Monday, April 16, 2012

Miami Libre?

Miami Marlins manger Ozzie Guillen is set to return to his baseball team Tuesday for a matchup with the Chicago Cubs, following a five-game suspension for sort-of, kinda praising Cuba's maximum leader, Fidel Castro, in Time magazine.

Feelings about the Castros - Fidel and brother Raul - run high in Miami, as I was reminded recently on a trip to northern Spain with a group of journalists that included two Cuban exiles. Their families originally came from northern Spain, so it was a sentimental journey for these two ladies. They were not, however, one bit sentimental about the Castros, whom they blame for forcing their families to flee communist Cuba. Exiled as teenagers, they now live in Miami.

I have long had mixed feelings about the Cuban Revolution and the exiles that oppose it. The Castros are repressive and dictatorial.Their predecessor, Batista, was a dictator, too, however, and the fierce, fixed positions of the Cuban exile community of South Florida are not always attractive. On the other hand, I haven't had their experiences, and if I was forced to leave my homeland, I imagine I'd be angry, too, perhaps for a very long time.

The Marlins have built a brand-new baseball stadium in Miami's Little Havana, and Cuban American fan support is important to the team, so Guillen's comments were inflamatory and ill-considered, to say the least. A long-time manager of the Chicago White Sox and a fine shortstop as a player, the Venezuela-born Guillen has a long history of crude, off the-cuff remarks. This latest transgression, coming at the beginning of his first season with the Marlins, is no real surprise.

Many people who follow major league baseball more closely than I do think the guy is a jerk. Maybe, but jerk or not, he was suspended by the team solely for voicing an unpopular, tactless political opinion, not for anything he did in the clubhouse or the dugout. Political speech in the United States is supposed to be protected speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution. Freedom of speech means nothing if it does not apply to unpopular speech, too.

Guillen's suspension leaves a sour taste. Over the years, people have rallied to cries of "Cuba Libre!'' Fair enough. What about "Miami Libre''? It might be a good idea to opppose repression in Cuba by also supporting freedom outside it.

Oh, and it might be a good idea for Washington to lift its ineffective and unfair ban on leisure travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, too.

In the meantime: Play ball!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Westin Georgetown, Washington, D.C.

When the Missus and I last alighted in Washington D.C., a few months ago, we wanted to stay in or near Georgetown, our favorite part of the capital city. After a bit of Internet research time, my wife zeroed in on the Westin Georgetown. We had some Starwood Preferred Guest points - Starpoints - so we booked the hotel. Overall, it was a good choice.

The Westin Georgetown, it should be noted, isn't actually in Georgetown, but it's just a jot away. About 5 minutes on foot along M Street puts you there. Georgetown is one those lively places that strikes a fine balance between touristy and local. Mostly, it's a good place to eat, drink and hear live music, and the redbrick buildings and leafy side streets of the neighborhood are lovely.

Location is one of the Westin's strengths, but not the only one. The hotel staff is unfailingly helpful and polite, willing to go the extra mile. This quality goes a long way to make up a hotel's shortfalls. And the Westin Georgetown does have some.

Our room was, well, not roomy. It was all we could do to walk around the bed. Ditto with the bathroom, though it was spotless and modern. Our room had an adequate-sized desk for use by business travelers and there was, of course, the obligatory flat-screen TV. The king Heavenly Bed - a Westin Hotels and Resorts trademark - was just soft enough, just firm enough, just big enough and just cosy enough - in a word, heavenly. On the down side, we discovered a $2 charge listed for phone calls, whether the call was completed or not. Fortunately, we, like many travelers these days, use our mobile phones when calling from hotel rooms. There is also a fee for in-room Internet service, which we didn't use, either.

In addition to being located just outside its namesake neighborhood, the Westin Georgetown is close to the Foggy Bottom Metro station, Dupont Circle and a cluster of restaurants. We bypassed the beery taverns in the neighborhood and went two nights in a row to RIS Restaurant, an eatery with the animated air of an American bistro and toothsome food three minutes walk from the Westin.

For what it's worth, the hotel earned three stars out of five in nine Google reviews. It did rather better on Trip Advisor, where it averaged four and a half out of 5 stars in 537 reviews and ranked 17th of 124 ranked Washington, D.C. hotels reviewed on the site.

The Westin Georgetown is located at 2350 M Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20037 USA. Telephone: 202.429.0100. Web:

East-West Center: Information One-Stop

In the wake of yesterday's failed ballistic missile shot by North Korea, I was reminded of the value of the East-West Center. The EWC provided a timely analysis of the domestic political context in the hermit communist state, written by North Korea specialist Marcus Noland, who blogs about that country at, and posted his thoughts yesterday.

Who or what is the East-West Center? Glad you asked.

The EWC was founded in 1960 by the United States Congress, with the aim of promoting mutual understanding among the countries of the vast Asia-Pacific region through exchange visits, sharing of information and ongoing conversations. These days, it is a thriving, non-profit think tank and academic institution with a 21-acre campus bordering the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, and an office in Washington, D.C. I turn to the EWC ( often to gain context and insight that informs my travel journalism.

The center is independent and non-partisan, funded by a combination of private and public sources. Among them: The U.S. Congress, corporations, non-profit foundations and private individuals. It is not a branch of the U.S. government in case you're wondering, but does have excellent contacts with Uncle Sam, as it does with dozens of governments, academics, politicians and media people. I spent a month under EWC auspices a decade ago as a Jefferson Fellow; the Jefferson Fellowships bring professional journalists from around the region together for seminars, classes, and trips. I visited Japan, China and Vietnam with my Jefferson group at the EWC.

So, consider this a plug. For me, the EWC is an information one-stop. It's definitely worth checking out the Web site (see above), to see the latest and greatest about this dynamic, fast-growing and volatile part of the world.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Myanmar, Reconsidered

There's an interesting piece posted 10 April in the International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times. The story ( says that pro-democracy activists and tourism-industry commentators in Asia fear the opening of the long-isolated country Myanmar, also known as Burma, to international tourism.

They are worried chiefly about two things, according to the story: The potential spread of Thailand-style sex tourism and a dependency on handouts among poor local people, especially poor children.

As a traveler and journalist who visited Myanmar/Burma in 2000, when few outsiders were doing so, I'd say these are valid concerns. There are downsides to travel - and especially mass tourism - but the greater risk lies in isolation, which fosters ignorance, among both locals and foreigners, and inhibits economic development.

When I visited, I met a friendly, attractive populace - one that existed on about $1 USD per person per day, however. The nation's major river, the Irrawaddy, had exactly one bridge along its 1,200-mile length. I saw maybe a dozen mobile phones in five days in-country. People were already commonly asking for money - in markets, at the country's many brilliant Buddhist shrines, on street corners - and many of them were children, impoverished by decades-long rule by the harsh military junta that was made worse by international sanctions against the regime.

Since the recent elections and cautious loosening - not abandonment - of control by the junta, tourists are starting to visit the country for its unique properties. Indeed, Myanmar/Burma struck me as being about 40 years behind most of the world, including neighboring Asian countries, when I visited. The erstwhile capital city, Rangoon, also called Yangon, looked like a big Asian city must have looked in about 1960. Going there is like taking part in time travel.

Many sectors of the tourism industry are reportedly controlled by elements of the regime and other well-connected insiders. That is at the high end, however. Cab drivers, many tour guides, restaurants, food sellers and keepsake sellers, small merchants and others can be paid in cash directly by travelers, and that is money they need. Not all of it needs to go through the establishment or contribute directly to its upkeep.

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? It's hard to know for sure, but I think it's half-full. The regime is letting go its grip, gradually, to be sure, and this legendary Buddhist land is cautiously returning to the world. Right now, Chinese and Thais are the most numerous visitors. Personally, I'd return in a heartbeat.

Footnote: The regime renamed the country Myanmar, after an ancient local kingdom, to rid the nation's name of colonial associations. Burma is a name bestowed by the British and refers to the multicultural country's largest ethnic group, the Burmese. Much of the fighting in border regions in recent decades has been between Burmese and national minorities. English-speaking locals told me during my visit that the name Myanmar is pronounced ME 'n ma - the r on the end is silent.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Luxury Lodges of Australia

You have your bush camps, you have your harbourside urban design hotels, you have your backpacker haunts in the likes of Sydney's King's Cross. Australia has all that when it comes to lodging. More than that, it has luxury digs, too, superb 5-star luxury resorts and lodges, growing in number, sprinkled around the country.

I discovered this first-hand in February, when I ventured Down Under to check-out three high-end, beautifully realized lodges there. I went first to Wolgan Valley Resort and Spa, just west of the Blue Mountains, in New South Wales; then, to the wine-growing region in the Barossa Valley, South Australia; and finally to the Saffire, on the east coast of Tasmania - "Tassie,'' as I'm learning to call the island. I could hardly have hoped for a better time.

At the Louise, I sat down with Penny Rafferty, executive officer of Luxury Lodges of Australia ( This is a joint marketing group of high-end places, all of them resorts or resort-like, formed in November 2009 to shift the perception among foreign travelers like me of just what is on offer at the high end of the market in Oz.

There are, at last count, 17 member properties, from Queensland, near the Great Barrier Reef, to the west coast near Perth, to the middle of the country, near Ayers Rock (Uluru).

"In the last decade, the luxury experience has changed dramatically,'' Rafferty told me over drinks in the Louise's snug, buzzy bar. "Australia has always been a welcoming and safe destination, but people haven't associated it with luxury.''

And yet, they should. International luxury hotel chains such as Four Seasons, Shangri-la and Ritz-Carlton have got city properties and resorts in Australia. Increasingly, home-grown operators are also going upmarket, both in-town and in-country.

Me, I ate freshly harvested salt-water oysters and drank sparkling wine while standing in a gently flowing tidal river near the Saffire, in Tasmania - er, Tassie; went to a lively farmers' market in the Borassa with Mark McNamara, the gifted chef at the Louise's fine-dining restaurant, Appellation; and accompanied the acutely knowledgeable food and beverage chief cum executive chef at Wolgan Valley as he visited artisan purveyors of food and wine near his resort. In every case, these excursions were fine ways to see the surroundings and learn about local culture, not to mention seeing the flora and fauna that Australia is rightly known for.

Luxury does cost more, to be sure. If you can meet the initial rates and fees, you typically get meals and special, customized spa treatments, walks, boating trips and other ventures included in the overall expense. Since many luxury lodges are located far from towns of any size, this can end up being a surprisingly good deal, as well as being convenient.

Like other elements of the travel industry, luxury took a hit over the past few recessionary years. However, "luxury is coming back sooner,'' Rafferty reports. Besides, she adds, properties like those in her non-for-profit group enable travelers to access "unique Australian experiences.'' As I can attest, she's right.

A Few (Swedish) Chosen Words

I was in Sweden recently, researching travel stories on Stockholm and the university town of Uppsala, a lovely place just a 40-minute, $11USD train ride north of the Swedish capital. Uppsala is where the late, great filmmaker Ingmar Bergman was born and where he shot exteriors for his 1982 memory play and farewell to cinema, "Fanny and Alexander.''

Flipping through a book about Bergman, I came across this passage - translated from the Swedish for unilingual film fanatics and travel addicts like me - that Bergman has the grandmother recite in "Fanny and Alexander.'' In the movie, she is quoting the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg's "A Dream Play'':

"Anything can happen; anything is possible and likely. Time and space do not exist; on an insignificant basis of reality, the imagination spins and weaves new patterns.''

Friday, March 30, 2012

Air Scare, Again

Three days after a JetBlue Airways pilot had a midair meltdown and had to be restrained by passengers, prompting an emergency landing, industry analysts are talking about stress.

Stress on flight crews prompted by declining salaries, packed airplanes, fears of terrorism and more. No one is excusing the pilot's shouting, incoherent rants about Jesus, 9/11, the sins of Las Vegas (where the plane was headed) and his subsequent wrestling match with passengers, but this is the context, commentators emphasize, in which the frightening incident took place.

All true enough.

Stress falls on passengers, too, though. And unlike airline employees, air travelers are not trained to handle energencies or paid to be there. Rather, they file onto crowded planes, where they are charged extra for every little thing, try to pile luggage in too-small spaces to avoid checked luggage fees, struggle to open a laptop or a newspaper when the person in front of them pushes their seat back.

That's the state of domestic U.S. air travel, the glamour of flying long gone for most fliers.

Oh, and passengers pay to endure this. And that's after enduring long airport queues, frequent flight delays and the bullying of TSA screeners swelled up with too much self-importance and too little sensitivity.

What is to be done?

For starters, revamped psychological screening for the most important person on any airplane: The pilot. Meltdowns by flight attendants - like the one onboard an American Airlines flight just two weeks ago - are bad enough. But when the person with the lives of dozens if not hundreds of other people in his hands goes beserk, it's much worse.

As for the captain in question, he is facing up to 20 years on charges of interfering with a flight crew. He may be troubled, he may have had a very bad day, but this is a person who should, at a minimum, find another line of work. Legal authorities will rule on the charges; if he is found guilty, the authorities should throw the book at him. JetBlue CEO Dave Barger said in an interview on NBC's "Today'' show that he knows the pilot personally and finds him to be "a consummate professional.'' Enough of cliches, please, and enough of denial.

Fortunately, the co-pilot on JetBlue flight 191 was calm, cool and collected and landed the plane safely in Amarillo, Texas after barring the cockpit door.

Airlines eternally announce that safety is their number one priority. Indeed, it should be. Commercial aircraft are not hotels or spas or restaurants. They are narrow metal tubes hurtling through the air at 500 miles per hour, 35,000 feet off the ground. The confidence of the U.S. flying public has been shaken. The airline industry needs to regain and solidify public trust, not with marketing gimmicks and denial but with training and policy changes, informed by what they have learned from these scares in the air.