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Something Better Than Democracy (?)

This is not a travel blog. But, there is no where else to express this philosophical idea that has been running around in my brain like hamster in one of those wheels. Do not suggest FaceBook. I have tried to post items of FaceBook that do not have anything to do with a mangy puppie, or what I had for lunch,and no one seems to care. In fact, I think I have be defriended  by a few people because I dared to use facebook for something that was not inane. So, I am breaking tradition here, breaking my travel rhythm, to express an idea.

Don’t worry, I’ll get back to the light hearted travel stuff next week.

I think this is a new idea, at least I have never heard it spoken about by pundits or serious commentators. Being at least new to me, it is both historically and philosophically immature. It might get some “hurrumphs” and it might get some people’s ire raised, but you know me, that is what I do. So sit back, have a coffee or tea or a beer or some other form of mind relaxing (but not hallucinogenic) substance and read on.

I have come to the conclusion that Democracy, with a large D, is a joke. Maybe a cruel joke. I have become convinced that it is a conspiratorial enterprise serving  pablum to the masses.

I grew up in what is called a Democracy. I participated in my Democracy at the local state and national level. My political experiences started in 1968. Motivated by, or more aptly put, disgusted by, the Viet Nam war I was looking for something I could do, even though I was still too young to vote. I started by taking Eugene McCarthy flower shaped bumper stickers from the local “Clean for Gene” office and pasting them on the rear of expensive cars in the shopping mall near my home. But the most memorable thing for me that election cycle was that I shook hands with Bobby Kennedy, on the morning of the last day of his life.

The next election cycle I got serious for George McGovern because my future included a draft to fight in a war I thought was just plain wrong. I stuffed mailboxes and made phone calls.

“Hello, good evening, Sorry to call you at eleven o’clock at night. I am calling on behalf of the McGovern Campaign. We need your vote to help defeat Tricky Dick.”

I was now old enough to vote and I was motivated to participate inside the system. St. George could not slay the dragon Nixon, but praise to everything holy I did not get drafted or have to move to Canada. I never wanted to be a Toronto Blue Jays fan anyway. During that election I watched McGovern self implode. I also watched one of his main campaign managers in action, a smart young guy named Gary Hart. I was among the first people to actively (very actively) work for Hart when he formed his “exploratory committee” to run for President in 1984    As a result of my efforts I became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention. We all know what happened to him. Damn, I was hoping to become to cultural atache to Bolivia. Oh well.

My last full blown effort at politics found me the co-manager of a campaign for a bright young man who was running for  a seat in the California Assembly. From that insiders viewpoint, I witnessed Machiavellian  machinations that left me numb. I stopped my active political life. Since then I have donated a few $ to Obama, and yes, I have even voted when motivated.

So do not say I do not know how Democracies work. Also, be slow to disagree with me when I say they don’t. Allow me to blabber on before you call me names, OK?

My first exposure to a democracy being a joke was when I was a 10 year old wide-eyed kid living in Bolivia. They had an “election” while I was there. The parties (about 6 of them) were known by their colors. People voted blue, green orange, yellow, or even red. It soon became apparent even to a ten year-old that there was not a lot of (what I would later learn to be) critical thinking going on here. When the peasants (about 95% of Bolivians can be called peasants without any derogatory meaning, they just are) who were almost all illiterate went to the polling place they voted for the same color as their comrades out of nothing more than peer pressure. They had no idea what Mr. Green or Mr. Chartreuse would do for them, or for that matter why they were voting, except that it made them think they were in control of something. PABLUM.

Since then I have lived in Chile, Peru and Panama. Chile is rather well educated. They had an elction to end the rule of Pinochet (more on him later) and re-install democracy in their country. Pinochet seized power in the worst way, but I was left with impression when he left power that in the end he helped Chile an awful lot. A benevolent Dictator.

Peru had an election while I lived there. Peru, has two faces. The urban educated upper classes, and the rural pablum eaters. On a couple of occasions Peru has gone out on a limb and elected reformers, however the reforms never seem to happen. Just more pablum and frustration for the people.

I also lived in Panama. The educated vote their pocket book, and the indigenous vote with no more discretion than the Bolivian peasants. Sad.

You can look around the world today and see many exercises in Democracy that are just plain bullshit. Iraq? Iran?? Afghanistan??? Southern Sudan? The list goes on. The reason they are bullshit is simple. An uneducated population. At least poorly educated.

Now I am not (as you damn well know) some intellectual powerhouse. But I consider myself an “educated” person. The cornerstone of my University education was a required class (In the California system anyway) called Critical Thinking. It taught me how to read an op-ed piece, an everyday news story, even Hitory. It taught me to take it apart and examine every quote, every supposed fact. Examine who wrote it, to determine the authors pedigree. I can sum up what I learned in one simple question I ask every time I read a politically oriented article or hear a speech or a talking head on TV. I ask myself “He would say that wouldn’t he?” If the answer to that question is yes, then what I just read or heard is useless. However, if the answer to that is no, then maybe I should look into this a bit more. Why would he say that? What is behind the story?

I seriously doubt, in fact I am 100% sure , that the majority of people in “developing nations” (the 3rd world in my day) do not posses this skill. They are led down the path to the polling place by people who want to seize power “Democratically”. All the great intentions of the Carter foundation aside, that is not good democracy.

Now let us look at the United States. Talk about pablum. In this case expensive pablum. I am not sure how many hundreds of millions of dollars were spent in 2008 or 2010 to elect the people now in power. One thing I am sure of is that if all that money went to schools or to feed the poor, the country would benefit a lot more than it has or will from the leaders we now have.

Public Education in the USA was deemed absolutely necessary by  Benjamin Franklin because he knew that no democracy could survive unless the people were educated. I agree.

But lets take a look at the most disturbing (to me) facet of American democracy today. That would be the Tea Party. Even if you ARE a Tea Partier, you must admit that you are NOT analyzing what the likes of Sarah Palin have to say. You just can’t be. So why is the Tea Party still tapping kegs and rolling into the night? Simple. Many people in America have grown very tired of elitists, of people smarter than they are running things  They do not like having to try and understand what a politician is saying, even though they dumb down their rhetoric so a sixth grader can understand it.  So they rally around a dimwit who likes to say “golly gee” and shoot reindeer.

Democracy, yes, even in the USA is a joke.

So what else? Here we go, sit back far enough away from your monitor so you cant’t spit on it or throw it out the window.


Benevolent Rulers.

I live in such a country now, The UAE. I lived in Chile under what I call a benevolent Dictator.  I have traveled and spent time in others. The one thing they all have common, and this is a very rare thing, is an incredible amount of natural resources. Here it is of course oil, in Chile it was copper. Having these resources is not the end all. It requires strong man, a ruler, a one stop shopping power source who just happens to be benevolent.

The rulers here in the UAE (all 7 of them), the Sultan of Oman and the kings of Qatar and Bahrain all qualify as benevolent Rulers. So does the King of Thailand.

As an aside, I was in a class last semester with a princess from Bahrain. A real princess, her Uncle is the Benevolent Ruler. I expressed this philosophy to her and she laughed and said “Ah we have brainwashed you!” I laughed and said “By example.”

Thanks for reading. tell a friend. But this is NOT a democracy, so don’t bother commenting.

Just kidding, fire away.

Muscatting Around Oman

As related in my last post, this trip was a last minute present from my wife. We both wanted to see Muscat and it is a mere 45 minutes by air from Sharjah. We made use of the Sharjah Ruler’s airline, AirArabia once more and his modern airport.  The flight was 5 minutes taxiing, 20 minutes up and 20 minutes down. Barely time to fasten your seatbelt and turn off your cell phone.

When these two rulers get together to discuss heavy matters of the day, I wonder if they ever sit around the hookah at night and brag about their respective countries. One thing the ruler of Sharjah has bragging rights over the Sultan of Oman  is his airport. But the Sultan is building a new one, and in 3 years the Ruler will have to play catch-up. For now the Oman airport is antiquated, small, and has just a few flights to places other then the middle east. It is one of those airports I would avoid if given the chance. You know the kind, no jet-ways. I hate getting on those little buses out on the tarmac and then dumped off at some basement entrance to the terminal, with a long boring walk through grey hallways to face the immigration man. But such is life, beats staying home.

Muscat, the capital of Oman is a beautiful city.

No skyscrapers. They stick to traditional designs in buildings. Hotels outside of town are a different thing.

In a couple years Muscat will boast an Opera house on par with any in the world. On our flight home Mary Ann and I sat next to a lovely young student at AUS who just happens to be the daughter of Hamid bin Abdulla Al Ghazali, project director, Royal Opera House, The Royal Estates-Royal Court Affairs. In other words, the big kahuna on this project.

I wonder if they'll ever have any rock 'n roll?

Knowing the way these ruler types enjoy bragging rights, I will bet that there is a bigger one in Abu Dhabi before the end of the decade.

Muscat  is also very expensive. Backpackers, flashpackers, trekkers, whatever hip name you have this month, stay away. One night in a hotel here costs as much as a month in my hotel in Chiang Mai. Yeah sure, nicer hotel, but paying for a hotel for a month here would buy a small house in Kansas.

How much did we pay for breakfast?

Sometimes locals get better deals than tourists so I tried becoming Forrest Bin Omani.

My new look.

It did not work.

I went back to wearing my western garb and we took our first tour. It was Friday, Holy Day in the Muslim world. The streets were quiet. Nothing truly commercial opens until about 4 on Fridays so we went to places that cannot close.

Our first stop was a fish market. If Al Gore had invented the internet correctly he would have included the ability to send olfactory sensations. You really cannot experience a fish market without them. This was not just a market. It was on the beach. Small  (under 30′) boats pulled in with everything from sardines to black marlin. The fishermen then submitted their catch to a “public” auction. Everyone seemed to know what to do. Fish were only on the auction block for a minute or so. Then they were taken for sale in the market behind the auction area or thrown on ice and taken as far away as Dubai to be sold to restaurants. Our guide knows a couple of “Omani Boys” (his words) who do this every day. They have to buy a new vehicle every six months or so, but they make a good living.

Boat after boat unloded the days catch across the road from the market. These guys netted a little fish/big sardine species.

The guy on the left collected the money. I am not sure how it was disbursed. The guy on the right tapped the fish with his stick and buyers called out their bids. When no one else bid, the sale was made. It all went quickly.

It was fun for the whole family!

Next time I go to Oman I am going fishing for these "small" black Marlins. I talked to a fisherman who said they catch them about five klicks out in the Gulf of Oman. Sounds like fun!

From here we went to a fort. There are an awful lot of forts in Oman. Some were built by local rulers back in the day when Oman was split into separate small Sultanates. Some were built by the Portuguese when they occupied Oman.  This fort was of the Omani type.

The fort as we approached. The tree in front is a Frankincense tree. More on Frankincense later. But many of the forts were built to protect the Frankincense trade routes.

No dear, that is not a souvenir for sale!

No closer infidel!

The men's meeting room in the fort.

View from the parapets.

I have many more fort photos, more than you have the patience to look at, so I’ll move on.

Oman has a lot of fresh water that is supplied by springs in the mountains. Lucky them. These days of course they  have to use Desal to supply enough water for the population. But back in the day, it came from springs. We went to one of course. There was a nice stream flowing away from it. Omanis use it for a picnic spot.

Idyllic scene at a wadi outside of town. A wadi is basically a riverbed. Some are seasonal, some like this one spring fed year round.

I decided I had to ride this donkey. Don’t ask why. I guess another year older and another year dumber.

Not the wisest decision of my 57th year.

OOPs, there I go! At least I provided a few laughs for the locals. They are probably still talking about the dumb American who paid to fall off their donkey.

From here we went out to the coast. Oman has about a million miles of coast line with some beautiful beaches. Because were still close to Muscat, there were some very nice 5, 6 and 7 star hotels. This one is where The Dick Cheney stayed while he was Vice President. I call it Hotel Undisclosed Location. A broom closet goes for $500 a night. The best Villa? You’ll have to ask Cheney.

This was as close poor people like us are allowed to go.

Close by here was the Oman Dive Club which had a great beach, pool and restaurant. It was open to normal folk. A word to the wise…remember I said Oman is expensive? Lunch was over $50. All we had were a couple of sandwiches, a beer, and oh yeah, this.

Welcome to my side of the coconut!

I hear the diving here is absolutely first class. I did not check their rates, but I can't imagine them being reasonable.

The drink board. Prices were insane. A beer was something like $7 dollars. These mixed drinks reminded me of the Cosmic Crab menu in Bocas.

By now things like the renowned Souk were open so we went shopping. We had not planned on buying much of anything, but we found a carpet store and ended up buying a carpet from Kashmir. The salesman was quite good without being aggressive. I walked into checkout a wall hanging, Mary Ann walked in and he went to work. I thought he was wasting his time until Mary Ann spotted one rug she really loved. I decided to make him work some more. If you have never been in a rug shop, you can really make these dudes hustle. They pull down these heavy rugs and spread them out for you by the dozens. Then they have to roll them back up and put them away. It is almost cruel if you do not buy one. This store is part of co-op run out of Kashmir, which is going through some heavy war type crap right now. He also had some Iranian rugs, but he has to hide them because of the sanctions against Iran at the moment. He only had three left, we considered saying “bring them out”. We have now bought 7 carpets, not one from the Middle East. Soon.

The most interesting thing to buy in the Oman Souk is Frankincense. Yup, the same stuff one of the wisemen brought baby Jesus. They also sell Myrrh. And gold. You could have quite an authentic Christmas here. I learned a lot about Frankincense. For instance;

-It is harvested from a tree that looks like something that barely survived a forest fire in the Sierra mountains.

-To harvest the sap you cut it like you would a maple tree. The sap drips out, then crystallizes.

-The closer to clear, the better. The dark is not so good.

-It is put on top of burning embers to give off a gas, which is used as incense.

The entire souk reeked of the small of Frankincense. This is another time I wish I could send my readers olfactory images. It is a pleasant odor, but not something I would want my house to smell like 24/7/365. This is a photo of a Frankincense store with the proprietor sorting his raw materials by shades.

At least in Muscat, this is not a rare item. It was the primary trading item for Oman way back when. Ships came to trade for it and camel caravans headed to Arabia and Africa to trade with it.

We were bartering to buy an incense burner and some Frankincense when the salesman made us an offer we could not refure. He threw in some Myrrh, some Sandalwood, and also some Saffron. So we broke down and bought his whole package. If you google the price of Saffron, it can be as expensive as $315 an ounce, This guy was handing us about half an ounce, just for buying his Frankincense.  In Oman it is plentiful and cheap. I am considering filling a suitcase with it and heading for NYC. Like most our souvenirs, I have no idea what to do with them now that I am home. If anyone hears about the second coming, let me know, I’ll hop on a camel, try to look wise, follow a star which will probably turn out to be a satellite,  and go give gifts.

Thanks for reading, tell a friend, and make a comment. I love comments.

My birthday Present, Oh Man, Oman

My wonderful wife gave me a trip to Oman for my birthday. It was kind of a last minute thing. I dropped a hint that my B’day was coming in a week, and I think she had forgotten.

Mary Ann is the designated travel agent in our house. She finds the best fares, hotels  and tours like a tornado finds trailers. At first she was planning a trip to Cairo so I could check off the pyramids from my bucket list. It was going to be a five day trip. She had not requested any time off of work. She has the vacation time accrued, and her office would have been cool with it, but I wasn’t. My insecurities left over from the working world said “lets do Cairo another time.”  Instead of just cancelling plans she said “we could do Muscat for a weekend”. Wow, great idea.

Muscat is the capital city of Oman. Oman is right next door. It is also another world. Yes, it is a Muslim country, but the culture is very different.So is the History. So is the Geography.

Oman is a Sultanate. The Sultan is named Qaboos ibn Said.


The Sultans picture, while on the money of course, and in some establishments is not as ubiquitius as the Emirate's here or the King in Thailand.


Qaboos took power at the age of 31 from his father with the help of a social upheaval in Oman.  I wont go into the long fascinating history of the rule of the Said family (Qaboos was the 12th Said to rule) except to say that even with the influx of petrobucks, Oman was wallowing in the middle ages when #11 was replaced by #12. For instance…#11 closed the gates to Muscat at night, no one could enter or leave.


Replace this road with a dirt path and you can imagine it is 1970.


In 1970 there were only three graded roads in the entire country. There were  three schools. There was not a single  newspaper. No radio or television There was  no civil service. All of Oman had only one 23 bed hospital. Life expectancy was 47. Qaboos had his work cut out for him. He had been educated at Sandhurst. In fact at the time he took over, in order to get a decent education, Omanis had to leave Oman. Many, most in fact, did not come back. It was a classic brain drain.

He inherited a country that had just started accumulating big bucks. Make that BIG bucks. But the country was at war with itself. The people were  tired of living in the middle ages. #11 wanted no western influence in Oman. He forbid anything that could taint his world. This included cigarettes, for which the penalty was death, and he even forbid sunglasses. In the desert. No wonder the people rose up.


40 years ago I would have been shot for this.


His son #12 started to transform the country. He brought back Omanis trained abroad to run the country. He built roads, opened schools and built hospitals. The WHO ranks Oman #8 in the world for healthcare. His desire, which has panned out, was that Omanis run Oman. They do the work, have the jobs. This has resulted in a country with a population that is 80% Omani and 20% foreigners. This opposed to the UAE which is 80% foreigners and 20% Emiratis.  And now, the people can enjoy a cig and wear sunglasses!

Also, he has developed a music appreciation program. He has encouraged that Omanis learn to play music of all types, and at the present time is building an Opera House, which I am sure will be world class.

So, big petrodollars streaming in has let Qaboos develop his country and bring it firmly into modern times. He has used what is HIS money to improve the lives of his people.  Literacy is at something like 90% Omanis get  free medical care and an education. He gives out free land if you are going to build a house and Oman has full employment. However, with the amount of money coming into his accounts, he cannot give it ALL away.


This is Qaboos' nice little yacht. This is how he gets to Europe for his yearly vacation. There is a second boat, a naval vessel that travels with him. It carries his cars and protects him along the way. This is his "new" boat. The "old" boat was given to the national Tourist authority to run tours to India and along the Omani coast.



If you look closely, you will see this is a caravan of 18 wheelers. This is how the Sultan goes camping. The day we went there he was leaving for the desert for his yearly month of Arabian experiences in the dunes.


But he does not spend all his excess income on fun and games. The following pictures are of the Grand Mosque in Muscat. I have never been in the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peters Cathedral. I will someday, promise. So up to now I must call this Grand Mosque the most impressive religious building I have ever seen. It has the worlds second largest carpet. It is absolutely beautiful. It has over 1,700,000,000 knots.  It weighs over 21 tons.  It measures over 70 x 60 meters in size. 6,600 faithful can and do use it to pray on.  My photography cannot begin to capture the grandeur of this Mosque, or the carpet, or even the central chandelier. The pictures will not show you that the chandelier itself is over 14 meters tall. The area sroounding the mosqu has another 40,000 square meeter for the faithful to gather, during the highest holy days, the place is a sell out, kneeling room only.


Approaching the mosque






Courtyard from other side with one of the five pillars representing the five pillars of Islam



Just a small sample. I was surrounded by carpet when i took this.



An attempt at capturing the magnificence of this rug



This center Chandelier is made of Swaroski crystal with gold plated metal work. It is 8 meters in Diameter and 14 meters tall. It contains 1.122 lamps, and weighs 18 tons



Mary Ann (covered) and I inside the Mosque. If I look stunned, it is because I am.


OK, enough on history and culture. My next post will take you along on our whirlwind tour of the Muscat area. A fish auction, forts, a nice beach and Cheney’s bunker.

So stay tuned. Thanks for reading and please make a comment!


Tidbits and Teasers

I know I have not posted for a while now. I have taken some crap for that, thanks sister.

OK, so we are back in Sharjah. Mary Ann is working and loving it. Now that we live on campus in our spacious apartment (condo?) she has a   71/2 minute walk to her office. Some people who live in the same block as us actually drive the three blocks to the main part of the campus. I forgive them. It is always about 100 degrees f. I don’t think the aircon in the car could possibly cool it down in the 2 minute drive, but heh, it is the thought that counts. We have still not decided to buy, lease or rent a vehicle. The university gives us a free bus ride to the Sharjah Co-Op to shop for groceries twice a week, and every other weekend we have a driver who takes us to Dubai. We go to any one of the huge malls and window shop(all we can afford), see a movie (about US$8 for the ticket and the popcorn is always stale) and have dinner. We also do a lot of people watching. There is a fascinating collection of expats and Emirates to watch go by. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we just shake our heads.

Both of us just started an on-campus class in spoken Arabic. They have a class to learn how to read and write it, but there is absolutely no way I could ever decipher that writing, and much less of a chance of ever doing the calligraphy needed to write it. I cannot read my own handwriting in English, so just forget it. Last night I tried to repeat in Arabic that I live in Sharjah, the teacher laughed and told me I just said I live in a shoe box. I have a long way to go before I can do anything important like order a pizza.

I am enrolled in an upper level history class titled something like America and the Middle East. Classrooms are like playing tennis. You never want to play tennis with someone worse than you, that is no fun. I am in a class where everyone is smarter than I am, so I am having fun. There are only six people in the class, but these people actually study and come prepared to discuss the readings. I throw in a few impertinent comments for comic relief, but intellectually I am outclassed. OK, it has been 30 years since I had to be prepared for a classroom situation. Luckily I am only auditing the class so I won’t have to go on academic probation and embarrass Mary Ann. I think my prof is relieved that I will not be turning in any papers, so he won’t have to grade my dribble. In this class, there is one Palestinian, one Saudi, one girl from France one girl who says she can’t be defined by any geopolitical borders a guy from Chicago (yup, the Chicago by the lake) and one girl from either Bahrain or Qatar.

This last girl and the guy from the KSA got into a friendly argument about a sword that was returned to the Saudi’s last week by her country She said “that sword was given to mt grandfather and passed along to his father. It was a present from the King of Saudi Arabia, we should have kept it.” The guy said something about the sword being  mythical and  magical, or maybe just worth a lot of bucks. Everyone was leaving the room and I missed it. So I have a meeting set up with this girl for Monday to get the whole story. She is going to bring pictures  and tell me all about it. I will post on Monday or Tuesday and entertain you with a little ME lore, so stay tuned.

By the time you read this I will be another year older. Mary Ann is taking me to Muscat for my birthday and the weekend. Where? Google it.

I will put up a post on Sunday (this time with pictures, I know you like pictures) all about our weekend in yet another country.

One last thing. I have a good buddy who is in Afghanistan at this moment embedded as a historian, journalist. If you find him on FaceBook (John R  Bruning) you will be treated to some amazing photography and stories. I have known him for 20 years. We are oil and water politically, but I admire his gumption to go where he is, zooming around in helicopters and writing about it. So check it out. If like me you think FaceBook is just too insipid to be involved with, then he has a blog at

Stay tuned and tell a friend, and for goodness sake, make a comment.

OhMan off to OMAN

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