Monday, June 27, 2011

Revisionist Chinese History in Tiananmen Square + King of The Forbidden City and The Beijing "Silk Market"

Tiananmen Square.
Our guide gives us a history lesson: it was where, in Tiananmen Square where Chairman Mao declared China to be the People’s Republic of China, it’s the largest public square in the world, and still today a place where many important ceremonies are held. Curiously absent from the memorized lecture was the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
For all I knew, pre-internet, the Chinese government might have been able to suppress the information to many of the Chinese people.
“Do you know what happened here in 1989?” I asked.
Our guide nods.
“What?” I followed up.
“Many students demonstrated here. The government warned them repeatedly. They did not listen, and it was a conspiracy by outside agitators, and so the government had to (she stressed this) do something about it. Many of those who survived fled the country, they are traitors. The government acted rightly and justly.”

Tiananmen Square- Mao Tse Tung in background photo
Interesting. Interesting how governments manage to justify to their people their horrendous actions. Control the interpretation of events, and you can control peoples’ minds and beliefs. The government sent the tanks in to Tianenman to crush any open opposition, before it was able to spread, then labeled the student demonstrators as traitors and pawns of evil outside agitators.
If you think the Bush administration invaded Iraq to “install democracy in the Mideast, liberate an oppressed people, and protect us from Al Queda,” rather than oil and doling out giant no bid rebuilding contracts to cronies at Halliburton and Bechtel, then might I suggest getting the Chinese Communist Party "Official Book of Revisionist History" for bedtime reading- it will make you feel all warm and cozy.
If you are an American, you can just listen to Fox News.

My Day in Beijing

I only got to spend one full day in Beijing, and we started early. First we visited the Forbidden City, where Emperor of China lived with the Empress, his 3,000 concubines, and his eunuchs. It is rather difficult to discuss what exactly eunuchs are, but I’ll just say that while they are technically men, the Emperor was the only breeding male in the city. The joke here would normally be- “It’s good to be King,” but I’m still a little upset about the eunuchs.
The Forbidden City
Why was it called the Forbidden City? Because no one but those described above were permitted entry. Not a single tree grows in the city both to intimate visitors, and so assassins weren’t granted cover. There are 9,999 ½ rooms in the Forbidden City. The Chinese consider the number ten, to be pure perfection- the divine. Nine- near divine, the Emperor’s number.
Next, we visited the Summer Palace. An ornately decorated venue that served as summer residence for the Emperor and Empress, that was not unlike the Forbidden City, except it had trees.

Sir Andrew Stern and me, last day in China for me
Next up, the “Silk Market,” which has to be the largest fake market in the world. Floors and floors stuffed with fake Fendi bags, Armani suits, Ralph Lauren shirts, Versace belts, etc etc. China recently entered into the World Trade Organization and promised to protect intellectual property rights. The fact that so many stores exist out in the open as they do, does not exactly lend the Chinese government any credibility. Why does the government, which so forcefully crushed the student demonstrators because they “had to,” allow such a large fake market to exist? One reason: it makes them money!!
Don’t trust the Chinese. Remember I told you about the law, “Turismo Jackola,” it is even worse here in Beijing. I mean, I started talking with an early twenties female merchant about a belt. She showed me how to distinguish between real and fake leather (pass a flame over it for several seconds and see if melts or curls) I asked her questions about China, about entrepreneurship here, I told her she was pretty, then I asked her how much for the belt.

“Because I like you, because you are handsome, and because I want to make a sale,” she replied, “$300 for the belt.” Tourismo Jackola. Have fun in China ye hardy souls! And if you are on the streets of Beijing, feel free to try the centipede!
Centipede- mmm scrumptious! 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Yangtze River Cruise + the concept of Tourismo Jackola

The Cruise

Our scheduled river boat cruise along the Yangtze was akin to being in jail, with an annoying cell mate, but worse food.
Given the choice between being pampered on a luxury cruise liner, and unearthing ancient treasure in unexplored ruins, getting shot at by poison darts, dodging boulders, and having poisonous snakes attempting to fang us (I hate snakes), I am going to Indiana Jones it every time. The cruise was BORING.

The Yangtze river dam
I admit, the scenery of the rural Yangtze Three Gorges valley was nice, but we were stuck on the boat nearly the entire time. We departed the boat but one time a day, and only once did we touch land. (the other times smaller boats)

Scenery on the Yangtze river
However, the local tour guides were fascinated by the good looking Americans.
How do I say, “You are very pretty,” I asked.
“Ni hem piaoliang,” she answered.
How do you say, “Give me a kiss,” asked Andrew.
“Gaewoo bazhang,” she answered, giggling incessantly, unable to control herself. Drew puffed his chest out, the proud rooster among his hens. Using his new arsenal of knowledge, Drew became increasingly perplexed that the reaction to Don Juan's request would be merely surprised and amused Chinese girls. Eventually our guide took pity, and gave us the correct translation: “Slap me.”
Sadly, no one had obliged him.

Drew and our head guide Kathy. 
Other useful Chinese phrases-
“Wo shi lao-hu.” – (I am a tiger) -- courtesy of yours truly who would trade places with Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes anyday.
“Wo I ni. (I love you) -- can be used to embarrass one’s waitress any time.
Me, unshaven, in a hat normally reserved for Chinese peasants, and  Sir Andrew Stern
The one time we were able to touch dry land we went to an old Buddhist temple, and boy do these temples demonstrate the glaring difference between Indian, Thai, and Chinese culture.
Everywhere in the Chinese Buddhist Temples were statues of angry looking warriors as opposed to a restive, contemplative Buddah of Indian temples, and statues of mirthful looking defenders in Thailand.  China has been sending the world a clear message for centuries: "Don’t mess with us."
Turismo Jackola

And one event you certianly don't want to compete against the Chinese in is negotiation. There is a law in China named "Tursimo Jackola" (literally: Jack The Tourist), which states, and I quote from Chinese constitution: “When you see a tourist, especially one with one white skin, the first price you quote for whatever you are selling must be a price that only a complete moron would pay. Double this price if American.”
This how Andrew ended up paying $12 for a Coke.

You see, as we had chosen to get some exercise and walk the 500 stairs up to the Buddhist monastery, and everyone else on our cruise had taken the chair lift, we got back a little early. Andrew descended the mountain before I did, and I arrived to find that a tiny little old lady had invoked Tourismo Jackola and jacked Drew. She offered me a soda at the same price, to which I visibly recoiled. She hid her head in shame.
“Sorry, sorry,” she apologized.
“Tourismo Jackola?” I asked, as she look down ashamed, gently nodding her head.

This is the reality in China. Every single person tries to rip you off. It’s an economic jungle.
In a way it reminds me of India. (which is like venturing to an entirely different planet) You can unsuccessfully try to fight the reality, wishing it were different, or you can have fun and play inside the reality. Thus, I decided to become a Chinese merchant.
“Come come, cheap cheap,” I urged a passing group of tourists as I grabbed a bottle of soda. “Pepsi, only 100 yuan ($13),” I chanted, chasing after the laughing group. Using my poker player instincts I focused in on the one I thought was the biggest sucker. (He looked like Drew)
“Look, look, lower price, only 90 yuan. For you only.”
“No thanks,” he murmured trying to walk forward.
“Okay, okay, 70 yuan,” offering him the bargain price of $10.
“Sorry,” he continued on. 
“60 yuan! 60 yuan! But only because you have nice face.”
“50 yuan,” he answered. ($7)
But I had to adhere to the law. “Too cheap. 55 yuan.”

If I tried this in America, I’d end up in jail. If I stuck around China, they’d probably throw a state banquet in my honor.

To the delight of the Chinese vendors, I entertained them by determinedly chasing after the next four passing tourists groups, doggedly trying to get them to buy products ranging from soda to onions (which I juggled for the tourists hoping this would close the sale) I built up quite a thirst, and went back to the little old lady whose products I was trying to hawk and offered to purchase a soda.
“How much?” I queried.
“100 yuan,” she answered with a straight face.

How can I get mad? It’s the law.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Shanghai, China- Romeo + Juliet in the monsoon

Hong Kong—Day 2
After being jet lagged and then up until 9 AM in Macao, we refused to give in to sleep, instead exploring the city, which for Andrew meant stopping at 25 consecutive watch stores.
In the evening, a dinner appointment with The Kaiser. In Hong Kong the restaurants have no inventory, but the food is fresh as it gets. Rich: explain.
Outside the restaurant are a series of seafood vendors who have any seafood you could think of in small tanks. Anywhere from GIANT fish that would cost you $1,500 US dollars, to lobsters, to shrimp, to minnows.
You pick out your meal, still swimming and wriggling, and then take it to over the restaurant which cooks it and serves it up.
On our way home, Andrew and The Kaiser started talking about watches and pimped out cars, which was my cue to finally fall asleep, which takes us to …

The Shanghai Report
Shanghai- Day 3

Shanghai airport, we're  picked up by our guide, a local 23 year old girl named Palace.
We drop our bags off at the hotel, and go for a walk along the Shanghai river, surrounded by high rises, chatting with Palace (between Palace and The Kaiser, you’d think everyone was descended from royalty.) She walked between us, each of us holding umbrellas which shielded us from the typhoon battering the coast, as she alternated asking Andrew and myself questions about American culture.
It felt a little bit like Elimidate, which I contend I won, having debonairly taught Palace about Homer Simpson and the subtle differences in the meanings of “Wooohhoooo” and “Doh!” What can I say, I’m a smoothie.

Shanghai- Day 4

We began our morning late. The typhoon slowed traffic dramatically, and it took Palace an extra couple of hours to make it to our hotel.
Our first stop was a Chinese garden from the sixteenth century. It’s not really a garden in technical American terms, more like a carefully arrangement of small buildings, trees, and statues that offers a very tranquil and peaceful environment.
In the Chinese tea garden
The architecture is quite elegant, far more curvy than what we see in the West. Criss-crossed bridges spanned the myriad of ponds. Why? The Chinese believe such bridges protect them from ghosts, which cannot cross criss-cross chasms. (probably cause they get tied up in the tongue twister)
Chinese garden in Shanghai
The famous Tea House where a  striking ceremony was performed for us, especially the moment when two teas were thrown into a clear pots of hot water side by side, each blossoming somehow into beautiful flowers (magic?) The Chinese refer to these teas as Romeo and Juliet.

The teas- Romeo and Juliet
Later a monastery to see the famed Jade Buddahs- six foot tall Buddah statues brought from Burma in the 15th century made of, you guessed it, quartz.

Chinese Silk
A silk factory, where we got a first hand look at how silk is produced.
1) Famers make sure that the silk caterpillar feeds on mulberry leaves. The joke here in China is that the farmers make sure the caterpillars are better fed than their own children.
2) When it is nice and fat, the caterpillar spins and envelopes itself into a cocoon. The material that the cocoon is made from is actually the silk.
3) Once the caterpillar is done creating the cocoon, the cocoon is opened and the caterpillar is, tragically, killed. The cocoon is then dipped into hot water, where the end strand of the cocoon exposes itself and the thread is connected to a machine which unwinds the entire cocoon to make silk thread.

It takes thousands of cocoons and dead caterpillars to make a silk shirt, so you members of PETA have something new to protest. (Reminder: remove all silk products in being before beginning)
With our itinerary for the afternoon done, Palace offered us to take us back to our hotel, or to the Fake Market. “What is a fake market?” you might ask. Well, it’s a market with real Louis Vutton and Coach bags, being sold at prices so low, you’d think the bags weren’t genuine. Or something like that.
We first went to look at the clothes. Armani jackets, suits, Dolce Gabana, Prada. While big name brands are meaningless to me, as there is a zero percent chance I’d ever pay $600 for a pair of Prada dress shoes, Drew was begging them to find shirts where the Armani logo was displayed more prominently.

Negotiating Chinese Style
One thing I’ll guarantee, the next generation of sports agents will be Chinese. “How much for these pair of sandals?” we’d ask.
“$1,200,” comes the reply.
If they think you want something, they’ll quote you a rate so astronomically high, that when you finally manage to lower the price from what approximates Japan’s GNP, all the way down to merely mega rip-off, you’ll think you’re getting an amazing deal.
“What a great negotiator I am,” you’ll brag to your friends, “I bought these sandals for $400!” -- blank stare from your friends …-- “Well, they wanted $1,200 originally …” – another dubious stare by your amigos as you defend your sanity -- “It’s one of those things you had to be there for.”


That evening we went to an acrobat show, that was, simply put, spectacular. I have been to one Cirque Du Solei show, and this, for entertainment simply crushed Cirque. I couldn’t believe what they were capable of doing. Andrew, who promised to fall asleep during the performance, was riveted.
I mean, imagine balancing serving trays, with a couple wine glasses separating each tray, six layers high … ON YOUR NOSE.
And that might have well been the least impressive act.
Nose balancing, amazing! is there a string?
Leaving the show, our van decided to stall in the middle of a super busy Shanghai boulevard. To start the car, we got behind it on this monsoony evening, in our nice clothes, and push started the van. On our third attempt, the driver remembered that he had to turn the key to start the engine. Tragically, by that time, we were already outside our hotel.
Our driver received no tips that evening.

Leaving Shanghai- Travel Day
The Chinese government had to be pleased of the impression we had of China so far. There is no doubt we were getting an overly sanitized view of the country, but regardless, it was pleasant.
However, little chinks in the armor always appear if there is something to hide when you stay somewhere long enough. I therefore relate to you a conversation that we had with Palace, our Shanghai guide.
Palace: “China is a wonderful country. The government gives us freedom of religion.”
Me: “Really? What about the Foulon Gong?”
Palace: “No, government says is evil religion. You cannot worship Foulon Gong.”

It’s all about control. The hearts, the minds. That’s what it takes to keep power.

Now back to our travels.

We rode the Magnetitron Train to the airport. The train travels faster than the speed of light, as it experiences no friction levitating above the tracks, connected magnetically so it doesn’t fly off into space. Running parallel to the highway, we passed fast moving cars like they were at a standstill. Zoom zoom zoom.

Shanghai Bullet train 430 km/hr!!
The plane we took to Wu Han (in Central China) it turns out was made for midgets. Either that, or we got downgraded from coach to sardine. More on central China next time!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sex and Gambling in Macao

Macao—Sex and Gambling
Gambling is illegal in Hong Kong, unless you count attempting to cross the street. Having just avoided the Chinese tarot card of Reincarnation, on which is pictured the two-decker bus I had just side-stepped by millimeters, and with The Kaiser on the phone, concurrently inviting us to Macao to do some "real" gambling, I imagined he meant a live firing range where we’d have the pleasure of an adrenaline rush earned by dodging bullets sent at us with love by Communist Army Snipers.
Realizing that this was vastly safer to navigating the bus terminal, littered with all the spooky fortune tellers, I quickly agreed.
It turns out that Macao is a former Portuguese colony whose economy is entirely based on sex and gambling. It was once owned primarily by the legendary Stanley Ho, who earned his fame on the hit Chinese reality TV show, “Last Gangster Standing,” and apparently used his winnings to buy up most of Macao.
Available only by ferry, we took the hour long ride and got in a little before midnight. It’s sort of a toned down version of Vegas, but earns even more money due to Asia’s insatiable appetite for gambling.
Macao casinos, view from ferry

But before we went to the casino, The Kaiser wanted to take us to see an Asian “Bath House,” … (editors note: we are having internet connection problems, I’m doing my best to pick-up what I can) ……………………. “Line-up.” ……………….. “Massage? What type of massage?” ………………….”Ummm, nooo ….” ……………. “She did what?!” ……………….. …………………… “Kaiser, you’re one sick puppy.”
So after that little adventure, we decided to hit one of Stanster’s casinos. Unlike Vegas, you have to go through a series of metal detectors in order to gain entrance. I think it’s cute they still want to get make use of their props even though “Last Gangster Standing” was taken off the air sometime last year.
Now, I am not a gambler. For those of you know what a good poker player I am, and believe my statement to be a divergence from truth, let me explain; I define gambling as risking your hard earned greenbacks when the odds are against you, thus making it more efficient, time wise, merely to set fire to your money. I am far, far, far too smart to play games of chance.
Andrew, on the other hand, was salivating over the decision of whether to play blackjack or baccarat first. After first setting fire to his first 1,000 Hong Kong dollars, he switched to baccarat.
Asians have an insane appetite for gambling.
In baccarat you can bet on the Player or The Bank. (the house) As my nickname in basketball is “The Bank,” because I am so money, I encouraged Andrew to bet exclusively on “The Bank.”
After watching him break even, eventually I threw down 200 on the bank to demonstrate my faith. Andrew, who had his money on “Player” told The Kaiser, that, “Rich is extremely lucky,” switched his bet, and we won (of course). Not wanting to be a “Player hater,” I predicted Player would win next, we bet it all on Player, and went back to the ferry terminal happy campers.
Even at 6 AM, the ferry was nearly sold out, and the line extended out the door. The Kaiser and Andrew wondered if we were ever going to get home.
“Follow me,” I commanded, leading us to the front of the line, where I not so subtly, cut in front of everyone. I felt the energy of all the nasty looks behind me, and when people started shouting (it might have been at me) I turned around and addressed the line.
“It’s okay,” I explained to the angry mob behind me, “We’re Americans.”

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hong Kong- city of 1 million watches

The Hong Kong Report
Last time I came through Hong Kong, the air was so polluted and smoggy, I couldn’t see the sky. This time, the air looks almost breathable. I immediately suspect we've landed at the wrong airport.
“Welcome to Hong Kong,” our pilot announced, allaying my fears, “The temperature outside is thirty degrees, and the local time is, tomorrow. Sorry that you can see the sky folks. Hope it didn’t confuse you.”

The city is like a boa constrictor. The further you go inside, the tighter its coil wrap around you. Homogenous high rises line every block. Traffic through her narrow streets gets gridlocked for miles. Our supposedly 4 star hotel room is so small, I, at 12% body fat, needed to grease myself up to squeeze through the door. Taking a shower is like strapping yourself into a straight jacket, move your arms and your elbows might crack open the walls. In Hong Kong, space is at a premium.

The Kaiser
Our point man here in Hong Kong, gave us call, and journeyed to our hotel to meet us. His name is, and I swear I am not making this up is, "The Kaiser."
For those of you who are not students of history, the Kaiser is the famous German dictator who created Mickey Mouse back in the early 1900’s. Unfortunately, movies had not yet been invented, so he started World War I instead. The Kaiser looks surprisingly young.

Shop Kong
The Kaiser gave us a list of places we might want to see over the two days we’d be here, and so, we set out on our noble quest on foot, in search of the subway.
It becomes immediately apparent that they should change the name of the city to “Shop Kong.” Store after store after store after mall after mall after mall. I needed a hat, so we stepped into the Nike Store. I figured with the Nike Sweatshops less than fifty miles away, I’d be able to get some great deals.
WRONG! Prices here are substantially higher than in the States, (even Nike.) And stores here are upscale; Prada, Rolex, Chanel.
Literally every third store sells watches. I mean, lavish designer watches encrusted with diamonds. Watches that sell for $125,000 US +. The problem is, my traveling buddy, Andrew, is a corporation’s dream- wealthy and easily hypnotized by slick marketing, I found myself stopping at nearly every watch store so he could gaze longingly at the products created for our consumer status oriented society.
And what’s ironic is that outside of every single one of these fancy watch stores is an Indian trying to sell you knock offs of the same watches. There are no beggars in Hong Kong, they’ve all taken up counterfeiting.

Buddah El Grande
It took awhile to figure out the subway system, but after an hour or so, we managed to get on the wrong train.
Frankly, I was starting to get sick of Shop Kong after only a few hours. Buildings, concrete, and shopping just don’t do it for me. I prefer nature, so I was pleasantly surprised when we finally made it to mountainous Lantau Island which is covered with trees and color.
Buddha on the hill of Lantau Island, Hong Kong
Our island cabby, Christine, gave us an informative ride through the windy hillside roads.
The following points may be of interest.
Hong Kong, while technically part of China now, still acts largely as a separate entity.
Hong Kongers consider themselves superior to the mainland Chinese. Christine described them as rude and uneducated.
Many women from China come to Hong Kong to give birth. The Chinese government, in an effort to curb population growth, allows only one child per family. Any more than one child, you have to pay a hefty fine to the government. Hong Kong is exempt from the law, and many mainland babies are delivered here, which puts a vast strain on the health care system.
Given these facts it should not surprise you that China has the highest abortion rate in the world. 99% of the abortions are girls as all families want a son. There is now a vast chasm in the number of young men compared to women in China, which is becoming a cause for concern (another reason I thank God I live in the USA).
We finally made it to the Big Buddah. The Buddah was erected in the 1980’s by the monks in an effort to sow seeds of peace and understanding. Looking at the hundred foot tall bronze Buddah, sitting atop the hill, even from afar, is awe inspiring.
You’ll note in the picture below that The Buddah has what appears to be a Swastika above his heart. For those of you who don’t know Buddah like I do, he is not anti-semitic. The swastika is the Buddhist symbol for wisdom, and was sadly co-opted by the Nazis.
Giant Buddha, the Buddhist symbol for wisdom is above the heart
I have to say, I loved being there. Surrounded by nature, looking from the top of a mountain at a magnificent view, greenery, and beautiful statues devoted to peace -it was serene and divine.
There are a lot of things I take my time with. I am the world’s slowest eater, I walk slowly, and there I was taking the time to savor the beauty and peace around me. I could have stayed there for hours.
Drew, on the other hand, eats like a ravenous wolf, walks faster than he runs, and is the type of tourist that we, as a nation, should be proud to call our own. A rare combination of speed and insight, Andrew was clocked doing a 7 minute Lourve, (Mona Lisa, check) and has the ability to within mere seconds of entry to note that the Sistine Chapel, “Seems kind of gay.”
So, after maybe 5 minutes of being there, he was more than ready to go. This time I put my foot down, using the continual watch store stops as leverage. He relented, and I just blissed out, grateful to be there.
After making Drew spend what for him must have been an agonizing twenty minutes atop the hill, we went below and visited the monastery.
Buddhist Temple
I sat down and meditated. I entered the sublime presence of being, of pure bliss, which lasted until Drew entered the temple, asking me if there might be a gift shop nearby where they sell watches.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Escape From The Middle East

Palestine Mensa Group- application

Rich is currently in Jerusalem. He should be at the airport in Amman, Jordan, no later than 2 PM to check in for an international flight to Bangkok. It takes 40 minutes to get to the Israeli/Jordanian border from either city. At what time should Rich leave to insure he makes it there on time?

A)         Leaving at 11 AM gives you an hour forty minutes to cross the border, that should be plenty.

B)         7 AM??
C)         Haha! What a joke, this is the Middle East. You need to leave the previous afternoon.

D)         Sometime before the 1967 Israeli/Arab war
E)         Around the time of Christ

This is actually a test question on the membership form for Mensa of Palestine, and those answering A, B, or C are believed to have demonstrated sufficiently low levels of intelligence  to be referred directly to Islamic Jihad: Suicide Bomber Division (more popularly known as “72 Virgins in Paradise for Idiots.”) 
The correct answer is: What the hell are you doing trying to cross a border in the Middle East in the first place??
At Needle Point Church- picture of Jesus carrying his own cross. "So, what would happen if I didn't help carry my cross?" ...  "We're not carrying it for you."
"Well okay then."

Having already developed a bad taste for Middle East border crossings, I traveled back in time, to before I arrived in the region, and cancelled my trip entirely. Unfortunately, my Mom wouldn't let me, (“Richard, no, you’ll hurt yourself!”) leaving me a departure time from Jerusalem of 7 AM, correctly anticipating “delays,”  by which I mean- not being allowed to cross the border.
Let’s join Rich and on his misadventure out of the Middle East. Imagine the movie “typing sound’ of each time stamp as we get set for this blockbuster spy-thriller.
6:30 AM—Our hero wakes with a jolt. Realizing that while less than 2 hours away from the airport, and with 9 hours til his plane leaves, our hero still has to cross a Middle Eastern border!
6:31 AM- Using a meditative breathing technique he learned from Buddhist Monks in Tibet, our hero manages to re-center himself.
6:38 AM- Picks the locks on the hostel doors, barely leaping to avoid the three snarling pit-bulls chasing him. Greeted outside by a rising sun.  
7:00 AM- Walks through the gates of Old Town Jerusalem, glances nervously at his watch, then relaxes, after realizing he doesn’t own one.
7:18 AM- Stops for a juice. Nearly makes the mistake of ordering pomegranate, before remembering he’ll likely have to spend another month in this Hades for each seed he eats. 
7:19 AM- Downs his orange juice.
7:45 AM- Locates shared van ride to border. Bus is full. Driver tells him to take next one. Hero tells him he has less than 8 hours to cross the border. Driver immediately tells other tourists to make room, or he’s “kicking the fat one off. “
7:55 AM- Van leaves building, immediately gets stalled in traffic.

8:20 AM- Bus hit by roadside bomb. Hero performs mouth to mouth on all passengers, except for the obese Canadian, who dies just as the ambulance gets there. Other Canadians thank hero for saving their future health-care tax dollars.

9:20 AM- Hero hitches ride from the obligatory hot passing Israeli female commando, finally arrives at the to King Hussein border crossing.

9:30 AM- Piles of paperwork, including $40 exit fee.

9:35 AM- Exit interview by Israeli Commando. Hero does all he can not to give away that he is a top covert CIA agent who's assignment is to overthrow the Israeli regime, which exit officer suggests several times trying to trip-up Hero. 

9:55 AM- Hero breathes a sigh of relief. Believes he has enough time to make it to the Amman Airport, even if kidnapped by Al Qaeda on the other side. Takes a victory lap around the building to stretch his legs.

10:20 AM-- Approaches very surly, old woman, Israeli border agent. Hands her his passport. After looking through it she states, "You cannot cross." Then smiles her first smile in ... the last decade?

10:21 AM-- Argument continues. 
Hero: "What, first you don't want me in your country, now you won't let me leave?!!" 
Surly old Agent: "We don't care if you leave, (so long as pay us the $40 exit fee) it is the Jordanians who won't let you pass, as you do not have a Jordanian Visa."
Hero: "Yes I do, I got one entering Jordan from Syria."
Surly Old Agent: "You have been to Syria? Who let you into our country!"  (flops on floor, having a heart attack)
Hero: "Doctor! is there a doctor in the house, because i need a second opinion on this visa situation!"

10:25 AM-- Surly Old Agent dies. Ten Uzis are pointed at our hero. "Can someone call me a cab?"

11:00 AM-- The helpful, and ever friendly Israelis, refuse to let Hero use their computer so he can check his flight status. Hero childishly slams hat he is wearing to the ground. Special cab arrives. Hero tells border guard that next time he is in Israel he will set-up a stand outside a Jewish Synagogue where he will give away, “Free Pork,” the dichotomy of which will likely make Jewish heads explode.

11:01 AM-- Dodges Uzi bullets, leaps into cab and yells, “GO!!”

1,000 + year old olive trees
11:05 AM-- There are three border crossings between Israel and Jordan. It turns out that the only one you from which you cannot cross into Jordan without a super duper official visa (not the one hero has) is the Jerusalem crossing, which makes a lot of sense, considering it is the one most used. Welcome to the Middle East. The Northern border is 2 hours away, and from there another 2 and a half hours back to Amman. Hero asks nice cab driver who is only charging him $175 for the first part of the trip if he thinks he has a chance at making his plane. Hero cannot help but be encouraged by response which is, 'Not a chance." 

11:06 AM-- "Step on the gas please." 

12:10 PM-- A little more than half way there, in an effort to help him along, the Israeli Army stops hero's cab to search it. Hero points out to them that he is an American, and is on his way OUT of Israel. This logic only delays the process. Cab driver can't help but laugh. 

12:25 PM-- Hero passes search. Israeli commandos exchange warm waves with bandana clad, AK-47 waving Arabs driving a pick-up truck some with wires coming out of their clothing. Hero is pretty sure this was a set-up, and the Israelis were mocking him. Hero momentarily considers stating, "I'm with them," then thinks better of it. 

1:03 PM-- Due to the advent of flight for cars, hero makes it to the border. Fills out paperwork, pays exit fee, sprints to Jordanian side where he has to wait, for a bus; to come back; which has just left. It would be much faster to walk, but if he does, he'll be shot.

1:08 PM-- Pays $5 bus fee. 

1:09 PM-- 70 meters later the bus comes to a halt and dumps everybody off. Hero slips on slick floor, trying to get to counter first. 

1:15 PM-- Jordanians stamp his passport. Hero gives a "saluti a tutti" to the Israeli side, otherwise known as "the bird."
Don't believe the sign

1:19 PM-- Hero pays another $80 to be driven to the Amman Airport. Has cabbie stop at world famous Jordanian Money Tree.

1:22 PM-- Promises cabbie big tip if he can halve a two hour + ride. 

1:25 PM-- Cabbie starts driving like Mario Andretti. The ride from the Northern border to Amman is largely mountainous, and throwing caution to the wind might be very scary if you could hear the bald tires screeching around hair pin turns, but you can't since we're traveling faster than speed of sound.

1:45 PM-- Hero notes Andretti is a fantastic driver. Car nearly veers off a cliff. Hero indifferent, as he plans to kill himself if he has to spend another night in the Middle East anyways. 

2:12 PM-- Mario Andretti expertly passes car after car, roadblock after roadblock. Hero tries not to get hopes up. 

2:38 PM-- Cabbie arrives at airport!! Hero gives him every single last Jordanian Dinar he has (about $16 worth) Cabbie very much deserves tip, hero promises him he will get him a NASCAR deal back in the US.

2:39 PM-- Hero realizes he has been dropped off at the wrong terminal. Sprints to other side of airport. 

2:45 PM-- Helpful Jordanian staff do all they can to get him on his airplane, even opening up a new line specifically for him! If you are friendly with Arabs and treat them with respect, they really try to do more for you than any other culture hero has seen. 

2:55 PM-- Hero races to gate, boards his planes moments before they are to close the gate, collapses in heap on floor, grateful to have Escaped from the Middle East!! 

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Thursday, June 9, 2011

Keukenhoff Gardens-- The Beautiful Tulip Fields of Amsterdam

In the Tulip Patch

A lot of people will tell you that Amsterdan is a beautiful city. They are wrong, it really isn't anything special, especially compared with Prague or Budapest, or even my hometown of Santa Barbara.

Amsterdan is way too concrete for me, and I desperately wanted to see some green, (Netherlands are very green in general) and someone I met in Iceland had recommended that I go see Keukenhoff Gardens, and as it was early May (April showers) the tulips were in full bloom.

I won't write too much, since mostly all I did was look at the splendid array of colors. So, just have a gander and enjoy the views, and if you find yourself in the Netherlands, I recommend you go!

tulip of Keukenhoff Gardens

gorgeous tulips!

find the other links on the right after you read part I. Set in a courtroom.
Keukenhoff Gardens- pink and white tulips

Read why the Netherlands are the most advanced country on earth- Part I/ III Going Dutch All The Way

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Israel: The "Ultimate Solution"

We're back at Heaven’s Theater where God is getting consulting advice from world famous explorer, Rich Birecki. We join them live as they continue their conversation about Israel.
God: So you made it to Jerusalem.
Rich: Where the first cab driver I met promptly charged me ten dollars to drive me two blocks, dropping me off at what he assured me was a cheap hotel, which in fairness to him, was only $500 a night.  I ended up walking around for a couple hours before I found something in my price range.
God: So, what did you like best about Jerusalem?
Rich: The sense of history that is there. You just automatically have a feeling that a lot of interesting events have transpired there over the years.
ancient olive trees
God: Like what?
Rich: What am I, a historian?  
God: What did you like least about Jerusalem?
Rich: Orthodox Jews—
God: Hitler!
Rich: God. Take a breather, slow down,  let me explain.
God: We're all waiting.
Rich: Look, I love Jewish people, like I love Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, … maybe not Satanists, but you get the idea. What I don’t like are religious nuts.
God: They always pray for such “interesting” things.
Rich: Like harm to “non-believers.”  
God: That’s one of them.
Rich: Look, in any religion, the 1% die hard, “true-believers” create 99% of the havoc, and 99% of the Jewish 1% are concentrated in Jerusalem and Israeli settlements.
God: People have freedom to choose in what way they devote themselves to me.
Rich: Agreed, but not according to the right wing of any religion. You worship as they worship or else you are damned, beneath being spoken to, or an infidel worthy of only death. These people speak of God every other word, but have never experienced. They spend so much time pounding the pulpit, posturing, trying to convince others, and by extension themselves, that their ultra-rigid belief systems and traditions are the only way to God, that they lose sight of what they are truly seeking.
God: And what are they seeking?
Rich: What is all around them. The energy that they were born from, that they are now, that will be here long after “they” are gone.
God: The energy?
Rich: Yes, that which people call you by name, often misguidedly thinking of a man on a cloud with a long white beard.
God: You can describe that which I am?
Rich: In words? … I’ll do my best … there are times the mind lets go of incessant thought; in moments of great inspiration, when in the presence of profound beauty, or witnessing immense power in nature, when feeling unbridled love, or a moment of opening in meditation, there are so many ways; and in these moments you realize God- as a divine joy and love that burns so fiercely in every cell of the body, thinking becomes pointless, and everything just seems brighter. Most people have experienced this at some point, but haven’t known what to call it. Presence, God, divinity, pure love are all apt.
God: And you experienced this in Jerasulem?
Rich: You can experience it everywhere; Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Jerusalem, the slums of Mumbai, India where there are streams of sewage flowing in and out of twenty foot high piles of trash people live in. It makes no difference where you are, all land is "holy." Even land in the middle of the desert.
God: You do know that people of the Jewish faith have been persecuted over the years, not allowed to practice their religion, and that the ancestors of these people came from the land now called Israel, and that Israel was the one place where they believed they would be free to worship freely?
Rich: Of course. And Israel exists today. That’s a fact. Everyone clamoring for its destruction based on historical precedent might as well shut-up, cause the majority of humans alive today have never known a world without Israel. The statute of limitations is up. Conversely, there are people arguing that those practicing the Jewish faith have an inherent right to “all their former lands” because they were there first, thousands of years ago. You think the city of New York  is going to up and move because the descendants of Indians start yelling, “You killed our people, stole our land, and we were there first!” Its true, but it isn't going to and shouldn't happen.  
God: And what of Biblical prophecies?
Rich: Look, I don't want to get into the specifics of any Holy Scriptures, because "believers" hold onto the "word of God" like they are clinging to the edge of a cliff over a 500 foot drop. Most would be willing to kill you before letting go; some sick form of egoic self preservation. What's undeniable, is that history shows us numerous examples of clashing interpretations over the same words these books contain, and various "Messianic" leaders who have twisted these words to manipulate lesser minds for their power and financial gain. How many millions and millions of people have been slaughtered over the Centuries in the name of "God?" ... So to answer your question, when right-wing Jews use passages from scripture to assert their right over a piece of land, to put it euphemistically, I'm dubious.  
God: Not all Jewish people are right-wing.
Rich: Of course, and by discussing religion in this light, in the context of Israel, I think that most Israelis are getting raw deal here. I don't think the right-wing Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox people of Jerusalem represent the average Israeli. Unfortunately, they were the majority of people I ran into while in the city.
God: Okay, that stated, what did you observe that left you so aghast?
Rich: Well, I arrived in Jerusalem during a religious holiday. After checking into my hotel, I went out onto the streets and observed a very festive atmosphere. Music was playing, men were dancing atop cars, men were dancing in a circle passing a Torah around ... Wait a second, where are the women? Was I witnessing a Jewish gay pride parade? It turns out that under orthodox law, men and women aren't allowed to dance together. I was attending the ultimate sausage fest.
God: Surely there is a reason ... isn't there?
Rich: If the opposite sexes were to touch there would be a transference of impurity. It's good that I can explain this to you God.
God: Are you sure that's correct? It doesn't make much sense to me.
Rich: It's the jist of what I was explained. Now look, I'm going to go on a little rant here so try not interrupt. Orthodox Jews have a prescribed manner of dress--

God: But that's--
Rich: God, I said don't interrupt! ... (shaking head) Orthodox Jews have a prescribed manner of dress- black hats and black garb. This is out of “modesty,” to show ones reverence towards God. They also have long beards and pigtails dangling down by their ears (also called forelocks) which are there because the Torah instructs not to shave the “corners of the head.” Now, my experience was as follows: these people made very little eye contact and kept their heads averted from me. I tried to speak with a couple of them, and I felt like I was being frowned upon despite them barely uttering a word. I could understand in a place like Miami, a practicing Orthodox Jew might keep to himself, because there are a lot of idiots who would hassle them for being different, but this doesn’t hold true for Old Town Jerusalem where they rule the streets, I felt like I was a minority dressing in my American garb. The overall feeling that I got was that this was an insular group of people, wishing to exclude those who are different. I just didn't feel welcome there.

God: What about the fox and sable hats?
Rich: Don't get me started on those donut shaped fur hats they wrap around their head like some gigantic NBA headband. They are made out of fox fur or sable and cost $5,000. I was told that they are generally worn to show their ultra-conservative political leanings more than anything. Is there any bigger way to demonstrate your desire for separation than to sink five thousand into a headband? My Jewish friend refused to spend the overpriced $2 it would cost to call me while we were traveling in Prague together, creating the loss of an entire afternoon for both of us, I couldn't imagine trying to sell him a hat for 5k. Interestingly enough, there is a movement in Israel seeking to ban the sale of all fur products that is being opposed, by you guessed it, the ultra-Orthodox community, who believe it is their religious right to worship as they want, even if it means violating the forward thinking Jewish religious law that strictly forbids cruelty to or unnecessary suffering of animals. So is it really about Religion, or your ability to maintain your rigid Orthodox identity by wearing a hat that costs $5,000? This is a perfect example of people using scripture as it suits them, and re-interpreting or denying parts that might not.

Here you can see the fox/sable hats costing 5k by the Western Wall

God: How did the Ultra Orthodox react to Osama Bin Laden's death?
Rich: In all likelihood, like most of the world, with one notable exception. They edited Hilary. Below you'll see the famous photograph of the Obama administration awaiting news on the risky operation the President ordered to take out Osama in Pakistan, and then below that you'll see the edit done by a Hasidic Newspaper.  
Hillary Clinton's look while waiting news on Osama Bin Laden, is what helps make this an iconic photo
Hillary Clinton edited out of iconic photo by Hasidic paper
Rich: Why did they edit her out? Because they were afraid they would be breaking a religious law against "titillation" for lack of a better word. Seriously? Hillary Clinton? Can you live any more in fear that you are impure or angering God. These people are nuts.
God: Okay, okay, we get the point already, don't belabor it.
Rich: Well look, rigidity of ANY belief system, organization, or political structure will ultimately lead to its demise. The United States has been held together in part because the Constitution is malleable. Houses are specially constructed in Japan to bend so that the structures might survive earthquakes. Rigidity gives the impression of being long lasting and solid, but these structures break down all at once. Just look at the former Soviet Union as an example.
God: Does this show up politically in Israel?
Rich: The Western Wall is the last in tact remnant of the ancient Jewish Temple, and it is believed to be a place where prayers are more likely to be answered, so you can imagine the importance placed on it by the religious right. Behind it is the Temple Mount, a holy site for Muslims around the world. There is a significant segment of the Israeli right-wing advocating that it would be in Jewish interest to annex the land of the Temple Mount, tear it down, and rebuild the Jewish Temple atop. Of course, the cost of asserting this "biblical/hereditary/mine mine mine right" would be a cataclysmic war, but if you doubt the sincerity of their convictions about this subject, many costly, giant objects, like the minora on display below, have already been created to decorate the rebuilt Temple.

menorah by Western Wall

The Temple Mount Behind the Western Wall

God: So, you are telling us the problem, what's the solution?
Rich: A calming of the human ego and its need for identity. You'll notice most of the times I state, "people practicing the Jewish faith," that is intentional as most people say, "I am Muslim, Jewish, tall, short," and yes, it can be short hand to describe your general beliefs, character, etc. but it it is usually the basis of identity, and that which threatens identity is reacted to by the mind with nearly the same intensity as a life and death situation. All war, terrorist actions, violence, and hatred stem from egoic identity in way or another. When you are in a state of deep love or joy, as I stated before, identity for a moment disappears, and the thought of inflicting pain on someone else becomes alien.
God: So people should just live in joy and love every moment? That's your solution?
Rich: Absolutely ... Let's skip all the politics, every possible solution to the Palestinian/ Israeli problem has already been suggested, and sadly, moderates on both sides are being held hostage by the zealots. A leader is supposed to at least have a glimpse of an ultimate vision. I'm sure some people would say, "stupid, impossible, impractical," etc etc. and it doesn't help that as human beings we are a long long long ways from achieving this, but that sir, is my "Ultimate Solution."

Seriously, I realize that some of you might have a different perspective about what I have posted. If you do, and you can state in a measured and reasoned voice, I would be interested to hear it. Put it in the comments below/email me/subscribe to the blog.