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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Caracas, Safe... Mexico... Some Parts Are Fine And Some Parts Are Definitely Not

If you've been following this blog, you have probably figured out that I'm kind of an intrepid traveler, in as much as I travel a lot and have been for a long time and I go to some whacky places-- from Tierra del Fuego to Lapland and from Mali to the Himalayas. But what I'm not is swashbuckling or heroic. I'm not making plans to visit Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Congo or anyplace I feel is legitimately dangerous. It doesn't keep me from visiting places like Mumbai, Jerusalem, Bangkok, Mexico City, London or New York City-- all places that report dangerous situations from time to time-- but I try to be careful. So I really had to laugh when some friends in the L.A. Philharmonic said they were worried about a trip to Caracas. Grammy winning conductor Gustavo Dudamel just brought the orchestra down there for the series of Mahler's symphonies they just finished performing in L.A. Earlier today, the NY Times applauded the whole endeavor-- and so did Venezuela:
El Sistema, Venezuela’s national music program aimed at young people, put on a major show of orchestra playing and singing for the visiting Los Angeles Philharmonic, its staff and patrons, who are in town for a Mahler symphonic cycle. But the attention of the enthusiastic crowd of young performers, parents and others around the Teresa Carreño Theater was focused on José Antonio Abreu and Gustavo Dudamel.

Mr. Abreu, El Sistema’s stooped but mentally vigorous patriarch, and Mr. Dudamel, the program’s most famous product and the Philharmonic’s music director, were mobbed. When Mr. Dudamel went to greet some young musicians in the cello section, they burst into exciting bobbing. “Gustavo!” people shouted from balconies... [T]he atmosphere was redolent of the sometimes religious-seeming trappings of the culture of El Sistema, whose exponents speak of love and peace and remain involved for decades. El Sistema’s proponents are indefatigable evangelizers for its mission of helping the poor through classical music.

The musicians had been sternly warned before embarking from L.A. how dangerous Caracas is and they were warned not to leave their hotel rooms. Sound screwy? It is-- and it's based on what? Corporate America's hatred for and propaganda against a national leader who sticks up for the working people of his country. I hope no one locked themselves in their hotels rooms. It would be a real waste.

Perhaps more realistic-- at least to some extent-- was this week's travel warning from the U.S. State Department about Mexico. I travel there a lot and have never run into anything I would consider dangerous. In December we spent the better part of a month in Mérida, capital of the Yucatán. Nice and relaxing, except for the mosquitoes that gave me dengue fever. But the warning isn't about dengue fever-- or the Yucatán.
The State Department advised Americans this week to defer “non-essential travel” to vast stretches of Mexico, warning that 14 of the country’s 31 states are so dangerous that visitors should avoid them if at all possible. For four other states, it counseled caution or extreme caution.

The travel warning is at once broader, more detailed and more alarming than the previous one for Mexico, issued in April.

The new warning became public as Mexican troops announced Thursday that they had seized 15 tons of pure methamphetamine outside Guadalajara-- an amount equal to half of all meth seizures worldwide in 2009.

State Department travel warnings are based on internal guidance that embassies and consular offices use to decide where it is safe for U.S. diplomats and federal employees to travel, so they often err on the side of caution.

Still, this one, issued Wednesday evening, is sweeping. To begin with, it warns against all but essential travel across most of the states along the U.S.-Mexican border: Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon (except the city of Monterrey, where caution is advised), Coahuila, Chihuahua and Sonora.

...Ciudad Juarez, in Chihuahua, merits “special concern,” the warning says, advising that the border city “has one of the highest murder rates in Mexico” and that “three persons associated with the Consulate General were murdered in March 2010” there.

Moving south, also on the no-go list for all but essential travel: Sinaloa (except the Pacific Coast resort of Mazatlan), Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and San Luis Potosi, where two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents were ambushed and one was killed a year ago.

This means a visitor who wants to drive from the United States to Mexico City has no viable route that would be in accord with the U.S. guidelines.

If you do drive, the warning says, remember: “TCOs [Transnational Criminal Organizations] have erected their own unauthorized checkpoints, and killed or abducted motorists who have failed to stop at them. You should cooperate at all checkpoints.”
The State Department also warns against travel in Jalisco along its borders with Michoacan, another no-go, and Zacatecas.

...Mexico is a country of 110 million people, so the odds of running into trouble are low. The number of U.S. citizens reported to the State Department as murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.

Where to go? Much of the Yucatan Peninsula is free of murder and mayhem. No advisory is in effect for the states of Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Yucatán and Quintana Roo. Good to go, too, are the popular art and food destinations of Oaxaca and Puebla.

Also on the safe side of the ledger: Mexico City.

As is always the case, the Mexican government termed the warning "ridiculous" and "out of proportion." Interior Minister Alejandro Poire told a press conference yesterday that the warnings "overstate or misstate the standards and security situation that exists in our country." As PolitiFact might say, "Mostly true." But it's Caracas and Venezuela that are really getting the bad rap, though the State Department doesn't even have them on the warning list at all. This stupid video could have been done for almost any city in the world. It's made by idiots for idiots, as you can see:

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

If I were a photographer of any sort, I'd want to know more about these National Geographic expeditions and workshops

They offer all sorts of other trips too, with "teams of experts" --
Like this new 10-day expedition to Cuba, already "waitlist only" for all the currently announced dates (through May)


For more than a century, people have thumbed through the pages of our magazines and felt inspired by some of the best photography in the world. Now we’d like to invite you to travel to incredible places with some of the best photographers in the world. Our Photography Expeditions are designed for photographers of all levels. You’ll learn tips and techniques while exploring fascinating places with one of our renowned photographers. Our Photography Workshops, also led by a top National Geographic photographer, cater to those who seek more intensive instruction, and build photo editing, instruction, and critique sessions as well as photo assignments into each day’s schedule.
by Ken

Let's be clear that I am not a photographer. Anyone foolhardy enough to shove a camera in my hand with those famous last words "You just press this button" deserves the heartbreak that inevitably follows. But if I were a photographer, I would at least want to gather more information about these National Geographic trips I just got an e-mail about, planned with and/or around a bunch of their photographers, who -- let it be remembered -- are a posse of the world's best.

Normally I hate this business of theme-packaged tours which organizations peddle to their captive mailing lists. But this kind of makes sense, doesn't it?

Travel with National Geographic Photographers
Photography workshops and expeditions featuring in-depth instruction

Head into the field to hone your photography skills with National Geographic! Learn tips and techniques from some of our top photographers while exploring vast landscapes, iconic landmarks, or hidden corners of a city.

Camera in hand, venture among Alaska’s dramatic glaciers to snap images of orcas and humpback whales with guidance from Flip Nicklin. Spend a week capturing the eclectic architecture and effortless romance of Paris as you embark upon daily field assignments with Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson. Or enjoy a weekend with Ira Block photographing New York City‘s top spots including the Brooklyn Bridge, Battery Park, and Fifth Avenue. Below, discover many more National Geographic photography workshops and expeditions in some of the world’s most inspiring, photogenic places.

First off, there's at least a chance that these trips are taking you to places that real, live photographers might actually want to go, and if I was serious about shutterbugging, those are places I might want to add to my "to visit" list. Then, presumably, at the destinations, tour members are going to prowl when and where you might if you were someone who takes pictures for a living for one of the world's most prestigious outlets for them. And then, allowing for the decencies of a group travel situation, you've got that poor sucker at your mercy, to observe how he/she approaches locations and thinks, well, photographically -- not to mention the opportunity to pick his/her photographic brain clean.

There are 4-day weekend workshops in New York (six scheduled between May and October, led by National Geographic photographer Bob Sacha, Ira Block, or Joe McNally) and San Francisco (five scheduled, with Catherine Karnow or Macduff Eveton); 7-day international workshops in Paris (May 2 and Oct. 24, with Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson) and Rome (Mar. 28, Apr. 20, Oct. 31, and Nov. 14, with Massimo Bassano or Sisse Brimberg and Cotton Coulson); and full-fledged expeditions to Morocco (11 days, May 2 and Oct. 31, with Massimo Bassano), the Galápagos (10 days, two in May and two in November, with Mark Thiessen or Kevin Schafer), Mongolia (14 days, July 21, with Chris Rainier), and Alaska's Inside Passage (8 days, Aug. 25 and Aug. 26, with Flip Nicklin or Michael Melford).

Like I said, it's something I'd at least want to know more about -- that is, if a camera in my hands wasn't something close to a lethal weapon. The jumping-off point for all the information is the website, or specifically the Photo Workshops & Expeditions page, which has links for expeditions -- in addition to the above -- to Alaska, British Columbia, and San Juan Islands (12 days), Bhutan (12 days), Costa Rica and the Panama Canal (8 days), Santa Fe (7 days), and Barcelona (7 days); and for additional 4-day weekend workshops in Boston, New Orleans, Toronto, Tucson, Washington DC, and Amelia Island. There are also links for all the photog/tour leaders.


For starters, there's a new Cuba expedition, under "special license issued by the U.S. Department of the Treasury" (10 days, already "waitlist only" for the so-far-announced dates through May). The listing of just the new trips for 2012-13 is pretty saliva-inducing.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Mali Disintegrating Into Civil War

Normally when I say I've been to Mali, the only people who have ever even heard of it are tropical disease specialists. Even when I say "Timbuktu," and people recognize the name in a vaguely "Madagascar" sense, they don't know it has anything to do with Mali. And, as a matter of fact, soon it may not. When I visited Mali in December 2008, I had a few brief run-ins with the fearsome Tuaregs. We hired a guide in Timbuktu, Mohammed, who was a Tuareg, although he seemed more like a college student than a Tuareg. He brought us up into the Sahara to a Tuareg desert encampment where we could trade stuff we didn't need to bring back to the States-- everything from cans of sardines and rolls of toilet paper to my fancy REI trekking poles-- for the worthless junk they wanted to get rid of.

In one of my "How Safe Is?" posts from 2008, I talked about the Tuaregs a little.
Roland and I were traipsing around Sanga last week-- a place so foreign to the American experience that one would have to be on another planet to find something more exotic-- when we ran into a gaggle of American Peace Corp volunteers on holiday. They're stationed around West Africa, mostly Mali and Burkina Faso I gathered, and the State Department and U.S. Embassy in Bamako have decreed that no Peace Corp volunteers are allowed to venture north of some imaginary line (like around Mopti, I think), which means no Timbuktou. They said it is too dangerous because of Tuareg bandits on the roads-- and that the local airlines, C.A.M. and M.A.E., are too dangerous (i.e., non-compliant with FAA guidelines) for Americans to fly on-- so that their employees could not go to the northern two-thirds of the country.

We spent a few days in Timbuktu, which gets bad-mouthed by most tourists as not worth the trip. They're wrong. Timbuktou is fascinating and exotic and if it doesn't live up to your dreams of the 13th century or to Paul Bowles' Sheltering Sky, get real and open up to what actually is being offered there. As for danger... there's nothing remotely dangerous, other than a difficult road getting there, the bad exhaust fumes from motorbikes in town and the fucking mosquitos (we've just given up on not being bitten; it's not possible. Just learn to love the Malarone.)

We were waiting for a couple hours for the ferry to take us across the Niger on the way to Timbuktou and the settlement there is a Bella one. Until 1973's epoch drought nearly wiped out the Tuareg's camels and herds, the Bella had been their slaves. In 1973, basically because the Tuareg couldn't feed them anymore, they emancipated them-- although I have heard that there are still some small services that many of them still render to their former masters (like when there is a wedding or something). Anyway, this Bella settlement was all festive and bustling like all the villages we visited in Mali, when a couple of pickup trucks filled with Tuaregs pulled up to the bank of the river. Suddenly things got much quieter. Many of the little children seemed to disappear. It reminded me of a scene from Star Wars when some alien warrior people dropped by a space cafe. Anyway, the Tuaregs were pretty well-armed with swords and daggers and God knows what else and they don't seem to smile much; no chatty bonjours and they certainly don't ask you for a Bic or an empty water bottle or candy. The Tuareg War ended in the mid-90's though and they seem to be peaceable enough (except around Kidal) and way in the northern Sahara where Mali, Algeria and Mauritania share vast trackless wastes. In Timbuktou, they were certainly easy enough to get along with.

In fact, one of our most memorable adventures was when our guide, Mohammed, took us out into the desert one night to meet some Tuaregs who had just come from Araouane to trade for millet. They were also open to trade for the stuff we no longer needed-- mostly stuff Roland had picked up at the 99 cent store before coming here-- like a pair of cheap extra sunglasses-- as well as my REI walking sticks, half a dozen cans of sardines, shaving kits from Air France, a t-shirt, a roll of toilet paper, organic mosquito repellent that seems to attract mosquitos, etc. We got some nice Tuareg "silver" bracelets, a pipe and an agate necklace-- and had a long Tuareg tea ceremony before this whole thing got started... all by the light of the moon and stars. The Tuareg basically live their lives by the light of the moon and the stars.

At the end of last year, events in Mali forced me to reconsider and recommend that travelers take Mali off the itinerary-- too dangerous for tourists now. The Tuaregs are on the warpath. That was about random kidnappings of tourists. Now we're talking about a civil war. The problem is that Tuareg mercenaries who had been hired by Qadaffi have returned to Mali... with state of the art weapons, better weapons than the Malian armed forces have. And they want their own country, Azawad.
[President Amadou Toumani] Toure blamed freshly-armed fighters returning from Libya for attacks on military patrols outside the northeastern town of Aguelhoc, which has become a flashpoint in the struggle between the military and the rebels.

The military was "unable to enter Aguelhoc where elements of Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group of former fighters from Libya and a group of deserters from our army were well positioned," Toure said, according to the state-run L'essor newspaper.

"The fighting was hard and we lost men, and equipment was destroyed."

The growing insurgency is also raising concerns in Washington, which sees the small, poor nation as an important ally against AQIM, the sub-Saharan al Qaeda group.

"The situation is unpredictable and instability could spread. Private citizens have not been targeted, but the MNLA has indicated via its websites that it intends to conduct military operations across northern Mali," the U.S. State Department said as part of a new travel warning issued last week.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland condemned the rebel attacks, saying Saturday that "the United States is deeply concerned by continuing incidents of violence."

The influx of fighters returning from Libya has re-energized the Tuareg insurgency, which seeks to wrest control of three northern regions, according to the global intelligence firm Stratfor.

"Mali has experienced perhaps the most significant external repercussions from the downfall of the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi," it said in a recent analysis.

Gadhafi endeared himself to Malians by funding the construction of a popular mosque in the capital Bamako, and helped pay for a Malian government complex that remains under construction.

He is also accused of backing the Tuaregs in Mali and Niger during the 1990s.

So it came as no surprise that Malian Tuaregs willingly went to Libya to fight for Gadhafi as he fought to keep hold of the reigns of his regime which crumbled in August, Libya's new government has said.

After Gadhafi's death in October, heavily armed Tuareg fighters began returning home and launching attacks on the Malian army, Mali's government said.

The nomadic Tuaregs, who are considered an indigenous tribe in the region, are spread across Mali, Libya, Algeria, Niger and Burkino Faso.

In Mali, the Tuareg have long called for the creation of an independent state-- and have risen up against the Malian government a number of times since the 1960s.

The latest uprising began to take root late last year but gained momentum in January when the rebels began attacking towns in northern Mali.

The Malian army clashed with rebels in the Timbuktu region last week, killing 20 people, taking a dozen prisoners and seizing vehicles and weapons, according to the country's defense ministry. It reported no casualties on the government side.

But the rebels claim to have either attacked or seized at least six towns in recent weeks, including some in the Timbuktu region, according to its website. The claims appear to be supported by reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross that thousands have fled the region ahead of fighting.

So now Mali, one of the poorest countries on the planet, has 22,000 refugees feeling the latest Tuareg outbreak into neighboring countries, all of which are just as poverty-stricken. And if they capture one of the major towns for real-- a Kidal, Gao, or even Timbuktu, it will turn into a real catastrophe. Desperately-needed foreign aid groups are packing up and leaving. Meanwhile the tourists kidnapped in November... no one has heard a thing-- other than Al-Qaeda's north African branch threatening to kill them all if the military tries to rescue them. So, let me reiterate: no travel to Mali. Tuscany is nice and I bet there are some bargains to be found in Greece. And you can listen to Bassekou on CD or on YouTube:

UPDATE: Getting Worse

Officially the Tuaregs, the warlike nomadic "Blue men" of the Sahara, gave up slavery in Mali, where there are nearly a million of them (half the world's population of Tuaregs) in 1973. Supposedly. Whenever I came upon groups of Bella-- the former slaves-- and a bunch of Tuaregs came by, the temperature would drop precipitously and everyone would stop talking. Women and children would disappear. Something was cooking and it sure wasn't kosher. It appeared to me that the Bella in the Tuareg encampment we visited were slaves. I know Mali's neighbors to the east and west still have slaves. Neighboring Niger finally outlawed slavery in 2003 but something between 5 and 10% of the population are still slaves. The Tuaregs consider it their right to hold slaves and they don't tend to recognize national governments. And now they've declared their own country in northern Mali, Azawad-- already a human rights crisis out of control. In the best of times there's no actual rule of law. Republicans should move there and see how they like it.
The UN refugee agency reported Friday that more than 44,000 people have fled into neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso.

The Malian Army is trying to fight back and it's looking more and more like a full scale civil war everyday. They are desperate to keep the rebels from capturing one of the larger towns in the north-- Kidal, Gao or Timbuktu-- but AP reported that Tuareg rebels attacked Hombori, a town in the south, killing the village chief and ransacking the town for weapons.