Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Sad or Sleeping?


Statue. Wat Po, Bangkok, Thailand.

Buying Drugs

A year of travel also requires a year of medicine. In addition to the standard meds for my back, I purchased the following travel meds on my doctor’s recommendation:

Mefloquine, also known as Larium – the principal anti-malarial med -- $501.79. As the price indicates, mefloquine was not covered by insurance.

Malarone – anti-malarial to use in areas where mosquitoes are resistant to mefloquine -- $88.79. Yes, you not only have to know when you are in a malarial area, but what meds the local mosquito population is resistant to.

Cipro – an antibiotic for traveler’s diarrhea (T.D.) -- $10.00.

Azithromycin – an antibiotic for areas in which the local T.D. bug is resistant to Cipro (such as Thailand) -- $28.39.

Acetazolamide – altitude sickness med -- $10.00

10 Syringes -- $2.49

Why syringes? Because the practice in the Third World is to provide your own syringes if you need an injection. You wouldn’t want to rely on Cambodian sterilization practices.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Close Up


Detail of statue at Wat Po, Bangkok, Thailand. Or test of ability to post a photo. Or both.

Next Month In Jerusalem

El Al will commence the only non-stop service between Los Angeles and Tel Aviv on July 23, 2006. The carrier, owned by a combination of private investors and the Israeli government, will equip the route from its four extended-range Boeing Triple 7s. This is welcome news to LAX travelers who previously have had to fly through JFK or another airport en route to Ben Gurion.

Each seat will feature a personal entertainment system with canned programming. Wireless internet and four channels of live television programming are available for an extra fee of between $10 and $30, depending on the plan selected.

That’s tacky. On a 15-hour flight, every passenger in each class of service should receive internet and live television for the price of admission. Passengers who select El Al for this route won’t be sensitive to an extra $30 on the ticket price, since the purchasing decision will probably be driven by flight duration, security or nationalism. I would feel nickel and dimed if I paid $1,400 for a round-trip ticket and was then asked to pony up another $30 to check my e-mail and watch a live broadcast of "Mad Money."

Friday, June 23, 2006

Pile Driver

You know that pile of loose papers you have in the corner of your home office, the pile you’ve been meaning to sort and file for several years?

I went through that pile today. This is some of what I found:

-- Invoice from the Oakland Marriott for lodgings during the Bar Exam in July 1998. The tab was $540.53, including room service for nine meals and two movies.

-- February 2001 invoice from the City of Santa Monica for $3 in allegedly unpaid parking fines. My response letter, with cancelled check, noting that $3 fine had indeed been paid.

-- Tie pin in the shape of the KNBC Channel 4 “Telecopter.”

-- Woman’s phone number, scribbled on the back of a hair salon’s business card. I never called.

-- An invitation to a wedding that never happened. I forgot to R.S.V.P., and that’s probably just as well.

-- An undeposited business expense reimbursement check for $13.27 dated February 20, 2004. I should deposit it just to see what happens.

-- Address list for The Doobie Brothers, lineup circa 1999.

-- Ticket stub to The Raveonettes at the El Rey on April 6, 2004. They had their chance, and now it’s someone else’s turn.

-- Business card of actress/model/stripper. That one I called.

-- The Social Security statement you get once a year. In 1989, I earned $150.

-- Beverly Hills and Santa Monica Yellow Pages, “Keep Until March 2001.”

-- Hanging with The Strokes CD, fourteen tracks “chosen by Julian and the boys,” distributed with the 20 Sept 2003 issue of New Musical Express. Still sealed in shrinkwrap.

And dust. Lots of dust.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Intriguing Quote of Day

"No international school guarantees admission to [U.S.] embassy children [in Tokyo], so the [community liaison officers] play an essential role in ensuring good access to good schools for embassy families. Lynne [Murphy] and Jennifer [Watson] made significant progress improving the relationship between the embassy and the international schools, which had been eroding due to the inability of the U.S. government to compete with U.S. companies willing to pay large grants to schools to ensure access for their employees' children."

Inside a U.S. Embassy: How The Foreign Service Works For America, edited by Shawn Dorman (American Foreign Service Ass'n 2003), at Page 53.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Two Books

The two books that I recommend to everybody who is contemplating long-term travel are Vagabonding by Rolf Potts and The Practical Nomad by Edward Hasbrouck. The books are opposites in scope, approach and temperament.

Vagabonding is high concept. It surveys the terrain of long-term, independent travel from the perspective of 30,000 feet and 200 years. The book is a collection of think pieces on different aspects of travel, such as meeting locals, pacing yourself and making the decision to go. The writing is weightless, and you can finish the 206-page book in one afternoon on the patio. The author’s goal is to outline the big picture and to convince you to temporarily shelve your career as an assistant claims adjuster and hit the road. www.vagabonding.net

The Practical Nomad is high content. Almost every aspect of long-term travel is discussed in detail, based on the author’s 20 years of experience. The book is dense. The chapter about the Alice-In-Wonderland world of airline ticket pricing was one of the most challenging texts I’ve read since law school – and one of the most rewarding. This is a book you study like homework, sitting at a desk with pen and highlighter. www.practicalnomad.com

The books work well in tandem. The generality of Vagabonding sells you the product but does not tell you how to install it – which is when you turn to The Practical Nomad’s explanation of how luggage weight limits differ if the flight and fare have a North American nexus (about 60 pounds) or not (about 44 pounds). Sooner or later, the monsoon of information in The Practical Nomad makes you re-consider what you’re getting yourself into – which is when you turn to Vagabonding’s Zen discussion of how getting drunk on the road is different from getting drunk at home.

Monday, June 19, 2006

New Entry

The Kingdom of Thailand this week denied my request for a four-entry tourist visa and granted me the standard two entries. The consular officer was unmoved by my request for additional time in which to study the virtues of Buddhism, the Thai alphabet and the sixty-year reign of His Majesty The King.

A tourist visa allows the recipient to enter a country a specific number of times, referred to as the number of “entries.” Visas on arrival – those issued at the airport without any pre-flight paperwork – are usually single-entry visas. You arrive, you spend some money, you leave.

Two-, three- and four-entry visas are exactly that; the relevant ministry is granting the recipient permission to enter the country the specified number of times before completing an additional application. The more entries you have, the more flexibility you have.

The Holy Grail of long-term travel is a “multi-entry” visa, which allows the traveler to enter and leave the country an unlimited number of times during the life of the visa.

Single-entry visas are adequate for travelers who only want to visit a country for a few weeks. The more time a traveler wants to spend within a country or region, the more advisable it is to obtain a visa with a greater number of entries. The principal advantages of a multi-entry visa are longer allowed times within the country and less bureaucratic hassle.

Thailand’s current policy is to grant two-entry tourist visas and to review applications for three and four entries on a case-by-case basis. Thailand does not currently issue multi-entry tourist visas, reserving the privilege of unlimited entry to applicants who meet the criteria for year-long non-immigrant visas, such as business, film production and religious activities.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Chore

Today, I re-grouted the shower off the master bedroom. I apply the commutative property of housework, pursuant to the equation:

(I pay guy) +

(guy re-grouts) =

(I re-grout).

It's basic math.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Back In The DSRSL

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka today granted me a five-year, multiple-entry tourist visa. This means that I can enter and exit Sri Lanka as often as I want within the next five years, provided that I leave the country at least once every six months.

Except that’s not exactly what this visa – or any visa – really means.

A visa is usually issued by the Foreign Ministry. It communicates to all other public officials of the issuing nation that the Foreign Ministry has received all of the appropriate paperwork and fees, has conducted any necessary interviews and, in its opinion, the recipient of the visa should be allowed into the country for the length of time and on the terms noted in the visa.

But a visa is not a command; it is more in the nature of a rebuttable presumption. The border officials – who often work for the Interior Ministry or the armed forces, not the Foreign Ministry -- have the authority to allow a visa holder into the country for fewer days, on more restrictive terms, or not at all. This important caveat rarely appears on the face of a visa, but the Sri Lankans state it plainly: “This visa does not ensure permission to land, which is entirely at the discretion of the authorities at the port of arrival.”

Thus, the Sri Lankan visa makes up in clarity what it lacks in artistry. Unlike the Indian tourist visa which (as I mentioned below) is a work of the engraver’s art, the Sri Lankan visa is a large box of text, with heavy blue borders, created with the thud of an inked, hand-held rubber stamp. The vertical border on the left is not on its page but is on the other pages of the passport which peek out on the left edge. It would be obvious if someone tried to move the Sri Lankan visa to a different passport, because the box would then have no left edge. A low-tech anti-tampering technique.

The visa’s saving aesthetic grace is an actual, serrated-edge, postage-style stamp in the lower left-hand corner. The top of the stamp says “Ceylon,” which is Sri Lanka’s old name, and a word which brings to mind images of plantations, adventurers and Empire. It may only be PR for the tourists, but it makes me want to fly into Colombo, open my passport to the proper page and respectfully request that the border officers grant me entrance for the maximum time allowed by the visa.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Breakfast with Warren and Annette

I take my breakfast most mornings at Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian café on Ventura Boulevard. I don’t usually use phrases like “take my breakfast,” but something about Francophone cafés calls for snobbish diction. I like to think it’s a classier place than the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf where Perez Hilton grows his beard.

Sitting at a corner table this morning were Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. Senator Bulworth was rolling calls about a talk he planned to give on an unspecified ballot proposal, and he was speaking loudly enough for everyone in my half of the café to hear. His wife was actively engaged in the goings-on but, perhaps aware that she was in a public place, spoke in an indiscernible low rumble.

Bugsy was concerned that the text of the initiative he had in his possession was not the exact text which was out for signatures, and he was trying to confirm which text was which. He had a point.

Last year, Governor Schwarzenegger got into a pickle because the Attorney General approved one version of a ballot initiative but the version which was circulated for voter signatures had somewhat different wording. Two lower courts kicked the proposition off the ballot, but the California Supreme Court bailed the Governor out and ordered the proposition to go before the voters, the legal impact of the disparate wording to be decided after the election. The proposition failed, and the state Supreme Court, in ruling that the specific dispute had become moot, warned that “proponents of initiative petitions would be well advised to take all steps necessary to ensure that the mishap that occurred in the present case does not recur in the future.” So give Clyde Barrow credit for keeping up with precedent and voicing a legitimate concern.

Then John Reed said the words you never want to hear from the guy talking next to you on a cel phone: “Let me put you on speakerphone.”

I jerked my head and gave Dick Tracy my best hairy eyeball. Everybody has the God-given right to sit in a café and plot the revolution. But if you’re going to put your comrade on speakerphone, take it back to HQ.

Whether or not he saw me, the taller one from Ishtar changed his mind and continued talking normally, saving the other patrons from hearing the musings of his cadre. I finished my Paris ham and Gruyere cheese omelet, served with mesclun salad and black coffee. Man and wife were still at their table, rolling calls, when I left.

Finally, the conventions of celebrity reportage obligate me to inform you that both Mister Beatty and Miss Bening looked radiant, were dressed in understated but expensive-looking clothing and were not in the company of any of their perfect, sparkling children.

LA Observers

Welcome, LA Observed readers!

Editor Kevin Roderick was gracious enough to write a blurb this morning about Knife Tricks. His site, well known to LA politicos and journos, is at www.laobserved.com.

My hearty thanks. And welcome, new readers.

Monday, June 05, 2006

No Initiative

The ballot for Tuesday’s California primary election is mercifully short on statewide ballot propositions, with only two. The November 2004 ballot had 16.

I almost always vote No. Most ballot propositions request an increase in taxes, spending or debt, or seek the creation of a bounty (usually damages or attorneys’ fees) that one group can attempt to extract from another. In California politics, rent-seeking interest groups who can’t push their desired concession through the Legislature put it on the ballot. The advocates of government-by-initiative say it is pure participatory democracy. I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

The current Proposition 81, which seeks to issue $600 million in bonds for the construction and renovation of public libraries, is an example of how California’s spending proposals are usually couched in terms of Mom and apple pie. About twice a year, Californians are asked to vote up or down on ballot initiatives to finance schools, parks, highways, clean water and other public goods that no sane person could vote against.

I vote No on all of them. Determining line items in the state budget is not my job. I elect and pay for an array of state officials, and I expect them to spend their days in airless caucus rooms in the basement of the Capitol haggling over fiscal details. I’m busy updating my Netflix queue.

Some propositions are comical in their specificity. On the same day that Californians had to choose between George W. Bush and John Kerry, we also had to say Yea or Nay on a ballot proposal designating the proceeds from the sale of surplus state property for the redemption of Economic Recovery Bonds and, after the bonds are redeemed, for the Special Fund For Economic Uncertainties. (The proposition passed, 73% to 27%.)

Some of the ballot measures cannot currently be avoided. For example, the California Constitution requires that voters approve the issuance of general obligation bonds (except in time of invasion or insurrection). But does the electorate really have to speak directly on the issue of the State Air Resources Board’s decision to issue tax credits for the retrofitting of agricultural waste and rice straw conversion facilities (Prop. 7 in Nov. 1998)?

Furthermore, initiatives and other mandates have encumbered the budget process, hampering elected and appointed officials. The independent California Budget Project, with a stated mission of advocating on behalf of low- and middle-income persons, concluded in 2003 that only about 35% of the state’s spending was discretionary, and I have no reason to believe the percentage has changed substantially.

So, every time a spending proposal passes, the politicians who prevail in that same election are being sent or returned to Sacramento with less authority. I elected Governor Schwarzenegger to set priorities, and he needs the fiscal freedom to do so.

Vote No! On general principle!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Name Change

After much thought and the prompting of a real journalist friend, I decided to drop the pseudonym and blog under my real name. After all, I no longer have any employers or clients to offend.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Premium Economy

Conde Nast Traveler has an item in its June 2006 issue about the increase in “premium economy” seats, a subject I blogged about earlier. The magazine compares the Premium Economy offerings of 11 airlines, including United, which it reports to be the only U.S. carrier to offer the class of service.

The winner: Thai Airways, by a mile. The seat pitch – the space between one seat and the same point in the seat in front of it – in Thai Premium Economy is a luxurious 42 inches. The seats are priced only a few hundred dollars above the standard Economy seats.

“This is a supreme value,” the magazine's William J. McGee opines. “With the additional legroom costing just $84 per inch, this is unquestionably money well spent.”

Wednesday at the Museum in Chicago

Want to see one painting? Or walk in one park? Or eat at one restaurant? Use a long layover.

Most layovers are short. You land in the hub, walk briskly to your connecting flight and are back in the air within the hour. But you can use a long layover to visit the actual city and see one – usually only one – of its attractions.

Yesterday, I used a six-hour layover in Chicago to see the painting Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat. The large pointillist work (about 7 feet by 10 feet) is part of the public collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, easily accessible by El from either of Chicago’s main airports. So I recommend a long layover if you want to see something specific in your connection city.

Wait, the frequent flyers object, that’s a violation of airline routing rules! Yes, it certainly can be. Airlines impose maximum connection times as a tool to differentiate between low-price tourist tickets and high-price business tickets. If you call an airline reservation number and request an itinerary with a six-hour layover, the computerized reservation service will probably charge you for two separate legs, increasing the cost of the ticket.

What’s the loophole? Book your entire trip to occur in the late afternoon, but take the first leg of the journey in the morning by just showing up at the airport and asking to be put on the next flight to the hub with an open seat.

Here’s an example: On your return from visiting Aunt Mable in Seattle, book the 3:10 p.m. flight on Oceanic Airlines to San Francisco, with a 6:45 p.m. connection to your home in Los Angeles.

That day, arrive at the Seattle airport in the morning. Ask the agent at the counter to put you on an earlier flight to San Francisco. If the counter agent can’t issue you a boarding pass for an earlier flight, walk around the terminal looking for other Oceanic Airlines flights to San Francisco and make the same request of the gate agents, who have the best information about how many empty seats are on each plane about to depart. Don’t change the San Francisco to Los Angeles leg.

If there’s an open seat in a similar booking class, you are now flying to San Francisco, with a six- or seven-hour layover. Enough time to take a cab into the City and have lunch at the Top of the Mark. Or walk around Golden Gate Park. Or see the Rodin sculptures at the Legion of Honor.