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Monday, December 31, 2012

Kerala-- Where To Stay In Cochin

The last time-- and only time until this week-- I was in Kerala, a long skinny coastal state in southwest India, was 1970. I had left Goa, after a fantastic couple of months of recuperating from the arduous drive across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, and was headed towards the island paradise of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Kerala is between Goa and what was then the ferry point you could take to northern Ceylon (long closed due to a civil war that raged for almost the whole time since I left until very recently).

I only remember 5 things about the week it took me in 1970 to traverse Kerala, not counting how abysmal the roads were. I remember the state was lush, green and gorgeous with incredible unspoiled beaches and no tourists. I remember visiting an old French colony called Mahe in the northern part of the state which was administratively part of Pondicherry, the 3 scattered ex-French enclaves in India, and that it was far more orderly than the rets of this chaotic and completely dysfunctional country. I remember that the spicy cuisine was delicious and simple and served on banana leaves (although some rudimentary roadside slop houses weren't high-falutin enough for banana leaves and would put the food directly onto the wooden tables... pretty revolting and seared into my memory. I never saw any silverware in Kerala.) I also remember visiting a shuttered on Jewish synagogue in Cochin that some local boys opened up for us but they couldn't speak much English and we didn't learn much other than that the Jews had all gone to Israel. And finally, I recall that south of Trivandum, the state capital, some inept dacoits (bandits) tried to waylay us with a giant boulder rolled into the middle of the road. There was enough room to drive around it and escape.

Kerala has come a long way since then. It's a relatively wealthy state now and has been successfully promoted the way Florida was in the U.S. in the 50s and 60s-- a beautiful, unspoiled tropic vacation paradise. The explosively expanding Indian middle class likes vacationing here. So do Europeans. When I checked out the best hotels on Ft. Kochi, one of the islands that makes up Cochin-- the best of the islands-- they were all over-priced and booked up. Our first choice in any case is to rent a house. So we did. This one is a brand new apartment overlooking the Arabian Sea, a little way (5-10 minute walk) from the hustle and bustle of the real touristy parts of the island. It's nothing too fancy but there are two bedooms, with their own bathrooms, a kitchen/dining area, a living room and air-conditioning units for each room. The owner, a young guy, Varghese John, somehow pronounced Valdez, lives downstairs and is a perfect host-- as well as a great cook. A lady comes in and cleans every other day and does the laundry, changes the bedding ,etc. The hot water works and so does the wifi-- more or less. The electricity goes out for half an hour twice a day-- from 7-7:30 every morning and from 9-9:30 every evening, but that's a function of Kerala, not the house. His e-mail address is If you want to visit Cochin and stay here, mention this blog or my name to Verghese and he'll give you a 10% discount.

Roland and I are only the second guests to have stayed here; it's that new. Two weeks ago Cochin had a big music festival-- it's in swing 'til March-- and M.I.A. (Maya), a U.K. pop star/rapper-- from Sri Lanka-- headlined and she and her family stayed in our house. They were the first guests. Her father was a well-known Tamil activist. She got into some kind of twitter argument with Anderson Cooper after she felt he implied she's a terrorist (which she isn't). Her 2007 second album, Kala a U.S. dance-electronic hit, went gold. Outside of the underground dance world she's best known in the U.S. for having written "Give Me All Your Luvin'" with Madonna and for performing it at the Super Bowl XLVI half time show. This video isn't that. "Born Free" is considered, like M.I.A. herself, controversial. I wonder how she went over in sleepy, very Christian Cochin.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Would You Stay In A Hotel Named Eros?

The Delhi subway system is fast and cheap-- but best avoided unless there are riots up top

Not counting teenage hitchhiking adventures to Canada and Mexico, the first time I traveled abroad was right after my 20th birthday. My girlfriend and I got special $99 tickets on Iceland Air for Luxembourg. (If you stopped over in Iceland, you got the $99 price-- and we were delighted to stop over in Iceland and spend a week driving around the dramatic lunar-scape of an island.) Anyway, when we got to Luxembourg we had no idea where to go or what to do. The next day we had to take a train to Weisbaden in Germany to pick up our VW van. So we checked into a cheap hotel near the central station that seemed, in the dark night, medieval and charming. It turned out to be one of those hotels where working girls brought their tricks for an hour. You live and you learn.

So I'm in Delhi for a week, waiting for Roland, enjoying India's fantastic capital-- great sites, nice weather, old friends, amazing restaurants and a wonderful place to get used to India before moving on to more exotic parts of the country. I was last here 2 or 3 years ago and I stayed at the Intercontinental and loved it. It was the least expensive 5-star hotel in town and it was a hassle-free enjoyable week for me and, most important, it was really close-- 10-15 minute walk-- to the center of town (Connaught Place). So, of course, I wanted to book us rooms there for this trip. But it was gone. Online, the hotel had ceased to exist. I finally tracked it down and it was now called Eros. That put me off. Was it some kind of weird sex hotel for Arabs and sleazy Indians? No, as further investigation showed me, it is heavily advertised as being managed by Hilton. OK, I figured Eros must mean something different in India.

It's part of the Eros Group and, as their website says, it's "a company, which needs no introduction!" Apparently they're giants in the real estate industry and in the hotel world as well. "Hospitality Industry (Eros Hotel Managed by Hilton at Nehru Place, Shangri-La's-- Eros Hotel at Connaught Place, Hotel Double Tree and Hotel Hilton at Mayur Vihar- city's most prestigious 5 star deluxe hotels)-- are an absolute spectacle of immaculate architecture. Group is also coming up with a new Residential Township-- Eros Sampoornam (25 acres) in Greater Noida (Noida Extension) and five star hotels-- Eros Radisson Blue Hotel (72000 sq ft) in Faridabad and RJS Hotel (4.5 acres). With more than six decades as a leading maestro in real estate promotion and town planning, the Eros Group ranks as the natural choice for smart decision makers like you. With Eros Group one can take excellent complex environment for granted." OK, what could go wrong?

The hotel's website says it's "centrally located at Nehru Place, with easy access to business and tourist destinations." Sounded like the place I stayed in, although I wasn't 100% positive. I called and they said, yes, they took over the old Intercontinental. The price was decent and the on-line reviews sounded fine. When I got here, it was 4AM and it looked the same. Emirates Air-- the most over-hyped airline ever-- had a car drive me from the airport to the hotel and it didn't seem like he was going the right way, but what the heck. Most of these cookie cutter business hotels seem the same and they were kind enough to check me in at 4AM. The room looked exactly the same as the Intercontinental, although the place seemed very remodeled. It wasn't until the next day-- when I tried walking to Connaught Place for lunch-- that I figured out I was 10 miles from Connaught Place and that there had been two Intercontinentals and that the one I had stayed in is now the Lalit Hotel.

This one doesn't suck-- except for their internet use scam. It's just not a hotel I would normally stay in if there were better choices (which, in Delhi, there are-- dozens of better choices). Roland arrived a few days after I did on the same Emirates flight that got him here at 4AM. Instead of welcoming him and showing him to his room after an 18 hour flight, they figured he would be ripe for a rip-off and told him it was be $200 to allow him into his room before 8AM. Luck of the draw. I had a kind desk clerk; Roland got a crook. (When we complained to the manager she told me that Roland's experience was the normal one and that what had happened to me was "impossible.")

Roland pays attention to toiletries and he says the hotel's stuff-- by Peter Thomas Roth-- is top notch. I never heard of them. What I do know is that the hotel charges $10/day for their internet connection and their internet connection is beyond horrible. It's barely useable and, on average, it takes me 20-30 minutes to open and e-mail and reply. Something like 75% of the replies then vanish. Google mail works better than AOL, which has been almost impossible to use here. Twitter and reddit don't function at all and basically, if it isn't google-related, it doesn't work. Most of the name there's no connectivity. A couple goofs from the IT Department came up to my room and installed a booster, which didn't do any good at all.

Instead of a 10-15 minute walk to Connaught Place, it's a 20 minute subway ride (with a transfer). I don't remember Delhi-- or anyplace in India-- even having a subway system. Turns out this one got started in 2002, although the line out to where I am opened in 2010. They're still building. It's the most crowded subway I've ever been on anywhere... ever. Words can't describe. They haven't quite figured out how to sell tickets-- which involves gigantic lines and amazing amounts of wasted time. This being India, the world's most defiantly dysfunctional place, they don't allow you to buy return trips. Fortunately, the first car on every train is strictly reserved for women. If you don't think that's important, the biggest story in Delhi for the week we've been here so far-- dominating the front page and next 4 pages of every newspaper-- is about a young woman who was gang-raped on a bus and how common it is for women to be sexually harassed. The whole city had practically been shut down by the protests over the episode and the woman was so brutally assaulted that she may die and has already had her intestines removed.

People blame the police because they spend such an inordinate amount of their assets protecting a couple hundred VIP families and leaving the rest of society to fend for itself. What's odd about that is that Delhi is the most paranoid city I've ever been in when it comes to security. Every opportunity there is for a pat-down and an x-ray machine, you find someone patting you down and x-raying you. Every subway station, every hotel, every bank... these people are insane. The real lack of security is that the subways are so packed with sick people that disease must spread like wildfire all the time. Every time I get off one I take a few Mushroom Science Immune Builders, my own kind of paranoia prevention. It didn't do any good in the end and I came down with a bad cold or something.
The Metro got us to Chandi Chawk, the main drag of Old Delhi, a short and fascinating walk from Jama Masjid, the biggest mosque in India, completed in 1656 and pictured (with me in the foreground) above

Monday, December 24, 2012

Religious Fanatics Destroy Timbuktu's Cultural Heritage

Far right "Christian" fundamentalist Bryan Fischer is one of America's noisiest and most virulent anti-Islamic hatemongers. Barely a day goes by when he isn't tweeting some crap about how Islam is not a religion of peace because some crackpots do something outrageous in the name of Allah. Fisher's rage against religionist excess, he never seems to understand, is what lumps him and his followers in with the loathsome Muslim fundamentalists and extremists he derides. He is them; they are him.

A few years ago, Roland and I spent a month traveling through Mali, a unique and edifying experience. Since then, the country has fallen apart... literally. The northern two-thirds of the country have been taken over by the Islamic version-- but religiously and politically-- of Bryan Fischer and his thuggish crowd. And what has ensued should give Americans warning of what would happen if radical right sociopaths like Fischer and the politicians he supports ever get their hands on the levers of power in our own country.

Aside from a couple of superficial mentions by Mitt Romney in the foreign policy presidential debate that doomed his campaign, few Americans have ever heard of Mali. They confuse it with Bali and Maui. No one I tell I went there has a clue where it is, let alone anything about how significant it was historically-- in terms of providing the gold that helped fuel Europe's Renaissance and the music that created American rock'n'roll. But when I mention "Timbuktu" there's usually a glimmer of light behind the eyes-- not that anyone knows where that is either. But at least they've heard of it, usually as some legendary place like Atlantis.

Sunday The Telegraph reported on the latest news in the on-going the Bryan Fischerization of Timbuktu. This is what religion always devolves to:
The rebels' ruthless implementation of their version of Islamic law comes just days after the United Nations approved a military force to wrest back control of the conflict-ridden area.

"Not a single mausoleum will remain in Timbuktu, Allah doesn't like it," Abou Dardar, leader of the Islamist Ansar Dine group, told AFP. "We are in the process of smashing all the hidden mausoleums in the area." Witnesses confirmed the claims.

Anything that doesn't fall under Islam "is not good. Man should only worship Allah," Mohamed Alfoul, a member of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), said.

The vandalism of the Muslim saints' tombs in the UNESCO World Heritage site came a day after other Islamists in the northern city of Gao announced they had amputated two people's hands.

The continued strict application of sharia law is seen as a sign that the armed Islamist groups are unfazed by the UN's green light for the African-led military operation.

Planners have said any intervention cannot be launched before September next year. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian however told Monday's edition of La Croix newspaper that he thought it could be launched in the first half of 2013.

In July, Islamists destroyed the entrance to a 15th-century mosque in Timbuktu, the so-called "City of 333 Saints."

"The Islamists are currently in the process of destroying all the mausoleums in the area with pickaxes," one witness said.

"I saw Islamists get out of a car near the historic mosque of Timbuktu. They smashed a mausoleum behind a house shouting 'Allah is great, Allah is great'," another resident told AFP.

As well as in cemeteries and mosques, the revered mausoleums are found in alleyways and private residences of the city, an ancient centre of learning and a desert crossroads.

Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief, condemned the Islamists.

A statement from her office said she was "deeply shocked by the brutal destruction of mausoleums and holy shrines in Timbuktu...

"Their destruction is a tragedy not only for the people of Mali, but for the whole world."

Ansar Dine began destroying the cultural treasures in July.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cadillac Commercial Through Morocco's Atlas Mountains At The Dadès Gorges

I started visiting Morocco in 1969 and I've been there over a dozen times since. At some point it can't just be about laying around Marrakesh, Essaouira, Tangier and Fes. So some years ago I set out across the Atlas Mountains south of Marrakesh and discovered Taroudant, which is kind of what Marrakesh was like in the 1960s before it became so cosmopolitan. I loved it and kept going back. From there we'd set out for Tiznit and even Sidi Ifni further south and east and then, eventually for Ouarzazate, Zagora south and west and even Mhamid right at the edge of the Sahara, the last stop before the 2 month camel ride to Timbuktu.

I just saw the Cadillac ad above with the driver going through the Atlas Mountains at the Dadès Gorges. We did hire a camel driver and his son to take us out into the Sahara Desert... but not as far as Timbuktu, which we did eventually get to-- in a jeep. As for the curving passes of the High Atlas... oh yes; we did that, several times in fact. But once was a time I'll never forget. We weren't going nearly as fast as the Cadillac in the ad-- nor did we have nearly as good a vehicle-- but we were descending pretty briskly when... no more pavement. The asphalt suddenly gave way to gravel.

You know what happens when the asphalt suddenly gives way to gravel? It had never crossed my mind 'til then either. But we spun right out of control and headed for one of those drops you can see in the Cadillac ad. In fact, the bottom of that gorge is filled with cars and trucks that did go over during the years. I'd like to say it was my reflexes and skillful driving that saved us-- and it may have been; who remembers anything but the sheer terror? But I think it was just luck. The car came to a stop an inch from the deadly drop. Within seconds a dozen old Berber men appeared out of nowhere and were swarming all over us, as though they came out of the sides of the rocky crevices. Each one wanted to touch my heart. For luck I guess.

Nothing much in M'Hamid but flies, sand and camels

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Stalking owls in Inwood Hill Park

No, as far as I know this isn't the great horned owl we (supposedly) made voice contact with this evening in way-Northern Manhattan's Inwood Hill Park. But I can't say for sure it isn't. Or it could be a relative.

Total number of owls made visual contact with: 0
Total number of owls made voice contact with: 1 (alleged)
Total amount of fun had during Owl Prowl: tons

by Ken

Now you're going to tell me you could resist an offer like this?

Owl Prowl with Mike Feller

Saturday, December 8, 2012
4:00 p.m.–6:00 p.m.

Whoooo goes there?

Bring the whole family and find out as you roam the winter woods in search of owls with Mike Feller, Chief Naturalist for Parks's Natural Resources Group. It's the beginning of their mating season so you may observe some interesting behaviors. Mike will demonstrate how to attract owls using calls.
From time to time I've noted announcements from the NYC Parks Dept. about nature-themed walks in Northern Manhattan parks featuring naturalist Mike Feller. I've done a bunch of the (similarly sponsored) walks in Northern Manhattan with the staggeringly erudite Sid Horenstein, educator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History (and I wrote about my adventure with him in Highbridge Park), but I'd never done one of Mike's walks.

Today, finally, I got myself there for the promised Owl Prowl. It surprised me all the more because I'd already done a Municipal Art Society walking tour with Matt Postal -- the first of two walks devoted to "Millionaires' Mile" (which Matt allowed at the outset should probably be renamed "Billionaires' Mile"), this one on but mostly off Fifth Avenue from 60th Street (starting directly opposite the still-imposing McKim Mead & White Metropolitan Club) up to the Frick Collection at 70th Street.

Asked at the outset about our odds for spotting owls, Mike thought a bit before telling us that his record so far on these walks was six for six. Well, now it's six for seven. But along the way we learned plenty about owls, and in particular the great horned owls who have taken over the owl franchise in Inwood Hill Park (at the northern edge of Manhattan, one of our few parks that includes a fair amount of natural rather than manufactured terrain.) Great horned owls, Mike explained, don't like sharing habitat with other species of owls, and tend to terminate them with extreme prejudice.

I learned a great deal about what great horned owls eat, which is mostly live animals -- mice and rats definitely, but on up to skunks and squirrels and rabbits. The smaller animals are swallowed whole, and eventually the indigestible parts are ejected orally in the form of a pellet. Larger animals are torn up for swallowing, perhaps in quarters for, say, skunks. (A tour participant who lives in the area volunteers that in the years before the arrival of the great horned owls in Inwood Hill Park, the park was overrun with skunks, and then the skunks more or less vanished. The connection was "purely anecdotal," she acknowledged, adding that she sure didn't miss the skunks -- the smell was pretty bad.)

It may have been too warm still for owl spotting -- Mike registered surprise at the amount of insect activity still observable in the park at this late date. When he applied his imitation owl-hooting technique, he seemed to get a response from afar, but nothing he could do would persuade the respondent to move from his spot -- a "mellow male owl," he guessed. He ventured that we were having roughly the same effect on him that telemarketers have on us when they call during dinner.

Actually, I wasn't entirely grieving that our mellow male chose to stand, or sit, his ground. (My personal theory is that when Mike started doing his owl calls, the great horneds in the park were texting one another noting that it's probably just that crazy Mike making like an owl. And our mellow male just went back to the book he was reading.)

Whatever. It was a great walk in the park, with all manner of fascinating lore coming from Mike. There was a great turnout for the walk, including half a dozen kids of various ages -- a huge asset to the walk, with their delicious curiosity and enthusiasm. And the nice thing about our having hiked all the way up into the high sierra of Inwood Hill Park on the heading-toward-owl-country leg of the walk was that the return was almost entirely downhill.


Part 2 of Matt Postal's MAS "Millionaires' Mile" series, ranging from 70th Street up to about 78th, is scheduled for Sunday, December 23, 11am-1pm. This is a problem for me, because at 1pm that day Eric K. Washington is starting an "Uptown Trinity Church Cemetery at Christmas" walk, which "precedes the city’s oldest ongoing holiday tradition, the annual recitation at the Church of the Intercession of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (by Clement Clarke Moore, who is buried here)."

I just did a quick search, and the next walk the Parks Dept. has listed for Mike is a "Dusk Walk with Mike Feller" in Fort Tryon Park on Sunday, January 12, 4pm-6pm.

Travisa Outsourcing-- Why I Would Have Canceled My Trip To India And Gone Somewhere Else

Imagine what kind of intestinal fortitude it took, historically, to go on an international voyage... like before airplanes. There were so many considerations conspiring to keep all but the most dauntless travelers at home-- probability of violence, disease, inability to communicate, bizarre lifestyles, time constraints, being just a few. Even when I first started visiting Asia and Africa in the late 1960s, one had to pause for some semi-serious contemplation before plunging forward to overcome the inevitable roadblocks.

In 1969, for example, I drove a brand new VW van I purchased in Wiesbaden, Germany across Asia. Although I was more than excited to visit Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, my real destination was India. Problem-- aside from how far it was and all the shots you had to take and the bandits and bad roads, was that importing cars was heavily discouraged. In fact, it was so discouraged that you had to post a bond at the border for the full value of the car.

I had sold a lot of hash in New York to buy that van on a special students-only plan in Germany ($2,500 if you picked it up at the factory) and I didn't have any more money. I mean none. I would pick up hitch-hikers to get money for gas. Arrested in Afghanistan for trying to smuggle a couple hundred pounds of hash out of the country-- through the Soviet Union-- I was lucky enough to meet an American consular official who explained that he could give me a carnet de passage which would allow me to drive the van (without the hash) into India and without leaving a deposit at the border. Problem solved.

These days, it's much easier to travel almost anywhere, and certainly to India. In fact, I've been back to India at least half a dozen times since that first trip, sometimes on business, sometimes for pleasure. This time we planned the trip out and bought our non-refundable tickets and paid our special non-refundable rates for a hotel in Delhi and a house in Kerala. And then something horrifying happened. We learned that India no longer grants visas from their consulates and embassies. The only way to get in is to get a visa from an outfit called Travisa Outsourcing.

Travisa, which as an absolute monopoly on Indian visas, has a horrendous reputation. But you have no choice. The reality of dealing with Travisa is far worse than the reputation implies. I stopped counting the endless hours on hold after it reached 24 hours-- one full day of my life wasted to listening to their cheery, sensible, pointless on-hold messages. It will probably be hard for you to believe all this. I mean, 24 hours on hold is impossible, right? So try it. Their number is 415-644-0149.

You dial. It rings and rings and rings. An automated system grabs you and asks automated questions. You punch them in. You're on hold. Hold on this first round sometimes was just half an hour... but that was rare. Usually it was an hour or more. Eventually someone answers from a headquarters in Chicago I think. No matter how many times you call or for how many weeks, each time is starting from scratch. No one knows anything. This is the most clueless and incompetent organization I have ever run into in any country and in my entire life. They can't help you, of course, but they eventually route you back through the original number you called, in my case, San Francisco. This is where the real wait time comes into it. The shortest wait I had was an hour, but that was practically a godsend compared to some of the waits. The worst, of course-- and this happened three times-- you're waiting a couple of hours on hold (after you already waited to get through to the Chicago branch) and someone picks up and disconnects the phone. Imagine what Kafka could do with his!

Once you get them on the phone, they're relatively polite, but entirely useless. No one knows anything. Early in the saga, a guy picked up and swore he was holding my money order ($176) in his hand but that the policy is they can't open it for 30 hours so I would have to wait. It was never seen again. Several times I had a sympathetic voice tell me they would update my information online by 4pm that day "for sure," which never happened, or "I promise I'll call you back before the end of the day," which also never happened. It went on for almost two excruciating weeks.

There is no doubt that I would have canceled our trip to India this year and gone to Indonesia instead-- where I wanted to go all along and which grants visas-on-arrival at the airport-- had I not already paid for the air flights and hotels. So I was stuck. I bet hundreds of people give up and just don't go to India because of Travisa. I'm a member of the Century Club. That means I've been to at least 100 countries. I've gotten a lot of visas-- including a lot for India-- but this was the first time it's ever been a real problem. Well, the second time-- the first time was to go to Brazil, but that was national policy, slowing down American visas to match the way the U.S. under Bush was treating Brazilian visa applicants who wanted to travel to the U.S.

Eventually, I just made a deal with the Travisa agent to pay for everything again-- another $176 by credit card. Fine. I got the visa. They stole my money. How can I be sure? Well, I had the money order receipt and, more important, I had the paperwork for FedEx when they delivered the money order. I sent that to Western Union and reported that someone at Travisa was stealing the money orders. There were several complaints I heard from others that that had happened to as well. Western Union refunded the $176 (minus $15 as a fee).

Travisa specializes in "facilitating" visa applications for Americans who want to travel to China, Brazil, Russia, India, Australia, Vietnam, Kenya, and Tanzania. I believe India is the only country that makes it mandatory to use them. Travisa Outsourcing handles all the India visa requests from inside the United States as a private contractor to the Indian Embassy and Consulates. "We have revolutionized the way people get their visas," said Jan Dvorak, President of Travisa Outsourcing." Yes, they have.

They claim their "online process along with the Indian Visa Application ensures a streamlined experience with fewer mistakes. In addition, real time passport tracking provides confidence that your passport is handled safely and efficiently. If applying by mail, we will keep you notified by email as your visa is processed." That's unrelated to reality. Nothing works the way it was designed to work. Every single step of the way is fraught with breakdowns and problems.

Once while I was on hold for a few hours, I tweeted I was on hold for Travisa and going insane. Immediately I started getting random tweets from people who had had the same experiences as I had had. There's even a Yelp page devoted to how horrible the service is. I don't know that there's a moral to this story. There's no way around Travisa. And India is pretty amazing. But this will certainly be my last trip there.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Are Countries Ditching Française For English? Oui, Bien Sûr

Hollande et Bongo

Avez-vous des difficultés à comprendre la langue quand vous voyagez en pays de langue française? Cela pourrait aller dans le sens de l'oiseau Dodo.

Although Roland is from French background and although I loved in France and taught in Montreal, neither of us is really fluent in French. A couple years ago we were worried about a month we were spending in Senegal and Mali, two Francophone countries in West Africa, formerly Afrique occidentale française. But, as it turned out, everyone we met in the big towns spoke English and in the countryside almost no one spoke French anyway, just local languages. I've been to Morocco, where almost everyone does speak French, other than in the extreme north, over a dozen time and it's always been easy enough to communicate with pidgin French and English, And it looks like in some of the former French colonies of Africa, where France has created incentives to stay in a Francophone community, countries are embracing English, just like the rest of the world. I always felt so very lucky in my travels. I could be sitting around in Kabul or Katmandu or Goa with a dozen people from half a dozen countries and everyone would use English. I worked 4 years in a meditation center in Amsterdam where we had a constant flow of people from France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Morocco, Portugal, Eastern Europe, Japan... not to mention Dutchmen-- and the official language of the center: English. And France is just as happy to see them go.
Gabon’s President Ali Ben Bongo announced in October the country will start promoting English as a second language, in addition to the current French in a move that seems to be a growing trend in Francophone West Africa.

Gabon's presidential spokesman, Alain Claude Billie By Nze, says efforts to adopt English will begin within the educational system, but classes will also be available for adults. He says Gabon is not the first country in the region to move in this direction.

He says Rwanda, another African country that formerly called French its official language, made the switch to English in 2009.

And according to Strategico political risk analyst Lydie Boka, who is based in France, Burundi could be the next country in Africa to join the English-speaking Commonwealth.

“Burundi is going that route," said Boka. "I think they’ve asked to join the Commonwealth without saying whether they would abandon the Francophonie. I think a number of African countries, rightly or wrongly, think the English-speaking countries develop faster.”

Some African officials note that French keeps them regionally isolated and if they wish to diversify their global economic interests or partnerships, then English is the best way to do so.

The timing of Mr. Bongo’s announcement could not have been more pointed, coming just ahead of this year’s summit of Francophone nations, hosted by the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Boka says Gabon’s decision to move toward English could be seen as a political snub to new French President Francois Hollande-- whom the Gabon leader felt did not afford him the proper reception during a recent trip to France.

“The same day he met with Bongo, the (Gabonese) opposition met with the Socialist party, which is the party of Hollande," said Boka. "And the Socialist party issued a communiqué that the French Socialist party was concerned about the democratic deficit in a number of countries, including Gabon.”

The Bongo family is one of three African presidential families being investigated by French authorities since 2008 for so-called "ill-gotten gains"-- cars, homes and other luxury assets in France allegedly bought with embezzled state funds.

French President Hollande took office earlier this year professing, as many of his predecessors have, to finally do away with "Francafrique."

Francafrique refers to the sphere of influence France has sought to maintain over its former colonies through what many say have been corrupt, personal ties with African leaders and off-the-books diplomacy, often at the expense of democracy and human rights.

Analysts say that Gabon, in particular under former president Omar Bongo, epitomized Francafrique.

It was former president Bongo who was so memorably quoted by a French newspaper in 1996 as saying that "Gabon without France is like a car with no driver. France without Gabon is like a car with no fuel."

President Hollande's desire to recalibrate France's relationship with Africa was reflected in his comments to reporters just days before he travelled to Kinshasa for the 14th Francophonie Summit.

He said the Francophonie is not simply about a language and French is not simply for France. He said French is also the language of Africa and in coming years, more Africans will speak French. This language, he said, belongs to them but it is also a language representing values and principles, including democracy, good governance, and the fight against corruption.

Gabon's presidential spokesman, Billie By Nze, says the country's move to English is about pragmatism, not politics.

He says President Bongo went to Rwanda to study its experiment with bilingualism before making his decision, which he says was based on economic and educational motives.

Learning English, he said, is a good business decision, as oil accounts for 80 percent of the Gabon's exports and much of that, and other, business is done in English with the Middle East and China.

Since World War I, English has gradually eclipsed French as the modern lingua franca, the language of global diplomacy and trade.

Gabon's decision to put English at the heart of its education system reflects a growing interest in English among young people throughout West Africa, whether it be to understand the words to American rap music or one day score a job with an international NGO or a multi-national cooperation.

Francophone organizations say they are not alarmed by Gabon’s announcement.

Ousmane Paye-- special assistant for the secretary general at the International Organization of the Francophonie-- says French is not an endangered language in West and Central Africa.

He says of the 53 French-speaking member nations who gathered at the 14th Francophonie Summit in Kinshasa in October, 28 were African countries and more than 55 percent of French speakers currently live in Africa.

The International Organization of the Francophonie estimates that by 2050, more than 80 percent of French speakers worldwide will live in Africa.
Although those projections were put together without factoring in Gabon and Burundi, let alone other countries that might follow their lead.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Urban Gadabout: Have you checked out the Dec.-Jan.-Feb. Municipal Art Society walking-tour schedule? (Plus: Winter tour update)

MAS tours with Francis Morrone, Joe Svehlak, ???, and Matt Postal

by Ken

I should have mentioned sooner for the benefit of New Yorkers that the new Municipal Art Society walking-tour schedule -- once again covering three months, December through February -- is available online. As I've mentioned here before, in the two years I've been doing MAS tours, following my ridiculously late discovery that there are such things -- they really have changed my life.

I just did a quick count on my online calendar and see that I registered for something like 20 Municipal Art Society walking tours for the three-month period from September to November. I actually do quite that many, because I "better-dealed" one or two in favor of later-announced tours of other kinds which I couldn't resist, and I had four tours canceled in the two weekends just before and then after the arrival of Superstorm Sandy.

There's so much other tour activity going on in the metropolitan area, including activity involving a number of my favorite MAS tour leaders, activity I'm still just beginning to discover, that it's easy to take the MAS schedule for granted. Which I surely don't do! This time I'll be a little more cautious in registering for tours before other schedules have been announced (I'll try to keep my options open longer, focusing on registering on tours I know will be sold out if I wait too much longer), but by the end of February I expect to wind up doing about as many MAS tours as I've done in these last three months. More, actually, accounting for the tours lost to the storm in this cycle.

I think everyone has settled into the MAS registration system -- no longer so new -- by which all tours require preregistration. It simplifies the life of most everyone concerned, most obviously at the start of each tour, where it's no longer necessary to devote all that time to collecting money for tours that once allowed walk-up registration or doing check-ins for tours that were done entirely by preregistration. The one exception I can think of, and I have met people who fall into this category, is for folks who prefer not to have to plan well ahead.

The fact is that if you do your registration online you can register anytime up to the start of the tour -- provided, of course, that there's still space for the tour you want to do; if the tour is sold out, that's indicated online. (For tour-takers without online access, registrations can still be done by phone, but only during weekday hours when the MAS office is open.)

Even with the price increase that accompanied the new system, MAS tours are an amazing bargain -- a mere $15 for members, $20 for nonmembers. A couple of weeks ago I got an online notice informing me that my renewal was due, and I can assure you, I did my renewal within minutes by return e-mail! Even at the lowest membership level, $50 for individuals ($40 for seniors), you get one free tour each year -- since I had online access to the "free tour" code, I had it applied it to one of the new-season tours even before my new membership card arrived in the mail.

Maybe it was surviving those two weekends without MAS tours that has made me so conscious of paying them their due. Certainly it felt special doing my first post-storm walk, which was of the Madison Square area with Sylvia Laudien-Meo -- on Veterans Day, at the very spot where the Veterans Day parade begins, which added an element of hubbub. I've enjoyed all the tours I've done with the amazingly charming Sylvia, who's an art person, which I'm emphatically not, meaning that I often get a different kind of view of the tour areas, as was the case with a Lower East Side tour she led, which wound up bringing me for the first time ever inside the New Museum on the Bowery. (Sylvia has a tour of Chelsea art galleries scheduled for Jan. 19, and two more of her "family tours," presumably suitable for whole families but not limited to them: Grand Central Terminal on Dec. 8 and Rockefeller Center on Feb. 24.)

(And anyone who hasn't done a Rockefeller Center tour really ought to. I've done architectural historian Tony Robins's and thoroughly enjoyed it. During the holiday season he's doing it twice: on Christmas Day and on Dec. 30.)


Then these last two weekends, the schedule has been kind to me, with four tours led by three of my favorite tour leaders. Last week I had the second in a series of three led by architectural historian Matt Postal devoted to the area known to the City Planning Dept. as Midtown East, for which major zoning changes are being proposed which could bring drastic changes (this was actually scheduled as the last of the three tours, but the middle one was a storm casualty and has been rescheduled for Dec. 15); and then Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens with architectural historian Francis Morrone, the middle leg of a three-part series covering the adjacent neighborhoods of Boerum Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Cobble Hill.

I've written about both Matt and Francis a lot here. Maybe the simplest thing to say is that depth and range of their curiosity and knowledge, I'd sign up, schedule permitting, for pretty much anything they're doing. If the subject of the walk is interesting enough to them to do, I now take for granted that it will: (a) connect pieces of my world that hadn't previously been connected, (b) teach me all sorts of things I had no idea there were to know, and (c) provide two hours' worth of wonderful entertainment. (Both Matt and Francis have all sorts of tours listed in the new schedule. Be warned that Francis's in particular are likely to fill up well before the tour dates.)


This weekend again I had a pair of tours. For the day after Thanksgiving there was a walk through "Public Housing's Fertile Crescent," along the East River side of Lower Manhattan, an area I'd never actually walked through, with urban geographer (and the borough historian of Queens) Jack Eichenbaum. I've also written here frequently about Jack. No one has done more to help me see -- and often it is literally a matter of seeing -- how the development of regions and neighborhoods is shaped by geography, including transportation access and population patterns over time.

In the new schedule Jack is doing two of his standby walks, ways of walking north-south in Midtown Manhattan while "Keeping Off Midtown Streets" -- an East Side version (from Grand Central to Bloomingdale's, Dec. 29) and a West Side one (from the Time Warner Center to Times Square, Jan. 27). Also, it's invaluable to register for Jack's e-mail list for announcements of his MAS and non-MAS activities, which you can do on the "Public Tour Schedule" page of his website, "The Geography of New York City with Jack Eichenbaum."

Then today Francis Morrone concluded the "BoCoCa" cycle with Cobble Hill, and it was Francis at his best. I'm only sorry that I had to miss the Boerum Hill installment of this cycle owing to a schedule conflict, which was true as well for the "Heart of Flatbush" installment of a three-part series built around Flatbush's historic districts, which fell on the same day as Jack Eichenbaum's one-of-a-kind "Day on the J Train" tour, which I certainly wasn't going to miss! (Be sure to watch for Jack's "World of the #7 Train.")

I've actually done a terrific Boerum Hill walk with Joe Svehlak, another of my "old reliables," who sort of combines the geographical and architectural approaches in his masterful tours of less-walked-through neighborhoods, especially in Brooklyn. I'm still waiting for a reschedule of his Bushwick tour, which I had to miss because I had to finish a "Sunday Classics" piece; I've loved Joe's tours of Ridgewood (straddling Brooklyn and Queens), Sunset Park (where he grew up), Cypress Hills, and Downtown Brooklyn. I also see Joe all the time on other people's tours, a tribute to the range of his curiosity; he was supposed to be with us, we learned from Jack Eichenbaum, on Jack's "Day on the J Train." I know Joe does a lot of Grand Central tours, so his "Grand Central During the Holidays" on Dec. 22 should be fun. He's also doing a Lower Manhattan tour called "Downtown Connections" on Jan. 20.


There are also a number of tours scheduled with the highly regarded historian of Harlem and Northern Manhattan Eric K. Washington: "Uptown Trinity Church Cemetery at Christmas," Dec. 23; "Manhattanville: Revisiting a Neighborhood in Flux," Feb. 3 (Eric has literally "written the book" on Manhattanville); and "Harlem Grab Bag," Feb. 23.

I might also mention "Explore and Shop: Wintertime in the Atlantic Avenue Bazaars" with MaryAnn DiNapoli on Jan. 5. I've done MaryAnn's "Churches of Cobble Hill" (which covers not just still-functioning churches but no-longer-existing as well as repurposed ones). It's always fascinating to tour areas with neighborhood residents, and MaryAnn grew up here. Which means she knows the Middle Eastern shops of Atlantic Avenue from longtime personal experience. In fact, the tour I took with her, having been scheduled on a weekday, was compact enough that she was actually able to take us inside several of the shops where she has shopped, well, pretty much forever.

I don't think I mentioned that the MAS schedule has a Green-Wood Cemetery tour with the cemetery's historian, Jeff Richman, on Dec. 15. And I don't know what all else I haven't mentioned. Oh yes, I'm hoping that this time I'll be able to do Linda Fisher's tour of "Manhattan's Civic Center," on Dec. 30. This is one of the tours I registered for the last time it was scheduled but "better-dealed" in favor of a tour I couldn't resist, a bus tour to the Usonia Houses communal-housing development in northern Westchester which was planned in good part by Frank Lloyd Wright, during which tour leader Justin Ferate, another of my all-time favorites, led us through two of the houses, one of them one that was actually designed by Wright.


He seems to be doing most of his tours these days as coordinator of the Wolfe Walkers tours, via which in just the past year I've been able to do amazing bus tours to the Mark Twain House in West Hartford as well as the Usonia Houses, and also visit such diverse locations as the Jamaica Wildlife Refuge, the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Uptown Manhattan (combined with the Audubon Terrace complex), and Chinatown.

An unfortunate casualty of the storm aftermath was a tour of Staten Island's under-construction conversion of Staten Island's Freshkills landfill into what will be NYC's largest park. But in turn one of the MAS pre-storm cancellations allowed me to do an extra Wolfe Walkers tour I hadn't expected: a Halloween-themed walk through Greenwich Village. I've done a number of Village tours by now, but I had a feeling that Justin's Village wouldn't be the same as anyone else's, and it wasn't! Still to come in the current Wolfe Walkers cycle is a tour of the Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park on Dec. 2, one of the tours I signed up for as soon as I saw the announcement.

By the way, as a source of information about fascinating tour goings-on in the NYC area, there's no resource quite like Justin's e-mail list. Justin sends out vast quantities of pass-alongs of events he thinks may be of interest, and I can say that I ALWAYS look at his pass-alongs. I've already done a whole bunch of events I wouldn't have known about otherwise. For that matter, Justin's website, "Tours of the City with Justin Ferate," is itself an invaluable resource. Here's the link to sign up for Justin's mailing list.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Urban Gadabout: For NY-ers, it's Open House New York Weekend AND What's Out There Weekend, plus catching up with Justin Ferate

My basic principle regarding Justin Ferate's tours is that if Justin thinks someplace is worth going, as long as my schedule permits, I'm going with him. (See below for an update.

by Ken

For NYC gadders, this may be the "the" weekend of the year, with the unfortunately simultaenous immersion of the tenth annual Open House New York Weekend, one of the most eagerly awaited events of the gadding calendar, and a NYC-based What's Out There Weekend presented by the DC-based Cultural Landscape Foundation. The only thing more remarkable than the quality of the offerings is the fact that they're free!


Yes, OHNY Weekend includes bike tours too!

OHNY functions year-round, but to urbanly aware New Yorkers when you say "Open House New York" thoughts turn automatically to "the" weekend, now upon us. Here's the official description:
To celebrate the city’s architecture and design, the 10th Annual openhousenewyork Weekend will once again unlock the city, allowing New Yorkers and tourists alike free access hundreds of sites talks, tours, performances and family activities in neighborhoods throughout the five boroughs. From private residences and historic landmarks, to hard hat tours and sustainable skyscrapers, OHNY gives you rare access into the extraordinary architecture that defines New York City, while introducing you to the people who make the city a vibrant and sustainable place to live, work, and play.
You have to look at the actual listings to appreciate their staggering range -- in both subject matter and geography. (Start with a map view here.) There are over 200 events, and last year combing through the listings I came up with something like 40 tours I would have happily done.

It gets a little crazy because the actual listings aren't released till two to three weeks before the weekend, and there are always a couple of dozen events you know everyone will be trying to register for, providing frustrated would-be registrants with anecdotes to last them through to next year's festivities. Still, that leaves an awful lot of events still looking for takers, and my guess is that even now you can find lots of really interesting tours you can still do. (Of course some of the most interesting ones are offbeat enough to attract smaller crowds.)

This year my life was simplified by the much earlier announcement of the schedule for What's Out There Weekend NYC. I was so delighted by the offerings that I booked myself solid. The only thing that remains to be seen is whether I can actually survive the whole program.

However, I still plan to look carefully through the OHNY Weekend listings, which always contain suggestions of places that may be visitable -- usually be advance reservation -- at other times of the year.


The D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation is new to me. Here's how it describes its mission:
The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF) provides people with the ability to see, understand, evaluate and appreciate landscape architecture and its practitioners, in the way many people have learned to do with buildings and architects. Through its web site, lectures, outreach and publishing, TCLF broadens the support and understanding for cultural landscapes nationwide.
I found out all of that after I saw the listings for its What's Out There Weekend in New York (which I wrote about at the end of August), even though I did dimly recall that the dates were the same as OHNY Weekend.
Explore and discover NYC’s
landscape marvels with free tours

in all five boroughs, featuring some of the nation’s most innovative landscapes spanning two centuries of design. Experience the great civic spaces of Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza and Prospect Park, Bob Zion’s original “vest pocket park” at Manhattan’s Paley Park; Wave Hill’s majestic views of the Hudson River from the Bronx, and the unique urban design of Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. Many are places people pass daily, but do we know their background stories? What’s Out There Weekend promises to shed new light on familiar places.

What’s Out There Weekend dovetails with TCLF’s Web-based What’s Out There, the nation’s most comprehensive, free, online database of designed landscapes. The database offers a broad and interconnected way to discover the breadth of America’s landscape heritage, while What’s Out There Weekend gives people the opportunity to experience the landscapes they might see every day in a new way.
Recommendations are required, but here may still be a bunch of events you can register for. You'll find listings here (and a schedule pdf here), and then you can register here.

I'm thinking I stumbled onto TCLF and WOTW when the fall Municipal Art Society tour listings were announced, because originally two of the fall MAS tours were scheduled to be "in partnership with the Cultural Landscape Foundation": one on Saturday morning of Grand Army Plaza, at the main entrance to Brooklyn's Prospect Park, led by Matt Postal; and one on Sunday morning of "St. George: Staten Island's Developing Waterfront," led by "life-long Staten Islander Georgia Trivizas . . . inspired by the overlooked tour guides she's met through her travels -- native taxi and bus drivers"). Early on, however, the Staten Island walk was converted to a regular MAS tour, and I went ahead and registered for it.

Meanwhile I registered for five WOTW walks -- four on Saturday, starting with Matt's Grand Army Plaza one, followed by two in succession in Prospect Park (the Long Meadow and Ravine at 11am, and Lakeside at 1pm), then hauling off to the opposite end of the city, Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park; and one on Sunday, a tour of Forest Hills Gardens in Queens, which I should have more than enough time to get to upon my return from Staten Island. (It wasn't planned, but I realized when the dust settled that over the two days I'll be doing tours in four of the five NYC boroughs -- all of them except Manhattan!)


I've written about some of the amazing tours I've done with the tirelessly engaging and informative Justin Ferate, going back to my first: a daylong trek to Tottenville, at the southern tip of Staten Island. Since then there have been destinations like Jamaica National Wildlife Refuge in Jamaica Bay, northern Manhattan's Morris-Jumel Mansion and Audubon Terrace complex, and the Mark Twain House in West Hartford, Connecticut -- and, most recently, an amazing bus tour to the Usonia Homes in the vicinity of Pleasantville, New York (in more or less central Westchester County), a planned community developed beginning in the late 1940s which took on a whole other dimension when the founders succeeded in enlisting Frank Lloyd Wright to oversee the layout of and design principles of the future development (in addition to designing three homes himself, one of which we got to see).

I may have been remiss in not mentioning the Usonia tour as soon as it was announced. Then again, it sold out pretty quickly.

I know it's kind of late notice, but tomorrow (Saturday) at 1pm Justin is leading a tour for Wolfe Walkers:
Landmarks of Early African-American New York

Few are aware of the role of African Americans in the history of Lower Manhattan. Even fewer are aware that in 1612, a freeman of African and Portuguese descent, Joao “Jan” Rodrigues, became the first non-native settler on the island of Manhattan. In 1626, the later Dutch settlers brought Africans to New Amsterdam as slaves. By 1711, roughly 1/6 of New York’s residents were black – most enslaved and some free. During the tour, we’ll visit such noted sites as New York’s slave market, the site of the slave revolt of 1712, the notorious “Five Points” district, Abolitionist-related sites, the New York African Free School, the site of African Society for Mutual Relief and the site of Freedom’s Journal, the first African American owned and operated newspaper in the nation.

In addition, from the 1690s until the 1790s, both free and enslaved Africans were interred in a burial ground in Lower Manhattan, beyond the boundaries of New Amsterdam. Built over by development, the cemetery was officially “rediscovered” in 1991. Our tour will include a visit to the new African Burial Ground Memorial – dedicated to those who are buried in this hallowed ground.

During the tour, we’ll encounter such people as Joseph François Mangin, designer of New York’s City Hall and the Venerable Pierre Toussaint – a candidate for Roman Catholic sainthood. We’ll address and visit noted religious sites associated with the black community: John Street Methodist Church, St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Mother AME Zion, St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, and the Abyssinian Baptist Church. We’ll also discover overlooked heroes and heroines. Learn of Elizabeth Jennings who, in 1854, successfully sued to eliminate racial discrimination for New York’s public transit. Discover Dr. James McCune Smith, the first licensed African American doctor in the country. Learn of the New York connections for Frederick Douglass, the most famous African American of the 19th century – often called the “father of the Civil Rights movement.”

Date: Saturday, October 6, 2012 Time: 1:00 PM to approximately 4:00 PM Meet: SE Corner of Broadway at Chambers Street at north end of City Hall Park Trains: 2 or 3 Train to Park Place || A or C to Chambers Street

R Train to City Hall || 4, 5, or 6 Train to Brooklyn Bridge/City Hall Leader: Justin Ferate, Urban Historian

Fee: $ 20 in advance (Includes all Admissions) $ 23 on-site (By check to Hermine Watterson) (Includes all Admissions)
Justin has other Wolfe Walkers tours (which he coordinates) coming up:

* Museum of Chinese in America, Chinatown Walk + Dim Sum Luncheon
Saturday, October 13, 10:30am to approximately 2:30pm, limited to 25 participants
$40 in advance ($45 onsite, if available)

* for Halloween: The Ghosts of Greenwich Village
Saturday, October 27, 1pm to approximately 4pm
$20 in advance, $23 onsite

* Discover the Creation of Freshkills Park! (ferry and bus tour)
Saturday, November 10, 9:15am to approximately 12:30pm, limited to 23 participants
$20 in advance (no onsite registrations)

* The Cloisters and Fort Tryon Park
Sunday, December 2, 9:45am to approximately 12:30pm

Registration is by mail, not online. You can download a PDF of the fall brochure or of just the registration form.

Justin's website, Tours of the City with Justin Ferate, is an inexhaustible resource in its own right, and you definitely want to sign up for his mailing list, which brings a rich stream of event announcements and pass-alongs that Justin deems of possible interest. I always look carefully at his e-mails, and am always happy when I can squeeze an event into my schedule -- this is almost all stuff that I wouldn't have found out about otherwise, like the Lower East Side Jewish Conservancy's daring venture into my own neighborhood, Washington Heights, for a new tour called "Frankfurt on the Hudson," which drew a huge amount of interest. (I saw Justin there, and he explained that for some time he had thought about undertaking a similar tour but just hadn't gotten to it.) Just this evening there was an e-mail from Justin about the upcoming New York Archivists Week, October 7-13. I still have to go through those listings!


It's coming up in two weeks. Remember, he hasn't offered it in eight years. Do you want to take a chance on having to wait till the next time?
A Day on the J
Sunday, October 21, 10am-5:30pm

This series of six walks and connecting rides is astride the colonial route between Brooklyn and Queens. We focus on what the J train has done to and for surrounding neighborhoods since it began service (in part) in 1888. Walks take place in Highland Park, Richmond Hill, downtown Jamaica, Bushwick, South Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side. Tour fee is $39 and you need to preregister by check to Jack Eichenbaum, 36-20 Bowne St. #6C, Flushing, NY 11354 (include name, phone and email address) The full day’s program, registration coupon and other info is available by email: The tour is limited to 25 people. Don’t get left out!

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Bombay To Beijing By Bicycle-- A Guest Post By Russell McGilton

The first time I arrived in India it was 1969 and the world was changing around me and inside me. I drove in my VW van from Europe and I stayed almost 2 years, I've been back numerous times since and right now Roland and I are planning another trip to the Subcontinent. Pretty soon you'll be inundated with posts about planning and executing a trip to India, the wonders of Delhi and the glory of Kerala. Meanwhile, though, I asked author Russell McGilton to give us a guest post about his own adventures in India and his recent book, Bombay To Beijing By Bicycle


by Russell McGilton


There I am, two weeks into my grand adventure to cycle from Bombay to Beijing when in some backwater town in India I fall ill to a terrible fever. The doctor has a wonderful beside manner: ‘Congratulations! You are having the malaria!’

‘Riiiiight! Um, tell me doctor. Do many people die from that around here?’

‘Yes, many!’

Despite medical treatment, I will never be quite free of the fevers. Later in the Rajasthani Desert, the school principal of the small town of Shergarth has an enlightening solution of


'Drinking your own urine will cure you of the malaria. '

'Oh, come on! You're taking the piss!'

'Yes. I am taking the piss since 1996 and I feel much better for it. I am stronger, much vigour and I have not been sick once since the treatment.’

So after much ado-ing (is that a word?) I give it a shot. And you know. Mine’s not too bad with a slice of lemon on the side. To my surprise the fevers subside unlike the 


Yes, stop for a quick look at your map, adjust your shorts, a bite to eat, oil the chain and within seconds a crowd of gawking admirers is upon. Even when I am trying to quietly relieve myself behind a bush I look up to see what seems to be the entire population of Indian children staring at my spluttering confluences, smiling and calling for pens. I go insane. But this is nothing compared to 


In the Bardia National Park of Nepal, after failing to locate any tigers we are now in long grass looking for rhinos. ‘Up ahead are rhino. Grass very long. I go first,’ Mundi, our guide warns, ‘If I see rhino I will say “RUN UP TREE!” So you must RUN UP TREE! No ifs or buts.’

Of course, within minutes we hear, ‘RUN UP TREE!’ Everyone gets up their tree, everyone… except me! Because the trees are quite thin and keep breaking. Eventually, I find a tree and latch onto it just as two pale grey rhinos, some 30-metres away, charge us. They stop, look around, snort loudly before charging again and repeating the process. Later, I ask Mundi why they charged only three times.

‘I don’t know. Maybe…’ he rubs his chin thoughtfully. ‘They can’t count to four!’ The next time I am terrified out of my wits is when I get


In Abbottabad (yes, where they killed Bin Laden!), over a hundred kilometres away from Islamabad, I’m madly cycling to the Chinese border when I hear its just been closed. What’s more anti-Western sentiment is stirring up and so, feeling ‘visible’ and I take to wearing the Pakistani national dress, the shalwa kameez (long shirt and baggy pants) and a topi (a Muslim cap). This is rendered futile when I jump on my loaded mountain bike and crowds of smiling men shout, ‘AH! AMERICAN! AMERICAN!’

Luckily, I get a bus out and make it over the border back into India then onto China where I nearly 


in the dead of night. I miss an important stopping point (an abandoned hut to sleep in) and continue up the snow-laden pass. My wheels slip and skid through the slush and more than once I nearly lose my balance and fall into the inky abyss just to the left of me. I am saved by herb fossickers who greet me warmly into their large hut. On the road Chinese-Anglo relations are further enhanced when I hear truck drivers yell ‘I LOVE YOU’. This leaves me blushing but not as much as when I decide to


Sans clothes I run up and down the rocky and unpredictable rocky wall when a bemused guard laughs too heartily for my liking (it was winter, you know).

When I finally arrive in Beijing, I am shocked to see that the Western Pig Dog Imperialists have made there way through the once impenetrable Forbidden City walls not with canons but with polystyrene coffee cups. Yes, there’s a 


inside. I’m so disgusted I down two Brazilian Grande Lattes. As I cycle the streets of Beijing, putting the trip into perspective, I realise that what is more terrifying than the malaria I had contracted, drinking my own urine, nearly falling off cliffs or the hysteria of terrorism but that the knowledge that the environment I had just enjoyed will, in a few short years, be totally unrecognisable as freeways, cars and pollution leave their indelible footprint. Alas, my daughter shall not have such joys.