Saturday, October 30, 2010

Metal Israeli Flag on the Ground in the Middle of the Old City- Damascus, Syria (desecrate or not)

To Desecrate The Israeli Flag

The Old City of Damascus is basically a huge bazaar, the center under a canopy like dome, dead by day, hopping at night. Walking around the area, one cannot help but feel a sense of antiquity, as if life might not have been all that different centuries ago.
I guess it's a rare place where Caucasians (both sentient and insentient) are not the standard of beauty.
The Grand Mosque of Damascus
We arrive at the Grand Mosque of Damascus. It’s impossible to miss; in the Old City, all paths lead to this proverbial Rome. Originally constructed as a Christian Cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist, its origins are still reflected in the décor, a beautiful blend of Christian and Muslim sensibilities.
Inside Syria's most famous Mosque
Outside Damscus's grand mosque
To gain entry we rent robes to cover our bare legs, as most of us were wearing shorts. The courtyard is beautiful and spacious. Iranian Shiite Pilgrims line-up at the tomb of Husayn, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, all extremely eager to place their hands on this holy shrine. We stay there, admiring the beauty of the place, watching worshipers stream in and out of the Mosque for forty minutes, before resuming our exploration of the Old City.

The Trodden Israeli Flag
Amidst the crowded street, we happen upon a metal Israeli flag prominently displayed on the ground. In fairness to the Syrian people, other than some aggressive shopkeepers trying to sell their wares, tourists rarely get hassled. The exception would be if you try to avoid stepping on the Israeli flag.
Mohammed: “What, you like Israel?!”
Me: “Umm—“
Mohammed: “If you don’t step on that flag, we’re going to shoot you.”
Me: “Ummm—“
Mohammed: “NOW!”

metal Israeli flag on ground in Damsus (well worn)
While I believe symbols only have the power people give them, I take issue with the energy behind the flag's placement, and the thought process of those choosing to step on it; both are hateful and divisive.

On the other hand … if I were to step on the flag and post the picture ... I went through a quick pros and con list —
Pro—I gain a billion new fans through the Arab world
Con—I really piss off about 10 million people.
"I said NOW!"
Pro-- I don't get shot.

People often perceive disrespect towards chosen symbols in the same manner they might a direct physical assault, and react as such. That's the challenge with the limited identity most human beings ascribe to themselves.
One act of hatred met in kind amplifies dissonance, making it easier to respond with violence, leading to war.
The counterpoint of this is compassion which directly counters the waves of negativity. Hatred cannot long exist in the presence of love.
I chose to walk around the flag; thankfully the bullet missed.

The Christian Quarter
We continued to the Christian Quarter, where we were promised Western style nightclubs which turned out in reality to deserted bars, albeit selling alcohol, a hard to find commodity in most Muslim countries. We purchased some beers, sipping on our cans atop mushroom shaped stools in a park, exchanging our travel stories, as we watched the ebb and flow of Syrian life carry on around us.
mushroom stools in the park
We arrive back to hostel in the wee hours of the morning. as I silently ascend the stairs to my cot on the roof, my first incredibly busy twenty fours in Syria now complete. I lay down and quickly begin to dream of a world where hatred is met by compassion and love.
I slept like a baby.

The journey continues in the desert of Syria- a town called Palmyra

Really good online sitcom!!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Damascus, Syria- - Dating, Israel, and the Mukhabrat under a Dictator

Damascus, Syria
Upon waking, I discovered that Annie had already gone her merry way, and not wishing to interfere with any day’s plans that my gracious hosts might have, I thought I would take off myself, but as I was walking out the door, I was called back to partake in a breakfast consisting of hummus and pita-bread.
Tim, and his roommate Adrian, both having been in Damascus for about a year studying Arabic, I began inquiring as to the ins and outs of the country.

A family of five children is considered small in Syria, with most parents having seven or eight.
The most important thing in any young Syrian’s life is to land themselves a good spouse. Neither Adrian or Tim has, or is likely to have, a Syrian girlfriend, nor would any male foreigner ever be likely to successfully court a Syrian girl because the mere rumor of her impropriety would greatly affect her chances of landing the best mate.
A young Syrian girl would never even bring a boy over to her house or apartment who is merely a friend, because of the potential damage to both her own, and her family’s reputation, such an action might cause.
The same does not hold true for Syrian men, as I met several who had Western girlfriends.
minaret of Syria's most famous Mosque
When I spoke of my planned trip and mentioned that I was planning to also visit Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel— they let out a collective gasp.
“What?” I asked, slightly startled.
“Never say that word.”
Immediately they made the zip-it sign, sliding their index finger horizontally across their closed lips. “You can call it a code name, we call it Disneyland. You never mention that word here unless you have something negative to say about it.” … A word with one approved context. For the duration of my Syrian adventure, I employed the term ‘Disneyland.’

Another thing you absolutely DO NOT do is to criticize the government. In fact, Tim told me that he once tried to pay Bashir Assad (Syria’s current dictator who inherited rule when his father died) a sort of compliment, stating, “Assad has done a decent job opening the country up.” The group he was conversing with suddenly became very uncomfortable, as the statement implied that Assad’s father had not done an exemplary job keeping the country open.
Why would such a seemingly innocuous statement make other Syrians uncomfortable? One word, the Mukhabarat- the Syrian secret police. In an effort to stay in power, (and avoid decapitation) most dictatorial regimes have massive spy networks, and Syrian sets the modern day bar. Its citizens have no idea who might be keeping tabs on them, so the topic of government is strictly off-limits, especially since, if they bring you in for questioning, it isn’t usually pleasant.
Here is a joke the Syrians have about the Mukhabarat that goes something like this:
“One day, the three greatest intelligence services in the world got together to see who was the best of the best. They released three foxes into the wilderness, and whoever was first to catch one, would earn the trophy.
So the Americans using their spy satellites and infrared technology catch their fox in twenty minutes.
The Russians, using a network of informants they set-up through the forest, catch their fox shortly after.
Both intelligence services, proud of their times, are waiting in the middle of the forest exchanging pleasantries. An hour passes, and they finally ask, “Where the hell are the Syrians?” So they go searching, and a few minutes later find a rabbit, tied to a tree, and the Mukhabarat are whipping it, yelling, “Admit you’re a fox! Admit you’re a fox!”

Tim and Adrian say hi to the folks back home. See, I don't make everything up! :)

Downtown Damascus on an unusually clear day
Thanking my hosts for their hospitality, I gathered my luggage and began my walk down the steep hill. I happened upon a cabbie washing his car, a doting father taking pleasure in sprinkling his young daughter with cool water on this hot day. A smile on my face, I asked him if I could get a ride to Egypt Air where I was told I would find a tour guide, and a cheap hotel nearby.
Finding nothing but travel agents, I went outside, and ran into three Belgian guys, Kristof, Simon, and Deiter who were on an adventure of their own. They too were looking for a hotel, and I asked if they mind me tagging along.
Eventually we came upon a hostel which had beds on the roof for $4 a night. Though certainly not as comfortable as the hotel I had booked, it was way cheaper, plus these guys seemed super cool. With the ability to cancel my $75 a night reservation, I decided to opt for the hostel. Fantastic decision. In the past, frankly, I was making too much money to try something like this, but recently, my income has dried up faster than a Middle Eastern riverbed.
The truth is, staying in hostels is really the way to go if you are willing to put up with the lack of comfort, as you are going to meet like-minded adventurers traveling for the experience, not just to see the immediate attractions/lay on the beach as most tourists do.
I have to give these guys props. You think I travel a lot; they purchased a car, and are driving from Belgium, through the Europe, through the Middle East, then to Egypt, and will complete their seven month journey at Cape Horn in South Africa, having driven a treacherous journey through all of Eastern Africa, including areas where, for safety reasons, if someone stands in front of your car trying to get you to stop, you blare your horn and if he doesn’t move you run him over. (otherwise your car will be jacked, and you likely will meet Reaper, Grim)
The Damascus crew: from left to right-- Rich, Dieter, Kristof, Lars, Annie, and Simon
Sitting in the hostel chatting with them, who do you think walks in? Lo and behold, Smokestack Annie. It turns out that most foreigners frequent this area of Damascus, so running into her again wasn’t totally random. Introducing Annie to my new friends, and adding a fellow American, a twenty-three year old from Portland named Lars to our group, we set out to explore the Old City of Damascus …

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Matrix of Syria

The Matrix Of Syria

Have you ever felt like the powers that be: the media, the political elite, the big corporations, are trying to blind you from the truth. You can’t see it, or really intellectualize it, but it’s there- like an itch in your mind that won’t go away. And that feeling, that itch, finally pulls you somewhere so you can rip off those rose colored glasses they have you looking through, and see what lies beyond the collective world view of your culture …
sunrise over the Syrian desert
I decided to go to Syria for two reasons.
1. My travel agent (Basel, who is Syrian), urged me to go.
2. I’m game

Many of you who knew of my plans also added “Crazy.”
At first I paid no heed to your numerous warnings, but shortly before I was set to leave, an idiot preacher in Florida threatened a Koran burning ceremony, in what was no doubt an effort to fill the cultural divide left by the events of 9/11 with peace, love, and understanding. The State Department subsequently cautioned against any unnecessary travel to the Middle East, my Mom begged me to cancel, assuring me of Mother’s intuition, my adopted brother, Chad, told me to be careful because I would surely be a target, and a Jewish friend assured me I would be killed if I went.

It is not common feeling for me, but I have to admit, I felt a twinge of anxiety boarding my aircraft, but that was probably more a function of the tiny propeller plane being seemingly constructed out of balsa wood.
Transferring in Romania, I ran into a platoon of US Marines on their way to Afghanistan for a tour of duty. I’m struck by the thought that not all these eighteen and nineteen year olds will return, and their steadfast belief that in sacrificing themselves, their minds, and their bodies, they are protecting their fellow citizens. I yearn for public figures to serve with as much honor as these brave soldiers.
I wished them God’s speed, and made a vow that I would do my best to bring some understanding between the US of A, and our implacable enemies of the Middle East (or so most Americans believe) with the goal that my son will never have to protect his country by handling a rifle, but rather by further cultivating the bonds of mutual understanding between peoples that helps make acts of violence and warfare nearly impossible.

The only other person transferring with me to Syria from my tiny plane was another American, who was currently living in Damascus studying Arabic, named Tim, and after a pleasant conversation through the flight, as our plane began its descent at 2 AM local time, I explained to him that my hotel reservation was for the next day, and I wasn’t exactly sure where I would spend the night, and if he was game and had room, I wouldn’t mind spending a few hours of sleep in his apartment. He readily agreed, and I now had a place to stay in big bad Syria. Maybe I travel too much by the seat of my pants, who knows.
Getting through immigration in the Middle East is another story though. I passed (or tried to pass) through five borders, and none of them went exactly smoothly. (Massive understatement as you will find out when I get to Israel) Waiting in line, I couldn’t comprehend why in the world it was taking so long. There were only five people ahead of me, but they were spending twenty minutes a person. The thought came, “And I’m American …”
Well, my turn finally arrived, and I walked calmly to the counter, and handed the immigration official my passport. My visa, (which by the way, costs Americans $141, a big FU from the Syrian government to the US of A, as they only charge the European Union $35) was immediately located by Agent Smith. He gazed at it for a minute, attempting to determine whether I had counterfeited it, then dubiously looked up at me, and asks, “You’re American?”
'That’s what my passport says,' I wanted to reply. Instead came an obedient, “Yes sir.”
He then proceeded to examine my passport with a magnifying glass for a full twenty minutes. He would start in the front, look through every page, turn it back over, and sift through it again and again, spending a good minute pouring over each page.
My suspicion that he was looking for anything to do with Israel was confirmed when, finally finished to what was his current satisfaction, he questioned, “Have you ever been to Israel?”
Not yet … “No sir, I have never been there.”
“Are you Israeli?”
“No. I am American.” (That’s what my passport fucking says!) Tim told me later that if you have an Israeli stamp on your passport, God himself could not get you into Syria, and they’re not helping you with your plane ticket home.
Metal Israeli flag on ground in Damascus. If you step around it, you might be hassled
Then he proceeds to ask me my address in Syria, to which I was exceedingly grateful that I had booked a hotel for the next day, because I think he might have been in the mood to send me back to America if I hadn’t. After casting me dubious looks on every follow-up answer I gave him, like when he asked why I came to Syria; “To assassinate Bashir Ashad,” he finally stamped my passport and let me through.
one of the ubiquitous photos of Bashir Asad, Syria's dictator
It was now 4 AM, and all foreigners were escorted to another room to wait for customs to search our bags. (In case we were smuggling any Israeli flags into the country and didn’t have a burn permit yet I guess.) I saw a European girl smoking a cigarette, and asked her whether she got the fifth degree as well. She was from Germany, her name Annie, and this smokestack would become a companion for the rest of my trip through Syria.
Tim had waited for me to clear customs, and since he was letting me stay with him, I offered to pay for the cab ride into the city of Damascus. I asked Annie if she wanted join us, she wasn’t sure, she had planned to find a hostel. Look, I just met Tim on the plane, it’s 4 AM, ride with us to Damascus. She cocked her head from side to side, and finally agreed. Tim, as if on cue, being a gracious host, offered to let Annie crash at his pad. She took some convincing (believe it or not) but finally agreed, and we were off.
Unfortunately, a fan belt was broken, and to combat his overheating engine, our cabbie would pull over every single kilometer, trying to reset the fan/let the motor cool. Every kilometer. I suppose if we had further to go, it wouldn’t have been nearly as amusing. Then again, I doubt he was laughing at all.
Finally, we reached Tim’s apartment, where I quickly fell into a deep, four hour slumber.
Waking up the next morning, gazing out the balcony window from atop a steep hill, overlooking smoggy Damascus below, I felt a bit like Alice, having just tumbled down the rabbit hole of Syriana.
Now it’s your turn. You take the blue pill, you forget you ever read this, you wake up in your bed, and you believe whatever you want to believe about the Middle East. You take the red pill, you follow this blog over the next week, and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In Search of the Greatest Museum

In Search The Greatest Museum  (a silly entry by Me)

Giant Church in Vienna- the sky is the limit
A little bit about Vienna, Austria before I get to the real reason I was there.
#1-- It costs half a Euro to go into just about any bathroom. Sadly, there are few trees in the city, so this cost is often a necessity.
#2-- People don’t usually drink bottled water, they drink straight from the tap and refill their bottles from fountains in the park. They need to save money to pay for bathroom expenses.
#3—It is more expensive than the United States. A cheap hotel is like $80 or so and food also costs.
That’s a little back-ground. You can see a little bit of the city from the photos I took and labeled, now let’s take a look at the real reason that I was there!
There is only one thing I am interested here in Austria, to pay homage to the deity who I worship second only to JC himself … (and by JC I of course mean his Holiness- Jim Carrey) … and Austria’s greatest citizen of all time was of course, the governator of California, Arnold himself. Yes, I am polytheistic. So sue me.
Much as Muslims pray towards Mecca, I also pray five times daily, facing North East to Ontario, Canada, the birthplace of JC, but it is not coincidental that the birthplace of the great Arnold lies in the same direction.
“Where is the Schwarzenegger Museum?” I inquire, using my Arnold accent that I am certain will instantly endear me to all of Vienna.
“The what?” comes the reply from the diminutive fifty-year old man wearing bi-focals. Surely he has misheard me.
“Where is the Arnold Schwarzenegger museum?” I repeat, slightly less calmly.
“We do not have a Schwarzenegger museum,” he responds, a bewildered look on his face.
a view from the Danube Islands
“Hah Hah Hah,” I laugh deeply, “You joke.”
“Why we would we have a museum dedicated to Arnold Schwarzenegger?!”
“Because he is the greatest Austrian in history and must surely have a place of worship in his home country!” I retort with far less patience for this imbecile.
“This man is an actor. He is not worthy of a museum dedicated solely to him.”
I start to shake, “One day you will learn the true meaning of religion!” I retort, barely contain my anger from a volcanic explosion.
the park in Vienna. Lush, and impeccably kept
Viennese park
He steps backwards, not breaking eye contact, finally a “safe” ten feet away, he turns and scurries away.
Undaunted, I ask the next passerby, then another, then another. The exchanges pretty much began and ended the same way, though one lady thought, incorrectly, that I was joking.
After five such exchanges I come to the conclusion that Austria is comprised of nothing but infidels. If only they knew. If only they knew the truth; that if Arnold was around back in the 1930’s Austria he would have exposed Adolf for the little girly-man he truly was. He would have crushed Hitler like cheap china underneath a freight train. He would have smashed Adolf into a million little pieces and spread them to the outer realms of the Universe … but then again, admittedly, Arnold is no JC.
If Jim Carrey were in charge we’d already have world peace.

Johan Strauss
PS—In the last few days, my dear friend, Sandro Monetti informed that the first Hitler Museum was opened in Germany. If someone can open a museum, dedicated to this evil, then counter balance this weight on the world, the Austrians MUST open an Arnold museum … Or better yet, Canada can open a Jim Carrey Museum. I call curator!

(Oh suuurreeee ... dedicate a statue to Johan Strauss. Waaaayyy more people have heard of Arnold. Way to go Austria!)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Zaan Dann, Alkmaar, and the Beach

The prosecutor continues questioning the witness.

PA: “So what was the rest of Holland like?”
Dutch house out in the countryside
RB: “Aside of waterlogged, quite beautiful. I had seen most of what Amsterdan had to offer, and decided that I would venture into the countryside, although, at least originally I didn’t plan to go too far, just to Zaan Daan which is maybe 10 minutes by train outside Amsterdan.”
PA: “Something took you further?”
not many forests in Holland, we'll call this a wooded area
RB: “Well, at this time I had too many bags. I got onto the train wearing my backpack, my computer bag, and lugging two suitcases. My backpack had almost nothing in it, ninety percent of my items were stuffed into only one of my suitcases which weighed approximately a ton. It was hard work moving everything around, and after boarding, I slumped down in my chair, tired. I noted they didn’t give you a lot of time to get off and on, so when my stop arrived, I gathered up all my things, and trudged off the train. I realized right as the doors were sliding back shut that I was not wearing my weightless backpack, and that it must have fallen off my shoulders onto my seat. I slammed both my hands on the glass hoping this would get the train to stop/ get them to re-open the doors, but the train was bon voyage. My backpack, camera, and three hundred dollars cash was going to God knows where in Holland. Actually, God and the ticket counter, which I raced to, and explained what happened. The lady told me to come back in ten minutes. I went to my nearby hotel, checked in, said a prayer, and went back to the ticket counter. The woman was pleased to tell me the conductor had found it exactly where I described I left it, and that it was a few stations away in Alkmaar. I boarded the next train headed to Alkmaar, where I gratefully picked up my pack.”
PA: “Lucky you.”
one of millions of rivers in Holland, I meditated on the right bank
RB: “I have been lucky 98% of my trip man. I decided that I would walk around Alkmaar, and found it to be an absolutely charming town. After meandering through a shopping arcade, reminiscent of Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, I decided to sit and meditate by a partly wooded canal. Aside of a few cars passing, it was very tranquil and calm.”
PA: “Sounds nice.”
RB: On the way back, I found a grocery store and decided I would stock-up on supplies. They didn’t offer to bag any of my items, so I figured it was self-service, and grabbed some plastic. The guy behind me tried to tell me that I had to pay for the bag, but the girl working the check-out stand waived at him, non verbally telling him not to worry about it. The guy wasn’t being a stickler or anything, I felt he was really trying to help. All of a sudden I found myself in a conversation with him and two other Dutch (also known as Hollish) men. We spoke for at least an hour, about topics ranging from drugs, sports, to why Hollish men are so damned tall. The 6’5” guy, who I figured would have some basis for an opinion, unfortunately didn’t offer much conviction behind his theory of dairy consumption. I found them all tremendously warm and nice. One of them invited me to a festival that was in town that evening. I decided that I would go back to Alkmaar, and possibly journey to the ocean, the next day as well.”
PA: “How did that turn out?”
RB: “Wonderful. I returned to Alkmaar by train, a good fifteen minutes from Zaan Daan, rented a bike, and began my 20km ride to the beach.”
PA: “How was the countryside?”
a cow intensive field
RB: “Green, lush, beautiful, and extremely cow intensive. All that dairy has to come from somewhere. That was one of the most pleasant bike rides I have ever been on, aside of getting a cramp in my foot on the way back, and writhing on the ground like a diseased worm. Fortunately the cows didn’t say a word about it. The entire way, I was gazing upon green fields, canals, and a combination of old windmills, and new wind turbines off in the distance.”
PA: “So did you reach the beach?”
RB: “Indeed I did.”
PA: “Is it okay if I ask you a few questions about what transpired there, as there are numerous eyewitnesses?
RB: “Go ahead.”
PA: “Did you go out onto the sand?”
RB: “Of course.”
PA: “And do you know the name of the body of water touching the beach?”
RB: “The North Sea.”
PA: “The North Sea?”
RB: “The North Sea.”
PA: “And then what happened?”
RB: “I took off my shirt, and took what I had in pockets out.”
PA: “And someone commented on it?”
RB: “A woman told me I was insane. That the water was too cold. That I risked catching pnemonia.”
PA: “Did you jump in anyways?”
RB: “Are you kidding me?? I’d have to be the dumbest person in the world to actually jump in after that warning! What type of idiot do you take me for?”
PA: “So was it cold?”
moments before hypothermia set-in
RB: “Very.”
I urge all of you to visit Holland. It is a wonderful place, and in my opinion, for all the reasons I have mentioned here, “The Most Advanced Country In The World.” And the jury agrees.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

SEX AND DRUGS- In Amsterdan

architecture typical of Amsterdan

SEX AND DRUGS- In Amsterdan

When we last left our hero, the prosecuting attorner (PA) was cross examining him about drugs.

PA: “You think you sound good Mr. Birecki, claiming the Dutch are down to earth. That they are environmental stewards, and that they are ohhhh so advanced … but what about the drugs Mr. Birecki? Hmmmm … did you inhale?”
RB: “Yes, let’s DO talk about drugs, America, and the current state of the world affairs. First of all, marijuana and hasish is openly sold in Coffee Shops in the Netherlands. While it is not technically legal, it is what the Dutch call, “backdoor legal,” as sellers and growers pay taxes to the government that in the US go straight into the pockets of criminals.”
PA: “All coffee shops sell pot?”
Smokey's coffee shop in Rembrandt Square
RB: “There is a distinction in Holland between cafes and coffee shops. Cafes are places that sell coffee, pastries, sandwiches, etc etc. Coffee shops sell all this stuff, but also marijuana. I'll give you one guess were a majority of their profits come from.”
PA: “So did you inhale?”

the pot counter in Amsterdan coffee shop
Silence from the witness.

PA: “Mr. Birecki, may I remind you are under oath. Just because you believe this might cost you the Presidency one day, does not give you permission to dodge the question.”
RB starts to laugh.
RB: “Look, I really don’t understand why everybody considers it a big deal. Yeah, I have tried pot a couple times in my life, just a couple puffs in college, and when I first moved out to LA, and once with my ex who insisted that this would be the puff where I would actually feel the “glowing effects marijuana offers.” Frankly, it does nothing for me. I was in Amsterdan, I actually smoked an entire joint thinking that might change. All it did was make me just slightly spacey. I have NO CLUE why anyone would actually pay good money for it. To me it’s ridiculous.”
PA: “You’re just covering your tracks here to appeal to more conservative voters.”
RB: “Not at all! Let me appeal to the libertarians for a moment. What do I care what someone does in their private life. If someone wants to douse their brain in chemicals, that’s your right. As long as it doesn’t have a negative effect on other people, it’s no business of mine. I say legalize it all. Pot, heroin, cocaine—
PA: “How can you say that?? What about all the innocent children who would be adversely affected by their parents drug use? The lack of productivity at work because of increased usage?”
RB: “What about everyone who is already suffering from this? Look, the basis for legalization is very very simple. Assuming we legalize, the number of new users generated who currently shy away from narcotics because of prohibition, and I’m sure there would be some but not nearly as many as some people believe; whatever new suffering is created would be minuscule compared to the amount of energy and resources society expends on locking away users and dealers. And worse yet, prison essentially serves as Criminal University. Rather than being rehabilitative, they usually harden small time crooks and dealers into career felons, creating more misery for everyone. Now let’s talk about resources. The DEA has a budget of 20 billion dollars per year, and God only knows how much taxpayer money goes in the form of scholarships to Criminal U, to "re-educate" people who are usually merely seeking some sort of escape, or on the flip side, a way to augment their income by meeting the market demand.”
PA: “Most users don’t get thrown into jail for using, it’s because they committed some crime to get drugs.”
hope they aren't over-promising and under delivering. Such typical Aussies :)
RB: “And that is my point, if it were legal they likely wouldn’t have to, and the dope they would get would be pure, not tainted with cheap rat poison in the case of cocaine, or lead which raises the weight of marijuana. Not to mention, instead of the fifty + billion society SPENDS on this problem, the government could actually EARN money by taxing it. You want the funds to pay for Universal healthcare; legalize drugs.”
PA: “It’s not that simple.”
RB: “Says who? Look what is happening South of the border. Criminals are now running Mexico. Why? The market demands narcotics, and because it is illegal, people like me aren’t going to be selling it, but these people will. Mexico is actively being destroyed by increasingly well financed, well armed, and terrorist like cartels. Thousands of people have died, many more have gone missing, and the entire border region lives in a state of fear as to who is next. Meanwhile the price of drugs on the street is at an all time low. Not because demand is down, but because there is a glut of narcotics on the market, meaning our “drug enforcement” and all the funds we spend on it are extremely ineffective. We tried prohibition with alcohol and that essentially created the American Mafia. My entire life all drugs except tobacco and alcohol have been illegal, so people assume that’s just the way it is. Why? Prohibition of what the public wants simply is proven not to work.”
PA: “And what about the moral issues of drug use? Hmmm … We are giving people permission to kill themselves?”
RB: “Look, I don’t want people to do drugs, I don’t want anyone to kill themselves, but unless something affects others adversely, like drunk driving for which there should be SEVERE consequences, it’s not my right to tell people what they can and can’t do. Do you realize there used to anti-gay statutes on the books in the South where they could lock you away for sodomy? I mean, what do I care if someone putts from the rough. Frankly, this legalization for me is much more a pragmatic, economic issue than a moral one. And let me tell you, if any of you can counter my arguments here, I am all ears. I want to hear it! I dare you … I double dare you …

Rich gazes around the throngs of now quiet watchers.
RB: “That’s what I thought.”
Judge: “We are here to discuss the Netherlands. If I have to remind you again, you’ll be a guest of the county jail for the next thirty days Mr. Birecki, or is that also a waste of funds and resources?”
RB: “Your honor, the fact that Holland is on its way to legalization is merely another example of why I believe Holland to be the Most Advanced Country In The World. They are more pragmatic. Additionally, prostitution is completely legal. Another victimless crime that right wing Christians in the United States decry. You want to lock up some poor girl who feels she has no other option than to sell her body? Why, who’s getting hurt?”
PA: “So how was the red-light district?”
Red light above the door means open for "business"
RB: “Interesting. These girls, usually Eastern European I am told, rent out booths, and each booth has a little red light over it when a girl is available. Hundreds of booths with glass windows, and women hawking their own personal wares, rapping on the glass to get your attention as you walk by. If you want transsexuals, I am told the light is purple, but I didn’t see any of those. It’s right out in the open. The first time I saw it took some getting adjusted to. You walk by, girls in skimpy clothes inviting you in, and this wasn’t, technically, the red light district. I poked my head in. ‘Is this the red light district,’ I asked. ‘No,’ replied the girl in a Russian accent. ‘Is this the same thing as the Red Light District?’ ‘Would you like to find out?’ she answered, dropping her shoulder suggestively. I actually went out to the Red Light District that same evening. I found it fascinating.”
PA: “So did you partake in the pleasantries?”
RB: “This one girl, very hot, stage name Elena raps on her window. I go over. I’m curious, I’m talking to her for a few minutes. Her false façade of invitation wore off very quickly. I could feel so much anger and hurt inside her. I said goodbye, turned to leave, and she blisteringly, without elevating her voice, which made it more scary to me, tells me I wasted her time and that I’m obviously impotent.”
PA: “What did you say?”
RB: “Well first of all she’s Russian, so it’s not completely out of character.”
PA: “More bagging on Russia.”
RB: “You obviously haven’t been there … How could an insult like that trigger anything in me. It’s so ridiculous and out of context. An insult can only can only affect you if somewhere inside yourself you believe that it’s true. I am positive she expected and wanted me to react, this was her pain-body (Eckhart Tolle- Power Of Now) seeking some sort of fuel. I turned around, and very calmly and loving asked her why she felt that. She only got more hostile. And again, with warmth and love, recognizing how she was feeling had zero to do with me, I sincerely wished her good luck. She didn’t know how to take it, because a part of her realized I was completely open and loving, so her ego and pain-body stalled for a moment, before she replied with great venom, “I don’t need luck!” That was the end of my red light experience.”
PA: “Aren’t many of these girls with the so called freedom to choose owned by the Russian Mafia with no choice but to be there selling themselves.”
RB: “I have heard that, yeah, some of them I am sure.”
PA: “And yet, you are in favor of this? Keeping the Red Light District open?”
RB: “It’s going to happen anyways, better to be open about it, and the Dutch are. They aren’t hiding behind some idiotic moral pretense to try to keep people doing what people are going to do anyways. Nope, they make money off it. Freedom to choose man.”

The Prosecutor circles RB like a shark. He can’t find any blood in the water.

PA: “So you talked a lot about Amsterdan here, but much as you cannot judge the United states based on Las Vegas, there must be a lot more to the country?”
RB: “I gotta tell you, I liked the countryside, much more than Amsterdan.”

Tomorrow: Did Rich really go cow tipping? And what happened when he managed to shut down an entire dairy farm because of a pinpoint throw of a baseball that even surprised him? (but at least he won a bet)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Going Dutch ALL THE WAY (Why The Netherlands is world's most forward thinking country)

a statue of Rembrandt in Rembrandt square

INT COURTOOM-- Security is tighter than we have ever seen. Flags of over two hundred countries are being waved amongst the large crowd.

Judge: “Order! Order! I will have no more outbursts in this court! The next person to object to the expert testimony of Mr. Birecki will be held in contempt!”
Pleased with his power over his charged courtroom, the judge turned to the prosecuting attorney, “You may proceed—“
Unable to contain himself, Ultra Russian nationalist Peter Voychinsky rose, yelling with utterly misplaced patriotic fervor, “Mother Russia should be considered the greatest in the world; the most advanced; and with the friendliest persons!” He stomped his foot down after each semi-colon, emphasizing his points. The courtroom remained silent, in disbelief of what they just heard. Appearing from thin air, men in white uniforms swooped upon him, pinning Voychinsky to the ground, applying a strait-jacket and dragging away this obviously completely insane man who kept proudly yelling, “Rusko! Rusko! Rusko!” …
With order once again restored, the judge turned to the prosecuting attorney. “You may proceed.”
PA: “So, you contend that Holland, is the most advanced country in the world. Would you care to tell why you would make such a traitorous statement?”
French Defense Attorney: “Objection your honor! This buffoon of an American prosecutor is attempting to intimidate this buffoon of a witness! We aren’t here to establish whether this American is a traitor, we are here to establish that Francia is the world’s most advanced!”
RB: “And that French people are the friendliest.”
Frenchie: “Be quiet you buffoon, you idiotic simpleton American—
RB: “You’re fired Frenchie, I’ll take it from here!”
As Frenchie is dragged out of the courtroom he yells: “Idiot! You American swine! You capitalist pig George Bush voting redneck!"—
RB: “I’ll represent myself your honor. Look, the Netherlands is a really wonderful country, for many reasons.”
PA: “Aha! This case is closed! You were testifying on behalf of Holland!” (PA turns to the audience) “He doesn’t even know what country he is talking about. So much for our ‘Expert witness.’”
RB: “Actually, the Netherlands is more commonly referred to as Holland, and its people are called “The Dutch.”
PA: “And why would such an ‘advanced country’ feel the need to be known by so many different names?”
RB: “probably to confuse the Russians and the French from ever finding them on the map and visiting.”
*A murmur of approval through the audience*
at the tulip market, Amsterdan
RB: “I arrived in Amsterdan and was a little dismayed by the price of a taxi. $55 to drive like 10 miles. When I got to my hotel room, which was like $100, my pet gopher told me he was going to go search for a hallway closet that was bigger.”
PA: “Looking at these pictures of your room, I doubt he found it difficult. It also says in my notes you complained about the shower?”
RB: “A sadist designed the fucking thing. I mean, its floor was curved upwards making it impossible to stand up without leaning against the wall for support. Literally, my body was outstretched, at a 60 degree angle to the ground, at minimum one hand pressed against the wall for support the entire time I was in the shower. I think my gopher had it right.”
Judge: “Do I need to remind you that you are testifying on behalf of the Netherlands?”
RB: “No sir, those were the only things I didn’t like. There was a whole lot more I loved.”
Judge: “Such as?”
one of about ten such bike racks near Central Station
RB: “Well first of all, everyone in Amsterdan bicycles. Everyone. There are many many many more bikes on the road than there are cars. The entire city is like a college campus in that respect. Secondly, public transport there is superb. They have trams that will take you anywhere in the city for like $5, and if you wish to go further, the train system is superb, and inexpensive, at least compared to taxis. I didn’t take another cab ride the entire time I was in Holland.”

PA: “So you found the Dutch to be good environmental stewards?”
RB: “God yes. In addition to the bicycles and awesome public transport system, everywhere you go there are wind farms; big turbines spinning around generating clean electricity, day and night. Plus paper and plastic bags at the store cost a quarter each, giving people incentives to re-use. To top it off, every bottle you buy has a thirty cent deposit fee on it, thus almost everyone recycles."
PA: “Thirty cents?”
RB: “Next time I go to Holland, my baggage will be stuffed with nothing but golden, plastic bottles.”
PA: “How very noble of you. What did you see there that you really liked?”
one of Amsterdan's numerous canals

RB: “My first stop was the Van Gogh museum. I am no art afficianado, and I usually go to museums because it is the thing to do I guess, but Van Gogh is really the only artist who simply blows me away. His artwork is so beautiful, a style of his own, a true pioneer. He paints with such feeling. I kind just stood there, speechless, gazing at his works. Van Gogh might be one of the few artists I have seen who draws beyond form, into depths I have not seen in any other paintings.”
PA: “Are you claiming Van Gogh to be the greatest artist the world has ever seen?”
RB: “Of those I have seen, definitely.”
PA: “What else did you see that impressed you?”
RB: “The Anne Frank house. I actually was surprised by my emotional reaction to the place. When you read and see a first hand account of what took place during the holocaust, and this is little twelve year old girl is hiding in this house with her whole family, eating and moving around like a mouse, in continual fear of being discovered by the Nazis, while most girls her age are outside picking tulips in the spring, hoping to get her first kiss from a boy, it's very easy to identify with her, and understand the terror that she lived every moment for years before someone betrayed the family. Only her father survived the concentration camps. It is a testament both to her father, and the Dutch as people that this house, which was at one time condemned and shortly destined to be torn down, still stands. Much like the Killing Fields of Cambodia, and the slave dungeons of Ghana, this place stands as a testament to how deeply egoic and unconscious mankind can be. It is my hope that as people visit the Anne Frank house, as it might serve as a reminder of the evils man is capable of, not only so that it becomes much less likely that such atrocities will take place again, but so it will help quicken the pace of the individual visitor’s, and thus mankind’s, collective consciousness.”
PA: “You confuse me.”
RB: “Sorry about that, what I mean by consciousness—
PA: “No, did you identify with Anne Frank desire to pick tulips in the fields, or your own first kiss from a boy?”
A long beat.
RB: “You really should visit the Anne Frank House sir.”
*PA walks around the courtroom, trying to get a new angle into his inquisition.*
PA: “What are the Dutch like as people?”
RB: “TALL. I mean, I am not short in America, I am average size. Here I was short. The average height of a young man is like 6’ 2”. You regularly see guys who are 6’ 5” +. I don’t think it says much about their innate athletic that they don’t dominate the basketball courts. My ex-girlfriend was from Europe and 5’ 11,” I thought this was a rarity until I visited Holland, where half the girls stand 5’8” +.”
PA: “Why are they so tall?”
RB: “I point blank asked about five Dutch men this question. ‘How are you guys all so tall?’ No one knew, although the common theory is that they consume a lot of dairy products.”
PA: “It’s steroids, the Dutch all take steroids right?”
RB: “Look, I really don’t know, but I have never felt short before I went to the Netherlands. Furthermore, the girls there, oh my God. I mean, we have some stunners in Los Angeles because the opportunity to get into show business draws them from all corners of the earth like a magnet, but geesus, the majority of girls in Holland were like, ‘Yowser!’ I mean, I was on the train the second to last day, and this blond girl sits down next to me, six foot, supermodel like gorgeous. I start talking with her, tell her how pretty she is, and she doesn’t think she’s anything special in the looks department. She is totally down to earth, and super sweet, and kind. In Los Angeles, where things are more superficially oriented, most girls who look like that have a chip on their shoulder, from their own egoic desire to become famous, to the horrendous treatment of men who treat them like trophies, etc etc. In Holland, this would be the exception. You can go there expecting that since the hotties in LA might be not all be genuine that it would apply here, but it doesn't."
PA: "I bet with all that dairy they were fat."
RB: "God no! I mean, these people are fit. Unlike America, where in the South 35% of people are clinically obese, the number of fatties I saw there was exceptionally low. Americans are so used to ruling the world, I just don't know how the hell it's possible as bad as our education system has become, how grossly obese we are becoming as a society, and all the resources we spend on war. I hate to say it, cause I love America, but we are on the decline."

*The American prosecutor glares in at Rich, unable to hide his animosity towards him for his last statement*
PA: “You think you sound sooooo good Mr. Birecki, claiming the Dutch are down to earth. That they are environmental stewards, and that they are ohhhh so advanced … but what about the drugs Mr. Birecki? What about the rampant drug use through its society. Crackheads and potheads out at all hours of the night dirtying the city. And what you? Hmmmm … did you inhale?”

Tomorrow-- will Rich admit in open court what would cost him the Presidency?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Dos Equis-- NEW Most Interesting Man In The World

I set out solo, leaving my tour early to make my Amsterdan bound plane. My driver Deutch, I am told is Hitler’s Grandson. In truth Deutch speaks German very well, and sits atop the Moroccan leader board for most money extracted from German tourists.
As we drive along, chatting about everything from music to politics, the sun sets, another day of the Ramadan fast completed. Deutch pulls over a few miles later and we eagerly consume a simple meal consisting of a few dates, a small piece of bread, some water, and a coffee.
He drops me off at the airport. The solo three + hour cab drive wasn’t cheap, but I am glad to have experienced the ride with Deutch, Hitler’s grandson or not.
I would highly recommend Morocco as a travel destination. There is a lot to see and do, the interpretation of Islam, which represents 90% of the country, is much more moderate than elsewhere, and as most Moroccans speak a minimum of three languages, communication and moving around is generally quite easy.
The country is not without its troubles. While a million light years ahead of the Russians, Moroccans are leagues behind the Fijians and Balinese in terms of warmth and customer service. It is easy enough to pinpoint this as a direct result of their frog infestation.
The ungrateful French, who rolled over on their tummies like submissive dogs for their master Adolf, remain amazingly snooty and unappreciative towards the “buffoons” of America, despite the fact that my Grandfather’s generation liberated them from Nazi rule. France, has long tentacles in Morocco.
Even more sad, many of this country's citizens speak French.

I want to thank our guide Hamid Mernissi, who came specially from his residence in America to guide our group through his home country. His knowledge, natural warmth, and his connections throughout the country made the trip, and even some of the interminable bus rides, special. (see his tour site at
The man was knighted by the nation of Morocco for his contribution in keeping alive many elements of its ancient culture. The King actually had to insist on Hamid’s presence due to my man playing hooky during the first ceremony, not wanting the pomp and circumstance of it all.
He is truly one of the most learned and humble men I have ever met, and Dos Exxis new “Most Interesting Man In The World.” (see below video)

Discussion questions about Morocco
1) Jewish person meets an actual descendant of Hitler. How many free punches does the Jew get? Explain.
2) If you were babysitting your 9 year old Goddaughter Dannika, and part of your duties consisted of dropping her off at her pre-paid weekly French class, how many baby-sitting bonus points would you receive for taking her bowling instead? Why?
3) If you are at Magic Mountain with Dannika, and she refuses to get on mega rollercoaster Goliath with you because she is positively frightened of its size and speed, and you remark to her with some sarcasm, “You’re shaking like a French soldier.” Why would it be absolutely incorrect for her Mother to call the child authorities? I mean, really!

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Islam or Shopping- which is more fun? (Fez, Morocco)

Islam or Shopping- which is more fun?
The ancient city of Fez. On the cusp of the maze below, the Sultan's long ago built palace rises towards the sky. The symmetry and beauty of Moorish design put the rest of the world to shame back in medieval times, and in my opinion, is still at minimum on par with anything I have seen to date. The import of Moorish knowledge and culture, sometimes forced by conquest, was certainly a factor in breaking Europe from the grip of the Dark Ages.

Most Moroccan homes and places of business may appear non-descript on the outside, but inside are more tastefully decorated than the Louvre. Moroccans take great pride in their interiors.
The first few restaurants we went to, I remarked to the staff just how lovely the settings and the ambiance were. They seemed almost surprised that I would comment on it. Only after frequenting several more establishments did I realize that such elegantly decorative décor is the norm. (one can only imagine what lies behind this ornate door of the palace)

One of the many splendid doorways in Morocco
Fez's maze of narrow, winding streets are almost unchanged over the last one-thousand years. In the center I am told still lives a Minotaur. Slay him to extricate yourself from the labyrinth.

The narrow streets of Fez

I stay up all night, and thus, by default, become part of the 5 AM sunrise journey. We drive to a hill overlooking the city, awaiting the luxurious golden-red rays of sun’s first light. The deep peace is broken by only the roosters’ crowing. They quickly become part of the ambiance.
After two hours sleep, we head out into the old city. We stop by an Islamic school where I learn more about Islam, and that the real religion is not quite as “evil” as most Westerners believe. (watch video below)

A lesson in the "coolness" of Islam

In sadder news, today has been reserved as shopping time for the women of the tour.
For me, shopping, in terms of enjoyable activities, ranks just below inhaling unfiltered diesel exhaust from a 1970 bus. My poor Mother, when I was a kid, used to take me kicking and screaming to the mall to buy me clothes for school, and while cheap halogen lighting and chemical cleaners often made me feel quite ill (really), knowing the time and patience my Mom was investing in my well being, I often felt compelled to show my gratitude to her by throwing up all over the dressing room floor, and while the grumbling minimum wage staff of teenagers threw her nasty looks, I would express my discontenment for how my now beet-red mother was making me spend my time by way of, “Are we done? Can we please go? Like NOW?!”
It continues to boggle my mind why anyone would willingly go shopping. If I ever marry, my wife should never let me shop for a house alone, because I would sign papers for the first thing I see just to get out there.
Agent: “We may not be in the best neighborhood Mr. Birecki, but the compacted mud walls will keep you warm in the winter … assuming it doesn’t rain.”
Me: “Where do I sign?”
It seems like A LOT of this trip is based around shopping. Obviously, I am a big proponent of this use of time, assuming it isn’t my time, which it is, cause tour planner Jo Keita would probably go into conniptions if I decided to go base jumping off a few hundred foot tall building. “Richard,” Jo would yell up as I am set to leap to my potential death (which would at least get me out of shopping) “As much as I would love to hear an end to your petulant grumbling, our insurance does NOT cover you in the event of death.”
And then my Mom would press the police to file murder charges against Jo. “Dammit Jo, you can’t take the boy shopping 16 days in a row! Why not just lace his food with arsenic, it would have been a lot less painful for him.”
Well, as I knew that I was flying to Amsterdan in a matter of hours, leaving the tour a day early, and there are no building in Fez tall enough to make a good base jumping platform, Jo earned a reprieve, and I went, along with everyone else, on the “shopping experience of a lifetime.” I threw up at the tannery. I miss you Mom.

The Tannery- see what workers go through to make your products!

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Himalayas of the Sahara Desert - the Dunes of Merzouga, Morocco

The Dunes Of Merzouga

I wonder whether the same lush landscape elsewhere could possibly compare to the sight of luxuriant palms and the fertile fields surrounding, a desert oasis, an island of green amidst a vast sea of sand. The contrast is breathtaking.

Oasis in Morocco
We continue, seeking the source of the oasis. We arrive at a narrow pass in the mountains where we stop for lunch. A cold rushing stream runs through the sheer vertical rocks, an irresistible temptation in 115 degree weather.

(check out the mountain pass here)

We take a break at a hotel in the middle of nowhere for lunch. I hope to connect to the net which brings me to the topic of …
Electricity in Morocco
When it’s in a good mood.

4 x 4ing the Desert
Finally we get out of the bus and into some Land Rovers, which I note are caked in mud. This is intentional, as the mud absorbs the impact of screaming particles of sand in the blustery desert, saving the paint and the metal. We pack into the new camels of the desert and start trekking through the Sahara. The drivers playfully race with each other, as sand kicks up from our wheels. We are headed for camp through this sparse landscape. If you ever care to visit the directions are as follows.

Head due SE for somewhere between thirty to forty kilometers
Make a right at the tree Head East 5 km to camp.

The Dunes

Dunes of Merzouga
Original Star Wars shot here
Me and my camel amigo
At their peak, some dunes stand hundreds of feet tall; the Himalayas of sand. Their reddish-brown composition radiates an almost alien hue as the sun sets over these mountains. It’s no wonder George Lucas chose to shoot the original Star Wars here.

We are greeted at camp by a herd of camels and their tenders. Camels are actually quite expensive, the cheapest running $1,500, and Arab sheiks have been known to pay over a million for some, which I think is a tad high of a price to pay for a pet that is the planet’s most stubborn, and sounds like Chewbacca when it brays.

My camel rises unevenly, with a jerk. I have to hold on tight to keep from being thrown off. We climb the dunes atop these sure footed beasts. I gaze out over the Martian landscape. In small amounts it is breathtaking.
It is 120 degrees today. Being still Ramadan our guides are walking the dunes beside us haven’t had anything so much as a drop of water since sunrise. While their will power is commendable, as I pour water over my head and then take a giant gulp, at least today I am grateful not to born into the Islamic faith.
A death row inmate has a better chance against the electric chair than being dropped into the middle of Merzouga’s dunes . Climbing these dunes is hard, sweaty work, and in this parch, super-heated desert landscape where each dune is indistinguishable from the next, continually shifting and changing as Mother Wind dictates, there isn’t a single landmark to help you find your way.

(see the dunes up close)

When the desert wind blows, a tornado of sand develops, shifting the dunes, expanding them. The force is seemingly unstoppable. In 1970, a caravan of 5 SUV's got lost in one of these storms. In January of this year as the sands shifted, the gutted remains of the caravan was found, four decades later.
a group of Suffi Muslims providing the evenings entertainment via song
As mankind continues to erode the environment and deforest the land, the Sahara has conquered more territory than Alexander The Great ever dreamed of. The King Of Morocco has begun an environmental project of planting trees at the edges of the sand, hoping to one day claim back territory from the advancing desert.

Back at Camp
We return to camp, we sit in groups of four and share about ourselves and our realizations. As Tim speaks I am moved how despite all our seemingly diverse differences, how identical we all are at the core. No matter who you are, what experiences you have had, stripping away everything else, we are nothing but love.
Some of you might say, “People want the fancy car, the big house, the corner office, because then they’ll be ‘important,’ then they’ll be worthy of love. Not me, I don’t need all that, I just want to be loved.” …
My realization, well you’re part way of the way home, but I contend that when receiving love, your own true nature merely becomes more accessible, in focus. I figure if we are reminded of what we truly are enough times, one day we will not need any reminders, but rather walk in this consciousness on a twenty-four basis. That was my last real thought of the evening. I was exhausted, and fell sound asleep soon after. I’d say it was a really good day. Either that or I was suffering from heat stroke.
The incomparable Hamid, our guide, and soon to be crowned Dos Exxis "Most Interesting Man in the World"