of holding down participation from the poorer classes. Here in Thailand voting goes 'til 3pm. Public transportation in Bangkok is free of charge Sunday between 6AM and 4pm to encourage voters. Online political messages were banned after 6pm Saturday. Vote buying is widespread. [A 100 baht note is about $3.00.]
Police stepped up efforts to crack down on vote-buying Saturday and arrested three people in Samut Prakan and Maha Sarakham provinces suspected of involvement in the practice.

Somjai Uan-takhop, 55, a grocer in Samut Prakan's Muang district, was arrested for allegedly handing two 100 baht bank notes to Anusorn Thongkon, 51, and asking him to vote for a major political party, according to Samut Prakan police inspector Sonchai Empradit.

In Maha Sarakham, special branch police arrested Thongphoon Sriyowong, who they said was found carrying 64 100 baht bank notes.

Acting on information provided by the suspect, officers then seized a pickup truck containing about 4,000 100 baht bank notes, a pistol and a book with lists of canvassers' and voters' names, and leaflets profiling an MP candidate.

Mrs Thongphoon, a resident of Muang district, allegedly confessed that she received the 6,400 baht cash from three men in a pickup truck.

...The Australian and British embassies have issued travel advisories for Thailand due to concerns over the possibility of unrest and violence during and after the election and the formation of the next government.

The Australian embassy in Bangkok advised its nationals in Thailand to exercise a high degree of caution.

"There is a possibility of civil unrest and violence in the period surrounding the election and formation of a new government," said a message posted on the embassy's website.

"The political situation remains unpredictable after the last April-May incident and further political unrest and violence cannot be ruled out in Bangkok and other provinces," it added.

The British Embassy posted a travel advisory on its website on Friday regarding the "possibility of unrest in parts of Thailand during national elections."

"The Election Commission has until Aug 2 to confirm the election result. There remains a risk that political developments may lead to violence," it said.

Bangkok is an incredibly cosmopolitan city. Look around a Skytrain car and you always see people from every continent. If election season is a dangerous time, tourists and ex-pats don't seem to be paying any attention. Thais have a different perspective:

UPDATE: People Are Voting Now-- But Not Tweeting

Thai election law prohibits sales of alcohol and all political campaigning-- so not just Facebook and Twitter but the law covers the too-- from 6:00 pm the day before a vote until midnight of the election day, even though voting ends at 3pm.
Police on Saturday warned election candidates and citizens not to use web media such as Facebook or Twitter to campaign for the election-- or risk going to jail.

Thai policemen and officials give a final check to ballots and ballot boxes.

"Police will work with hundreds of ICT (information and communication technology) officials to monitor all types of social media activities after 6:00pm," said national police spokesman Major General Prawut Thavornsiri.

"Any candidates or even ordinary people who convince others to vote for someone face a six-month jail term or a 10,000-baht fine ($324) or both," he said.