Sunday, March 5, 2017


It was Chinese New Year's Eve in Singapore where most of the city is Chinatown.  The Year of the Rooster.  Giant colorful roosters adorned the main streets in town.   The locals scrambled around, doing last minute shopping before stores closed for the holiday.  People were in a partying mood.   Chinese music was blaring from loudspeakers.

Our dinner reservations were at the Mouth Restaurant.  This was to be authentic Chinese food.  It was so authentic that none of the staff spoke English.   Fortunately for us, the menu was in both Chinese and English.  We pointed to the menu so the waiter would get our orders right.   There were six of us seated--the four New Yorkers,  Dianne and I.  The women ordered Maine lobster, and the cost was fairly reasonable.  I had tenderloin beef tips with Kobe sauce.  I think Kobe is Japanese, but that's close enough.   Everyone had spring rolls and shrimp fried rice, and it was delicious. 

Outside as night fell, it was a sea of neon lights and wall to wall revelers.  We reflected on our adventures of the past two weeks.


Sri Lanka is a teardrop shaped island off the South coast of India.  It used to be called Ceylon.  Today its official name is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka which sounds scary to most Americans, but actually, compared to India, it is very progressive.   The government is the oldest democracy in Asia.  Most of the people are Sinhalese, with minority populations of Tamils and Malays.  There is also a small aboriginal population.

In contrast to India, the capital city of Colombo is very clean.  The people are hard working and prosperous.  You don't see much poverty in Colombo.  The prevailing religion is Buddhism, and many of the houses have shrines in front. 

Sri Lanka under British rule until 1948 was essentially a plantation economy.   The most important crops were cinnamon, tea and rubber, and they are still important although the economy is diversified.

Several years ago, Sri Lanka was the battleground in a civil war.  Government forces were battling a terrorist group called the Tamil Tigers.  Don't confuse these guys with the Detroit Tigers.   Tamil is a state in Southern India where many Sri Lankans are descended from.   The Tamils make up about 15% of the population of Sri Lanka; they are primarily Hindus; and they claimed to be persecuted by the Buddhist Sinhalese.  Their aim was to set up an independent country on the North part of the island.

According to our guide, the Tamil Tigers were a Marxist organization run by a psychopath, one Velopillai Prabhakaran who was wanted by Interpol for murder, organized crime, you name it.  Their contribution to world culture was the suicide vest.  They pioneered the use of women to wear the vests. 

The organization's other claim to fame was its assassination of two world leaders--former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and Sri Lanka President Ramasinghe Premadasa in 1993, not to mention other high ranking officials.   The U.S. declared the Tamil Tigers a terrorist organization, even more fearsome than Al Queda.  Eventually, in 2009, the Sri Lanks military caught up with Prabhakaran and killed him in a gun battle.  With the loss of their charismatic leader, the terror organization faded away quickly after that, and the country today is safe for tourists. 

Kandy Kingdom

Kandy, a city of 125,000 in the central highlands, is the second largest city in Sri Lanka.   It is interesting, not necessarily because of its name, but for the fact that beginning in the 1400's, it was the capital of the Kandyan Kingdom, an independent country which successfully fended off the Portuguese, the Dutch and others, until the British defeated them in 1815 and incorporated the kingdom into Ceylon. 

Even after that, the Kandy people weren't easy to subdue, and the Uva Rebellion in 1818 created a tragic situation.  Between the British massacre of thousands, and European diseases like smallpox, the population of Kandyland was decimated and was never a threat again

Kandy is considered a sacred city to the Buddhists.  Its most famous shrine is the Temple of the Tooth and should be on the bucket list for dentists around the world.  It is one of the holiest places of worship and pilgrimage for Buddhists because it contains the Relic of the Tooth of the Buddha.  Apparently somebody got the Buddha's dentist to testify that this was the real McCoy, and the pilgrims overwhelmed the place.  The Temple is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

You may recognize Kandy from the movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom which was filmed there. 


Before you get in trouble,  I want to point out the Thais pronounce the city  "Poo-ket".  .  Phuket, on the coast of the Andaman Sea, is a popular resort area of Thailand.  Among its sister cities are Nice, France and Las Vegas.    Phuket suffered major damage and loss of life in the great tsunami of 2004. 

We hired a local guide to drive us to the Tiger Sanctuary.  We first signed a waiver that no attorney would recommend signing, and we were allowed to walk into a tiger cage containing 5 full grown tigers.  We were accompanied by a photographer and a trainer wielding a 2 foot stick to control the animals.  The Tiger Sanctuary appears to derive much of its income from selling photographs and t-shirts with photographs engraved upon them.    The tigers were raised from infancy, so they are accustomed to people.

As you can imagine, there are lots of rules.  Don't approach the tiger from the front.  Don't start running.  Don't take flash pictures.  Sudden movements are out.  Beyond that, you can pull the tail, rub the animal's belly, hug the animal.   I would expect that the tigers were fed before we entered the cage, so long as they didn't feast on the previous group of tourists.  As a practical matter, tigers sleep a lot in the daytime, and the handlers sprinkle water on the animal's paw to get him to raise his head or open his mouth. 

No visit to Phuket is complete without visiting the Big Buddha, built about 10 years ago as a tourist attraction for devout Buddhists and other tourists.  It is set on the crest of a tall mountain outside of town, and the view is spectacular.  This statue of white Burma marble is enormous and can be seen for miles around.  It is about 150 feet high and over 80 feet in width at the base.  It was and is financed with private donations.  We found donation boxes all over the place.  This is the Buddhist version of the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janiero. 


Our cruise ended in Singapore, the Lion City, one of the richest cities in the world.  Its location straddles the shipping lanes through the Straits of Malacca, one of the most lucrative trade routes in the world.  Its wealth is derived from its industrious people, mostly Chinese,  who control those major trade routes.   You can see all of this from the top of the Singapore Flyer, a huge Ferris Wheel from which you can see container ships backed up offshore for miles in the harbor.  Many of these are for rent, like Hertz Rent a Container Ship.

This was our second trip to Singapore, and we once again stayed at the nearby Conrad Centennial Hotel, across the street from the massive Suntech Mall on three levels.  The malls in Singapore dwarf those in the U.S., and it is easy to get lost.   We stopped in the mall currency exchange to exchange our leftover Rupees and also some dollars.  You get 140 Singapore dollars for 100 American dollars. 

After about a  mile of wandering in the mall, we finally found the McDonalds.  For lunch, I got the Golden Prosperity Extra Value Meal.  It consisted of a juicy beef burger, black pepper sauce, a crispy hashed brown and some onion on a sesame seed bun.  The price was reasonable and I thought the sandwich was pretty good.   I don't think they serve that sandwich in the States.  Dianne didn't like it, however, so I took her to the nearby Burger King. 

We had only a day to spend in Singapore, and we wanted to visit the market where the local shop.  We took a taxi to the Bugis Village, a mile or two away.  This was the low rent district, with many stalls selling bogus (you can joke about the name) merchandise like t-shirts, caps and cheap tops catering to tourists.  There is a classier mall across the street also with the Bugis name. 

Gum Control Laws

In the West, Singapore is known for its strict gum control laws, passed in 1992.  The same law also controls alcohol and tobacco.  It is not against the law to chew gum, only to sell or import it, broadly defined--you can't bring it into the country for any reason.  This law is strictly enforced, and there is a $700 fine for spitting it out on the street..  There is an exception for dental or nicotine gum provided you have a doctor's prescription.  The reason for the law is that vandals were gumming up the works (elevators, keyholes, mailboxes) in high rise housing, and the door sensors in the $5 billion local railway system.  The repairs were costly and time consuming. 

Draconian fines and possible imprisonment solved the problem.  We're talking up to $100,000 for gum trafficking (first offense) and up to 2 years imprisonment.   As a result, the streets and sidewalks of Singapore are very clean.  There is not even a black market for gum.

The Western press seized upon a 1994 case in which an American teen, Michael Fay was sentenced to caning for vandalism.  Fay was actually prosecuted for using spray paint, not chewing gum.  Notwithstanding the press coverage, caning is not a penalty for gum offenses.  We may find it cruel and unusual punishment, but under British rule before Singapore became independent, caning was a very common punishment. 

A BBC reporter suggested to long time President Lee Kuan Yew that such harsh penalties would stifle people's creativity.  Yew's response was, "If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana!"

Gum control came up in the negotiations between the U.S. and Singapore for a bi-lateral free trade agreement.  The negotiations dragged on for 5 years until 2004, and the sticking points were the War in Iraq and chewing gum.  The Wrigley Company hired a Washington lobbyist and obtained the help of my congressman Phil Crane who was then chairman of the Subcommittee on Trade, to get gum on the agenda.  It was a sticky situation for Singapore, and the parties agreed to amend the free trade agreement to allow certain medicinal gum (Orbit) provided it was sold by a dentist or pharmacist who would be required to take down the names of buyers. 


Sunday, February 19, 2017


India is a land of contracts, to say the least.  They don't appear to have zoning laws.  As a result, you see magnificent luxury buildings standing side by side with shanty towns.  The residents of the shanty towns live in squalor.  Garbage is strewn around wherever you look.  Pigs and goats roam freely through the trash, foraging for food.  Did I mention the cattle which are sacred to the Hindus.  These folks feed the cattle and presumably used them for milk, but they don't eat them. 

There are over a billion people in India, and the cities we visited, Mumbai   (Bombay), Delhi, Agra, Mangalore and Cochin are teeming with people.  India has 29 states and 7 union territories.  In ancient times, the country was named after the Indus River which flows across Pakistan which used to be part of India. 

Fashionwise, India is the only country where Nehru jackets are still in style.  Our tour bus meandered through the fetid streets and crowded markets of Mumbai.  There doesn't appear to be a lot of street crime despite what one would expect in poor areas.   Eventually, we reached a modern expressway built over the bay and then we quickly got to the airport.

Several billboards display the larger than life likeness of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is the most powerful man in the country.  He grew up poor, the son of a street vendor in Gujarat state, not far from Mumbai.  He is considered a Hindu nationalist, right wing politician who greatly upsets Pakistan.  That alone makes him popular in India.   Modi's policies are intended to achieve economic growth for India, and environmental concerns take a back seat.  For example he took action to suppress the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other human rights groups on the grounds that they interfere with economic growth.   These groups, the Muslims and others compare Modi to Donald Trump, and not in a good way.  India also has a president, but that position is largely ceremonial. 

Modi has created some controversy recently when he made a big push to convince the people to use toilets.  In India, that can be an uphill battle.  Even with government subsidies to encourage people to install them, people still have to be persuaded to use them.   Until then Indians must watch where they step.  The Untouchables will clean up the mess.

Speaking of Untouchables, in India, people live by the caste system.  These are not the Eliot Ness Untouchables.  The Indian Untouchables are also known as the Dalits (Sanskrit word for "oppressed").  We're talking millions of people.  Incidentally, today, it is illegal in India to use the term "Dalit" (the D word) to describe a class of people.  Now they are officially called "schedule caste",  The caste system dates back to ancient times, but the British Raj found the system useful in administering the country.   Essentially lower caste people could not own land and were restricted to certain menial jobs.

The way it works is that there are 4 castes.  The Brahmin (priests) are on top; then come the Kahatryla (warriors and rulers); Viasya (merchants, landowners, skilled workers) and Sudra (unskilled workers).  Then, below that are the Untouchables, or out of caste (outcasts) who were restricted to jobs like cleaning latrines, street sweeping and collecting garbage.   They were segregated from polite society.  These folks were not allowed in temples and forced to live outside of town.  It is not necessarily a racial thing because the Brahmins and the Dalits are of the same racial stock.  However, in my observation, many of the poor were dark skinned.

In India, occupations were and are handed down from father to son.  There is not a lot of upward mobility in India although the Indian government has affirmative action policies to help out the lower castes.   The Prevention of Atrocities Act was passed in 1989, but we still read about ugly situations like gang rapes.

Today there are Dalits in the legislature, and some have achieved high office, such as President and Chief Justice.   The first female speaker of the Indian legislature was a Dalit.  By and large though, the poor kids, at least the ones we saw, don't attend school, so there is not much hope they will ever improve themselves.   

The Indian government does have a welfare system, but traditionally it has been corrupt, with middlemen taking a share of the money/food intended for the poor.  The government is trying to do something about that, but obviously, much needs to be done.

Because of the squalid conditions, we were warned not to eat street food, drink only bottled water and not breathe the air.  The latter is hard to do, but many people wear masks.   The dreaded "Delhi belly" is to be avoided at all costs.  The more modern version is "New Delhi belly" which  you might catch from eating at the New Delhi deli.  Safety doesn't appear to overly concern the Indians.  We saw many unsafe conditions like excavations not roped off and no danger signs.   People have to look out for themselves.

We flew from Mumbai to Delhi on Jet Airways, a local Indian airline.  They serve you a full Indian lunch on the 2 hour flight.  I took my chances and ate the spicy curry dish with no ill effects.   Our friend Cheryl from New York also ate the food.  The rest of our traveling companions pretty much stuck to the naan bread which is like a tasty flatbread.    The naan bread is like non bread and can be compared to a tortilla.

Delhi was the capital of India for many years until they built New Delhi close by.  We stayed two nights at the 5 star Trident Hotel in Delhi.  The buffet was an epicurean delight with many varieties of meats, seafood, breads, desserts, all prepared Indian style.  Indian cooking makes generous use of rice, lentils and curries.  Many dishes are vegetarian, but lamb and chicken are popular.  Most dishes are served with pungent sauces. 


No visit to India is complete without seeing the Taj Mahal.  It is located in Agra in the North Central part of the country in Uttar Pradesh state.  We took a high speed train South from Delhi.  The train station in Delhi is an experience by itself.   Thousands of people pass through the station each day, and keeping it clean is a futile job.  The trains generally run on time.  Most Indians get around by train if at all possible.  As our train waited in the station, another train was pulling out, and I saw several men quickly sneak onto that train while it was moving. 

We had our own railroad car at the back of the train for the 120 people on our tour.  The train car has seen better days but it is functional though not luxurious.  On the back of the car is a bathroom with a hole in the floor and outlines of where to put your feet when you do your business.  I'm not sure what they do for No. 2.  On the other end of the car was an "American" style bathroom with an actual toilet for the women. 

To our surprise, they serve you a full lunch on the train, but we had just eaten on the airplane and after watching the sights, we were in no mood to eat.   The train pulled out of the station and cruised through the outskirts of Delhi where we could observe how the Indians live, and it isn't pretty.   The effluvia is everywhere.  Were talking run down shacks with tin roofs.  Most of the people burn trash out in front of their homes, apparently for cooking..  Plastic bags don't burn efficiently so they accumulate near the tracks.  To me, it seems like the government could hire thousands of idle people to pick up trash, but they don't.  Many of the people tend small garden plots to raise food.  In the countryside, people worked the fields without equipment.  Cattle roamed freely among the people.  We even saw a large sow with her piglets foraging through the garbage. 

In the countryside, the train picked up speed, eventually going over 100 mph, but had to slow down when  entering a town because of people and animals milling about near the tracks.   I was amazed this ancient train could go that fast.

In Agra, a tour bus took us from the train station to a transfer point a few blocks from the Taj Mahal.  Then we had to transfer to a smaller, electric powered bus, probably for security reasons, to get to the Taj.  When we arrived, we were besieged by an army of peddlers and panhandlers, shoving trinkets in our faces.  The panhandlers are pathetic.  Most are missing limbs or handicapped in some other way, some severely.  I'm not sure what kind of safety net is provided by the government for these people, but the idea here is to make you feel so bad you hand them a few Rupees.  From my considerable experience with panhandlers, if you give to one, many others will magically appear out of nowhere.

The Taj Mahal is magnificent, of course.  It looks just like the pictures.  Often it is partially obscured by smog which is everywhere in India.  The Indians burn coal and garbage, and this stuff gets in your lungs and permeates everything.  Fortunately, the day we visited, the smog cleared up somewhat and we got a good view of the structure. 

The 4 minarets framing the main building are not physically connected to it.  The architects recognized that Agra is in an earthquake zone and didn't want a quake to topple them onto the main structure.  The building is remarkably well constructed for a 17th Century building.  The architects noted that the soil is sandy, and they sank caissons down to the bedrock to support the building.  That was revolutionary for the time.

The 231 foot high Taj Mahal is constructed of white marble which is quarried locally.  The structure is a fusion of Indian and Persian architecture.  The marble was decorated by local craftsmen who carved intricate inlay designs decorating them with semi precious stones.  You can't see them except up close.  There are other buildings in the complex including a museum, but we didn't visit them.

Shah Jahan built the Taj as a mausoleum to his queen, Mumtaz Mahal who died in 1631 at age 38 shortly after giving birth to her 14th child.   It was a love story, although the Royal Emperor had other wives also.  Her last wish to her husband was that he construct a beautiful and incomparable monument over her grave as a token of their worldly inseparable love (her words, not mine).  This was a classic jobs program.  It took 20,000 laborers 22 years to finish the Taj Mahal. 

There was a fair amount of intrigue inside the palace.  Shah Jahan was eventually deposed by his son Aurangreb who placed him under house arrest in Agra Fort.  He was held in the Burj Muasamman tower with a marble balcony and a view of the Taj Mahal.  After he died, the government rehabilitated him and placed his body in the mausoleum next to his queen.

Agra was the capital of the Moghul Empire in Medieval times.  Moghul as in Genghis Khan.  The imposing 94 acre Agra Fort was the residence of the Moghul emperors until 1638 when they moved the capital to Delhi.   The fort is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.    In effect, the fort is a walled city.  It occupies the high ground and from the back one has a commanding view of the countryside and the Taj Mahal, about a mile and a half away.   On the way from the Taj Mahal to Agra Fort, I stopped at McDonalds for a snack. 


Our bus drove us back from Agra to Delhi on the Interstate, at least the Indian version, and traffic was light until we got to Delhi.   The distance is about 140 miles.   The traffic in Delhi as well as in Mumbai, is horrendous.  Delhi is incredibly congested, and the last 20 miles through the city can take 2 hours.  A three lane highway becomes 5 lanes with drivers cutting in and out.  Many people drive motor scooters which can squeeze between lanes, obviously very dangerous.  As I said earlier, safety is not a big concern in this part of the world.       To get us back to the hotel more quickly, our bus detoured off the main highway to see the capital complex in New Delhi.  We passed the prime minister's house and the legislature. 

The people got used to Delhi, and then they came out with a new version, Delhi 2.0, or New Delhi.  In contrast to Old Delhi, New Delhi was built by the British in the early 20th Century and became the capital of India in 1947.  The two cities together, comprising the National Capital Territory, are enormous with over 16 million people. 

To return to our cruise ship, we flew Jet Airways from Delhi, back to Mumbai and change planes to Mangalore in the Southern part of India.   We later learned there is a direct flight from Delhi to Mangalore, but apparently Celebrity determined it cheaper to fly the long, indirect way.   In Mumbai, the airline made a decision to keep us on the same plane.  However,  we had to change seats to correspond with our boarding passes for the second flight.   Most of us had bags stored in the overhead compartment   The other passengers got off the plane, and they started loading the plane with the new passengers before we got a chance to find our new seats and move our overhead bags.  The result was bedlam. 

The new passengers were about 80 Muslim pilgrims, mostly old women dressed like nuns and missing teeth.  These Indians were hostile.  They had sharp elbows and didn't hesitate to use them while pushing their way through the narrow aisle.  The women were illiterate and could not read their boarding passes.  Our friend Cheryl from New York took charge.   She stood in the aisle, and these women assumed she worked for the airline.   They would show her the boarding passes, and she would point out the correct seat. Order was restored.

Indians, at least the civil servants are very bureaucratic.  You must sit in the seat corresponding to your boarding pass--or else.  Security is tight.  They check your tickets and boarding passes at every turn.


Cochin is located in Kerala state in the South of India.  Culture is different in Cochin than in the Northern part of the country.  The weather is hot and steamy, even in January.  Cochin is tolerant to many religions.  Cochin has a Jewish presence thousands of years old.  Many of the Hindu buildings have 6 pointed stars engraved in them.  Although the star is similar to the Star of David, it is also a Hindu symbol.  Some of the Cochin Christians were thought to be Jews who were converted by the disciple St Thomas who traveled there in ancient times.  Many of their customs are similar to those of the Jews. 

We drove through Kerala state on the way to the coast, taking in the sights.  To our surprise we saw numerous Christian churches and schools.   Near the coast are waterways and canals on which thousands of people live on houseboats, many of which are elaborately decorated.   Others rent out their houseboats to tourists like us, sometimes for days at a time.  We took a pleasant cruise for an hour or so through the backwaters of Kochi observing how people in this area live. 

One restaurant promoted its "homely" food on a billboard.  We didn't stop in but we guessed the presentation would be less than attractive. 

Cochin got its name from the fact that it was like China.  For centuries, Cochin has been a cosmopolitan city, a key trading center with the Arabs and the Chinese.  The Jews' presence in Cochin goes back to the days of King Solomon.  They were called the Malabar Jews and their merchants were very prosperous.  They controlled the pepper trade.   The ancient Jews were dark skinned but those who came from Europe in the Middle Ages were light skinned and called the Paradisi ("foreign Jews) or "White Jews". 



Monday, February 6, 2017


An old popular song by the late Debbie Reynolds was called Aba Daba Honeymoon.  It sounds like it could have been recorded in Abu Dhabi, but it wasn't.  The lyrics go something like "Aba daba daba daba daba daba...etc."  The song was written in 1914, long before Abu Dhabi became a city.

In fact, Abu Dhabi didn't even exist until 1970. Until then, it was a collection of tents used by the fishermen and pearl divers who populated the area.   The British ran the place.  The pearl business went South with the invention of cultured pearls which could be created inexpensively.  Those simple people are long gone, but if they can prove they or their parents lived here then, they get a free ride from the government.  Only about 20% of the people in Abu Dhabi are citizens, meaning that their parents or grandparents were living there at the time.   The rest are Indians, Pakistanis and Filipinos who make up the labor force.   The Arab citizens are steered into management positions. 

The labor force consists of contract workers.  Companies import the workers and must provide health insurance and benefits.  Most of the workers send money back home.  Because of oil wealth, there is no poverty in the United Arab Emirates. 

The oil industry, or course, transformed everything here.  The ruling families are sitting on billions of dollars of wealth, and they spend money freely on mega projects, as well as foreign policy and politics.  Abu Dhabi today is an ultra modern city of over 2.5 million with modern high rises, superhighways and shopping malls dwarfing those in the West.    Traffic is heavy, and most of the cars are high end sedans--Lexuses (Lexi?), Mercedes and BMW's.

Its not easy to get to Abu Dhabi.  There are no direct flights, at least from Chicago.  There is a direct flight from New York to Dubai which is about 100 miles North.  The cities are connected by an expressway.  We flew first class on Royal Jordanian Airlines from Chicago to Amman, Jordan, and then from Amman to Abu Dhabi.   In ancient times, Amman was settled by Greeks who called it "Philadelphia".  

Our flight was comfortable on first class, and the food was good.  We left frigid Chicago on January 6th at 9:30 PM.  By 10:30 they serve you a full dinner and then expect you to go to sleep.  In first class, the seats fold out so you're lying prone.  It's not the same as sleeping on a real bed, but you can get some rest.   The flight to Amman takes 12 hours, and they wake you up before landing to serve you breakfast, another full meal.  The layover in Amman was about 3 hours.  The airport was crawling with security.  In that part of the world, they take no chances.  The plane landed in Abu Dhabi shortly after 1 AM.  We had a lot of luggage, but it all arrived at the proper destination in one piece.  Abu Dhabi issues you a visa upon arrival at no charge.   

By this time, everything about the trip was too good to be true.  Until the driver we hired to take us to our hotel didn't show up.  You know how those guys greet you at the exit, holding up signs with  names on them.  Well ours wasn't there.  We went to the taxi booth, and they were happy to pick up a fare.  Actually, the cost turned out to be about half of what the hotel would have charged us. 

We had to exchange dollars to Abu Dhabi money.  $100 U.S. buys us about 360 Dirhams.  I expected everything to be pricey, but actually the prices in Abu Dhabi are significantly lower than in New York or Chicago.  The taxi driver drove us down the mostly empty expressways and got us to the Ritz Carlton around 3 AM.  The Ritz is a magnificent hotel.  The whole country is like that.  We couldn't see much at 3 AM, but the staff was friendly and helpful.  I didn't want to get charged for the hotel limo, and they straightened it out for us. 

The Ritz is across the street from the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, described to us as the world's largest mosque.  At least it's the largest in Abu Dhabi.  It covers 30 acres, not counting the parking lot.  In Abu Dhabi, across the street is relative.  There is an expressway to cross, and driving there is actually a couple of miles.  The hotel and mosque are on the outskirts of town several miles from downtown. 

Everything is named after Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004.  The expressway is the Sheikh Zayed the First Expressway.  I don't think there is a Second Sheikh Zayed.       As I previously noted, this was a city of mud huts until about 1970.  Now it's an architect's dream.  It looks like Las Vegas without the gambling.  We're talking high rises, expressways, a Corniche, wide canals. 

Taxi rides are relatively inexpensive, compared to New York or Chicago.  After getting some much needed rest, we hired a taxi to take us downtown.  Our concierge gave us the names of three malls to visit.   Instead of shopping, we asked the driver to give us a grand tour of the city. 

We found all the familiar sights of home--McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks and even Popeyes.  Chicken is popular in the Middle East where people don't eat pork.  The driver was Pakistani, spoke English,  and liked to talk.  He drove us downtown and back, past the Emir's palace, the World Trade Center, the Marina Mall. 

At the Emir's Palace, which is now an upscale hotel, security peers into every car, not to look for terrorists,  but to make sure women aren't wearing shorts.  Most of the guests in the hotel are Arabs, wearing traditional garb, the men in white robes and head coverings, and the women clad head to toe in black.

The following day, when we were settled in, we signed up for a Gray Line tour.  The driver took us to Heritage Village which relives the good ol' days before 1970.  We saw goatskin tents and mud huts from the time when Abu Dhabi was an obscure fishing village.  Merchants in small market stalls sell cheap clothing made in China.  Sheikh Zayed transformed all of that when the oil companies came.  To the locals, Sheikh Zayed is like George Washington is to the Americans.  He served as president of the UAE from 1971 until his death in 2004.

With all that wealth around, it was logical to build Ferrari World.  They built this massive project on Yas Island, an artificial island.  Turns out, Ferrari World is not a car dealer, although there is a Ferrari dealer in town.  This is an amusement park with the largest and fastest roller coaster in the world, The Flying Aces.  It is 206 feet high and travels 75 mph.  You can experience 5 g's.  You can also practice driving a Ferrari 200 mph in simulators.    We chose not to pay the couple hundred bucks to see another Disneyland in the Middle East. 

The Grand Mosque is worth seeing.  Since it is a place of worship, tourists must comply with the dress code.  Those who are not dressed appropriately, and there are many, must rent overclothes to wear.  Men and women must wear long sleeves rolled down.  Although the instructions told us not to wear sandals and we didn't, many people did wear them and were not turned away.  Security people, all Indians and Pakistanis, are prominently stationed to make sure everyone is dressed properly.  The singer Selena Gomez visited here last year and was criticized for posing for pictures at the mosque with her ankle shown. 

Did I mention that the mosque is very large?  In the center is the 180,000 square foot outdoor parade ground (my term), or courtyard, which can accommodate over 40,000 worshippers at one time.  The carpet, made by Iran's Carpet Company is over 60,000 square feet and weighs 35 tons. 

Going to the bathroom at the mosque is a new experience.  The men's and women's rest rooms are on opposite sides of the building, about a quarter mile apart.  To locate them, you follow the signs to "Ablution" which means ritual cleansing.  The escalator took me down to the men's room.  To my surprise, a security guard directed me to remove my shoes and store them.  They provide slippers at the entrance to that facility.

The mosque even has a library.  It was significantly smaller than I would have expected, a large room, perhaps 2000 square feet.   The books and publications cover a range of Islamic subjects like science, civilization and calligraphy.  Most were in Arabic, although some books were in English, French, Spanish, German and even Korean. 

The United Arab Emirates is run by several prominent ruling families.  The UAE was formed in 1971 when the British departed.  Sheikh Zayed was appointed president and was re-appointed 4 more times until his death.  There is no legislature.  When a ruler passes on, the ruling families vote to name a successor. 

The Sheikh runs the show, and in a 1997 interview with the New York Times, he declared essentially that an elected legislature would just create a lot of dissent and confrontation.  The people wouldn't want that because they have everything they need.    He told the Times that the country is based on the Islamic religion and that is what the people want.  The current president is Sheikh Zayed's son, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, age 69, who has served since 2004.   In the UAE, the President is always from Abu Dhabi, and the Vice President is always from Dubai. 

With regard to human rights, as we know them, forgetaboutit.   Adultery is punishable by 100 lashes if you're not married; death by stoning if you are.  Abortion will get you 100 lashes and up to 5 years in prison.  Apostasy is punishable by death.   If a woman gets raped, in the UAE, it's probably her fault, and she may be prosecuted for crimes like alcohol consumption.  A Muslim woman marrying outside the faith can be charged with "fornication".  If a woman wants to marry, she needs approval from a male "guardian".   Most of the prosecutions in this regard are against expatriates like Indian and European women.  They are probably not going to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees.  As tourists, we just observe and say little.

In our hotel room, we settled down to watch TV.  There are channels in Arabic, English, German and Chinese, and probably other languages I wasn't familiar with.  After flipping the channels, we decided to watch the camel races.  Camels may look awkward, but they can run as fast as horses.  The jockeys are robots.

We spent 4 nights in Abu Dhabi.  When our friends came in after the second night, we signed up for a late afternoon and evening desert safari.  We rode out to the desert in a caravan of 4 wheel drive Toyota Land Cruisers.  The desert is called the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter.  There is not much except sand which the wind whips up into 100 foot dunes.  At the golf course, the sand traps can be brutal. 

We got our first experience with dune bashing, or off road driving.   The drivers let the air out of the tires for better traction on the loose sand.  Then they drive recklessly through the drifting sand dunes, making hairpin turns and zooming over the crests of the dunes down 60 degree grades.  Golf carts would tip over under these conditions.  The Toyota Land Cruisers have heavy carriages and can hold their own riding at seemingly impossible angles.   It was like riding a roller coaster without tracks.
We drove up and down at high speed for almost an hour, and my stomach was starting to protest.  Eventually we got to the camp where we would enjoy a barbecue dinner and entertainment. 

The entertainment featured camel riding and ATM's, or were they ATV's, to do your own driving over the dunes.    They provided a belly dancer, an attractive Russian girl, dressed in traditional Arab dress.  The camp spread out Oriental rugs over the loose sand with pillows to sit on.  The food was good and plentiful--BBQ chicken, lamb and even pork skewers. 


Dubai is another modern city on steroids.  Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the two largest cities in the United Arab Emirates.  The population of Dubai is over 2 million, only 10% of which are citizens--Emiratis.  About half of the people are Indian or Pakistani.  Although the oil industry financed most of the early  development, Dubai has relatively little oil.  Most of the wealth in Dubai is based on trade.

The literal high point for us was the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, about 2700 feet high.  Burj means "tower" in Arabic.   On the ground level is the super sized Dubai Mall with about 1400 stores including Bloomingdales and the British stores, Debenhams and Marks & Spencer.  For an admission fee, they take you up to the observatory on the 125th floor.  For an additional 100 bucks per person, they take you up higher in another elevator to the 148th floor, the New Deck Observatory, over 1800 feet high, and give you a nice lounge with fewer people, a cold drink and a photo with a better view.  We don't figure to be coming back anytime soon, so we paid the extra money for the extra comfort.   The building has 163 floors total, but the ones above the 148th are mostly used for mechanical and communications.  It was a nice day, and the view was spectacular.  The building was originally called the Burj Dubai, but ran into financial trouble until Sheikh Khalifa stepped up with a loan.

The nearby Burj al Arab is another iconic building, shaped like a sail.  It is located on the Umm Suqein Beach, which we visited.  It overlooks the Persian Gulf.  An over zealous critic described it as the world's only 7 star hotel.  In reality, there is no such designation--it's a 5 star hotel like many others in the area.  We didn't stay there; the Ritz Carlton in Abu Dhabi worked for us.

Money will buy you almost anything.  They build a series of artificial islands, many with luxury resorts build on them.  Dubai just built a 50 story picture frame, I'm not making this up, intended as a tourist attraction.  Most of us have heard about the indoor ski resort at the giant Mall of the Emirates where you can snow ski in 120 degree weather.  For 68 bucks, you can buy a Ski Dubai Polar Pass which gets you in the park and use the chair lift.  However, if you want to ski, it costs extra. 

In the West, we heard that alcohol was banned in the Persian Gulf countries.  Not so.  A quick perusal of Time Out Magazine for Dubai revealed 18 nightspots where women can get free drinks on Wednesday nights.  On Tuesday, they have their choice of 35 establishments offering up to 4 free mixed drinks.As far as ethnic food, you can get African, Asian, British, Caribbean, French, German, Italian, Peruvian, Russian, Thai and a few others.  Notably missing are Jewish delicatessens. 


Sunday, November 13, 2016


This September was Dianne's high school reunion.   She graduated from South Cobb High School in Austell, Georgia in 1960 something.  We decided to drive there, the long way, the scenic route, through New Orleans.

After many wrong turns because we can't read the GPS properly, we finally arrived at the proper venue.  A large group of elderly people were milling around.  We thought we were in the wrong place.  The people wore name tags, and Dianne recognized their names but not their faces.  They were her classmates!

There were about 150 students in her class and of course, many are gone, but the 50 or so who showed up were, by and large local people who never left Georgia, except for Dianne.   Nobody there was famous, but they were congenial, friendly people with Southern hospitality.

We headed straight for the bar, but wait!  This is the Bible Belt.  No alcohol was served.  We did have a buffet with rubber chicken on the menu.    We sat with old friends of Dianne.  Everyone had much to talk about, everyone had a good time, but the party broke up by 9 PM.  To us, as night owls, the night was still young and we would have preferred more quality time talking to more people.

Our road trip to Georgia and back was interesting and educational.  We visited the home towns of famous people we never thought about.  In Laurel, Mississippi, for example, we crossed Leontyne Price Boulevard, named after the famed African American opera singer who is still alive and kicking at 89.  In Cincinnati, stuck in rush hour traffic, we exited at Ezzard Charles Boulevard.  Most people outside of his hometown of Cincinnati don't remember him, but Charles was a boxer who once defeated Joe Louis to win the heavyweight title.  He then lost to Rocky Marciano.  In later life, Charles lived down the street from Mohammed Ali on the South Side of Chicago.  Charles contracted ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and died relatively young. 

Here are the other highlights of our road trip:


We left Chicago before noon on Friday and, by nightfall,  made it to Cape Girardeau, MO.   This is a historic river town of 38,000 hard by the Mississippi River near Cairo, IL.  Cape Girardeau's most famous native son is radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, but you would never know that driving through town.  The locals are not sure whether to embrace him or not.  There is no statue of Rush Limbaugh in Cape Girardeau, or probably anywhere else.

The trendy area of town, the restaurants, bars and night life is by the brightly painted levee next to the river.   The Mississippi River Tales mural, colorfully painted on the levee,  stretches for several blocks along the river.  The city was settled in 1773 when a Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Girardot built a trading post on the flood plain.  Most of the buildings in the area date back to the 1800's, and many are on the National Register of Historic Places.


On late Saturday afternoon, our road trip took us to Little Rock, the state capitol of Arkansas.  Our first stop was the Visitor's Center to see what to do in town.  Did you know that the Arkansas legislature actually passed a bill to establish the correct pronunciation of the state name--Ar-kan- SAW. 

We visited the neo-classical style Arkansas State Capitol building capped by a large dome.  It took 16 years to build.   We've been to many state capitols and most, if not all, feature large domes, and I'm not sure why. 

Little Rock is not a large city by Chicago standards, and we got around fairly easily on a Saturday afternoon with little traffic.  We drove through the River Market District located on President Clinton Avenue to the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum.  This is a modern contemporary building filled with exhibits to inform the public about the 8 years of the Clinton Administration.   Clinton stuff is big in Arkansas, because he is the only president from the state.   Inside is a replica of the Oval Office.  There are even a few books in the library, although I didn't see any.

The Clinton Library cost $165 million to build, all through private donations, including $10 million from Saudi Arabia.  The structure is built on abandoned railroad tracks of the Rock Island Railroad, and in fact, next door is the old Choctaw Railroad Station building which now houses the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service and the Clinton Foundation. 

The other attraction in Little Rock is Central High School which is a national historic site.  Central High School looks like any other high school in a major city, and indeed, it still functions as a high school.  Its importance lies in its role in our nation's history during the Civil Rights Era.  Back in 1957, the school was ordered to admit black students.  Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus defied the federal government order and, in a publicity stunt, stood in the door in an attempt to prevent integration.  The event was televised.  President Eisenhower wasn't putting up with that, and he took a stand.  He called in federal troops to enforce the court order.  Governor Faubus' actions were popular with about half the people of Arkansas, but to the rest of the country, he looked like a buffoon.  Within a few years, integration was an afterthought in the South, but ironically, it became a big issue in many Northern cities.

After we got the flavor of Little Rock,  we drove out to the suburbs and spent our second night in Benton, between Little Rock and Hot Springs.  We were ravenous, and the best local pizza was walking distance from our hotel.  The restaurant had about 20 TV sets tuned to the Arkansas Razorbacks football game.  It was Saturday night, and the place was raucous.  The Razorbacks were beating up on the Little Sisters of the Poor, a/k/a  an undermanned squad from Texas State, not the University of Texas.   It was 35-0 at halftime, and the fans were clamoring for more. 


The next morning, we drove up the thirty miles or so to Hot Springs National Park in a driving rainstorm.  The hundreds of billboards along the road are a good indication that Hot Springs is a tourist town.  Water parks, amusement parks, zip-lining, boat rides beckon the tourist trade, but on a rainy Sunday morning, it promised to be a slow day.  This town could be Wisconsin Dells or Gatlinburg, TN--just change the signs. 

The hot springs actually exist; there are 43 of them in the park. Large bathhouses and hotels line the main street, Bathhouse Row, in large Greek Revival style buildings, built in the 19th Century, relics of the Gilded Age.   

The park was initially designated by the federal government in 1832, shortly after the local Indians were relocated to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.  In effect, it was the first national park.  It was called the Hot Springs Reservation.   It officially  became a National Park in 1921. 

The thermal springs, originating in the nearby Ouachita Mountains, were thought to cure almost every disease.  The water bubbles up at 143F which can cause severe burns.  For their safety, tourists are strictly limited in the amount of time they can spend in the baths.

The springs were popular with the rich and famous although there were also springs designated for the indigent, provided they sign an affidavit that there were poor.  Beginning in 1886, baseball teams started coming to Hot Springs for Spring (as in the season) Training.  The first to come was the legendary Cap Anson, the manager of the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs).  Other teams followed, and the town became a Mecca for baseball.  Each Spring, about 250 athletes came to train for the upcoming baseball season.  These included baseball greats like Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner who are immortalized with historic signs on the streets.

The tourists couldn't spend a lot of time in the water, so they had to find other pursuits in their spare time.  Not surprisingly, gambling, prostitution and bootlegging became popular pastimes in Hot Springs.  Hot Springs was Las Vegas before there was a Las Vegas.  The word spread among gangsters that Hot Springs was a perfect hideout for crooks evading police investigations.  Al Capone and his associates vacationed here.  Al Capone is like George Washington--every establishment wants to claim that he slept there or otherwise patronized their joint.

Whatever the case, the mayor, judges and cops turned a blind eye toward criminal activity.  Predictably, when the Feds cracked down in the 1960's, the city fathers were shocked, SHOCKED, that those activities were going on.  The government called Hot Springs "the site of the largest illegal gambling operation in the U.S."  Today gambling is legal, and Hot Springs has a racetrack, Oaklawn Park, with a casino.


This state park is the only place in the U.S. where you can dig for your own diamonds.  Murphreesboro is the site of an eroded 95 million year old volcanic crater, and the diamond pipe in the soil goes down 7 miles underground.  As one would imagine, there are a lot of rules.   They don't let you bring in a steam shovel or any other powered device.  If you dig a hole you have to fill it in at the end of the day.  If the hole is more than 4 feet deep, for safety reasons you have to shore it up properly.   You can only remove a 5 gallon bucket of sifted gravel each day. 

To prospect for diamonds, tourists pay 20 bucks or so plus an additional amount to rent a shovel and a bucket.  They then wander out into the muddy 37 acre plowed field to start digging.  We weren't dressed for the muddy experience and chose not to buy tickets, but we were allowed to watch the others dig.  Some people come to the park every day seeking treasure. 

Unlike gold, diamonds don't run in veins, but are scattered in the soil.  The ranger explained to us that, from their experience, no portion of the field is more productive than any other portion.  If they are there, the diamonds are fairly easy to spot.  Dirt and mud do not stick to them, so the crystals will shine. 

Believe it or not, people find several diamonds each week, and they can keep what they find.  The largest diamond ever found there was 40 carats, and several have been in excess of 8 carats.   We can be talking serious money.  Many of the finds exceed a carat or more.   The odds are better than the state lottery.  Since the area became a state park in 1972, over 27,000 diamonds have been found by the public. 

Diamonds were originally discovered at this location in 1906, and several owners of the property launched commercial diamond mining operations but failed because of the prohibitive labor costs.
Sifting through tons and tons of material to find a carat or two turned out to be a ticket to bankruptcy.  Eventually the State of Arkansas took it over and decided that it made more sense to let the tourists provide the labor.

It was lunchtime, and we were hungry from watching these people in their futile search for riches.  We drove a mile or so down the road to Em's Restaurant for some authentic Southern fried chicken with mashed potatoes and chicken gravy, and it was goo-o-o-d. 


Hope is the watermelon capital of Arkansas, but is better known as the boyhood home of Bill Clinton.  Clinton lived in a modest frame house next to the tracks with his single mother until the age of 4.   He probably doesn't remember much about it, but we visited it because it is there.  In the Visitor's Center, administered by the National Park Service, one can see a photo of a very young Bill winning the cutest baby contest.  

The Clinton's house is out in back, but they wouldn't let you go inside because it was being renovated.  There had been a fire last December.   The next door neighbor has a large "Trump" sign in the front yard.   The unpaved potholed parking lot is behind the Trump house.  The neighborhood has seen better days.


We had a freebie coming at a nice hotel in Bossier City, and stopping there was a no brainer.  Actually we had to pay a $17 resort fee, but we could handle that.    Shreveport and Bossier City are twin cities straddling the Red River.  The area is home to over 400,000 people.  Shreveport grew up as a major port for the cotton trade.  Today it is a mini Las Vegas.   Although the largest employer is Barksdale Air Force Base, the largest industry is casinos and hospitality.  There are 8 major hotel casino resorts as well as some smaller ones.   The hotels are enormous high rises overlooking the river.  We stayed one night in a beautiful suite at the luxurious Horseshoe Bossier City.  Our room faced the river.  The port was very busy, as we saw barges loaded and unloaded.  We ate a wonderful steak dinner at the hotel, but we had to pay for that.  


New Orleans is one of my most favorite cities.  The city is defined by its Creole culture.  Creole comes from the Spanish word criollo which means native born.  Essentially the word creole described the American born children of Europeans. 

New Orleans is the city that never sleeps.  Bourbon Street is swinging in the wee hours.  At Pat O'Brien's, we ordered a few Hurricane cocktails in the huge souvenir glasses while listening to dueling pianos.   Everyone is familiar with Pat O'Brien's because of the numerous tourists walking around the French Quarter schlepping those souvenir glasses.  They charge 3 bucks extra for the glass, but you get the money back if you return the glass.    The piano players play continuously--when it is time for a break, two fresh pianists come in.  We left when the second duo started playing because they weren't as good as the first. 

Bourbon Street can be seedy.  The biggest industry there appears to be panhandling.  Per capita, NOLA is probably the panhandler capital of the universe.  I recognize that some of these folks are down on their luck, but others make a nice living doing this.  A good panhandler who works hard at panhandling can make $50,000 a year--and probably doesn't report it to the government.    The problem for me is that it is difficult to tell the difference between the professionals and those who are truly needy. 

One enterprising young lady walked around Bourbon Street, topless, soliciting tips to take her picture with you.   My tip is "don't take the picture."  I would have preferred seeing her with clothes on.

Then we found the voodoo store.  There are several in the French Quarter.  You don't see many voodoo stores in New York or Chicago except maybe at Halloween.  I guess they sell enough of this voodoo stuff to stay in business. 

The other exciting feature of Bourbon Street is the impromptu parades. September is not Mardi Gras season, but they have parades anyway.  The performers throw beads, just like at Mardi Gras.  The police, on horseback, block the street; the costumed revelers go through; the cleaning crew follows, and the police open the street again.   The whole thing can take 10 minutes. 

The 18th Century buildings in the French Quarter are in the French style (well, duh).  The upper floors have either galleries or balconies on which people congregate.   The difference between the two is that a gallery has support posts anchored on the ground, while a  balcony does not--it is cantilevered out and supported by the walls of the building.    Whichever they are, young ladies standing on them are encouraged to lift up their tops, and many do so.  Bourbon Street is not a place for kids.

In NOLA, they take dining and jazz music to a different level.  I love creole food like jambalaya with shrimps and crawfish etoufee.   You can buy it at fast food stands or at classy restaurants.  Live Dixieland jazz music can be heard anywhere on the street.

We celebrated with a sumptuous dinner at the famous Brennan's Restaurant on Royal Street, one block over from Bourbon.  Dianne had a  delicious Steak Diane (with one "n"), probably the best she had ever tasted.  For dessert was flaming Bananas Foster which was originally created at Brennan's.  After dinner, the maître d' gave us a guided tour of the restaurant which is located in a historic house.  The Brennan family owns several restaurants in New Orleans, and all are highly regarded.  In fact, we had breakfast two days in a row at their restaurant in the Loews Hotel, right across the street from Harrah's where we stayed. 

We ate dinner the previous day at Oceana Restaurant, right around the corner from Bourbon Street.  Four of us shared a traditional New Orleans feast of Oysters Rockefeller, as well as raw oysters, crab cakes, crawfish etoufee, hushpuppies and catfish. 

We even signed up for a jazz cruise on the Mississippi River.  I was surprised to learn that the live band performance was by the Dukes of Dixieland, a venerable Dixieland band for probably a hundred years.  New Orleans, of course, is the jazz capital of the world with its unique Dixieland style.

At breakfast time, the traditional favorite is beignets which are small sweet rolls with powdered sugar sprinkled on them.  They sell like hotcakes.  We elbowed out way into a table in the crowded outdoor café and ordered a whole plate of beignets.


The World War II Museum is a new attraction, located about a mile from the French Quarter.  They have created an experience that everyone should see. We purchased tickets, and each of us were assigned a dog tag representing a serviceman who served in WWII.   At each exhibit, we would swipe  the dog tag and learn something about our particular veteran. 

I was assigned a young man named Augustus Hamilton from North Carolina.  Prior to the war, he received a football scholarship to the University of North Carolina.  When the war broke out, he volunteered for service because he longed to be a pilot.  He attended flight school and became a fighter pilot who flew many missions over France and Germany.  He flew his allotted missions and was slated to go home.   His commanding officer asked him to volunteer for one additional mission over occupied France.  He was shot down by the Nazi Germans and killed.  His body was not found until 1993, in France.  His remains were given a military funeral.  Literally, I broke into tears when I read that.

Dianne was assigned the young officer, Richard Duchossois whose name may be familiar to many of us.  Certainly, it was to us, because we know his family through our charity work with the American Cancer Society.  Mr. Duchossois, now in his 90's owns Arlington park Race Track.  He served as a tank commander in the European Theater.  He fought in the D-Day invasion and was awarded a Purple Heart.  Eventually, he rose to the rank of Major.  In his case, we had a happy ending--he survived the war and prospered.   The Duchossois family has donated large sums of money to the museum, and a hall is named after them.

The two major sections of the museum are devoted, of course, to the war in Europe and the war in the Pacific.   We spent several hours wading through the exhibits and absorbing information.  To do an in depth study would take more than just a day. 

One thing we enjoyed was an interactive exhibit of Medal of Honor recipients from WWII.  I've previously written a couple of articles about Medal of Honor recipients, and the subjects of my articles can be found in the exhibit.  For example, Richard Bush, a Kentuckian who spent his later years working for the VA Hospital in North Chicago is included in the exhibit.  He died just a couple of years ago.  A street is named after him in Waukegan.  He bravely--or foolhardily--fell on a live grenade on Okinawa, saving the lives of several of his buddies.  He lost an arm and leg, but lived to tell about it. 


From New Orleans, we signed up for a bus tour out in the country to the magnificent Oak Alley, an antebellum sugar plantation.  In Southern Louisiana, sugar, rather than cotton was the main cash crop prior to the Civil War.  Cotton grew better in the Northern part of the state and also in Alabama and Mississippi where the climate was drier.

The bus driver was a wealth of information about the history of Louisiana.  We've visited this area several times, but never soaked up all the cultural significance.  They call New Orleans "The Big Easy", probably from Prohibition times when it was perhaps even bawdier than it is now.  The "Big Apple" was already taken by New York.  Most people aren't aware of it, but they manufacture fire engines in New Orleans.  After 9/11, New Orleans delivered two top of the line Mercedes fire engines to New York.  The vehicles were superior to those used by the New Orleans fire department.  New York was impressed and ordered 41 more.  After Hurricane Katrina, New York gave one back to New Orleans. 

The first thing you notice visiting Oak Alley are the 28 enormous live oak trees framing the quarter mile road from the Mississippi River to the house.  The oak trees were planted by an unnamed Frenchman around 1700, long before the house was built by the prominent Roman family in 1837.  An alley has a different connotation in France than it does in Chicago.  A French alley is a canopied path.  The beautiful plantation house is distinguished by its free standing colonnade of 28 colossal Doric columns. 

The plantation stood vacant for years after the Civil War.  Various owners could not maintain the buildings, and in the 1920's Andrew and Josephine Stewart purchased the decrepit plantation and hired architect Richard Koch to restore it to its former glory.  Mrs. Stewart planted an English garden next to the house.  A virus had destroyed the sugar cane crops in the early Twentieth Century, and the Stewarts ran the plantation as a cattle ranch.  In the 1960's, they were able to reintroduce sugar cane successfully.  When Mrs. Stewart died in 1972, she left the property to the Oak Alley Foundation which opened it to the public. 

We toured the restored slave quarters and the blacksmith shop.  The plantation is famous for an important event in horticultural history.  In 1847, a slave gardener named Antoine was the first to successfully graft pecan trees which made pecans commercially viable.  As a slave, he didn't get much credit for that, but at least history remembers his name. 


Our driver told us the story of the 1940's era Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis, better known as "Singin" Jimmie Davis who became famous for composing the popular song, You Are My Sunshine.  According to the bus driver, the song was named after Davis' horse, Sunshine.  Actually, my research showed that the horse was named after the song, not the other way around.  Whatever the case, the song, first recorded in 1939 later became the official Louisiana state song.  Incidentally, not to spoil the guy's story, there are 6 official Louisiana state songs, but Sunshine is the best known.  It has been recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Lawrence Welk to Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and even an instrumental version by Johnny and the Hurricanes.   When Davis ran for governor in 1944, he sang the song at all his campaign rallies.

Name recognition is everything in politics, and it worked for Davis.  He was eventually elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame and received many other honors in his long life.  Although they had 101 years to get something on him, he was one of the few Louisiana politicians to never be indicted, as was pointed out by Gov. Edwin Edwards who was convicted.  Edwards was elected both before and after he was convicted, but that's a long story.  Remarkably, Davis was the only governor to live in 3 centuries (1899-2000). 


We drove South from N'awlins to Marrero, LA, deep down in the bayous to look for alligators.  We found many.  Snakes also, including poisonous water moccasins.  .  No crocodiles, however.  You probably don't want to go swimming there.   Most of the locals are Cajuns, descended from the Acadians in Nova Scotia who were driven out of Canada by the British.  In the bayous, its easy to get lost, and it became a good hiding place for pirates and others who don't like the government to intrude in their lives. 

The famed French (and allegedly Jewish) pirate Jean Lafitte who helped the U.S. in the War of 1812 used this area for his hideout.  His statue stands prominently in the French Quarter of New Orleans. 

We booked a trip on a catamaran plying the Inter Coastal Waterway.  Cap'n Reggie was our guide.  A grizzled old Cajun who grew up in the bayou, he knew where to find alligators, and they knew where to find him because he threw food to them, mostly marshmallows.  We made sure he was well paid, so he didn't throw any of us in. Alligators can eat and digest almost anything including marshmallows, people and iron hooks.  Their usual diet is small animals, but a large gator can drag in a cow that ventures too close.  Alligators are color blind, and the marshmallows are easy for them to see.   Alligators live as long as humans do, and they continue to grow their entire lives. 

Cap'n Reggie looked 20 years older than he really was because he was missing several front teeth.  We guessed that he normally wears a bridge but elects not to wear it for the swamp tours, for authenticity sake.  


Helen, Georgia is a touristy town in the mountains of Northern Georgia.  It is commonly known as Alpine Helen because of its location at the Southern end of the Appalachian Mountains and its German heritage.  German, in a good way.

Helen was a down and out logging town which resurrected itself into a replica of a Bavarian Alpine town.  In 1969, the city fathers adopted a zoning ordinance mandating that all buildings would be built in the classic South German Alpine architecture. The Hampton Inn where we stayed,  the Wendy's--every building--German style.  It was late September, and the town was preparing for Oktoberfest.   Banners hung across the streets. 

The town is small--only about 500 permanent residents. During Oktoberfest and when the autumn leaves are changing, thousands of tourists throng into town to peruse the cutesy shops.  Besides the mandatory ice cream and fudge shops, there is a glass blowing shop.  There are not many outside of Venice, but Helen has one.  We purchased a couple of pieces for gifts.  

The restaurants had names like Hansel & Gretel's Candy Kitchen and King Ludwig's Beer Garden.  Even Jimmy's Chicago Style Hot Dogs looked like a German restaurant. 


There's not much to see in Cleveland, Georgia, near Helen, but if you are into Cabbage Patch dolls, this is the place to go.  A mile of so out of town behind a 5 acre front lawn is an old mansion which is now the Babyland General Hospital.   It's not a real hospital, but for 120 bucks or so, you can "adopt" a Cabbage Patch doll, fill out papers and give it a name. 

The "doctors" and "nurses" are dressed in scrubs like real medical people.  Every few minutes,,they pull a doll out of the cabbage leaves.  You can see the cabbage field with heads sticking out.  Many tourists find this a little creepy.  At the gift shop, you can buy a regular Cabbage Patch doll without the adoption process for about $25.  We adopted the $120 model last time we visited Cleveland, and it rests in its cradle in our living room. 


The Biltmore Estate was the brainchild of George Vanderbilt, actually George Washington Vanderbilt III, grandson of the Commodore, Cornelius Vanderbilt.  Naming people after presidents was considered fashionable in the 19th Century and even in the early 20th Century.   Not so much anymore. 

In those days even obscure presidents were honored in this way.   For example, in the baseball world alone, just narrowing it down to pitchers, we had Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar "Cal" McLish, Millard Fillmore "Dixie" Howell, Theodore Roosevelt "Ted" Lilly and Monty Franklin Pierce Stratton, all of whom pitched for the White Sox or Cubs at one time.  There was Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland "Pete" Alexander, born during the Cleveland Administration who was portrayed by another president, Ronald Reagan in a 1952 movie, The Winning Team.  In the old Negro Leagues, there was a star pitcher and catcher Theodore Roosevelt "Double Duty" Radcliffe who didn't quite make the Hall of Fame but died in 2005 at age 103.  I'm getting off the subject. 

Back to the Vanderbilts, The Commodore, who had 13 kids, borrowed 100 bucks from his family to buy a boat which he used to make a fortune running the Staten Island Ferry in New York.   He parlayed that into owning the New York Central Railroad.  It costs a lot of money to raise and feed 13 kids.  George, who was born on Staten Island, had over a hundred cousins. 

George had a reputation as a bon vivant.  He was worth millions, so he didn't need a job.  When he began building the estate in 1889 he was single.  He spent a lot of time partying in Europe where he met his future wife, Edith Stuyvesant Dresser.   She was a descendant of that one legged guy in the pictures, Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch colonial governor of New York.    If you had "old" money, that counted for something, and Edith's money was about as old as one could get--it dated back to the 1600's.  

George never took Edith back to his bachelor pad before they got married in 1898 in Paris.  When he finally brought her home after the honeymoon, she finally got to see the house.  Apparently she was suitably impressed, and she spent much of her time overseeing the vast gardens. 

The Vanderbilts had one child, Cornelia, born in 1900 in the Louis XV room--or was it the Louis XVI room? 

The house is truly impressive; it is the largest privately owned house in the U.S.    The French Renaissance Chateau with steeply pitched roofs and ornamental sculptures has 250 rooms which includes 35 bedrooms, 65 fireplaces and 43 bathrooms, none of which are open to the public.
Tourists have to use the ones outside   The house living area encompasses 175,000 square feet, as big as a Super Walmart.   God would live there if He had the money.  The front of the house is 375 feet long.  Inside, it has an original functioning Otis electric elevator, one of the oldest in the world.   We actually rode in an older one several years ago, in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul dating back to 1892. 

When Vanderbilt purchased the property, the acreage had been cleared for farmland.  His vision was to restore the land to its natural state.  The gardens were meticulously planned with a world class conservatory and a large pond stocked with bass.    Many new varieties of roses were developed at the conservatory.   Vanderbilt hired the famous landscape architect, Fredric Law Olmsted to create them.  Olmsted's resume included Central Park in New York and the Chicago boulevard system.  More on that in a moment. 

Olmsted had an interesting biography.  He was a journalist who wrote a book detailing the inefficiencies of slavery in the South. During the Civil War, he was the head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (precursor to the Red Cross) which tended to the wounded troops. 

Olmsted had no training in landscape architecture, and with the encouragement of his friend and mentor, landscape architect Andrew Jackson (there we go again) Downing, he entered a contest with the experienced English architect Calvert Vaux in 1852 to design New York's Central Park.  Their design won.  The success of Central Park led many cities to hire Olmsted and Vaux's firm.  He went on to design the park systems in Chicago, Milwaukee, Buffalo and Louisville among others, as well as many college campuses like the University of Chicago, Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, Yale,  Cornell and Washington of St. Louis. By the time Vanderbilt hired him, Olmsted had many years' experience and was the leading name in the field.

The architect for the house was society architect, Richard Morris Hunt who built the Breakers and Marble House in Newport, Rhode Island, both for members of the Vanderbilt family.  He also built  the William K. Vanderbilt house on Fifth Avenue in New York, the John Jacob Astor IV house in New York and even the Marshall Field house in Chicago.   Hunt and Vanderbilt together visited many French Renaissance chateau houses in England and France to get inspiration for their project.  They modeled the house after Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire,  England, but of course they added modern state of the art amenities like central heating, plumbing, electricity, refrigeration and two electric elevators. Air conditioning wasn't invented until 1901.  The stables were placed at the North end of the house to protect the house from the prevailing winds. 

Vanderbilt hired Gifford Pinchot, a young forest surveyor, a couple of years out of college to supervise the reforesting of the land.  Buoyed by the success of his work at Biltmore, Pinchot went on to become a well known and respected conservationist whose guiding principle was that a forest can produce timber and still be maintained for future generations.  Pinchot hung around with Teddy Roosevelt who appointed him head of the U.S. Forestry Service.  In the 1920's he was twice elected Governor of Pennsylvania.  Pinchot has a national forest named after him in the State of Washington.

The Biltmore Estate originally encompassed 150,000 acres--most of Western North Carolina.  The French Broad River runs prominently through it.  It sounds like it could have been named after one of Donald Trump's former girlfriends, but actually it was named by early English settlers who noted that the river, a tributary of the Broad River, flowed into areas then controlled by the French.   There were two Broad Rivers, English translations of their Cherokee names.  The other they named the English Broad River, but the name was later changed to just the Broad River.  The river arises in spooky Transylvania County, North Carolina, and flows into the Tennessee River in Knoxville. 

After George Vanderbilt's death in 1914 at age 51, Edith sold off much of the heavily wooded acreage to the U.S. Forestry Service for less than 5 bucks an acre.  It is now a state park, Mount Pisgah State Park. 

Cornelia married a British ambassador, John Francis Amherst Cecil in 1924.  Cecil's ancestor, William Cecil, was the personal advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.  The wedding was the high point of the social season.  A small museum at Biltmore focuses on 60 years of wedding fashion in the Vanderbilt family.  The exhibits feature Edith's and also Cornelia's bridal gowns and veils.  Cornelia's son William A.V. Cecil married a woman named Mary Lee Ryan who was Jackie Kennedy's first cousin (their mothers were sisters).  Both Jackie and Mary Ryan wore the same heirloom veil at their respective weddings.  The veil was originally owned by their maternal grandmothers. 

Of course, with that connection to Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, tourists took notice and put Biltmore on their bucket lists.  Today the Cecil family descendants manage the Biltmore Estate.  The Vanderbilt or Cecil women are encouraged to uphold the tradition and wear the same veil at their weddings. 

The Biltmore Estate has two pricey hotels and several (expensive) restaurants of excellent quality.We stayed two nights at the hotel and dined at the restaurants on the grounds.  They are especially good because they are stocked with organic food and wines grown on the grounds of the estate.   Sheep and cattle are raised on the estate.  Tourists are encouraged to tour the winery which is said to have world class wines.  Wine tastings are held daily.  We are not connoisseurs of wine, so we can't judge.
Overall, the Biltmore is an attraction worth visiting.

NEXT;  The Suskins Travel to India, or is it Indiana?