I am giving all profits from my new book, Traveler888, to the ALS Association of Arizona.

IMG_20180613_0001.jpgWhen I was diagnosed with this disease three years ago, I started writing a WordPress blog about my travels. Over the years, before my diagnosis, I managed to travel to more than 100 countries and have lived in several of them. I was living in Thailand, in fact, at the time I was diagnosed with ALS. As the disease progressed, I was unable to use my hands. I had to finish the book using speech recognition on my computer. Now that my voice is going, I am learning to use a computer with eye gaze capability.

Containing 250 original color photos, Traveler888 is collection of some of the more interesting experiences and observations from those years of travel. If you would like to order the book, go to amazon.com and search for Traveler888. It should come right up. As I mentioned, all profits go to the ALS Association of Arizona.

Israel, November 2015: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv… Bucket List Item Number 3

Note: This is the final travel memoir in the series. This story and the 20 stories preceding it will be made into an e-book. More information will follow.

Flying from Egypt to Israel is not easy. For starters there aren’t any flights. It’s even more difficult doing it the other way. The Egyptians supposedly hassle you if you have Israeli stamps in your passport. To get from Cairo to Tel Aviv, I spent a night in Amman, Jordan. I was going to stay longer in Jordan and visit Petra, one of the great sights of the world, but when I found that it took all day and well into the evening to make the trip down and back, I shortened that part of the trip. The whole thing sounded like a pain in the butt to me. One needs to do these things when one is younger and in good health. 20 years ago, I would’ve taken cheap local transit down there, stayed overnight in a budget hotel and walked my ass off all day checking out Petra.

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Even though I didn’t stay long in Jordan, I was impressed. Considering the turbulent neighborhood he lives in, the King seems to be managing well. I enjoyed my one night in Amman and flew into Tel Aviv the next morning.

Immediately upon arrival in Tel Aviv, I booked a car and driver straight to Jerusalem. The journey was a pleasant hour-long, uphill ride. From the well paved highway, one can see a number of towns perched on the hills on either side of the freeway. Israel gives the feel and appearance of a developed country. After having lived in developing countries for a number of years, one can sense the difference. It certainly appears cleaner and better organized than Egypt where I had just been, for example.

 

 

My Jewish friend in Bangkok who is a correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, recommended that I stay at the King David Hotel. Upon investigation I discovered that this hotel is where the heads of state stay when they visit and would cost me 600 a night. While at this stage of my life my money is probably going to outlast me, I couldn’t bring myself to pay that and I stayed across the street at the Eldan Hotel at number 24 King David St. for a quarter of the price. Only a 15 minute walk to the Jaffa gate, It was a perfect location for seeing the old city of Jerusalem.

 

 

I made several visits to the Old City. The three monotheistic religions have several extremely important sites here. What is interesting is that they are all within a couple hundred meters of each other. This also has been a great point of contention over the years. Who should control this land? The recent announcement that the United States would move its embassy to Jerusalem has tended to bolster Israel’s case and has provoked a large number of protests.

 

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem is the most sacred site in Christianity. This is thought to be Calvary where Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. You can see and touch the Stone of Anointing where Jesus is said to have been anointed before burial. Several Christian sects share in the maintenance of the holy site. Apparently they oil the anointing stone daily. It was oily to my touch. My Catholic fiancée said I should have rubbed some of it on my ailing arms. Damn, I missed a possible cure.

 

The alleys leading up to The Church of the Holy Sepulcher have special significance as well. For my Catholic friends, this is the original place of the Stations of the Cross. This route includes the 14 stations through which Jesus passed carrying the wooden cross on which he was later crucified by the Romans.

If one continues 100 meters or so past the church, which is the holiest site in Christianity, one comes to the holiest site in all of Judaism. The Temple Mount and the Western Wall.  It was from here the world expanded into its present form and God gathered the dust used to create the first man, Adam. This is where Abraham brought his son to sacrifice and God stopped him.

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 If you go to the right hand side of the Western Wall, there is a ramp available that will take you on top of the hill. Stairs are also available. If the Israeli security services allow you to pass, this leads to the the Al-Aksa Mosque, which for Sunni Muslims is the third holiest site in Islam. They believe that Muhammad made a miraculous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem in 621a.d. At this “farthest” mosque he was lifted to heaven and returned to Earth to carry on his teaching.

 

Alleged problems regarding access to this Mosque was a source of violent unrest while I was there. For security reasons, the area was closed that day and I could only get a distant photo. I had much better access to the Jewish and Christian sites.

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Seeing these three sites are a “must do” when visiting Jerusalem. Several other sites are  worth visiting as well. I Liked the Israel Museum and the Tower of David. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum is a must see. I enjoyed shopping in the Machane Yehuda Market.13 (2)

I had a rather shocking personal experience upon returning to my hotel after a long day of visiting those sites. After having a light dinner at the YMCA Three Arches Hotel next door, I retired to my room to take a nice warm bath and call it a night. As I got in the bathtub, I notice the tub was rather narrow and quite deep. Definitely not made for Americans. When I finished my bath and began draining the water, I reached up to the high sides of the tub to pull myself out. To my shock, the disease had progressed to the point where I didn’t have the strength to lift myself out. I had visions of being stuck all night in the bathtub and having to wait for the maid to get me out in the morning. Finally after writhing every way I could, I was able to get myself on my stomach and pull my knees up and stand.

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Since I have a gallows sense of humor, I recall at one point during my struggle in the tub, I started laughing. The truth was, however, that my solo travel days were coming to an end. In fact I would’ve loved to have my fiancée traveling with me on this trip, but my ultimate destination was the US and their tourist visa restrictions were insurmountable. When I got back to the States, I began running the visa gauntlet and am happy to say we are now married and living in the US.

 

Aside from the bathtub incident, my time in Jerusalem was very enjoyable. Everyone should see this area to better understand what’s presented every day on the news. From Jerusalem I took a car back down the hill to Tel Aviv. My driver was an Israeli Arab. He was a nice guy said he was happy living in Israel.

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I spent two nights at the beach in Tel Aviv. I stayed at the Brown Beach House which is one block from the beach. My Jewish friend in Bangkok had warned me that Tel Aviv is just another city with not that much to see. Taking his advice, I just relaxed for two days on the beach. From there I flew to Cyprus, spent a few more days at the beach there and then it was back to the States by way of Vienna, Austria.

Luxor, Egypt, October 2015 – Valley of The Kings, Temples, Tombs and Hot Air Balloons.

Sometimes called the “greatest outdoor museum in the world”, Luxor is a pleasant town on the East Bank of the Nile 313 miles upriver from Cairo. It’s a good place just to walk around or to stroll along the Nile. Many of the main sights like the Karnak Temple and the Luxor Temple are within walking distance of the town center.

 

 

 

Across the river, on the West Bank of the Nile, are the famous tombs of the necropolis called the Valley of the Kings. It’s better to stay on the East Bank in Luxor and make day trips across the river to the West Bank. Accommodation is not a problem in Luxor these days. When I was there, the hotels were at 20 to 30% occupancy. I was able to get a first-class room overlooking the Nile for $30 a night. From my room, I could see hundreds of tour boats tied up along the river. A cruise from Cairo to Luxor used to be very popular. The political turmoil over the previous four years is mainly responsible for this decline in tourism. Some terrorist incidents have also slowed things down. A few days after I left Egypt, ISIS was able to get a bomb on a flight full of Russians flying out of the Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. If you go to Luxor be sure to check the travel advisories first. The security situation could change at any time.

 

 

 

On my first day I toured the temples on the East Bank and took many photos. Luxor truly is a giant outdoor museum. I visited acres and acres of ancient ruins. In November, the temperature is ideal. Be careful what time of year you go. It can get blistering hot. During the day, I took a break and I had lunch at an exotic restaurant called McDonald’s. Interesting to see the Egyptian version. In addition to being halal, they have made a number of adaptations for Egyptian tastes.

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View from McDonald’s window

At night it was very quiet in the town with few other tourists visible. That same night I made my booking at the hotel for a hot air balloon ride and a tour of the Valley of the Kings. The next morning when I compared prices with other passengers on the hot air balloon, I found that prices varied widely depending on who you booked with. The range was from $60 to US$160 for a space on the same balloon. Funny, when you are working your way down your bucket list, cost becomes rather unimportant.

 

 

The hot air balloon company picked me up at the hotel at 4:30 AM.  Several other passengers were already on the bus. They took us to a boat moored along the Nile. After a few minutes the boat filled up with other passengers and we set out across the legendary river. Buses were waiting on the West Bank to take us to an area where several hot air balloons were being inflated. Each balloon could carry 16 to 20 passengers. After boarding, they instructed us on how to brace ourselves for a strong impact.

 

 

I didn’t know it at the time I made my booking, but safety had become a major issue with the Luxor hot air balloon flights. Three fatal accidents had occurred since 2009. The latest one was January 5, 2018. One South African man was killed and several were injured. The worst one however, was in 2013 when 19 passengers were killed.

.http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3113771/What-REALLY-happened-doomed-hot-air-balloon-flight-killed-19-passengers-dream-day-turned-carnage.html

 

 

Balloon Pilot

I doubt that knowing these statistics would’ve changed my mind about booking my flight. “Stuff” happens when you travel in Third World countries. A number of years ago a teacher friend of mine died in a bus crash in the Yucatán Peninsula. She was a very cautious type who hadn’t traveled much. She asked me if I thought it was safe for her and her friend to travel in Mexico. In those days I thought it was safe. I had driven most of the roads of Mexico myself. Today, I would say no. One can never be sure when the end is coming. You get the best information you can and you make the best decision you can. I call it being a reasonable adventurer.

 

 

 

The hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings was well worth the risk. As the sun came up, we could see the Nile snaking through the valley. A dozen other balloons were visible. We passed over several smaller temples. The pilot was able to get the balloon to drop down very near the ruins and then rise back up. The actual Valley of the Kings is a smaller valley, more like a canyon, tucked back in the mountains. As we moved farther north up the valley, we passed the large Temple of Hatshepsut, or the Temple of Queen “hot chicken soup” as one of the tour guides jokingly called it. The infamous Queen ruled Egypt for about 20 years starting in 1458 BC.

 

 

After about 45 minutes of flying, our pilot contacted his ground crew and arranged a rendezvous. The landing was rather smooth. Transport was ready to take us back to the launch area where I had arranged for a car, driver and guide to give me a closer look at the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and to look at some of the temples on the west side of the river. Many tombs are available for inspection. You can walk down inside and study the hieroglyphics painted on most of the walls.

Luxor Ballon Landing Crew

Balloon Landing Crew

Dozens of tombs have been found in this valley. Interestingly, they were still digging when I was there. Many times false entries and other techniques have been used to try to hide the treasures. No doubt, digging will go on for decades more. All the tombs I visited were quite empty. Aside from the hieroglyphics, there was not much to see inside a tomb. I suppose all the good stuff has long since been taken to museums in Cairo and elsewhere.

After my tour of the tombs, my tour guide took to me to see some of the temples and monuments on that side of the river. Most memorable, of course, was the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut which we had seen from the air. The tour guide jokingly had me cross my arms over my chest so I was posed like a mummy. This temple also was the site of the terrorist attack that killed 62 people in 1997. This was the event that had kept me from seeing Egypt 20 years earlier.

 

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After the full day of touring on the West Bank, we headed back to my hotel and I spent an enjoyable evening in Luxor and prepared for my trip back to Cairo and on to Amman Jordan the next day.  I could now check off bucket list item number two.

 

 

Cairo, Egypt, October 2015: Bucket List Item Number One

When the kind Thai neurologist at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok gave me the depressing diagnosis, her last piece of advice was that if there was anything I wanted to do…I should do it soon. With that advice firmly in mind, I thought about the places in the world I really wanted to visit but had never managed to get there. Since I had already traveled to more than 100 countries, the list was getting rather short. Also, as one gets older I think the list shortens.

Having said that, six destinations came immediately to mind:

  1. Cairo
  2. Luxor, Egypt.
  3. Israel, Jerusalem in particular
  4. Cape Town, South Africa
  5. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  6. Cuba.

While I had been all over Asia, Europe and the Americas,  I had only been to a couple of countries in Africa. I felt I needed to see more of the continent in general, but I was very interested in Ethiopia and South Africa for a number of reasons. But first on the list were Egypt and the Holy Lands.

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Actually, I was booked to go to Cairo 18 years earlier, but the now defunct airline, TWA, called me when I was in Spain and told me that a day earlier, Nov 18, 1997, at least 70 people, including 60 foreigners were killed by terrorists outside the 3400-year-old Temple of Hatshepsut in Luxor. They encouraged me to go elsewhere. They suggested Mallorca instead. I enjoyed it the first few days but was bored the rest of the week. I learned over the years I can’t just sit on a beach and bake. I need to move around and see as much as I can.

After taking time to mentally process the diagnosis and make plans for treatment back in the US, I started planning the trip. Living near Bangkok made it easy as it’s a major hub for flights to the Middle East and Europe. I easily booked a business class ticket on Qatar Airways from Bangkok to Cairo for about $1000. No more economy class for this guy.  I was able to sleep for several hours on the Bangkok-Doha leg. Although I don’t drink much anymore, I enjoyed the business class lounge aboard the gigantic, two-story Airbus A380. After the short Doha stopover, they put me in a first-class seat to Cairo.

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Business Class Lounge Aboard Qatar Airways A380

Upon arrival at Cairo, I was surprised to see that my hotel had their representative meet me at the gate. Usually hotel representatives wait outside somewhere carrying a sign with your name on it. In this case, the representative of Le Meridian Hotel accompanied me through the entire immigration and customs process. Again, traveling first class certainly has its advantages. I thought of the countless hours spent in immigration lines in the past. Life is not fair.

Le Meridian Hotel is located in the ancient Cairo suburb of Heliopolis. The modern city is built on ruins that date back more than 3000 years. Indeed, shortly after my visit, two statues of ancient pharaohs were uncovered in the mud not far from my hotel. (See link below)

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/ancient-pharaoh-statues-uncovered-cairo-mud-pit-170310093023180.html

There were two main things I wanted to see in Cairo. First, the Pyramids at Giza and second the National Museum at Tahrir Square. The hotel was able to book me a car and driver and an English-speaking guide. I was surprised to see how close the pyramids were to the city. In fact they are only 8 miles southwest of the center of Cairo. It was fascinating to drive through the streets of the largest city in Africa. The whole city seem to be cast in sandy shades of beige and tan. Interesting to see many churches as well as mosques in Cairo.

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Nile River

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After seeing the pyramids and the Sphinx and taking many photos, my guide asked me if I wanted to go inside one of the pyramids. She said the only problem was that there’s really nothing to see in there now and that you have to bend over and walk quite a long distance. For sure, there was a time I would’ve done it. 20 years ago I would’ve been all over those pyramids, but on that I day passed. I went back to the hotel took a nap and spent a pleasant evening around Heliopolis. Some things have to be done when you’re younger.

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My Guide

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Entrance to Pyramid

The next day we went to Tahrir Square and the National Museum. Tahrir means liberation. The world witnessed two very recent examples of that liberation. First, the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was deposed in 2011 when more than 1 million people gathered in the square. With the support of the Obama administration, The Muslim Brotherhood, a minority party, managed to get control of the government. Immediately they tried to change the secular government into a strict Muslim autocracy. The result was disastrous especially for the non-Muslim minorities. They drove the economy into the ground. In 2013, the square filled up again with demonstrators. Some estimated that 3 million demonstrators showed up on that day if you count the side streets.

 

Based on this overwhelming unpopularity of the new government, General al Sisi took control and formed a government. He is now in his second term of office and has announced that he will not run for reelection although he would probably win. Security has improved considerably and the economy has started to grow again. My tour guide was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. She told me that she liked the al Sisi government and that things were getting better. As terrible as they were, the Muslim Brotherhood are still considered the duly elected government of Egypt. Most European and Middle Eastern governments have been slow to recognize the new government. All of the unrest has damaged Egypt’s tourism industry.

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On my second day we drove back through the Cairo traffic. The National Museum of Egypt is located on Tahrir Square. A statue of Howard Carter is standing in the front courtyard. Carter was the Englishman who discovered the Tomb of King Tutankhamen, the boy king. More than 5000 artifacts dating back nearly 4000 years were found. Many are on display in the museum. Carter took many items back to England. Sadly, some were sold and given away to people around the world. If you can’t make it to Cairo, try to see the British Museum in London. It’s the next best thing to the museum.

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The fantastic gold mask of King Tutankhamen is on display in the National Museum. It was under repair for several months. Some attendant had handled the piece wrong when they were moving and broke off his beard. It had to undergo a delicate glue job. Another piece that caught my eye was the statue of Anubis. Depicted as a black canine–like creature, his job was to guard the dead. A large statue of him stood in the middle of the museum. I smiled because my son-in-law had named his whippet after this ancient Egyptian deity. Well, he was an expensive dog so I suppose he deserved such a lofty name.

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After a full morning at the National Museum, the guide insisted that we stop at a papyrus factory. They demonstrated how the ancient Egyptians made papyrus. They then tried to sell me on a sign with my name in Egyptian hieroglyphics. Enough for one day. Time to prepare for my Egypt Airlines flight to Luxor.

 

 

Philippines, February 2011 – Last Night I Saw Imelda Marcos…A Story of Three Widows.

February 28, 2011

Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines

English: Imelda Marcos during a state visit ou...

Imelda Marcos during a state visit outside the Oval Office. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I saw Imelda Marcos last night, she is the first of three widows in this story. I was sitting outside Club Havana Restaurant at the Greenbelt Mall in Makati when she strolled by with her entourage occasionally stopping for autographs and photos. I’m not sure where Imelda had been that night. Perhaps she had dined there at one of the many restaurants in Greenbelt or maybe she had been shopping for shoes. She still had her trademark up-sweep hairdo and was wearing a long black dress decorated with jewels and embroidery. I must say for an 81-year-old woman, she looked marvelous.

Allegedly, she and her late husband, Ferdinand, ripped off the country for hundreds of billions. The commission on Good Government estimated the theft to be in the US$5-US$10 billion range. To this day, she still insists that Ferdinand was a financial genius who made all that money speculating in the gold market. Actually, if you talk to many older Filipinos, they will tell you Marcos was a very good administrator the first 10 years of his 20 year reign. It was the last 10 years when he developed serious kidney problems that the corruption accelerated. Indeed, during his first 10 years, the Philippines was one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia. Many say that as Marcos became weaker, Imelda became stronger.

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Imelda’s Shoes, Malacanang Palace, 1986

In addition to plundering the national treasury for years, I heard persistent rumors that she and Marcos’s chief of staff, General Ver, plotted the assassination of Ferdinand’s political rival, Begnigo Aquino. For a number of years after his death, there was a statue of Benigno Aquino descending the airplane stairway where he was shot on arrival at the airport. It was a rather macabre statue. I’m not sure it’s still there. I managed to get a photo of it. A lot of mystery still surrounds that killing which led eventually to Marcos’s downfall. Who said your karma catches up with you? The Filipinos are a very forgiving people. Imelda is still going strong.

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Seeing Imelda revived a lot of old memories for me.  Her appearance came almost 25 years to the day from my first arrival in the Philippines. On February 25, 1986, President Marcos and Imelda flew out of Clark Air Base to his exile home in Hawaii. He died at a house on the beach in Honolulu 3 years later. I arrived at the Manila International Airport just 10 days after his departure for the first of my many visits.. The cab driver who drove me to the hotel claimed to be part of the great human barricade that blocked EDSA Boulevard thereby preventing the tanks from moving against the demonstrators. He proudly showed me where he had parked his cab sideways in the boulevard just down the road from Camp Crame.  He said he had stood with the nuns who had stared down the tanks.

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After Marcos was deposed in 1986, the euphoria in the country was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Nearly everyone was wearing yellow and was making the “L” sign with their index finger and thumb. The sign stood for the second word of PDP-Laban, the People’s Power movement that had ousted Marcos. The wearing of the yellow color signified that people should never forget all of the political opponents that Marcos had jailed. Indeed, the dissidents were now set free and many of them went on to become cabinet members and other high-level positions and start their own cycle of plundering. Generally in the Philippines, when there is a change of government in Manila, inevitably one band of grafters replaces another. The corruption resumes. This chronic corruption combined with a series of natural disasters has made the Philippines one of the poorer countries in Southeast Asia. In the last election, the voters were so fed up with the graft year after year that they elected tough guy Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao to clean it up. We’ll see how successful he is. The jury is still out on that.

On that same initial trip, I got an even closer look at Philippine politics. It was on a flight to Cebu that I met a personable fortyish woman named Paz Regalado. She is the second widow in our story. Mrs. Regalado was on her way back to her home in Cagayan de Oro on the north end of the island of Mindanao. She had just been in Manila discussing a position in the new government. Her late husband had been the law partner of Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel, former mayor of Cagayan de Oro. Pimentel had been one of the dissidents that Marcos jailed several times and he was now a national hero. As a reward, he was about to be appointed Minister Of Local Government, a very powerful position. Marcos had centralized power in Manila. All mayors and governors were appointed out of Manila instead of being elected locally. Nene Pimentel had an important position in the new government and he wanted Paz Regalado to be his chief administrative officer. I could tell she was both elated and anxious about it. Her anxiety was understandable. She was the widow of a small town lawyer and had been busy raising their daughter. Although she was a graduate nurse, she hadn’t worked in several years. Pimentel knew her and trusted her which apparently was more important to him than competence.

In that first meeting with Paz Regalado on that Cebu Pacific flight, I mentioned to her that I would be coming back to the Philippines on my summer vacation to do some traveling and possibly consulting. I said it was an exciting time to be in the Philippines with a dictator leaving and a new president coming in. We exchanged contact information and she said she would enjoy taking me sightseeing. When I contacted her in June, she told me she had taken the job at the Ministry of Local Government. She asked where I was staying and I told her I had arranged to stay with my friend Ken in a mansion he was renting in the upscale suburb of Greenhills. Ken was an American who had an import business that he ran out of his home. He had a staff of about 15 Filipinos that either worked in the office, served as his driver or maintained the mansion. Equipped with a pool and all the other amenities, it was a comfortable place to spend the summer.

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Chief Administrative Officer Mrs. Paz C. Regalado

During my stay in Manila, Paz would come by the house, pick me up with her car and driver and take me to see the various sites around Manila. We saw the old Spanish Fort and the US military cemetery at Ford Bonifacio. We even went to the presidential palace where they still had 2500 pairs of Imelda Marcos shoes on display.  Sometimes I wondered when Paz had time to do her job. It seemed to me that a chief administrative officer would have a lot to do. When I asked about it, she just laughed. She told me that our driver usually drove for the minister. However, Nene Pimentel insisted on using his own car, driver and security. I assumed he didn’t trust people from Manila. I learned later that he had a very dangerous job at a very dangerous time. It was his job to fire and replace all the corrupt governors and mayors in the country. In Asian countries, when you “break someone’s rice bowl” retribution usually follows. I can see why he paid special attention to security. He only lasted a year in that job and moved on to higher office. He was elected a senator and became President of the Senate. His successor, however, wasn’t so careful or so lucky. Shortly after taking over from Pimentel, Jaime Ferrer and his driver were shot and killed on the streets of Manila. I never had a chance to check, but it may have been the same driver who took us sightseeing.

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Washington Post, August 3,1987. Assassination of Nene Pimentel’s successor.

A couple of weeks after I arrived, Paz Regalado told me that the third widow in our story, the newly installed president, Cory Aquino and Paz’s boss, Minister Pimentel were going to her hometown of Cagayan de Oro on July 6 and 7, 1986 to make a major speech thanking the people for their support. Paz had to go a few days early to make some of the

arrangements and she wanted to know if I was interested in going with her. I said I was interested and agreed. We flew Philippine Airlines from Manila to the airport at Cagayan de Oro. As we descended the stairs from the plane, a group of dignitaries including the mayor were there to meet us. The mayor welcomed me and put a garland around my neck made of shells and capiz It was stamped with the seal of the city. I started to fully appreciate what an important job Paz really had. I was booked into the Executive Hotel in the center. Paz went on to her home in the suburbs.IMG_20180205_0002When we arrived at the stadium on the day of the speech. I was shocked to see the size of the crowd. It was estimated that at least 10,000 people were there that day. Many were still wearing the yellow celebrating the People’s Power victory. Yellow balloons were everywhere. Military paratroopers para-sailed into the stadium. The Media were all in place. I had a seat a few rows back from the speaker’s stand. As I surveyed the crowd, I thought, what an opportunity for a president show a vision, to set a course for the future, to start changing the country for the better. I was set to hear the soaring rhetoric of a Kennedy or Reagan speech. I thought this may be an historic, pivotal moment for the Philippines.Aquino CDO speech5 (2)

The first a couple of local dignitaries spoke in the local Visayan dialect. Then, Nene Pimentel, the local and national hero, spoke in a mishmash of Visayan and Tagalog, the main dialect of the country. I could understand very little of what he said but I could tell he was extremely popular with the crowd. Next came the moment we were all waiting for. Newly elected Pres. Cory Aquino, widow of Benigno Aquino, took the stand. Basically, for 30 minutes in clear English, she listed why Ferdinand Marcos was a scoundrel and a rogue and lower than pond scum. She reeled off a seemingly endless litany of his misdeeds. I didn’t hear a single positive, future-oriented comment. What was her vision for the country? What was the mission of her administration? Where do we go from here? I thought to myself, this country is still in trouble. As it turned out, I was right. Cory Aquino proved to be an honest, kind, but naïve person who would gather her cabinet around a long conference table and explain to them all the things she would like to see done. They would say, yes ma’am, and smile and then go out and line their pockets the same way politicians always had. During her term, the corruption continued unabated.

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One good example is the problem my friend Ken began having shortly after Aquino took office. He had been importing fruit in containers by air from New Zealand. The newly appointed manager of customs at the airport informed him that the bribe would be doubled in order to get a container through customs. If he refused to pay it, his containers would be pushed off to the side and left in the tropical heat to rot. Later, the same manager teamed up with another importer to import apples from New Zealand. From then on Ken was not allowed to bring in apples at all. The customs manager and his partner cornered the market on all apples coming into the Philippines by air. Ken told me that when the man was first appointed by President Aquino, he drove a small Toyota. One month later, he traded up to a Mercedes.

Some of Aquino’s successors have made attempts at curbing the corruption. It usually comes back stronger than ever. The sad thing is that over the years the corruption has caused the economy to fall behind other countries in Southeast Asia. Much of the money that should have gone into roads, bridges, airports, clean water and sewers has been pocketed by many (not all) politicians. Although the economy is showing some signs of growth recently, 2.2 million overseas workers still need to go abroad each year to make a decent living that they can’t make in the Philippines.

The latest president, Rodrigo Duterte, like his predecessors, has vowed to clean up the corruption. What is different about him is that he’s taken strong action against the country’s drug dealers which has allegedly included several thousand nonjudicial executions. Criticized for his heavy hand, it remains to be seen how effective he will be with political corruption. I hope he succeeds. I love the Philippines. I truly wish them well.

 

 

Cook Islands 1986: My Gauguin Moment in a Poor Man’s Tahiti

I found an interesting ticket on Air New Zealand. The routing was  LAX, Papeete, Tahiti, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Fiji and finally Auckland, New Zealand. All of that for a few hundred dollars. I couldn’t resist. The rules allowed you to stay as long as you liked at each destination. The only caveat was that the flights were a only a couple of times a week. So once you got there you may have to wait a while for the next flight even if you were tired of the place. In those days, I traveled with one carry-on bag that went under the seat. The exact dimensions were 9″ x 22″ x 14″. I had it down to a science. I packed exactly the right number of long pants, short pants, shirts and underwear. Including the toiletries, the whole thing did not exceed 7 kg in weight. No waiting for baggage. I learned my lesson in El Salvador when my friend’s checked bag was stolen. But that’s another story.

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Photo taken at the Gauguin Museum, 1976

Tahiti was wonderful. To begin with, I love French culture. Combine that with the gorgeous Polynesian culture and you have an unbeatable combination. The only problem was that I was still a budget traveler in those days. Tahiti would blow a giant hole in your budget if you stayed there long enough. The reason is that Tahiti is a semi autonomous territory of France. Tahitians are French citizens. In those days, their currency was tied to the French Franc. Unfortunately, nearly everything that wasn’t made on the island was imported from France which was halfway around the world. The result was some eye-popping prices. I remember paying $15 for sandwich at a small snack bar. That was 30 years ago. While I loved the French cuisine and the wine in the restaurants, I winced each time they brought me the check. Soon I would be moving on to a different part of Polynesia, the Cook Islands, which my guidebooks told me was much cheaper. Perhaps Marlon Brando could afford a long stay in Tahiti but a college teacher like me could not.

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Papeete Marina

Before leaving Tahiti, however, there were two things I wanted to do. First, I had to see the Gauguin Museum which was a short ride down the coast. Second, I wanted to see another island besides the main island of Tahiti. I chose Moorea which was the most accessible. I would rather have gone to Bora-Bora but time and money did not permit it. The trip to Moorea was delightful and I met a nice Frenchwoman who owned the small resort where I stayed a couple of nights.

The Paul Gauguin Museum chronicled Gauguin’s 10 years he spent on Tahiti and the nearby Marquesas Islands. He died on the Marquesas Islands in 1902, in fact. His paintings weren’t a success until after he died. The museum contains many of his documents, photos, sketches and block prints. I felt a bit of a disappointment to find there are very few original paintings. Since his oil paintings now sell for millions of dollars, I suppose it would be very expensive to keep any of them there. I understand now the museum has gone down quite a bit and is currently closed. I enjoyed my visit along with the ride down the spectacular coastline.

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Ferry to Moorea

After Tahiti and Moorea, it was time to leave the expensive French-speaking part of Polynesia and move 700 miles to the southwest to the Cook Islands, an English speaking region. Named for Capt. James Cook who first visited in 1773, the Cook Islands is made up of 15 small atolls and islands scattered over 770,000 mi.². My Air New Zealand flight sat down on the main island of Rarotonga. The capital city, Avarua is on the north end of the island.

I booked a small beach bungalow near the airport. Although the airport was only a few miles from Avarua, the airport shuttle took me the entire circumference of the island all the way back around to my bungalow. Although it took nearly an hour, it was daytime so I got a great view of the whole island.

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Hugh Baker’s bungalow

I booked my bungalow with Hugh Baker and his mother, Dolly. I was a bit surprised when I saw that the bungalow appeared to be just a tin shack. Inside, however, it was well fitted out and was a short walk to the beach. Hugh even supplied me with a bicycle to ride the 2 miles into town. As I examined the bicycle, one thing stood out. It was nearly 100% made of plastic. It was engineered to survive the intense humidity, I suppose. I spent the next few days swimming and riding my bicycle and getting to know Rarotonga. The people were extremely friendly and welcoming. Some say the place is like Hawaii 80 years ago.

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My Plastic Bicycle

Unlike Hawaii, Cook Islands is a self-governing island state in free association with New Zealand. The Kiwis provide for their defense and help finance their debt. Many of the professionals working on the island are from New Zealand. My landlord, Hugh Baker, worked at the airport and rented out bungalows for extra money. With only 14,000 native Cook Islanders left living in the islands, there are now more Cook Islanders living abroad than at home. In recent years, the islands have become a well-known tax haven and offshore banking center. While I was there, everything was unbelievably cheap. The kiwi dollar was about $.55 to the US dollar. A large bottle of delicious Steinlager beer only cost one kiwi dollar.

 

On one of my afternoon bike rides, I discovered the Banana Court Bar on the main highway. Although quiet in the daytime, the bartender told me to come back on a weeknight, Wednesday was ladies night and that would be best. They had a local band and the place filled up. I made a mental note to do that before I left the island. But first, I wanted to do as I had done in Tahiti and see an additional island. I chose Aitutaki because it was an atoll. Raratonga was formed by a volcano. An atoll is formed by coral and is usually ring-shaped with a large lagoon in the center.

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Cook Islands Air Flight

This was the case with Aitutaki. Cook Island Air had regular flights there. The view from the was spectacular. I enjoyed a relaxing two or three days. I rented a motorbike and explored the atoll. The place was very quiet and idyllic. The only other tourists on my part of the island were a couple of Australian families. After two days of it, I was raring to get back to Rarotonga.

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Aitutaki Atoll View

When I arrived back at my beach shack I realized two things. First, I only had two more nights on the island and soon I would have to move on to Fiji. My Air New Zealand ticket was booked and would be difficult to change. Second, I remembered it was Wednesday. This was the night for the Banana Court Bar. I needed to plan ahead. I didn’t want to be riding the plastic bicycle in the center at night. So when evening rolled around, I walked nearly a mile to the general store and called a taxi to take me into town.

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When I arrived at the Banana Court Bar, I discovered the guys were right. The place was full. The music seemed to be a mix of American music and some local tunes. As I enjoyed my Steinlager and looked across the crowd, I noticed many of the women had flowers in their hair and wore tropical style dresses. Some of them looked as if they had been plucked from a Gauguin painting. I kept exchanging eye contact with one of the pretty young women. I can’t remember if I ask her to dance or she asked me. Probably she asked me because I tend to be shy and not very aggressive in bars.

No matter. We enjoyed three or four Western-style dances and I learned that her name was Justine. She had a charming slight New Zealand accent. I thought to myself, what a pretty name and what a lovely, exotic young lady. At that point the music changed and she asked me if I wanted to dance a local dance called the Ura. Why not? She had me stand in a semi-crouching position with my feet firmly planted on the floor while keeping my upper body steady. I was then to move my knees to the rhythm of the music. Facing me with her feet between mine, She stood above me, raised her arms and swayed and undulated to the music. OMG, what an incredibly sensual experience! This was not the dancing the Mormons had taught me in Utah many years ago. I was in heaven. I was smitten.

After a few more dances, her girlfriend showed up and said her group was leaving. When Justine hesitated a bit, the friend took her hand and began pulling her toward the door where her other friends were waiting.  Justine paused, smiled and looked back at me and said,” I work at the library”. Yes! I got the distinct impression she wanted to see me again. Why else did she tell me that? Was I being presumptuous? Cross cultural nonverbal communication is sometimes hard to read. Maybe she was just being kind to the forty-something American tourist. Well, we’ll find out. Tomorrow I’ll ride my bike into town and visit the library and say hello and see what develops. That night, as I fell asleep, I remembered dancing Ura and started having fantasies about dropping out of the American rat race and living the Gauguin lifestyle on the beaches of the Cook Islands.

Morning came and the rain started. It wasn’t just light tropical rain like we experienced a few days earlier. This was rain of biblical proportions. In my beach shack, I didn’t have a TV or radio. Probably this was a typhoon. There was no way I could ride that plastic bicycle into town. I doubt if I could even walk it when it was raining 70 miles an hour sideways. I had no other choice but to wait. And wait I did…the entire day. That night the deluge subsided a bit. The next morning I was able to walk to the general store. Annoyed, frustrated and wet, I booked my airport taxi for the confirmed flight to Fiji which was later that day. The tropical rains had washed away my Gauguin fantasy. I told myself I would return there soon. I never did. Life happened.

 

Cambodia: The Good, the Bad and the Horrific

My experience in Cambodia was the most difficult to write about. The trauma and the wounds of one of the major genocides of our time have not fully healed. Following the Vietnam War, some 2 million people, 25% of the population, were killed by an agrarian socialist government. Between 1992 and 2012, I visited Cambodia several times and watched the changes as they struggled to recover from this horrific past. Although conditions are getting much better, one can still see pain in the eyes of the older people. Some say the sadness has been passed down to the next generation.

Having said that, in recent times many travelers have had outstanding travel experiences visiting the temples and restaurants of Phnom Penh, the fantastic ruins of Angkor Wat, and the uncrowded beaches of Sihanoukville on the south coast.

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My first visit in June 1992 was the most memorable and haunting. The wounds inflicted by the Khmer Rouge were still fresh. Although the Vietnamese Army had deposed the murderous Khmer Rouge several years earlier, the United Nations had just taken control of Cambodia that January. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) consisting of 22,000 soldiers from 45 countries became the police, the army and the government. If you know how the UN budget works, you know that the USA was paying the lion’s share of the cost of them being there.

The distinctive blue berets were everywhere. White Toyota land cruisers with the initials UN painted on the side filled the unpaved avenues. In the afternoons and evenings, UN vehicles were double parked in front of the several French restaurants. Pakistani soldiers could be seen shopping in the markets all over town. At night, it was the Wild West. One writer described the scene as “guns, girls and ganja”.  I didn’t see much of the drugs, but I was told you could buy a big bag of weed in the market for a couple dollars. Also, you could get a pizza made with “magic mushrooms” at Happy Herbs pizza restaurant along the riverfront. A thousand bars, massage parlors and brothels sprang up catering to the military.  Bar fights and broken jaws were common.

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How did I end up amid all this tumult and anarchy? I was invited there by a Cambodian American fellow by the name of Vanthorn Thach. He was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. Three out of four of the workers in his prison camp died, mostly of starvation. Somehow, Vanthorn was able survive and get to the United States and was now living in San Diego. He heard that I was helping some local Vietnamese start an import export business. He came to my office at the College. He said he had a number of contacts in Cambodia and wanted me to show them how to get started in international trade. I agreed, and a few months later he was waiting for me when I arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh. The adventure began.

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Work came first. Once I was settled in to my simple but comfortable room, I met Mr. Heng, Vanthorn’s contact in Phnom Penh. Mr. Heng and his family ran a small office supply business on one of the main streets in the center. After we talked about possible products to trade and potential trading partners, they offered to show me the main sites of Phnom Penh including the Central Market, Wat Phnom and, at my request, the infamous Toul Sleng and Choeun Ek.

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Mr. Heng and Family

 

The iconic art deco Central Market was something left over from the French occupation. Indeed, you could still see many remnants of French colonization around town including a number of excellent French restaurants.  When I climbed a hill to see Wat Phnom at the top, I received a shock. About halfway up there was a woman holding a baby. I smiled down at her and she smiled back and opened the shawl so I could see the baby.  I was stunned to see how emaciated the child was. It really hit me what these people had been through! And it wasn’t over. I wasn’t sure what I should do. I think I handed her a wad of local money and continued my hike half stunned. That evening I had dinner with Mr. Heng and Vanthorn by the riverside. They acknowledged there was still a lot of poverty in Cambodia especially when you got out of the capital. The Khmer Rouge had caused it, but neither the Vietnamese occupiers nor the United Nations had done much about it.

The next morning I visited Toul Sleng. I didn’t invite Vanthorn along because I thought it might be too painful for him. Toul Sleng was a converted school building that was used as a detention center where supposed enemies of the State were interrogated, tortured and ultimately sent away to be executed. You were considered an enemy of the State if you were educated, could read or had lived abroad. Over a four-year period, the Khmer Rouge managed to execute nearly all of the country’s best and brightest. They meticulously photographed their victims. The photos were still there on the walls. You could see in the people’s eyes that they knew they were about to die. Very haunting. The interesting thing about this instance of genocide was that it was not carried out on another ethnic group or race or religion but it was one group of Khmer people killing another group of Khmer people. It was strictly done on social class or economic class lines.

The same afternoon I took a car and driver 17 miles south out to Choeung Ek. These were the infamous killing fields. I wanted to see this last notorious site and then spend the rest of my visit during much more pleasant things. Once people had been processed in Phnom Penh, they were taken by truck to these fields and stood up along an open pit. They were either shot in the back of the head or sometimes, in order to save ammunition, they were simply hit with an ax. Often their heads were buried in a different place from their bodies. The skulls have been dug up and stacked. In a later visit, I saw that they were put in a pagoda. As I walked around the open pits from where they had exhumed the bodies, I heard crunching under my feet, I was shocked to discover that I was walking on human bone shards. Enough for one day! Time to get back to Phnom Penh.

No visit to Cambodia would be complete without seeing Angkor Wat. I bought tickets to Siem Reap for Vanthorn and me on Royal Air Cambodge, a questionable domestic carrier that is now defunct. A few years after we flew the airline, Teng Boonma, a Cambodian tycoon, got so angry with Royal Air Cambodge when they lost his luggage that he took out a gun and famously shot out the front tire of the airplane. We had no other choice but to use this airline. The only other way to get there was to go overland for six hours through countryside still controlled by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge Army. The US Embassy had issued a travel advisory that under no circumstances should Americans travel overland. Even though they had been defeated, small bands of young Khmer Rouge with AK47’s were still active. Several foreigners had been kidnapped.

Angkor Wat was well worth the risk we took in getting there, however. Covering more than 400 acres, it is the largest religious monument in the world. Starting out as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century, it later became a Buddhist temple. It is a prime example of Khmer art and architecture. The carvings in the stone are exquisite. We saw the main temple of Angkor Wat plus some of the outlying temples such as Bayon and Ta Prohm. Highly photogenic, Ta Prohm was later used as a set in the movie Tomb Raider. We pretty much had the entire site to ourselves. We saw very few other visitors. In 1992 Angkor Wat only had 5000 visitors for the entire year. In 2015 it had 2 million visitors (mostly Chinese). I’m glad I saw it then even though it was a bit dangerous.

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In fact, I liked Cambodia so much I invited my brother to travel with me there the next year. He had been working on a masters degree and was very interested in art, religion and anthropology. Angkor Wat was like a feast for him. While I enjoyed Angkor for the second time, I was anxious to see as much as I could of the rest of the country. After enjoying Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat, I booked us on a flight to see the beaches of Sihanoukville. Again we flew Royal Air Cambodge. The US Embassy travel advisory was still in effect. No land travel for Americans. It was a 3 1/2 hour bus or car ride to the South. The flight got us there quickly and safely.

Sihanoukville was just starting to develop in 1993. The beaches such as Ochheuteal, Otres, and Serendipity were pristine and uncrowded. Seafood was cheap and plentiful. Even today, the town is considered a travel bargain. In fact, many longtime expat residents of Thailand have been moving there in recent years to escape rising prices in Thailand. Visas are much easier to obtain there as well.

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Brother Bob and I enjoyed our three days at the beach. It was when we were ready to leave the trouble began. I went by the office of the airline to confirm the flight time. The manager told me that the flight had been canceled completely and the next one was scheduled three days from then. It would’ve been lovely to stay there for another three days but the problem was that we had a flight from Phnom Penh to Vientiene, Laos to catch the next day. Our only choice was to go overland if we wanted to make that flight. Well there was a bus a couple of times a day. But the embassy strongly advised against it. A couple of teachers were kidnapped from that bus the year before. Perhaps we can ask to sit in the “no kidnapping” section, I jokingly said to Bob.

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As we walked up the street to the bus station, we saw a young foreigner using a copy machine in a shop. I stopped and asked if he had any ideas how we could get to Phnom Penh. He was an Australian named Steve. He said that as a matter of fact he was going to drive there that very day.  He had a boat moored in the harbor. Someone had stolen his starter motor and he needed to go to Phnom Penh to get a replacement. We were welcome to ride along if we wanted to. Now in my mind I was thinking which is safer bus or car? Well, this fellow was an Australian and had been living there for several years. He seemed to know what was going on. If the road wasn’t safe, he wouldn’t be driving it. Again, the risk paid off. We made it back to the capital, but I have to admit every time we went through one of the many roadblocks, I was a bit anxious. Steve seemed to have all the right decals on his front windshield, however. When we would reach a checkpoint, the Cambodian military would see all his decals, salute us and wave us through. It turns out that Steve was very well connected with the Cambodian military. We suspected his boat was used to bring in special “supplies” for the generals from neighboring Thailand. He didn’t talk about it. And we didn’t ask. We were grateful for the ride back to Phnom Penh.

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Meanwhile back in the capital, the blue berets were still there and they stayed there until the end of that year at a cost of US$1.6 billion. Their second major goal besides peacekeeping was to hold an election. A party affiliated with the royal family won 45% of the vote and a new government was formed in September with Prince Ranariddh as the first Prime Minister. The only problem was that the second-leading vote-getter was a military strongman named Hun Sen. Since he controlled the Army, he demanded to be named Second Prime Minister. From that position, he eventually was able to take over the entire government and eventually banish Prince Ranariddh. To this day, Hun Sen is still the dictator of Cambodia and has managed to suppress any opposition and to “win” every single election for the last 35 years. So much for the United Nation’s ability to establish democracy.

Despite it’s tragic history and the lack of a free political system and economy, Cambodia is still a delightful place to visit. Tourism is quite important to them and they are very friendly and take good care of the tourists. It’s worth a visit.