Monthly Archives: August 2011

Don’t Even Go There!

It’s been a year since I met Anna and Michal. Seems as long since I’ve thought of them.

The young married couple from Bydgoszcz, Poland, wrote me last August to ask if they could stay two days at my Miami condominium that overlooks Biscayne Bay. They had just flown to the Magic City from Honduras on their way back to Poland after an amazing two years traveling around the world.

When I received their request for lodging through the www.couchsurfing.org travel and hospitality Web site, I initially thought to say no because of the short notice and I was already hosting two women from Berlin, Germany. Anna and Michal weren’t arriving in weeks or even days but in a matter of hours. Although some members of the Couchsurfing community are able to receive guests on short notice, my schedule simply did not always allow for that. But when I looked at their couchsurfing profile, I rechecked my schedule and quickly agreed to host them. Two people who had just traveled around the world, I just had to meet. I needed some insight, as I was planning my own global adventure.

Anna and Michal on the Western Coast of Australia

The photographs of their two-year trip spoke to me, and so did their travel philosophy, which was similar to mine – independent, unstructured, free-spirited. And by golly, after two years of planes, trains, boats and automobiles, and of climbing and jumping out of and off of things, these two people, with no place to stay for their two-day layover in Miami, needed any comfort Miami could provide.

With the two women from Berlin, the guest bedroom was already taken. Michal and Anna had no problem sleeping in the living room – she on the couch, he on an air mattress and sleeping bag on the floor. It beat the alternative: pitching a tent in a park or some parking lot behind a McDonald’s. At least that’s what they said they were considering. That may have worked fine in Vanuatu or the Australian Outback, but not a good idea in urbanized Miami.

When Michal and Anna arrived, I instantly took to them. Great sense of humor, a real sense of adventure, a fearless spirit, and as I pointed out at the time, newlywed love for each other even after two years on the road together. Don’t people who travel that long together want to kill each other? 🙂

Chilling out in the living room, Michal and Anna showed me some of the videos and photographs they shot during their journey, and all I could say was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!

With each picture, Anna and Michal shared stories. They had spent much of their time traveling to remote areas of just about every country they visited. And they toured some countries I could only dream about.

With breathtaking video footage and photographs as evidence, Michal and Anna didn’t have to convince me that those places were worth visiting. But alas, I told them that as an American some of those places would not be safe for me to go traipsing through. Parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan or any part of Iran, which views Americans as a threat to their society, is unsafe for anyone holding a U.S. passport.

In some countries around the world, Americans are taken hostage, decapitated or shot on sight, I reminded my well-traveled and well-meaning guests.

“Ah yes,” Anna said jokingly. “Half the world hates you.”

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal in Iran

This week I’ve been thinking about that “hate” Anna spoke about. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “half the world” is unsafe for Americans, but when I was mapping my global adventure, it wasn’t easy. Flying from country to country is easier given you are hopping over hostile territory. But trying to go by road, as I am, from one country to the next creates some logistical problems. How do I get from Egypt to Israel then Jordan then Turkey with Syria in the way? And from Russia to India with Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China as obstacles? And to Thailand with Myanmar ahead?

Unlike my dear Polish friends, I had to be more conscious of where I was and was not welcomed. Iraq? Pakistan? Afghanistan? Iran? No way. For them, when asked, all they had to say they’re from Poland and nobody cared. If anything, my guests joked, some had never even heard of Poland 🙂

Anna and Michal and countless other travelers I have met have no such concerns over geopolitical conflicts. Iran has no beef with Poland, so a Polish person can crisscross that country and feel very welcomed, as Michal and Anna were. I’d probably be arrested, thrown in prison and tried for spying, as e Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal were.

The reported conviction of the two American hikers this week is what made me think of Anna and Michal, who now run a family owned hotel in picturesque Tlen in Bory Tucholskie National Park, about 60 kilometers north of their hometown, Bydgoszcz. Our conversation a year ago resonates with me today. Sure, I wish I could freely travel to Cuba, or see the antiquities in Iran, or see what Syria looks like from the ground.

People have asked me if the South America part of my trip includes Venezuela. The truth is, with all the hate, the disrespect shown to U.S. presidents, the going out-of-the-way to befriend sworn enemies of the United States, I don’t feel I would be welcomed there. Unfortunately for the Venezuelan people who would love to get their hands on some of the billions in “yanqui” tourists dollars, many Americans now view Venezuela as an enemy of the United States and refuse to support the government of Hugo Chavez. So as a result, my world travel looks very different from that of say, someone from neutral Switzerland.

I have to be very alert about shifting sands in the global community. Egypt in an uproar? Change in Tunisia? Unrest in Morocco? How does that impact my plans to travel there as an American?

Shane and Josh, unfortunately, apparently didn’t give serious thought to location. If I’m hiking anywhere near the Iranian border, I want to make damn sure where I’m standing. Friends and relatives say the hikers may have been forced by Iranian border guards into Iran, but again, if you’re that close to Iran, well, you’re just too close.

Personally, I wouldn’t have found myself hiking even in Iraq, which is still unstable, as witnessed by a string of recent bombings. Time and time again, Americans around the world do foolish things and expose themselves to danger. Recall the case of the American journalists who unknowingly entered North Korea. If the border is unmarked, and the avowed enemy is on the other side, stay as far away from it as you can!

According to the Islamic Republic of Iran News Network, an official television station, Shane and Josh were convicted of illegal entry into the country and for espionage. They were sentenced to eight years in prison. Their Iranian lawyer said he was not aware of the convictions and sentences and that he would inquire. Really Mr. Lawyer? Are you sitting down on the job or is the Iranian system of justice simply so flawed that the defense lawyer is not aware that his clients are going to jail – for eight years on top of the two already served while awaiting trial.

The two men, who have been held in Tehran’s infamous Evin prisonfor more than two years, said they were hiking near the Iraq-Iran border in the Kurdistan region when a soldier of unknown nationality told them to approach. It was at that point they learned they had crossed into Iran, which shares an unmarked border with Iraq. They were with Bauer’s fiancée, Sarah Shourd, who was released for “humanitarian” and medical reasons on $500,000 bail in September 2010, after more than a year under arrest and months in solitary confinement. Her case is still pending, according to Iranian officials.

Sarah Shourd

I do share Shane and Josh’s passion for learning about other cultures and travel. I understand why they would want to venture, especially Shane who like me is a freelance journalist always on the trail of a good story. I feel a kinship with the two backpackers and anyone who looks at their travel videos and photographs will immediately see that these guys are no spies – they’re just a couple of backpackers, like me, just trying to see the world and hopefully make it better. They ought to be released now!

As for me and my travels, maybe I ought to start telling people I’m Polish. Nah! It won’t work.

A profile of Josh and Shane from CNN:

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A Beauty Spark Of Horrors

Beautiful things can sometimes cloud otherwise good judgment. You see a beautiful woman or man or some fancy car and you start to drip with want and drool with desire. Not even for a moment do you stop to consider that perhaps beneath that seductive beauty lurks the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

You would think I would have learned that lesson by now. I once dated a woman whose outward appearance was beautiful – acquaintances and friends were always keen to remind me of that – but what they did not see was her ugliness. She was not a very nice person, after all. I saw that and ended that relationship stat.

But we sometimes forget and again and again allow ourselves to be seduced by looks. That’s exactly what I did last weekend, and it was mighty foolish of me. I had failed to do my homework, look deeper. And I paid the price.

I was really looking forward to the weekend in Iquique. The Chilean town was supposedly the place on the northern coast to relax, have a good time. Friends from work had offered to give me a ride there and all I needed was to reserve a hotel. So I went online and started to search. And after passing on a few ugly ducklings, I found the hotel – a real beauty – the Spark Hotel right near the beach in Iquique. I was smitten: new, modern, super cool rooms with perfect ocean views and all the modern conveniences. The $118 cost per night included wireless Internet and breakfast. Instead of learning more about this vision of loveliness by the sea, I moved quickly to reserve my spot. Had I taken the time to do a simple Internet search, I would have learned that yes, she is a beauty, but one filled with behavior unbecoming.

The sushi bar and restaurant. Looks are deceiving.

A cautionary note left on Tripadvisor.es by a previous guest: “Reserving a hotel based on photos posted on the Internet is not always a good idea.” Ah, someone else had failed to heed the message. She goes on to blast the hotel for its lack of cleanliness and rude staff, which brings me to the nightmare I lived at the Spark – not to be confused with Sparks Hotels – which is spelled with an ‘s’ at the end.

I have stayed at all manner of lodging around the world – from five-star hotels to no star dumps – and I can’t ever recall being treated so rudely by a hotel staff. Even in a $7 a night hostel in Colombia I stayed in during this journey, the staff was extremely polite, helpful, attentive and moved quickly to fix problems. Not at Spark. No way. Their job apparently is to make their guests’ stay an utterly and thoroughly unpleasant experience. Think I’m exaggerating? Do a Google search of Spark Hotel in Iquique and read the reviews others have left. Had I taken the time to do that, I wouldn’t have suffered what I went through on my otherwise spectacular weekend in Iquique. As it turns out, my experience was the same as others who have stayed at Spark.

Here’s a typical review of Spark on TripAdvisor, which I wish I had seen before I took the plunge:

Headline: “looks like a 5 star, but service is a 1 star if that!” 
what a total joke of a hotel! me and my boyfriend wanted to treat ourselves to a 5 star hotel for six nights while we were in Iquique, we totally picked the wrong place to rest and relax, the staff are quite honestly the rudest and unhelpful people i have ever come across in my life, the rooms looks amazing but that’s it! no room service menus (ok not the end of the world) but being woken up at 7am by banging and drilling noises as they are still building the hotel! (which is NOT mentioned on the website) we asked to move to a lower level in hope that we will not be subjected to the early wake up call, but the reception was so dam rude, she basically said ok you want to leave then! how are they are going to make money! we couldn’t get into another hotel so we just put it up with for the six nights, i also asked if the hotel had a local map of the area or some information about the area, the answer was a simple no! our breakfast never turned up in the mornings, and to top it all off the maid would knock at the door at 9 am to clean the room! what a joke and if you said no please can you come back later, she never showed up! There is a backpackers opposite this hotel and believe me you would be far better of staying there! — Submitted by a couple from England, May 23, 2010
By “she” I believe they are referring to Gemma, who must be related to the hotel owner, how else to explain how she gets to keep her job with so many references to her and the rest of the incompetent staff on hotel and travel Web sites.
Here’s another review I wish I had seen (I translated from Spanish to English):
Headline: “Bad experience at this Hotel”
Spent a holiday in this beautiful city with my mother, I wanted to find a hotel and this hotel was recommended. With the poor reception, little concern for guests, dirty, poor breakfast quality, the only thing that saved it for us is that the rooms are spacious and have good ocean view, if it is from the 5th floor up.
Waiters of the restaurant seemed to view guests as a nuisance if one has an interest in dining there.
I will never again stay at this hotel. – Submitted by Ceanpela of Santiago, Chile, May 31, 2011
And there are many more like it, even with negative reviews right under people’s noses, they still end up booking. Why? Because they are blinded by beautiful pictures that scream “come to me!” And people fall for that. For me, lesson learned, again. 🙂

The Presidential Suite at Spark Hotel - But don't be a sucker for this beauty

As I read the reviews I shook my head in agreement. I could have written them myself, given my similar experience with Spark. Here’s what happened:
I booked a room online after looking at the photographs. And indeed the hotel is nice. The problem is the hotel staff, from the reception desk to the restaurant to housekeeping. They all seem to hate their jobs and to not want to do it. Even routine requests or questions would spark – pun intended – roll of eyes or an outright rude reply. I don’t have a problem with people hating their jobs, but if your job involves dealing with the public, maybe you should be in another line of work.
When I made the hotel reservation, I noted that I would arrive by bus from Calama at 5 a.m. on Friday. But with the offer of a ride to Iquique I actually would get there at 11 p.m. on Thursday.
I explained that to my Chilean friends who were giving me a lift because they so happen to live in Iquique. They said if it turned out to be a problem, I could stay with them that night – I graciously turned them down and said I could just sit in the hotel lobby for an hour and wait for midnight. Soon as that clock struck 12, it would be Friday.
I actually arrived at the hotel around 11:30 p.m., and the front desk receptionist rightly pointed out that they weren’t expecting me until Friday. True, I said, but it’s only 30 minutes until it’s Friday – rather than pay for an extra day I can either return in 30 minutes or just go spend the night at my friends’. She said that should not be necessary, that she would call her manager to check if I could check in a half hour early and not be charged for four nights instead of the booked three. After she made calls, talked to her manager who said it was fine, and did the necessary check-in paperwork, it was almost midnight. Okay, I asked again, so this is for three nights? Yes, she asserted. No problem. Three nights at $118 a night. Cool. She asked if I would like the password for the hotel’s wireless Internet – how thoughtful to ask – and I said yes. Before I went to bed, I fired up my laptop to check my e-mail. But the Internet was not working. Oh, I’ll deal with it in the morning. I went to bed.

Your average room with a view

The next morning, I walked up to the front desk and encountered my first dose of rudeness from a woman named Gemma, who apparently has been at her job for quite sometime because many of the negative reviews going back more than a year reference her, though not by name. I told Gemma that Internet was not working and before I could finish speaking to ask when would it be up and running, she said: “What do you want me to do about it?!” With that, she stepped away to the other end of the reception desk, shuffling some papers. I started to follow her to the other end of the reception area when she walked back toward me with a face that seemed to say “Leave me alone”.
Okay, did I say something wrong? Did I offend her in some way? I had never met this woman before, so why was she being so nasty? I turned to the doorman and he said there had been many previous complaints about the Internet not working. So why did that silly girl so happily offer the password to a Wi-Fi that doesn’t work? So maybe they ought to remove that amenity from their advertisement, no? Doorman nodded yes. At that point another staff person appeared at the front desk. He was wearing a blue blazer like the others, but he looked like a manager. He at least offered a solution: We’ll give you a cable so you can connect that way. Cool. A problem solver. That’s more like it.
I went out for some sightseeing.
The next morning after I showered, I could not find the large bottle of Nivea skin lotion I had brought with me. I searched all over the room. Lotion gone. And the hotel does not provide lotion. I stopped at the front desk to report the lotion missing, and told the front desk manager that I wasn’t suggesting that the maid had stolen it, but that perhaps she simply tossed out by mistake. He called the person in charge of housekeeping and he repeated to me what she said: “We don’t take things from the rooms”. Okay fine, but I’m just…nevermind. Out to the beach I went.
That night I turned on the lights to the bathroom and it tripped something. The electricity went out and with no power, the heating system started to beep…beep…beep…beep…incessantly. Not wanting to deal with the rude front desk, I tried to resolve the matter myself by going to the circuit box in the room. But nothing I did resolved the problem. So I called. And what did I get? Sorry, it’s 2 a.m., nothing we can do about it. Seriously? So how am I supposed to sleep through that beeping noise? I’ll have to wait until the morning, I’m told. So I tried to use my iPod and then a pillow over my head to drown out the noise.

Next morning, called again they sent someone up and from outside the room he fixed the problem. Well only partially. While some lights came on, others such as the ones in the bathroom still were not working. I called him back.

King size bed, king size lack of sleep

Second time around, problem solved.

Checkout time and none too soon. Suddenly, my $118 rate is $143. Wait a minute. After a lot of back and forth, they agree that I am right. I pay the bill, check my bag with the concierge and go for a walk. When I return, front desk guy, who at this point has removed his name tag, tells me I stayed four nights instead of three and I still owe for a night. I explain. He obviously doesn’t believe me and he continues to demand that I pay him another $118 before he releases my bag to me. So now my bag is a hostage. And I can’t believe this is happening. In a few short moments, my friends are coming to pick me up to return to Calama and we have a long drive ahead, so I need to be done with this, I tell him. He picks up the phone and starts explaining the situation to someone on the phone. He Hangs up and insists that I pay up. I tell him he needs to call the receptionist from the night I arrived or the person she spoke to who approved my three-night stay. He finally does that after trying to prove that I owe for the extra night. I tell him that I had options to stay with my friends that night but because the hotel receptionist said it’s not a problem after consulting her boss I decided to stay. Besides, it was only a half hour, less after she got off the phone.
He puts me on the phone with her and what does she do? Outright lies! She says she doesn’t remember telling me that it was okay. She then says she doesn’t recall what she told me that night. At that point, I blew a gasket. I demanded my bag. He refused and picked up the phone to call someone else.
After he got on the phone again and he was distracted, the doorman/concierge emerged from who knows where and I handed him my ticket for my bag. Clueless as to what was happening, he went to the storage room and brought it to me. I had freed my bag! So now I could just walk out the door, call American Express and dispute the charges. I was so done dealing with these idiots. But I waited for him to get off the phone. I overheard him telling the person on the phone that I am American. He also gave the person my name. He hung up the phone, walked over to me and said “We won’t charge you for an extra night.” Really, and what was all this?
So dear reader, the moral of this story is this: If you ever find yourself in need of a hotel, don’t be blinded by beauty. Play detective and do a little investigating. There are too many Sparks out there with outward beauty and ugly inside.
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Desert Hot And Cold As Ice

Not much life in the vast Chilean desert, but it always seems to reveal a few surprises.
This morning it was ice. Ice in the desert? A solid, crystal clear sheet of ice had overtaken the water fountain at the company where I teach English to mining executives in the Atacama Desert. Sure, it was no large body of water, but it was still impressive to see that in the driest place on Earth – that would be the Atacama – ice can still form overnight.
At night in the Atacama, it gets pretty cold. We’re talking below freezing winter temperatures, so obviously cold enough to freeze water.
In the month plus I’ve been in the Atacama, I had not seen it, especially since rainfall is virtually nonexistent.
The Chileans arriving at work must have thought, “what is that crazy gringo looking at now?” They all walked by the ice as if it was a nonevent. And it probably was – to them.
Except for a couple of weeks several years ago in the Mojave Desert in the United States, I’ve never spent much time in any desert. So what’s normal or abnormal is all the same to me – new. Snow on the mountains in the desert? New. A freak thunderstorm? New. Ice? New.
And it’s all fantastic to my eyes. Wish I could have captured last night what a nearly full moon rising and sun setting simultaneously looks like over desert mountains.  The sky was a neon rainbow. Spectacular!

From what I’m told, I can expect a few more surprises out of this magical land in the coming days. They’re out there, just waiting for their grand reveal to eyes hardly used to them. I say bring them on!

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