Travel: Finding the Pulse of a Ghost City…Inside Naypyidaw, Myanmar

The Finger Post Travel (July 13, 2018)

 

“We go to Naypyidaw Mr. Aung!”

My good friend Douglas Williams had invited me to Myanmar, where he had relocated for work several months earlier.  It was an offer I couldn’t refuse and after leaving Japan where I covered a WBO mini-flyweight world title fight I decided to take him up on the offer.  He told me of several locations that I “needed” to visit, but I had one destination that was a must visit: Naypyidaw.

Naypyidaw, or NPD as it is sometimes referred to, really is one of the most unusual cities on the planet, a virtual ghost town that has taken on a life of it’s own in a most unexpected way.  Since construction began back in 2002, the city of NPD has remained a mystery to everyone…even the citizens of Myanmar.  Shrouded in mystery when the ruling military junta announced that it would be moving the nations capital to some empty land in the middle of the jungle, Naypyidaw has become a moderately popular  topic of conversation with folks who find giant post-apocalyptic cities in the middle of the jungle to be absolutely fascinating.

Yeah, with people like me.

So although Mandalay seemed like a cool stop (any place that has a casino in Las Vegas can’t be all bad, can it?) I nonetheless let Doug know that the top of my Myanmar list would be the NPD.

He readily agreed and made arrangements for his driver to pick us up.  Mr. Aung was an afiable and likeable driver who spoke very little English but made up for it with his agreeable nature.

But when Mr. Aung picked us up from Doug’s apartment in Yangon that Saturday morning I could see his smile break for just a second.

Mr. Aung, I quickly surmised, had no interest in seeing his nation’s ghost town capital in the middle of the jungle.

Nonetheless, he quickly recouped and politely advised us that we needed to stop at the mall where we could exchange some money.  I knew we were on a tight schedule but I do have a tendency to let myself get distracted when travelling and, well, this was no exception.

Cambio?

It was a quick stop (by Burmese standards) and a quick change of $100 USD led to me holding a comical, almost Venezuelan, wad of cash.  Myanmar, although not suffering from hyperinflation, seemed to be unwilling to print anything larger than a 5000 kyat note, which equals about $3.50.  (for the record, there are 10,000 kyat notes, I just never saw any in Myanmar, and the 5000 kyat notes were few and far between).

We made our way after changing some money and of course I proceeded to delay things again when I saw the British World War II Cemetery outside of Yangon.  I realized that our departure out of Yangon was now comically behind schedule…but with that being said, I wouldn’t have traded the visit to the World War II cemetery for anything.

We soon made our way to the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway, a toll road that stood in sharp contrast to every road in Yangon.  Perhaps discouraged from the toll of 4,500 kyat (or about $3.15) the highway was virtually deserted and we got our first taste of what things would be like in Naypyidaw…a city whose abandoned feel was probably it’s most recognizable attribute.

The drive up was…interesting in it’s own way.  It had all the feel of an American road trip with betel nut instead of corn nuts.  Several hours in we came to our first rest stop…which was as Burmese as you could get.  We decided to stop at a restaurant and grab a bite to eat.  Up to that point I had been somewhat underwhelmed by the food in Myanmar, and unfortunately the Burmese Alsup’s didn’t change my opinion.  We grabbed a table and stood in line at something that sort of resembled a cafeteria or a Furr’s Buffet.  The food looked decent, but I tended to find the food in Myanmar to be somewhat bland and what we had there didn’t change my opinion.

But what it did have was a fruit stand outside…one selling durian.

I have to admit, durian had me a little intimidated.  After watching Anthony Bourdain eating his first durian fruit I was intrigued…but the more I researched the more I started second guessing if I wanted to take it on.  Raw beef from a street butcher in Ethiopia was child’s play, raw horse meat in Japan was triple-A at best.  Durian was something else.  It overpowered you…and then it stuck around for a week or two to remind you of what it was like to try and step up to the plate in the big leagues.  It was banned in many hotels and on airplanes…and I was warned that the smell of durian would stay with you for days.  It was like that classic Seinfeld episode.

Still, I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I passed on this golden opportunity to try durian for the first time.

I headed to the fruit vendor, and briefly chatted with the local monk who was also in the market for durian.  This man was clearly a durian connoisseur and he seemed to give this vendor’s durian his official seal of approval, which sort of set my mind at ease.

So I quickly picked what looked to be the durianest looking durian fruit and asked the vendor if I could eat it right there.  She smiled (everyone in Myanmar smiles politely, even if they were not at all on board with the plan) and proceeded to cut open the durian I just purchased.

A small crowd soon assembled to see the gringo tackle his first durian fruit, and I couldn’t help but again feel like some sort of celebrity.  But I didn’t have time to ponder my new found status as the local attraction.  I now had my durian all cut up and I even had a plastic bag on my hand to minimize the all hovering funk that legend had it would follow me back to Yangon and stay with me for a few days after I returned stateside.

It was now time to give durian the ol’ college try.

To my surprise…it didn’t knock me off my feet.  There was a slightly unpleasant aspect to the smell, but it was not as overpowering as I had been lead to believe.  And the taste was hardly unpleasant at all.  It was perfectly fine, not the best fruit I ever had but it certainly didn’t taste like I was eating a wet ashtray off a pair of dirty socks.

We soon made our way back on the highway and within two hours were were on the outskirts of the Nay Pyi Daw.  I could tell that it’s reputation as a ghost city was hardly exaggerated.  I couldn’t blame the government for planning ahead.  Yangon was in a perpetual state of chaos due to the traffic and the simple fact that the roads were all too narrow.  If Naypyidaw were to emerge as the thriving metropolis that it’s planners hoped, these twenty lane roads would be a sign of incredible foresight.  But for right now, they just gave the city a barren and abandoned feel.

The city was widely spread out, with nothing but jungle and nature separating large stadiums and hotels from government buildings and museums.  Mr. Aung decided to ask a local off the side of the road, who oddly enough seemed to go by the name of Chuy (although I was not sure if the New Mexican in me just kept mishearing his Burmese name).  Chuy hopped in and promised to show us the major sites in the NPD, which seemed fine at first.  But as he led up further and further from what I imagined was Naypyidaw’s city center I started to get a little nervous.  We were literally going down a two lane road in Naypwidaw.  I had only been in the city for about an hour but from what I could tell, two lane roads were not to be trusted.  Any road that lead anywhere was going to be a minimum of eight lanes.  Fortunately Chuy spoke absolutely no English, which was good since I was very passionately suggesting to Doug that we pull over and drag Chuy out of the car and take off since it seemed very obvious to me that he was taking us to meet up with the Flaming Dragon gang.

Fortunately for both Chuy and I, cooler heads prevailed and we soon reached our first stop: Myanmar’s Buddha Gaya on the Udayayanthi Hillock in Pohbba Thiri Township .  The Buddha Gaya is a recreation of one of Buddhism’s most holy sites, and the Burmese spared no expense in creating a beautiful replica.  The Thatta Thattaha Maha Bawdi Pagoda, built in 2013, was an impressive site at 162 feet (just shy of the height of the original pagoda in India) and also sits at the edge of a small replica of  at the Buddha Gaya site say at the edge of a small lake, another replica of the Mucalinda Lake where the Buddha spent six weeks meditating.

Although it began to rain heavily it was still an enjoyable stop, but Doug and his daughter Madison were getting restless.  Chuy then took us to the second stop on the “random guy we picked up off the side of the road in an abandoned ghost city tour” and by this point Doug was very vocal about what he thought about another round of replica pagodas and stupas.

“These are all fake,” he said firmly.  I couldn’t disagree.  We were Southeast Asia’s own version of Las Vegas…there were no shortages of impressive replicas.  But it was time to stop looking at the Statue of Liberty at New York, New York and see the water light show at the Bellagio.  It was time to go down the twenty lane highway.

As it turns out, I have no idea where we actually were.  My search of every travel site on Nay Pyi Daw came up with nothing on the collection of stupas and smaller pagodas just ten minutes away from the Buddha Gaya.  So I guess if anyone can help me identify where I was I’d appreciate it.

 

As we made our way back into town I couldn’t help but appreciate the size of Naypyidaw,  The Myanmarese military junta that built Naypyidaw was convinced (convinced I tell you!) that the city would eventually fill up with citizens.  And maybe it will.  They really lived by the motto “go big or go home” with the planning of this city.  But for now…well,it was a beautiful drive.  And dare I saw the scenery was unlike anything you’d see in any other nations capital.

We soon made our way to Naypyidaw’s most famous site.  The infamous twenty lane highway.  And let me say, driving down a freeway shouldn’t be such a memorable experience.  But it way.  The post apocalyptic vibe was unmistakable as we drove down the empty highway, with only the occasional bus or motorbike passing us in the other direction.

Now for all our protests against “fake” sites, both Doug and I were intrigued by Nay Pyi Daw’s most famous site next to the road with nobody driving on it.  The 325 foot tall Uppatasanti Pagoda.  The Uppatasanti Pagoda was Naypyidaw’s attempt to rival the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, and although it stood 30 centimeters shorter than it’s more historic counterpart in Yangon, it was still a sight to behold.  Doug and Madison elected to sit this one out, leaving me and Mr. Aung to explore the impressive pagoda that housed a Buddha tooth relic from China.  As we made our way up I couldn’t help but appreciate the peacefulness of Uppatasanti Pagoda, a notable contrast to the sometimes crowded and hectic feel of the Shwedagon Pagoda.  We were able to wander around unmolested from anyone wearing a “Death Trooper” t-shirt (it’s a long story, I’ll fill you in on my Yangon update) and we couldn’t help but appreciate the incredible view.

 

As I headed over to the large bell in the plaza, and as had become commonplace in Myanmar, I was approached by some locals who wanted their photo taken with me.

By the time I made my way back to the bottom of the man made hill where the pagoda was I was surprised to see several elephants on display.  I always feel bad for captive elephants, ever since Dumbo had to visit his mom in circus jail.  Elephants are smart animals and they are cursed with that perpetual happy face that sort of masks their suffering, making it easy to dismiss their pain.

As I left the Uppatasanti Pagoda I noticed a fair number of vendors along the road.  I wondered if maybe, just maybe, the insane plan was actually working.  Maybe, just maybe, people were coming.  

As we made our way back to the van I realized that we were behind schedule.  I wanted to make one more stop, to see the Parliament, but Mr. Aung advised that we couldn’t get close to it and we elected to skip it.

In hindsight it was a mistake.  That, not the road, was the Bellagio water show.  That was the highlight.  And we missed it.

The thing is, I don’t really think I’ll ever go back to Naypyidaw…even though I very much would like to go back to Myanmar.

But who knows.  Maybe I will want to experience “The Road” one more time.

 

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From Port Royal to Trench Town: Three Days in Kingston, Jamaica (October 19-23, 2017) (Part Two)

The Finger Post Travel (June 25, 2018)

“I remember when we used to sit in the government yard in Trench Town.” –
Bob Marley.

I had to hand it to Bryan Pert…he was undoubtedly the best Airbnb host I ever had.  I had a big day planned: Trench Town and then a very early flight to Miami.  I already made arrangements for a driver to pick me up but even with that I knew I wanted to cram in as much as I could during my last day in Kingston.  I decided a tour would be the way to go when I arrived in Trench Town.  I read that the tours would run about $70-$100 USD, not cheap, but I also read that the community was in dire need of any sort of influx of capital it could get.

Bryan joined me as we made our way to Trench Town by way of route taxi.  I knew I would never be able to figure out the route taxis without Bryan’s assistance, and I was appreciative that he agreed to spend the day with me as I toured Trench Town.

As we made our way into Trench Town I was blown away.  It was undeniably a city mired in poverty, and the scars of the the political instability of the 1970s were considerably more evident than in the rest of Kingston.  But it also had an energy to the place and an unmistakable identity.  This wasn’t the Caribbean.  This wasn’t Jamaica.  This wasn’t even Kingston.  This was Trench Town.

To my surprise we stumbled upon a Trench Town funeral or memorial service, which was really an unexpected experience.  Young Jamaicans rode their motorbikes loudly up and down the main road revving their engines and attracting attention from far and wide.  Interestingly enough nobody complained.  On the contrary, people began to stream out of their homes to pay their respects to the departed.

I won’t lie, this was not what I was expecting.  Revving motorcycles during a memorial service seemed like something you might stumble upon in Sturgis, but not in the birthplace of Reggae.

We then made our way to the Trench Town Cultural Yard and I was happy to discover that the tickets would not be in the neighborhood of $100 but would instead be only $20 for a 90 minute tour.  I readily signed up and my tour guide took me down Lower First Street where I would get my first glimpse of life in Trench Town.

Right off the bat I realized that they were not exaggerating when they spoke of the crippling poverty in Trench Town.  Just a few hundred feet from the Trench Town Cultural Yard I saw how different life was for Jamaicans here in comparison to the other parts of Kingston I had been in.

I felt somewhat voyeuristic snapping pictures although my guide assured me that it was OK.  Still, this was the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest musicians.  I wanted to get as many pictures as I could.  After all, these were all buildings that a young Bob Marley and a young Peter Tosh walked by regularly.

Of course no trip to Trench Town would be complete without some murals of Emperor Haile Selassie.

We turned right on West Road and then turned on 2nd Street where I would finally see it: a lyric in stone.  There was a (not necessarily thee) government yard in Trench Town.  I won’t lie, my heart skipped a beat as I pictured a young Bob Marley and a young Georgie would light up the fire light.  It was here (maybe, probably not) where they would cook corn meal porridge…and here (maybe) where one of the greatest lyrics in music history was born.

My excitement soon was stifled somewhat.  This was not a museum.  It was a government yard in Trench Town.  People lived here and they lived in abject poverty.  I was a tourist snapping pictures of their lives, seemingly indifferent to their struggle.  I realized that I would never really get it.  I remember hearing a story about an old confederate veteran who was asked to give a “Rebel Yell” to a young woman who was curious to hear what it sounded like.  He declined, saying that he couldn’t do it justice, not with a full belly.

I would never be able to really connect with Georgie, as much as I wanted to feel that moment…I couldn’t.

All I could do was take a picture at Gettysburg and imagine what those men went through.  All I could do was was take a picture near the fire light.

We soon made out way to the corner of 2nd Street and our guide soon shared more of the history of Second Street before we made our way up to Third Street.

We continued to tour Trench Town itself and I was impressed by the unmistakable spirit of the place.  It was very clearly a rough place…but it wore its identity on its sleeve with unmistakable pride.  In the murals they celebrated their identity…and their history.  A recognition that Trench Town was, in many ways, the beating heart of all of Jamaica.  Negril and Montego Bay might pull the tourist, who would never see the grinding poverty of Trench Town first hand.  But they, like I, were in many ways drawn to Jamaica because of Trench Town.  Because Trench Town gave the entire nation an identity that was unmistakable.

We headed back to the Cultural Yard where I would get a chance to check out Bob Marley’s old Volkswagen van, but first was a stop to Trench Town’s community music studio which appeared to be inside of a school where a religious revival was taking place.  It was there Bryan and I had a chance to meet the Jamaican reggae artist Lanz, who was working on a new album.  I got to hang out with Lanz for a little while and bought a demo from him.  It wasn’t bad, but after burning it to my computer I gave the demo to Bryan, who I could tell was really digging the vibe of it.

With Lanz

Recently I noticed Lanz was on tour with stops in the United Kingdom.  Who knows, maybe he will take off and young folks with be envious of the fact that I actually met him and hung out with him.  After all, what’s cooler than elected officials meeting musicians that they never listened to?

Leaving the studio we headed back to the Cultural Yard, but not before another quick stop at what appeared to be an Icelandic grandstand.

We had a new tour guide for the Cultural Yard, where I was able to see what they claimed was one of Bob Marley’s first guitars as well as his former Volkswagen which  I was allowed to sit inside it, which was a cool experience to say the least.

 

It was now time to make our way back.  I was lucky in that Bryan knew a few other places that I could squeeze in before I had to go to the airport.  We started with Emancipation Park before making our way to Devon House, where I would have the chance to try what many claimed was the best ice cream in the world.

Devon House (the former residence of Jamaica’s first black millionaire) was a perfect way to close out my trip to Jamaica, and yes, the ice cream at Devon House I Scream was indeed some of the best ice cream you’ll ever have.  They even had some sort of old car show going on, which added to the charm.

But I couldn’t help but notice the sharp contrast between Trench Town and Devon House.  Devon House was prim and proper and would probably be played by Billy Zane in a movie.

I left Devon House to return to Bryan’s Airbnb where I quickly packed up before taking a nap.  He arranged an early pick up for me and I would need to get some sleep before I left.  But I knew that Trench Town, and Jamaica, had left a mark on me.  I didn’t know if I would ever be back to Jamaica.  Maybe someday I’d be on a cruise ship that stopped in Montego Bay or Negril…but Kingston?  Doubtful.

But I felt like I made the most of my time in Jamaica, and I couldn’t ask for a better host in Bryan Pert.  In the end, I was glad that Georgie’s firelight led me to Kingston.

 

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Travel: Granada, Nicaragua before the storm (August 7, 2014)

Travel: Granada, Nicaragua before the storm (June 24, 2018)

 

I’ll be honest, this blog was suppose to be a backdrop. I wasn’t planning to write a post on NIcaragua, not now anyways. My 2014 trip to Nicaragua was an amazing experience…but I was suppose to go back in October.  I figured I would be writing about Nicaragua af that time.

With the WBO set to hold its 2018 convention in Managua I knew I would have plenty to write about. I was excited about the prospect of revisiting many of the sites I fell in love with in 2014 like San Juan Del Sur, Lago De Nicaragua, Managua…and what was in my opinion one of the most tourist friendly cities I ever visited in Central America: Granada.

Of course I also wanted to see more of Nicaragua: Bluefields, Leon, and (time permitting) the Corn Islands.  But regardless of if I made it to Bluefields or the Corn Islands, I definitely was going to return to Granada. It was the kind of town that made an impression.

But all that changed on April 18, 2018.  On that day a series of protests against the government of Daniel Ortega kicked off after the Ortega administration implemented a series of deeply unpopular social security reforms.  The protests kicked off in six cities and probably would have teetered out in a few days…but the Ortega regime responded with unimaginable violence that soon triggered a revolution. By April 20 it was clear that these protests had spiraled into a revolt…and that this was the biggest crisis to hit the nation since the end of the Contra War in 1990.

On June 6th the WBO finally pulled the plug. They announced that they would be moving the WBO convention to Panama City, Panama. I couldn’t blame them: it was clear by June 6th that the situation in Nicaragua was dire…and this might even be classified as the early days of a Civil War.

Which brings me to this post.

Back in July of 2004 I was living in Sarajevo.  I was doing some volunteer work for an NGO, the International Commission on Missing Persons.  They ultimately didn’t have much for me to do so I spent a lot of time doing busy work like researching anything I could get my hands on regarding the war in the former Yugoslavia.  On July 23, 2004 I watched on TV the ceremony celebrating the reopening of the Stari Most (Old Bridge) that became a symbol of the War in Bosnia.  The grainy video of the bridge’s destruction by the Bosnian-Croat forces was one of the most heartbreaking images of the war.

But it shouldn’t have been.

It was after all only a bridge.  A historic bridge and a beautiful bridge, but ultimately just stone.  It’s destruction on November 9, 1993 was a tragedy…but I never could shake the fact that there were already so many images out of Yugoslavia that were so much worse, that the world was all to willing to ignore.  I never could come to grips with the fact that the world seemed to care more for that bridge then it did for the tens of thousands of innocent people killed in 1992 and 1993.

I didn’t want Granada to be that way.  As the war takes a dark turn I couldn’t help but be worried about the friends I made down in Nicaragua…and the people I met in the city of Granada.  I know it’s a bizarre connection but I gave a guy one of my campaign t-shirts in Granada.  It was old and ready to be retired, and he seemed cool with a free t-shirt.  But now I can’t help but worry about this guy I don’t even know.  I can’t help but wonder if there is someone dodging snipers right now in Granada wearing a “Vote David Finger” t-shirt…and I won’t lie: it really has me shook up.

Recently I saw this photo posted on Facebook a few days ago and it didn’t give me much hope for the future for Granada.

The situation in Granada was already dire prior to this, with some media outlets reporting that the city was in ruins on June 7.   Needless to say it’s a humanitarian crisis developing.

And despite my fear over what is happening to the people of Nicaragua, I can’t help but admit that to a certain degree I have become that guy watching BBC on November 10, 1993.

I can’t help but cry for the city itself.  For the buildings.  For the streets.  For the history.  For the energy.  For all of it.  When I visited Granada the streets were quiet, peaceful…and yet full of life.  Granada was the crown jewel of Nicaragua and they knew it.  When I snapped these pictures in 2014 I never expected it to ever really change.  Not in 2014.  The dark days were in the past for Granada.

 

 

Then I saw this photo from June 6, 2018.

Photo by END

I also remembered my mission for Granada back in 2014…to get a hammock.  Every time I went to Latin America I was always intrigued by the hammocks for sale.  Colorful and handmade, they seemed the perfect souvenir for a Yanqui like me.  And I had committed myself to getting one in Granada.  I saw them for sale on the streets but I also discovered that Granada had an awesome cigar shop that I was told was a place I needed to visit and I decided to make that my first stop.  It had a great selection and an ever better cigar lounge where I could enjoy my purchase.

While chatting with the bartender he advised me of a place called Tio Antonio Hamaca (Uncle Antonio’s Hammocks).  It was billed as a more social responsible way to purchase your souvenir from Nicaragua, with the hammocks made by a staff of blind or otherwise disabled people.   And their hammocks were amazing.  I purchased one for my back yard and it really was the most comfortable and colorful hammock I ever had.  Unfortunatly when my dogs saw me in it they were prompted to try and recreated Quint’s death scene from Jaws and I finally had to take it down.

Visiting Tio Antonio Hamaca was an unforgettable experience and I hope and pray someday I’ll be able to go back to Granada to find that Tio Antonio is still going strong.

With hammock in hand I made my way back to the hotel, but not before passing through the marketplace again.  It was a vibrant place in 2014…and again, I don’t know how it looks now but my assumption is that things are not good.

Nicaragua has overcome a lot in the past, and it isn’t fair that the past would have to repeat itself here in 2018.  If any country deserved a break after decades of conflict it was Nicaragua, and the possibility of another Civil War is terrifying.  But sadly there is no real end in sight, and the prospects for Granada and Nicaragua look dim right now.

 

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Travel: Visiting the British War Cemetery near Yangon, Myanmar (September 1, 2017)

Travel: Visiting the Taukkyan War Cemetery near Yangon, Myanmar (May 29, 2018)

 

“Wait!” I exclaimed as I peered out the window at what looked like an immaculate park off the side of the road.   “Can we stop here?”

I had arranged three days in Yangon, Myanmar to meet and old friend of mine: Douglas Williams and his daughter Madison.  Doug was an incredible host, and I almost felt bad because over the three days he went above and beyond to make sure my time in Myanmar was enjoyable.

“Anywhere you want to go, let me know!” Doug said when he met me at the airport in Yangon.  “I want you to see the country!”

Doug had relocated to Yangon from Houston for work and I realized he meant every word of it when he didn’t balk at my rather unusual request: the abandoned capital city of Naypyidaw.  The concept of a country moving it’s capital to the middle of a jungle fascinated me, and I couldn’t help but feel like I had a rare chance of seeing it before it grew into the crowded metropolis I assumed it would someday become. In the meantime it was a city designed for millions with a population of what appeared to be a few thousand…and I wanted to experience that firsthand.

Doug readily agreed and made arrangements for a private driver to take us up there.  But on the way I saw something that I didn’t expect to find: an Allied War memorial Cemetery.  The Taukkyan War Cemetery is the final resting place for 6,374 British soldiers killed in Burma during the First and Second World War.

Located 16 miles north of Yangon on Pyay Road I was insistent that we stop and visit it and Doug, the ever gracious host, readily agreed.  Right off the bat I couldn’t help but notice that the well maintained cemetery, which was maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, had emerged a popular park for local residence.  I could see why: it was quiet, peaceful, and absolutely stunning.  I also appreciated that the locals seemed to recognize the hallow ground that they were walking upon and treated the cemetery with the utmost respect, even as they took their morning strolls and picnics there.

 

I had discovered that I remained something of a celebrity everywhere I went for some reason.  Admittedly Westerners were somewhat rare in Myanmar, but they were still there.  So I never quite understood why a lot of Burmese would approach me and ask for a photo with me.  I figured it was because I either looked like a famous Burmese movie star or because I was twice the size as everyone else in the country.

“Hey look, it’s Brad Pitt!”

As I walked around the cemetery I felt a  appreciation for the sacrifice of the many brave men who died in this most foreign land, men from all corners of the British Empire.

In the end it was a subtle reminder of something that we should never forget…a simple message but one so appropriate on Memorial Day:

Some gave all.  

 

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Travel: Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Site near Gibsland, Louisiana (May 27, 2018)

The Finger Post Travel (March 27, 2018)

 

“We got three guns,” the curator said of the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum in Gibsville after we asked him what was included with the $7 price of admission. “And Clyde’s glasses he was wearing when ambushed.”

I took a road trip over the weekend with an old friend of mine, former Hollywood actor David James, who was currently working as Deputy District Attorney in Lordsburg, New Mexico. On our way back from Vicksburg we discovered that we were going to pass by the site where the legendary bank robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were ambushed by law enforcement officers from Texas and Louisiana.

As I would discover, David James had a connection to Bonnie and Clyde: his grandmother ran the switchboard the night that the Barrow Gang engaged in a deadly shootout with police in Dexter, Iowa.  At the time David’s grandmother was a young woman in her early 20s and here she was, handling all communications during a police shootout with the most notorious criminal gang in America (this was 1933, before 911 dispatch was used in small towns like Dexter). More likely than not she handled the call that Bonnie and Clyde had escaped…as well as the call that Clyde’s brother Buck Barrow had been capture and had been shot in the head.

Our arrival in Gibsland left us underwhelmed  and to be honest, after having been left unimpressed with the two museums in town dedicated to the shootout, we debated just hitting the road back to New Mexico.  Fortunately we decided to make the approximately 8 mile drive to the ambush site.  It was well worth the trip.  It’s a quiet stop at the side of Hwy 154 that paints a vivid picture of how isolated the ambush site was…and how it was the perfect place to lay a trap.

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From Port Royal to Trench Town: Three Days in Kingston, Jamaica (October 19-23, 2017) (Part One)

The Finger Post Travel (May 13, 2018)

“I remember when we used to sit in the government yard in Trench Town.” – 

Bob Marley.

 

I’m sure a lot of people have a favorite Bob Marley quote.  A song lyric that just grabs you and never lets go.  And I won’t lie, as a teenager I went through my obligatory middle class college student Bob Marley phase.  But after awhile the songs just became, well, just songs.  I guess that’s a sign of getting older.  You stop finding meaning in things like Redemption Song.

But that one lyric from No Woman No Cry always stuck with me.  I obviously never sat in a government yard with Georgie making the fire light, but there was something about that lyric that made me nostalgic.  I could feel that sense of longing for a time passed, a simple time with good friends.  A time that would never happen again.  It’s a powerful song that can make you nostalgic for something you never experienced before.  Particularly when you are a teenager and you are living those carefree days that you would soon wax poetic over as a middle aged man.

Yeah, Georgie and the fire light..I couldn’t quite shake.  It’s been years since I first went through that Bob Marley college student phase, but even today I still stop and pause every time I hear that one lyric.  And the other day I realized that this is a feeling that isn’t exactly unique to me.  Apparently there is a German word for nostalgia for something you never experienced: sehnsucht.  Realizing that brought me back to my recent trip to Trench Town and Kingston Jamaica back in October…where I would sit in a government yard and where I found out what happens when sehnsucht meets the real world.

The WBO Boxing convention was slated to kick off from the Miami aboard the Norwegian Sky cruise  ship.  I would have a chance to go back to Cuba in a week but I wanted to take advantage of my time in Florida to grab a cheap ticket to Jamaica.  I wanted a few days to check out Trench Town and Kingston.  I arrived in Miami a few days early and caught a direct flight to Kingston, Jamaica that brought me into Norman Manley International Airport at 6:54 PM.  I had decided not to make my way to Kingston that night.  I had heard that Kingston was no stranger to crime and I didn’t want to wander around the city at night looking for a hotel.  Instead I booked a room at the Grand Port Royal Hotel Marina & Spa in Port Royal, a small costal village at the end of the Palisadoes tombolo, a sandspit that jutted out of the Kingston Harbor.

Right away I realized that although Kingston wasn’t exactly Montego Bay…it also wasn’t exactly cheap.  My two nights at the Grand Port Royal Hotel Marina & Spa were going to run me close to $90 a night for a decent (but not exceptional) hotel room.  I decided to try and cut down on some unnecessary expenses on this trip and one of those expenses would be the $20 cab ride to the airport.  Reading online I learned that there was a public bus to Port Royal that stopped at the airport and that seemed like an interesting way to experience true Jamaica.  The Jamaica Urban Transit Company (JUTC) had a bus that was suppose to arrive every 35 minutes.  And by the time I left the airport and arrived at the bus stop outside I would only have to wait 10 minutes for the #98 bus to arrive.

At least that was what the schedule said.  Of course the schedule was wrong.

An hour later I was on the #98 bus on my way to Port Royal.  I was tired and I was very much regretting my decision not to take a cab.  But once the bus dropped me off in front of the hotel my mood lightened.  Port Royal was a small town, a far cry from it’s heyday as the largest city in the Caribbean.   I could tell this would make for a good base of operation to explore the village.  But I could also tell that unless I was willing to spend a lot of money on taxis, or wait around at bus stops all night, this would not be an ideal base of operations for exploring Kingston itself.  After checking into my room, which was decent but hardly exceptional considering the price, I elected to make my way to the marina behind the hotel where I planned to grab a late dinner at the Blue Marlin Restaurant.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, it seemed a cozy place and I assumed it wouldn’t be that expensive.

Then I saw the menu.

$38 for the shrimp and lobster pasta was almost enough to convince me to skip dinner.  But I noticed a $12 fried fish sandwich and decided to go that route.

The following morning I elected to make my way into town.  I didn’t need a bus or even a cab to  explore Port Royal. It was just a five minute walk to St. Peter’s Anglican Church, situated in what I assume was downtown.

Like much of Port Royal, it’s identity was very much tied to the earthquake that destroyed the city on June 7, 1692. The current church was built in 1726 after the “original parish church sunk below the waves in 1692.”  Although the Church was closed it was only a five minute walk to Fort Charles, the only fort to survive the  earthquake of 1692. I was told that this was a major tourist attractions in Port Royal, and after walking through the town I could help but wonder if it was in fact the only tourist attraction in Port Royal.  As I approached the entrance I could tell can that I was going to be somewhat underwhelmed. To be honest, it didn’t really look like a “must see” site. Peeking through the embrasure (don’t worry, I had to google it also) I could tell this would be a somewhat Spartan exhibit and the $15 entrance fee seemed a bit steep to me. So I elected to do something I am loath to do when travelling: I skipped it. Usually when traveling I always make time to visit the local sites, and I’ve paid $15 or more for many forgettable museums (such as the Lincoln Train Museum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania).  But something about this one just didn’t click for me and I elected to pass on it.

Besides, a wild hog had just passed me and I was curious to see where he was going.  I would discover Port Royal had it’s fair share of rather chill feral hogs that just sort of wandered the city, and following this one led me to what I assume was a residential section of Port Royal.

It was an interesting discovery but one that I didn’t need to spend much time at.  I decided to make my way back into town to visit the only other site that really caught my eye: the abandoned Royal Navy Hospital.

Built in 1818 the hospital looked like something out of a post apocalyptic movie.  The building were collapsing and decaying, but it was nonetheless a fascinating stop and to be honest…it was the highlight of my time in Port Royal.  I snapped a few pictures and couldn’t help but be a little blown away that an American tourist could just freely wander what was clearly a safety hazard like this place obviously was.

 

As I headed back I stopped at a local grocery store where I grabbed a soft drink and chatted with the locals, including a four year old boy who was fascinated by my iPhone and the selfies he could take with them.

They recommended a place called Gloria’s for dinner, something that was seconded by my hotel.  It was, they promised, the best seafood in all of Jamaica.

With a recommendation like that I knew I would have to try it.  I already made plans to leave Port Royal and spend my final two days in Jamaica in Kingston itself tomorrow morning and I figured dinner at Gloria’s Seafood would be the ideal way to say goodbye to the village of Port Royal.

Arriving at Gloria’s Seafood I quickly realized I had not been lead astray.  The place was packed, and it had it’s fair share of tourist…something I had not seen in town all day.

I ordered the Buccaneer’s Mix for about $18 USD, fried fish and lobster with a side of fries and “bammy”.  The bammy was…different, but the rest of the meal was incredible and I was sold.  This was the perfect at to cap off my day in Port Royal.

The following morning I decided to contact Bryan Pert, who rented out a room on Airbnb.  It would prove to be the best decision I made during my trip to Jamaica and Bryan was a gracious host and an incredible guide.  More than just renting out a room he took great pains to ensure I got to see the sites I wanted to see and get to the places I wanted to visit…something that I realized would have been extremely difficult if I was trying to organize it myself.  Bryan met me at the bus stop and we immediately hit it off as he took me for a short tour around the bus station where I got to visit the Saint William Grant Park, The Ward Theatre, and the Kingston Parish Church.

From the North Parade Bus Park in Kingston

 

Ward Theatre
In front of the Kingston Parish Church

Just down the street from the park was the Simon Bolivar Cultural Centre.  The Simon Bolivar Cultural Centre is a 350-multi cultural center with an exhibit hall that was financed in part by the Venezuelan government at a cost of $4.1 million USD (because Venezuela certainly had extra money that they didn’t need to spend domestically).

It was a fun way to be introduced to Kingston, and although I didn’t have enough time to really take in a lot, I did get a chance to admire the statue of Jamaica’s first prime minister, The Right Excellent Sir William Alexander Bustamante, which was located in the Saint William Grant Park.  To be honest, I couldn’t help but wonder if they took some liberties with the Right Excellent Sir Bustamante’s abs.  But I decided to drop it.  Nah, I didn’t want to be hatin’ on Bustamante’s gains.

Trainers (and colonialist) hate him

From there we caught a route taxi and made our way back to his house.  I dropped off my bags and got ready for my next stop: the Bob Marley Museum.  The museum cost $2500 Jamaican dollars to get in (just under $20 USD) but unlike Fort Charles I knew there was no way I was going to miss this.  No, Georgie would never let me live it down if I skipped the Bob Marley Museum.

I caught a cab and familiarized myself with the route and shortly after arriving I was part of a group tour.  I liked our guide, who was friendly and enthusiastic and who seemed genuinely impressed that I named “Kaya” as my favorite Bob Marley song.  The photos and artwork outside were impressive, and they included the obligatory portrait of Emperor Halie Selassie.

Having left Ethiopia just five months prior I found the central role of Selassie in Rastafarianism to be fascinating…if not a little difficult to understand.  Having visited Selassie’s former palace in Addis Ababa I couldn’t help but see Selassie as all too human.  Probably overall a good man, but a man with some very notable flaws (for one, his bathroom was really tacky).  And I couldn’t help but wonder what impact the overthrow and eventual murder of Selassie by the Derg had on Bob Marley and the Jamaican Rastafarian community as a whole.  According to Wikipedia it was a moment that “dampened” it’s growth and popularity.  I couldn’t help but wonder how the Rastafarians would have grappled with the realization that incarnation of Jah on earth had just been overthrown by a communist military junta that would launch a genocide that would ultimately rival the Holocaust in its brutality.

We made out way inside and although photos were prohibited I did notice the museum was a perfect balance of memorabilia of historical recreation.  This was, after all, Bob Marley’s former home.  We were able to see numerous records and photos from his concerts in places like New Zealand (taken by a fan) alongside his bedroom and the small kitchen he would prepare his blended fruit shakes with.  But I would be taken aback by a large poster of Bob Marley’s concert in Zimbabwe in 1980 located in a room on the second floor.  I won’t lie, it threw me for a loop.  Marley would die the following year, before he saw what Zimbabwe would become.  Now I am sure many of you are assuming I am about to bring up the disastrous “land reforms” of former Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe that may have cost Zimbabwe over $17 billion and would lead to food shortages and hyper inflation in the country.  No, what I couldn’t help but wonder is if Marley would have felt personally betrayed by Robert Mugabe.  I wondered what he would have thought about Mugabe and Zimbabwe giving refuge to the former dictator of Ethiopia: Mengistu Halie Mariam.  In 1994, three year after he fled the country, Ethiopia tried him in absentia for the murder of thousands of Ethiopians under his genocidal rule…including the murder of the former emperor who was allegedly suffocated with his pillow by Mengistu’s men (some reports even allege Mengistu did the deed himself).  What would Bob Marley have thought about the man he so warmly embraced back in 1980 giving refuge to a mass murderer and the man responsible for the death of the holiest man in his faith.  I like Justin Trudeau. He seems like a likable guy.  But I if he turned out to be an Immortal from the movie Highlander and 2000 years ago he was Pontius Pilate, well, yeah, I wouldn’t be cool with him anymore.

The poster of Mugabe sort of depressed me and we followed it up by visiting the room where Bob Marley was nearly assassinated in 1976.  Days before what Marley was hoping would be a non-political concert dubbed “Smile Jamaica” unknown gunmen drove up to Marley’s house and open fired in a back room, hitting Marley in the arm and chest.  Marley recovered and even performed two nights later.  However the gunmen were never apprehended and the shooting highlighted the political tension that plagued Jamaica in the 1970s.  The tour was taking a bit of a dark turn for me but then I saw it: Georgie’s portrait on a back wall and my mood lightened ever so slightly.  I suddenly had a face to the lyric.

I was ready to head back but before I left I grabbed a set behind Bob’s house, just a few feet from where gunmen nearly killed him.  Legend has it that this was the spot that he penned the classic tune “Three Little Birds.”  I decided to take a short break before I headed back and sit down in the same spot where Bob Marley would be so inspired as to write one of his most beloved songs.

It was now time to make my way my way back to the Airbnb, but before I left I decided to take a few more pictures of the museum before I left.

On my way home I decided to stop at the grocery store that near the Airbnb.  I wanted to do some grocery shopping, and in particular to get some Jerk chicken marinade to take home with me.  Shopping in a Jamaican grocery store was a surprisingly  fun way to close the day, and after grabbing some Blue Mountain Coffee and Jerk seasoning I was ready to make my way back to my room.

A short walk followed and by the end of the day I decided to tap into the tremendous resource I had in Bryan and see if he could direct me to a good restaurant for some authentic jerk chicken.  He recommended Island Grill, a popular national chain restaurant.  We caught a cab and by the time I arrived the place was packed.  This should have been a really good sign of what was to come…it should have been. But I can’t really recommend Island Grill for any of you planning a trip to Jamaica.  The food was ok, but hardly the best jerk chicken you’ll ever have.

By now the sun was down and I was beat.  I had a big day tomorrow…it was time to chill with Georgie.  It was time to hit Trench Town.

 

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This Day in Boxing History: Rob Frankel wins a decision over Danny Almanza in Colorado (April 16, 2004)

The Finger Post (April 16, 2018)

 

Between 2003 and 2008 I covered a number of fights in the State of Colorado while I attended law school at the University of Denver.  One of Colorado’s most popular boxers during this decade was the gritty Rob Frankel.  Frankel started off in rather unspectacular fashion, getting stopped in his pro debut by Hector Munoz before winning a pair of uninspiring decisions over a pair of fighters with records of 0-7 and 0-6 respectively.

I won’t lie…I wasn’t expecting much from him.

Maybe a few more ugly wins before getting blown out against a top level prospect…and then either a slide into opponent status or an end to the boxing career.

But a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity.  Frankel learned how to fight, and that coupled with his rock solid chin and his overall toughness led to Frankel becoming one of Colorado boxing’s most unexpected main event fighters.  On April 9, 2005 Frankel scored a stunning upset over Martin O’Malley, a moment that gave birth to one of Colorado boxing’s most unexpected stories.  Frankel gave as good as he got, and although he never quite pulled off that one big win that would put him into the world rankings, he gave a lot of Colorado boxing fans reason to believe in him nonetheless.  He was tough and we just knew that one day he would find that one contender who was looking past him.  One day he would march into the top ten and upend the apple cart.  Since that inglorious pro debut, Rob Frankel would win a NABA belt in 2008, a WBC regional belt in 2012, he would defeat a former USBA champion named Michael Stewart in 2007 and even scored a win over a guy named Pacquiao (OK, it was Manny’s brother Bobby, but still a nice win).

But back on April 16, 2004 he was just another unknown undercard fighter who I expected would be done with the sport by the end of the year.

Fortunately I was wrong on that assessment.

 

Rob Frankel’s April 16, 2004 fight with Danny Almanza in Denver, Colorado:

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Boxing: Revisiting a 2010 interview with Wladimir Klitschko (April 15, 2010)

The Finger Post (August 15, 2018)

 

April 15, 2010.  Eight years ago today.  I was approached by Fightnews about a possible interview with heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko.  Naturally I was excited about the opportunity to interview Wladimir, but not just because he was the heavyweight champion.  I felt like this interview might be the start of a legendary rivalry.  Quite frankly, in 2010 the division was stagnant.  In April of 2010 Klitschko had just passed something of a milestone: six years since he last tasted defeat on April 10, 2004.  In that time he won 12 straight fights but to many American fans the division had grown stale under his dominant reign.  But along came a cocky Brit who seemed to push all of Wladimir’s buttons.  In 2010 it looked like boxing was about to get a shot of adrenaline and the birth of a new rivalry for the ages: Wladimir Klitschko and David Haye.

Of course history has shown us that the rivalry was anticlimactic…but for a few months in 2010 and 2011…it did look like something special was brewing in the heavyweight division.

 

Wladimir Klitschko calls out David Haye 

    For many boxing fans, the heavyweight division has been in a serious slump for several years, despite the fact that the reigning IBF and WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko (54-3, 48 KO’s) is so clearly a class above almost every other contender in the division.  Since winning the IBF title back in 2006 from Chris Byrd he has arguably not lost a single round against the eight fighters he’s defended his title against, and even his harshest critics admit that he could easily continue that streak of dominance for several more years.  But it’s not so much that fact that he’s dominant that has boxing fans writing off the division.  It’s the manner in which he has been winning lately, with some critics considering him to be to “safety first” against clearly overmatched opponents.  But if there is one thing that could give the division and the sport a much needed shot of adrenaline, it is a legitimate grudge match between Klitschko and the only fighter in the world who doesn’t share his last name and who is widely perceived as his only serious threat: David Haye.  And although a unification fight seems like a no-brainer, it is already emerging as quite possibly the most heated heavyweight rivalry since Mike Tyson and Razor Ruddock. 

    “I want to wipe (Haye) out of the ring,” Klitschko said to Fightnews with noticeable anger and contempt, “I care about the punishment in the fight for David Haye.  The best scenario is like the (Eddie) Chambers fight.  I want to punish him for twelve rounds and then knock him out.  But I don’t think I can wait, If I see the opportunity to knock him out at I’m going to do it.”

    Klitschko admitted to Fightnews that not only has Haye gotten under his skin, but he has emerged as the most despised fighter he’s ever encountered.

    “Whatever you call it, under my skin, it’s enough bullshitting from David Haye and his side, and I think now is the time to make it.”  Klitschko stated, “I made it clear in the message I posted online, I want David Haye’s title, and I want to beat this ‘bitching out’ person in the ring.”

    May boxing fans have already seen the now infamous clip of Wladimir Klitschko challenging the WBA champion in harsh and at times profane words; it proved as shocking as it was effective, showing a different side of the German based champion.  The Clip was featured on Fightnews and in the two days since it was posted on Youtube it has garnered nearly half a million views.  The video itself has created more buzz in the division than any of the title fights this year, but there remains one unanswered question: will Haye accept the challenge?

    “I made it as clear as possible, I used social media so it came direct from me and not the promoters,” Klitschko stated, “I just had enough of David Haye’s bullshit for a year and a half, and I laid back, but that’s enough now.  Actions speak louder than words.  Now we’ll see how scared David Haye is.”

    Klitschko also made it clear that he believed that David Haye had ducked him in the past, and has not put it past the WBA champ to come up with an excuse to avoid fighting him.

    “No doubt he avoided me, Sorry to call him a liar.  But I was relying on his word.  Then two weeks before (the scheduled Wladimir KlitschkoHaye fight) he bitched out and claimed he had a back injury, and then asked for two more weeks.  And then four more weeks, and then six more weeks.  Then he made an excuse for not fighting Vitali, saying the contract was bad.  It was the same contract he signed with me!  That’s why I just can’t trust this guy.  He’s dishonest”. 

    For many boxing fans it is refreshing to see the heavyweight champion show a meaner, edgier side.  But some insiders are wondering if he is falling into Haye’s trap.  Most insiders felt that Klitschko was too cautious and defensive in his last several fights, and many are wondering if the raw emotion that Klitschko is displaying could lead him into a fight that would benefit that smaller, but hard hitting, Haye. 

    I have my strength, forty-eight fighters out of fifty-three that I faced ended up either sitting on the stool or being knocked out.  David Haye is going to be one of those guys.  I will knock him out.  I will knock this mo-fo out!”

    A tasteless T-shirt that Haye was recently spotted wearing created an uproar with many boxing fans (it featured Haye with the severed heads of both Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko), but it appears that it had the desired effect.

    “It’s just not acceptable to represent himself with two (severed) heads and then not to take the fight, but just to promote himself.  I think he’s obnoxious and I don’t like how he walks and how he talks”.

    Klitschko also considered his plan-B if the Haye fight fails to materialize, a fight with long-time #1 contender Alex Poevtkin.  Although Povetkin is not widely recognized by American fight fans, he is widely regarded as the best undefeated heavyweight in the world and long overdue for a title fight.  A Haye fight will require another postponement for the #1 contender.  When asked why that fight hasn’t occurred yet, Klitschko pointed the finger squarely in Povetkin’s camp.

    “If David Haye keeps bitching, then I have to fight Povetkin,” Klitschko stated, “But we have another problem in which Povetkin is not ready.  His coach is saying he’s not ready.  Two years ago we had an opportunity and they say he’s not ready.  Now he is still not ready?  How much time does he need?”

    Although Klitschko has been getting a fair share of criticism in the last few years, there is little question that he has been dominant.  And Klitschko feels that much of the criticism is somewhat unwarranted. 

   “Eddie Chambers and Sultan Ibragimov are similar fighters,” Klitschko pointed out, “after four rounds they gave up with there strategy and were just playing safe.  If you try to knock out a fighter who is just playing it safe it is very difficult.   If a fighter is just playing safe, then any fight is going to be boring.  That’s why I got into the conversation with Emanuel Steward in the last round.  Emanuel was in the corner and told me I have to knock him out, I said ‘Emanuel, Relax, I’m trying!’”

    But for American boxing fans, it has been increasingly difficult to gauge his performances since his less than stellar decision over Sultan Ibragimov in February 2008 was his last U.S. appearance and his most recent title fight against Eddie Chambers has not broadcast on any major cable network.  HBO executive Ross Greenburg even made a comment that American boxing fans were having trouble telling the two Klitschko’s apart, leading to a drop in ratings and interest from fans.

   “It’s just about boxing and not about who looks alike or not,” Klitschko fired back, “and Vitali’s fight against Arreola had the highest rating on HBO of the year!  It is difficult to comment on such things.”

    Almost all boxing fans admit, however, that there is one heavyweight fight that could happen that would prove to be one of the most talked about, and possibly exciting, title fights in the division’s history.  But for boxing fans it is no closer to happening.

    “There is nothing that can make us fight,” Wladimir said about a possible Klitschko versus Klitschko matchup, “if the world goes down and only our fight can save the world then maybe we will fight each other, than otherwise not.”

 

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Boxing News: Former featherweight contender Tomas VIlla passes

Tomas Villa prior to his fight with Jhonny Gonzalez in 2011. Photo by Sumio Yamada.

 

The Finger Post  is sad to report that former featherweight contender Tomas Villa of Midland, Texas died this Tuesday (April 3, 2018). Villa was reportedly involved in a car accident two miles south of Midland. According to the police report A Dodge Durango driven by Villa hit a Kenworth truck tractor on Highway 349 at 5:44 PM. Villa, who according to the police report was not wearing a seatbelt, was pronounced dead at the scene.

Villa, who originally hailed from Ojinaga, Mexico, was perhaps best remembered for his 2011 fight with Mexican bomber Johnny Gonzalez for the WBC featherweight title. Although Gonzalez stopped Villa in four rounds in what would ultimately become Villa’s final fight as a professional, it was nonetheless a proud moment for the Midland based brawler. Villa’s career spanned just over ten years and in that time Villa emerged as arguably the geatest boxer to ever come out of the Permian Basin. Villa was a two time Texas State featherweight champion before exploding onto the national scene in 2005, when Villa won the NABA super bantamweight title by stopping then undefeated peospect David Martinez in ten rounds. Three months after the win over Martinez Villa added the WBC Continental America’s Super Bantamweight tittle when he stopped another highly touted undefeated contender in Cuauhtemoc Vargas. In 2008 Villa would capture his first world title when he stopped Gilberto Sanchez Leon in four rounds for the IBA featherweight belt. In 2010 Villa would take on Mikey Garcia in a fight for the USBA featherweight belt and although he came up short against Garcia he would bounce back in impressive fashion, upsetting boxing royalty just two months later with a decision victory over Salvador Sanchez. Villa finished his career with a record of 23-8-5, 14 KOs.

 

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Travel: Kumamoto, Japan…the comeback city fights on (August 25-28, 2017)

The Finger Post Travel (March 11, 2018)  

 

There are tough towns, and there are tough towns.  Places that just make you think of gritty, hard, salt of the earth type of people who eat adversity for breakfast.

Philadelphia.  Detroit.  Barrow, Alaska.

And Kumamoto.

I know, I know.  Japan doesn’t feed into the narrative of a hard and resilient place.  Sure you can get free katana lessons in Nikko, which is pretty badass, but free katana lessons aside, it tends not to fit that narrative.  And Kumamoto, Japan doesn’t exactly sell it self as a city full of some of the toughest SOBs you’ll ever meet.  It’s like most Japanese cities.  Clean, polite, and hospitable.  They even adopted a loveable bear as their mascot, and oddly enough this bear has become something of a national phenomenon.  Needless to say, you could almost picture the scowl on Clint Eastwood’s face when you first see Kumamon the Bear.

Kumamon, the popular city mascot of Kumamoto.

 

But underneath it all is a city that has proved itself more then able to step up in the face of adversity.  A city of hard ass people who refused to be held down.  A city, dare I say, of champions.

I know this may feel forced, but stay with me here…

I was in Japan for the second time in 2017 when I flew out to cover the WBO mini-flyweight world title fight between Tatsuya Fukuhara and Ryuya Yamanaka.  I had been in Japan in February, to cover the Fukuhara-Moises Calleros fight, and it was moment that left an indelible mark on me as a boxing journalist.  And it was my first introduction to the city of Kumamoto, which was recovering from a devastating 7.3 magnitude earthquake just ten months prior.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived, I’ve been to cities on the mend before and Kumamoto (I assumed) would be similar.  But Kumamoto showed me something…something special.  The city rallied behind their contender, Tatsuya Fukuhara.  He became the face of the city, overcoming adversity.  Made homeless by the earthquake, Fukuhara became a symbol of the resiliency of the city and seemed to exemplify it in his career.  He did well early in his career, going undefeated in his first seven fights.  But as the competition got tougher the losses started peppering his record and in December of 2013 it looked like the Cinderella story was over: he lost a lopsided six round decision to a debuting fighter named Takuma Inoue.  I had covered boxing for many years, since 2000, and I could not recall an instance where a fighter clawed his way back from such an inglorious loss.  Contenders don’t lose to rookies.  Period.  There is a reason why Olympians never fight for world titles in their first fight or even take on ranked fighters in their first fight (Vasyl Lomachenko aside).  Because it is a recipe for disaster.  Fukuhara lost to a kid who never even fought before as a pro.  How could any fighter bounce back from something like that?

But I digress, this isn’t a boxing story…it’s about the city of Kumamoto.

Fukuhara would go on to win the world title in February of 2017 in a fight that could have been featured in the movie Rocky.  I got my first taste of Japan, and of Kumamoto, that month and with the newly crowned champion making his first defense of his belt I had the opportunity to go back.  I was back in Kumamoto to witness the comeback kid, and the comeback city, push the envelope just a little further.  I was back to see if the city that lost to a rookie only to win the world title could continue to overcome the odds.

I bumped into referee Eddie Claudio and judge Carlos Ortiz Jr. at the airport waiting for a connecting flight out of Tokyo and we were soon picked up by Loren Goodman, an American poet who relocated to Japan and then Korea and who was working closely with the promoter of the fight: Mr. Kenya Honda of Honda Fitness Boxing Gym.  Interestingly enough, my arrival in Kumamoto had me staying in the nearby suburb: Yatsushiro.  I would spend a few days in the Select Royal Yatsushiro.  I already discovered that I have something of a love-hate relationship with hotels in Japan.  I love the service, hospitality, and cleanliness.  But I hate the fact that I’m six inches too tall and fifty pounds too heavy for everything in the country.  But the Select Royal was very much on the love end of the spectrum.  The room, while still small by American standards, was positively spacious by Japanese standards and the continental breakfast was absolutely incredible.  Judge Eddie Claudio was a great travel partner as he proved to be very adventurous and he was determined to try a staple breakfast of Japan: Nattō, or fermented soybeans.  His adventurism was contagious and after some lighthearted assurances from Loren, I decided to try what I was told was the best way to eat nattō…on rice with a raw egg.

After the raw meat in Ethiopia I think fermented soybeans shouldn’t have had me so skittish, particularly considering I’m half Korean, but to the westerner it takes some getting use to the smell (which I would compare to rotten eggs).  But hey, If Eddie Claudio was willing to jump in head first then who was I to back down.  Besides, what sort of boxing writer would I be if I didn’t try raw eggs once in my life.

 

I ended up enjoying the Goodman Special, a name I gave to the breakfast of nattō on rice topped with a raw egg (since I would discover it wasn’t really a common breakfast in Japan after all but rather a personal favorite of Loren) and decided I would stick with it for the duration of my time in Japan, although I couldn’t really say if I liked nattō since the raw egg sort of covered the taste up.

With breakfast behind me and a morning to kill before we went to the weigh-in I decided to explore Yatsushiro and get a quick run in to start off my day.  I was not sure where I was going, but I figured a short run of a little under a mile would give me a chance to see a little bit of the city.  To my delight, I stumbled on the Yatsushiro Castle Ruins, which was an awesome and unexpected discovery.

 

The ruins were enough to get me to end my morning run and enjoy the tranquility of the uncrowded site, and I spent about half an hour just wandering around before I made my way back to the hotel.

From there we caught a shuttle and made our way to the Shiroyama Sky Dome in Ashikita-gun, where the fight would take place that weekend.  It was a scenic drive of around thirty minutes and I realized that the venue would be an ideal one for boxing.  Although somewhat far and out of the way, it was a nice sized auditorium that that would be perfect for capturing the energy of the event.  And located on top of a hill overlooking the town it also provided me some stunning views while we waited for the event to kick off.

We entered the small stadium next to the arena where the  press conference was to be held and were soon greeted by Kumamon, who seemed to me out of place in a boxing press conference.  Boxing press conferences tend to be case studies in hypermasculinity, where threats and posturing are the norm.  Even the drama free press conference featuring low key fighters with mutual respect seem to have an aura of tension in the air.  I always pictured it to be comparable to the banter across the front lines during the First World War.  Sometimes there was real venom in the words.  Sometimes there wasn’t.  Sometimes they joked and sometimes they threatened.  But at the end of the day there was that unmistakable tension in the air.  The acceptance that in the end their job was to neutralize each other.  The acceptance that all the suffering and sacrifice would only bring one man victory.  Even the personable former junior welterweight champion Victor Ortiz, who made the light-hearted press conference his forte, couldn’t quite shake the tension.

But I’ll be honest: for a few minutes…that bear pulled it off.

 

I had already discovered that Japanese boxing is just as prone to factionalism and politics as American boxing (to be honest, maybe more so).  And I knew that there was no love loss between the two fighters, even if they were soft spoken and respectful.  But at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder if both Fukuhara and Yamanaka had stopped being soldiers trading barbs across the trenches before the final assault.

 

It was now time to make our way back to the hotel and I had the afternoon off after sending in my report on the press conference.  I decided to explore the town of Yatsushiro a little more and I would discover what would quickly emerge as my favorite spot in Japan: Papa Yoko’s.

Don’t bother looking for it on Google.  That was the name the American boxing crew affectionately gave to the small restaurant called Ran Kan.  Ran Kan was a small family owned restaurant operated by one “Papa Yoko” who was about as welcoming as any restaurant owner I ever encountered.  And he looked the part.

Papa Yoko

He was a smiling bear with a welcoming face and a friendly laugh whose house specialty was a variation of one of my favorite treats: shave ice.  But as is often the case in Japan, they took something that was already amazing and cranked it up to eleven.   Papa Yoko bought a high priced ice maker and used sweet milk as opposed to water.  The end result was a sweet, fluffy snow like ice which  he then covered with fresh fruit.  The American in me could envision the marketing campaign in my head, hundreds of Papa Yoko’s popping up all over the country selling a superior snow cone and totally Starbucking the competition.  Papa Yoko even looked like a marketing dream: one part Chef Boyardee and one part Colonel Sanders sprinkled with a touch of the “Where’s the Beef” lady.  Of course I’m sure the marketing team would conclude that the inside of the restaurant wasn’t as inviting as Papa Yoko himself as it looked more like a cluttered living room rather than a restaurant…but in a moment that would run contrary to every episode I ever saw of Bar Rescue, it actually added to the appeal of the place.

Inside Papa Yoko’s

We went ahead and ordered one of the shave ice specials and ended up so impressed that before long we ordered two more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The place was such a hit with us that Papa Yoko even took our picture and put it up on his “Wall of Fame” next to a guy dressed as some sort of clown or something.

The following day was the day of the weigh-in, and again we took the shuttle to the Shiroyama Sky Dome in Ashikita-gun where this time I was able to take a selfie with what I assumed were the Japanese version of Civil War reenactors.

 

One of my favorite traditions with Japanese boxing was the dinner after the weigh-in.  In the United States you are sometimes handed a voucher for a free buffet at the casino.  When I covered the Manny Pacquiao-Joshua Clottey fight in Arlington Texas in 2010 the promoter (Bob Arum) had an awesome self service buffet in the press room with Texas brisket.  But in Japan it’s something entirely different.  In Japan you are treated to a feast unlike anything you could imagine.  Fresh seafood (that at times is still moving) and a thankful promoter who makes the rounds pouring drinks for those in attendance.   We were heading to have dinner but first we were going to tour the town of Ashikita first.  We made a quick stop at the Jissho-ji Temple, a quiet and tranquil stop that we all enjoyed.

We then made a quick stop at the Sashiki Suwa Shrine, arguably the most famous site in the town.  More than just a religious site, it also seconds as a place where young sumo wrestlers hone their skills in front of the shrine.

But now it was time for dinner.  It was time for the time honored tradition of having the best meal of your life the day before the Japanese boxing show.  We made it to the local restaurant where we were served some of the freshest sushi and best shrimp I ever had.

The following day was fight night, which I reported on here.  With the fight now behind us we would relocate to Kumamoto where I would have a day to explore the city of champions.  I spent my last day in Yatsushiro jogging through the town and stumbled across a few hidden gems including another temple and a face on the side of a building that brought back memories of the front of the truck from the movie Maximum Overdrive.

 

After jumping on the train to Kumamoto I quickly reached out to a friend I made on my previous visit to the city: Ayaka Ohzeki.  I wanted to see Kumamoto from a locals perspective and I wanted to try the one dish that eluded me in my previous visit: basashi.  She agreed to meet up that night and we made our way to a local hot spot famous for their raw horse meat.  I had already had one bad experience with raw meat while travelling but I was determined not to pass up this opportunity.  So I gave it a shot…

In the end I wasn’t exactly blown away.  But hey, I can check raw horse meat off my list of weird foods I’ve tried while travelling.

Ayaka and I then toured the nightlife in Kumamoto and I won’t lie: I was surprised at how diverse it was.  We stopped at Celts Irish Pub where I met Herve, a Haitian born bartender who had relocated to Kumamoto.  It was something I wasn’t expecting to experience in Japan: here we were: and American of Korean descent hanging out with a Japanese of Korean descent at an Irish bar with a Haitian born bartender.  It didn’t fit my image of the insular nation of Japan.  It felt like something you’d experience in LA.

The next morning I decided to try and tour the city one more time.  It was my second visit and the city proved full of surprises.  But I had one more stop to make: Kumamoto Castle.  I was close to the castle, my hotel was maybe a mile away.   And I had several hours before I had to catch the bullet train to the airport.  But I wanted to see how the castle repairs were going since the earthquake.  And I wanted to experience the hustle and bustle of a weekday morning in Kumamoto.  I decided to go for a jog to a favorite stop Loren had showed me: a French bakery in Kumamoto (did I mention how diverse the town was) and soon made my way up to the castle.

I could tell the Castle had come a long way since my last visit and I couldn’t help but feel sad.  The fighter I had come to cover, Tatsuya Fukuhara, had lost his title and I realized there was a strong possibility that I would not be able to come out to Kumamoto again.  Boxing is a fluid sport.  There would be other fights and other cities but I somehow knew that this wasn’t going to be one of them.

But as I wandered to the nearby monument to Tane Tateki I suddenly realized that I was counting out both Fukuhara and Kumamoto.  Tatsuya Fukuhara had bounced back from bigger setbacks than this…and Kumamoto had as well.  The city was bustling and moving, and perhaps more importantly, it held itself up with an aura that you only find in champions.  It didn’t look back.  It didn’t dwell.  It didn’t ask you to feel sorry.  And it didn’t just pick up the pieces and move on.  No.  That’s not how champions roll.  Kumamoto was showing us that it was the kind of place that only got stronger with each setback.  The earthquake didn’t slow it down.  Rather, it only showed the rest of the world what they already knew: this was an amazing city and no earthquake was about to change that.  The setback put a magnifying glass on the city of Kumamoto and the city showed itself to be up to the challenge.  It was a city whose resiliency was now forever weaved into the fabric of it’s identity.  Kumamoto was a city that wasn’t going to let you forget it anytime soon.

I had to smile as I made my way back to the hotel.  I realized as I saw the people of Kumamoto on their way to work that that the city of champions had gotten to me.  I would be back.

Because I was a boxing writer…and deep down I knew that there was still a few great fights left in this city.

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