So I spent the Columbus Day weekend visiting my aunt and mom in Philadelphia. Well, Norristown technically, but close enough. And although I didn’t get nearly enough time to revisit the City of Brotherly Love, a city I had not visited in well over twenty years (Lions lost to the Eagles in the wildcard when I was last in Philly, with Scott Mitchell as our QB and Barry Sanders as our running back. It was a simpler time before cell phones and the internet…when I still had hope that I would someday witness the Lions win a playoff game). Although I enjoyed my time in Philadelphia back in the mid-90s, I have to admit, those pre-internet days resulted in a lot of missed stops. I had no clue that Benjamin Franklin’s grave was in Philadelphia at the time, or that the debate between where the greatest Philly Cheesesteak on the planet was a unassuming intersection at Passyunk and Wharton. It was there where 2018’s internet promised me was the culinary Subway Series between two powerhouses. It was at that intersection where I would find, right next to each other, the top two places to get a Philly Cheesesteak on earth: Pat’s King of Steaks and Gino’s.
With an afternoon flight on Columbus Day I decided to give in and try one of these legendary sandwich shops. I wasn’t sure which one, but I was leaning towards Pat’s. After all, they were the place where the legendary Philly Cheesesteak was “invented” (although let’s be honest, I can’t help but think that at some point in the great history of cuisine someone put grilled onions, steak, and cheese together in a hoagie roll before 1933). Rival Gino’s next door was nonetheless inviting. I tend to find that any restaurant that has police patches hanging up on the walls tends to have good food. I never met a police officer who wasn’t a steak connoisseur, and that seemed a good sign.
But then again…Pat’s invented the sandwich. How could I say no to that selling point?
In the end I went with Pat’s over Gino’s…and I hate to say this, but it’s like the Citizen Kane of Philly Cheesesteaks. You sort of understand how it opened a lot of doors and how it redefined the field…but it has long since been surpassed by younger, fresher competitors. The sandwich was OK, I ordered it with cheese wiz as was recommended. But it hardly seems like the sandwich that could redefine a city. In the end, it just tasted like steak sandwich with cheese.
Maybe it can’t live up to the hype anymore. I had hundreds of Philly cheesesteaks over the years and some folks tweaked with the formula to make something really special…but also really not a “Philly” Cheesesteak. But my last time in Philadelphia produced a cheesesteak that seemed to put almost all others to shame (oddly enough a place in Taos New Mexico had the best one I ever had, which probably has some folks in Philadelphia reading this fit to be tied).
But as for Pat’s…well, I suppose you should still try it. But the peppers were bland and the steak sandwich ultimately was a little salty. No it wasn’t terrible, in fact it was good. But it wasn’t legendary. And with that being said maybe if you’re about to try your first Philly Cheesesteak you should start with Gino’s. I can’t say if they are better, but I just don’t think Pat’s is going to blow you away. At the end of the day, Pat’s is just a sled from a long gone era. It’s Philadelphia’s Rosebud. Important, yes. But it just doesn’t stand the test of time.
The moment I stepped off the plane I could feel it…Africa. I was finally here. The one elusive destination had finally become a reality when I was asked to come out and cover the Isaac Dogboe vs. Juan Chacon fight in July of 2017. I had been to Egypt and Morocco, but as I often heard in both countries: “Africa…but not really.”
But Ghana was different. There was no question whatsoever that this was Africa.
After passing through customs I met up with Charles Dogboe, uncle of the main even fighter and right hand man to promoter and trainer Paul Dogboe. It was late and I was hungry…and we had a busy day tomorrow at the weigh-ins. I hoped in his car and we made our way to my hotel: the Oceanic Resort in Accra. Although the Oceanic was a bit out of the way it made up for it in charm and the simple fact that it had a kickin’ pool and an amazing view of the ocean. It also had great service. Although late at night they opened up the restaurant for me and cooked me up a traditional Ghanaian meal of jollof rice and goat stew.
Now let me say this: there are a lot of cultures across the globe that take pride in their ability to dial up the spicy to 11 when preparing a dish. As a Korean-American I often took pride in my ability to out-spice most of my Anglo friends in Michigan and I couldn’t help but notice Mexicans sort of took a similar approach with their food as well. I quickly concluded that everyone outside of the British, Irish, Germans, and a few others had some local phrase that roughly translated into “Thai hot.”
Well, I don’t use the phrase “Thai hot” anymore. No. There is hot…and then there is Ghana hot.
In one of Isaac Dogboe’s earlier fights in Ghana his opponent, an undefeated Ugandan named Edward Kekembo, blamed his loss to Isaac in Accra on the “peppers” of Ghana, citing the spicy food. It earned a round of chuckles with a few of my boxing associates and myself, as we ranked it up there with “I was poisoned by my hairspray” as one of the more interesting excuses for a loss in the boxing ring.
But at that moment I have to admit, the theory held a little bit of water. This rice had a serious kick to it.
But damn if it wasn’t the best spicy rice I ever had…and I have to say, we Koreans know spicy rice. I felt like a French wine snob who just tasted his first Malbec from Argentina…my world view had forever changed as I tasted jollif for the first time.
The following morning I discovered that several of the referees and the main event fighter, Javier Chacon, were staying in the same hotel. Charles picked us up where we made our way to the luxurious Kempinski Hotel, where the weigh in was set to take place. There were quite a few people with both the promotion and with the World Boxing Organization (WBO) who were staying there and I would become a frequent visitor of the Kempinski Hotel in Accra over the next few days…and all I can say is wow. I was able to use their gym, which was one of the better ones I’ve seen in a hotel, and their pool was absolutely amazing. I won’t lie, everything there sort of blew me away…I felt like that old white guy from the barber shop in Coming To America admiring King Jaffe Joffer’s shawl.
The weigh-in had an energy that was refreshing for those of us in boxing. It felt like the nation (and the nation’s media) wanted to be part of the Issac Dogboe story early on and I couldn’t help but feel a little bad. Those of us in the States only jumped on bandwagons long after the train had left the station. Covering fights in Michigan in the early 2000s I knew that most of my fellow boxing writers tended to watch with curious interest in the rise of Floyd Mayweather. He was a champion but we were waiting to see just how big he would become. When he fought Phillip Ndou in Grand Rapids back in 2003 we were interested….but we weren’t passionate. In Ghana they had an young future world champion and with it they brought an energy that we didn’t. It wasn’t an improper bias they had, no, it was something else. A determination to absorb everything that would make this story of Isaac Dogboe complete, regardless of how it ends. The Ghanaian sports writers were invested in the story in a way that really impressed me.
But alas, this isn’t a boxing story, it is a story of Accra.
I finished covering the weigh-in and in the process got what may be the best boxing photo I ever took, of a stoic Javier Chacon in enemy territory as a nation looked on.
By the end of the weigh in I discovered I would be in for a rare treat. The fighters, media, and boxing officials would be heading to the home of former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings, one of the most respected former leaders in all of Africa and a well known boxing fan. Rawlings was a former flight lieutenant of the Ghanaian Air Force who seized power in a coup in 1979 and proceeded to purge (i.e. execute) two former presidents (i.e. generals who also seized power by way of a coup) by way of firing squad. Rawlings also purged other leaders of the Supreme Military Council (the junta that ruled Ghana from 1975-1979). It was, as Wikipedia described, one of the bloodiest incidents in Ghana’s history. But from that bloody beginning was something the world was not expecting. Rawlings, many assumed, would simply be another Mobutu like dictator. A military man who would rule with brutality, force, and possibly a cult of personality. But Rawlings would ultimately surprise many when he built the foundation of a true democracy in Ghana. Many remained skeptical when he formed a “National Commission on Democracy” and some opposition leaders complained loudly when he ran, and won, in the 1992 Ghanaian presidential election.
Rawlings would win re-election in 1996 but it wasn’t what transpired from 1992-2000 there that cemented his status as a beloved former president. It was what happened in 2001. Rawlings could have easily “suggested” that the constitution (that he pushed for) be amended to allow him to run for a third term. He refused. And when his vice-president lost the 2000 election to opposition leader John Kufuor Rawlings could have somehow stepped in and refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Kufuor’s victory. Rawlings didn’t do that either.
No, instead Rawlings stepped down, and that simple act planted a seed of democracy that is still growing in Ghana.
And I was about to meet the man who emerged as not just the father of democracy in Ghana, but as one of the father’s of democracy in Africa.
Rawlings came out and met with the fighters, referee Tony Weeks, and several WBO officials before I was introduced to him. I won’t lie, I was a bit star struck. I’ve met a lot of fighters from Canelo Alvarez to Manny Pacquiao…but Jerry Rawlings was the first man who had me star struck.
After we left I realized I had the entire day off and I decided to use it to explore Accra. I started to wander down the streets of Accra, where I emerged as something of a minor celebrity. I wasn’t in the tourist section…I can’t even say where I was. All I know is it teemed with life. As I walked down the beach I was greeted by, well, by everyone. From the kids waiting for the school bus to the fishermen wondering where I was going and what I was doing. And of course by the hucksters and hustlers who tried to sell me whatever it was I was shopping for.
I soon made my way to what I was told was one of the more bustling marketplaces in Ghana, and although I didn’t stand out as much as I did on the way down, I wasn’t exactly blending in. Gringos tend to be seen as a profitable mark in most marketplaces the world over and I got the sense Ghana was no exception. But with that being said, after buying a homemade Africa dress for a reasonable $7 I assumed that if I was being ripped off I was still doing OK.
But as much as I enjoyed window shopping, there was something I really was interested and that was the street food in Accra. I knew fufu was high on my list and I did get the opportunity to see it made by hand, well, see it getting made by hand. I was told it was a long and difficult process that required endurance and dedication. But that the reward was very much worth it.
but I wasn’t really ready to sit down and experience it just yet. No, watching fufu getting made was like watching a carpenter make a table. You had to be ready to appreciate the process…and the labor of love that went into it.
Instead I decided to get some grilled meat on a stick from a street vendor. After all, I seldom am disappointed from grilled meat on a stick wherever I am, and I assumed Accra would be no exception. There were several choices and most look familiar…so naturally I picked the one that didn’t. But as I bit into my skewer I quickly came to a disturbing conclusion: it tasted like someone emptied an ashtray in a bowl of cottage cheese…and whatever I was eating was the intestines of some small mammal.
Yeah, needless to say I don’t want to think about it too much. As I made my way into what I quickly concluded was something of a “food ally” of Accra I soon discovered a woman and man running a small homemade stand in a particularly tight alleyway. I was a little gun-shy over trying something new again but this looked different…it appeared to be a spicy fish stew…and there was no way the Korean in me was about to pass up on some spicy fish stew.
“What is this called?” I asked the man.
“Shito.” he replied with a smile, one that gave me the sense that he was messing with me. After all, the first syllable of that word didn’t instill me with confidence, especially considering I could still taste the rat intestine in my mouth.
“Seriously?” I said suspiciously. “You call this shito?”
“Yes, he said with unmistakable pride and enthusiasm. “Please, try some. It is very good!”
I decided to take him up on his offer. Yeah, I was nervous, but I wasn’t about to let one grilled rat ruin my favorite part of travelling: the experience of trying something completely out of my comfort zone.
And I am glad I did…because shito is the bomb. I bought a bottle for the road and then sat down and chatted for about half an hour with the shito salesman and his wife.
As I headed back I couldn’t help but notice that Ghana was above all a boxing country. Now don’t get me wrong, Ghana is a football country first and foremost…but from the former president to the shito salesman I got the sense that every Ghanaian was more than just a casual fan of the Sweet Science.
I made a few more stops on my way to my hotel…tonight would be the fight and I wouldn’t have time to spend in Accra tomorrow, where I had hitched a ride with Tony Weeks to visit the Cape Coast Castle. So this would be it…my time in Accra. As I made my way back to the coast I noticed a small beach front village near the lighthouse and wanted very much to explore it. But I also recognized I was out of time.
Before catching my flight to Ethiopia I was able to squeeze in one more stop thanks to Charles Dogboe: the Independence Arch. One of Ghana’s most famous monuments I had seen it almost every day in Accra…but I hadn’t had a chance to see it up close. Charles stopped long enough to allow me to explore…and yeah I suppose I can check that one off the list of things I saw in Ghana. But deep down I know I’ll have to go back. I only scratched the surface of Accra…but it still left a mark. There is still so much more to see in Accra, and Ghana, and someday soon I plan to check a few more of those places off my list.
Well, it’s official. My dad and I will be travelling to Peru after the WBO convention in October. It’ll be an exciting trip, and although I had already visited Peru I was keen on going back. Peru was really something special and I couldn’t argue with my father’s logic when he said “I’ve never been to South America before and I don’t know if I’ll go again, and if this is my only trip I really would like to see Machu Picchu.”
I couldn’t disagree, and to be honest, I wanted to go back myself. Machu Picchu was the kind of place that you have to see once in your life…unless you get the chance to go twice.
Although my hostel was just a ten minute walk to the Plaza de Armas I knew after I returned from Peru that I should have spent more time exploring the plaza. Much of what I saw was in passing, and it was clear there was much more to offer.
But one thing I did take advantage of was spending a few hours wandering through the San Pedro Market, which was advertised as “by Peruvians for Peruvians” on Wikitravel. I found it to be a very appropriate description. This felt like true Peru (even though some tourist shops sprinkled the marketplace). And like many local marketplaces it had no shortage of examples of local cuisine.
Of course, as I mentioned, there was also no shortage of local vendors targeting tourists…only with prices that were much more attractive than those in Lima or at the Plaza de Armas. I ended up buying a poncho, which proved the perfect addition to my wardrobe for Machu Picchu the following day.
Unfortunately I passed on the matching hat, which was a shame since it reminded me of one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes. But such is life…I’m sure I’ll get a second bite of the apple when I go back to Cusco in October.
Before we left I ended up stopping at a local vendor to purchase a snack that seemed appropriate: maize. I had seen Peru’s colorful ears of corn back in Lima and I was determined to give it a try. With fat kernels and darker colors it looked like something worth checking off on my bucket list, and although it was ultimately just corn, I still couldn’t complain (although the New Mexican in me wanted to try it as elode, but again, maybe next time).
In the end, Cusco deserves more than a day, and one would be wise to take advantage of their time there to explore one of Peru’s most historic cities en route to Machu Picchu.
Every traveler dreads the infamous overnight layover. You can’t be a world traveler without having at least one restless night sleeping on a bench waiting for a connecting flight. I use to try and get around those with my free United Club passes but United Clubs tend to be closed at night and to be honest, I have never been blown away by them during the day time. If you want to hang out in a waiting area with cheese and crackers then yeah, they are OK. But at $50 a pop I never really understood the appeal. But if there is one airport that I don’t mind long layovers in it is Tokyo’s Narita International Airport.
Right off the bat, it has one really big thing going for it. Showers in Terminal 1.
Seriously, why don’t more airports have these. I mean, truck stops do. If you are getting off a ten hour flight from Houston and you have a nine hour wait till your connecting flight, a shower would really hit the spot. But it seems like showers are a rare commodity…except in Tokyo where a mere $10 can get you a hot shower in between flights.
Sure, it was no truck stop shower: it was small as most showers in Japan are. But the water was hot and the pressure was great.
And if you wanted, you could even get a day room and get a few hours of sleep, which I passed on. Admittadly this was not as impressive as the showers to me, there is a Marriott inside the Houston airport and I have seen a similar setup inside of the Dallas airport.
But still, the showers…that was just amazing.
Next to the showers in Terminal 1 was a display of traditional Japanese clothing, which in the big picture wasn’t anything that special…but still, after a hot shower everything looks better.
The other thing that blew me away about Tokyo’s airport was the food. To be honest, Japanese food is amazing, but it actually felt like they had some of the best Japanese food in the country in Narita Airport. One of my favorite Japanese dishes is deep fried pork cutlet: Katsu. And in February of 2017 I had what I thought would be the best katsu I ever had inside of Tokyo’s main train station. I wanted to go back there but elected to get a dish of katsu from the airport instead. I was not disappointed with my decision. A stop off at Tonkatsu Shinjuku Saboten in the Narita dining terrace was something every visitor to Japan should experience. Although they have branches in various locations, I couldn’t help but wonder if Narita had the best of the bunch. According to their webpage they’ve been doing it for over 50 years…and I could certainly understand why. It was simply amazing.
It wasn’t my only authentic Japanese meal that day as my previous layover in Haneda Airport allowed me to try authentic Japanese dip noodles as well. I was down to try something new, although I didn’t find it to be anything extraordinary.
But hey, one airport at a time. Shopping in Japan isn’t cheap, and shopping at any airport anywhere isn’t cheap either, so it goes without saying that I didn’t spend a lot in Narita. I did pick up some Kit Kat bars, for whatever reason Japan seems to love Kit Kats and have a lot of unique and local flavors. Yeah, Kit Kat is Japan’s Lays Potato chips.
Although I wanted to get a XL Ninja t-shirt, a giant Godzilla flag and a Yomiuri Giants baseball jersey, that was out of my price range and I elected to pass. Still, it was a fun way to spend a few hours window shopping in Narita.
Instead I elected to dump the last of my pocket change on the toy vending machines and get a tiny storm trooper figure, which seemed the best way to dump off a few bucks worth of yen.
At the end of the day, I actually really enjoyed my time spend wandering around the Narita Airport. Sure it doesn’t make many people’s list of “Things you have to see in Japan” but it is still one of the better airports to kill a few hours. And if there is one lesson for other airports the world over that can be gleaned from Narita it is this:
Sometimes if pays to be a card carrying member of the press.
I had been sent to Ghana to cover Issac Dogboe’s fight against Argentina’s Javier Chacon on July 22, 2017…a fight that the local Ghanaian won handily. And after emailing in my report from the fight I was ready to explore the country.
Of course I only had one day to see Ghana. Having elected to fly out the following day to Ethiopia I was unsure of what I would do in Accra, and I grudgingly accepted that I wasn’t going to see much of West Africa. But a chance discussion in the press box during the boxing event had given me the opportunity to see one of Ghana’s most powerful, and important, sites: Cape Coast Castle.
An American businessman named Joseph Trowers who had somehow attached himself to the promotional team in Ghana had invited legendary Boxing referee Tony Weeks to a tour of Cape Coast Castle. I had not been invited, but much like Sam Rockwell’s character in Galaxy Quest, I found a way to beam aboard.
Trowers had arranged a private car and driver for Weeks and I and the following morning I met with the two men at the Kempinski Hotel in Accra, where Weeks and Trowers were staying. Once I arrived I was pleased to discover that I wouldn’t be the only media tagging along. A local radio host named Emmanuel Austin Baah would ride with us while a film crew would meet us there to film Weeks journey for the local press.
That was, until they ran out of gas.
After making it to the outskirts of Accra we were surprised to see the van carrying the film crew turning away. Unfortunately, I would discover that being a journalist in Ghana was not the easiest way to make a living. Baah, after calling the other reporters, discovered that they simply didn’t have enough gas to make it to Cape Coast, and it appeared they were too proud to ask us to cover the gas for the trip. I would discover from Emanuel that such a development was not unheard of in Ghana. He described the difficulty of making ends meet on his end, with much of his income going to transportation to and from work. Even the police operated with tremendous difficulty due to prohibitive transportation costs.
“If you call the police and they come over you need to give them money for gas,” Baah told me. “otherwise they can’t afford it.”
The thought of having to pay the police gas money for them to come over to a crime scene was absolutely shocking to me, and I suddenly understood how easy corruption could run rampant in such an environment.
As we made our way out of town we were stopped by our first military roadblock, where I assumed we would be asked to contribute a small “tip”. But if the soldiers were inclined to ask for some baksheesh then they were quickly dissuaded by the personable Weeks. Weeks pulled out his cellphone to show a photo of him refereeing a Floyd Mayweather fight.
Ghana is a country of die hard boxing fans, and those soldiers were no exception.
The soldiers instead requested selfies with us, which certainly was a surreal experience.
We made out way back on the road and after a few hours we arrived at Cape Coast Castle. We were mobbed the second we stepped out of the car, but this didn’t have that Denzel on the red carpet vibe to it. No, these were the vendors.
I’ve been around the world, and I’m use to aggressive sales tactics, but Cape Coast Castle was up there with Fez, Morocco for the most relentless. I made the mistake of letting a guy named Kofi show me his art (I am a sucker for art) and I quickly determined that he was in the process of hitting me with that “I’ll give you a gift scam” where I’d subsequently be expected to pay for the gift.
I tried to tell him I didn’t want a gift from him but I knew it was not going to work. Kofi knew my first name and I knew when I walked out of that castle he would have something with my name on it.
I was a bit hungry and fortunately there was a local vendor selling authentic Ghanaian fante kenkey. Now admittedly I had no idea what fante kenkey was, but as of yet I had not been disappointed by Ghanaian food and this had sort of a tamale vibe to it so I was sold.
Unfortunately I would be told later that fante kenkey isn’t really all that good plain. You are suppose to put some sauce on it or eat it with soup. I basically bought some hatch green chiles and sat there on the side of the road eating them raw.
Before entering the castle we walked to the back, where we saw an amazing view of the ocean and where some local children were eager to visit with us.
As we made our way to the front I couldn’t help but notice that the John Atta Mills Presidnetial Library was next door. I won’t lie, I really wanted to check it out. I’m a sucker for Presidential Libraries and although I knew nothing about Mills, I was very curious to see what a Presidential Library in Africa was like.
But it was time to enter the Cape Coast Castle and begin the tour. Regardless of one’s heritage or ethnic background, this was a powerful experience. Arguably millions of African-Americans could trace their heritage to this very castle, and to discover what they endured during their final days in Africa was shocking and appalling.
We soon made our way down into the “main slave dungeon” where one of the most powerful displays was exhibited. 1,300 concrete heads created by famed Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo depicting the lives of those who were transported across the Atlantic to a life of slavery in the New World. It was shocking, powerful, and effective and continues to haunt this visitor even a year after visiting the castle.
We then made our way out to the grave of former Gold Coast Governor George MacLean. MacLean was governor from 1830-1844, although I won’t lie, after the visit to the Slave Dungeon I was not really able to process much from the part of the tour talking about MacLean’s life.
Nonetheless the courtyard was a stark contrast to the dungeons below, and I couldn’t help but think about how peaceful it was up here compared to the terror that the slaves endured below.
From the courtyard we made our way down to the most infamous site at Cape Coast Castle: The Door of No Return. This doorway was the final passageway out of Africa, where they would be loaded on ships to the New World. I could only imagine the fear and terror of those passing through the doorway hundreds of years ago…and one could not help but wonder if these poor men and women would think back about that moment for years after they arrived in the New World as slaves. Did they know this would be their last walk in Africa? Would they think back on that moment in the New World and wonder if there was some way they could have avoided that doorway…that final walk?
Because on the other side of the doorway was Africa in all it’s splendor. A small but vibrant Ghanaian fishing village and the ocean…a sharp contrast to the terror this castle once housed.
As we made our way back into the castle we made a quick stop at the walls where the cannons protected the British against potential attacks from the Atlantic, and then we made our way to the museum located in what was once the Governor’s Chambers. The stark contrast between the Governor’s Bedroom and the Slave Dungeon just below was shocking, and to see more of the concrete heads, only this time in the light, was another powerful moment. As we made out way to the museum where there was a display talking about the Slave Trade in the United States I realized how important this museum was, and how important it was to remain in the consciousness of all Americans.
As we made our way out a young man who worked up front called me back. He wanted me to sign the special “VVIP” guest book. I quickly surmised that he had not reached the same conclusion as the soldier at the roadblock and he thought I was someone important. I readily agreed and suddenly realized he handed me the same signature book that former President Barack Obama had signed when he visited in 2009. I had never been trusted with a president’s signature before and I felt honored that they would consider me worthy enough to sign the same book. I quickly obliged and then had them snap a picture of me holding it up before I ran forward and called Tony Weeks to get his picture with it as well.
By the time we left we were again mobbed by the vendors and their homemade trinkets that they designed just for us. Kofi had written a short message on a conch with my name on it and of course expected payment while Tony Weeks was given a larger conch with a message addressed to “Tony Whisky”, which we all admittedly had a good laugh over. The journey was over, and we now had to make our way back to Accra…but deep down I knew this would not be an experience I would soon forget. I really believe that nobody who walks on those hallowed grounds ever does.
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. Although not on the list of “best places to visit in Myanmar” it still fascinated me. 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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.