Search This Blog

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Bored With Mali? There's Always Guinea-Bissau... Unless You Worry About Safety

Guinea Bissau is bigger than The Gambia

That the Tuaregs of Mali (as well as Niger and Mauritania) hold hundreds of thousands of Bella and other black Africans in slavery is certainly not enough to motivate any kind of intervention from France, Britain, NATO or anyone else. Even when the Tuaregs have captured, in quick succession, Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu-- and two-thirds of Mali-- it wasn't until Islamist groups with a jihadi agenda and murky ties to al-Qaeda, that the West intervened. Mali has no oil but it isn't that far from oil-rich, Muslim-roiled Nigeria. Oil and Islamic jihadis... that gets the West's attention-- and fast. Slavers taking over a country-- who cares? Same with international drug barons... it might be inconvenient and yucky-- but if there's no oil or jihad involved, you're on your own.

I know people are just starting to figure out what Mali is; so I feel bad having to introduce a whole new country and it's problems onto the blog. AroundTheWorldBlog, meet Guinea-Bissau. This small (slightly bigger than Maryland) West African state tucked between Senegal and Guinea, was once part of the Empire of Mali. Portugal began colonizing it in the 1500s and kidnapping it's people to sell as slaves. Coincidentally, it used to be identified on maps as the Slave Coast. A rebellion began against fascist-led Portugal in the 1950s and they finally drove the Portuguese out in 1973. The first elections, though, weren't held until 1994 and since then every government has been violently overthrown. Not one president has finished his term. It's one of the poorest countries in the world-- on a level with Nepal, Burundi, Niger, Congo, Mali, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, Liberia and Malawi.

The country has no embassies in the U.S. or Britain and little tourism. If you want to visit, you have to stop in Lisbon and get a tourist visa there-- just like in the old colonial days! (It only takes a couple hours though... not counting the flight to Portugal.) Virtually no one will accept credit cards anywhere in the country but everyone love Euros and dollars. International phone service is, at best, sporadic. The country is considered one of the most violent in Africa and much too dangerous for tourists and the U.S. State Department warns American citizens to not travel there. From the State Department website:
The United States established diplomatic relations with Guinea-Bissau in 1975, following its independence from Portugal. Post-independence, the country has seen a mix of coups, attempted coups, civil war, assassinations, and democratic elections. The United States strongly condemned the April 2012 attempt by elements of the military to forcibly seize power, called for maximum restraint on all sides and the restoration of legitimate civilian leadership, and continues to work with its partners in the region and beyond as it monitors developments on the ground. Now that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has returned Bissau-Guinean military factions to their barracks and a civilian government is in power, the United States is working with its partners and the Transitional Government of Guinea-Bissau to facilitate free and fair elections by Spring 2013, and to promote basic reforms on governance, justice, and economic development.

There is no U.S. Embassy in Guinea-Bissau. All official U.S. contact with Guinea-Bissau is handled by the U.S. Embassy in Senegal. Local employees staff the U.S. Office in Bissau, and U.S. diplomats from the Embassy in Dakar travel frequently to Bissau.

Given the April 12, 2012 coup, the United States was obliged to terminate foreign assistance to the Government of Guinea-Bissau consistent with the requirements of section 7008 of the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act for 2012. Previous limited non-humanitarian assistance focused primarily on the justice sector as well as demining and proper weapons storage programs.
It gets worse. If you happened to read a report by Adam Nossiter in the NY Times last November, you're probably aware that Guinea-Bissau has been taken over by an international drug syndicate and is the major hub for cocaine traffic-- 30 tons a year-- between Latin America and Europe. The country is addicted to coke and crack and it defines the term "narco-state."
When the army ousted the president here just months before his term was to expire, a thirst for power by the officer corps did not fully explain the offensive. But a sizable increase in drug trafficking in this troubled country since the military took over has raised suspicions that the president’s sudden removal was what amounted to a cocaine coup.

The military brass here has long been associated with drug trafficking, but the coup last spring means soldiers now control the drug racket and the country itself, turning Guinea-Bissau in the eyes of some international counternarcotics experts into a nation where illegal drugs are sanctioned at the top.

“They are probably the worst narco-state that’s out there on the continent,” said a senior Drug Enforcement Administration official in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize his work in the region. “They are a major problem.”

Since the April 12 coup, more small twin-engine planes than ever are making the 1,600-mile Atlantic crossing from Latin America to the edge of Africa’s western bulge, landing in Guinea-Bissau’s fields, uninhabited islands and remote estuaries. There they unload their cargos of cocaine for transshipment north, experts say.

The fact that the army has put in place a figurehead government and that military officers continue to call the shots behind the scenes only intensifies the problem.

...Was the military coup itself a diversion for drug trafficking? Some experts point to signs that as the armed forces were seizing the presidency, taking over radio stations and arresting government officials, there was a flurry of drug activity on one of the islands of the Bijagós Archipelago, what amounted to a three-day offloading of suspicious sacks.

That surreptitious activity appears to have been simply a prelude.

“There has clearly been an increase in Guinea-Bissau in the last several months,” said Pierre Lapaque, head of the regional United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for West and Central Africa. “We are seeing more and more drugs regularly arriving in this country.”

Mr. Lapaque called the trafficking in Guinea-Bissau “a major worry” and an “open sore,” and, like others, suggested that it was no coincidence that trafficking had spiked since the coup.

Joaquin Gonzalez-Ducay, the European Union ambassador in Bissau, said: “As a country it is controlled by those who formed the coup d’état. They can do what they want to do. Now they have free rein.”

The senior D.E.A. official said, “People at the highest levels of the military are involved in the facilitation” of trafficking, and added: “In other African countries government officials are part of the problem. In Guinea-Bissau, it is the government itself that is the problem.”

United Nations officials agree. “The coup was perpetrated by people totally embedded in the drugs business,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the political environment here.

The country’s former prosecutor general, Octávio Inocêncio Alves, said, “A lot of the traffickers have direct relationships with the military.”

...Officials point to several indicators, besides the increase in plane flights, to show that Guinea-Bissau has become a major drug transit hub.

They cite photographs of a recently well-cleared stretch of road in a remote rural area near the Senegal border, complete with turning space for small planes. The clearing was created under the supervision of military authorities, officials say. They also note mysterious absences of fuel at the tiny international airport in the capital, presumed stolen by traffickers.

Four months before the coup, a plane, with the aid of uniformed soldiers, landed in a rural area in the center of the country, which is the size of Belgium, said João Biague, head of the judicial police. The landing took place not far from General Injai’s farm.

Mr. Biague heads what is nominally the country’s antidrug agency, though he made it clear that he and his staff are largely powerless to practice any form of drug interdiction despite receiving frequent tips about small planes landing from abroad. “The traffickers know we can’t do much,” he said.

The agency is so starved of funds that he does not have money to put gas in its few vehicles, Mr. Biague said. Paint is peeling on the outside of the judicial police’s two-story colonial building downtown, and mold blackens the ground-floor pilasters. It is allocated $85 a week from the country’s Justice Ministry.

“The agents we have in the field want to give up because they have nothing to eat,” Mr. Biague said.

In the last three years, there have been more than a half-dozen unsolved political assassinations here, including of the longtime president and the former army chief of staff, as well as at least two coup attempts, besides the successful coup. Nobody has been successfully prosecuted, though drugs were linked to many of them.

Last month, the justice minister of the transitional government warned opposition politicians not to speak publicly of “cases that don’t concern them,” under threat of criminal penalty.

This week, the repression appeared to tighten. General Injai threatened journalists with death if they asked questions about the assassination of the former president, and he warned that there would be many arrests as a result of the countercoup attempt.

There is remarkably little public talk of the unsolved political killings or of the country’s relations with the drug business. There have been no demonstrations; no discussion in the Parliament, shut down since July; no news conferences.

“A country that’s not capable of discussing its own problems-- it’s not a country, it’s not a state,” said Mr. Alves, the former prosecutor general.
The Obama administration, while encouraged France and then Britain, to intervene in Mali and is offering material support for the endeavor, has a very different attitude towards Guinea-Bissau. After explicitly linking the country’s military to the drug trade in 2010 and freezing the U.S. assets of drug kingpins ex-chief of the navy, Rear Adm. Bubo Na Tchuto, and the air force chief of staff, Ibraima Papa Camara, the Obama administration has backed off considerably. The top U.S. diplomat at the Guinea-Bissau desk in Dakar, Russel Hanks: "You will only have an impact on this transition by engagement, not by isolation. These are the people who came in to pick up the pieces after the coup.”

And, no, neither Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham nor Kelly Ayotte brought up Guinea-Bissau in the Senate confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel today. Awesome tunes though:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

New York Times: The 46 Places To Go In 2013

I don't want to ruin it for anyone, but #46 is... Paris. Like after you've been to Burma's Mergui Islands, Republic of Congo, Ningxia (China’s answer to Bordeaux), Houston, Delhi, and Pecs (Hungary). And Marseille-- which comes in as the #2 destination of the year! "Whether you travel to eat or shop, surf or ski, new adventures await," this week's Travel Section promised. OK, but if you're looking for any good ideas about where to go... well, I should be fair. There are some. But you have to be discerning enough to remember that they're recommending Paris because "it has a new allure: a green and walkable Right Bank."
Where once there was just a busy road, there are now alder trees, native Seine grasses and wide walking and cycle paths, all due to a 35-million-euro beautification project led by Mayor Bertrand Delanoë. Wooden furniture to stretch out in has been installed along the banks, where visitors can relax while taking in the view of Notre Dame Cathedral, and five adjoining islands in the river are being turned into “floating gardens.” Across the river, ambitious steps are being taken to transform a nearly 1.5-mile stretch of the Left Bank free of cars by this spring, with 11 acres of new green space between the Musée d’Orsay and Pont de l’Alma.
The recommendation right before Paris, Casablanca, is the Moroccan destination of choice. Not mine, though. I've been to Morocco over a dozen times and to Casablanca several but... Fez, Marrakech, Essaouira, Taroudant, even Tangier all go before Casa, even if it has lovely architecture, North Africa's tallest towers and is "developing one of the most interesting modern art scenes in the Arab world." To be honest, the reason I do like going to Casablanca-- usually to catch a flight somewhere else-- is because it boasts one of the most spectacular seafood restaurants in the world, Le Port de Pêche, a hidden gem most people who get their travel advice from the New York Times would probably miss ("scary" location on the docks). But-- with a discussion of the relative merits of the art, architecture and cuisine saved for another day-- I think most tourists would get a bigger kick out of Taroudant than Casablanca.

And the Times' #1 destination for the year? Rio. OK, I want to go there too. But I don't know if my reasons are related to the Times'. South America's first Apple store? Gimme a break!
Fifty-three years after Brazil’s federal government decamped to Brasília, and decades after São Paulo took over as the country’s business capital, Rio is staging a comeback. With the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics (plus an oil boom) providing the impetus, the tropical city perhaps most famous for its Carnival hedonism is on its way to becoming a more sophisticated cultural hub. In January, the Cidade das Artes, or City of the Arts, was inaugurated as the new home of the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra. On March 23, Casa Daros-- an outpost of the Zurich-based Daros Latinamerica Collection-- will open in a renovated 19th-century building with an exhibition of Colombian artists. March will also mark the opening of the Rio Museum of Art in Praça Mauá, a once decrepit port area now being revived. (The Santiago Calatrava-designed Museum of Tomorrow, also in the port area, is scheduled to follow in 2014.) Shopping, a Rio obsession, got a boost in December when the luxe VillageMall opened; it will soon house the city’s first Gucci outlet and South America’s first Apple Store. Special events also dot the coming year’s calendar, including the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day in July, the biennial Rio Book Fair starting in late August, and September’s Rock in Rio. And, of course, there’s soccer: the finals of the Confederations Cup, considered a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, will be held in a completely overhauled Maracanã Stadium on June 30.
Some of the more worthwhile suggestions include Accra (Ghana), Mongolia, Bhutan, Amsterdam (yes, the Stedelijk and the Rijksmuseum are finally reopening), the Yucatán, Porto, Istanbul and Koh Phangan (where a German tourist was partially devoured by a shark last time I was there. They also recommend Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka, not one of the incredibly beautiful island's best destinations by any stretch of the imagination, and the Falklands, although why someone would go there rather than Tierra del Fuego is as hard to fathom as what rhyme or reason went into the list of 46 to begin with.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Mali's Tourism Industry Devastated-- And The Overflow Is Wrecking Burkina Faso's Tourism As Well

I've visited a lot of countries that are tough for tourists these days: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Greece, Sri Lanka, Palestine... but none as tough as Mali. The restaurant on the banks of the Niger in Ségou in the video above... Roland and I sat on that terrace. I was in Mali for about a month in the winter of 2008. Since then it has been consumed by a civil war, which has torn the country in half and immersed it in bloodshed. Foreigners are routinely kidnapped. When we were there, the tourism sector was exploding. Wonderful, charming boutique hotels-- rather than the ugly soul-destroying chains which would have come later-- were popping up everywhere and a growing stream of foreign visitors were helping fuel an economic resurgence, especially in Timbuktu. Timbuktu has now been wrecked by anti-Sufi fundamentalist jihadis, who have destroyed the city's historical treasures and cultural heritage.

The Tuaregs are in full-scale rebellion against the central government-- and have declared independence-- because, like the Southern rebels in the mid-1800s here in the U.S., they want to preserve their "special" way of life: slavery. The Tuaregs are a brutal, savage people, like American southerners, with an Ayn Rand perspective on how to work and play with others. "Others" are meant to be their slaves and they tie he whole ugly, inhuman package up with a phony religionist fundamentalism. In the future, this will be a picture of the Tuaregs of Mali:

When we visited Mali we laughed at the Peace Corp volunteers who were prohibited by the State Department from visiting Timbuktu and the whole northern part of the country. We were lucky; that's all. No one in their right mind goes anywhere near that part of Mali these days. In fact, no tourists go to Mali anymore at all.
Since the coup last March that split the country in two and left the north occupied by al-Qaida-linked rebels, and the kidnapping of a French citizen in November, France has enlarged the "red zone," a no-go area for its citizens that now stretches from Mali's northern borders with Mauritania and Algeria to the north shore of the Niger river in Ségou-- almost three-quarters of the country.

Other foreign embassies followed suit and warn against all travel to Mali, leaving the tourism sector-- Mali's third biggest revenue generator-- "almost dead," according to Ousmane Ag Rhissa, the tourism minister.

In 2011 almost 200,000 tourists visited the country, each spending at least $100 (£62) a day; barely 10,000 visited last year.

"The impact is pretty severe," Rhissa said. "Since there are no more tourists coming, there is no income generation."

The government has written off as unrecoverable more than a quarter of the targeted revenue for 2012. Spending plans have been slashed and the suspension of donor funding in the form of budget support and project aid has caused a state budget shortfall of $782m (£488m).

This has exacerbated shortages caused by the Sahel food crisis. Rising gas and food costs-- a 100% increase in the price of millet in the last year-- are making it harder for struggling businesses to keep afloat.
And last month, The Economist reported that tourism throughout west Africa is getting hairy. Neighboring Burkina Faso has taken an influx of Malian refugees but now they have their own troubles devastating their small tourism industry.
An army mutiny in 2011 prompted foreign embassies to turn their travel warnings to red. Then in January this year, 37,000 refugees from neighbouring Mali flooded across the border to escape their country's political crisis. The collapse in Mali's tourist industry has been even more damaging. The country has long been a highlight of travel in West Africa. Tour operators got people to Burkina Faso by tagging it on to a trip to Mali. With Mali now off-limits, the bottom has fallen out of regional tourism.

Rerouting circuits to other nearby countries is the obvious solution but this is difficult. Neither Niger nor Côte d’Ivoire is particularly secure. Togo is small and undeveloped. Benin's tourism infrastructure is improving, but it lacks the mythical appeal of Timbuktu and the Dogon Country.

That leaves Ghana. On paper it is the ideal travel companion to Burkina. Its beaches complement Burkina’s landlocked terrain. The slave forts provide insight into an important page of modern history. The bustling metropolis of Accra, Ghana’s capital, offers a glimpse into what the future of Africa looks like, less evident in Ouagadougou, Burkina’s sleepy capital.

But Ghana is Anglophone, and French-speaking Burkina-- like its former colonial power-- has not taken to English. Local guides rarely speak English well enough to shepherd visitors around. They also need an international driving license to drive in Ghana-- unnecessary in its Francophone neighbours-- and vehicles require a special registration permit. Both of these must be renewed every year.

Those in the business say that Burkina’s tourism authorities should do more to promote the country as a safe destination and foster links with Ghana. For many 2012 has been their worst year. One hotelier decided to go back to his native France to work through the summer season to make ends meet. But with a military intervention proposed in Mali next year, things will only get tougher for Burkina Faso.
Meanwhile France is coming to the rescue, even bombing the legendary city of Gao, deep inside rebel-held territory. And starting tomorrow so are Mali's African neighbors. Hopefully, they'll be more successful than this automated news report:

France itself has beefed up domestic security in anticipation of Islamist terrorism at home. Britain has pledged to help France logistically (as has the U.S.) and the Islamist rebels say that the war against "the Crusaders" is just beginning. "This is a holy war. The deaths are normal," said Sanda Ould Boumama, spokesman for the rebel group Ansar Dine, which is linked to al Qaeda. "Our fighters are prepared to die for our cause," he told CNN by phone. People aren't hearing much about the Tuaregs and their role-- their desire to hold slaves again-- primarily because the Western powers want to turn them against their Islamist allies and don't want to demonize them in the press. Pretty sick!

This report makes more sense, is more up-to-date and more comprehensive:

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Beneath The Glitz And Dazzle, Air Emirates Can Be Pretty Grubby

Perhaps you saw a resuscitated 2010 interview with the guy who soon became Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. During the interview he was against a two-state solution and called negotiations with Israel "a waste of time and opportunities" as Arabs and Muslims get nothing out of engagement with "the descendants of apes and pigs." Gee, and he's upset because tv satirist Bassem Youssef-- Egypt's Jon Stewart-- said something mildly snarky about him!

When I booked our flights to India on Emirates Air several months ago, Roland said he didn't like the idea of giving some "dirty terrorists" and crooked oil barons our money. I understood where he was coming from but the overriding consideration for me was that Emirates has an excellent reputation-- although completely overhyped one, as it turns out-- as an extraordinary airline. They're actually pretty ordinary, almost on a level with Singapore Air or British, but better than Delta or Air India. More to the point, though, Emirates was offering the only flight from Cochin to L.A. that didn't entail an overnight layover. The Emirate flight from Cochin flies at 4:35AM, connects 4 hours later in Dubai (7:05 Dubai time), entails, instead, a painless one hour and 15 minutes wait for the flight that goes direct to L.A. at 8:20AM. At least, that's the theory.

I was flying business class, Roland economy. The flight took off 30 minutes late from Cochin. No big deal, right? Wrong. The airline agents in Cochin told us there would be "no problem" making our connection and that the reason the flight was late was because of a problem in Dubai. Although we got to Dubai over an hour before the plane to L.A. actually took off, they refused to let us board. They had already sold our-- "our" meaning my seat and the seats of the 2 other business class travelers from Cochin going on to L.A.-- seats to some other people. Someone met us at the gate and told us they had rebooked us for the next day. "What about another flight?" we all asked at once. "Impossible" was the reply. Everything was impossible, in fact, except being bundled into a car and driven to a shoddy airport business traveler hotel, a Millennium... with a Cactus Jack's restaurant.

Roland, meanwhile, disappeared and I had to work two hours against a hideously uncooperative Emirates staff to find someone willing to help me figure out where he was. Somehow, for someone traveling in economy it wasn't impossible to rebook onto another flight. Roland was flying off to L.A. while I was pissed off in Dubai.

On The Other Hand...

When dealt lemons... The rule about the Travelers Century Club is that in the quest for 100 countries to have visited, a stop over in an airport counts. I don't care; in my mind it doesn't count. So my 3 hour or so stay in the Emirates Lounge a few weeks ago on the way to Delhi didn't, in my mind, mean I could tick Dubai off my list. But here I was with a day to "kill."

Usually study up on places I'm going way in advance and plan trips so that I don't miss the bets features. I was unaware of any features in Dubai except that it's garish and a shopoholic's paradise. So I asked the concierge what was the best thing to see in the country. "Dubai Mall," he answered without hesitation. I hate malls... more than hate, I'm horrified by them, spiritually dejected by their celebration of cheap gawdy, soul-destroying materialism. But the Santa Monica Mall, I recently discovered has one of my favorite restaurants in L.A., Matthew Kenney's M.A.K.E. And, lo and behold!, Dubai Mall has a pretty astounding healthy organic food store and cafe as well. But that isn't why anyone goes there. Where do I start?

It's the biggest mall in the world-- and across the street from the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (2,722 feet; Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall and the Eiffel Tower is 986 feet tall). There are over 2,000 shops and it's a carnival of brands, not just every brand name in America, but every brand name in France, England, Japan, Germany, Italy... It's actually the world's most visited shopping and leisure destination-- more people than the entire city of New York!-- and boasts a mammoth aquarium (with over 30,000 marine animals to gawk out while you shop and eat) and an incongruous ice-skating rink. And, of course 4 floors of shopping and eating, from Bloomingdales and Marks & Spencer to Galeries Lafayette to a Virgin Megastore. I would have preferred to have flown home on schedule but I had a fun time sightseeing in Dubai for a day... so not a total waste. Nice subway too-- clean and sparkly.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Kerala-- Where To Eat in Cochin

Kerala doesn't have a restaurant culture. People eat with their families at home or are too poor to eat in what we would call restaurants. When I first visited in 1970, I recall the food being very spicy and served on banana leaves. Kerala has been developed into a major tourist destination since then and there are a lot more hotels and restaurants catering to the needs of both domestic and international tourists.

Getting into the native foods of the places I visit are part of why I live travel so much. And the food of South India is very, very different from the food of North India, the food people in the States and Europe are usually talking about when they mention "Indian food." And the food in South India is different from region to region. In Kerala, the Malayalam cuisine is obviously based on the local ingredients-- coconuts, spices (cardamom, chili, tumeric, coriander, cloves, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, cumin, etc), fish, rice, fruits and vegetables...

The tourist guide books for Kerala all celebrate the restaurants in the luxury hotels. With no real restaurant culture, they've long been the places where you could get hygienic and good-tasting food. But not remotely Keralan food. The Keralan food served in the 5-star hotel restaurants is made for elderly Brits and German-- very nearly tasteless. To say the spice factor is cut back to a minimum is a joke. Top rated restaurants in Ft. Kochi (Cochin) are expensive and attempt to be as European-friendly as they can. Fodor, for example, recommends The History at the exclusive hotel, Brunton Boatyard. It wasn't bad-- not at all-- but it was completely forgettable, uninteresting and way over-priced. We ate there on our first night. After that we asked everyone where we could find the best authentic Keralan cooking. There was a consensus and we found the Pavilion at the modest Abad Hotel in Chullickal, a one dollar tuk-tuk ride from Ft. Kochi. We ate there half a dozen times, and not because it was so shockingly inexpensive. We ate there so often because the food was absolutely delicious-- and because they didn't tone it down just because we're white.

Neither of us even had so much as a loose movement the whole time we were in Kerala. The food was healthy, clean, delicious and nutritious. As long as I'm bringing up body functions, there is one thing I want to mention. This is the "cool" and "dry" season-- relatively-- but it never drops below 90 degrees and it's so humid that nothing gets dry. So we're drinking water all the time. And sweating out out. I've rarely consumed as much water but rarely pissed as infrequently. It all gets sweated out. It's essential that if you visit Kerala you drink a lot of water-- a lot more than usual.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Ayurvedic Treatment In Cochin, Kerala

This is the logo for tourists-- run the other way

Traditional tourist guide books all say Cochin in central Kerala is a beautiful town but they them give it the bum rap of claiming it's the kind of place to stay for a day or two before moving on to see the rest of the state. That may be a good way to go-- but it surely isn't the only way to go. Cochin (Kochi) is a dreamy, mellow tropical paradise, an idillic place to just veg out and relax. The food is delicious; the prices are still inexpensive and the people are educated, sweet and very attractive. We've been here over a week and it would be lovely to stay for another week.

As I said earlier, we rented a flat facing the beach and everything is either within easy walking distance or-- at most-- a $1.00 tuk-tuk (motorized 3-wheel ricksha) ride away. People while away the days getting into Kerala's rich cultural heritage-- like taking Malayalam cooking lessons or art lessons or massage lessons, or by going on cruises on the gorgeous inland waterways, the glorious backwaters, or by shopping, going to see the wild elephants, site-seeing, relaxing...

And that massage I mentioned, it's part of a serious and ancient medical treatment. Well, most of the "ayurvedic massages" I see offered here are for tourists and they're probably not really as serious as they are just wonderfully relaxing. But I get a massage every week in the U.S. and I'm always eager to try massages in different cultures. And as for illnesses that need treating... I've got as many ailments as anyone. The "best doctors" in the U.S. have assured me there is no cure for hives and I've had chronic hives for a full year. I got it after a bout of dengue fever I got in Mérida (Yucatán) last year. I wondered if the ayurvedic approach would do me any good.

When I was still back in the U.S., I found a government-run ayurvedic hopsital online and e-mailed them. They didn't respond. When I got here I found it was just a mile down the road from our house so I went over. The doctor was sick so it wasn't open. Then I happened on a quasi clinical practice and tried that. It was a 90 minute oil massage for around $20. It was good. But the next day I found a serious ayurvedic clinic and the doctor understood how to treat hives. I was surprised. She gave me a topical cream and some herbal manjishtadi kashayam tablets (which claims to be good for skin diseases, obsesity, gout, syphilis, eye diseases and the common cold). And then the massage.

The guy who gave me the massage had studied for 2 years and then worked in an ayurvedic hospital in Mumbai for almost 4 years before moving back to Ft. Kochi. The clinic-- though filled with mosquitos-- is very clean and well-organzied. The massage was inexpensive (around $18) and absolutely expertly done, good enough for me to make appointments for every day for the rest of our stay in Kerala. The thing I like about it are the long stroke-- like one powerful stroke from the neck to the ankle or one the entire length of the spine.

Vedic medicine goes back thousands of years and the vast majority of people in India use it to at least some extent. They know what they're doing and the Indian government takes it very seriously in terms of licensing and research. There are 8 categories of Ayurvedic medicine and the one I found is rasayana, which deals with rejuvenation and immunity-- as opposed to ophthalmology, surgery, toxicology or even psychiatry. The fascination with balance in Hinduism and Buddhism have had a big influence on the evolution of ayurvedic medicine. It's the ultimate holistic approach to medicine.

The place I would recommend if you're in Ft. Kochi is the Soorya Panchakarma Ayurvedic Clinic. You can e-mail them at It's too early to know if my hives are actually cured. But after just a couple days of the medicine and massages, all the hives that have plagued me all year are gone. The head of the department at UCLA that deals with chronic hives (so not the allergic reactions that last a day or two, the long term stuff) told me there is no cure and that if I'm lucky it'll just disappear in a year or two. I think I was lucky to try the ayurvedic way... although we'll see what happens when I'm back in L.A. with no medical massages and when the medicine runs out.