Blog Archives

Around the World in a Daze

My faithful readers will already know I am married to a wonderful woman who has made my lifelong wanderlust sustainable. To my new readers, trust me, I married right.

This will be the next to last post on this blog for 2012. I intend to do a “year-in-review” post soon, and what a travelicious year it has been.

This is a short look at a long trip around the world. I had never done that before. Due to circumstances and needs, I had all the excuses I needed to circumnavigate the coconut.

My trip took me across each and every of these time zones!

My trip took me across each and every of these time zones! I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, the Tropic of Cancer each twice, the equator twice, the international dateline and the prime meridian. Hey sister teacher, do I pass my geography test?

We live near Dubai, which just happens to be a fantastic place to travel from. Everywhere is close it seems. We flew Emirates Air, the first of six airlines I would use on to get around the globe.

This trip starts on a tiny rock in the south Indian Ocean called Mauritius.

First flight, Dubai to Mauritius. Emerites Air. 6 hours. No upgrade needed, Emerites treats you well in all the cabins!

First flight, Dubai to Mauritius. Emerites Air. 6 hours. No upgrade needed, Emerites treats you well in all the cabins!

Mauritius can be driven across in less than two hours. Volcanic in origin, it has a very picturesque mountain range which you can see from anywhere on Ile Maurice.

Mauritius can be driven across in less than two hours. Volcanic in origin, it has a very picturesque mountain range which you can see from anywhere on Ile Maurice.

Perhaps I am a spiritual descendant of the now extinct Dodo bird. Mauritius is where they were before the first white settlers caught them all because they could not fly. I hear they tasted like chicken.

Perhaps I am a spiritual descendant of the now extinct Dodo bird. Mauritius is where they were before the first white settlers caught them all because they could not fly. I hear they tasted like chicken.

The Island has an interesting history. First settled by the Dutch who named it after their Prince, it was taken over by the French. The French used it primarily as a port to launch attacks on  East India Company ships taking spices and silks to England from India. The East India Company, owned in large part by the royals, did not like that inconvenience one little bit and sent the worlds best naval power to put an end to the piracy. Consequently French and English are both spoken all over the island along with a native patois that combines the languages of India with African dialects. The main agricultural crop is sugar cane, which of course means there is production of rum, ummm, good rum.

rum

Turning sugar cane into rum, honest work!

My wife was with me for this part of the trip. It was a break from work for her and she wanted a no hassle week, so we stayed at a Club Med. On Mauritius? Yes, in fact they have two on the island. Mauritius is circled by luxury beach hotels. Tourism comes in second in the local economy.

Like all Club Meds, there is no shortage of recreational activities. Like most Club Meds, this one was on a fantastic stretch of beach.

Like all Club Meds, there is no shortage of recreational activities. Like most Club Meds, this one was on a fantastic stretch of beach.

All inclusive not only means ” have fun with our toys and eat until you burst”, it means drink your butt off if you desire.

The local beer. Here we are on a catamaran trip and Mary Ann took advantage of the "all-inclusive" thing.

The local beer. Here we are on a catamaran trip and Mary Ann took advantage of the “all-inclusive” thing.

Now 8 hours on a sailboat, and many “la bieres” can lead one to be a bit clumsy when you set foot on land. Mary Ann headed to the room to change, and tripped over her flip flops.

A few minutes later she was a patient in the Club Med clinic.

A few minutes later she was a patient in the Club Med clinic.

The clinic insisted we take an ambulance to the hospital, fearing a minor concussion. She got a cat scan which revealed no damage.

The clinic insisted we take an ambulance to the hospital, fearing a minor concussion. She got a cat scan which revealed no damage.

The hospital was not ony modern and efficient, it was on the beach! We (I stayed  overnight with her) have had less attractive hotel rooms.They kept trying to feed us. The room, the multiple MD visits, the cat scan altogether cost less than US$300. We had bought the Club Med trip insurance, and paid NOTHING out of pocket.

The hospital was not only modern and efficient, it was on the beach! We (I stayed overnight with her) have had less attractive hotel rooms.
They kept trying to feed us. The room, the multiple MD visits and the cat scan altogether cost less than US$300. We had bought the Club Med trip insurance, and paid NOTHING out of pocket. You can see here Mary Ann’s eye starting to puff up. The next day she looked like she had done 3 rounds with Mike Tyson.

Besides the catamaran trip, we took one overland excursion across the island. Pretty small towns, one big city, and a lot of sugar cane!

Perhaps the slowest way to see the island!

Perhaps the slowest way to see the island! He was not much of a guide, but I still tipped him well.

Mary Ann returned to work. I took off back across the equator for Thailand. I flew Air Mauritius to Kuala Lumpur, then Thai Air to Bangkok, then Air Asia to Chiang Mai.

I have been getting some extensive dental work done there, and this was going to be my last trip. I have covered life in Chiang Mai in previous posts, and they are worth navigating to. It is a very excellent city. I stayed three weeks and walked away from the land of smiles with a new smile. I promised my wife I would use it as much as possible.

From Thailand I flew  South China Air into some city in China I cannot pronounce or really even spell. The airplane we took from Bangkok to China had one of the windows in the cockpit held on with duct tape, I kid you not. I tried to get a photo, but it did not come out. Trust me, duct tape.

I had a 90 minute layover before I connected on a flight to LAX. This was both the least expensive flight from Thailand to Los Angeles, AND the flight to LA was on an A380, which I had never been on.

This a truly large aircraft. A double decker. Everything was quite modern. I cannot wait to fly on one where everything is in English. My Chinese is  rather bad. The flight was 16 hours!

This a truly large aircraft. A double decker. Everything was quite modern. I cannot wait to fly on one where all the instructions are in English. My Chinese is rather bad. The flight was 16 hours! Brand new plane, no duct tape.

I arrived in LA during rush hour (as if LA is not a 24/7 rush hour), rented a car and sat in traffic (managing not to fall asleep after that flight) to my sister’s house where I occupied her living room and had a fantastic turkey day spread. Thanks sister.

Then I went to spend a week in my personal Valhalla, Big Sur. This is simply my favorite place on the coconut, and has been for close to 40 years.

My buddy John lives 6 miles and 3500 feet above Highway 1 on the very worst road I have ever been on. The road keeps the tourists away so I do not mind!

My buddy John lives 6 miles and 3500 feet above Highway 1 on the very worst road I have ever been on. The road keeps the tourists away so I do not mind!

An Oak grove near his house.

An Oak grove near his house.

Cutting firewood. Split wood not atoms!

Cutting firewood. Split wood not atoms!

Even the firewood here is pretty. These " designs" in the wood should be sold as Chumash Indian art!

Even the firewood here is pretty. These ” designs” in the wood should be sold as Chumash Indian art!

Now for a couple of sunset photos from John’s house. Eat your heart out.

The sun reflecting off clouds foretelling a rainstorm.

The sun reflecting off clouds foretelling a rainstorm.

Just another sunset in Valhalla.

Just another sunset in Valhalla.

With a sad heart but a happy mind, I left Big Sur. I drove back to Los Angeles in a rainstorm. I got to LAX early, too early. I was flying Virgin Atlantic from LAX to LHR. A five hour layover in the most confused airport in the world, and then onto DXB and finally home’

For this 10 hour flight I upgraded to  "premium Economy" class, whch is VA's way of saying business class. It was worth it. Big comfy seat, excellent food and good service except thattheydo not have Tabasco Sauce for a Bloody Mary

For this 10 hour flight I upgraded to “Premium Economy” class, which is VA’s way of saying business class. It was worth it. Big comfy seat, excellent food and great service except that they do not have Tabasco Sauce for a Bloody Mary. Come on Sir Richard Branson! Geesh.

photo (10)

The last leg of the trip. 6 hours, 4 time zones. I was glad to be home in Sharjah. When I laid my head down, I realized I had missed Saturday altogether! I had a wicked case of jet lag. Next time I go around the world I want to do it longitudinally so I can stay in one time zone. Is that possible?

Well that about wraps up the coconut for the year! Look for my 2012 recap soon. Meanwhile, please make a comment and/or share this with your FB and real friends!

Bhutan, Gross National Happiness and Wonderment

Yes, Bhutan is a happy place. I mentioned before that the government actually does a yearly census to evaluate the level of happiness and look for ways to make people even happier, now THAT is a wonderment.

I also mentioned that there is a US$250 “tariff” you must pay to visit Bhutan. This is actually a good deal because it includes everything except beer and souvenirs. So, it cost us a bit more ;-). That tariff is actually in place to keep Bhutan from becoming over run with back packers like what happened with Nepal, India and Thailand. I know it sounds snobbish, but thank Buddha they figured that out. The result keeps everyone happy!  OK backpackers…snipe away in the comments.

One thing every country wants you to see are the handicrafts. Weaving, carving, and paper making. I always enjoy going because you know what…it is always different in every country, not to mention the best place for souvenirs. (My wife and I have a sort of unspoken but over riding rule, if we see something made, we are going to buy it.)

The distinctive patterns from each country are an excellent art form. At the gift shops, they will have everything for sale from bed spreads to scarves. Mary Ann bought so many scarves on this trip that I lost count.

An endless array of patterns, colors and opportunities to spend money!

Besides the crafts, tours in Asia always make sure you see the temples. I know I have been in more Buddhist temples than 95% of the Buddhists on the coconut. But like the weaving, they all have a certain distinctness to them. You have to look hard but it is there. In our travels I have seen the worlds smallest Buddha, and now I have seen the worlds largest under construction Buddha.  When he is done, he will just be a big beautiful Buddha, not the worlds largest. Some very rich man from Hong Kong is paying for this project. I wish I could be there when they consecrate it because I am sure it will be a spectacle.

He is probably 300+ feet high. I am sure if I looked it up, it would turn out that he is multiples of a magic number from the ground to his crown. They always make sure to do that. This Buddha sits on a high hill and overlooks the capital city of Thimpu, and you can see him from anywhere in the city.He is a wonderment.

The next post will take a quick look at Bhutan old and new. The ancient library and the brand new technology center. Whatever makes you happy! Stay tuned, share with a friend.

Chiang Mai, Thailand. Again.

A young girl dancing at the Sunday Night market in Chiang Mai

This is my third trip to the second biggest city in Thailand. In a small way I have become a local. The baristas at Starbucks remember my name. They also remember not to ask me if I want yak milk when I order a black coffee. The owner of my favorite haunt for breakfast asked me if I really needed a menu “you know it by heart” he said. The ENT doctor at the Chiang Mia Ram hospital was gracious and said “nice to see you again, time to vacuum the ears?” I walked into  Gecko Books and the owner looked up at me and said simply “Nope”. I had no idea what he meant. I shrugged my shoulders and he said “I have not gotten in any Hornblower novels yet.” It had been 4 months since I asked him if he had any. Most importantly, my dentist and all his assistants remember everything about me and treat me as a valued customer.

I know my way around the parts of town I need to know my way around. I know how to tell a Tuk-Tuk driver where I want to go. I know how to flag down a Sungtow (it is pronounced that way, the spelling is optional) headed in the right direction and how much to pay him.

I have adopted the attire of a resident expat, as opposed to a tourist expat. It helps fend off attempts at overcharging for transportation or other items. The difference I might pay if thought of as  a Dickerson from Iowa as opposed to a local farong might be as much as a quarter in real money. It is a point of pride.

I have done all the tours and adventures already. So this trip is about finishing up a course of dental work and just “being a local.”

Of course I am not truly a local, but I am starting to think I would like to be, someday. It has become imperative that I eliminate or encounter other possible retirement locations before I convince my wife that there is no better place to hang our hats, watch our hair turn silver and feed the pigeons.

Practicing for retirement!

As said, this trip is hopefully, although doubtfully, my last trip to the dentist.   Originally, almost a year ago, I came here to see my cousin. He has lived in Chiang Mai for 6 steady years. He seldom leaves. He blogs about it and emails me about it all the time. Once my wife and I settled into life in the UAE, I looked a the cost of flying  here from Dubai. It was less than flying from our previous home in Central America to Los Angeles. Then I looked at the cost of dentistry in Dubai vs the same work done here in Chiang Mai.  In short, it was less expensive to fly here, stay in a hotel, eat in restaurants and get my teeth fixed than it would be to have the dentistry done in Dubai. Plus I got a vacation, and Mary Ann got me out of the house.

My dentist here is the best dentist I have ever had. I have, since birth, had terrible luck with my teeth. So, I have seen enough dentists to fill a phone book. I once had an excellent dentist in Lima, Peru, but he was  so expensive that my credit cardcompany sent me an emergency message that I was probably being robbed.

This dentist in Chiang Mai has equipment built tomorrow. He was educated at UCLA and speaks English perfectly. He explains everything so that even a fool like me can understand. He laughs at my jokes, which originate in nervousness. Yesterday he was screwing in an abutment. I told him I felt like a car. He turned to his assistant (yes, his CUTE assistant) and said, “Hand me the adjustable spanner.”  She did not get it, but we had a good laugh. Plus, a BIG plus, something I cannot over emphasize, he is painless.

One other medical thing I take care of here is to have my ears vacuumed. Don’t ask. All I will say is that if I cut my head off, my health would be just fine. I walked into a first class hospital without an appointment, got the procedure done by an excellent doctor, and walked out less than an hour later. Total charge? About $30. Try that anywhere else.

But a person can only spend so much time in the dentist chair.

I planned this trip so that I would be here on a Sunday night. The Sunday night market in Chiang Mai is a colorful, vibrant and exciting event. Here are a few shots.

Silk flower displays for sale.

Soap flowers. I cannot imagine using these, they would melt in your hand. But they smell and look great.

I do not need booties, but f I did...

Chiang Mai is famous for umbrellas. I already have one, but I thought I would share this pic with you.

A day at the streetmarket would not be complete without a foot massage. A half hour for about $2. When she was done with the first foot, I had this incredible sensation that my two feet were somehow different!

Thai cooking requires a lot of spices. These are spice jars.

She is so cute I had to include her again.

Besides the  market I did not need to go anywhere or buy anything. Besides that, it has rained a few days during my visit. So, I have been reading quite a bit.

One of the reasons to love this city is a certain bookstore in town called Gecko Books.

The street entrance to the main store. It is conveniently located behind Starbucks at Thae Pea gate. Buy a book go to the coffee shop, sit in a comfy chair and read all day.

An expat name George started Gecko Books about a decade ago. He has a handful of storefronts. They are all chock full of  interesting books. He does not necessarily survive off of travelers, his local customer base is quite large as well. He buys books a customer/traveler is done with, and orders books both new and old from Australia, Canada, and the USA. If  you buy a book from him, you can sell it back for 50% of what you bought it for. There is a time limit on this buy-back option, but I forget what it is. It has never been an obstacle. I have been able to find most anything I want to read. The popular authors such as Grisham are well represented.  But it is not just a leisure reading bookstore. His shelves stock histories, science, theatre, dance, religion, and of course travel.

Anyone considering where they could afford retire to should consider Chiang Mai. My cousin is doing really well on about US$1200 a month, which includes rent, utilities, a great health insurance plan and he eats all his meals out. That is US$1200 a MONTH folks. Friendly people, very low crime, fresh air, great restaurants and a vibrant expat community.

Thanks for reading, tell a friend and make a comment. Next post….from KENYA!

International Air Travel, My Style.

As I start packing for yet another intercontinental flight, I came to the happy realization that I am now quite good at this. I know not to take more than one pair of shoes, two pairs of jeans, and save the weight and space for a few extra pair of BVDs.

In the last year I have been in five continents and if you want to get technical,  I could claim two sub continents. India is known as a subcontinent, but the Indian people are fond of telling you that they are their own continent. It is hard to argue with 1.2 billion people. And then there is the Middle East. I live here and I’ll be damned if I know what continent I live in. This aint Asia, nor Europe, nor Africa. I have never heard of anyone calling this area a subcontinent, so what is it? I’ll just go with subcontinent for ease of calculations.

As far as air travel goes, the Middle East is Middle Earth. Both Dubai and Doha bill themselves as the cross roads for the world. In a way that is very true. A person can fly from Dubai or Doha to anywhere important directly. Both cities are home to an excellent airline. Dubai boasts Emirates Air, and Doha is the proud home of Qatar Airlines, subtitled “The World’s Five Star Airline”. There is virtually no major country that is not served by either of them, together they have the globe covered. On top of that Emirates Air just reduced their fares because the price of oil dropped. Name me one other airline that did that!

I live in the UAE, about a half hour away from the Dubai Airport. This being Emirates home base you would think that I would be loyal to the home boys and that at least the majority of my travel would be with them. However, as any of you who know me are thinking right now, not necessarily.  For my trips to Thailand, the third of which  I am packing for right now, and for our trip to Hong Kong last month, I take Qatar. Why? Well, simply put $. Hundreds of $’s less. More $’s to spend on tours and stupid souvenirs. To fly Qatar I must first fly to Doha, which is a very short flight, then change planes at the Doha Airport. Qatar is building a new super airport, but I have no idea when it will be completed. For now, all planes coming and going must park in the next county. Passengers must  ride a bus into the terminal, and then another bus back out. It is a bit annoying and adds at least a couple of hours to my travel time, but it is the price I pay to save the $s.

Now that I have been a steady customer of Qatar, I am starting to climb up the ladder of their frequent flyer program. Soon I will be a Silver Flyer (please do not confuse that with Silver Surfer) and with a little creativity I will enter the ranks of the Golden Ones (please do not confuse that with getting older). As anyone who flies a lot and stays loyal to one carrier knows, stepping up a rank means multiplying  every mile you travel towards the grail of a free ticket. Someday, Qatar will owe me a free trip to somewhere I would never pay to fly to. (I hope that makes more sense to you than it does to me)  I am considering adding that to my bucket list; “Get a free flight to somewhere, anywhere at all”. It would not be my first time to achieve this, but last time I did it, mining companies were buying my tickets and it did not mean as much to me.

Back to my inspirational moment that led to this posting. Being good at international travel means more than leaving room in your suitcase for underwear (clean and otherwise) and souvenirs.

Let us consider proper travelling clothes. First let me say that anyone who dresses up for a flight is living in the fifties. Today, unless you have to go to a meeting right off the plane, it is ridiculous. Think of flying like taking the bus, it will simplify the journey.

So what to wear?I’ll do this from the bottom up.

Wear flip-flops or sandals. Not all airports make you take off you shoes, but when you have to, it is really nice to just kick off the sandals. In fact, a lot of TSA types will just let you pass if you are wearing nothing but flip-flops. If you are unfortunate enough that your destination is, say, Minnesota in January, you can pack a pair of mukluks and put them on before you leave the terminal.

Pants. Loose and baggy. That way they do not creep up on you and cause a lack of blood flow to sensitive regions. Also, if you can find loose and baggy cargo pants, then you can carry some essential in-transit items on your person, such as a couple of power bars, Ipod and  ear plugs, reading glasses, stuff like that. Yes, it means divesting your gear in one of those little trays before you pass through the security gate, but the trade-off is worth it. If you put all these things in your carry on bag it just causes more work for you once you get to your seat.

Shirt or blouse. Planes are notoriously over air-conditioned. What I find works best is a long sleeve cotton T.

Head gear. Most people do not wear anything. I always wear a ball cap, even when I am not travelling. I have found that this strange custom of mine is great on an airplane when I want to sleep. I can pull it down over my eyes. Combine that with the Ipod and you can drift into another world, while on your way to another world. The hat also keeps your head warm.

These days airlines have started stocking their inventory with planes that have the acronym ER at the end  of the type designator. I.E. B777ER. The ER stands for Extended Range. If you look at international routes available you will find some TRULY Extended Range flights. I think the longest regularly scheduled flight these days is from Atlanta to Johannesburg.  That is something like 19 hours. Dubai to Los Angeles is 16 or so. Just a few years ago either of these flights would have been impossible. You would have had to change planes and probably carriers in London, or Amsterdam. Maybe more than one stop. If you think 16 hours is too damn long to be cooped up in a steel tube at 38,000 feet with recirculated air spreading flu germs, well you are not alone. A lot of people still opt for a lay-over in some city. But the problems with that solution are scarier to me than catching this years flu bug. Let’s take a look at them.

Lost luggage. Every time you switch planes in transit you give overworked underpaid luggage handlers another chance to send your bag to Shanghai when your destination is Topeka. Don’t even bother wondering how they do it, but misdirected luggage is still a significant problem even though the world’s airlines are getting much better about getting your bag on the same plane you are on. That being said, it has never happened to me (knock knock) .

Another disadvantage of a lay over is the extra costs. An overnight in say London could just about double your airfare, considering hotel, taxis, meals and a night on the town.

Maybe all you want to do is get out of the flying tube and walk around an airport for 4 hours between flights, like the good old days. Consider this, count meals, that trip to the book store, some time in the bar, the cute souvenir refrigerator magnet at the gift shop that you would not have bought if you had not made the trip to the bar  and before you know it your travel budget has taken a hit. Plus, that gives the luggage handlers four extra hours to choose which plane to put your bag on.

I always opt for the non stop on the ER. Just remember, you get on the plane, and sooner or later, you get off the plane.

Now about that recirculated air. Well, other than looking like a Tokyo traffic cop and wear a surgical mask, there just is not anything you can do. However, the air up there is not the only source of exotic diseases in an airplane. The plastic tray and the arms on your seat can hold and transmit all sorts of maladies. And then there is the toilet. I always carry a little bottle of hand sanitizer and I use it before and after I touch anything. I think of it as preventing others from catching what I have, so I don’t feel like a paranoid. I also wipe down the food tray and the arm rests. Why risk it? Catching one of the worlds staphylococci can really ruin a nice vacation.

If the person sitting next to you is coughing, hacking, sneezing or bleeding uncontrollably, ask to be moved. Same thing if they stink, or especially if they are so fat they should have been made to buy two seats. If there are any empty seats, the cabin crew will try to help you, if you ask nicely. If you are not nice to them, about anything at all, they will not be nice to you, about anything at all. Frankly I think it is pretty shitty job which I would never do. Nobody tips you and some passengers can be real jerks.

Always carry a pen with you because you will need to fill out one of those immigration forms before you stand in the long line to have your passport inspected. Borrowing a pen from another (read: better prepared) passenger is embarrassing and brands you as a novice.

Many people will go to the trouble of finding the local currency exchange and buying Rupees  (whatever) before they leave home. I wonder if they have ever heard of an ATM machine?  Also, I just can’t understand why anyone uses travelers checks these days. These must be the same people who dress up for the flight. Hello? Eisenhower is not President anymore.

Thats it for today. I am off for Thailand now. All packed in my style, which means I probably forgot some stuff. My next blog will be from Chiang Mai. Stay tuned, tell a friend and please make a comment. Even if you do not know me, just tell me what you think about this post, even if you think it stinks like the guy who sat next to you on your last flight.

Using the Worlds Highest Urinal

Dubai is a city of extremes. Just about everywhere you go you can find the biggest, the fastest, the tallest.

My mother came to visit my wife and I last week, and we decided to be tourists in our own town. Technically we live in Sharjah, which is next door to Dubai. While being a rather sleepy town (Emirate actually) it is lovely, but without the superlatives you encounter in Dubai. Dubai seems to be working towards the Guinness Book of World Records for the most entries by a municipality in the Guinness Book of World Records.

We visited, in order;

The worlds largest indoor aquarium. This is located in the Dubai Mall, one of if not the largest mall in the world. It is 4 stories tall, each floor the size of five football fields, and this aquarium goes all the way up. There were an incredible number of fish, even sharks in this thing.

Attached to this mall is the new icon of Dubai

The world's tallest building and free standing structure, the Burj Khalifa

On the top of the Burj we visited

The worlds highest observation deck. Those little buildings below are really big skyscrapers.

The elevator to this observation tower is the worlds fastest elevator, 124 floors in 45 seconds. Yes, your ears pop.

All along we were met with plaques put in place by the Guinness book people. However, I just know that when I went to the gents room in this observation toiwer I was using the world’s highest urinal. Even though there was no plaque. I did not have a magic marker or I would have written graffiti to let people know what an honor it was to urinate there.

We also visited

The world's largest hanging gardens. This is my mom standing next to the Guinness sign

These beautiful gardens went on and on for acres.

To top it off my mom flew round trip on the 4th longest regularly scheduled air rout. LAX/Dubai/LAX. It is a 15 hour flight one way. Way to go mom!

Dubai is like the land of Oz. It is becoming a big tourist destination, for cause. The tourists are mostly European and Asian. Americans watch too much Fox news. I just feel lucky to live here.

Thats is it for this post. Next week I am off to Chiang Mai and the first week of June…KENYA! Stay tuned. Tell a friend, and please make a comment.

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.

Ready?

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.

Blogging from 30 Thousand Feet Over the Arabian Desert

If you ever asked me in my younger days what would be an exciting week I may well have said something like “fly 5000 miles, have currencies from 4 countries in my wallet, and wake up wondering where I am.”

In my adult life I have had quite a few weeks like that. I am in the middle of another one.

The day before yesterday I was in Chiang Mai. A 90 minute flight on Air Asia took me to Bangkok for one night. At five a.m. I was on my way to the airport to catch a 7 hour flight to Doha on a Qatar Air Triple 7. After a three hour layover in the Doha airport, an hour on an A320 to Dubai, and hour in a cab to our townhouse, I spent one night in “my own” bed and got up with the call to prayer for my ride to the Sharjah airport.

As I write this I am in an Air Arabia A320 on my way from Sharjah to Beirut. Yes Beirut. They say it is the Paris of the Middle East.  (I have heard that honorific compared to winning the NIT.)

I have a relationship with the back of the seat in front of me that the second dog in a dogsled team must have with the lead dog.

But I love it.

Let us start this episode of The Other side of the Coconut in Chiang Mai. I had planned to be there a month. My plans were for nothing more exotic than oral surgery and subsequent recovery. The surgery went extremely well and the recovery was like finding a $20 bill in an old pair of jeans, pleasant and quickly gone.

I was able to change my flight home very inexpensively.

So my month was now a week. I was very familiar with Chiang Mai. I had done just about every dumb tourist thing to do that exists there. I had timed this trip to the dentist to attend Loy Kathrong, which if you are a faithful reader you already know I enjoyed immensely.

There was one thing in the Lonely Planet book that I missed last time, and was determined to see this trip. There is a village in the mountains north of CM, near the border with Myanmar (or Burma if you prefer). The name of the village is Mai Salong.

Mai Salong did not exist before a regiment of the Kuongmintang Army escaped from China after the revolution, complete with their families, horses and traditions.  Horses are rare in Thailand and the Thai word for these people translates to “The Galloping Chinese”.  For the first 35 or so years of their existence, the villagers survived, and thrived, on the opium trade. The village was inaccessible except on foot or hooves. Eventually, the King of Thailand told the people that they would be accepted in Thailand, but they had to quit running opium, and let the government build them a road to civilization. The King also sponsored a new industry, that being the cultivation, processing and sale of tea.

Lonely planet described Mai Salong as a mini Hong Kong, steeped in Chinese culture and architecture. Poppycock. The only thing it is steeped in is tea. Lots and lots of tea.

Bags of locally grown tea of different types. I tasted about a half dozen before I had to run and find a bathroom.

The Chinese lady who made me tea, then sold me a bunch of it.

Picking tea.

At the tea plantation I found this sign. If you can tell me what it means, I will buy you a cup of tea.

The only thing remotely Chinese about Mai Salong was this. It is the Chinese Martyrs Museum. The museum is dedicated to the Kuongmintang of the area that fought the Chinese communists in a nasty war in Northern Thailand in the late 1970's. We did not hear about it of course because we were in our own nasty war a bit east.

It was interesting to find four Christian churches and two mosques in Mai Salong. I do not remember seeing a single wat.

The following day I was up before the poppies bloomed to go see an amazing, yearly, but amazing event. The entire Monastic community of Northern Thailand, 12,500 strong, gathers in Chiang Mai in a ceremony to receive alms. The monks arrived in the dark and filled about five city blocks on one side of a raised platform.  The platform had a statue of Buddha and the venerated elders of the monastic community. The four blocks on the other side were filled with civil and military authorities. The point of the gathering, after much praying and chanting, was the thousands of monks walking thru the government/military people who put offerings in their big bowls. Normal civilians could also give alms. You bought them from an alms dealer nearby. The alms were mostly rice, noodles, bottled water and fruit juices. The bowls filled up quickly and people walked behind the monks and transferred the lot to large plastic bags. I would estimate that they collected at least a few tons of subsistence for the monasteries.    I will let the following photos give you a better picture of the event.

Monks gathered before dawn.

When the sun came up, it was like orange water color in the rain. Orange everywhere. My orange receptors went on overload.

There were old monks...

… tattooed monks

..and baby monks!

My alms dealer

This is also a custom. You pay a bit for a bird in a cage and set it free.

My bird going free. For all I know they fly back to the "Bird man" and he sells them to someone else. But thats cool.

The entire point of the morning is to watch the politicians and military people pay homage and give alms to the monastic community. Thailand ROCKS!

 

OK, the plane is now coming into Beirut. I am looking forward to seeing this city that is so full of history and conflict.

Thanks for reading this post. Tell a friend, make a comment, and stay tuned for the story of our visit to the land of Danny Thomas.

Loy Krathong and Yee Peng

Mary Ann and I were on the 14th floor of the Hilton Hotel for NYE in Caracas, Venezuela. Everyone in Caracas bought BIG skyrockets, and with no organized program, complete mayhem ensued. That was the most impressive display of community participation in an event  I have ever seen. Until now. The night(s) of the November full moon find the city of Chiang Mai alive and vibrant in a wonderful celebration. Actually there are two different traditional celebrations happening at the same time. The first is Loy (some times spelled Loi) Kathrong. The origin of this celebration is lost in folklore. It is either to thank the river for bringing bounty to the land or to celebrate Buddhas first steps on the bank of the river Narmaha river in India. No one seems to care. What happens now is that couples make rafts, mostly the size of a medium pizza, with flowers, incense and a candle. They light the incense sticks and the candle and include a token coin on the raft. They make wishes for the next year and set them afloat in the  Ping  river. They drift down river but never reach  the Pong river (sorry, dumb joke) before they get collected by young   boys for the coins.

Girls preparing to launch their kathrongs.

Kathrongs floating down the river, Poor photo I know, there were thousands of these in the Ping this night.

However, the most impressive part of this celebration is something that makes Chiang Mai almost unique. I hear this is done other places, but I also have read in magazines and in a book about cultural festivals that nowhere else is this done on the scale it is done here.

This is the scene at a place north of town where thousands of these lanterns, called Khom Loi, are set off simultaneously.

This is what these lanterns look like before being launched. They are made out of rice paper. I think the fuel is a half inch thick cut of a toilet paper roll, soaked in Kerosene. I could be wrong about the toilet paper, but it is some sort of paper, and definitely soaked in something flammable.

This is the paper being lit. You hold onto the lantern until it wants to float, then you let it fly! This is one of the three I sent up. I included a firework attachment (The thing hanging on the right side) that made it send of sparks all the way up.

Now what would a community celebration be without a parade? Chiang Mai did up an excellent parade. OK, if the Rose Bowl parade is excellent, that makes this one very good. Lots of pretty girls and floats. In my coomitment to a full service blog, here are some photos.

The princesses and the queen on this float

I'd be remiss if I did not show you the queen!

Of course every parade has to have a military presence. This is the float of the Royal navy of Thailand. It is shaped like a royal barge, and was gold in color with lots of flowers. The two guys riding it could have been made of plastic, I mean they never moved a bit.

And no parade ever walked the streets of any town without politicians. This is the United States Department of State at work.

When I got close to this guy,( the US Counsel in Ching Mai) closer than his security detail was comfortable with, I shouted out to him "Hey man, You've gone NATIVE!" This made his wife laugh uproariously, he smiled and said "yeah, native".

And last, the music. The parade started off with a marching band bigger than my high school’s,  but smaller than say Ohio State. They were playing, of all things…wait for it…the theme song from Rocky 1. Gotta play something I guess. I always like the drummers in my former home of Bocas. This is what the drummers looked like in Chiang Mai last night.

They kept up a great rhythm.

The entire town was gussied up. Here are a few photos for those of you still awake.

These elephants were constructed along the moat that surrounds the old city. There was a competition and these were finalists.

An elephant in front of one of the ancient gates to the city.

The square at Tha pea gate is huge and this photo only captures a small % of the lit lanterns covering the entire area.

Of course for every celebration, there must be an aftermath,

These spent rice paper lanterns, so magical the night before, could be found all over the city in the morning. Make that early morning because people were everywhere cleaning them up. I was lucky to get a picture of one.

Thank you so much for joining me for Loy Kathrang and Yee Peng. I hope you get to see it yourself someday. One thing I forgot to mention, booze was prohibited outside of bars and inebriated people were not present anywhere. When you play with fire, safe and sober is a good idea.

Although I have other places to explore, Chiang Mai is now on top of my retirement possibilities.  After all, if the US Consul can go native, why can’t I?

Subscribe if you haven’t yet, tell a friend, thanks for reading, and please make a comment.

Shaken, not stirred

A lot of you have opened this post to read about Mary Ann having to be rescued by a Lady Boy in a Chinese Jungue. OK, but I am going to force you to read some other boring stuff first.

PHUKET

Phuket was what we expected. It is a well developed resort island. Every seasoned Thailand traveler will say “You should have seen it twenty years ago, grass shacks with sand floors”. I reply, “I lived someplace like that for four years, been there, done that and got the insect bites.”  Phuket today has a giant Hilton, a Club Med and everything in between. We stayed in a very comfortable hotel which was across the street from a long beautiful stretch of white sand beach. This beach was special to me because the sand was so soft is actually(really and truly) SQUEAKED when you walk on it.

This is Karon beach. Our hotel is to your left. You can get a massage and a beer right on the beach. You can also just walk around and listen to the sand squeak under you feet.

I DID find one thing to do that involved something more than hedonism, well maybe just another type of hedonism.

I saw a parasail operator. They saw me actually. somehow I have "sucker" written on my forehead

After the guy gets you all strapped up, the last thing he should do is wish you luck then turn and laugh, but that is what he did.

If I now look like I am having second thoughts, oh yeah, second thoughts indeed.

We have lift off of the tourist shuttle dumb shit.

It was actually an incredible flight over the bay. Just about the time I got relaxed, it was over.

The Tourist has landed. One small flight for man.

I guess I liked it!

The next day I talked Mary Ann into going fishing. “Deep sea, big game fishing” they called it. The brochures had pictures of sailfish and huge tuna.

This is what I caught.

 

I doubt it would taste good even with Thai seasonings.

It was a wonderful day on the water. We had a good time.

The next day we just relaxed and got massages.

OK, what you really opened this post for….

JAMES BOND ISLAND

There are a multitude of tours available from the island of Phuket. One is to the Phi Phi islands. Normally I tell me readers that what I just wrote is not pronounced  as rudely as  it looks. This time I must tell you that but in the opposite way. it is not pronounced FI Fi, no, it actually is pronounced PEE PEE. It makes for interesting conversations with the tour sellers who ask, “You want to go pee pee?.”  Or “have you gone Pee Pee yet?”   We did not go Pee Pee, even though the Pee Pees are where the movie “The Beach” was filmed. Everything we read about it talks about the intense over commercialization, hundreds of tourist shops selling mostly crap made in China. Plastic busts of Leonardo diCaprio do not interest me.

Our limited research convinced us to go to the James Bond Islands. These are in a region of the Andaman Sea called Ao Phang-Nga Marine National Park. It consists of dozens, OK,  hundreds of Karsts. Karsts are massive limestone blocks pushed up out of the sea by mainland fault activity. You have probably seen pictures of them but in case not, here ya go. This IS a full service blog!

They rise up all around you as you navigate through the waters of the park

Our tour was on an “Authentic Jungue” How authentic I cannot tell you but it was comfortably outfitted, and attractive.

Cool eh what?

We cruised close to a couple of karsts so we could see the erosion of the lomestone caused by the salt water and waves.

In thid case the erosion created a tunnel to pass through.

As you can tell from the photos, yes there we an awful lot of fellow tourists out and about this day. No worries. I’m glad they are making money.  This group of tourists were in plastic Kayaks, being rowed by local boys who fish at night from the following village.

 

This is a floating village. It is named Paynee Village. It is also called "Sea Gypsy' village because all the residents are Muslims descended from sea faring Muslims from Java.

Of course Mary Ann and I live in a Muslim country, so I  tried my limited (very limited) Arabic with them. Mary Ann laughed and said “Just because the woman is covered, does not mean she speaks Arabic, idiot.” The entire village is dedicated to the separation of a tourist from his money, but again, that is cool. they had a great school, and kids all looked happy.

Playing jax.

You shuld take the time to open this photo as large as you can get it and read the "Rules" of the island. You will be humored by some of the English spellings, and especially some of the fines if you violate the rules.

OK OK. Onto Mary Ann’s adventure. But first a word from MI6

Our next stop was at James Bond Island, so called because 34 years ago they filmed part of the movie “The Man With The Golden Gun” here. Unfortunately is was not a Sean Connery movie, so IMHO, not really a James Bond movie. This one starred Roger “The Usurper’ Moore, 006 1/2.

It too is a tourist trap.  If you wait for the Korean and Japanese tourists to get out of you way, you can get good shots of the iconic karst featured in the film’s posters.

 

Here I am trying to look like an MI6 agent. Agent 1/2

My Bond girl

 

Security office on the island, straight out of BedRock

OK Already! Now to Mary Ann’s Inadvertent Adventure!

Our tour leader and defacto captain of the Junque was a  Lady Boy Lady Boys are Thailand’s third gender. They do not have to hide in a “ghetto” like the Castro district. They are an accepted part of Thailand life. How can you spot one. Well, first, they have implants that make them a solid 36C, while most Thai girls are lucky to fill out a training bra. If you are still confused, look for man hands and of course an Adam’s apple.

After Bond Island we stopped to swim, out in the middle of the Andaman Sea. Mary Ann had been looking forward to a swim all day. she stripped of her shorts and T shirt and dove right in. She was the first overboard, and the last. By the time she came to the surface she was 30 or so feet behind the junque. It turns out there was quite a current. I watched as she licked lively to try to get back to the boat, but she was being  pulled further and further away. I could sense her look of apprehension, and frustration. So could everyone else. She was now just a spot in the water. I got the attention of Captain Lady Boy. She immediately took command. Her/his voice dropped an octave or two as she started giving orders to the crew.   They threw her a life ring on a stern line which was about 60 feet too short. Then they tossed her an unattached life ring. It too fell short of the mark, but smart Mary Ann let it drift toward her until she could reach it and hold on. Now she waspaddling again, but to no avail. It got to the point where all we could see was the orange life ring.

 

She is out there somewhere!

I started to say something to Captain Lady Boy but she was a step ahead of me. She got one of her crew to get in the dinghy. He tried to start it for a few minutes while Mary Ann drifted further away. The engine would not catch, so he started paddling towards her. He finally got to her.

 

If you look hard you can see the dinghy. Mary Ann is holding on.

Everyone on board was shouting encouragement in French, German and Australian, none of which I understand. The Aussie looked at me and said “Is that all you are going to do mate, take pictures?” The only thing I could say was “It is not everyday you get rescued.”

Mary Ann was too tired to get into the dinghy. The rescuer figured he would motor back with her holding on. It took him five minutes to get the little 2 1/2 HP Tohatsu to start. Alas, the current was too strong for the dinghy to get back. The rescuer yelled some Thai at  Captain Lady Boy. The driver of Junque started the engine and made a nice round-about and pulled up next to the dinghy. There was Mary Ann gallantly holding on.

The things some people do for a tip.

And now for the happy ending.

Shaken Not Stirred. My Bond girl!

Needless to say, we had Martinis for dinner that night, and watched this sunset.

Great end to a wonderful exciting day.

Thanks for reading. Subscribe for automatic updates in the future. Tell a friend. Comment at will.

Thai one on, again.

Mary Ann and I are back in Thailand. I am here for my second round of dental work and for the Lo Krathong festival, stay tuned for that one. It is rated as one of the worlds greatest cultural festivals, and I am looking forward to it. I will be in Chiang Mai when it happens (during the full moon) and I will post about it big time. Now back to the present.

Banging around Bangkok

We spent a day in Bangkok because last time we were there we did not get to see the Grand Imperial Palace. So we set out with a mission in mind. The best, or  at least most touristy way to get there, is on the river in a big tourist boat. When we got to the river we were of course surounded by the touts trying to sell us a trip on one of the long tail boats. We did that last time, which is why we missed out on the Grand Palace. No big deal,  these guys are just trying to make a living. Tourism is still slow, although this is the start of the high season. Any Thai will ask you where you are from. When we say Dubai, they ask where our dishdash is,why isn’t Mary Ann covered. Then we admit we are from America. They always say “Ahh, America, Obama! I love Obama! Is he Muslim?”  We explain his father was, but he is Christian. They still love him anyway. It is much more pleasant than having to apologize for Bush.

I have made this comment in previous posts. You RARELY find an American in Asia or the Middle East. Distance? Fear? Tired of being asked why we send our military around the planet killing people? I don’t know, but an  American tourist is rare everywhere I have been this year.

The first thing you see on the river is this fabulous Royal bridge. It looks a lot like the new bridge in Boston,unencumbered by civic budgets

I had to take this picture just to prove to anyone who has never been to Thailand, that WHEREVER you are in this country, you can see a 7/11!

Fiirst view of the Grand Palace from the river.

When we got to the entrance of the grounds where the Palace is, we found out that clothing we can get into a Mosque in is not good enough for the Palace grounds. We had to rent acceptable clothing.

I sure hope that they liked making me look this ridiculous. I rarely look this goofy outside of my own home.

Mary Ann still looked good in her rental clothing. Palace in background.

Our ticket on the boat included a guide. She took us all around and explained things to us she kept using the phrase “my king” or “my queen”. The king of Thaiand has been king longer than any other monarch except that queen in England. He has been good to and for his people. What will happen in Thailand when he dies is a matter of concern for my expat friends here. the crown prince is not very popular and no one knows if there will be some sort of internal struggle for power. We are considering Thailand as a retirement option. Weather, cost of living, nice people, great food, excellent health and dental care and cheap massages are all reasons why.   But we have a lot of the coconut to see still.

I could go on and on about or first day, but I won’t. we are off to Another adventure early in the morning.

Stay tuned and thanks for reading. Make a comment!

%d bloggers like this: