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Trainride Of A Lifetime Aboard Copper Canyon Railway

Whenever you buy an economy class ticket, you’re gambling that what you give up in luxury will be compensated for by the people you meet on your journey. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but on the Chihuahua al Pacifico Railway, a segundo class ticket is a hands-down winner.

The segundo train offers the same breathtaking views of the Copper Canyon as the South Orient Express because it runs on the same tracks. But the best part is that a ticket costs about $10.

The train itself reminds me of something out of an old western: a creaky, painted wood-and-sheet metal carriage, wooden seats, open doors at either end and a tiny concession to luxury in the form of some tattered curtains.

Although a Texan named Tim and I were the only foreigners aboard at the onset at Los Mochis, by the time we got to Divisadero there were four Australians, two Canadians, two Germans and a bewildered-looking group of Americans who had clearly taken the wrong train.

But gradually, as we stopped in tiny towns along the way, the car filled with the stuff that a Mexican train ride is all about: a shabbily dressed, silken-voiced guitar player pleasantly serenaded the passengers with the sounds of Indian folk music. Poker games were running at both ends of the carriage, but when one of the dealers smiled (revealing a gold front tooth with a club design carved into it), I decided to sit this one out.

The station platforms swarm with crowds of locals, to whom the train is an economic lifeline, hawking home-made burritos, tacos and other less identifiable offerings, while livestock being loaded and unloaded contribute to the general confusion.

Spectacular Scenery
Many of the passengers are Mexicans, just getting from point A to point B. But when the train rolls around that first mountain curve just north of El Fuerte and the scenery starts revealing itself, everyone on board rushes over to the right side of the train and watches in fascination.

Train buffs, always looking for an opportunity to see other sections of the train while it twists around hairpin turns, are a tad miffed at being so close, yet so far, from their view. As the train rockets around the bends, it enters and leaves tunnels so frequently it seems as if a rambunctious child is standing at the carriage’s light switch and turning it on and off. Sticking your head out of the window is a daunting task.

At Divisadero, where the primera train makes a 15-minute stop, the segundo takes advantage of its more proletarian scheduling to sit at the highest point of the canyon along the route for up to an hour. At 8,669 feet above sea level, Divisadero is the main overlook into the canyon, and the Copper Canyon Natural Park. The view is, in a word, spectacular.

Skip the Souvenirs
I had been warned by every guidebook not to buy the chatchkas that are being peddled by the Tarahumara Indians who mill about the station, and judging by the sales I saw, everyone else had read the same books.

It’s hard to take an interest in crafts while looking out over the ruggedly beautiful canyon. To the left, it seems as if some cataclysmic cruise ship had plowed its way through solid mountain walls, beyond which lies rocky terrain that dips and rolls as far as the eye can see.

Mellow Evening
On the move again, as the early evening set in, this rattle-filled train seemed to take us back in time; the evening light and the sounds of the tracks entering the car through the open windows made me think of riding the Orient Express. A beautiful family of Mennonites boarded, and sat as inconspicuously as one can dressed in traditional 19th-century attire.

The poker games had consolidated; there was some drinking but the group was maintaining its friendliness to the point that I sat down with them to watch a couple of hands. As if to demonstrate how badly I can judge a poker game, I noticed that the man with the gold tooth was hemorrhaging money.

Throughout the carriage, people were interacting with the familiarity of a group that has just gone through something together. The passengers on the segundo were talking among themselves, sharing a bottle of Presidente brandy or some chips, or starting a game of dominoes on the seats. And to tourist and local alike, it was obvious that what we had just seen was close to magical.

Gay Influence In Miami’s Rebirth

The Miami Beach portrayed in the new big-budget action film The Specialist is a city on the cutting edge of all that is trendy, fabulous and chic. Only a few years ago, Miami Beach was falling apart, with crackhouses lining the sidestreets, and with so many poor and elderly residents that it was called “God’s waiting room.”

Now, in a blockbuster movie, we see Sylvester Stallone dashing around on screen, stylishly blowing the place up. Southern Miami Beach, or South Beach’s undeniable chicness is partly due to a truly unique atmosphere of tolerance and cooperation. This is what first made the area attractive to a group that would be a driving force behind its rejuvenation: gay men.

“When you have an area of impoverished ethnic minorities, there’s less of a middle class morality to confront the influx of gays and lesbians,” says Eugene J. Patron, a columnist for TWN, a local gay newspaper.

“Everyone is essentially an outsider to the social and political mainstream.” Local residents, mainly elderly Jews and Mariel Boatlift Cubans, were indeed perfectly accepting when gays from New York, Philadelphia and other cities began to move in and renovate the city’s once grand art deco treasures.

The beginnings
“The early influx,” says Tim Barnum, President of the SoBe Business Guild, an organization of gay-owned or “gay friendly” businesses that has seen its ranks grow from 10 members three years ago to over 150 today, “was made up of gays who saw a style they liked here, that could be fixed up and changed. If the old City of Miami Beach had its way, this whole place,” he said, pointing to the sidewalk cafes and art galleries lining Lincoln Road Mall, “would be gone – flattened – with some high-rise buildings around the edges.”

The high-rise buildings were headed off at the pass when the Miami Design Preservation League succeeded in having the entire Deco District granted landmark protection by the federal government. The largest landmark area in the nation, the Deco District’s unique hotels and apartment buildings have now been renovated with a decidedly colorful flair; the facades painted with pastel pinks, blues and greens that make for a walk into the roaring 20’s or an unguided tour of the very best in American Kitsch, depending on your views.

Prices were such that people from New York, who would spend summer weekends at The Hamptons or Cherry Grove, Fire Island, saw the economic sense of buying or renting relatively inexpensive apartments in South Beach, in which they would spend winter weekends. “We had New Yorkers realizing that they could rent an apartment here for a year for what was two months’ rent in New York,” says Barnum. “So we got a lot of gay New Yorkers coming down to dance a couple of weekends a month.”

The Boom
And with the cheapest beachfront property in a major metropolitan area in America, South Beach attracted a fledgling art and culture crowd. Younger artists, whose careers had been stunned by the recession, found cheaper studios and apartments, and an affluent, educated and art-conscious audience.

Then came the SoBe Boom. As South Beach began to be rediscovered by international fashion magazines, models started popping up everywhere. The beautiful people crowd had deemed the place to be “fabulous”. Hurricane Andrew, which devastated most of South Florida in the winter of 1992-1993, proved to be an economic boon to the Beach as displaced Floridians took up temporary residence here. And as more and more people began relocating, investment began to pour in as never before.

‘You feel the tolerance’
The result is a charming city with a sense of inclusion that is palpable at every turn. Like a large, accommodating restaurant, South Beach provides everyone with what they want without offending anyone else. No matter what the question – smoking or non-smoking, family beachfront to topless to nude, Fabulous to pedestrian – the answer is “Why not?”

“You feel the tolerance here,” said a local resident, who moved to South Beach from Germany a year ago. “Somehow the people who live here have achieved what others fail to.”

One place this tolerance was apparent was at the opening of what is being billed as the nation’s largest gay-owned and operated resort, the 226-room Shore Club, which had a ribbon cutting ceremony on October 7. Like South Beach, this hotel doesn’t write off one group to accept another, as evidenced by some interesting demographics in the party attendees: there were as many small children running through the crowds as there were drag queens, and several elderly women were dancing up a storm outside the resort’s ‘Love Lounge.’

And as anyone walking down Lincoln Road Mall during a monthly “art gallery walk” can attest, anyplace where drag queens and body-building in-line skaters mingle with elderly Jews and young couples with children could hardly be called a “Gay City.”

“It certainly is not,” said Michael Aller, Miami Beach’s Tourism and Convention Coordinator. “At one time we had almost an absence of schools, and today we’re bursting at the seams!” The newly-built South Pointe Elementary school now has 700 students; Nautilus Middle School has 1,620 students, and North Beach Elementary’s more than 900 students have created the need to build an extension to handle increasing demand.

The Magic’s in The Mix
“The Magic’s In The Mix,” gushes a publicity kit from SoBe Business Guild. But it’s more than a throwaway tag line; “The Mix,” as some locals refer to it, is probably the city’s biggest asset and best attraction.

Maintaining this harmonious conglomeration of races, ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientation is the new priority of community leaders on both sides of the political fence. Miami Beach’s City Commission in December 1992 passed unanimously an Equal Rights bill, protecting citizens from discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And Unidad, an Hispanic political group which represents the sizable Hispanic community here, works closely with the Dade ActionPAC, the political arm of the local gay community – in fact, Unidad is actively seeking support from the gay and lesbian community here to aid in the political empowerment of the local Hispanic community.

Managing the Success
With successful gentrification, which is what’s happened here, displacement is inevitable.

“Whenever you’ve got this much investment and this many new people coming in, there’s got to be some displacement,” said SoBe Business Guild President Barnum, during an interview at a Lincoln Road Mall coffee house. “And the face of the beach is changing. This restaurant’s rent has gone from $1,500 a month a couple of years back to $6,000 a month today, and they’ll probably have to close soon.”

For many young people, both gay and not, Miami Beach had been a magnet because of low rents and ample employment opportunities. But with property values and rents rising 25% over the last year alone, those who once saw the Beach as a Mecca are now looking elsewhere.

Big money has discovered the beach, and the temptation to capitalize on a Disney-like scale may prove to be too much to turn down. German developer Thomas Kramer’s high-profile purchase of South Beach’s low-rent district known as South Pointe – and the subsequent displacement that the purchase caused – has alienated him from almost every local political group. Even his moneyed co-residents of the exclusive Star Island, just off South Beach, bitterly fought Kramer’s plans to build a Xanadu-like summer home there.

They lost.

In addition, a controversial casino gambling proposal would bring a free-standing casino to South Pointe, which would affect all residents across the board. Proponents say that the casino would bring much-needed jobs to the community, while critics say that it would adversely affect the quality of life that South Beach’s residents have worked so hard to create.

But at least for today, South Beach’s “mix” seems to be healthy. At the opening of the Shore Club, which was formerly a hotel for Jewish retirees, two elderly women sat on folding chairs by the poolside, holding their purses and smiling. They were gently tapping their feet to the driving disco beat and watching the predominantly gay revelers dancing and watching an elaborate show featuring drag queens and a fireworks display.

“We’re all having a wonderful time,” said one, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. “It’s so nice to see all these people enjoying themselves.”

In The Steam: A Russian Banya

There’s a level of clean that can be attained, Russians say, only through the rigorous action of a ritual Russian banya. A combination of dry sauna, steam bath, massage and plunges into ice-cold water, the banya is a weekly event that is as much a part of Russian life as, say, bowling in Bedrock.

And in Russian, the word banya has come to mean far more than its dictionary definition, which is bathhouse.

Preparation begins at home, where thermos flasks are filled to their cork-plugged brims with a specially brewed tea. These teas are peculiar to the banya: a cunning mixture of jams, fruits, spices, tea and heaps of sugar. Armed with this brew, the bather heads for the baths (picking up a couple of beers or some vodka along the way is not unheard-of either).

People usually go to the banya on the same day each week, forming a close circle with others there on the same day. The closest equivalent in the West would probably be your workout buddies.

These circles are as communistic as Lenin could have ever hoped. Bricklayers and airplane pilots, laborers and professors and traffic cops and teachers find common ground amid the steam.

After a “warm-up” in the dry sauna (the word’s the same in Russian, pronounced SA-oo-na), you’re ready for the parilka – the dreaded steam room.

The parilka will have a furnace in which rocks are heating. Onto these, bathers throw water, usually with a dash or two of eucalyptus or other scented oil. When the room’s got a good head of steam going, the bathers grab bundles of dried birch leaves (vennik), dip them in hot water and, well, beat each other with them. This beating (which isn’t violent, and feels a lot better than it sounds) is said to rid your body of toxins.

As one might suspect, all that steam makes the air even hotter, but bathers continue to throw water on until visibility is nil and the room is unbearably hot, at which point everyone runs out coughing.

As if the relatively cold air outside the parilka weren’t enough of a shock to one’s system, the next step is a plunge into the icy cold waters of the bassein, whose health benefits I’ve yet to work out (they’re probably incredibly important).

After the plunge, it’s out to the locker rooms wrapped up in sheets, where events of the world are discussed over the tea (or whatever). Then the process begins again. Sessions can go on for two or three hours.

Every Russian town has a public banya; larger towns and cities have several. Baths are segregated by sex.

Foreigners are very welcome. If you go, you’re likely to be viewed as an honored guest, asked hundreds of questions about where you’re from, chided for being wary of the procedures (such as spending a half-day stark naked with a bunch of sweaty strangers) and, finally, treated to rigorous massage and beating.

Oh, and one more thing. Alcohol affects you faster in a banya, so if you do partake (you’ll no doubt be invited as a gesture of friendship and goodwill), be careful and do it slowly.

Even in Russia, it’s considered bad form to lose your lunch in a steam room.

Playing The Ponies In Northern Moscow

ippodrome_2It was a clear and sunny Sunday, and I was at the Ipodrome Raceway, in the outer-north section of the city, watching Russian harness racing at its finest. I’m one of many people who sometimes forget that Moscow has a raceway – and die-hard punters and an entrenched gambling sub-culture – so I had been looking forward to coming to this one, as did my friend Lena, who came with me.

The faded glory of the 160-year-old racetrack hit me immediately; the crumbling grandstands still sport an intricately patterned mosaic tile ceiling, and the stands themselves are carved in a sort of pseudo-baroque “Sport Of Kings” theme. It would be fair to say that the crowd – mainly men – had been doing a healthy bit of drinking by the time Lena and I arrived at 2.20 pm, about an hour and a half after the first race began.

Entry tickets are 5¢, and a programme was 60¢. On first glance it seemed that this racetrack was like any other. Throughout the grandstands were huddles of three and four men, busily marking – in thick magic marker – their programmes, and working on their systems. They argued and cajoled each other, and many passed round litre-bottles of vodka ($2.40 from the concession stand).

We finally figured out where to bet and headed for the windows. There are windows for bets of 10 roubles, 100 roubles and, for the big spenders, 1000 roubles. In US dollars, this translates to windows for bets of 0.002¢, 2¢ and 20¢.

We watched as an unbelievably complicated bet was being placed by the man in front of us in the betting queue that sounded something like this:

“Number five in the sixth and then the system says 7, 3, 8, 10, 2…”

He was, I was told, playing an “Express 7” where he picks seven horses per race in the exact order in which they will finish, for several races. The odds of his hitting this are 5,000,000 to one.

After he was half way through calling out the circled numbers on his programme, the woman behind the thick bulletproof glass with the microscopic opening lost patience and reduced each of his bets from 10 roubles to one rouble, thus removing any potential advantage he may have been after. He stormed off in a huff.

The people in line (who seemed desperate to get their bets in on time) were kind enough to tell us how, and which horses, to bet. We played an “Odinar 3”, which turned out to be a simple matter of picking the winning horse for three races to collect.

How much you collect is based on the fantastically complex method of odds posting, which to me is uniquely Soviet in that no one knows what they are until the race has been over for about ten minutes.

For each race, the horses are posted on the illuminated, computerised scoreboard. Underneath the horse’s number is a three digit number, based on a weighted index whereby each horse starts with 10,000 points which are continually divided by a weighted divisor based on the amount of money bet on that horse. The lower this three-digit number on a particular horse, the higher the amount of money bet on it. At the end of the race, the jackpot is divided by a “coefficient”, which determines the payoff.

Aside from actually telling you what the odds are, this is about as accurate a way to tell where the smart money is as you can get. In race 6 we had bet on Stanbul (as had, apparently, everyone else in the place: its starting index read 000).

Stanbul won by more than ten lengths.

We ran into the gent who had stormed off from the betting window. His name was Kazbek, and he said he’d been coming here for 21 years, and that he’d been interviewed by French television, and would we like to give him some money to bet for us? Er, thanks, no, we just came to watch.

Kazbek? Hey

But he was off like a shot.

The second and third races of our Odinar 3 came off as planned – with our horses winning handily in both. Filled with the optimism of a serf who’s hit the Lotto jackpot we headed for the ticket window to cash in our winnings. Our bet had been 4000 roubles. Our payoff was 1300 roubles.

That’s total, not in addition to the 4000.

Hold on a second here. How could we pick three winners in three races and lose 2,700 roubles? “The coefficient,” said the wizened lady behind the glass, and before we could say another word we were bashed out of the way by an elderly babushka holding a thoroughly magic-markered programme and several thousand roubles.

Of course, it is possible that I just didn’t have any idea what was going on.

Surviving Oktoberfest

Alosius, the Bavarian fairy tale goes, descended from heaven to deliver a note from God to the Bavarian government, but got so sidetracked drinking beer in the Hofbrauhaus that he never got around to making the delivery.

If Bavarian beer is reason enough for one man to give up his place in heaven, it’s no wonder that each year 6 million people from all over the world descend on Munich for the Oktoberfest – the granddaddy of beer festivals.

The festival, which runs Sept. 16 through Oct. 1, is Munich’s largest and most economically important tourist attraction. Tourists and locals will leave behind almost $750 million this year, and a lot of that will be in chunks of $5 and $7 (the prices, respectively, of a pretzel and a one-liter glass of Bavaria’s finest).

There’s not a whole lot you can do about those prices, but there are ways of cutting costs during your stay.

There are several factors working against visitors economically during this year’s Oktoberfest, not the least of which is the near-collapse of the dollar against the deutsche mark (currently about 1.4 to the dollar). Where you can cut costs is on basics – accommodations, food and transport.

The largest expense is accommodations, and since hotel rooms are almost completely booked, it’s a seller’s market all the way. Unless you’re the most die-hard adventurer, go for a package deal; it can save you money. Average rack rates (“off-the-street” prices) in the city’s hotels range from about $60 to $125 per night; you can cut this practically in half by booking a package well in advance.

Unfortunately for hostelers, Bavarian youth hostels leave much to be desired – service can be grumpy and at the prices they charge you may as well stay in a bed and breakfast or guest house.

If you haven’t pre-booked, a wonderful local resource is the Fremdenverkehrsamt counter at the central train station and airport, and at the central office of the Munich City Tourist Board at Sendlinger Strasse 1 near the Marienplatz.

The friendly, English-speaking staff members at these offices will do their best to match your budget and book you into a hotel, B&B or hostel for a $3.50 booking charge. They also dispense reliable tourist information and maps of the city.

If you’re under 26, the cheapest place too stay is at the Jugendlager am Kapuzinerholzl – it’s a giant circus tent that gives you a place on the floor with mattresses and blankets, hot showers and free tea for an incredible $5.

Last but certainly not least there’s camping, and the weather is usually good enough to make this worth your while.

Here’s where they really get you at the Oktoberfest tents.

After a liter of beer or two, the reluctance to part with $20 for a glass of beer and a chicken leg tends to waver, so make sure you eat before you arrive. Munich has an international range of restaurants, but national foods that are inexpensive in the United States – Indian and Mexican, for example – carry luxury price tags here.

Doing it yourself is obviously the cheapest way. Supermarkets vary tremendously in price. Avoid shops in the central train station at all costs, where prices for staple goods are 30 to 50 percent higher than in regular shops and markets. Also tempting – but expensive – is the outdoor Viktualienmarkt near Marienplatz, which looks like a quaint European market but is actually a luxury farmers’ market for rich locals and tourists.

The cheapest places to head for supplies are Aldi or Norma supermarkets. There’s a good Norma in the center on Landwehrstrasse just west of Sonnenstrasse, about five minutes from Karlsplatz (Stachus). The store has lots of canned goods, cold cuts, prepackaged bread, sausage and very inexpensive wine – you can get a decent liter of Italian, French or South African wine for $1 to $2.50.

Grabbing a little something is easy enough. Look for Muller bakeries and Vinzenzmurr delicatessens all over the city (several in the center). Muller has small cheese rolls and pizzas for about $1.75, and Vinzenzmurr has hot buffets and salad bars (watch the price there) and snacks from about $4 to $6, and a wide selection of cheeses. Buy a loaf of Supersonne (sunflower bread) or Finnenbrot (dark, heavy, grain- and seed-filled bread) from Muller and a couple of chunks of cheese and sausage at Vinzenzmurr – two of you will be set for the day for under $10.

Another good option for cheap eats are Metzgerei (butcher shops), which sell uniquely Bavarian snacks such as Leberkas, Schinkensemmel or Salamisemmel – respectively, a pate-like substance, ham and salami served on crusty rolls with mustard. Toss in some excellent German potato salad and enormous pickles and you can usually get a filling meal for under $5.

Finally, there are many Greek and Turkish fast-food restaurants in the area around the central station that serve shish kebab, falafel and Turkish pizza for about $3 each.

Getting Around
The festival is held at the Theresienwiese – Theresa Meadows – a 10-minute walk from the central train station, and is served by its own metro station. If you’re asking directions, say “d’wies’n” (dee-veezen), the diminutive nickname, which is what everyone around here calls the place. Trams and buses heading that way, though, sport signs reading “Zur Festwiese” – to the Festival Meadow.

You don’t want to have much to do with a car during the Oktoberfest; you wouldn’t be able to park anywhere near the fair anyway. Munich’s excellent public transportation system goes on overtime during the festival, and the price of a ride is about $2 with the purchase of a Streifenkarte – five-ride strip ticket.

A special single-ride ticket for any area within two U-bahn stations of the central station is about $1. The tickets are available from kiosks, bus drivers and blue vending machines marked with a ”K” all over the city.

On any mode of public transportation (U- or S-bahn, bus or tram), you need to validate your ticket yourself. The ticket strips have numbered sections from 1 to 10. You need to cancel one section for each transport zone you will cross into; most rides in the city center take two strips.

Failure to validate your ticket can result in a hefty on-the-spot fine of about $85 by the ubiquitous inspectors who pop up out of nowhere and enthusiastically prosecute scofflaws.

Munich’s comfortable (usually Mercedes-Benz) taxis can be expensive propositions, with a short ride in the center averaging $7 to $10, and a ride to the airport commanding $50. If you’re ready to part with that, you can catch a taxi at stands throughout the city, or order one by telephone.

New Highway Screams Between Mexico City and Acapulco

Stretching more than 150 miles between Mexico City and Acapulco, the Autopista del Sol, or Sun Highway, slashes through the rugged countryside of the southern highlands, reducing the smog-to-surf commute from eight hours to just under four.

Although the drive is truly a pleasure, when a 150-mile stretch racks up $75 in tolls, it had better be a great road.

It is.

Five years ago, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari set his mind to improving Mexico’s highway system. By turning to private industry to construct and maintain sections of the highway system, the Salinas government has in one fell swoop dramatically improved Mexico’s tourism infrastructure, providing convenient overland routes to Mexico’s resort centers while generating tax revenues and stimulating the economy.

Economy, Aesthetics
But the Autopista del Sol isn’t welcome from only an economic standpoint; even those who’ve never noticed a road before concede that this is a really nice one.

Between Mexico City and Cuernavaca, nothing’s changed much on 95-D, the main funnel road leading south from the capital. But just south of Cuernavaca, the newly opened 95-D splits off from the 70-year-old non-toll road (still called 95-D as well), and for the rest of the journey the Sun Highway is smooth, shimmering, fast and often beautiful.

After the stop-and-go madness of Mexico City’s chaotic, smog-filled streets, the pleasure of doing 70 mph on a smooth stretch of open road is almost narcotic. As the highway twists and turns through beautiful valleys and hills, it’s much easier to take in the bold landscapes than to give serious consideration to the relatively traffic-free conditions until you run smack into the reason: The many toll booths along the autopista charge some of the highest tolls in the world.

The toll booths are frequent, but if the idea were to spread out the charges to cushion the impact, it fails miserably; at one toll booth the fee is 120 pesos, or about $36.

All told, a round trip on the New Jersey Turnpike costs $9.20, though to be fair this is not New Jersey. Consider also that the 150-mile round trip through the new Channel Tunnel between England and France will work out to be just less than $240, and a 300-mile journey on Japan’s highways runs $108.

But unlike trips on many other toll roads, on the Sun Highway you really see what you get for your money. On a trip earlier this year, I saw road crews everywhere: scrambling to plant flowers, sweeping the median with hand brooms, placing signs for scenic stops and being generally persnickety about keeping the road shipshape.

The attention to detail is not merely cosmetic. Even to a novice, it is obvious the highway has been built to specifications that would give an autobahn designer an inferiority complex. As the road twists around mountainous curves (affording spectacular views of the valley), you can see drainage funnels every 30 feet or so, with concrete water channels running to the edges of the cliffs to prevent erosion.

Dizzying Bridge
Perhaps the crown jewel of the autopista is the glistening suspension bridge that spans the Mexcala River at about the halfway point between Cuernavaca and Acapulco. It’s 600 feet down to the river and if the dozen or so people milling about on the span were any indication – they just pull over and park in the middle of the bridge! – the view must be spectacular (I was scared to stop).

One major impact of the autopista is that bus travel from Mexico City to the coast no longer needs to be an endurance test. While very inexpensive bus service (which takes eight to 10 hours along the old 95-D) is still available, making the journey in style is still very cheap by U.S. standards. Estrella de Oro bus lines runs a luxury bus service from Mexico City’s southern bus terminal that takes just under five hours and costs $25.50.

On the Autopista del Sol, you won’t see broken-down buses roaring at breakneck speed around dangerous mountain curves, or livestock plopped into the seat next to you just as you are falling asleep. Service on the comfortable, Mercedes-built luxury buses that run on the highway is impeccable; the driver even took time to introduce himself to the passengers and let us know that coffee and tea were available in large thermoses at the back of the bus.

Despite its practical advantages and its lovely views, the excessive tolls may doom the Autopista del Sol to use only by long-distance trucks, luxury bus service and well-to-do motorists. While tourists tired of battling with potholes on Mexico’s older roads will find the autopista and the other 2,500- plus miles of privatized roads a godsend, it’s too bad the average Mexican driver will be hard put to take advantage of them.

Soviet Spoke In The Wheels Of Progress

Life has changed very little over the past few years for Stanislaw Kudrzycki, a shift supervisor for the Polish national railway (PKP) and his 19-person crew at Kuznica on what is now the Poland-Belarus border.

At the railway station of this desolate town, a 24-hour a day operation functions a in exactly the same way it did when it was established in 1972 to change the wheel trucks on trains crossing into and out of the Soviet Union. The Russian rail gauge is 24cm wider than European gauge (a legacy of Tsarist xenophobia), the reasoning being that foreigners intending to invade by train would first need to capture rolling stock.

If the system ever did thwart foreign invaders (it managed to severely impede progress of Nazi troops, who scrambled to regauge the lines to Moscow during World War II) it caused far greater frustration to rail travelers from Europe, who were compelled to change trains at the Polish Soviet border.

As one traveler put it, “the border crossing was the worst part of the trip. It was freezing, we had to go to the nightmare of the Soviet customs clearance before walking half a kilometre hauling our luggage. The experience didn’t exactly translate as ‘welcome to the Soviet Union.’” But in the 1960s, as the Soviet authorities began to rely upon tourism as an important source of hard currency income, they were forced to change the abominable border conditions.

They redesigned their train cars to the little more than flat bottomed cargo containers with seats, which could be placed upon changeable wheel truck assemblies. The trucks consist of two axles, four wheels, shock absorbers and a seat upon which the train can be fastened using a “male/female” connector in the manner similar to a key fitting into a lock. For inbound trains the European-gauge wheel trucks are removed and rolled out from underneath the cars, and Soviet-gauge wheel trucks are rolled in and attached. The outbound procedure is the reverse.

A Bit of History
In 1972 the Soviet Union constructed the changing station at Kuznica and contracted PKP to operate and maintain it (it has always has been a Polish operation despite the facility’s decidedly Soviet appearance). Now, as a train reaches the border, its cars are separated and placed next to hydraulic lift platforms which work in essentially the same manner as giant car jacks. After the wagons are separated, they are hosted 2m off the ground, the wheel trucks are rolled out from beneath the train, and new wheel trucks rolled in. Once the new wheel trucks have been manually lined up with the lynch point, the wagons are lowered onto the trucks fastened and re-connected.

It is a complicated, labor intensive operation. After each car has been lifted, workers walk underneath and attach the wheel trucks to a steel cable which pulls them down the track; they are then stored until the train’s return. When the new wheel trucks arer rolled in, they must be manually positioned using such crude tools as bent pieces of track as hammers and extra long crow bars to rock the wheel trucks backwards and forwards until the connecting points are aligned.

To one not aware of what is happening (and most Westerners aren’t), the procedure can be a harrowing experience with threatening Cold War over tones. Passengers are forbidden to leave the cars during the operation, which often takes place very early in the morning, and spend the turnaround time watching workers scurrying beneath their windows. Armed Polish soldiers patrol the kilmometre-long stretch of the work area, and the eerie silence is broken only by the constant slamming of wheel trucks being pulled into line and rolled down the tracks.

Dangers at Every Turn
Every aspect of the procedure, which takes between 60 and 90 minutes per train, is dangerous. During the winter, when the average temperature falls to minus 15 degrees Celsius, workers stand exposed for periods of up to two hours and than retreat to an overheated lounge area; illnesses are common. The hydraulic lifts, which are both electrically and manually operated during the procedure, have failed on at least one occasion, sending one of the 50 ton cars and its passengers crashing to the ground.

Workers say that one woman passenger has been killed, and seven people have lost limbs, when they were caught between 9 ton wheel trucks that were being rolled down to track. Drunken passengers routinely fall out of the cars. And there’s always the danger that a conductor will forget to lock the door to prevent entry to a car’s toilet, which empty directly onto the tracks. Should someone flush during the wheel changing procedure, the consequences are unfortunate for any worker who happens to be standing on the tracks beneath the drain output.

Kuznica, five hours east of Warsaw, is a tiny farming town also happens to have major railroad border crossings. These are seeing more business than ever. Russians and citizens of other former Soviet republics bring all their worldly possessions to sell in Warsaw’s markets, and wait in line at the border for an average of three days to cross into Poland. On their return, having sold their possessions and car in which they came, they buy a train ticket to Kuznica where they walk across the border. They then walk a few kilometres to the Grodno station, where they can pay for connecting tickets in roubles.

Where Mr. Kudrzycki and his crew used to be controlled absolutely by the military – even to the extent that they had to request permission to go to the toilet – they are now very much under their own control. These days, the crew makes it very clear to the guards that they are merely putting up with them.

Even the once powerful and feared Russian train conductors, who would use any opportunity to exercise their authority, now stand by sheepishly as the workers go about their business. “They still try to throw their weight around from time to time,” says Mr. Kudrzycki, “but now they’re just a joke.’

“We used to do our job while the army stood guard, keeping passengers into cars, making sure people were taking photographs of the facility or sniffing around near the border,” one of the workers said. “Now the Army is ‘protecting’ us from the Russians, trying to keep them out!’

The whole crew, having a tea break between train arrivals in their smoke filled lounge, began to laugh. “An hour ago, to Russian passengers got sent back over the border,” said another. “They tried to get in invitations written in outrageous Polish – bad grammar, made up streets and towns, ridiculous names. It must have been written by a Pole with a great sense of humor.” (While Russians do not need a Visa to enter Poland, they must have an invitation from a Polish citizen)

The crew’s tea break ends. The St. Petersburg-Warsaw train is pulling in, and we follow Mr. Kudrzycki to the 15m control tower. Standing at his control console, he presses one of several dozen lighted buttons as he speaks. The action has no discernible effect, and a worker’s voice blares over a two-way radio speaker: the remote control is not functioning, so he’ll do whatever needs to be done manually. “That’s normal,” Mr. Kudrzycki says, pointing scornfully to the console, which looks like a 1950s comic strip version of a control panel of the future.

“You hear that radio? It was installed last month,” he continues, “I’ve been here for four years, everyone else since 1972, and they only installed a radio last month. Before that we would use hand signals, or send messages in a chain: he tells him, that guy tells the other guy, the other guy comes upstairs and tells me…’

There may be a lot of problems, but Mr. Kudrzycki is still sure of at least one thing: he’s not in danger of being laid off. “In Portugal,” he says almost wistfully, “they have the wide gauge rails as well. But they’re using a new technology. They have contractible axles on the trains; as they cross the border the axles expand by springs and become wide enough to run on the rails.’

“But,” he continues, “my job’s safe. Do you have any idea how expensive that system is?’

Please…Don’t make Me Go To Vorkuta

In 1994, when I ran into John Noble, coordinating author of Lonely Planet’s Russia Ukraine & Belarus, at the Travellers Guest House in Moscow about a month into the research of that book’s first edition, I brought up something that had been worrying me for weeks.

“Please,” I begged, “don’t make me go to Vorkuta!”

Anyone looking at the map of coverage in that book will notice a gaping area between Arkhangelsk and Vologda regions and the Ural Mountains. That’s not because there’s nothing there, but rather because there’s not much there that’s interesting – unless you’re a timber exporter, oil-spill cleanup worker or soft drink salesperson.

John let me off the hook on Vorkuta, but asked me if I could at least do Syktyvkar, the republic’s capital, located in its south-west. Sure. The train ride out from Arkhangelsk was a bit shorter (about 30 hours/US$15 with a train change) and I spent the first half of the ride fending the advances of a somewhat-past-middle-aged and inebriated woman, and the second fending the worst hangover of my life, brought on by what was described to me by the restaurant-car attendant as “very good Ukranian wine” and what turned out to be a mixture of spiritus (almost 100% pure alcohol) and red juice.

Syktyvkar is a perfectly pleasant city. Established in the 16th century, the town began life under the name Ust-Sysolsk, and its layout was designed by St Petersburgian planners to take full advantage of its position on the Sysola River. The town is almost a grid, with the railway station at the western end of the main street, ulitsa Kommunisticheskaya and the airport (which does not appear on any of the otherwise fine maps of the city) just outside the city centre at the south-east end of Sovietskaya ulitsa!

But aside from a nice stadium, a couple of nice parks, some well-stocked shops (like Greenwood’s, near the railway station, selling Western goods) and a darn good Communist Party Hotel (it still uses the name – KPSS), there’s, well, nothing to do. Indeed, when I asked Tanya, a gloriously cheerful employee of the private tours and excursions company in the KPSS hotel, what there was to do around here, she said, “Nothing.” She smiled when she said it. Tanya told me she was from Vorkuta, and I asked her what was there to see or do.

“Less,” she said, “than there is here.”
Surely there had to be something.

I went to the Vychegda Bar/Cafe. The downstairs cafe has the best potato pizza in town – drove the other potato pizza guy right out of business. There’s a museum on ulitsa Ordzhonikidze (Gesundheit!), dedicated to the life of Komi poet Ivan Kuratova. On prospekt Oktyabrsky there’s the lovely Ivangelsky Khristian church, which broke ground in 1991 and put all that gold on the roof in 1994.

Tanya was right. Even the town recognises it: its coat of arms is a sleeping bear. I went back and asked her again. Surely there had to be something, I mean, her boss had gone to the trouble of opening an excursion bureau, hadn’t he? “Well,” she ventured, “there is a turbaza outside town. It’s nice’. So within ten minutes she had caled a friend of hers, a large, thick-necked, leather jacket wearing gentleman driving a Mercedes-Benz sedan, and off we sped.

We went to the Turbaza Lemu, 17 km outside of town, where there were some small cottages, a river, some trees and a sauna. There are cross-country ski trips in winter, and mosquitoes in summer. Suffice it to say that Tanya had been right the first time. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the place – in fact I had a lovely time and met some charming and wonderful people – it’s just that there’s no tourism infrastructure and lots of industry.

If you do go to Syktyvkar, for whatever reason, the best bet for lodging is the Hotel KPSS at the corner of ulitsas Lenina and Ordzhonikidze, where pleasant staff charge only about US$5/10 for clean singles/doubles and you don’t even need a boxy suit to get in. The cheapest place in town is the dormitory just across the steet from the airport, the Airport Hotel, where foreigners aren’t totally welcome, but can weezle their way in for an astounding US$3 per night. It’s at Sovietskaya ulitsa 69, about a ten-minute walk from the railway station.

The town has two other offerings, the Hotel Tsentralnaya at Pervomayskaya ulitsa 83 (US$11.50/12.50) which is clean but faceless; and the Hotel Syktyvkar – a monolith near the railway station which (snort) charges what they consider to be a quite reasonable (get ready) US$135 per person!

Change money at the Sberbank – the address is Sovietskaya ulitsa 16 but the entrance is on ulitsa Babushkina, or the Komibank at Sovietskaya 18. If you’re going to be playing any basketball, there’s a wierdly well-stocked sporting goods store at Kommunisticheskaya ulitsa 10, off the roundabout. A huge Dom Knigi bookshop is nearby, a bit further east on the same street. The Aeroflot office at Pervomayskaya ulitsa 53 sells tickets to Moscow (three flights a day, US$120), Arkhangelsk (four flights a week, US$86), St Petersburg (one a day, US$116) and Yekaterinburg (one flight a day, US$100).

I never made it to Vorkuta.

The SoBe Boom

It used to be called “God’s Waiting Room.” And even today, if you mention Miami Beach to people who haven’t been here or read about it lately, they might conjure up an image of octogenarians mingling poolside while Aunt Sadie implores them to wait half an hour before going into the water.

But to the arbiters of Fabulousness, SoBe (the inevitable contraction of “South Beach,” as southern Miami Beach is called) is The Fabulous Spot in the United States.

How long the SoBe Boom will last is debatable. Designer Gianni Versace is so confident the scene is here that he recently announced his spring fashion shows will be split: one show in Milan and a second in South Beach. Then again, there are distinct murmurs among the European and Supermodel crowd that SoBe is in danger of imploding and getting – gasp – passe.

Locals are not worried. After the film, television and European fashion shoots, the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, Sharon Stones and Madonnas, Versaces, and the thousands of oh-so-trendy people who swarm the chic neon- emblazoned cafes and boutiques of SoBe leave, South Beach will still be here and better than ever.

The current boom, which showed signs of stirring to life in the mid-’80s, brought renovation and the restoration of the city’s Deco District. But overzealous developers were given a very short leash by local preservation groups, which made certain the deco look wouldn’t be demolished in favor of the high-rise monstrosities that line the beaches to the near north.

The gamble paid off. The Miami Design Preservation League, founded by Barbara Baer Capitman, succeeded in having the entire Deco District placed on the National Register of Historic Places, cementing federal protection of the buildings.

Today, many of the Beach’s locals are imports from New York, people who, tired of sitting five hours in snarled traffic on their way to the Hamptons, decided that SoBe made a lot more sense. They brought younger artists, whose careers had been stunned by recession, looking for cheaper digs and a new audience.

This conglomeration of affluent and educated domestic transplants, mixed with the city’s established immigrant communities from Cuba, Haiti and South America, resulted in as solid a neighborhood community as one could ever hope for.

Something for Everyone
Like a large, accommodating restaurant, the Beach has been cunningly and wordlessly zoned to please everyone without offending anyone. No matter what the question – smoking or non-smoking, family beachfront to topless to nude, fabulous to pedestrian, the answer is “Why not"” And best of all, it is still relatively inexpensive.

Miami Beach is laid out in a sensible grid, where uptown is north. The Deco District, from Fifth to Sixth streets between Ocean Drive and Alton Road, is either a walk into the ’20s or an unguided tour of the very best in American kitsch, depending on your views.

Ocean Drive
A walk along Ocean Drive from north to south is a safari through the trendy. To your left is the kind of beach where low-flying planes trail advertisements for nightclubs, restaurants, performances and, in one instance, an enormous full-color poster of Marky Mark in his underwear. To the right are the hotels and sidewalk cafes that seem to want to spill into the street itself. And vehicular traffic would appear to be limited to vintage roadsters, ‘63 Mustangs and grandiose Harley Davidsons.

The fashionably impaired need not worry; despite the Drive’s undeniable chic, it’s definitely a come-as-you-are affair. In fact, the minimum requirement is a pair of cut-off blue jeans, a T-shirt and an optional pair of in-line skates. Everyone who walks the Drive eventually has an espresso and a people- watching session at the News Cafe, SoBe’s de-facto meeting point. This is the place to spend an afternoon watching or gawking at Miami Beach’s Beautiful People. As they strut, sashay, blade and groove their way past your sidewalk table, order a cafe con leche and one of their baguette-cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, keep an eye peeled for famous models and try to look pretentious and self-congratulatory to fit in. It’s great fun.

Get your bearings while checking out the interior of one of the Beach’s finest deco treasures by heading to the roof of the Park Central Hotel. The seven-story beachfront property has a sun deck, and no one seems to mind that visitors just walk past reception, take the elevator to the top floor and gaze out over the city. Go around 4 p.m., when the huge luxury cruise ships chug through Government Cut channel on their way to the Caribbean. The roof offers a stunning view of the ships against the Miami skyline and the beach.

Lincoln Road Mall
Ocean Drive may have a firm choke-hold on Things Fabulous, but most of the real South Beach begins at the Lincoln Road Mall. Renovated by the city in 1960 and just beginning a new $12 million face-lift, this wide, pedestrian- only stretch of sidewalk is the cultural epicenter of SoBe, with galleries every 100 feet or so, sidewalk cafes with only a moderate sprinkling of models, and the Lincoln Theater – a deco delight that is home to the New World Symphony.

Books & Books, a well-stocked book shop, is another gathering spot, often host to visiting writers, while restaurants along the mall offer the finest in cuisine from Pacific Time (an award-winning Pacific Rim restaurant) to World Resources (brilliant Thai, the restaurant/outdoor cafe is also a crafts shop), to Cuban and everything in between.

Biweekly “Gallery Walks,” promoted by the Lincoln Road Preservation Committee, take place on alternating Saturday nights. These walks are not an organized affair, they’re just something that everyone here knows about.

“I’ll see you on the Road” is the gathering protocol, as thousands stroll the mall, dashing into gallery openings and art-school presentations.

Even during the week, Lincoln Road is abuzz with gallery- and restaurant- goers, as well as the ubiquitous skaters. Running the length of the mall is a center divider of concrete planters filled with lush greenery and awkwardly shaped palms that make a picnic-style, late-afternoon snack almost irresistible.

A stop at Epicure Market on Alton Road at 17th Street reveals aisle after aisle of spectacular fresh produce, imported delicacies and prepared picnic boxes. Just up the block, the Biga bakery sells some of the most sumptuous bread in the world, and with that, a picnic on the mall is an absolute delight.

Washington Avenue
If Ocean Drive is the height of chic and Lincoln Road is the local hangout, Washington Avenue is the Beach’s engine room. Here’s where the seedy runs headlong into the trendy, and old meets new. Do what you will in the rest of the city, but when you need a pair of pliers, a bicycle inner tube or a quart of milk, you’ll end up here.

While many of the tiny, family-owned Cuban bodegas and sidewalk espresso windows have long since moved on, there is still a major Cuban presence on Washington Avenue. Most of the grocery stores and shops post signs in Spanish, with a usually poorly spelled concession to English-speakers scribbled at the bottom.

Washington Avenue is where all pretensions are cast away. And while a few trendy shops (including one devoted to selling condoms) are insinuating themselves into the fold, the area is more practical than anywhere else on the Beach.

There are notable exceptions, and a big one is the Wolfsonian Foundation at 1001 Washington. The foundation, a study center, runs a small gallery featuring an exquisite collection of decorative arts, and also houses one of the most extensive collections of local television and film archives in the world.

Somewhat lower on the cultural food-chain, the 11th Street Diner is an original art deco diner from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., built (their menu tells me) in 1948 by the Paramount Diner Corp. in New Jersey. The diner was transported to the beach in 1992, restored to its original glory and currently is a 24-hour gathering place that serves up a mean three-egg omelet.

Just up the road is Lulu’s, serving up very dependable Southern cooking, and for a late-night cappuccino and some live Cuban bands, Cafe Manana is the ticket.

Whenever the current Fabulousness ends, South Beach, like St. Tropez, will remain one of the world’s truly great beach towns. Tanned, rested from its decade of neglect, and ready for more, the community is now wealthier in all respects and determined to learn from its mistakes. Its new convention center has been a great success, and it will continue to bring in money and visitors for years to come. And if the atmosphere of cautiously relaxed prosperity is any indication, South Beach is not about to let success go to its head

Pow Wow: America’s Biggest Tourism Event

It may have a funny name, but if you’re in the travel business in the United States, the Discover America Pow Wow constitutes the most important five days of the year.

The Pow Wow is a one-stop tourism shopping mall bringing U.S. travel producers together with their international buyers, who use the meeting to book all this country has to offer, from Disney to dude ranches.

It is the largest event of its kind in the United States. Foreign tourists brought more than $74 billion to the United States last year, and almost every inbound tour in the Unites States was bought at the Pow Wow.

Last week, travel buyers from more than 74 countries descended on Miami to spend $2 billion-plus on U.S. tour packages. Miami, along with the Travel Industry Association of America, spared no expense in wining, dining and romancing the delegates with lavish entertainment events and spectacles that made the star-studded opening of “Planet Hollywood” here look like a high school production.

U.S. Travel and Tourism Association Director Greg Farmer used the Pow Wow to release the latest government figures on tourism. And the good news is that California tourism is up, and prospects look very good for the coming year.

San Jose’s Mission
For members of the San Jose and California convention bureaus, Pow Wow is where they learn how their markets fare on the international travel market as well as re-establish personal contact with packagers who last year sent 5.7 million foreign visitors to the state.

“We’re trying to open new markets,” says Joanne Hirasaki, vice president of travel marketing for the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’ve been primarily focusing on Argentina, which has direct service to San Jose, and Mexico. But we’re also focusing on the European market, because American Airlines has direct service to the U.K., France and Italy.”

It’s also an opportunity to promote new products that are not well-known overseas. “There are almost 300 state parks in California, all of which are safe, rural destinations,” says Ted Hilliard, assistant director of California’s Department of Parks and Recreation. “This year we’re making a huge presence here to show our state parks as an alternative to the cities.”

Those in the California travel industry have been worried about how a year marred by natural disasters and highly publicized crimes against tourists would affect the state’s appeal to foreign visitors. One of the jobs of the California representatives at the Pow Wow has been to dispel rumors as well as to “educate buyers to the diversity of California tourist product,” says Fred Sater of the California Trade and Commerce Agency.

But the fears seem largely unfounded: Foreign visitors to the United States spent a record amount last year, widening the United States’ travel trade surplus to $20.8 billion. The Bay Area, relatively untouched by the difficulties in Southern California, has also seen some favorable press generated by the San Jose Sharks.

Tourism to the state was up last year by 1 percent.

As Japan Goes …
One major travel industry concern has been maintaining tourist influx from Japan, the No. 1 source of foreign tourism. According to Masako Easton, director of marketing for Nippon Travel, which booked almost 75,000 Japanese visitors to the United States last year, there’s nothing to worry about.

“Sales to California – to Los Angeles and San Francisco – are up, and I think that this will be a very great year,” says Easton, pointing out that “people forget bad things, and Japanese people realize that there is good and bad everywhere.”

More young Japanese visitors are coming to the country than ever, says Easton, and in large groups, usually with schools or other youth organizations.

But the news at Pow Wow ‘94 hasn’t been good just for California; tourism has become the United States’ largest service export.

“The dynamics of this industry are mind-boggling and probably surprising to those of you who don’t cover this industry on a regular basis,” said U.S. Travel and Tourism Association Director Farmer during an address to reporters.

“Travel and tourism is this nation’s second-largest employer. In 39 states, it’s (the) No. 1, 2 or 3 employer. Direct and indirect tourism expenditures generate 13.9 percent of the nation’s gross national product … 13.9 percent!”

Cruising Along
The darling of the U.S. travel industry, cruises, has shown the most consistent growth over the past several years, and cruise companies are aggressively marketing themselves to continue that growth. In keeping with that, the entire port of Miami was closed to the public last Sunday night for one of the most massive Pow Wow parties ever.

Two ships, Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of the Seas and Carnival’s Ecstasy, were retained for the bash.

As one sitting of delegates was wined and dined with sumptuous gourmet meals, the other half roamed the ships, looked under the beds and danced in one of the 20 on-board nightclubs. The evening was capped off with what has been billed as the largest fireworks demonstration ever held in the United States.

Pow Wow delegates are used to this kind of treatment. Trying to impress the very people who usually do the impressing is the responsibility of the host city, which takes three years to study previous events, set up committee after committee and coordinate a nightmare of logistics to make each celebration more spectacular than the last.

“Pow Wow is not a convention,” says Mayco Villafana, director of communications for the Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, which worked with the Travel Industry Association to organize this year’s events.

“This is the largest international meeting of travel professionals from around the world here to do business, and that’s why it’s so popular: People do huge amounts of business here.”