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.  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.

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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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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Travel: Three Days in Cebu, Philippines (September 22-24, 2017)

The Finger Post Travel (January 16, 2018)

 

“No, come to Cebu!”

It was a forceful invitation from my good friend Salven Lagumbay, a noted boxing judge with the World Boxing Organization who was in Japan for a WBO championship fight  that I was in town for on August 27, 2017.

I had told Salven that I was coming to the Philippines the following month but I hadn’t yet figured out what my itinerary would look like.  My flight landed in Manila at 9:35 PM on September 21st and I would be flying back on the morning of September 25th.  I didn’t have much time, and I assumed I would spend my three days in the Philippines hanging around Manila.  I considered a trek up to Buscalan to try and get a tattoo from the 97-year old mambabatok, or traditional tattoo artist, Apo Whang Od.  But even that trip looked ambitious for the short period of time I had.  The trip to Buscalan involved a very close connection from the airport to the bus station and everything I read about Manila traffic indicated that was a dangerous game. There were a few boxing shows in Manila, so I assumed I would just check “see a boxing event in the Philippines” off my bucket list and finally try some food from Jollibee, another thing I’d be able to check off my bucket list.

But while covering a boxing show in Kumamoto Japan I happened to mention my plans to Salven and the rest, as they say, was history.

“Come to Cebu,” he insisted, “I want to show you my town!”

I hadn’t really considered Cebu previously, but I already knew Salven would be an amazing host and I also knew there would be no shortage of things to do in Cebu for three days, so I readily agreed.

My flight from Albuquerque to Manila via Tokyo Narita was enjoyable, my first on JAL.  The food and service was extraordinary and although I tend to avoid hating on United Airlines I nonetheless had to conclude that Japan Airlines did put United and American Airlines to shame.  The fact that they had complimentary toothbrushes and small tubes of toothpaste in the restrooms was enough to sell me on JAL, and that was before I even had the dinner (which was exceptional).

Arriving in Manila at 9:35 PM I didn’t want to stray too far from the airport.  Again, I had been warned about the traffic and I already discovered that Manila’s reputation as one of the world’s worst airports wasn’t entirely unwarranted.  I elected to go with the Fil Star Airport Guesthouse, located just a few blocks from the airport in an apartment complex.

The room was spartan, but at $26 a night I wasn’t expecting anything exceedingly fancy.  But I appreciated the free airport pickup and drop off and the free home cooked breakfast that was included in the price of my room.

Over all the Fil Star was a great little place for what I was looking for.

The following morning I made my way back to the airport, this time the domestic terminal, for my Philippine Airlines flight to Cebu.  I grabbed a small snack at the airport of Mango Cake, which was a little dry and overall not particularly enjoyable.

Arriving in Cebu I was met at the airport by Salven and he quickly took me to lunch at Rico’s Lechon, where I would get my first opportunity to try a famed Cebu delicacy: lechon, or roasted pork.

I had no idea what I was in for, but I knew the second I walked in that I would be in for a treat.  I’ve had roasted pork…but this was an amazing experience.  The Filipinos are noted as the country with the best lechon in the world, and Cebu is noted as the city with the best lechon in the Philippines.  Rico’s, as I was told, was one of the two best lechon restaurants in Cebu.

It lived up to it’s reputation, I was completely blown away by how good my meal was.  But Salven promised me this was just the start of what would be an amazing three days of Filipino food.

After getting our lechon and our side of pusit na pinaputok (grilled squid) we were off to our first stop of my short trip to Cebu: the shrine of Lapu-Lapu on Mactan Island.

Widely regarded as a national hero, Lapu-Lapu resisted Spanish intervention when, on April 27, 1521, he and his soldiers defeated Ferdinand Magellan in the Battle of Matcan.  Magellen was killed in the battle and the Spanish were held at bay for another 40 years.

Unfortunately it was at this time that I realized that something was wrong with my iPhone camera as most of my pictures were somewhat blurry.  Nonetheless the statue of Lapu-Lapu was a enjoyable way to kick off my visit to Cebu.  

From there we made our way to my hotel: the Cebu Grand Hotel.  Salven suggested we go whale shark watching, one of the biggest tourist attractions in Cebu.  I would later discover after reading the Honeymoons Backpackers blog that one should reconsider diving with the whale sharks in Cebu and should instead consider diving with whale sharks in Donsol instead, but at the time it seemed like the perfect way to spend the day in Cebu.  But I soon discovered that it would be several hours away and when all was said and done, I had only one full day in Cebu.  I always wanted to go swimming with whale sharks, or even to just see one.  But like my visit with Apo-Whang Od, this seemed a little too ambitious for the time I had in Cebu.  Instead we decided on a plan to see some of the sites in Cebu, starting with a Philippine legend: Jolibee.

I never ate at Jolibee before, but I was told that this was the most famous fast food restaurant in the country.  Even more significant to me was the David vs. Goliath story that was Jolibee’s battle against the multinational giant McDonald’s.  Across the world local restaurants found themselves unable to compete with the American behemoth…except in the Philippines, where the once tiny chain held out against McDonald’s and continues to dominate the Philippine market.   Like Lapu-Lapu before them, Jolibee was able to fight back against all odds and reject foreign domination of the Philippines…or at least their fast food market.

I ordered the standard breakfast, fried chicken, a friend egg, and rice….and I was blown away.

It was terrible.

Seriously.  I know the Egg McMuffin ain’t exactly fine dining, but how could a dry chicken leg be the great wall of cuisine that was kicking the Americans rear end with every breakfast served in the Philippines?  I almost envisioned a corporate board meeting where a group of American food experts all sat around a table tasting the Jolibee fried chicken leg and being totally perplexed as to why they couldn’t seem to create a dish that would convince Filipinos to reject the local brand and get a Big Mac instead.

Maybe McDonald’s can try the Dudley Moore approach to advertising in the Philippines

After my rather unspectacular breakfast at Jolibee we made our way to our next stop: Magellan’s Cross.  Magellan’s Cross is allegedly the same cross that Magellan ordered planted by Spaniard and Portuguese explorers on March 15, 1521.  Although there is a belief that it might be a replica planted by the Spanish after they subdued the Philippines and the country embraced Christianity, there is no question that it has been there a long time and that it remains one of Cebu’s most notable tourist attractions.

Near Magellan’s Cross was the Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, another famous stop in Cebu, where I spent several minutes touring the basilica.

We then made our way to Island Souvenirs located just around the corner from the Basilica and then headed back to the car where we made our way to the idyllic Cebu Taoist Temple located in the Beverly Hills Subdivision of Cebu.  It was a unexpected stop but one I was grateful that we made.  The temple was beautiful and a nice change of pace from the bustle of downtown Cebu.

After we left the Taoist Temple we made our way to another unexpected stop: The Temple of Leah.  The Temple of Leah is hard to summarize.  It is described as a monument built by noted Cebu businessman Teodorico Adarna, father of actress Ellen Adarna and owner of Queensland motels.  He built the temple in honor of his wife.  Perhaps it is best summed up on the message from Mr. Adarna on the Temple of Leah Facebook page:

“I constructed this temple in the year 2012 A.D. as a symbol of my undying love for and ceaseless devotion to Leah Villa Albino-Adarna, my wife of 53 years. I adopted and architectural and structural design that can withstand time and still be appreciated for a millennium so this Temple will become a landmark of Cebu where future generations of the Adarna clan coming from her can come and trace the roots and heritage. All her lifetime collections are showcased in the 24 chambers of this Temple principally for the members of our family who cherish her memory.

May this Temple serve as a symbol of a great love of a husband to his very loving wife.”

Salven in front of the entrance to the Temple of Leah

The views from the Temple of Leah were stunning, and I could see why this relatively recent structure has quickly emerged as one of Cebu’s most popular destinations.  The funny thing is since visiting the Temple of Leah I’ve noticed that a lot of photos of people from Cebu on Facebook are in front of the Temple of Leah.  I can’t help but wonder if fifty years from now the Temple of Leah could be one of the most iconic and photographed places in the Philippines.  If 50 years from now it just becomes one of those instantly recognizable places to everyone…and one everyone in the world associates with Cebu.

Inside the Temple of Leah

From here we made our way to our next stop: the farm of former defense attorney Noel D. Archival.  Archival, a noted defense attorney in Cebu, was murdered in 2014 and his killers remain at large.  His son runs the family farm where fighting chickens are bred and sell for a hefty price.  I had never seen a chicken fight or even fighting chickens for that matter as cock fighting is illegal in New Mexico.    But in Cebu is was a national pastime and the Archival farm was arguably where the most successful fighting cocks came from.

Showing off the roosters to potential buyers.

We closed out our time at the Archival Farm by planting a tree named after me (someday I will have to take my kids there to check out the David Finger Memorial Cocoa Tree) and we closed out the night with dinner at a Japanese Restaurant.

The David Finger Memorial Cocoa Tree

On September 23 I checked out of my hotel and then we made our way to our final stop in Cebu: the Ala Boxing Gym.  I was excited about the visit.  In boxing there are a handful of legendary gyms…gyms that have emerged as cultural icons.  Gyms that are globally recognized brands   Kronk was arguably the most famous in the United States but in the Philippines it was the legendary Ala Boxing Gym in Cebu that emerged as the national icon, no small feat considering Manny Pacquiao has his own gym in Manila.  I was about to visit one of the most famous boxing gyms in the world and see coach Edito “Ala” Villamor in action.

The Ala Boxing Gym

It’s not a typical tourist stop, but I was glad to have visited it.  I never saw a boxing gym with a monkey hanging around before, and although he wasn’t particularly photogenic, I decided not to push the issue as I was warned that he had a bad habit of grabbing camera and throwing them in the alligator pit (oh yeah, the is an alligator at the Ala Gym as well).

The one selfie I was able to get with the iPhone stealing monkey of Ala Gym

It was a light day at the gym, no heavy sparring although I did get to see some of the brightest stars in Philippine boxing working out, including mini-flyweight contender Melvin Jerusalem.

 

We left the Ala Boxing Gym but there was one most stop before my flight to Manila: the House of Lechon.

You tried the rest…now try the best

I had tried one of the best lechon restaurants in Cebu…now Salven was going to take me to the best.  I was not disappointed.  House of Lechon lived up to the lofty praise Salven bestowed upon it and I was blown away by how good it was.  If you are in Cebu and only have time to get lechon at one place, I would have to say House of Lechon should be on your list…dare I say I think House of Lechon should be on everyone’s bucket list.  It is an absolutly amazing experience and one of the best meals I had…ever.  Quite frankly everyone should try and have lechon, real Cebu lechon, once in their lives and House of Lechon should be the place you have it.

The best lechon you’ll ever have.

Salven also allowed me the opportunity to have a selfie with another Philippine icon: the jeepney.  The jeepey is one of the most recognizable forms of public transportation: small, crowded, and oh so colorful.   But as I would discover, there is some push back against the jeepney and there may come the day when the jeepney is no longer a common sight on the road in the Philippines.  I wanted to get a picture with one..just in case.  Right now the jeepney still rules the roads in Cebu…but I wasn’t taking any chances  There was once a time getting a selfie inside a Blockbuster would have been a piece of cake.  But I never got around to it and now I have to fly to Alaska to get one. 

I found the most jeepny looking jeepny and quickly had a photo taken with it before we were on the way to the airport.  In the end, Cebu deserves more than three days…but Salven made sure my three days were well spent and highly productive.  There is no question that I’ll be back in Cebu sometime soon.  I have a whale shark to swim with…and another plate of lechon calling my name.

 

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Travel: Belize, Caye Caulker, and San Ignacio

The Finger Post Travel (January 10, 2018)

Belize (August 2003)

My trusty Let’s Go Central America guide had warned me about Belize City.  Well, maybe warn is a strong way of putting it.

It advised me that if I was in Belize there were better ways to spend my time then spending it in Belize City, the former capital of the youngest Central American nation.  I decided to follow the advice and planned to spend as little time in the city as needed, getting on the first boat to Caye Caulker, which I was told was one of the nicer islands off the coast of Belize.

Nonetheless I was intrigued about seeing the Swing Bridge in Belize City.  It was one of the tourist destinations listed in my guidebook and I was curious to see one of the last manually operated swing bridges in the world (as well as the oldest one in Central America).  This despite the fact that, up until then, I really didn’t know what a swing bridge was. Keep in mind, Wikipedia really wasn’t a thing back in 2003.

The Swing Bridge, Belize City

Fortunately the dock where I got on my boat to Caye Caulker was near the Swing Bridge and I got a chance to see it, although I never actually got the chance to see it swing.

Arriving in Caye Caulker I was immediately glad that I chose this as my major destination in Belize.  Unlike Belize City, which I could tell was hectic and crowded, Caye Caulker was quiet, tranquil, and very Caribbean in it’s feel.

Caye Caulker, Belize

Ispent the first day walking the streets of the small town before stopping at the L&I Café and Bar for a quick midnight snack.  The following day I decided to get in a dive.  It had been close to fifteen years since my last dive so I didn’t think the Blue Hole would be wise, that was not the sort of dive you jump into (no pun intended).  Instead I signed up for a shallower dive with Frenchie’s Diving, and did get a chance to see a what appeared to be a Sandbar Shark, which made my dive a rousing success in my book.

Frenchie’s Diving, Belize

When it comes to scuba diving I’m easy to please.  If I see a shark I’m usually happy.

 

The following day I made my way back to Belize City en route to San Ignacio near the border with Guatemala.  My main goal was to get to El Salvador for a chance to go surfing in La Libertad and I had a lot of stops I wanted to make on the way.  But I also was excited about the opportunity to see one of the world’s smallest capitals: Belmopan.  I’m glad I had the chance to stop there because the Belmopan I spend an hour in is long gone.  Back in 2003 it was a small village of 5,088 (according to the 2000 census).  It seemed like people just weren’t interested in moving to the new capital, which was founded in 1970 as a planned community after Hurricane Hattie all but destroyed Belize City in 1961.  In 1980 the population was a mere 2,935 and eleven year later the population had only inched up to 3,558.  But after the US embassy relocate to Belmopan in 2006 there seems to be rapid growth in the city and the current estimate is that the population is now somewhere around 21,814.  Maybe Belmopan now resembles the hectic and chaotic Belize City that I spent just a few hours in before making my way to Caye Caulker and then onto a bus to San Ignacio.  But in 2003 it was a quiet and peaceful stop…at least around the Novelo’s Bus Terminal.

Bus station in Belmopan
Belmopan, Belize circa 2003

Arriving in San Ignacio I wasn’t sure how I would spend my final days in Belize before making my way to Guatemala.  I enjoyed seeing one of only three traffic lights (at least it was one of three in 2003) when I crossed over the Hankesworth Bridge in San Ignacio.  The Hankesworth Bridge was a one lane suspension bridge built in 1949 and it was interesting…but let’s be honest, if all I could say about Belize was I saw a couple of cool bridges it wouldn’t be much of a post here.

The Hawkesworth Bridge in San Ignacio, Belize

After spending a night in San Ignacio I decided to sign up for the Barton Creek Canoe tour on August 2nd.  Our colorful guide, Clifford, took us inside the Barton Creek Cave by way of canoe and although my photos weren’t the best, it was definitely a great way to spend the day in San Ignacio.

The Barton Creek Cave

My next stop would be my first Mayan Ruin, Cahal Pech, before I closed the night off by going to the Miss Estereo Amor Pageant 2003.  I was told that this was the biggest event in town and many of the locals were positively excited about the local beauty pageant…which was almost entirely in Spanish.

The following morning I closed out my day in Belize by having mangos on the side of the Macal River.  But there was one thing I hadn’t tried in Belize, and I was determined not to leave before I had the chance to try fried breadfruit.

My flight back to Denver was out of Belize City so I planned one day in Placencia, Belize after returning by bus from El Salvador.  I was young enough that another bus ride from Belize City to Placencia didn’t seem so bad.  And it gave me one more day on the beach before I was to start my law school career.  I enjoyed my downtime and soon found a small, out of the way restaurant that could prepare a plate of fried breadfruit. It wasn’t on the menu but the cook seemed genuinely impressed that I was ordering it and I quickly found out why it was so popular in Caribbean countries: it was amazing.

Sometimes I wonder how much Belize has changed since 2003.  Undoubtedly Belmopan won’t look like the dusty town I passed through and who knows, maybe Belize City is a little more tourist friendly than it was back in 2003.  But something tells me even if the country doesn’t quite look like the same place I saw in 2003 that it still has a certain charm to it that would ensure I fall in love with the place all over again.  The perfect balance of Latin and Caribbean cultures topped off with a Belikin Beer and some fried breadfruit.

 

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Travel: Guatemala, Tikal and Coban (August 2003)


The Finger Post (January 3, 2018)

(Tikal Guatemala, August 2003)

 

Guatemala isn’t a shock to the system…at least not when you are coming in from Belize.  Crossing into Melchor De Mencos you don’t feel a sudden change from an English speaking nation with a decidedly Caribbean flair to a unmistakably Latin American nation. No, Belize sort of eases you into Latin America one kilometer at a time.

After several days in San Ignacio, Belize I had already felt like I was very much in Latin America.  Melchor De Mencos was just where I had to stop and get my passport stamped  on my way to one of the greatest archaeological sites in North America: Tikal.

Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala

I only spend a few minutes in Melchor De Mencos before I was back on a bus heading to my first stop in Guatemala: the town of Flores.   Flores definitely had a distinctive feel to it: mellow and relaxed but also just touristy enough to make it an easy stop.  I spent the night sat a small hotel on Lago De Perez Itza in the nearby town of El Remate and the following morning it was off to the nearby ruins of Tikal.

Prior to hitting Tikal I had been to the Pyramids of Giza and after Tikal I visited Machu Picchu, but with that being said there is a special place in my heart for Tikal.  After paying my entrance fee upon my arrival at the park my friends Petra and Sylvia hired a Spanish speaking guide.  Although my Spanish was terrible at the time I was fortunate in that Petra was able to translate for me.

Right off the bat I was taken aback by the “parasite tree” which we saw on the path to the ruins.  It seemed like something from a sci-if movie and it gave Tikal an otherworldly feel.

The parasite tree that hugs its host.

The fascinating thing about Tikal is you can completely understand how Cortes could have passed within a  few miles of it anencephaly not even know it wasn’t there.  As big as the complex is, it often is engulfed in the surrounding jungle.  You first see a smaller pyramid before Tikal really comes out of hiding as you walk down the path.  My first stop was the Munro Perdido temple (Lost World) and afternoon climbing to the top I was amazed at how hidden the complex was.  I could see the top of a few temples but otherwise all of Tikal was hidden in the jungle…and this was from smack dab in the middle of it!

View from the top of Mundo Perdido.

 

From here I headed to the Temple of the Inscriptions and made my way to the top of that temple next.  Although higher the view, although amazing, still masked the true treasures hidden just a few feet away.

I quickly made my way back to the Plaza De La Gran Piramide o Mundo Perdido before we made it the the most impressive part of the complex: the Gran Plaza where we first saw Temple I.

Temple I, Tikal

The Gran Plaza itself was an amazing thing to see, but the Temple I was truly one of those breathtaking experiences that is hard to describe.

 

We made our way back into town where I had the opportunity to take a dip in Lago de Peten Itza just outside our hotel at La Casa De Don David before we headed off to our next stop, Coban, Guatemala. From there it was a tour of a Guatemalan coffee plantation at Finca Santa Margarita in the city of Coban.

Finca Santa Margarita, Coban Guatemala

We closed out our trip to Guatamala with a stop in the colonial city of Antigua before I went off to El Salvador. It was an amazing stop but one I wished I had more time to enjoy.  I wasn’t told there was some amazing hiking trails around the town. Nonetheless it has been neary 15 years since I went to Guatemala. Maybe this is as good a time as any to revisit the country and backpack though Guatemala one more time…maybe it is time to give Antigua the attention it deserves.

Antigua, Guatemala.

 

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