Monthly Archives: December 2012

Is Waldo in Abkhazia?

FOLangel LK

In this celebratory season when most try to spread peace and good-will, I’m focused on disputes.  Go figure.

A couple of weeks ago I happened upon something called Territories and other external sub-national regions of the world ( Compiled by Wm. Robert Johnston and last updated in November of this year, it lists 17 troubled places in the world that are currently “disputed”. Two are apparently wanted by no one, and I’ve previously written about part of Antarctica & the Bir Tawil Triangle, the only areas on the entire planet that are completely unclaimed.

A maphead like Ken Jennings,when I first studied them, I realized that I knew only two of the 17 disputed territories somewhat well-Turkish Cyprus & South Ossetia.  The others I had zero knowledge about.

South Ossetia made international news in spring, 2012.   Russia recognizes its independence as a nation.  South Ossetia’s president, in fact, is a former KGB official.  The problem?  It’s within Georgia’s borders.  Trouble ahead.

The northern third of the island of Cyprus is claimed by Turkey.  However, only Turkey accepts this.    The international community of nations considers it occupied territory, hence disputed.   Among other considerations for travelers since it isn’t recognized, all flights, even charters, must first touch down in Turkey before proceeding on to Northern Turkey.  Since the International Air Transport Association doesn’t quite recognize it, it has an airport code, ECN for Ercan International Airport (ECN), but it’s not officially listed.   Ruth & I have a good friend who was born on Cyprus and goes back as often as she can.  For what it’s worth, Jane, who is well-traveled, considers Cyprus her favorite travel destination.  Trouble ahead.

Four Antarctic claims–Argentina’s, Australia’s, Great Britain’s, and Chile’s–are listed as disputed.  When I have relevant facts, I’ll report on this.

The other 12 disputed areas include 7 places where no one lives–Adelie Land, Ashmore & Cartier Islands, the Paracel Islands, Peter I Island, Queen Maud Land, Ross Dependency, and the Spratly Islands.  Part of Antarctica, Adelie is claimed by France, but most countries have not recognized its claim.  Ashmore is a reef administered by Australia that has no permanent dry land area.  Cartier has only offshore anchorage.  The Paracels are a bunch of islands almost exactly between Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China.  Both claim sovereignty.  Oil reserves and fishing rights are unsettled.  Trouble ahead.

The remaining 5 disputed places–Western Sahara, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabahk, Transnistria, and South Ossetia–are home to almost 1,500,000 people.  Abkhazia sees itself as an independent state on the east coast of the Black Sea.  However, only 6 nations, like Vanuatu, recognize it.  The rest of the world considers it part of Georgia.  Trouble ahead.

So, what is a seasonal connection?  Christmas is at least partially a time of love that erases a year of disputes and misunderstandings with a heartfelt gift exchange and lots of cookies.  So, Merry Christmas out there.  Now, like me, go into the kitchen and enjoy an oatmeal, pecan, and raisin cookie, or your seasonal favorite.


News Events of 2012


The parade of 2012’s top news stories began, at least for me, this morning with the Associated Press.  Its editors chose THE GLOBAL ECONOMY as #1 and used such words as slack, failed, and shrinking in their gloomy report .

I decided that since this will probably head most year-end lists, to come up with 9 additional interesting (I hope) and more positive 2012 events that involve a few travel challenges.

2.  The U.S. won more gold medals than any other country at the London Summer Olympics–46.  It also had the highest medal total-104.  Most everybody knows that, but I’ll bet you didn’t know that Team United States won the fireworks competition at Calgary’s GlobalFest on August 26, 2012.  I know because I was among the 22,000 who watched a sensational pyrotechnic display.  Getting in and out of GlobalFest was a nightmare, but the fireworks made it worthwhile.

3.  The Smith Center for the Performing Arts opened in downtown Las Vegas in 2012.  Smith’s performances will include Broadway shows, classical concerts, dance, family entertainment,  cabaret/jazz, etc.  Ruth & I will be checking it out in February.

4. According to Amazon and to no one’s surprise the best-selling book of 2012 was Fifty Shades Freed, the one with the handcuffs on the cover.  The entire Fifty Shades trilogy was #3.  I assume its travel focus is pretty much bedrooms.

5.  I’m now going to make a prediction.  In 2013 Skyfall will become the top grossing film of all time.  The current #1 is Avatar with about $2.8 billion in ticket sales.  Another 2012 film, The Avengers, has made $1.5 billion and moved into the top 5 grossing films of all time.   However, according to Variety, Skyfall made $920 million here & abroad in 5 weeks and remains the #1 film in the U.S.   It was filmed in England, China, Scotland, and Turkey’s Grand Bazaar, which is among the world’s top ten most visited destinations.

6. Helsinki had a big 2012.  It was Design Capital of the World, rightly so, and its Music Center opened officially on August 31, 2012.

7.  My favorite new U.S. attraction is Paul Allen’s hands-on Living Computer Museum in Seattle.  It had a soft opening in October, 2012, and will have an official gala in April, 2013.  I’m not sure, but I suspect they want to get more of their historic computers up and running by then.

8.  The tallest building in the world remained Dubai’s Burj Khalifa for all of 2012.  But its reign will come to an end by spring, 2013, due to Sky City.  A 2,749 feet, 220 story tower will commence construction next month in Changsha, China.  The builders claim they can get Sky City done in 3 months.  30,000 residents will call it home.

9.  Also in China, the lake behind the Three Gorges Dam filled to its expected capacity in 2012.  In Hubei Province on the Yangtze River, it is quickly becoming a notable tourist attraction.

10. It took a year to get there, but rover alit on Mars in August, 2012, after “seven minutes of terror” according to National Geographic.  It’s only a matter of time before we’re booking trips to Mars to stand on the platform overlooking Yellowknife Bay before dining in the first non-Earth MacDonald’s.





Panamanians Smile, Haitians Frown


Yesterday I read a Gallup Inc. poll that supposedly measured national happiness.  Gallup contacted 1,000 people in 148 countries and asked them a series of questions like, “Did you laugh or smile a lot yesterday?”

According to the results, Panama is the happiest country in the world.  It’s followed by 7 other Spanish speaking countries like Costa Rica, said to be a pretty happy place by everyone I know who has been there, and Guatemala. Guatemala?  I have a friend who lived there for a couple of years, never felt safe, and couldn’t wait to leave.  So, why do you suppose that 8 of the ten happiest countries, including the world’s happiest, are in Central and South America?  Maybe the poll taker didn’t speak Spanish and confused triste and feliz.

There’s only one English-speaking country in Gallup’s top ten–Trinidad/Tobago.  The only people I’ve met from there were men and women who had left to better themselves, and none of them were smiling a lot.  In fact, one lady on her way back to Trinidad was really unhappy that she had to go.

Thailand ranks 5th happiest.   Within one minute of reading this I found a news release from the Australian Government dated November, 2012, that said if traveling there, “exercise a high degree of caution in Thailand due to the threat of terrorist attack….”  It listed 4 particularly dangerous provinces. expressed concern too and concluded, “The political environment in Thailand remains beset by deep political divisions.”  I don’t think I’ll be heading there to check out the Thai’s 83% happiness index.  I suppose political revolution can cause laughter, but isn’t that after the fighting stops?

Gallup’s saddest countries include some understandable ones–Iraq, Yemen, and Belarus.  I postponed a trip to Belarus this year out of fear.  But the saddest place in the world according to Gallup is Singapore, the country with the world’s highest percentage of millionaires.  Draw your own conclusion.

Also on the sad list is Lithuania, one of my favorite destinations.  I have noticed a certain amount of angst among its citizens.  After all, anyone there under the age of 22 lived under harsh communism, and its neighbors include Belarus.

I quickly found another 2012 happiness poll conducted by The Los Angeles Times.  Its 10 happiest nations were totally different from Gallup’s.  Totally. According to The Times, Denmark is the world’s happiest country.  On its website 48 people have commented so far.  Reading their words made me happy in that I smiled or laughed.   Mark Stanley said, “Everybody is stoned in Denmark and prostitution is legal.  What’s not to like?”  Steve Ressel took exception, “I was just there!  It was crappy attitude all around….”  So there.

7 of The Times happiest countries are in Europe, including Finland.  I was just there and almost everyone I met was depressed about winter coming and commented on the country’s high suicide rate.

I’ve been to all ten of The Times happiest countries.  In fact, the countries Ruth & I travel to the most are both on the list—Canada and Australia.  Both seem to be somewhat happy places despite citizen complaints.

All of The Times unhappiest countries, except for Haiti and Bulgaria, are in Africa including the unhappiest–Togo.  And again, its 10 saddest countries are completely different from Gallup’s.

I must conclude, then, that happiness is relative and can’t really be measured by polls.  If it could, we’d all be booking vacations in Paraguay & The Philippines.


The Magnificent Mariinsky


Lonely Planet‘s 6th edition St. Petersburg published in 2012 begins with a Top 10 List of essentials for  visitors.   Mariinsky Ballet is #7.   “What could be more Russian than seeing a ballet at the city’s famous Mariinsky Theatre?” it asked rhetorically.  It also warned readers to book long before travel to make sure they didn’t miss out.  Everyone who heard that we were going to St. Petersburg told us with starry eyes to attend a performance, any performance.

I went to and found that ballet was not scheduled.  In fact, the world-famous Mariinsky Ballet Company was touring the US while we were touring Russia.  I could have bought tickets on-line for the Verdi Requiem, but decided instead to trust fate.

On our second night in St. Petersburg, we walked to centrally located Theater Square, gasped at first sight of the green and white Mariinsky, went in, and got the last 2 tickets to a now sold out performance that began in one hour.  This gave us a chance to explore a 19th century building named for a Tsarina.

According to Lonely Planet, 2012 was supposed to be the year a new Mariinsky Theater opened.   Officially announced back in 2003, it would be next to the old, seat 2,000, and have 6 stages.  Ruth & I wandered behind the 1860 building, found ongoing construction, and assumed that the new Mariinsky, the first major venue of its kind since Imperial times, was well behind schedule.

The first theater called Mariinsky was built on what was then called Carousel Square.  Works by Tchaikovsky, etc, premiered there.  The historic Alexandrinsky Theater is still across from Mariinsky and regularly scheduling opera performances, etc.  After the Communist Revolution in 1917, the Mariinsky was put under the People’s Enlightenment Commissariat and renamed the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet.  In 1935 it became The Kirov.  In the late 1960s major reconstruction occurred.  In 1992 it returned to the Mariinsky name, but the ballet company continued to tour under Kirov probably because the whole world knew Nureyev and Baryshnikov.  They both danced there before defecting, but not together.

The program was, of course, in Russian but came with an English insert. Matching the building’s exterior, the program was elegantly green and white.  The Verdi was staged like performance art, not a concert, and Ruth & I both agreed that Mariinsky belonged in the Top Two.


The Governor’s Holiday Train


Every year when Christmas comes around, I think of Christmas’ past like everyone else.  One brought Ruth and me a very unusual and totally unexpected gift that smelled of fixative and proved to be a lot more trouble than it was worth.

Twas the day after Christmas and all through the California State Capitol in Sacramento were very few people.   It was the only attraction opened at 9 am.  After a guided tour, I wanted to take some notes in its small museum (Because of the Gold Rush, California quickly entered the Union as a State in 1850 and was never a territory).  At the time of our visit, Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governator.  Ruth became bored, wondered if he was on duty, and wandered down the hall to his office.

Told that she couldn’t enter, Ruth suggested that the two armed guards at the door accompany her inside.  Since the Christmas spirit still lingered, they agreed.

The Governor, of course, was away for the holidays, but his secretary was working.  On Schwarzenegger’s official desk was an almost 2-foot long gingerbread train, clearly a special Christmas treat.

“Oh!” Ruth exclaimed.  “I know someone who would love that train.  He’s 3 and a big Thomas The Tank Engine fan.  He wears his Thomas shirt almost every day.”

The Governor’s secretary smiled and said, “Well, it is after Christmas, so go ahead and take it.”

One minute later I was approached by a shocked, grinning Ruth carrying what looked like—and was—an extremely fragile but way cute gingerbread creation.  “What are we going to do with that?” I asked incredulously.

“Send it to Patrick,” Ruth replied simply.

One hour later we were at an UPS office.   Despite minimal jostling, the train’s little yellow icing windows were already falling off, and a lady in line listened to Ruth’s story and said we’d have to coat it with something to make it tough enough to ship.

I asked directions, went to the nearest hardware store, and was soon on the strip mall’s sidewalk spraying fixative onto the festive 3-piece train’s engine, freight car, and caboose, all decorated with increasingly inedible gum drops, sugary holly leaves, and candy canes.

The UPS man stared doubtfully at a difficult shipping problem and said, “I don’t have a box big enough, and it probably won’t make it even if you spend the $127 it will cost to get it there.”

I was ready to abandon the project, but Ruth was determined.  “We’ll take it home with us,” she announced.

It wasn’t easy.  Security checkpoints were especially taxing, as was handling an awkward gingerbread construction that would neither fit in overhead nor under the seat in front of her on a crowded plane.  Ruth had to stop frequently to tell her story to many curious travelers and flight attendants who invariably asked, “What’s that?”

It was worth it, however, when Patrick perched on his favorite stool and stared at his train for seconds, then minutes, and finally long periods of time making train sounds.