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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.