Monday, September 27, 2010

Comedy and Time Travel

For some people, it's hearing a song they associate with a particular time or place, like a first trip overseas. For others, it's a smell, maybe hot cookies, like Mom used to make. For still others, it's an airplane; a plane can be a time machine that takes you from the 21st century to those rare parts of the world that still have pre-industrial, barter economies from centuries ago. These are all forms of travel: in this case, time travel.

For me, the other night, the vehicle for time-travel was comedic. My wife and I went to a 30th anniversary reunion show at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts Theatre for the San Francisco comedy nightclub the Other Cafe, a popular, innovative venue that thrived in the 1980s.

Even the venue for the big show evoked a kind of time travel: The Palace of Fine Arts is the only surviving piece of the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition, a successful world's fair that showcased San Francisco's recovery from the great earthquake and fire of 1906. Now the Palace itself is in need of recovery; it has physically deteriorated over the years and is in the midst of a long-term, expensive restoration. The theatre is operating normally, though, and if you're in San Francisco, you can find a full bill of fare there - as well as take some great shots of the Palace out of doors.

The Other Cafe was located in the Cole Valley section of one of San Francisco's epicenters of cool, alternative culture: The Haight-Ashbury. The 49-seat club nurtured the early careers of Dana Carvey, Ellen DeGeneres, Kevin Pollak, Paula Poundstone, Will Durst, Bobcat Goldthwait and many others. Robin Williams performed there, though he was already famous by the 1980s heyday of the Other. So did the young Jerry Seinfeld and Jay Leno, who were stand-up comedians working the club circuit across the U.S. in the '80s. (See I was able to walk there from my flat in the Upper Haight.

The 30th reunion show was sweet, very long (over 5 hours) and very funny. Most of the comedians are funnier now than they were when I covered live comedy back in the day for the old, Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner; more assured, with sharper timing and more stage presence. Most have aged well physically and professionally. A handful looked shockingly old, even frail. But then I hadn't seen them in 20 to 30 years, so they might have thought the same thing about me. It was a good gig I had back then with the Ex - I got paid for laughing. (If you want to read in more detail about the Other Cafe and the burgeoning '80s comedy scene, check out my Sept. 19, 2010, stories for the San Francisco Chronicle, posted at

The reunion show got me thinking about the passage of time and how people change - and how they stay committed to things they care about. The Other Cafe's former owners, led by Bob Ayres and Chip Romer, organized the reunion bash. The two men, still San Francisco Bay Area residents, have taken different paths since the club closed. Ayres, excited, voluble and passionate about show-business, wants to get back into comedy and sees the reunion show as something of a springboard to future ventures. Romer, quietly funny, white-haired and soft-spoken, is deeply involved in Waldorf charter schools and has served as a school principal; he is passionate, too, but he's passionate about something else: education and the lives of children. The former partners are still friends and both were on-hand for the reunion show.

For me, the show was a wonderfully rich trip back in time, great fun and at times unexpectedly emotional, especially when recalling people from that unique time and place that have passed away. They say that the past is another country. I think this is so. As with any form of travel, I was happy to go visit - and, as with any form of travel, I'm happy to come back home, enriched and rewarded for having gone.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hidden Fees Hoodoo

Today a trifecta of consumer groups presented U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood with a petition signed by 50,000 air travelers demanding that airlines in the U.S. more fully disclose what the groups say are 'hidden' add-on fees: extra charges for checked bags, more legroom and other features that used to be included as part of a basic airfare but now cost extra.

The three organizations - the American Society of Travel Agents, Consumer Travel Alliance and Business Travel Coalition - collected signatures on a dedicated Web site, I have misgivings about the anger and casual profanity that riddle American political discourse and wish the groups had chosen another site name, but their overriding concern about fees is well-placed.

The groups acknowledge that cash-strapped airlines need to raise revenue and don't dispute their right to add fees; they just want fees disclosed more clearly. Add-on fees can add significantly more money to the price of a ticket. Often, a corporate travel manager, travel agent or individual consumer doesn't know just how much more until reaching the airport.

Industry groups such as the Air Transport Association, whose member airlines handle more than 90 percent of passengers on U.S. carriers, counter that information about fees is on proprietary airline Web sites. The consumer groups in turn counter that by saying that information is woefully unclear and hard to find. Critics consider such opaque disclosure a form of corporate hoodoo.

So, now what?

No one knows, especially given that Congressional midterm and state elections are barely a month away. But LaHood, who in June imposed steep fines for extended tarmac delays - fines that airlines bitterly opposed - appears determined to beef-up consumer protection on a variety of fronts. For its part, the airline industry seems reconciled to dealing with expanded passenger rights but would like to have a say about what happens next.

"We share the goal of making information easily available to consumers before they purchase a ticket,'' ATA President and CEO James C. May said today in a statement. "We support the use of a hyperlink to disclose optional fees immediately and clearly.''

In theory, then, the parties agree. In practice, they are miles apart. Unless strong headwinds from the U.S. elections blow air-travel reform off-course, expect to see stricter government regulation of aviation - including, but not limited to, extra fees.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Taj Hotel Cape Town

CAPE TOWN - If you were to look for the political, cultural and historical epicenter of this lovely seaside city, you couldn't find anyplace more central than the corner of Wale Street and St. George's Mall: the exact location of the new Taj Hotel Cape Town.

It is just across the street from South Africa's parliament buildings, the lushly landscaped city park called Company Gardens and the old slave lodge - now a museum. Also directly across the street from the hotel is St. George's Cathedral, where Archbishop Desmond Tutu helped inspire and lead the anti-apartheid struggle.

But while they say location, location, location is the key to success in business, for a hotel it is also service, service, service. The Taj, which opened officially at the end of August after several months operating in a soft opening, has sterling service in abundance. The staff in this posh, 5-star property is anything but starchy; they are warm, prompt and attentive without being in your face. That goes a long way, no matter where you are located.

Run by Mumbai-based Taj Hotels, Palaces and Resorts - part of India's Tata Group conglomerate -the new Taj is installed in two renovated heritage buildings: the 1932 original South African Reserve Bank building with its gorgeous vaulted ceiling, and the 1896 Temple Chambers. Soaring over the meticulously restored and renovated structures - so seamlessly integrated you could never tell they were once two separate buildings - is a new glass tower where the Taj Cape Town's 166 guest rooms are situated. I loved my room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows and view of Table Mountain, outside balcony and extra-large bathroom. Oh, it had all the high-tech bells and whistles, too, including an iPod docking station.

The clientele so far has been a nearly even mix of business and leisure travelers, and the hotel's structure reflects that. There are plenty of meeting spaces in the large business center and four personal computers for guest use, albeit at high rates. The spacious, Indian-themed Jiva Grande Spa can help even the most tightly wound executive breathe easy. I had an Indian head massage, lasting 45 minutes, and throughly enjoyed it - and I don't usually like massages.

There are three places to eat in the hotel; the elegant, upmarket Bombay brasserie, which serves contemporary Indian fare under sumptuous chandeliers; the all-day casual dining place Mint, where breakfast is served, accessible from the mall; and Twankey, a smart-casual Champagne, seafood and oyster bar tucked away on two levels. I feasted on tikki chicken wraps and fat Namibia oysters washed down with good South African white wines there.

The only drawback for people from my part of the world - urban North America - is distance. It took me 32 hours door-to-door from hotel to home. Is it worth it? If you can afford the travel time and it fits your budget, most definitely yes. The luxurious Taj Cape Town became one of the city's leading hotels from the moment it opened its doors, providing competition at the top of the international market for the city's highly regarded Mount Nelson and Cape Grace hotels. It will be hard to beat.

The Taj Hotel Cape Town is located on Wale Street, Cape Town 8001, South Africa. Tel. 011 27 (0)21 819 2000. E-mail: Web:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Obama, Roads, Rail and Runways

U.S. President Barack Obama has come up with a truly useful plan that if implemented will have a major and strongly positive impact on travelers. So, naturally - given the angry polarization of U.S. politcs and society generally - there is plenty of opposition to it.

Obama wants to create an infrastructure bank that would bankroll billions - $50 billion USD in the first year - to repair, modernize and extend America's crumbling transport infrastructure. It would be used to build and repair roads, rail lines - including badly needed high-speed rail like the kind common in Japan and parts of Europe - and airport runways. The idea is to create construction jobs in the near term and offer first-world transport infrastructure in the medium and long term. The U.S. has not had such high-quality infrastructure since at least the 1980s. It is now very far behind other developed nations and even some developing nations like China.

There is precedent for using public money to build up U.S. transport infrastructure - and help workers and private companies with an injection of income. In the 1950s and '60s, Washington spent an immense, and justified, amount of money building the now-stressed interstate highway system. Back in the late 1860s, the federal government poured large sums into building the first continent-spanning railroad. Both projects more than paid for themselves over the years and they helped knit together a large, diverse nation.

Obama's idea is thus both practical and visionary. Hence, it faces a long road to approval. It must be approved by Congress. And, well ... as the New York Times notes in a recent report:

"Though transportation bills usually win bipartisan support, hasty passage of Mr. Obama's plan seems unlikely, given that Congress has only a few weeks of work left before lawmakers return to their districts to campaign and that Republicans are showing little interest in giving Democrats any pre-election victories.''

If this badly needed bill does not pass, Democrats won't be the only losers. So will every American traveler and commuter of whatever political stripe and every international guest who visits the United States. For once, U.S. politicans should rise above partisan bickering and do the right thing. I'm not holding my breath, but hope springs eternal, as they say.

FAA to Airlines: Wakey, Wakey

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration proposed today to slightly reduce the number of consecutive hours a commercial airplane pilot can fly and moderately increase the number of consecutive hours pilots have to rest before returning to the cockpit. If the rules-changes are adopted, they'll go into effect in August 2011 for U.S.-based operators.

As with practically everything in civil aviation, the proposal is controversial. Shaving an hour off the allowable number of consecutive hours for flying - to 15, down from 16 - and boosting consecutive hours off by about 25 percent to 30 hours - wouldn't seem to be a big deal. But passenger airlines and operators of cargo and charter flights say this would hurt productivity and complicate scheduling.

Of course, it might also enhance safety, which is the idea. Pilot fatigue has been cited as a contributing factor in a number of plane crashes - and fatal cargo and passenger crashes in recent months have shaken many from their complacency about occupying a hurtling metal tube in the sky. Air travel is still very safe, but it is not perfect, and you really don't want the pilot of your plane to be dozing at the controls. Simply put, this rules-change is a good idea.

A public comment period now begins, running till next August. To comment, go to the agency's Web site:

Thursday, September 9, 2010


Today's Wall Street Journal on ex-JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, the instant 'folk hero' who deployed an emergency chute and exited his flight with beers in hand:

"...after investigations by two agencies in which every passenger and crew member was interviewed, no one on board the Aug. 9 flight from Pittsburgh to New York backed Mr. Slater's account of what led to his now-famous escape, according to law-enforcement officials with knowledge of the probe.

" 'Absolutely no one,' said a Port Authority police official who asked not to be named. "Not one person on that flight corroborates his story.' ''

" 'He got his 15 minutes of fame,' the official continued. 'Everyone became enamored with him, but his story is totally uncorroborated by witness accounts.' ''

Monday, September 6, 2010

Under African Skies

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - There are, of course, more than seven interesting things about Cape Town, widely held by travelers to be the coolest city in South Africa. Here are seven sights in the city and surrounds that caught my attention:

1. The Company Gardens: Once the vegetable and fruit patch of the Dutch East India Co., used to grow food for scurvy-ravaged sailors, the space is now a lush, beautifully landscaped public park and garden in the heart of the city. Set into one flank is the Parliament Building with its white, colonial-era statue of Queen Victoria just outside. The park is a lovely place for a daytime stroll, though visitors are warned not walk alone there at night.

2. Table Mountain: An obvious choice, towering dramatically above the city bowl and terraced hillsides, and often draped in clouds. It's a dramatic and defining element.

3. Outside the city-center, Chapman's Peak: It gives sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela and other heros of the anti-apartheid struggle were imprisoned) and the lovely seaside promenade below in a once-seedy area that has been cleaned up.

4. The road from Chapman's Peak: A twisty, hilly artery with phenomenal views, originally laid out as a dirt track in 1915. Traffic is carefully controlled and signposted. Coming down the hillside in the direction of the Cape of Good Hope, your eyes fall upon a 6-kilometer-long white sand beach backed with wetlands. Among other things, locals ride horses up and down the strand.

5. A sign in the car park at Boulder Beach, where the big attraction is Africa's most famous penquin colony: "Warning: Please look under your vehicles for penquins.'' The beach is part of the expansive Table Mountain National Park, on the fringe of the city.

6. A roadside sign in the scrubby, windy stretch of land on the road to the Cape of Good Hope, which Vasco de Gama famously rounded in 1498 on his journey to India: "Baboons!''

There are many of these primates, skittering along the ground, sitting on top of fenceposts and wandering onto the road. Visitors are of necessity warned not to feed or touch them, as they are wild animals, not pets. One baboon that I and my group see along the roadside has a bloody tongue hanging out of his mouth. The guide from Roots Africa Tours ( tells us this one has probably lost a fight and been expelled from his group. Further along, baboons overrrun an ostrich farm and create a diversion so that their fellows can steal the big birds' food.

7. The food and the singing at Two Oceans restaurant at craggy Cape Point, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet. We feast on food heaped in iron skillets - rice, calamari, lobster, a white fish whose name I didn't catch, a good curry - and sit back, sated, as restaurant staff sing traditional African songs and demonstrate a dance. Decidedly touristy, to be sure, but well-done and enjoyable. The lunch is accompanied by excellent wines - one of South Africa's specialties. I sip a glass of a rose brut and sample a 2008 Hartenberg Chardonnay from the wine-growing center Stellenbosch, located an hour from the city in the Cape Winelands.

There may be something finer than drinking good wine at the ends of the Earth, but when you're doing it, it's hard to think of what that something could be.

Transparency and Airline Fees

Here's the nub of the situation:

Airlines - especially money-losers in the United States - have a justifiable business need to make money after a decade of losses. In order to do this they are adding fees for things like checked bags and extra legroom in the cabin. In line with this, airline customers - i.e., we travelers - need to know what all the fees are and how much they cost, quickly and transparently.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Sept. 7, the Business Travel Coalition - an estimable nonprofit trade group for corporate travel planners - will launch an online consumer campaign in support of a proposed U.S. Department of Transportation rule ( that would require clearer and quicker disclosure of what the BTC calls "hidden airline fees." The BTC ( has additionally declared Sept. 23 to be Mad As Hell Day in the U.S. as a means of dramatizing its support.

In the USA, where free-floating, politicized anger is the coin of the realm in a badly polarized society, Mad As Hell Day may be an unfortunate name. But there is little doubt the campaign's basic point is a good one: Consumers should know, from airline Web sites and other sources, just how much money proliferating airline fees contribute to the ultimate, real cost of their airline ticket. The BTC says checked baggage fees alone "can add 30 percent, 40 percent or more to the cost of a ticket.''

The proposed rules change doesn't prohibit airlines from making business decisions to add fees - it pushes them to clearly disclose the fees.

Airline industry groups such as the Air Transport Association ( point out that this information is available on airline Web sites. But it is often buried deep in the fine print where travelers have a hard time rooting it out. Why not make it easy?

The BTC asks consumers who support its campaign to sign a petition on the dedicated Web site Moreover, the organization asks supporters to "post a link to our Web site on your Facebook page, Twitter feed or other social network."

The BTC's chairman, Kevin Mitchell, also suggests checking out a new YouTube video "by life-long traveler Betty Stewart, and share your story about being surprised by hidden airline fees in the comments section.''

Mitchell writes: "It is imperative that we as consumers have the ability to comparison-shop and know the full cost of a trip before committing to a purchase.''

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ratan Tata on Terror

CAPE TOWN, South Africa - I came to this city of 3.5 million people to attend the opening of the new 5-star Taj Hotel Cape Town, a splendid, business-minded property that blends two renovated heritage buildings with a glassy new tower.

In the process, I heard unexpected words on terror and travel from a global business leader who knows about both. He is Ratan Tata, the chairman of Tata & Sons, the huge Indian conglomerate that builds cars, makes steel and does a number of other things. Tata is a very big family business that started at the turn of the 20th century in what was then Bombay (today's Mumbai) with a single hotel: the Taj Mahal Palace.

That Taj was one of the Mumbai targets attacked by terrorists in November 2008 and partly destroyed. I stayed there a year later, while repairs and renovation were still going on and the original 1903 building was still closed to guests. It reopened last month.

In Cape Town for the opening of the new Taj, Tata had a rare meeting with reporters and spoke about the attack - and the determined response to it.

"We saw lives being taken,'' he said. "We saw the hotel burning. We decided to rebuild it brick by brick. It was an emotional time. We lost 31 people. We were able to overcome, and rebuild even better. It came out beautiful.

"It was a statement of defiance,'' Tata said. "You couldn't knock Bombay down.''

Amen to that. Continuing on in the face of menace - and taking precautions while doing so - is the only appropriate response to terrorists. Simply put, you don't let them win.

They couldn't knock Bombay down.

What Took Them So Long?

Finally, after deliberating for the better part of a month, JetBlue Airways fired Steven Slater - the coffee, tea or flee flight attendant who deployed an emergency shute to leave a flight prematurely at JFK International-New York after allegedly cursing out a passenger on the airplane intercom and grabbing a beer. This reckless and selfish act made the errant FA an Internet folk hero, but it shouldn't have. JetBlue was right to fire him - it should have happened sooner.

Flight attendants flocked to support him, pointing out, rightly, that FAs are often treated poorly by their employers and sometimes by passengers. What most Slater supporters did not say is that flight attendants - especially on U.S. carriers - are also often brusque and rude to passengers, who are, after all, paying good money to fly. FAs, however stressed, are paid to be there, and they are trained to deal with uncomfortable situations. Seen in this light, Slater was about as unprofessional as he could have been. Moreover, the would-be hero did not tell off an oppressive and powerful boss before leaving - if media accounts are correct, he dissed dozens of powerless travelers who were unfortunate enough to be in his care. This is a hero?

Slater still faces charges of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and trespassing. He should have a day in court, and if the charges stand up before a judge or jury, he should be convicted and hit with an appropriate penalty. People have got to understand that venting and throwing a temper tantrum on the job is not cool, not clever and not acceptable. Travel is stressful enough already without travel pros unraveling and thinking only of themselves.

Oh, one more thing: Where is the abusive passenger who supposedly triggered the whole thing?