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Tuesday:  October 27, 2014

When Will Chile's Post Office's Re-open? 

(PHOTO: Workers set up camp at Santiago's Rio Mapocho/Mason Bryan, The Santiago Times)Chile nears 1 month without mail service as postal worker protests continue. This week local branches of the 5 unions representing Correos de Chile voted on whether to continue their strike into a 2nd month, rejecting the union's offer. For a week the workers have set up camp on the banks of Santiago's Río Mapocho displaying banners outlining their demands; framing the issue as a division of the rich & the poor. The strike’s main slogan? “Si tocan a uno, nos tocan a todos,” it reads - if it affects 1 of us, it affects all of us. (Read more at The Santiago Times)

WHO convenes emergency talks on MERS virus

 

(PHOTO: Saudi men walk to the King Fahad hospital in the city of Hofuf, east of the capital Riyadh on June 16, 2013/Fayez Nureldine)The World Health Organization announced Friday it had convened emergency talks on the enigmatic, deadly MERS virus, which is striking hardest in Saudi Arabia. The move comes amid concern about the potential impact of October's Islamic hajj pilgrimage, when millions of people from around the globe will head to & from Saudi Arabia.  WHO health security chief Keiji Fukuda said the MERS meeting would take place Tuesday as a telephone conference & he  told reporters it was a "proactive move".  The meeting could decide whether to label MERS an international health emergency, he added.  The first recorded MERS death was in June 2012 in Saudi Arabia & the number of infections has ticked up, with almost 20 per month in April, May & June taking it to 79.  (Read more at Xinhua)

LINKS TO OTHER STORIES

                                

Dreams and nightmares - Chinese leaders have come to realize the country should become a great paladin of the free market & democracy & embrace them strongly, just as the West is rejecting them because it's realizing they're backfiring. This is the "Chinese Dream" - working better than the American dream.  Or is it just too fanciful?  By Francesco Sisci

Baby step towards democracy in Myanmar  - While the sweeping wins Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy has projected in Sunday's by-elections haven't been confirmed, it is certain that the surging grassroots support on display has put Myanmar's military-backed ruling party on notice. By Brian McCartan

The South: Busy at the polls - South Korea's parliamentary polls will indicate how potent a national backlash is against President Lee Myung-bak's conservatism, perceived cronyism & pro-conglomerate policies, while offering insight into December's presidential vote. Desire for change in the macho milieu of politics in Seoul can be seen in a proliferation of female candidates.  By Aidan Foster-Carter  

Pakistan climbs 'wind' league - Pakistan is turning to wind power to help ease its desperate shortage of energy,& the country could soon be among the world's top 20 producers. Workers & farmers, their land taken for the turbine towers, may be the last to benefit.  By Zofeen Ebrahim

Turkey cuts Iran oil imports - Turkey is to slash its Iranian oil imports as it seeks exemptions from United States penalties linked to sanctions against Tehran. Less noticed, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the Iranian capital last week, signed deals aimed at doubling trade between the two countries.  By Robert M. Cutler

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Friday
Apr132012

48 Hours in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia (FEATURE)

(Video Get Up and Go Films)

With this weekend's Summit of the Americas taking place in Cartagena, Colombia - a series of international summit meetings bringing together the leaders of countries in North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean, though no representative from Cuba has participated and this year, due to the situation with  the Communist island nation, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador has said he will not attend in protest - a look at the city where the summit is taking place was tempting.

HISTORY

A declared UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984, Cartagena de Indias is South America's best preserved walled city, now a large Caribbean beach resort city on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean Coast Region and capital of Bolívar Department.  The city had a population of 892,545 as of the 2005 census, making it the fifth-largest city in Colombia.  Activity and development of the Cartagena region is dated back to 4000 B.C. around Cartagena Bay by varying cultures of indigenous peoples.

(PHOTO: Cartagena, Colombia Panorama/Wikipedia) The Spanish colonial city was founded on June 1, 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain. Cartagena served a key role in the development of the region during the Spanish eras; and was a center of political and economic activity due to the presence of royalty and wealthy viceroys.

The Walled City

The walls aren’t just a photogenic artifact—they’re the reason Cartagena de Indias is still standing. Founded in 1533, the town was sacked repeatedly during its first 100 years, including a 1585 raid by Sir Francis Drake, known in these parts as `El Pirata Drake'. But then the cartageneros built the walls and finished the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, one of the largest fortresses in the Spanish empire (which I explored one tranquil, sultry afternoon, amazed that it was constructed with coral mined from the reefs).

(PHOTO: Cartagena walls/Flickr) By the early 1700’s Cartagena was impregnable: in 1741 it held off 186 British warships, the biggest fleet assembled prior to World War II, and in 1811 the city earned the nickname `La Heróica', when Simón Bolívar made it the headquarters for his campaign to liberate Colombia and Venezuela from Spain. It was also excessively wealthy, thanks to a combustive economy of gold, sugar, and slavery.

TRAVELLING IN CARTAGENA - A HIDDEN RETREAT

Take a dash of faded colonial grandeur, then add a dose of sultry nightlife and an influx of cosmopolitan travelers seeking the next great Caribbean hot spot.

The first time I went to Cartagena, back in 2003, I was taken straight from the airport to Restaurante la Vitrola, a convivial spot with potted palms and a dapper six-man Cuban band stationed by the door. It’s the Caribbean city’s unofficial clubhouse, a place where dignitaries and journalists trade off-the-record jokes and women in expensive sandals pick at complicated salads.

This was a few years ago, and it was one of those times when the host has already taken care of the ordering: there was carpaccio de mero—grouper sliced paper-thin and dressed with lime and olive oil; and then there were grilled langostinos. At some point, after the band had struck up a rumba and waiters had brought us coconut flan and a bottle of aged rum with a wine bucket stuffed with chilled bottles of Coca-Cola, I thought about my friends in New York, the ones who thought traveling in Colombia meant bouncing around in armored SUV’s, and that this was a country best summed up by Pablo Escobar and Romancing the Stone.

Not that they knew anything about Cartagena de Indias, a walled city of 18th-century mansions and suffocatingly hot afternoons. It’s one of the most important ports in the history of the New World, and one of the prettiest cities anywhere: Imagine Havana with a fraction of the population, or San Juan unmolested by modernity, or New Orleans without the sophomores on spring break.

(PHOTO: Open-air stalls on Calle Primera de Badilla/David Nicolas).Every season the crowd grows a little bigger and a little more glamorous, and from December to March finding a table at of-the-moment restaurants like 8-18, Palma, or La Vitrola can be tricky. But the busiest time is New Year’s Eve, when rooms are booked months in advance and a famous Colombian pop star holds a concert on the city walls next to the Hotel Charleston Cartagena, a 300-year-old convent turned luxe hotel also known as the Santa Teresa. On that night, everyone drags their tables into the streets, transforming the entire city into a sinuous all-night dinner party.

The architecture of Cartagena is the lasting relic of historic colonial prosperity, and if you stay in one of the chic smaller hotels, such as the stylish but private Hotel Agua or the exquisite Casa Pestagua, you’ll sleep under a frescoed ceiling and eat your breakfast in a lush, columned courtyard.

If there’s a turning point in the story of modern Cartagena, it’s 1995, when Sofitel opened the Santa Clara, a 121-room luxury hotel in the shell of a 17th-century convent. To my mind, the hotel is uneven: the older part is grand enough to host a head of state, but most rooms are undistinguished (if comfortable), as if they’d been plucked from a Florida resort. Building the Sofitel in the old city was a bold move for a town whose colonial center had been largely abandoned for crisp apartment towers in the nearby Bocagrande neighborhood, a curling finger of land with a skyline comparable to that of Panama City. Residents are still moving to Bocagrande, but over the past 15 years a cadre of taste-making Colombians has returned to the city inside the walls.

Like author Gabriel García Márquez, the city's most famous resident. He set Love in the Time of Cholera in a fictionalized Cartagena (the movie version, starring Javier Bardem, was filmed on location here), and his house, Casa del Escritor, is the work of Rogelio Salmona, Colombia’s greatest architect. It’s all cubes and arches, Louis Kahn with palm trees and a view to the sea. There’s a guard posted by the house, but like a character from one of Gabo’s books, he’s too skinny for his pants, and while tourists snap pictures in front of the rust-colored walls he rocks on his feet and daydreams.

Casa del Escritor is in San Diego, the quietest of the old city’s four quarters. It’s also where I found the best arepas in town: on the advice of a friend in Bogotá, I went to the Plaza de San Diego after dark, where a family-run stand with a cult following sets up on the corner closest to the Escuela de Bellas Artes, yet another converted convent.

(PHOTO: Overlooking Cartagena/David Nicolas) Most visitors tour the neighborhood in one of the horse-drawn carriages that clop-clop past the bright-colored walls and overgrown balconies. But I prefer to explore the narrow streets on foot at dusk, after the day’s heat has faded. This offers a surprisingly intimate view of domestic life: the clatter of families eating dinner, children on a threadbare antique settee watching TV with the volume on too high. Then there are the houses that have been tastefully renovated and give glimpses of exposed beams and wall-size art through ornate window grates.

This is the private Cartagena of houseguests and weeklong parties, and my entrée to that world came courtesy of Chiqui de Echavarria, a legendary hostess whose home is a jasmine-scented pile by way of World of Interiors: instead of doing the expected thing and revamping a colonial mansion, she joined seven houses into a leafy labyrinth of landscaped terraces and half-ruined walls. It took three tours for me to get my bearings. There’s a dance floor on the roof, and the former cistern is a swimming pool. We spent the evening outside in the almost-too-humid night air, sitting under a brick vault 30 feet tall, enjoying a meal of lobsters bought off the boat that morning.

The busy Centro district revolves around the Plaza de Bolívar, an overgrown public square where teenage couples kiss and palenqueras - women who sell fruit from enameled tubs balanced on their heads  - amble past old men playing chess on rickety card tables.

Cartagena was a stronghold of the Inquisition, and one side of the square is dominated by the imposing Baroque façade of the Palacio de la Inquisición. It’s now a museum, with historical dioramas and crude 18th-century portraits of governors and generals upstairs; the first floor displays torture devices that illustrate how a little wrought iron might shape one’s faith.

In recent years, the streets around the Plaza de Bolívar have seen a handful of exquisite 400-year-old houses turned into intimate hotels.

(PHOTO: Chef Juan Felipe Camacho at 8-18 restaurant, on Calle Gastelbondo/David Nicolas).They call themselves bed-and-breakfasts, but there’s nothing frumpy about the 20-foot-high ceilings and tastefully minimal furnishings. At the newest, Casa Pestagua, the stately upstairs rooms are furnished with 19th-century antiques that smell like beeswax. Then there’s the quiet and understated La Merced Hotel Boutique, across from the Teatro Heredia Adolfo Mejía, one of the city’s architectural gems, which has recently been restored to its original off-white. But a clear favorite is Agua, whose rooms are filled with dark antiques and soft white bedding. Here, you spend most of your time outdoors, either in sitting rooms that open onto the courtyard, or on the rooftop terrace, where the pool has a view of the cathedral tower. Each of the six bedrooms is decorated with art and Colombian furnishings from the collection of the owners; one has a painting by Botero. Like the others, Agua hides behind a heavy wooden door marked with a sign discreet enough to miss amid the crush of university students and fruit carts.

Of all the city’s grand hotels, my preference is the Santa Teresa, the more diminutive rival of the Santa Clara. Every afternoon, the plaza in front of the persimmon-colored building is colonized by chairs, and a makeshift bar serves drinks with the languid pace of an Italian café - a friend took me to a table and proudly said, “This is where I had a conversation with Carlos Fuentes that lasted all day.”

Dinner starts late in Cartagena, and after a morning spent exploring and napping I fell into the habit of taking a dip in the Santa Teresa’s rooftop pool, then nursing a glass of limonada de coco (lime juice and coconut milk whipped up in a blender) while watching the sun set over the unmatched vista of the colonial skyline of church domes and bell towers.

The city’s stylish restaurants have a few things in common: good tropical-weather cocktails (white sangrias, caipirinhas), sophisticated Caribbean cuisine (fish grilled to a perfect rare, crowned by crispy plantains), and full reservation lists. If you want something more affordable, there’s Restaurante Casa de Socorro, a cheerful place in the working-class quarter of Getsemaní is on the friendly edge of the Getsemaní district, an area that’s barely been touched by Cartagena’s renaissance, where the streets are empty and forbidding at night. So, of course, it’s where you find the best bars and clubs.

At Quiebra Canto, dancing couples spill out onto the balcony and salsa music lasts late into the night. A half-bottle of a Colombian rum like Tres Esquinas costs around $15 (though you might splurge on a superior Cuban label), and you’ll get looked at funny if you order anything less.

(PHOTO: Salsa band Cuba Swing performs at La Vitrola, in Cartagena, on Colombia's Caribbean coast/David Nicolas)Farther along the unwelcoming Calle de la Media Luna is Café Havana, a bright and friendly place where the walls are covered with black-and-white photos of the greats of Cuban music, like Celia Cruz and Ibrahim Ferrer, and the bar is the size of a bowling lane bent into a U.  On the weekends, when it fills to a critical mass, Café Havana turns from a tavern into a dance hall.

It was just the latest beautiful moment in the history of this heartbreaking city.

Guide to Cartagena

When to Go - The city is at its best from December through April, when daily temperatures range from the mid 70’s to the high 80’s and the humid days give way to breezy nights. Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter are especially busy, and hotels book up months in advance.

Where to stay - Top among the city’s many new downtown properties is the 24-suite Anandá Hotel Boutique (doubles from $395), a quiet retreat in a restored Spanish-colonial building with carved-wood balconies and three breezy roof terraces. Tcherassi Hotel & Spa (doubles from $355), owned by Colombian fashion designer Silvia Tcherassi. Each of the seven rooms reflects her uniquely modern sensibility.” Casa Pestagua, this intimate and luxurious hotel opened in 2007; some upstairs rooms have antiques original to the building. doubles from $356. El Marqués Hotel Boutique, the most reasonably priced of the small hotels. doubles from $205.

Hotel Agua, great value. A favorite of the fashion set. doubles from $388. Hotel Charleston Cartagena, known as the Santa Teresa, this former convent has more character than its larger competitor across town. doubles from $350. La Heróica, an agency offering Cartagena’s best rental options, including stately mansions and one-bedroom apartments. houses from $700, apartments from $400. La Merced Hotel Boutique, on a quiet corner by the city walls. doubles from $323. Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara, Cartagena’s first luxury hotel is in a peaceful part of town with a view of the sea, but most of the rooms are boxy and bland. doubles from $350.

Venture off the coast to the Islas de Rosario - a chain of 27 mostly uninhabited islands that are home to the country's largest coral reef. With their mangrove-dotted white-sand beaches, they're also known as paradise for in-the-know Colombians. Stay at the tropical-chic San Pedro de Majagua Hotel (57-5/664-6070; doubles from $290), on Isla Grande. There, you'll find 17 white-on-white rooms with nautical accents (wooden oars, stripped lamps) and panoramic Caribbean views, and a restaurant that serves regional dishes such as fresh-caught snapper, grilled whole and served with coconut rice. Of note: the hotel organizes snorkeling and diving excursions in 45 different locations where you can spot butterfly fish, stone bass, sea turtles, and about 1,300 other tropical species. 

Where to Eat - Restaurante DonJuan (dinner for two $100), chef Juan Felipe Camacho—who apprenticed at Spain’s Michelin-starred Arzak—dishes up Spanish-inflected Caribbean fare (think grilled shrimp with pico de gallo). 8-18, the sophisticated Caribbean fare draws a chic crowd. dinner for two $75.  Palma, as urbane as 8-18 but more subdued. dinner for two $60. Restaurante Casa de Socorro, traditional Caribbean cazuelas—spicy seafood stews—are served without fuss at a restaurant that deserves its reputation for having the most authentic food in town. dinner for two $25. Restaurante La Vitrola, Cartagena’s see-and-be-seen power spot; the atmospheric setting makes up for less-than-dazzling food. dinner for two $81. Vera,  (57-5/664-4445; dinner for two $100), does an excellent penne arrabbiata with fresh mozzarella.

Where to Go Out - The bars by the Portal de los Dulces are always rowdy, and most nights out include a drink at one of the sidewalk tables set up at the Baluarte Santo Domingo fortress by Café del Mar, but skip the tourist traps on the Plaza de Santo Domingo. Housed in a 17th-century monastery, El Coro bar (cocktails for two $24), at Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara, lures locals and guests alike with pitch-perfect mojitos and the prospect of glimpsing writer and occasional barfly Gabriel García Márquez. Quiebra Canto - A lively bar with music on Fridays, a short taxi ride from the central city. Parque Centenario; 57-5/664-1372; drinks for two $7.

What to Do - Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas - this 300-year-old man-made mountain of coral and brick is one of the most formidable Spanish forts in the Americas. Bring a penlight to navigate the dimly lit passageways. 17 Pie del Cerro; 57-5/666-4790Catedral de Cartagena - the tropical-fruit–colored façade hides a marble interior that offers a cooling respite from the hot city streets. Plaza de Bolívar; no phone. Iglesia de San Pedro - claver moldering but imposing, the church contains the relics of the 17th-century Jesuit who baptized thousands of slaves. Plaza San Pedro Claver; 57-5/664-7256Isla Barú, off Colombia’s Caribbean coast, and stay at the eco-friendly Hotel Agua (doubles from $560).

Shop - Bill Gates and Spanish King Juan Carlos I are devotees of Ego, the pint-size workshop where tailor Edgar Gómez Estévez has been creating his white linen guayabera shirts for 35 years.  Galería Cano, “For inspiration I head to this jewelry and art boutique, where they reproduce gold and emerald pre-Columbian pieces.” Teatro Adolfo Mejía “The theater was built in 1911 to celebrate 100 years of Colombian independence. It’s an architectural treasure.” 

--- A version of this article by Oliver Schwaner-Albright appeared in HERE in Travel & Leisure

Tuesday
Feb142012

Visa Hurdles Hurt US Economic Growth

By John Terrett in America
 The United States is on the lookout for more international travelers who want to visit the country.

Part of the problem is the difficulty tourist and business people face obtaining a visa to enter the US.

Wait times of almost a year are not uncommon in some parts of the world.

The US tourism industry is pushing the State Department to speed things up, saying billions of dollars and millions of potential American jobs are in play.

And you can't blame them because when it comes to sight-seeing - the view from here in the Land of the Free is that it's tough to beat the USA!

Fifty states come equipped with some of the most iconic tourist attractions in the world.

Where I'm based, in Washington DC, you can see some of the most famous locations like the Lincoln Memorial, the White House and the Capitol, all within walking distance of each other.

Overseas visitors ploughed well over $100bn into the US economy in the first 10 months of last year ... and while their spending is back to where it was before the 2008 global financial collapse, tough visa rules introduced after the attacks of September 11, 2001, mean the over-all number of international visitors to the US is down in a decade - from 17% to 12% - and that's hurting US tourism jobs.

Patricia Rojas, from the US Travel Association told me:

"We are shovel ready ... you don't have to create America we're here.  You don't have to create the hotels, the destinations, the theme parks. So to make our visa system more efficient to attract those visitors so that we can bring what we believe is over a million jobs this decade."

For countries like Brazil and China with lots of money to spend - and where outbound travel is forecast to grow 38% and 151% respectively in the next 10 years - waiting up to a year for clearance the US often leads tourists to look elsewhere.

Patricia explained more: "The tour operator tells you, well I wish I could get you down to Florida but we can't, we can't even get you in until March for an interview.  Why don't I send you to Paris instead?"

The US travel industry wants Congress to make Brazil one of the more than 30 countries in the visa-waiver scheme and it's calling for lengthier visas to be given to Chinese travelers.

The State Department says security is the top priority ... but it's well aware of the economic implications of speeding up visa processing and its moving staff into vetting positions at US embassies as fast as it can.

David Donahue, is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Visa Services - he's the man you seen on those Green Card application advisory videos on the State Department's website.

"I think everyone in this administration cares about jobs ... it's a key administration goal to make sure we that we give this economy every opportunity to create jobs and certainly tourism is a great place for good jobs they can't be outsourced they have to be done here."

The tourists are clearly out there with money to spend ... the US knows they're coming from many emerging economies not just China and Brazil.

The question is can enough be done to get them into the USA quick enough before they end up spending their tourist dollars elsewhere in the world.

- Originally published by AlJazeera under Creative Commons License 

Tuesday
Mar012011

(TRAVEL) - `A Trip to Adjara, Georgia’ 

--- By Craig Fedchock

Some of Georgia’s impressive historical churches. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)My work has given me the opportunity to travel to a wide variety of places around the world.  I’ve seen giant fruit bats in Australia and the Philippines, the harvest of longan fruit in Vietnam, and citrus in South Africa.  While I’ve seen so many things, I nevertheless didn’t know what to expect when I first came to the country of Georgia, nestled as it is along the Black Sea and reaching into the Caucasus Mountains. 

While the capital Tbilisi is at least somewhat well-known if for nothing more than being the capital of the country that tried to take on Vladimir Putin’s Russia two years ago, and limited amounts of Georgian wine and food are starting to make their way to our shores, not much else is widely known about the country. 

My experience began in the capital, a robust city which is benefitting from investments to its infrastructure from many countries, including most especially the United States.  I suspect that most of you reading this piece would be fairly surprised to learn that the main road from the city’s airport into town is named “George W. Bush Avenue,” complete with the former President’s picture.  As there are others much more experienced with Tbilisi and its environs, I shall be more than happy to defer to their perspectives and comments about that fine city. 

My preference instead is to reflect on the far too short a time I spent in the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, which, with its capital Batumi, is seemingly a miniature version of the country as a whole. There are daily flights to and from Tbilisi on the national airline Georgian Airlines, as well as Air Batumi, although their dependability is suspect as one of my colleagues found out to her good fortune to be explained later.  There is train service as well to and from the capital, including an overnight train.  My suggestion, however, would be to fly to Istanbul on any one of the major airlines and take the non-stop Turkish Airlines directly to Batumi.  I myself was fortunate to arrive in traditional Georgian style in a “marshroutka”, sort of a large minivan with just enough shocks to keep you from tumbling like an astronaut in the space shuttle, but not enough to keep you from feeling like you just spent a few hours with one of those old fashioned weight loss machines in which you were strapped with a belt around your waist.  The redeeming thing is that despite the best efforts of the somewhat macho Georgian drivers, I managed to arrive at my hotel safe and sound. 

The Black Sea coast looking north from the Batumi botanical gardens. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)At the moment Batumi is in the midst of an enormous economic expansion.  The city, a favorite summer vacation spot during the Soviet times for those coming from Moscow and the other large northern cities, is slowly but surely picking itself back up from the ashes from the former USSR as well as the significant internal strife which took place for some time after the fall of communism.  Batumi has even been holding the Black Sea Jazz Festival for the past five years, bringing in some of the world’s best artists on a regular basis.  One of the key landmarks in the city is the Sheraton Hotel, which opened only in June of this year.  The Sheraton stands above most of the other buildings in the city, almost like the Alexandrian light house after which it claims its design.  It will soon have company, however, as Radisson, Kempinski, Hilton and Novotel all are in the process of developing properties which are destined to make the Batumi skyline gain an appearance more akin to that of Miami than a Caucasian Black Sea resort when they are all completed sometime in the next two years.

Just a short walk from the Sheraton, and eventually all of the other hotels mentioned above, stands the “Boulevard”, a lengthy boardwalk the likes of which I have not seen elsewhere.  Bordering the Black Sea “beach”, which is really stone rather than sand, the Boulevard stretches for roughly seven kilometers and just like everything else in Batumi, is on the upswing, with plans for expansion, some Batumians say, almost all the way to the Turkish border, about an additional 12 kilometers.  The amazing thing about the Boulevard is that while it abounds with restaurants and discos, it does so in such a way that it still maintains a feeling of spaciousness that is not at all common with other boardwalks I’ve had the chance to visit.  The Georgians have managed to keep their traditional menus alive in several of these shoreline restaurants, but I also saw a Chinese and even a Dutch (yes, a Dutch!) restaurant bordering the boulevard.   While nothing has been written about Georgian cuisine that can even come close to doing it justice, I don’t doubt for a minute that the restaurants featuring other cuisines will produce some good results if for no other reason than Georgians will be doing the cooking! 

The Georgian Table. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)I will mention that there are some true jewels in the Georgian culinary cupboard.  From simple fare like Khachapuri, which is really not much more than bread and cheese, (but oh what bread and what incredible cheese), and the basic “salsa” of Georgia, Tkemali, (made from tart plums, garlic, coriander (or dill) and salt and pepper and which Georgians are happy to put on just about anything), to more exquisite dishes, having a meal anywhere in Georgia is truly special.  Georgians will use almost any excuse to feed strangers, and the people living in Batumi are no exception.  The hospitality of Georgians is unmatched and simply needs to be experienced.  Beyond that however, the use of spices in the Adjara region is a little more creative and the flavors little more complex, and this alone warrants giving the region more attention.  

As I mentioned above, the city is truly undergoing a major renovation, and nowhere do the results promise to be more fantastic than in the area known as “Old Batumi.”  While there is still more work to be completed (according to one wine shop owner, who just happens to be producing a sherry-like Church Wine” based on a recipe his grandfather developed in 1907, the streets are being rebuilt for the first time since the Tsars were running the place, and the results are already striking. 

Nearing completion is Europe Square, surrounded by buildings no more than two stories tall which easily conjure up images in the mind of just about anywhere in the developed countries of Europe (although France comes first to my mind).    An additional shopping plaza is under construction in Old Batumi as well, and once complete, Batumi will definitely be in the running for being considered as a true jewel of the Black Sea. 

Beyond the city of Batumi, there are a couple of other places which must be mentioned.  For a short taxi ride from the Sheraton costing roughly about $3-5, you can visit to Batumi Botanical Gardens.  With thousands of species representing almost all the far corners of the earth, you can easily spend a minimum of two hours walking on the well-paved trails without seeing even a third of everything you could possibly see.  That the garden also houses Stalin’s one time dacha made it particularly fun for me, having spent several of my formative years studying the Soviet Union.  For roughly $3, you can make a day of it here, just make sure you bring along some Georgian wine, bread and any number of the fresh fruits and vegetables which are seemingly ubiquitous on the road side.

A makeshift banquet of honeycomb, pears, and of course, vodka. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)The best thing of all for me, however, was the chance I had to visit Georgia’s newest National Park, Mtirala.  This came about at the invitation of the Adjara Autonomous Republic’s Minister of Agriculture, Emzar Dzirkvadze, and resulted in a day I will most likely never forget.  The Minister exhibited a true love of his region, and respect for the land for which he cares in many ways, not least of which was his willingness to get behind the wheel of the four wheel drive which took us up the winding and unsurfaced road to the mountaintop where the park is located.   As I mentioned above, one of my colleagues was able to join the trip because her flight on Air Batumi was delayed until much later in the day.  On the way there we stopped by a small stand, artfully constructed with the help of the World Wildlife Fund, for a taste of the honey produced by bees kept by residents living in one of the small villages of indeterminate age (maybe hundreds of years old?) that can be found in one of the truly remotest regions of the country.   

While on the road to our visit, the Minister spoke of his plans for the region, all reasonable and deserving to be realized, while pointing out with pride the many things that are represented in Georgian nature.  It was obvious in his comments that not only the minister, but his fellow Adjarians are committed to ensuring that whatever happens, the need to maintain the quality of life and produce, with a strong emphasis on organic production, is paramount.  That being said, after a fantastic drive which had us driving next to, around or even in a few cases through, spring-fed waterfalls around almost every corner, we arrived at the Visitor Center (again constructed with the aid of the World Wildlife Fund and even equipped with a wheelchair ramp) for the park.  While there, we were given a presentation by a park representative in flawless English which included a tour of the guest quarters, four rooms which at 20 Lari (the Lari is currently running about $.50 US) a night, including breakfast, which can only be described as elegantly Spartan, one of the best examples of the finest in ecotourism I have seen. 

Georgian Beekeeper in Mtirala Park. (CREDIT: Craig Fedchock)We then visited the beekeepers, who make all of their beekeeping supplies out of local materials, and saw first-hand the love for the land which is in the Adjarian people, not to mention the ever-present Georgian hospitality.  Within minutes of the completed presentation on  beekeeping, a table magically appeared from out of nowhere under a pear tree and we were treated to the freshest honey and honey comb possible, along with the requisite shot of honey vodka.  As we had some lunch waiting for us at the restaurant a short walk from the Visitor Center, we made our goodbyes far too quickly and moved a short bit it down the mountainside for our lunch.  That the restaurant is situated next to a spring-fed mountain stream, and the water is absolutely drinkable only made the remainder of our time in the park that much more enjoyable.  At the Minister’s suggestion, we gathered up our clay water vessel, walked about two minutes and filled our pitcher with water coming directly out of the mountain side.  Everything in our meal, with the exception, once again of the requisite beer and vodka, was locally and organically produced (including some of the best fresh trout which kept getting bigger and bigger the longer we stayed at the table), and had we not needed to catch our flight home, all of us in our party would have had no trouble at all to committing to several additional days in the park.   

The Adjara region is one of those places where you can lose yourself for a few days in the forested mountains, and come back to Batumi to enjoy nightlife and cuisine as sophisticated as anywhere.  While the renovations are still underway it is not too early to pay a visit; you will leave wanting even more.   

--- The author if Craig Fedchock, Director of International Capacity Development for the United States Department of Agriculture; Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service.  He recently took this trip to the country of Georgia, and was so moved by the beauty of the culture and the people, he wanted to share the experience with others.

Monday
Jan312011

(Report) - Fleeing Egypt Tourists Leave Chaos In Their Wake. `Million Person March' Planned. 

(HN-1/31/11) Cairo, Egypt.  The Cairo International Airport was mass chaos today as many countries evacuated citizens to their home countries and many Egyptians attempted to make their way back to their home towns from major cities such as Cairo and Alexandria.

Many foreign citizens, regardless of whether or not they wanted to leave, even given the dangers of staying, almost have to go. After a foreign citizens home government issues a travel warning and then an evacuation order, often times the citizen is essentially giving up the security and concern of their consulate offices and are on their own. In fact many insurance companies will not support claims of citizens who have defied their own governments orders. 

And, in the case of Egypt, even if your home government issues an order to evacuate, you may even have to pay for the privilege of leaving.  Canadian citizens who arrived at Cairo’s airport today for their flights out were told they needed to sign a waiver for a bill that would later be sent to them of $400 so they could leave the country and make it just as far as Frankfurt, Germany. While they may make their flights, they were told their luggage may not; and many did not have much with them as the call for evacuation came only with hours to pack.

Today, Lufthansa had many of the flights out of Cairo after Delta and several other major carriers stopped operations into and out of the Egyptian capital.

Michael Bociurkiw, our correspondent in Cairo stated that, “On the way here to the airport from the Four Seasons hotel on the First Residence, the taxi driver took another way around to avoid Tahrir Square.  In one part of the city I saw at least 40-50 tanks lined up in a column.  Many intersections were still being guarded it looked as though by private militia, and I saw absolutely no national police in the streets.”  He added, “Almost all of the legendary historical sites that I could see such as the Cairo Zoo and the entrance to the Pyramids at Giza were being guarded by Egyptian military vehicles”.

Bociurkiw goes on to say that the “Four Seasons hotel on the First Residence was operating at only 10 percent today. The manager stated they are not going to close because once you close its very hard to open again. And I spoke to a construction company owner early this morning who said he had to lay off close to 1000 men because his projects are no longer going forward with the crisis on. The impact on businesses in the country is staggering”.

Once he arrived at the Cairo airport, Bociurkiw spoke with many of those waiting in long lines at the airport to find out how they were getting out of the country.  All had been told that everything was being done to get them out of the country by 7pm local time tonight, even though a new curfew was put into place today restricting people's movements from 3pm to 8a.

A CBC television crew who Bociurkiw was interviewed by, told him that they were already aware of the 6 Al Jazeera journalists who had been arrested and then later released without their camera equipment and that many reporters they were in contact with had taken to shooting still photos on their blackberries and Iphones as a way to document the crisis.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, the opposition in Egypt has called for a `Million Man’ style march in order to show their displeasure with the steps the Mubarak government has taken so far in addressing the demonstrators concerns and this morning the Egyptian Army issued a statement essentially endorsing the protesters rights to demonstrate.  

 ---HUMNEWS staff