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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.”

Prague: Paris To A New Generation

Prezanians rebel, even with victory [1993]. When dissident playwright Vaclav Havel became Czechoslovakia’s first post-war democratically elected president, he deemed the presidential palace to be far too opulent a place in which to get things done.

He promptly moved the home of his emerging nation’s government to his modest apartment, surprising no one: “Bohemian” means “free spirit”, and as Prague is the natural as well as geographical capital of Bohemia, la vie boheme is the order of the day.

Prague has systematically and unabashedly established itself as the Paris of the MTV generation. The Warsaw Pact is ancient history; anybody coming to get a glimpse of an “east bloc” city is embarrassed to find himself three years too late.

These days the small cafes which dot the streets of the stare masto are teeming with tweedily shabby-dressed chain-smoking writers arguing over endless cups of espresso, world-weary American 19-year-old lit majors having philosophical discussions straight out of Woody Allen movies and scruffy-looking Marx-bearded chess players brooding over their boards.

Never was Prague’s Bohemian spirit more evident than in August, 1968, when Soviet tanks invaded Prague. A cultural revolution was ignited by this violation, and artists and the intelligentsia burrowed deeply underground, but never stopped producing. Books were secretly distributed in manuscript form; apartments became private art galleries and theatres. This hoard of artistic artefacts was thrust forth to a culturally ravenous population after the “velvet revolution” of 1989.

When word of Prague’s renaissance began filtering through the Eurograpevine, Go East, young man became more a way of life than a slogan. This seductive city, so durable and unconquerable that it resisted the Soviets’ knee-jerk attempts at uglification, remains a fairy tale setting that is irresistible.

It is old (even the “New Town” dates to the fifteenth century), and the city is a potpourri of beautiful parks and greenery. Its Gothic masterpieces are unintimidating, and its baroque and Renaissance architecture all somehow managed to sidestep being ruined or razed during centuries of European and Communist strife.

It is no wonder then, that Prague has become home to what seems like every artist, poet, painter, writer, actor, musician, model and student whose careers have been stunned by the lingering recession of the Western world.

The city’s main drag, Vaclavske namesti, is an explosion of bustling shops, news and fast-food kiosks, mid-range (but overpriced) hotels and impromptu shows throughout the day. Whether it’s a fashion show, buskers, street magicians or just a Danish backpacker getting hassled by the police for throwing firecrackers, there’s always something happening.

The atmosphere is right out of ‘sixties American television – it’s the “good parts” version with all the music, free love, long-hairs and street-corner philosophers, while strife, generational misunderstandings and Vietnam have been tastefully left on the cutting room floor.

A walk from the Mala Strana, or “little quarter” across the fourteenth century Charles Bridge towards the Old Town on a summer evening is a “Who’s Who In Prague” tour. The bridge, one of 16 that span the Vltava River, offers spectacular views of the city and Prazsky Castle, and everybody knows it. Groups congregate amidst the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century statuary and on, around and actually in the pylons at both ends of the 603 meter span, clumped as discretely as New York City neighbourhoods: 20 metres from the architectural grad-student crowd will sit a group of hashish-smoking, guitar-playing flower children, while a nearby commercial film crew frantically sets up a shot before they lose their light.

Everywhere there is a palpable feeling of a reborn city coming in to its own. The thriving expat community didn’t come here to escape the realities of the “real world” so much as to a haven in which they could create their own.

“I’m 25,” says Amy Leanor, Program Director for a soon-to-open radio station, “I got a communications degree from U Mass at Amherst, and the best I could do at home was land a spot at Blockbuster Video. I’ve got opportunities here I could never get anywhere else and I live like a Queen for like $A400 a month. If that’s escapism, I escaped.”

But expats aren’t the only ones flourishing – they’re just loud and proud about “finding their own”. The Czechs, on the other hand, never lost it, and continue to use anything as an opportunity for entrepreneurship. The law of the land here used to be “if it’s not required, it’s forbidden”. Restructuring the law to keep up with regulating rediscovered freedom is a process lengthy enough to ensure that when an entrepreneur starts up a business, it’s legal until someone can prove it isn’t. So state-run cafes become performance art centres, apartments house language schools and night clubs, galleries and theatres open everywhere and anywhere with impunity.

In the basement of Radost FX, for example, Prague’s latest “New York” style nightclub, sits former President Havel’s former bodyguard Jon Bok. Bok recently opened a literally underground art gallery – in the club’s Gent’s room. Visitors to the loo can, on alternate evenings, see or buy paintings or listen to Czech philosophers speak and rant. In the West, some might think a Gallerie Toilet a bit on the odd side, but Bok told Prognosis, Prague’s English-language paper of record, that “it doesn’t matter what people think of me. When I come home with my pockets full of money and my wife is happy, then I’m happy too.” And a lot of money is being made here, as more and more Volgas, Trabants and Wartburgs, replaced with Mercedes, BMWs and Audis attest.

A city that attracted 5.3 million visitors last year alone, though, would have to be more than just a playground for black-clad, ambitious new-age hipsters, and to young and old, Prague doesn’t disappoint. “I came here first with my father, two years ago,” says German-born Prague resident Christian Schwenk. “He did the cathedrals and the opera while I was dancing and getting trashed in the clubs. When I lived in London, he came to visit once, since I moved here he’s been over four times!”

For culture-vultures, Prague’s a treasure-trove of castles, cathedrals, museums and classical music and theatre, and if you stayed a year you’d only see half of it. World renowned for its tower-packed skylines, playfully sculpted facades and lofty spires, Prague gives the feeling of being on the set of a knights, dragons and maidens movie. The prerequisite walking tour starting at Vaclavske namesti, down through the Old Town past the Tyn Cathedral and St. Nicholas Church, across the Charles bridge and up the steep hill to the Prazky Castle is enough to instil inspiration to see it all, or intimidate into dashing for the nearest beer hall – in either case, Prague is accommodating.

Nightlife, which at least a few people have come here for, runs the gamut from classical concerts at the Dvorak Museum and Nosticky Palace to jazz in the Red Hot &Blues and Cafe Nouveau, to head-bashing heavy metal in Rock Bar Uzi (also known for its tattoo parlour) and everything in between. For pub-crawlers, Prague is a utopian free-for-all of cabarets, cafes, beer-halls and coffee houses, all abuzz about…well, everything.

Czechs make some of the world’s finest beer, and there’s a huge variety of it. More important, it sells from around $A0.40/half litre (this is not a typo). Be sure to wander into some of the older, more run down, out-of-the-way beer halls that ring the city. You walk in to a smoke-clouded room, sit at picnic-style tables and before you can say “Pivo prosim” a half-litre tankard of pilsener is thumped down on the table in front of you (if you’ve had enough, say it fast; the next round comes out with neither request nor warning!). Shunned by trendsetters, you’ll find your drinking companions in these establishments to be burly Czechs washing down several buckets of suds after a long day of thinking about it.

For homesick Americans, Brits and Aussies, stopping into the Globe Cafe at Janoskeho 14 is entering a bastion of English-speaking civility. Owned by a 26-year-old expat American, this used bookstore-cum-cafe has evolved into the epicentre of Prague’s expat cafe society. One California-healthy meal and several cappuccinos later, you’re braced to take on the oh-so-hip party animal crowd that swarms RC Bunkr until three am.

As you ride home through cobblestone back streets in a Volga taxi on a rainy night, it’s easy to imagine the place as the perfect backdrop (which it was until 1989) for a Ludlam thriller. The city’s rolling hills, winding roads lined with fifteenth-century buildings and entrenched cafe society were as powerful a magnet to Cold War spooks as they are to the hundred thousand or so expats and nouveau-Bohemians who now call Prague home.

If You Go …

Visas
Australian and New Zealand citizens require a visa to visit the Czech Republic, available from the Czech Embassy or your nearest consulate. Visa prices range from $A32 for a single entry 30 day stay to $A90 for a multiple entry 90 day stay; you’ll need a passport with more than six months’ validity and one passport sized photograph.

Getting There
Qantas ((02) 957 0111) offers standard economy fares from $A2,099 ex-Sydney via Fankfurt or London, count on up to $A2,800 during May-August. Student travel specialists STA Travel ((02) 281 9866) have flights to Prague via Rome and London for around $A2,200-2,400, but they’re the best bet for as-yet unpublished special discount fares.

Money
The Czech currency is the Crown (Kcs), and the exchange rate hovers at around $A1=Kcs19.00. Changing money on the street is dangerous and unnecessary; rates aren’t great, ripoffs are common, and legitimate exchange offices and kiosks are practically on every corner. Note that Crowns can’t be converted anywhere outside the CR, so don’t change more than you’ll need.

Guidebooks & Information
Prognosis, Prague’s excellent English-language bi-weekly newspaper/cultural bible, is an indespensible source of up-to-the-minute practical information in this fast-changing city. Check it for reliable restaurant, cafe, club and pub listings, reviews and prices. Lonely Planet’s Eastern Europe on a Shoestring is great for sights but outdated; Let’s Go: Europe has an excellent accommodation section; Frommer’s Eastern Europe is hands down best for history, culture and architecture.

Getting Around
Prague has one of the cheapest and most sensible public transportation networks in Eastern Europe. Buses, trams and the gleaming Metro (underground) run from about 05:00-midnight, and night trams take up some of the night owl slack. Tickets, currently Kcs4 ($A0.20), are available at newsstands, tobacco shops and from dispensing machines in Metro stations. Hailing a taxi in the street can be an expensive proposition, always ask that the driver uses the meter (“Zapnete taximetr, prosim”).

Where to Stay
Everyone’s going to Prague: accommodation is scarce and reservations key. CKM Agency (Zitna 12; tel. 24 91 04) has listings of available space in hostels and hotels; Cedok (Vaclacske namesti 24, tel 24 19 71) is an agency specialising in short term (from one night/$A30) placement in private apartments.

Hostels (up to about $A13/person): Estec is a huge and very popular complex (Metro Devicka and bus 217 to the Stadium then follow the crowd, tel. 52 73 44); Domov mladeze-Penzion is a good second bet (Dykova 20, tram 16 to Perunova; tel. 25 06 88); there’s also a newish, hard-to-find and comfortable hostel above the Central Train Station for Kcs175: walk out of the upstairs exit near the bus stops (follow the signs that say Cafeteria), turn left, walk to the end of the building, left again and through the small door that says “Hostel”.

Food &Drink
Czech food, a German-influenced Slavic cuisine, is heavy on the potatoes, with delicious dumplings and soups, roast beef, boar and duck, but Prague is packed with restaurants serving everything from Middle Eastern to American; Lebanese to Mexican and all points in between. U Cizku, Karlovo namesti 34, serves classic Czech cuisine in a very traditional seting; Jo’s Bar, Malostranske namesti 7, is a small and noisy, but authentic, Mexican cafe; U Sedru, Na hitich 13, entrance around the corner on Narodni Obrany, has excellent Lebanese specialties; Red Hot And Blues, a honky tonk, Tex-Mex/New Orleans creole legend also features live music on most evenings, Jakubska 12; if you’re dying for a pizza, head for Pizzeria San Pietro at Beneditska 16 for a classic Italian atmosphere and excellent thin-crusted pizzas and Italian food. For street snacks, kiosks and fast-food restaurants (including one of the world’s slickest McDonald’s) abound, and don’t miss trying a plate of something in the few remaining state-run “milk bars”, where cheap hot meals can be had for about $A2.00.

Clubs & Pubs
When these places close, new ones will take their place: consult Prognosis for club and pub listings. Rock Cafe, Narodni 22 – rock and disco, films in the afternoon; RC Bunkr, Lodecka 2. Hard drinking PIB’s, good live bands, young, hip crowd; Klub Alterna Komotovka, Seifertova 3, is like a totally groovy place to check out some disco and sway to some vegetarian minimalist relaxation pitches; AghaRTA Jazz Centrum, Krakovska 5, Prague’s answer to London’s Ronnie Scott’s: very cool jazz (nightly at 21:00), very cool-jazz-loving crowd; Radost FX, Belehradska 120, Rock Bar Uzi, Legerove 44 (Metro I.P. Pavlova), Za Porucskou Branou, Za poncskou branou 14 (metro Florenc) is the classic smoke filled woozy-patroned Czech beer-hall, but if you’re looking for some English conversation, hit the Globe Cafe at Janoskeho 14, or Ziznivy Pes (The Thirsty Dog) at Obecniho House, namesti Republiky.

Discounts
Museums, galleries, exhibitions, plays and the opera all offer student discounts, and some hostels will accept an ISIC in lieu of a IYH Card; travellers under 26 (student or not) can also get significant reductions in European train and plane fares ex-Prague; always show the card before buying the ticket, and oftentimes you’ll be asked for your passport as well.

Trains, Buses & Car Rental
There’s frequent rail service to all European capitals; tickets are always cheaper ex-Prague than vice-versa, so it’s a great place to jump off on a European excursion; tickets are available on the ground floor of Praha hlavni nadrazi, the Central Train Station near Metro Museum. CSAD Travel at Na prikope 31 (tel. 236 5332) and Bohemia Tour, Zlatnicka 7 (tel. 232 3877) offer cheap international bus tickets. Car Rental is absolutely unnecessary unless you’re taking a day trip out of the city (and can be an expensive proposition as police, empowered to impose on-the-spot-fines, find any excuse to). Avis: Opletalova 33 (tel. 2422 9848); the cheaper ESOCAR, Husitska 58 (tel. 691 2244)

Bluetooth Is Coming…And How…

What do feisty contenders like Germany’s Hüft and Wessel and Sweden’s C-Technologies have in common with giants such as Ericsson, Nokia and Siemens? Bluetooth technology: the most quickly adopted industry standard in history.

And very soon you’ll own something that’s Bluetooth enabled – whether you know it or not.

Analysts say that Bluetooth, which allows broadband-speed wireless communication between computing and other devices, is at the cusp of ignition, but that its mainstream use is still one-and-a-half to two years away, despite the early release of British Telecommunications-enabled devices this year.

But oh, how it will go mainstream: in a June 29 report on Bluetooth, Merrill Lynch upped its market estimates of Bluetooth device penetration to an astounding 2.1 billion devices by 2005.

Early Problems
The main obstacles right now are robust software to operate the chips and a perception–if flawed–of the chips as being overly expensive. Not quite accurate, said Karl Hicks, a manager at Datamonitor’s technology division.

“Some would say that there’s a problem with price at the moment,” Hicks said, “but the cost is really only $15 or $20 per chip currently, and when you see the kinds of announcements and developments in Bluetooth, the large economies of scale will begin to bring prices down very soon.”

Merrill Lynch vice president and European seminconductor analyst, Andrew Griffin, who co-authored the Merrill Lynch report on Bluetooth, agreed. “We’re looking at the average price per chip dipping below $5 in 2002, but some firms will have reached that price level by 2001,” he said.

Another mildly worrying subject, according to Griffen, is the development of “bulletproof, robust software that won’t irritate the end user.” Point-to-point solutions are one thing, but software that can cope consistently with other kinds of applications–for example, cell phones speaking with PDAs, laptops and other devices–is still under development.

“Software issues aren’t going to prevent Bluetooth from taking off,” Griffen said, “but it will prevent it from taking off this year, and we won’t be seeing any of the really super sexy applications just yet.”

Why It Will Work
“It’s really simple,” said Johan Boman, chief financial officer of Sweden’s C-Technologies, which recently unveiled the first mass-market Bluetooth enabled device. “We expect Bluetooth to be the definitive standard for communications, replacing infrared and all other existing options. Companies simply must cope with it to have a place in the market.”

While the technology is currently under heavy development by major American manufacturers like Motorola, Dell, Microsoft and Intel, smaller European firms have some distinct advantages.

Ericsson, which initiated the standard, had the stunningly good sense to see that a) they had a hot one on their hands, and b) in order for it to succeed the standard must be open and royalty free. The result has been industry support by all major computer manufacturers, and a current membership of almost 1900 companies in the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) of Bluetooth device manufacturers.

The beauty of the open standard is that it allows smaller companies, which can move much faster on a new technology, the luxury of full entry to the market at this early stage. For example, take Neuer Markt gem, Hanover-based Höft and Wessel, which specializes in interactivity and mobile communications (they make the gizmo that the conductor uses to charge your credit card for tickets aboard European trains, and the one you paid for your rental car with at the airport last month).

The company, which made a name for itself in European mobile computing with the wildly successful “Taschen Kasse” mobile cash register, is now looking to empower its Web Panel with Bluetooth. The Web Panel is already a model of inteconnectivity, a wireless web device that can run both Windows Pocket PC and Linux operating systems.

Or take C-Technologies, whose Anoto division recently brought the first mass-market Bluetooth-enabled product, the Anoto Pen, to market. The pen, a bit chubbier than a Mont Blanc but with thinner versions planned, has a built-in camera and recognition engine that allows users to write a note on patterned paper by hand, and then send it as an e-mail via Bluetooth.

C-Tech is already a producer of popular handheld devices that lend themselves quite naturally to Bluetooth, such as the C-Pen and handheld scanners–and the company has already unveiled prototypes of these devices enabled for Bluetooth.

These companies are far from alone. This week, IBM and Toshiba announced they will offer Motorola Bluetooth devices across a range of their products. IBM also said it will produce Bluetooth-enabled PCMCIA cards, allowing users of current notebooks and laptops to connect easily with future Bluetooth devices.

And Ericsson will soon release its Bluetooth-enabled cellular phone wireless handset, which will work with any make or model Bluetooth-enabled phone. Analysts agree that Bluetooth, whose standard operates on the same frequencies worldwide, allowing users to use Bluetooth devices anywhere on earth, will substantially change the way devices communicate.

“That’s the really exciting aspect of Bluetooth,” said Jörg Müller, research analyst for new technologies at Value Research Management.

“People talk about the cable-free revolution; I’m not really interested in avoiding cables, but I really mind if I have to use 15 different adapters, like when I have my Alcatel cell phone that can’t connect to my car, which is wired for Siemens,” he said. “Or when I already own a Siemens headset and buy a new Motorola phone. In these cases, Bluetooth would let me use all my devices together.”

What It Does & How It Works
Bluetooth wireless technology lets a device speak, at broadband rates, with other nearby Bluetooth devices instantly and securely, and uses the same frequencies worldwide, so your cell-phone from the US can speak with your VCR in Hong Kong. Each chip can support up to seven “slave” devices, and that mini-network can in turn can be slaved to a second master–the possibilities are mind boggling.

The buzz over Bluetooth is just beginning, and while many products are in development, there’s a somewhat slow ignition process at the moment, but that won’t last long: it’s merely a matter of momentum.

“It’s a bit like the first fax machine or the first video phone,” said VMR’s Müller, “until there are more users you’re not going anywhere. The consumer only benefits when there’s a broad range of Bluetooth devices on the market. I’m really sure that this has a very big future, but at the moment, there’s a struggle to get enough products to market for the concept and the platform to really take off.”

Analysts agree. “I don’t think we’ll see very much happening this year,” said Johan Montelius, an analyst with Jupiter Communications. “We’ll see lots of press releases and a few products coming out, but the big thing is next year.”

For European investment opportunities, look to manufacturers like C-Tech and Höft and Wessel, as well as infrastructure and mobile telephony companies. But don’t forget an important player: “white devices”. Dishwashers, refrigerators and other kitchen appliances will be heavy users of Bluetooth in the future. As a Massachusetts Institute of Technology guru told the crowd last week at a London advertising convention, the majority of Internet communication in the coming years will be “machines, not people.”

So when your fridge calls your grocer to order more Nutella, Bluetooth will have come of age.

And Now, A Little Trabant Joke

TrabantThe Trabant (1949 to 1989) was the GDR’s answer to the Volkswagen. Intended to be economical, convenient and ubiquitous, it succeeded in being only the latter.

Despite production times from hell (the average Trabant owner waited nine years to get their lemon), the Trabi, as it was affectionately dubbed, is still one of the most common cars on the road in Eastern Germany.

Each Trabi took so long to build because its plastic pieces (most of the vehicle’s parts, aside from the frame, hood and other necessarily strong sections, were plastic) were molded by workers running hand-operated molding systems.

A plastic car, you say, with a two-stroke engine that you had to wait two years to own?

That reminds us of a little joke.

A Texas oil man heard that there were cars in East Germany so popular that buyers had to wait years to take delivery of one. He immediately sent a check to the Trabi factory.

The directors, sensing a propaganda coup in the making, arranged to send him the very next car off the line.

Two weeks later the oil man was in a bar, speaking with some friends.

“Ah ordered me one o’ them Trabis them folks over there in East Germany wait 12 years to get,” he drawled.

“And you know what? Them East Germans are so efficient. Wah, just last week they sent me over a little plastic model so I can know what to expect!”

 

____________________________

This (minus the graphic) appears on page 250 of Lonely Planet’s Germany travel survival kit.

Retroshock: When The Familiar Is Unfamiliar

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An American returning to the United States after living abroad finds himself in the unique position of being, for a time, a stranger in his own land.

Everything he has attuned his body and mind to accept as normal no longer is. Hearing English spoken in the streets, not having to work out what to say to a shopkeeper in advance, and even plain old-fashioned jet lag are all symptoms of what some refer to as “retro-shock”: The familiar is unfamiliar.

“We warn volunteers before they go, telling them that they will experience culture shock; different sights, sounds, smells, but that none of this will be anything like coming home,” says Cammie Noah, public affairs officer for the Northern California field office of the Peace Corps. “But you can never prepare for re-entering an American supermarket for the first time. You walk in and see 17 brands of chili and there are so many choices you walk out with nothing.”

Indeed, the sheer amount of consumer goods available in the United States is startling to one who has spent time away. Ken Eckern, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based medical supplies salesman who was asked how a two-week trip home to the States was, replied simply, “They got a lot of stuff in Target.”

Scott Hepworth, Stake president of the San Jose East chapter of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says, “One of the first things that people returning to the States see is the monumental waste – throwing food away, excess packaging and these things are very disturbing because you tend not to notice them before you go away.”

For many, retro-shock begins on the flight home. One man said that on his recent Delta flight from Frankfurt, the captain addressed the passengers, saying he was speaking from the “flightpit.” Had political correctness so changed the American lexicon, he wondered, that “cockpit” was now a sexist or sexually charged term?

“And then the captain told us that the temperature in New York was 45 degrees. For the last three years, I’ve been living like the rest of the world, in Celsius. For a second I thought it was 115 degrees Fahrenheit in January in New York.”

This type of confusion, though it lasts only a few seconds, occurs frequently during the first two weeks after returning, and many say it can be very disorienting.

“When I first returned from New Zealand,” says Hepworth, “I had dreams for about a month where I was driving on the left-hand side of the road.”

The Peace Corps, one of the largest organizations that regularly assigns Americans to overseas posts, says the feelings of displacement are universal to returning volunteers.

“Every Peace Corps volunteer has gone through this,” says Michael Learmouth, a public affairs officer for the National Peace Corps Association in Washington, D.C. “Anyone who (gets stationed overseas) has to go through culture shock twice, and some feel that the returning culture shock is the worse of the two.”

Reversal of Customs
To effectively function in a foreign country for an extended period you have to fully adapt to the customs of that country. Upon returning to the States, the readjustment from what has become “normal” must be reversed, and some say the turnaround is never quite complete.

“After a year or two of being away,” says Amy Portnoy, a New York-based international media consultant, “you think about what life is like in the States and how things work here – you build up a lot of expectations and slightly flawed memories and you’re usually wrong, because your expectations are based on sort of a synthesized middle ground between the two cultures.”

The feeling of displacement during the readjustment period, where neither home nor the foreign residence can be considered “home base,” can produce a range of symptoms: from the mild, such as confusion about weights and measures or stomach problems from readjustment to the local food, to the more serious such as depression, paranoia, a feeling of being “left out” or floundering.

Sublime to the Ridiculous
The readjustments run the gamut “from the sublime to the ridiculous,” laments David Wilson, an American journalist who recently returned from a two- year European assignment. “I get annoyed that even after a month at home, every time I try to turn on the bathroom light I turn off the hall light!” (In Europe, light switches are generally placed outside the room, and switch down for “on.”)

“The first few days back were hell,” recalls Timothy Philips, who taught English in southern Poland. “I was walking in a cloud, and every time I walked into a shop I felt something was missing, because I didn’t have to work out in advance what I’d say to the shopkeeper. And for the first week, every time I heard English spoken on the street I’d want to ask them where they were from, because over there a native speaker was a novelty. Sometimes I’d feel sorry for the person I was speaking to because they got subjected to two weeks of pent-up English!”

Aside from physical discomfort and temporary confusion, there is a feeling of frustration among returning expatriates over not being able to express what they’re going through with their friends at home. “Most people at home can’t relate to these experiences,” says Eugene Patron, a Miami-based free-lance correspondent who spent most of 1991 in southern Africa. “Climbing a sand dune in Africa at sunrise gives you a feeling you can’t explain to someone who’s never done it and those feelings are yours alone. But that also means it’s difficult to relate the stories of your trip in a meaningful way.”

The Peace Corps’ Cammie Noah agrees. “It’s a big problem. When you talk to people you want to tell them what you’ve been through and they don’t want to hear it. They’ll say “How was Uganda?’ and you’ve gotten into it for 30 seconds and they want to start talking about Mary being pregnant and what’s new on television.”

Key to easing back into life in the States are support groups. The Peace Corps has a department dedicated to helping returning volunteers re-establish their paper trail (such as obtaining employment, referrals and health insurance) as well as counseling.

Elaine Neufeldt, treasurer of the non-profit Northern California Group of Returning Peace Corps Volunteers (NorCal), was an overseas volunteer in Kenya from 1969 to 1972, and in the East Caribbean from 1979 to 1981. “We’ve got 720 members, and we find that many of them have been frustrated by their inability to find really receptive listeners,” she says. “We hook up with them to help them ease back in, because anyone who’s been overseas has a lot of weird things to talk about that we can understand.”

Birds of a Feather
Other returning expatriates, such as journalists or teachers, find support from those in the same field who’ve had similar overseas experiences. And on- line computer services offer a forum for “chats” about traveling or life in foreign countries.

“There’s a difference between a tourist, a traveler and an expatriate,” says free-lance writer Patron. “When you’re living and working overseas you feel different; special and kind of radical, and when you get home there’s a feeling like you’re still in motion, or not rooted yet. It can be very confusing.”

Easier Each Time
Those who repeatedly live overseas, though, say that each time it gets easier to readjust, and that the first time is definitely the hardest. “Separating becomes easier the more you do it,” says a translator who has lived abroad on and off for eight years. “The more you leave and come back, the easier it is to say, “OK, this is here, that’s there’ and keep realistic expectations about what it’s like to return home.

“A big difference about coming home is that when you’re away, every day is like an adventure,” she says. “When you’re away, something always happens; whether it’s good or bad, it’s something new, and I miss that.”

 

IF YOU’RE INTERESTED
Returning Peace Corps volunteers interested in contacting the Northern California Group of Returning Peace Corps Volunteers may write to NorCal, P.O. Box 2547, San Francisco, Calif. 94126 or call the Peace Corps at (415) 744-2677.

Russian Cooking Comes Of Age

Russian-Borsch-Recipe-Me-cookingAs fodder for guide book humor, Soviet cuisine led with its chin. It’s not that there wasn’t any good food available in the country, it’s just that you had to search long and hard for it. In between looking and finding, visitors were faced down by enormous portions of overcooked vegetables, potatoes slathered in vegetable oil, mystery meat and the occasional pancake with sour cream.

And at Moscow’s middle-eastern restaurants, one would wondered whether ” belly dancing” meant theirs or the dancer’s.

Now days, with availability of high-quality fresh ingredients from around the country and the world at an all time high, Russians are cooking up a storm. And despite their reliance on just a tad more fat then most Western chefs, they’re pretty darn good at it.

The newly-slicked-up Russian Television stations – and their sponsors – have not been slow to capitalize on this trend. One of the most popular cooking shows on Russian television is Smak (which sort of translates to ‘Pleasant Taste’), sponsored by Uncle BenE’s rice and hosted by Andrey Makarevich, former lead singer of the famous 70’s and 80’s-era rock group Time Machine. Now a bit older, a bit paunchier but still as charming as ever, Makarevich’s show features recipes from and appearances by famous (and not so famous) guests.

On May 8, the day before Victory Day, Smak featured cartoonist-cum-television commercial actor Ufimtsev, proffering his recipe for what he calls Baked Chicken and I call ‘Victory Chicken Statue on a Bed Of Wild Rice’ (you’ll get it when you see the recipe).

In a halting, slightly nervous but mostly confident manner, Ufimtsev set about chopping garlic, mushing butter and generally being the elder statesman about the kitchen.

And lo and behold, as the thing started to take shape, I realized that this was the Russian version of the chicken my fat- and-cholesterol-fearing father prepares in New York using a metal contraption that looks something like a Tonka super sex toy, designed to hold the chicken upright during cooking so that the evil fat drips away from the meat. ‘Boy, this is terrific’, says dad, and judging by the looks of things on Smak, Russians think so, too.

UfimtsevE’s Victory Chicken Statue

(From Smak)

Chicken:

one medium-sized chicken, washed

small bunch of dill

several (6 to 8) cloves of garlic

1 cup water

one stick softened butter

1 thick 500 ml or 750 ml glass Bottle (such as a European beer bottle)

Rice:

One cup wild rice

two cups cold water

one tablespoon softened butterv
dash salt

Chicken

Fill the bottle about a quarter-full with water, and add about two cloves of crushed garlic. Impale the washed chicken on of the bottle so that it looks sort of like a chicken statue. The chicken should reach almost, but not quite, to the bottle bottom.

Spread the softened butter all over the chicken, using your hands, followed by crushed garlic. Place the chicken statue on a cookie sheet (to catch fat) in a pre-heated 200°C/400°F oven for about an hour or until done.

The fat drips from the outside of the bird onto the cookie sheet; from inside into the bottle, steaming water infuses the chicken meat with garlic aroma. The contents of the bottle are later discarded.

It didn’t explode on TV, so I don’t see why it would at your house, but for the attorneys’ sake, I should say that the whole thing is AWFULLY DANGEROUS and should all have a warning label and don’t try this at home unless you’re a professional. Use as thick a bottle as you can. If you’re still worried, you’re probably the kind of person who thinks that baseball bats should have warning labels.

Rice

In a small pot, place the rice into the cold water, add butter and salt, bring to a boil; stir briefly and reduce to a simmer and cover the pot for twenty minutes or until the water is gone and small steam holes appear in the surface of the rice on the pot. Don’t stir during cooking and for God’s sake don’t overcook it or keep opening the pot to see if it’s done all the time.

Spread the rice out on a serving dish large enough to accommodate the chicken. When the chicken’s done, place it on the bed of rice (Smak, of course, prefer that it be Uncle Ben’s!). Um, before you do that, it’s probably good to remove the now- filled bottle – grasp it, with the aid of a pot holder, and pull the chicken off the top carefully with two forks.

Chop finely the bunch of dill and three cloves of garlic, and mix the two together in a small bowl. Pour some of the pan drippings on top of the chicken, then sprinkle the garlic-dill mixture on top as a garnish.

You can modify this recipe to be Fatly Correct by ditching the butter and not garnishing with pan drippings; the inside of the bird will still be sumptuous and moist. If you’re really into it, remove the skin, but AFTER cooking. Come on, live a little.