Monday, January 25, 2010

Travel - A place you probably have not seen, but you should - Spice Island, Africa

Yes, there is a Zanzibar. I am sure that many of you may have thought that Zanzibar is the fictitious invention of some fantasy writer such as Rudyard Kipling. Others may know it exists but could not tell you the continent where it is located.

Zanzibar in real life is just as exotic as we may conjure up in our imagination. It is one of the Spice Islands off the coast of Tanzania, which is, of course, located in East Africa. Many of us may dream of taking an African Safari, which is one of the great experiences on this planet. If you choose to visit some of the popular places such as Mount Kilimanjaro or the Serengeti, consider reserving about three nights and two days at this unique place.

Zanzibar was a slave trading mecca in the past. Hapless Africans would be captured on the continent and their new masters would carry them off to Zanzibar where the slaves would be auctioned off to be transported to destinations all over the world. Today the Slave Market includes the old auction block and holding quarters, which make a sobering statement on the cruelty of slavery.

But do not think of Zanzibar as a downer. Far from it. Zanzibar has been ruled by many peoples over the centuries including, Arabs, Asians and Europeans. As a result, the inhabitants are the product of a confluence of many cultures. The Old Stone Town appeared to me to be extremely authentic. The streets are so narrow that I felt that I could touch the walls on each side at the same time.

One night we took a meal on the open air roof of one of the local hotels. Although our own hotel was only about a quarter of a mile or less away from the restaurant, the concierge insisted that a bell boy accompany us to and from the restaurant for fear that we would be hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of alley ways that passed for streets. Needless to say that walk itself deserved four stars.

The meal was just as exciting. The starry sky was clearly visible as the guests sat on the floor surrounded by pillows to make us comfortable. The eerie music, the food which was delicious but largely mysterious, made that night one of the highlights of all of our travels.

Zanzibar produces many spices, including clove, vanilla, cinnamon, turmeric, nutmeg. and black pepper. Spice farms dot the landscape and make for a wonderful day of meandering through the countryside.

Finally, when you return home and someone at a cocktail party asks you where you have been, you can say “Zanzibar.” Most likely they will be speechless.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My Take on the Tuesday Elections

Democrats and some of their friends in the media tried to spin the Scott Brown victory over Martha Coakley as a local race with minimal effect on the November elections. That tactic may have been persuasive in Virginia and even sounded reasonable when consistently Democratic New Jersey elected a Republican governor. In Massachusetts, however, Brown campaigned on platform dominated by national issues boasting that he would be the forty first senator who could derail the Obama juggernaut. Now that the Democrats have shown that they cannot hold power in the East, what is going to happen when seats are contested in the Midwest, South and beyond? It may not be pretty.

The fact is that the Democrats now have no safe seats in the November elections. Their efforts to raise money will be impaired, and they will have many more places to spend it. The health care bill has become an albatross and will only pass by use of brute force and awkwardness.

The White House is bound to be in disarray too. Obama chose to invest virtually all of his political capital on a health care plan which now enjoys support of less than a majority of Americans who view the economy as their number one priority. Health care is Nero’s fiddle while the economy is the fire burning in Rome. Moreover, Obama has not seemed to be any more effective in dealing with the mess in the Middle East than Bush.

There was another election. William Bell has finally become Birmingham’s mayor, a position that he thought would come to him many years ago. There are many needs for the city of Birmingham. At the top of my list would be the curbing of wholesale corruption, bringing sanity and some measure of competence to the education system, and attracting new businesses. Is Bell the man for the job? The answer is patently obvious.

Bell’s victory is no surprise. The election result last night was politics as usual in Birmingham. The most stunning event in my mind was a political ad Bell ran close to election day. Many years ago Art Hanes Sr., a hard nosed segregationist, was running for president of the old City Commission against Tom King, Sr., who was more moderate. (Both men had sons who ended up as distinguished judges in the Jefferson County Circuit Court. I always wondered what they discussed during coffee breaks.) The Hanes campaign hired a black man to approach King and shake his hand and a photographer to snap King’s picture. The picture was reproduced in Hanes ads to show that King was an “integrationist.” The ploy worked and Hanes was elected. That tactic has been widely regarded as one of the low points in the politics of the segregation era.

Now after many decades, the same tactic was used again in reverse. Bell ran an ad showing him and his wife accompanied by pictures of Patrick Cooper and Julia Boaz Cooper, Patrick’s ex-wife. Nothing was said in the ad, but the message was clear, Julia is white and Patrick is black. Bell was conveying the message that Patrick Cooper was not black enough to be mayor. Who said that racism is dead?

Oh well, Birmingham once called itself the “Pittsburgh of the South.” Today it would be more appropriate to be described as the “Newark of the South.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

Travel - A place you probably have not seen, but you should - The Land of the Rising Sun..

When Monty and I decided to go to Japan we were met with skepticism and downright opposition from our friends. “Why do you want to go to Japan?” You would think we were going to Siberia; but then, I would not mind going there either.

Japanese travelers usually appear to be aloof, iconoclastic and humorless, but, in their own country, they are the friendliest to tourists that we have seen. You are surprised aren’t you?

Before leaving we purchased a two week train pass. It was a necessity, because trains are the only feasible means of travel. After selecting our itinerary, we made a list of every train and departure time that we anticipated using for the entire trip. Shortly after reaching Tokyo we made all of our reservations with the precise dates and times for each trip. Only in Japan is such precision so easy.

I can recall at least five sites which were breathtakingly exciting and unique to Japan. They are:

1. Ryokans, the traditional hostel. It is hard to believe that sleeping in a spare room on palettes and eating meals while sitting on the floor can be one the most luxurious experiences imaginable, but it is true.

2. The Kabuki and Noh theaters. This traditional drama has a pace and eeriness unmatched in our experience.

3. The Kyoto National Museum. There are only a handful of museums in its class in the world, but it stands number one as a reflection of the nation it serves. I was particularly taken to see the early Buddhist art which was much finer than what was being produced in the West at the time.

4. Kyoto again - the vaunted tea ceremony. It is a thing of beauty and good taste and is unforgettable.

5. And of course there the trains. The Japanese idea of a late train is one that arrives two minutes after the scheduled time. All passengers line up in the premarked spots where their car will stop and it takes less than five minutes to load and unload the cars. The ride is exquisite. The most famous trains are the Shinkansen. We took one from Hiroshima to Tokyo. There were five stops and covered 850 miles in five hours.

There is not much downside to a trip to Japan. My only warning is to travel light. There are no red caps in the train stations although most of them are equipped with escolators making the walk easy

I am sorry I wrote this blog. As I think of it, I wish I were in Japan again.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Alabama’s Secret Weapon

Much has been said about Alabama’s national championship, but the pundits are strangely silent about Bama’s secret weapon without whom this team would never have reached its dream. That weapon is Lady Luck.

Consider the Tennessee game. The image of Terence Cody running off the field without his helmet before the play was even over will define him as a hero for the ages, much like Van Tiffin and his kick. But really, Alabama won the Tennessee game because a kicker was twice unable to elevate field goal attempts to their normal trajectory. That is real luck. Otherwise, Cody would have been weeping on the bench and Kevin Scarbinsky would not be boasting that this team was the best ever.

Mack Brown claims that he had the superior team and that he lost simply because Marcell Demarius pinched Colt McCoy’s nerve. Mack should be a better sport than that, but it is true that Texas was unlucky and Alabama was lucky when that injury occurred. The game would have been different with a healthy McCoy, but we will never know how different it would be.

The biggest stroke of luck for Alabama is what did not happen, namely it never suffered a crippling injury throughout the year.. The only significant loss was Dante Hightower, but Alabama was lucky because he was one of many talented linebackers who ably filled the void created by his absence.

I can remember when Auburn lost all of its centers and had to move a guard to the center positiion to deliver the ball to the quarterback. Nothing like that happened to this team. Terry Grant, a fourth string running back, was injured this year, Wasn’t Alabama lucky that they did not lose Mark Ingram for the year instead?

But the scariest prospect was at quarterback. The top three quarterbacks in the nation, Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy, all suffered signifcant injuries. Isn’t Alabama lucky that the same fate did not happen to Greg McElroy? He may not be in the class of those three, but do you really believe that Alabama would have won the national championship with Starr Jackson at the helm? I don’t.

Texas cannot complain. They lost the shot at the national championship last year because of a play that took place with one second left of the clock in the Texas Tech game. This year they would not have been able to show up on January 6, if the clock had ticked one second longer on the next to last play in the Nebraska game. They were lucky this year and last year they were not.

It is not my point to belittle Alabama’s accomplishment. I believe the most championships are accompanied by a generous dose of good luck. If Alabama, is to win another championship, they need the players, the coaches, the discipline, training and dedication to do the job. But if they really expect to succeed they must pay attention to the mysterious and powerful thirteenth woman of the gridiron - Lady Luck.