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Starbucks, Same Same but the Same

Most, not all, of my collection of Starbucks mugs. if anyone has more, I would be surprised.

Starbucks. It seems every civilized place on the planet has at least one.

On any continent they are all exactly alike. The only difference is the décor on the mugs. I consider them collectibles. I have no more room on the shelves in my kitchen for them, but I still buy one wherever I go. In fact, I am a bit annoyed if the city I am in (Nairobi, Kathmandu) does not have a Starbucks. Before I travel, I Google the location of the Starbucks in the destination city. Not only do I want to add to my collection, I want to be able to get a good cup of coffee.

The same people who stood in line in front of me in Macau or London stand in line in front of me everywhere else. They all order just about the same thing. The session goes something like this.

“I’ll have a half latte, half mocha, half cappuccino with half cream and make it only half hot please.”

The barista is usually a college educated person who majored in something like Ancient Sri Lankan philosophy. They dutifully perform the chemistry experiment needed to serve the person in front of me. Meanwhile I select my souvenir mug. Then the overly picky customer sends back the coffee because it is too hot, I chat her up.

“Hey, didn’t we meet at Starbucks in Macau?”

“Oh yes we did! I remember the mocha there was very bitter.”

She shuffles away, happy with her lukewarm creation, and I step up to the counter.

Here is how my order goes.

“I’ll have a small black coffee

“Will that be mocha or a cappuccino?

“Coffee”

“Fresh cream from Sumatran sacred goats in that sir?”

“Black, a small black coffee”

“A grande then”

“No. Didn’t you learn anything at Harvard? Grande means big, large, and bigger than small. I want, again, now listen hard, A SMALL BLACK COFEE”

“Do you want Columbian, Kenyan, Costa Rican or our house blend?”

“If it is black, hot and you don’t ask another question, I don’t care.”

A brief roll of the eyes that say “I should have gone to grad school” is followed by “Yes sir, that will be (Insert too high a price in any currency here).”

But this is just my problem. I’m glad I did not graduate into this economy, so I still tip them.

The coffee they serve is always good, even without milk from sacred yaks. When I was in Bali, I asked for Kopi Luwak, which is made from beans that have passed through the digestive track of a type of cat, then shat, cleaned and roasted. This is the best coffee I have ever had, and a product of Bali, but not available at Starbucks in Bali.

Kenyan coffee is excellent, and Starbucks sells it all over the world, but there is no Starbucks in Kenya. Maybe milk from the sacred Zebra is not available.

The Starbucks at Trafalgar Square in London was packed when I was there, mostly with tourists glad to get something other than tea or Nescafe.

Starbucks cafes are a great place to blog from. Usually the wifi is free, not always. They have comfy seats. People can spend hours in one. I know, I have.

So fellow travelers, if you ever want to meet up with me in some foreign country, I’ll met you at Starbucks!

Green logo used from 1987-2010, still being us...

The three most prevalent logos I find traveling are Coca Cola, McDonalds, and this one!

Calling From London!

I had no idea that London still had these iconic phone booths. In fact they are all over the tourist areas of London. This one is near Big Ben and the House of Parliament. We did not try to call anyone, with London being as expensive at it is, we would have had to carry a bucket of pound coins to call New York, I

We took off for London the day after Thanksgiving. Mary Ann had two motivating factors for this trip. The first was to finally match my “gold tier” level in Qatar airlines frequent flyer program, and the second was to use up some of the vacation time she has accrued. It seems that the more we go on vacation, the more vacation days she has! Nice problem!

My motivator was history. London is plumb full of it. In all those Asian countries, guides try to tell us that a child who came back to life with the head of an elephant is somehow history. In London, there is no religious fantasy, just real history.

The oldest thing we saw in London was this remnant of a Roman wall. The Romans conquered the London area about 2 thousand years ago. I do not think there was much to conquer back then.

We arrived at Heathrow airport about noon. TWO HOURS later we were finally through immigration. Terminal4 at Heathrow is where most of the truly foreign carriers arrive. BA and US carriers land at the other terminals. Heathrow terminal 4 is not a friendly nor an attractive place. Long walks without any people movers. Missing ceiling panels expose crude neon lighting. Poor signage which even in English left you wondering if the last 1/4 mile hike had been in the wrong direction. Then, we got to the immigration line. There were 35 booths available for use. Two or three were occupied. The officials would show up, process two or three people, then go away. Another might show up a few minutes later, then one of them would go back to their break room and presumably have tea and crumpets. I have been in immigration lines all over the world now and this truly was the rudest experience I have ever had. They profile everyone with questions starting with “Why are you here?

“I am beginning to wonder that myself.”

“How long will you be here?”

“I have already spent half my holiday in this fookin line.”

“Where are you going after you leave?”

“Someplace that respects tourists.”

I am not kidding, this was almost verbatim what went down with me in my session at the desk. When I had the stamp in my passport I told the guy;

“I don’t see how you expect to handle the Olympics. People are going to be pole vaulting your booths in protest.”

He didn’t much like that and said “It takes 2 1/2 hours for me to get through JFK immigration.”

I mumbled something about payback being a bitch and walked away.

Coincidentally, as I write this on the 30th of November, England is experiencing a general strike against pension reforms imposed on workers in the public sector. That includes the immigration people. The tabloids in London were predicting 12 hour queues at the immigration lines. However, I have been watchng Sky News out of London. The government has called out the army to man the desks, and to quote one airport manager “the lines are moving faster than normal.” Not a very high bar to pass, but ironic none the less.

Things started to look up after that. The London Underground, or the tube, serves Heathrow. With one easy line switch we were at Victoria station within an hour, and rather inexpensively. The tube cost us about US$12, where as a Taxi would have been about $85, and take longer. It was a comfortable ride with a view of the suburbs.

Our hotel was a block from Victoria Station. It was an excellent hotel with excellent service.

Decorated for Christmas, the Park Plaza Victoria was a welcoming sight to behold.

Our first night there we went on a walking tour by a company that calls itself London Walks.

http://www.walks.com/

I highly recommend this company. We took the pub crawl tour at night. Unfortunately I did not bring a camera. The tour, led by a young woman was excellent. She has done a lot of research of London history, and yes, pubs. We saw many interesting places, had more than a few Ales (all of them cold, and only one “bitters”), and I learned what a Cockney really is. A true Cockney is born within the sound of Bow Bells. Both this church and the much older and prettier St Mary le Bow church in The City claim to be the centre of this folk legend. I also learned a lot about the Thames river, including the proper Cockney pronunciation…Taimes, with a slight deference to the letter I. She showed us where John Harvard was baptized in a church that makes anything in Boston look like urban renewal. I had to teach her the proper pronunciation of Harvard…Hahvahd. It took three tries to get her to drop the Rs!

We only had three days left to see all there is to see in London,so we knew we would not see all there was to see in London.

We bought something called the London Pass.

http://londonpass.com

This little credit card sized gizmo gets you into anything interesting in London for free and allows you to hop the queues. If you pay a little more you get free tube passage as well.

When they say underground, they mean UNDERGROUND. This is only halfway down into the circle line.

We also bought a 48 hour pass on

http://www.theoriginaltour.com/

This service bills itself as the ORIGINAL hop-on- hop-off bus tour, copied in many cities all over the world. We have done this in Dubai and Singapore, so why not go with the original? They use double decked busses (with no driver on the top) and have multiple lines that go all over greater London. If you pay attention to where each line goes you can see just about anything. The commentary explains where you are at any given time. You get off where you want to explore something, then hop on again to get to the next tourist attraction.

I nicked this photo from Google. The buses today are a bit more modern, but the concept is the same.

The combination of the hop-on-hop-off bus and the tube let us zip all around town, and boy did we zip.

One our first visits was The Curchill war rooms.

They did not allow cameras in the war rooms, still worried about those nasty Nazis I guess, so I stole this photo from Google. The war rooms are a part of the Imperial War museum complex with sites all over England The war rooms are an underground bunker complex located less than a block from Number10 Downing Street. This is where Churchill ran the war from. This picture is of the map room. When the war ended, the bunkers were of course closed and shut off. It was not until the 1970

Tea with milk. Quite British!

WWII is virtually yesterday in London. We had a lot more to see. We whipped out our tube cards and tourist maps and started exploring.

Standing on a street corner, I saw this kid who looked somehow familiar. I spoke with thim and he claimed to be the illegitimate son of “some rocker”.

I think I know who his pop was. Can you guess?

We were just off Whitehall, which is sort of the center of the British government bureaucracy. Whitehall intersects with Downing street. This is as close as we could get to #10 downing street.

I did not even ask if I could pass.

Just further down Whitehall is the main stables of the Household Calvary. Although largely ceremonial, they are still an elite unit. They have really nice horses.

Just off whitehall is a building I could not leave London without seeing.

During England

Just a block away at the top of Whitehall is Trafalgar Square. The square is dedicated to the battle of Trafalger where the British navy, under Nelson, defeated a much larger combined fleet of Spanish and French naval forces. Nelson died in this battle.

Nelson

One of our next stops was St.Paul’s Cathedral.

No, St Paul

St. Paul

Today, this is the site of OCCUPY LONDON. The reason for the choice of this is that the London Stock exchange is directly behind it, and the courtyard is the only space big enough for the tent city.

One of the signs posted. I like the way it combines the Cathedral and the LSX.

Part of the tent city from the steps of the Cathedral.

This is a port-a-potti paid for by the occupiers. The occupiers in Zucotti park wanted to do this, but Mayor Bloomie would not let them. Of course there are people who want the occupiers to simply go away, but unlike the ubber alles methods employed in NYC, Oakland and LA, there is not a single cop at the OLSX site. Also, the effort to remove them is scheduled for adjudication in mid December. Each side has lawyers and it will be settled peacefully, not by cops in riot gear in the dark of night.

After I had a few words of encouragement with the occupiers and made a financial contribution, we moved on.

Because of our limited time and London’s unlimited tourist options, we did not go to any of the huge gardens. London has more green space than any other city in almost the entire world. We also did not tour any of the magnificent museums which populate the London streets. They have museums to display everything from booty looted from around the old empire, to toys, fans, and probably shoelaces. Maybe next time.

It is impossible to miss the London EyeSORE. We did not do this either.

I must say that I have always heard that the food in London was akin to boiled cardboard. I also thought all the beer would be warm and bitter. Not so. We had really good meals wherever we went, and the beer was always cold. You could get “bitter” if you wanted, but…

This pub was across the street from the Parliament building. We were there at lunch, and had a great meal, and enjoyed the Tangle Foot Ale. There were quite a few men who looked like Ministers of Parliament having liquid lunches and debating the issues of the day. Interesting crowd. Maybe that is why sessions of Parliament are so much more lively than sessions in the US congress. Government fueled by Ale!

The next spot to talk about is the Tower of London. There is an awful lot of history there, and I suggest that you read up on it before you go. I will give you a quick glance at what took us 4 hours to see.

I convinced Mary Ann to occupy a guard shack at the Tower of London!

Actual Beefeaters give tours of the Tower of London. I asked one why they have the moniker beefeater, and he told me no one is sure.

The Tower of London is home to the actual, the authentic and the priceless crown Jewels of England. They are so well guarded that I gave up my plans for a smash and grab.

I included this picture taken at the Tower, but it could be from anywhere in London which is a giant panopticon. If you do not know what a panopticon is, look it up. It will astound you to know. Basically it is a method of installing fear in the populace.

This is the Tower Bridge shot from the outer wall of the Tower of London fort. Many people mistake this for the London Bridge, which is a truly non-photogenic span.

Now to the most amazing building in all of London, Westminster Abbey!

An absolutely beautiful building with an astonishing history.

If you ever go to London, do the Abbey. Even if you are just there for a day, do the Abbey. Photos are not allowed inside here either, but most of you have probably seen pictures of the recent Royal Wedding. I’ll nab a couple more from Google for you, just because I am a good guy…oh forget about that. I tried. But no camera, no photographer can capture the whole scene inside, let alone the grandeur, the history, the splendor. One word of warning, if you have a phobia about walking on graves, do not go to the Abbey. There are over 3000 people buried in this building and every time you look down you are standing on somebody’s tomb.

For more info, possibly including a list of all the Royals, prime ministers, scientists and poets buried here go to http://www.westminster-abbey.org/

We were smart to take what they call the Verge Tour. A verge is kind of like an usher for services and official events in the Abbey. Our verge was very obviously proud to work in the abbey. He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the hundreds of years of Abbey history. He had a great sense of humor as well. He kindly laughed at my irreverent questions. For instance when he showed us the places where the Royals sit for services, I asked

“Does the queen carry a purse to a service?

“Of course” he said “her highness always carries a purse.”

“So maybe you can solve a mystery for me…what in the world does she carry in it?”

“Probably her tube pass.”

For further proof that these men with a very serious job are well rounded enough to have a very light sense of humor, go here

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WUSwrJS3Ds

OK. Now for probably my personal most favorite thing we did in London. On Sunday morning we hopped the tube and found our way to St. John’s Wood. This is a bit out of central London. Beautiful homes with actual gardens.

One of dozens of beautiful homes in this neighborhood. But I was not here for the architecture.

In the middle of the St. Johns Wood neighborhood is this road. If you cannot figure out why I came here by now, you are an extraterrestrial without a guidebook.

When I think of all the music created inside this door, I am speechless.

I have wanted to take this walk since I was in High School. I do not own a white suit, and it was too cool (or I was not cool enough) to go barefoot, so I could not imitate Lennon or McCartney. But I did get to walk in their footsteps. We met a wonderful gentleman who lives in the neighborhood, and has for 50 years.He told us that there are ALWAYS people crossing here and getting their picture taken doing so. He had to go to the neighborhood council a few years back and plead with them to repaint the stripes, because they were getting worn out. He also told us that one morning, his son in grade school at the time, was waking along the street with his class and their teacher, singing a song. Paul McCartney came out and conducted them while singing along. The kids thought it was fun, the teacher was astounded, humored, and honored . Those were the days!

One more thing everyone who goes to London ought to do just because…

I waited outside, Mary Ann bought some goodies. The ultimate souvenir store in London!

Thanks for reading, tell a friend, and I really do love comments!

Bali Hai

I have neglected my responsibility to show you some of the beauty and cool stuff about Bali. Sorry. We have been planning our next jaunt and it has consumed my time, imagination and dreams.  But I must finish posting about Bali before I move on, so here goes.

Bali Hai beer. A good way to start your vacation.

Bali has beautiful countryside to look at. These rice terraces are all over the hills. Bali also has long stretches of white sand beaches. I am trying to stay positive with this post, but behind me when I took this picture is a long line of traffic and hundreds of hawkers and junk stores. Plus the beaches are covered with sunburned Russians. Our tour guide described Russians as "loud, vodka drinking louts who do not tip."

Bali's highest point is this volcano called Gunung Batur. The drive up to it, while crowded with people like us (damn tourists), is quite beautiful.

Bali has always had crafts people. They have beautiful weavings. They carve wood for you to buy. But my favorite, and probably the most evocative art craft in Bali is Batik. They make all types of clothing, including unfortunately shirts. I bought more than I will ever need. Anyone want a 2X sized batik shirt? This photo os of a woman applying wax to the design already drawn on the silk. Then they dye it, and do it over again for every color. This is time consuming and labor intensive. Yet, at least in Bali, the shirts are not that expensive.

The food in Bali is really quite wonderful. The seafood in particular (duh, it IS an island). I loved the way they served this rice side dish with the banana leaf dunce cap.

The best place we visited in Bali was this producer of Kopi Luwak. If you ever go to Bali, go here.

This is why you should visit this place. This is Kopi Luwak, which crudely translates into coffee from the shit of the Luwak. The luwak is a cat like animal that feasts on ripe coffee beans. The digestive process of the cat leaves the beans intact, yet secretes any hint of acidity in the coffee. The locals find the cat shit, then they remove the beans and roast them like any other coffee bean. The result is the best coffee this reporter has ever drank, and I have had Costa Rican Terra Zu, Jamaican Blue Mountain, you name it. I love good coffee. This tradition came from colonial edicts that prohibited the locals from harvesting beans for their own use, so they started harvesting the cat shit. When the Dutch ruling class tasted what the locals were drinking, it became a craze. Now it sells for US$1000 a pound in New York. Restaurants charge US$90 a cup for it.

Keeping with weird tradition of showing you what the restroom signs look like...I am glad they used the words or I could not have figured it out.

Could you?

The very weirdest thing I found in Bali was in the men's room of the lobby in our hotel. Take a good look. Too weird anywhere, especially in the men's room.

Well folks, that is it for our trip to Bali. Overall we enjoyed it, but like I said in the previous post, it is not worth the effort or cost to get there. (It took us 26 hours to get home,from the hotel lobby to our living room and cost way too much money). Bali never considered sustainable tourism in their plans, and it is too late now.

Thanks for reading. Tell a friend. Make a comment. Share with your FB people. Please.

Next post…London!

Bali: Paradise Buried.

If Bali is on your bucket list, scratch it off. I’ll save you the long plane ride and the money to get there by telling you that the romantic, idyllic paradise you have in your mind about Bali has been buried under tourists, traffic and trash.

Our introduction to Bali might have jaded us. I know it jaded my wife.

The line at immigration was not long, but the clerks were very slow. Directly in front of us were two grungy euro looking trekkers with dreads. I fully expected them to get seriously scrutinized and delay our entry even longer, but they sailed through like dignitaries to the upcoming ASEAN conference.

Then it was Mary Ann’s turn. Well dressed, polite, and the most honest looking face on either side of the coconut, I expected her to just pass through like a wind across the plains. However, the immigration man started seriously looking at her passport, page after page after page. We have residency permits from the UAE and Panama in our passports, along with stamps and visas from more countries than I can count.

The immigration clerk took her passport and handed it to a supervisor. He took his time scrutinizing it. Then he called over a guard, and they whisked my wife off behind a grey metal windowless and closed door.

This is the reception you get at immigration in Bali. Well, at least it seemed like it to us.

I figured I was heading for the same fate, I just had no idea why. Bali is part of Indonesia. Indonesia is a Muslim country, so I doubted the UAE residency permit was the problem. Neither of us has been to Israel, so what could it be? The first thing I did of course was politely demand to know where they had taken my wife.

“To office” was all the clerk said.

“Why” was my logical response.

“No full page” he answered.

“May I go back there and see her?” I asked, fully expecting a negative response.

He finished putting my visa in my passport and just waved me away. So I walked over to the door they had taken her through not knowing if it was going to be full of hungry tigers, hot oils, dragons or what. I found her sitting on an industrial couch which was indented with the impressions of too many posteriors that had sat there for too long. I asked her what they told her. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say “hell if I know”. I told her what the clerk had told me “no full page”.

The look of recognition crossed her face like a sunrise on the beach. “I told you I should have gone to the consulate and gotten the extra pages put in. But I have two blank pages. What is wrong?”

Then they called her into the inner sanctum, just her. 15 minutes passed while I watched a 15 year old tourism highlight video.    I began to think this was all I was ever going to see of Bali. It wasn’t even in English.

She came out alone with a look of bewilderment and the attitude you see before surrender. She explained to me that the last two pages of the passport are for “Amendments and Endorsements” and that they could not put the Visa sticker on one of these pages, and all the other pages were full. Well, this is one of those problems that you feel lucky to have, but stupid to have to suffer through. A full passport is a beautiful thing, unless you are using it.  I asked her what we could do, and she said we could “get on a flight to somewhere else Anywhere else.”  She was saying just loud enough that the officials in the back bowels of the immigration bureaucracy enclave could hear it. These guys were all dressed like traffic cops, cheap white uniforms with tin badges. I expected to see a whistle. One of them came out to ask her to go to yet another cage full of dragons. He did not close the door behind them this time. I could hear Mary Ann saying “OK, OK, we’ll just leave.” I had no idea where we would go. Thailand was underwater, we’ve done Hong Kong. Australia is too damn far. Besides all that, if there is no space in her passport, we’d probably end up in another colorless office with even less colorful mignons.

Then she walked out of the office and told me to follow her. She said something I never thought I would hear my Jesuit schooled wife say. “We are going to have to bribe the guy.”

So I went into this little office. The calendar on the wall was from the wrong month, and two years old. That calendar was probably the most modern thing in the office. If I remember correctly the phone on the desk actually had a dial on it. I was welcomed in like a sheep to slaughter. Little did he know that I was not exactly new to this. I lived in Latin America for too many years and dealt with too many petty  men in uniforms of too many corrupt governments to let him bother me. This had never happened to me in Asia, but I knew it was just human nature.

He started off by asking what I did for a living. I could have told him I was a writer for Conde’ Nast and that this story was going to go a long way to stopping the almighty tourist dollar.  My mind which has read a thousand spy/adventure novels was telling me to say “Yeah, buddy, I’m a major in the USAF and if you don’t quit messing with my wife I’ll call in an airstrike on your grandfather’s fishing boat.”

But I realized that he was in the right. He was being an asshole about it, BUT, Mary Ann DID have a full passport.

So it came to the transaction.

“What is your policy?” I asked.

He was at least honest enough to say, “This is only my policy, not the government’s.”

OK, OK, the negotiation was on. This was his way of increasing his take home pay. In these situations, the objective is for neither party to lose face. I waited for him to make the first offer. When he did, I turned to Mary Ann and said simply, “Shall we go to Chiang Mai?”

He showed a bit of vulnerability. I could tell he was counting on this American cash cow to make his day. I could have gotten rougher with him than I did, but he DID have us over a barrel.

I then offered him ½ what he asked for. This was no different than buying a knock-off watch from a street vendor. He came back with half between that and his asking price. Knowing that all I had in my pocket was half that again, I agreed. He was a very happy little crook, until I emptied my pockets and said “oops, that is all I have.” The top bill was a US$100 bill, which works like gold nuggets in the modern world.

Then this slimeball opened up Mary Ann’s passport and found a very suitable little place for the visa, quite easily. The bastard.

So now we were off to our pre-booked and pre-paid 5 star beach resort. (By the way, we would have lost that payment if we had not paid off the immigration man and he knew it.) We had to wait in a log line with dozens of other tourists to get an authorized taxi. I had to ignore, ignore, and ignore again a gypsy cab driver. We finally got to the front of the line after being pushed back in line by a group of Russians and bought our trip. Bali, being just one of the thousand islands that make up Indonesia, uses the Indonesian Rupea, which is one of those mostly worthless currencies. At the time of our trip it was about 8600 to $1. So the cab ride was like a 1,000,000, or something with a lot of zeroes.

After 36 hours in Singapore, the first thing I noticed was the litter. As we drove out of the airport the next thing I noticed was the traffic. We were back in the land of motor scooters, but even that concession to the congestion did nothing to ease the pain. Nothing moved. It took us an hour to go the short distance to our resort.

Thisis just an example of the traffic in Bali. Traffic jams are everywhere, day and night. It takes hours to go miles.

The narrow streets were not ready for the current population or tourism, and they are still building resorts. Apparently there is nowhere to take the refuse other than the swamps along the road. This is Bali? This is the Bali of my paradise fantasies? It was my wife’s vacation so I stayed quiet. But I could see her, still affected by the rude official introduction to the country, having the same reaction I was. THIS is Bali?

When we finally arrived at this 5 star joint we looked around for the normal reception party we have come to expect…a cool cloth to wipe off the tropical sweat and a cool drink to make you forget that you just spent 5 times as long in a cab as you should have, We barely got a hello, and our room was not ready. (It was already 2 p.m.)

This was just day one. My next post will be a bit more positive and show you some of the natural beauty of this island. Please excuse this rough introduction. Thanks for reading, tell a friend, ESPECIALLY someone who wants to go to Bali.

Upgrade to a Singapore Sling!

Occupy Business Class!

After more hours than I care to count sitting in the cookie cutter seats in economy class, I was pleasantly surprised today when Qatar airlines upgraded my wife and me to Business Class. I have not flown Business Class since I stopped working and an employer was buying my ticket. I had forgotten how much better it is to spend 7 hours in a fully reclining seat with incredibly good food and service beyond the pale.

The seat not only spread out to a flat bed, it vibrated.

The flight from Doha to Singapore was absolutely full. Today was the start of the second Eid of the year. Eid

is a week long holiday where the faithful head for the Haj in Mecca or Medina. Many choose to go the other way, to, well, go the other way. Because I am now a gold tier member of the Qatar FF society, we were upgraded without asking.

I only wish the flight was 14 hours instead of a mere 7!

In fact I have so many miles they let me fly the plane!

It almost made me feel like I was in the 1%!  Nahh, they have their own jets!

So we are now in Singapore for a 36 hour layover on our way to Bali.

Singapore is a very pretty town. It is the cleanest big city I have ever seen.  We stayed at the Traders Hotel which is part of the Shangri-la family. It richly deserves it 4 stars.

Singapore is unlike other Asian cities we have visited this year.   The first thing I noticed was an almost complete lack of motorcycles.  I would therefore expect terrible traffic. However, Singapore has a very effective and inexpensive mass transit system. The busses are full as are I imagine the subway system cars.  Singapore has a very elitist way of limiting automobile traffic. In order to purchase a car you must buy a permit from the government for about US$70,000. Just for the permit to own a car. On top of that they have about a %100 import tax on automobiles. So yeah, people take the bus.

Maybe the best way to see this city as a tourist is to use one of the many hop on / hop off double decker busses. As like anywhere else, they have no driver on the top. They follow a must see route and come around every half hour or so, so it is easy to get to the museums and such, then keep going later in the day.

You can see how clean this city is and that the traffic is quite light.

The city is a fine city. Litter? $1000 fine. Spit? $1000 fine. Possession of narcotics? Death. Fart in church? I did not ask.  But it is consequently a very clean city. It is really a city state. Singapore is in the country of Singapore, which is the city of Singapore. It is quite expensive, with apartments beyond the cost of anyone not making a lot of money. 70% of the people live in government subsidized high rises. Even these look quite livable, these are not like “the projects”.

Singapore is of course the home of the Singapore Sling. This might be there real reason we stayed here for 36 hours.

Raffles Hotel is very expensive. But the Long Bar is a happening place with a great atmosphere. They give you peanuts and you throw the shells on the floor. Birds fly in and look for treats.

The Singapore sling was created as a ladies drink, hence the pink color. It goes down smooth and leaves you wanting another. Ladies drink? I think it was the original date rape drug! After two or three of these it is hard to say no to anything. However, when we went shopping in the Raffles stores, I was able to say no to a US$500 Hawaiian shirt.

This is Singapore's version of the Lond on Eye. The locals call it the Singapore Eyesore.It is 5 feet wider then the London Eye. It takes a half hour to go all the way around. You get fabulous views of the city.

This is the skyline of the banking district from the Eyesore

The Eyesore also gives you a good look at the intense international commerce of this city.

Singapore has kept many of the original buildings from the British colonial days. They are intermixed with the modern buildings in a pleasing way.

Mary Ann let me eat lunch at Hooters. Yes, the Hooters girls are very pretty, but none of them would get a job at Hooters in Las Vegas, for obvious reasons! I nicknamed the place Hootertitos.

The most interesting piece of architecture in Singapore is this set of three buildings with a large boat structure over them. It is a restaurant and bar with the ultimate horizon pool. In the forrground is the oldest bridge in Singapore.

Now we were off to Bali. We almost did not get into Bali, because Mary Ann was denied entry! You’ll have to read the next post to find out why.

Thanks for reading. Please share.

Signs of the Times at OWS

I attended OWS again on Oct 22. The occupation is now in it’s sixth week. It has spawned countless other occupations in the country and worldwide. It has survived a serious attempt by Mayor Bloomie to evict the occupiers, and after that they have truly set up camp. The numbers of the true occupiers, those who brave the fall NY cold has grown as well. When the occupation started, they were not allowed to pitch tents. Then the medical team setup a tent. The city tried to make them take it down, but lost to the occupiers in that effort as well.

This tent is fully equipped for anything short of mayhem. Donations of medical doo-dads arrive every day and are stored a block away. The tent is run by RNs 24/7. These RNs are donating their time of course. One said to me that although the medical field has avoided the massive decimation of jobs "you never know".

After that, people set up tents and the little city bloomed.

Just one little corner of the city of Liberty Park. Besides these tents, there is an area to feed people, a press center, a comfort center (with warm clothes) and even a library! The library had everything from books on organizing to mysteries!

As far as people spouting political stuff, there seems to be a contingent of Ron Paul supporters desperately looking for some sort of support. “End the Fed” is their theme.  They are loud, they do not get stacked at a  GA, so they are mostly an annoyance, no one gives them much attention.

There was a story in USA today about a 25 year old woman who graduated with $50,000 in student loans. She accepted this was her “fault”. She had gone to Penn State instead of staying home in Maryland to go to school. She had a low paying job, without any health benefits, and was making payments on her loan, being responsible. Then she got mugged. Her medical bills were $30,000. Now she is without a job (she got fired for missing a couple of weeks recovering) and $80k in debt. So she came to join OWS.

I was there on a Saturday. Even though technically I too was a tourist, the numbers of tourists sort of made the place seem like the Disneyland of the Revolution. There were Japanese tourists running around with their cameras  pointing at people and laughing while they snapped away.

All this extra-curricular activity truly crowded little Liberty Park and made it very difficult to have meaningful discussions.   So I just watched and took my own photos.

The signs people are making remain both to  the point, and usually quite creative.

I had to laugh at this guy.

I think this boomer has the right idea. This revolution IS what we can do for our country, IMHO.

A little grim, but it raises little grins. In case you do not know, not a single person has been brought up on any charges for the collapse of the economy due to the mortgage scandal. Not one.

Yes, true. Now let us take this resolve and use it to solve the problem!

These guys just do not look like unwashed hippies to me. YOU?

I was on my way out of the park to go home and watch game 3 of the world series ( I still have some priorities right) when I saw this person, so I did not get to ask what she meant, or what a house elve is.

It takes all kinds to make a revolution. I cannot imagine a revolution without clowns.

Two authors I am shamed to say I know nothing of have become cultural heroes in the park. Zinn is one, and the other is De La Vega. Looks like I have some serious reading to do

As the occupation grows, the park fills, and the winter arrives, people are housing "out-of-towners" through an organized effort. This is just another group that exists in this city-in-a-city to make it self sustaining.

This display of union workers hard hats was established in homage to the liberty tree in Boston where the elite of the first American Revolution met with commoners to talk about freedom from England.

A version of the American flag. It should be noted that not a single flag burning has occured, and the GA has determined that old glory cannot be flown up-side-down. The occupiers love America, they just want the American dream for anyone willing to work for it. They do not want hand outs, they want good paying jobs with health insurance,

If not us, who? Who indeed.

Yes.

Of course the NYPD presence is incredible. They stay outside the park. It is almost like they have the occupiers in a corral. If they decide to make a march on something, they do not ask permission, but they do say “We are marching on blah de blah at 1 p.m. The police all seem to be in a good mood. They too are just “watching the freaks”.

Of course they have everyone on film. I do not think anyone cares. I just waved and remembered to "smile at the camera".

I do not know, in fact I doubt, I will be back at the epicenter again. I have made my small monetary contribution. Monetary contributions now have passed a half million dollars. Add that to the tons of supplies and enough food to feed a division, and this movement has some serious footing.

Thanks for reading. Pass along this new reality to your friends. America is OCCUPIED!

As occupied as this restroom across the street, Mickey is open 24/7, and is doing land office business, so they keep the toilets open for us. People go in, buy a coffee and use the toilet. Life could be worse.

The Largest Small Place in America.

Zuccotti Park, in lower Manhattan is less than what you would call a square block. But the vibes it gives off are huge.

I am staying at my sis-in-law’s pad in Harlem, If you know NYC, it is 147th and Broadway.

The easiest, cheapest and quickest way to get anywhere in NYC is the subway. I took the storied “A Train” to lower Manhattan and switched trains to a Wall Street stop. I was actually wondering how I was going to find the park. I thought I would have to ask a cop “Which way to the revolution?”

I got off the train, walked up the stairs to the street and was immediately drawn by an energy force. Honestly.  I did not even have to look. I just walked two blocks and there it was. The epicenter of a new America.  All the reading and watching videos did nothing to prepare me for the next 8 hours of my life.  An old saying is you cannot write what you do not know about. I can update that and say you cannot understand a movement, a community or a people until you personally experience it with your eyes and your feet.

Now, I must write about it. The energy force has occupied every pore of my body. I am determined to try to spread the word. So friends, please keep reading and try to excuse the hyperbole I will definitely use. If you had been there, no matter your political persuasion, your age, your race, creed or planet of origin,   you would get hyperbolic as well.

I do not even know where to start. Let’s cover that age, creed, race and planet thing first. I would hazard to guess that average age was 30 to 35. 80% white folk including people in Yarmulkes. There were lots of Latinos and blacks and a handful of Asians.  Next time someone tells you this is just a bunch of young white hippies skipping class, they are either lying or ignorant. As far as extraterrestrials go, yeah I figure a few of the people I saw did not exactly get there on the subway.

Political persuasion? Well, I approached dozens of people and asked questions like “on a sliding scale 1 to 10, with Adam Smith at 1 and Karl Marx at 10, where do you put yourself?” The average answer was 7, I say average. There were a couple proud 10’s and quite a few 3’s or 4’s.

I asked if they were going to vote in 2012. Most of the people were hesitant to say yes. Many said that they were so disappointed in Obama that they wish they had another viable option. I must say, no one I met there is going to vote for any of the clowns the Republicans are pushing. But I think Obama is in trouble. As the realities expressed in the voices of this movement reach more people, they are going to just stay home in November 2012. There is nothing Obama can do about it either. He cannot reach this new community. He does not speak the language.

Wow, the language. First, I do not think I heard the F word used in anger once in 8 hours. I did hear people say “I hope this makes American wake the f up”. But out of the hundred or so possible uses of the F word, not a single “F’n wall street” or “F’n government” and certainly not a single “F you”. The overall civility of this community is not only impressive, it is inspiring.

Much more to come on the language. I will incorporate the language into my snapshot views of events of the day. It might sound like I have stopped speaking English.

I went to two GAs. I did not get stacked. I participated in the mic checks. OK, in English.

A GA is a General Assembly, but no one calls them that. These were both special GAs to deal with an impending invasion of the park by Mayor Bloomberg’s forces at 7 a.m. the next day. This is a really big deal. By the time you read this the community may be gone. Here is the situation, and believe me this was the topic everyone was discussing. Some background. Zuccotti Park is a privately owned piece of land. It is open to the public to enjoy and eat their lunch. It is a hangout for wall street brown baggers, you know, the little people without expense accounts. The company that owns it wants the stinking hippies gone. On the board of directors of the company sits Bloomies girlfriend. So, he is taking the boys in blue, making them wear brown shirts on Friday morning and invading the park. We shall see what happens.

Getting stacked means being put in the queue to speak at the GA. The facilitator stacks you, and you will get your turn.

When your turn comes, you yell out MIC CHECK. Then everyone around you yells MIC CHECK. Then everyone further out in the crowd yells MIC CHECK. Then you say GOOD AFTERNOON. Then everyone around you yells out GOOD AFTERNOON. Then everyone further out in the crowd yells GOOD AFTERNOON. Then you say WHAT I NEED TO SAY IS. Then everyone around you yells WHAT I NEED TO SAY IS. Then everyone further out in the crowd yells WHAT I NEED TO SAY IS.  Basically you speak in short phrases, and a thousand people repeat what you just said very loudly. A woman said I LOVE YOU, and a thousand people yelled out I LOVE YOU. She just needed to hear it!

There is a form of communication which I think is based on American Sign Language, but I’m not sure. If someone is speaking, you do not clap or yell “right on” or boo or anything, because you are too busy participating in the MIC CHECKS. So if you like something you raise a hand and wiggle your fingers. If you like it a lot you raise both hands. If you don’t like it, you point your fingers downward. The MIC CHECKS are made necessary because the cops outlawed bullhorns, or any form of amplification, probably because of all the businesses surrounding the park. So…they have to put up with a couple thousand people screaming everything. HA HA

I had lunch with a guy my age who is in charge of sorting and delivering contributions that are coming in literally by the ton. People across the country are sending stuff to a UPS office a block from the park. The manager of the office supports OWS, but all of a sudden his facility is chock full. The local teachers union had some basement space warehouse nearby, and now it is getting full also. People are sending in everything a community needs from drinking water to blankets to Imodium by the case. The biggest problem they have is money orders. They are at a loss as to what to do with over $100k seems how anything they could buy is being donated anyway.

All these facts and figures and short stories do nothing to convey the sense of “WE THE PEOPLE”, the feeling of ‘THIS IS THE BEGINNING”  and the awe at the fact that what started as a small group is now a nationwide happening, and still growing.

And to sum it all up, the beautiful thing is nobody is making demands, there are no leaders. To the establishment OWS is an enigma wrapped in a puzzle. To the people in the country, they are hearing the basic fact that it is time to WAKE THE FUCK UP BECAUSE WHAT WE GOT IS NOT WORKING ANY MORE!

I honestly can say I watched history being made.

Worldwide press coverage and the site is so small it blows your mind

This is the guy I mentioned in the story who handles the contributions.His activism goes way back.He loves this stuff. As experienced as he is, he acknowledges that OWS is something new and different.

An RN at the medical table

Finally I am on the same sideof an issue as the hardhats! At lunch time there were many workers from the 9/11construction site (a block away) who came over in support

And yes, there are quite few people from the planet WTF

There was not a single "official" T shirt to be had. But if you went across the street to aa men's store and bought one, you could get this guy to spray paint a slogan with a stencil.

That’s it folks. If you liked this post, go to occupywallstreet.org and make a donation. Thanks for reading.Welcome to the new world!

Mekong Delta

First, if you opened this in email or from Facebook, both feeds distort the formatting. So click on the title to get it right.  Also that way  I get to count you in my daily tally.  While you are there, please subscribe. It is easy and free!  Thank you.

Our last tour day in VN was reserved for a trip down the infamous Mekong River. Mary Ann and I had flown over the headwaters of the Mekong located high in the Himalaya mountains while we were in Nepal. We had floated on the Mekong when we visited the Golden Triangle area of Thailand. Both of those wonderful trips are archived in this blog.

I could not help but think that we were probably on the same molecules of water we saw leave the Himalaya. The length of the river is over 3000 miles, and it changes names according to the local dialect, but is always the Mekong to me.

We set out from Saigon (HCMC) early in the morning. We were in Vietnam at the start of the monsoon season. but so far we had not been monsooned. We had a lot of grey skies, but hardly any rain.

I was preparing my camera for the day when I noticed this scene in front of me. It made me laugh. A Mercedes passing this display of political bravado. Go figure.

Of course, the Mekong is a major waterway for commerce. The Vietnamese are hardworking people. All the boats have these eyes on the bow. I never did ask why.

Our boat captain advertising the company that employs him. There are quite a few tourists who take this trip.

As we started downriver we came upon this Catholic church. Catholicism is the second largest religion in VN. The French built many beautiful churches. This picture was taken in an area of the river known as the floating market. It s a gathering spot for agricultural vendors to sell wholesale to middlemen who sell to street vendors . Each boat had a bamboo pole sticking 20 or so feet in the air with whatever they were selling impaled on it. If they were selling watermelons, there would be a watermelon 20 feet up. The sky was so grey I could not get a picture worth sharing with you.

We constantly passed river boats, all set up for commerce

We left the main channel of the Mekong and headed up a canal. People live all along this canal and make a living bringing goods to the floating market. This canal reminded both Mary Ann and me of a canal that went from Almirante Bay to Changinola years ago in Panama. With the glaring exception that there were no birds on this canal.

This boat was all ready to head for the floating market to sell Rambutan fruit. This is a variety of the lychee. The difference is these are hairy on the outside. In fact the word comes from the word for hair. My wife tells me these were for sale in Panama when we lived there. I do not remember that, perhaps some of my faithful readers could let me know in a comment?

Inside they are the same. The red hairy shell comes off very easily. The white meat inside is soft and delicious. This is something I look forward to whenever I am in SE Asia. However, I cannot figure out what human first figured out these were edible!

We got off the boat to take a walk along the canal. I especially liked this little bridge.

The walk led us to a Bonsai garden and tea house where were given a pot of tea and some local lore. These Bonsai trees are very very old. But the tea was fresh.

Then we went further up the canal in a little cayuco style rowboat. This was our rower.

A boat full of locals headed for town passed us by. They were very jocular and greeted us with smiles. That is a lot of people in that boat! But they do not weigh much.

I love this picture of our rower. I hope you do. I think it is my second favorite photo from Vietnam. By the way, we truly over tipped her. I did not know that Mary Ann had already tipped her too much when I tipped her too much. We tend to ruin it for future travelers...too bad! These people earn it.

Our last stop on the Mekong was at a brick factory. Everything being built in VN these days (and yes there is quite a construction boom) is made with this same style of brick. This is the kiln. They fire the kiln with rice stalks. They do that for three reasons. Rice stalks are cheap, nothing should be wasted, AND, they do not have to burn the stalks and cause air pollution. In northern Thailand they just burn the fields and the air quality gets truly bad for a month every year. But here, they make bricks! Notice that the woman is inside the kiln. The women always have the hard job!

This girl had to schlepp the bricks across the factory to where they stack them for storage. Our guide said she was probably too young to be working.

We were done with our time on the Mekong river, our last tour of the trip. We got back into the car, and WHAM. The monsoon started. How our driver drove through this for two hours to get us back to Saigon, I'll never know. Yes, we tipped him as well. We had already inquired from our guide how much he earned a day. Then Mary Ann and I started discussing the amount of his tip between ourselves in Spanish. Our guide was surprised and laughed. He knew damn well what we were discussing! Anyway, we matched his salary for the day, and he was extremely grateful. Again, he earned it. I would NEVER have been able to drive through this torrential downpour.

I still have some pictures to show you and a few observations about VN to share, so there will be a final VN post, soon.

Thank you ever so much for reading. Please hit the LIKE button down below.

A Place Where Victor Hugo is a Saint

Before I start this blog, I need to tell you that I THINK I have changed the way this goes out to my readers. You will now need to click on the title to read the blog, Please do. you will get a better look  and I will know how many people read it. Thanks.

There is a religion in Vietnam called Cao Dai. The full name is   Đại Đạo Tam Kỳ Phổ Độ (Great Religion [of The] Third Period [of] Revelation [and] Salvation). That  might be the least complicated thing I know about it. The religion has approximately 30 million followers in Vietnam. They believe that before god existed, there was the Tao. Then a big bang occured from which God was created. In order for God to create the heavans and the earth he first had to create the Yin and the Yang. All things followed that.

The Cao Dai people believe that there are 36 levels of heaven and that there 72 planets with intelligent life.  Planet number 1 is the closest to heaven, and planet 72 the furthest away. Earth is planet number 68. The Cao Dai folk believe that the lowliest person on planet 67 would not choose to be a king on planet 68, and so forth up the chain.

They have 3 saints. One is  Sun Yat-sen, a former ruler in China.  Another is Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm, a Vietnamese poet and sage and then we have Victor Hugo who wrote the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Our guide was a Cao Dai guy and I think he was perplexed that I was perplexed as he tried to explain it all to me. He quickly gave up and just showed us the really cool temple. So I will stop now, and just show you some pictures.

This was my first view of the temple and I was already impressed. I have seen an awful lot of temples in the last 18 months, but nothing quite like this.

The front view of the temple. This place is basically the Vatican for the Cao Dai. There are many Cao Dai temples in Vietnam, but nothing this big. They are all very ornate.

A closeup of the front door just to show that these people are serious about the bling.

The eye is the most prevalent icon of the church. God is symbolized by the Divine Eye, specifically the left eye because Yang is the left side and God is the master of Yang. Got it?

We arrived just before the noon mass, which is the main mass for each day. There are four. These two guys are leaders in the church. The colors represent which religion they come from. I believe red is Catholic and yellow is Buddhist. Notice the eye on the cool hat.

Once inside the door you see this painting with three saints. Right there in the middle is Victor Hugo, and you thought I was joking.

We were there for the noon mass. This is not Easter or something, it was just a Thursday. The guy standing in back has the job of making sure everyone is perfectly aligned. Look at those columns, I have a close-up for you shortly.

This picture shows that the leaders in the colors are separated from the devotees in white

As promised, here is a close look at one of the columns. Of course there are dragons on them. Dragons seem to be everywhere in Asia.

The devotees and kahunas are in front of the alter of the divine eye. This is a big globe maybe 15 feet across.I am not sure which of the planets it is supposed to represent.

Well, that will do it for Cao Dai. I liked everything I learned about the religion, and I sure would like to see plant 67 and up someday. I wonder if I have the frequent flyer miles for that!

Thanks for reading. There should be a little button below that says LIKE. If you hit it I get a penny!

The Tunnels of Cu Chi

I read a book about these tunnels many years ago, and I ripped off the title. It was written by Tom Mangold and you can buy it at Amazon. So there, I really did not rip  it off.

Now I am going to rip off Wikipedia. I really did know all this stuff myself but I tend to get long winded. WP stuff will be in bold,ok?

The tunnels of Củ Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Củ Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Củ Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong‘s base of operations for the Tết Offensive in 1968

This is as far as I was willing to go. I spent a half hour in some tunnels near the DMZ and my back ached for hours. Even though they have been widened and made a bit higher for tourists, they still left them just miserable enough to get the idea of what it was liketo be a freedom fighter.

American soldiers used the term “Black echo” to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured Viet Cong report suggests that at any given time half of a PLAF unit had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance”.

Today the tunnels are a major tourist attraction. being about 90 minutes north of Saigon, oops  HCMC, they are besieged by tourists from everywhere mostly arriving in hordes on buses. We were lucky enough to be by ourselves and arrived before two buses of  Japanese.

The 75-mile (121 km)-long complex of tunnels at Củ Chi has been preserved by the government of Vietnam,[2] and turned into a war memorial park. The tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, and visitors are invited to crawl around in the safer parts of the tunnel system. Some tunnels have been made larger to accommodate the larger size of Western tourists, while low-power lights have been installed in several of them to make traveling through them easier and booby traps have been clearly marked. Underground conference rooms where campaigns such as the Tết Offensive were planned in 1968 have been restored, and visitors may enjoy a simple meal of food that Viet Cong fighters would have eaten.

Above-ground attractions include caged monkeys, vendors selling souvenirs, and a shooting range where visitors can fire a number of assault rifles, such as the M16 rifle or AK-47, as well as a light machine gun like the M60.

We did all the above except I never saw a caged monkey.

We were just standing around when all of a sudden "Charlie" popped up out of the ground! My fat gut could never have gotten through this hole in the ground

He walked over to join his comrades.

This is a demonstration of how the VC made footwear. If you are as old as me, especially if you lived in SoCal, you probably remember these sandals which some of us wore in some show of support for the VC. Besides, they were comfortable. Ours were made in Tijuana, but...

Remember now?

Oh yes, I did not forget to go to the firing range! Committed pacfist that I am, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to fire an M16 and an AK47. Call it experiencing history.

"Take that commie"

"Take that imperialist war mongering running dog lackey of the imperialist forces"

Obviously I was not the only tourist yearning for a hands on history lesson. They charge US$1 a bullet for the experience, so I did not fire the M60 machine gun!

I policed my shells, and asked if I could keep one as a souvenir. No problem. However, I put it in my back pack and did not think about it again before I went through security at the airport. I was walking away when the guy who runs the xray machine noticed it. They yelled "Sir, Sir". I ignored them thinking it could not be me they want! Finally I went back to the inspection line and the smartly uniformed Vietnamese guard started saying "empty uchsch, emptu suhch". I had no idea wht he was saying besides empty so I dumped the contents of my backpack on his table. He grabbed this shell and said "empty bullet, no go." Well, of coursei I was dissaponted but more mad at myself for not packing it in my suitcase. However, when I got home I read another blogger who said he packed his in his suitcase, and he was paged to come to security, where they proceeded to go through his bag until they found the shell. He thinks Cu Chi souvenirs are illegal, I just think bullet casings are.

My wife and I bid farewell to the freedom fighters.

In all it’s touristy glory, the tunnels are a must see if you are in Vietnam and have any interest in contemporary history.

Thank you for reading. Tell a friend, share this on FB, and make a comment, oh please make a comment. At least hit the like button you can see right below this. See it?

My next post will be titled “Where Victor Hugo is a Saint.” And yes, it is also from VN.

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