Archive | Travel

What, Me Worry?

Steven Caron has time on his hands, and with unique reason. For with all the talk in the U.S. media about the dangers of Russia and the “Mafia-controlled businesses” there, the congenial 26-year-old Californian entrepreneur has such reliable Russian business partners there’s not enough to keep him busy.

“It runs itself,” Caron says of Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism, a joint venture among Caron and two Russian friends. “I mean, I can go in to work and putter around a bit, but we’ve got such a great staff that I’m not really needed there anymore.”

Caron went to Moscow in 1990 to sit in on classes at the Moscow Art Theater, a move meant to advance his first love, a career in acting. But on a visit to St. Petersburg, he found himself spellbound by the 17th-century city, so he decided to transfer there and study Russian in earnest.

Over the next 1 1/2 years Caron, along with two administrators from the Moscow Art Theater, Nikolai Travinin and Oleg Dzanagati, formulated a plan to create the first youth hostel in the Soviet Union that would operate under Western standards.

In February 1992, an exceptionally good lawyer slashed through miles of what was still the Soviet Union’s red tape and registered the joint venture in a record two weeks.

Booked Solid
Caron’s Russian Youth Hostel officially opened in June 1992, and was semi- filled throughout the year as word of its existence filtered through the backpackers’ grapevine. But most important, it opened in time to be included in budget travel guides aimed at young travelers. Since 1993, the hostel has been booked solid.

While his partners ran the day-to-day business, Caron began the gargantuan task of insinuating his hostel into the worldwide hosteling network.

“On my first visit to the hostel in Helsinki,” says Caron, “I found out that some Estonians had just set up a hostel in Tallinn. I met with them, and we all decided that we should get together and promote that route – Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Estonia – as a Baltic Triangle.”

Establishing the Triangle was fortuitous in more ways than one: While Caron insists that the Mafia in Russia is in no way as bad as it’s made out in the Western media – that it concentrates on local businesses, not tourists – it still poses a real enough threat.

“We have to be extremely careful,” he says. “We don’t advertise in the city, but we advertise in Moscow and Helsinki and Tallinn, as well as in guidebooks; anything that the ‘no-necks’ won’t read. It’s a constant battle of promoting the hostel in the West but not gaining too much publicity here in town.”

But a far greater threat than the Mafia to the hostel’s existence are the Byzantine tax regulations imposed on businesses by the fledgling Russian government.

“If they stick another tax on me, I’m going to jump out the window,” says the otherwise preternaturally calm Californian.

Big Obstacle
The tax situation has long been one of the biggest obstacles to foreigners doing business in Russia. Laws change so suddenly and frequently that accountants use the day’s newspaper to determine what taxes their clients are required to pay.

Enforcement is organized, with tax police empowered to raid businesses’ books, make arrests and freeze bank accounts. And there’s a great incentive for the tax police to find new ways of catching non-payers: They work on commission.

“One friend of mine owned a cafe in town,” says Caron. “One day the tax police pulled up outside his place driving BMWs and wearing expensive suits – they had more money than he’d ever seen!”

So far, though, the tax situation hasn’t been enough to stop Caron.

Last year he established another joint venture, with the state museum that operates what has become St. Petersburg’s trademark: the Peter and Paul Fortress.

Caron now operates concessions within the fortress, providing sorely needed food and beverage stands as well as stands selling T-shirts. And Caron is hopeful that his company will be St. Petersburg’s first distributor for Ben & Jerry’s when the Vermont-based ice cream giant begins sales in the city (the company is currently operating in Petrozavodsk, about 100 miles north of St. Petersburg).

True to Hostelling
But over time, hosteling remains the purpose to which Caron is true. He’s upset by what he considers to be unfair reporting of the dangers in St. Petersburg, pointing out that “in two years of doing this, I’ve had two guests have serious trouble on the streets; both were drunk, and both were out very late at night walking in deserted sections of town.”

Indeed, security in the city has never been tighter. Police were on practically every street corner to keep order during the Goodwill Games in July, and there’s a plan to create a “tourist police” force, similar to those in Egypt, Indonesia and, more recently, Miami, composed of multilingual police officers to assist visitors.

For his part, Caron uses his “down time” to organize hosteling in Russia and improve St. Petersburg’s tourism infrastructure. He was instrumental in creating the Russian Youth Hostel Federation, which is composed of five hostels – his own and ones in Moscow, Novgorod, Irkutsk and Petrodvorets.

Caron’s energy seems endless, and if it ever does falter, he has a precious resource from which to draw in the community of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. In a city of more than 5 million, the expatriates have managed to create a community as tight as any town of several hundred, and they all get involved.

“The ex-pat community is larger than it was, but it’s still very small and very tight,” he says.

“The American Business Association here now has a sports committee and a social committee, and we see each other all the time – it’s amazing how close we all are, and how much we support one another.”

Obvious Western Influence
To guests at the hostel, the Western influence is readily apparent. The clean, well-lighted, five-story brownstone is guarded not by hulking security guards, but by grandmotherly types who admonish those who arrive too late at night.

Inside, while the Russian staff keeps things clean, backpackers from all over the world gather in the lobby area to do what hostelers everywhere do: drink coffee, laugh, share war stories and travel tips and make connections at the hostel’s crowded bulletin board.

To understand how Caron achieved his dream in a system fraught with pitfalls and booby-traps designed to thwart his every step, one need only look at how he relates to people.

When Caron bought an apartment last year, the seller, an emigrating Russian, took very little cash up front and Caron’s word to wire the balance to an account in the West. When the Russian arrived at his new home, the money was waiting for him.

The Russian Youth Hostel is near St. Petersburg’s Moscow Train Station off Ploschad Vosstaniya. Reservations can be made by calling Russian Youth Hostels and Tourism in Redondo Beach at (310) 379-4316 or in St. Petersburg at 011-7-812-277-0569. There is a $10 one-time reservation fee. Rates at the hostel are $15 a night including breakfast. Russian Youth Hostels also arranges visas for hostel guests.

Headhunters Down Under

kontrollerThe team of plainclothes agents moves in, and takes position. The suspect is in the corner, the gentleman with the pierced face, shaved head, tattoos and a scuffed leather jacket. He is almost 2 meters tall.I’ve seen this kind of thing before, riding shotgun with cops in New York and St Petersburg, but Munich’s kopfgeldjaeger, “head-hunters”, are different. They’re despised and mocked: I met one who’d appeared on a TV talk show as having one of the, “worst jobs in Munich”.

But the MVV Transit Ticket Controllers I met are, for all the world, a bunch of pussycats.

“It’s a game,” says Wolfy, amiable team leader of this 8-person crew which prowls the city’s public transport system in search of scofflaws. “They see us coming, and we see them see us coming.”

It certainly appears that way during the afternoon I spent sniffing out crime with them aboard Munich’s subways and trams. The affability of this group was was something of a let-down. I’d somehow expected (as had my editor, who also had hoped for tales of terror from below) that these folks would would be a right hard bunch.

Maybe they’re friendly because they’re hardly necessary: of almost 300 million riders last year on the Munich underground, only a paltry 3% to 5% actually ride “black”, or without a validated ticket. Those who do risk a fine of DM60 – money the MVV, Munich’s Mass Transit System, says you’d be better off spending on beer.

There’s really no “black riding” culture here as exists other cities like Amsterdam, where rider’s groups defy the law en masse. In Munich, most cough up. So relaxed was the control team I rode with that they told me I could say anything I wanted to about their methods, patrol tactics and procedures.

The Basics
Your chances of getting caught, and the patrol schedule, change like the wind. But one static figure is that there are 22 teams of eight agents on staff at the MVV.

They’re not cops – indeed their powers of arrest are identical to yours as a citizen. But they have the power to inspect your ticket, and issue fines. They can hold you until police arrive if you’re recalcitrant or they don’t believe you’ll pay (thoughfully, though, if you live in Germany, a bill will arrive at your house).

The Day
I met the team at the Hauptbahnhof, the central railway station, under which their headquarters is located behind one of those mammoth steel doors you pass daily and never notice. As we boarded the U4 Wolfi and I chatted about statistics and the risks.

“Most people are polite,” he said. “It’s not really a dangerous job. And people know who we are – you see five or eight people standing clustered on the platform talking, and carrying no bags, you figure they’re us – and you’re right.”

Sometimes teams lurk at the top of the stairs to the subway, doing “border checks” to nab passengers alighting from the U-Bahn.

One thing these folks have done is heard it all. There’s little you can say to them that’s not been tried before, probably tried in the last hour. For the record, the most commonly used excuse is, “The machine was out of order,” followed closely by “I lost my ticket”, both of which go over about as effectively as the old yarn involving your homework and your dog.

These are, however, reasonable folks. “We understand that this is a difficult system for foreigners to grasp,” says Gaby, a 20-year veteran and another huggably amiable – when she’s not asking for your ticket – agent. “If people don’t understand and we believe they tried to, we’ll give them a break.”

But mess with them and you’re in for it. “If we don’t believe you,” says Wolfi, “we’ll fine you, and if we think you won’t pay we’ll hold you for the police. A mistake is a mistake, but ‘paying’ is international.”

And don’t try the old “I-don’t-speak-German” dodge – all teams have an English speaker and many a French speaker, and all are armed with Wolfi’s custom-made chart which gives you the bad news in languages from Czech to Spanish, and Italian to Serbo-Croat.

We board another train, and the doors close. Instantly all scatter, whipping out their ID cards like Kojak at a raid, their presence going over like, well, Kojak at a raid.

The skinhead I discussed earlier bristled, and I thought we were in for some action.

“You got me,” he says, smiling.

Willi, the rookie of the group with just a year on the job (and the subject of that episode of the Sabrina show) tickets the perp, who politely hands over all documents requested and signs on the dotted line.

When it was over, the skinhead says something which convinces me the rest of my day is to be rather dull. He says, “Thank you.”

Desperate for some action, I tried one last question: “Do people ever run?”

“Sometimes,” said Wolfi.

Ah ha! “So, do you give chase?” I asked, breathlessly.


It’s The Taxis, Stupid.

Violence is the No. 1 concern of foreigners contemplating a trip to the United States, according to participants at a Pow Wow round-table discussion that included top tour operators from Japan, Germany, Great Britain, France, Italy, Australia and Venezuela [1994].

The panel, hosted Tuesday by Bob Dickinson, Travel Industry Association of America chairman and president of Carnival Cruise Lines, allowed tour operators to explain what their customers like and dislike about the United States.

“A trip to the USA is a dream visit,” said Naoto Katsumata, deputy general manager of Kinki Nippon Tourist Co., which sent more than 100,000 Japanese visitors to America in 1993. “But what scares us most is the gun problem. If there was a solution to this, the amount of Japanese tourists to the USA would double.”

While stories of violence in the United States have created a feeling of dread among potential visitors, the tour operators were all generally positive about this country.

“One of the things Australians like most about America is how friendly the people are,” said David Farar, U.S. product manager of Swingaway World Holidays in Sydney.

“Most of our tourists enter through the West Coast and travel across the country, and practically everyone comments on how welcome they feel, and that gives great peace of mind.”

But violence was mentioned by all of the panelists as the major concern.

“There was a poll taken in Britain,” said Christopher Smart, president of Great Britain’s Jetsave Ltd. “One of the questions asked was what is the most violent place in the world. Kenya and Turkey came in third, followed by North Africa, but 47 percent named Florida the most violent destination in the world. That is the perception of the man in the street in Britain.”

Other subjects touched on were a seemingly universal dislike of American taxis and their drivers.

The major concern of the buyers themselves was the small amount of money the United States spends promoting itself, something tour operators, who work on narrow profit margins, feel should not remain the responsibility of the private sector.

“When we speak of countries’ perceptions of the U.S.,” said Smart, “consider that Morocco spent $1.3 million promoting its country in the U.K. last year; France $2.1 million; Turkey $1.2 million; and the United States Travel and Tourism Association spent $40,000, which was $40,000 more than they spent the last year.

“Travelers have the world to choose from, and America’s world share of tourists is down. As a tour operator, I have the world to sell my customers, but I can’t sell a destination. You have superb, dedicated people at the TTA, but you have no budget. And if the violence continues to be an issue, you will need a massive advertising campaign.”

Ermanno Fici, general manager of Jetset Voyages in Paris, agrees. “You need to educate people to increase tourism in America,” he said. “There needs to be a program to teach people that America is a diverse place with many attractions.” The Travel Industry Association of America has been lobbying to increase federal government spending on tourism.

“Travel and tourism to the United States brought in $74.4 billion last year,” said chairman Dickinson. “And the USTTA is operating on a budget of$20 million. This government spends more than twice that promoting U.S. agriculture overseas, which brings in less than half of the amount tourism generates.”

The Clinton administration is aware that tourism is now a major U.S. concern, and Travel and Tourism Association Director Greg Farmer has announced that the first-ever executive-level panel on travel and tourism will be held at the White House in late 1995.

Where Are The Nooklear Wessles?

I’d come to Severodvinsk, about an hour from Arkhangelsk, to see the submarines. An expatriate Italian bartender living in Arkhangelsk had told me I could take pictures of Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines right from the city’s harbor.

‘Course, what he didn’t mention was that Severodvinsk was a ” Closed City” – that is, off limits to foreigners even these days – because it’s a storage area for the Soviet-built atomic-powered submarines that park in its harbor. Formerly it was closed because it was a staging area for the nuclear gear that used to be transported to the islands of Novaya Zemlya, back when the Soviet Union was doing above-ground nuclear testing there.

The bartender assured me that, while the city was closed, it wasn’t ” very closed” .

After about an hour of looking on my own (I had taken bus No 3 on a three-loop tour of the city before realizing I was going in circles), I finally asked a kid where the subs were (” Excuse me, where are the nuclear submarines?” – which I pulled off with a dignity equal to that of Ensign Chekhov, who asked the same question of a San Francisco cop in Star Trek V) and was directed to a fence at the end of a long, deserted street.

The ” fence” turned out to be the entrance to some sort of naval facility, and as I passed the boundary (there was no one guarding it) I realized that from that point on, no amount of pleaded ignorance would help me if I – an American with a camera in a Russian military facility – were caught.

The water was now in sight, the subs just across the harbor from where I stood, but between them and me, moored at the docks, were two large gunships, sporting several large and rather vicious looking guns fore and aft.

A man with a face of stone and wearing an officer’s uniform stood between me and the subs.

” Hi!” I said, with a smile, ” May I take a photograph”

The officer looked at me a and grinned, and said, ” Why not?”

There were about eight black submarines parked just across the water, but far enough away to make my photographs look as if they were taken by a spy satellite in the 1960s. Still, I got the shots.

I looked over to one of the gunships and saw on board a young woman in a pink coat looking around ear the bridge. As I walked back past the gangplank, I asked the officer if I could take a look around on bord.

He smiled again and said, ” Of course, go right up.”

I saw the bridge, and the guns, but I started to get a little nervous; my Russian’s good enough to say what I had said so far, but anything ese would be a hopeless stretch, and I wanted to get out of there fast.

On my way out, a much more senior looking officer approached me with a look of investigatory intent.

” What is he doing here?” he asked, looking at me but speaking to the officer who had let me on board.

” He’s taking an excursion,” said the first.

The senior officer looked at me, rubbed his chin thoughtfully and said to the officer, ” You know, we really ought to set up a ticket booth out here.”

Europe Develops An Online Brokerage Culture

Further evidence of the development of an online European brokerage culture emerged Monday when German online broker Comdirect AG, which will soon replace LHS Group Inc. on the Neuer Markt’s Nemax 50 Index, announced that it almost doubled its customers in the first half of 2000. Comdirect’s customer head count rose 97%, to 545,000, and customers made about 5.4 million transactions, up from 1.6 million in the first half of 1999.

“Overall, online brokerage is definitely a part of banking life in Germany now,” Alexander Hendricks, Banking Analyst at ABN AMRO Bank, told

But throughout Europe the nature of the online customer is changing. In Germany, public acceptance of retail investing has gotten huge shots in the arm from successful IPOs such as Infineon, T-Online and online broker Comdirect – the last two amidst absolutely horrendous market conditions. But the face of the typical German retail online brokerage customer is changing from the early adopters – more aggressive, sophisticated high-volume traders – to a more staid, middle of the road investor.

“The sophisticated investors were already on board,” said Marc Rubinstein, e-finance analyst for Credit Suisse First Boston, “But in Europe there’s an increasing amount of shareholders.”

“There’s been an explosion of interest in the stock market, in Germany,” said John Glendinning, Managing Director of, “much of which coincided with boom in the market, led by the Deutsche Telekom float, and there is a large expansion of share ownership. “

The trend is widespread, and follows an overall pan-European interest in stockholding that has developed very recently. “Over the year ending May 2000,” said Credit Suisse’s Rubinstein, “there were 400,000 new shareholders in France – and a significant proportion of those investors are going online to manage their own accounts, so you see there’s a huge structural upside, beyond any cyclical factors that the market might bring.”

The problem for online brokers, then – and for those who invest in them – is finding new sources of revenues in order to maintain the growth rate of profitability. While Comdirect lists €11.9 billion in “assets under management”, they make very little for actually “managing” that money: because as an online brokers they are discount brokers, not managers, and do not charge traditional management fees.

The mainstay of the online brokerage bottom line has been transaction fees, but as new customers who trade less than the early adopters come in, and competition increases, analysts agree that transaction fees will be the first to come under attack.

“That’s one of the main reasons we’re not bullish on discount brokers,” said Metehan Sen, Senior Analyst for Financials at Sal.Oppenheim, “the fact that commission income will come under pressure in Germany – per trade you just won’t get the same amount you could two years ago. And then consider that marketing expenses, the costs of getting each customer, are skyrocketing.”

Consors and Comdirect have both begun offering services above and beyond the traditional offerings of a discount broker, and are doing them very cheaply in order to entice more warm bodies and increase that ever-import “assets under management” figure. These services have begun to include allowing customers to buy into mutual funds at reduced or no commissions or holding fees, and Comdirect will soon announce a suite of insurance products in Germany.

The revenue stream is not all fees: analysts estimate that margin lending – where the broker who borrows money at, for example, 5% and lends it to the customer at 8% to effect a transaction – comprised nearly 25% of Consors’ top line in 1999. And “order flow” – gathering up stock orders and flowing them through certain paths thereby getting a payment for diverting orders to a particular market maker – also brings in revenues. In the US, margin lending and order flow payments make up substantial percentages of online brokers’ bottom line. But things move fast – in the US companies such as Datek Online have been competitively forced to pass on their savings, and now rebate their order flow payments to customers.

The increased competition does not mean that some online brokers won’t do well – they will. In a rising market, as the hordes leap on to the bandwagon, online brokers consistently shine. But with the competitive mix of price, additional services and heavy marketing expenses, the shine will have just that much less luster.

If You Go To Prague…

If you do decide to go to Prague, there are a few things to keep in mind. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good place to start.

Americans, Brits and other European citizens need no visa, just a valid passport. The Czech currency is the Koruna (Kcs); US$1 = Kcs33.50, 1 German mark = Kcs18. Tourist information: Prague Information Service tel +4202 187, Old Town Square.


For an overnighter, this flight for four people worked out cheaper than taking the train!.

Plane rental:

US$107 per hour wet. Landing fee: US$18.50 Approach Fee: US$9. Handling & Assistance: US$17 Parking: US$4.50 Airport Tax: $14.


We stayed at the Hotel Atlantic (tel +42 02 2481 1084, Na Porici 9) where singles or doubles are US$107 or US$125 per night with breakfast.


Prague Airport is on +4202 2011-1111; Mr Sovak at +4202 2011-4383. Munich Flight Information is at +49 89 9780-350/1/2, fax 970 1424. Munich WX-Brief is at +49 89 1593 8135/6. Munich Flyers is at +49 89 6427-0761.

Closing Your Flight Plan

VFR Flight plans are automatically closed by Prague tower on your arrival at Prague airport, so there’s no need to telephone anyone. But on the return to Germany you must remember to close your flight plan by calling Munich Flight Information.


Jeppesen ( VFR/GPS Chart Germany ED-5 covers south-eastern Germany, western Czech Republic and the entire area near Prague’s Ruzyna Airport; Chart ED-6 covers Munich and Augsburg. Buy VFR charts in Munich at Geo Buch, Rosental 6 (tel 089 265-030).

Orlando Gets A Hostel

Sun-bronzed guests lounge by the pool. Others mingle by the lake, some splashing by in pedal-boats. The fountain gurgles. But as new guests check in, the document that desk clerks ask for is not a passport.

It’s a hostel card.

This is Hostelling International’s latest experiment: the HI Orlando Resort.

For the past several years, Hostelling International has been quietly working on its image, trying to make its product – budget accommodation with a socially and environmentally conscious twist – more accessible to people over age 26.

HI’s surveys of hostelers around the country showed a great need for a second Orlando-area hostel, and it took the plunge earlier this year. Similar market research resulted in additional hostels in cities such as San Francisco and Boston.

Heavy Competition
“The challenge here,” says Beth Barrett, general manager of the new hostel, “is to try to insinuate the hostelling experience into the center of the glitziest, most neon-filled tourist strip in the entire country.” The Orlando area has one of the highest concentrations of hotel rooms in the United States.

By taking on all the glitz and the inexpensive motels that line Route 192, about five miles south of the Disney theme parks, Barrett faces a somewhat unfamiliar dilemma: Some motels here offer double rooms at less than the cost for two to stay in the dorms.

HI is hoping the difference of a few dollars won’t be enough to make guests stray, even at the thought of more privacy. The idea here is to bring people together – in the common areas, the kitchen, the TV room – to share experiences and travel tips. And that intimacy is the first thing to go in traditional motels, where guests lock their doors and turn on the tube.

Knowing What To Expect
“Hostelers seek out hostels for a lot of reasons,” says Toby Pyle of HI’s public relations office in Washington. “Camaraderie and interaction with other travelers comes before price.” Indeed, hostelers have flocked here, and seem to agree with Pyle.

“For two of us it cost $36,” said Glen Richards of Snells Beach, New Zealand. “We saw a place down the road that had a double room for about $30, but at the hostel we knew exactly what we were getting into.”

That certainty – knowing that hostels will provide services like directions, help with trip planning, onward reservations, cooking facilities and helpful staff – is one of the things that has kept hostel stays so popular all over the world. The guest book here shows visitors from as close as New Jersey and as far away as Germany, England, Australia and New Zealand.

But it’s not just the feel-good idea of hostels that’s drawing the visitors: The hostel offers many of the same perks as motels on its two acres of property, such as the pool, lake access and volleyball and barbecue areas. Jet ski rentals are available next door. All the rooms are air-conditioned, and the whole place is accessible 24 hours a day.

Former Motel
The hostel was, in fact, a motel that HI took over earlier this year. The project, which is estimated to have cost Hostelling International $1.5 million, is in the final phase of a $100,000 renovation. The ribbon-cutting ceremonies will take place in December, though the hostel is already open for business.

While many of the rooms have been converted to dormitory-style accommodation, with four wooden bunk beds per room, others are still standard motel-style rooms with one or two queen-size beds, some with kitchenettes.

Private transportation services shuttle guests between the hostel and the area’s attractions – Disney and other theme parks in the area such as Sea World, Wet & Wild and Universal Studios Orlando. The same transport options are available at the area’s motels at similar prices.

Real Central Florida
The difference here, aside from the pool and prime lakefront location, is probably in the staff and activities. “Some people come here, spend four days at Disney and go home,” says Barrett. “That’s great, but they haven’t seen Orlando.”

Hostel staffers help to coordinate day trips in the area, working closely with the existing HI Orlando Hostel downtown, so guests can see some of the real Orlando and Central Florida: places like the Morse Museum of American Art, the Central Florida Zoological Park and the Orlando Science Center.

“We just hope that people will stay here a bit longer and see what the area has to offer,” says Barrett. “There’s a whole lot of interesting things near here that haven’t been touched by theme parks.”

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.