dimanche 26 juin 2016



I have had a very long standing relationship with Cochin in India, perhaps the ancient Jewish connection.
A few months ago, my cochini jewish friend Elias sent me the above video and I wrote to him: I want to meet this remarkable couple. 
On my return to Cochin on a  recent trip, Elias took me on his motorcycle to the humble tea shop of Vijayan and Mohana. It was truly a great cultural experience for a traveller.
A humble tea vendor, who sells his tea and snacks at a modest price of 5 INR (7 us cents each) and saves about 5 dollars per day towards a trip that he would take with his wife of 40 years. As you would see in the video this is a love story, the fibre of our own lives, a moment to question the beauty in our lives and search for it in the lives of this humble couple of Cochin.
the brother of Vijayan is an Auto Rikshaw driver who gave us the details of the shop. Elias is on the left.
Soon we arrived at the tea stall of Viajayan and Mohana. Elias explained that I am a Jewish Traveller and that I  was very impressed with his determination and that he is the best propaganda for Kerala Tourism.
Kerala,especially the coastal and hilly country, is a pretty place but as you know there are lots of pretty places in this world, but Kerala, especially the only town I know in Kerala, has a wonderful collection of people:
such as Vijayan and Mohana, the humble people who have accomplished and given more to the world than the IT nerds and western wannabees of Cochin or Bangalore, who have been the best brand ambassadors for Kerala and its people. How many Keralites or Indians can claim that title?
And there are some illustrious members of the Christian families who have lived here for millennia. I have travelled more than once just to enjoy the company of these people, not to mention the sumptuous Cochin food that accompanies these occasions.
The tireless Jew of Cochin, Elias comes to mind, who has somehow resuscitated by being faithful,  the history of the Jewish people along this coast, nearly 2000 years old. 

(Two Jews and a World Traveller Keralite. How many well off Keralites can claim to have visited countries as varied as South Africa and Israel?)

For all those people, who only dream but do not know how to make those dreams come true, please follow the example of Vijayan and Mohana..
and wish them both more enjoyable and fascinating travels. They are the best ambassadors for Kerala and its people, more interesting to talk to and have a better understanding of the human mind and aspirations than majority of the educated people I have met in Cochin. Their message is not only for people of Cochin but also has meaning for all of us because of its universality.
May the Great Spirit give them long years of life and fulfilling travel paths.


Interview with two Native American Indians visiting Malaysia for the first time
I had the pleasure of accompanying a young Native American Indian couple of the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, both working in the Health Care field, among their people.
Keeping in mind that this is the first ever overseas trip for both of us, I was interested in finding out about what they thought about Malaysia. I would like to add that their enthusiasm for Malaysia influenced my own fondness for Malaysia, and I was able to see Malaysia, a country that I know very well, in fact the country I know best in Asia, with new understanding and vision.
As the Native Indians believe, it is with the heart that one sees!
Here is the summary of their impressions:

Tolerance of Cultures
A completely covered up Malay lady be standing next to a skimpily dressed Chinese girl, gawking at the fountain display at KLCC
Availability of Food and the variety of Asian foods.

Heat and Humidity unknown in their Reservation Homeland to this degree.
Luxury buses on Interstate routes
Hospitality of Malaysians, whether the staff at Double Tree by Hilton in KL or friends in Malacca.
UBER service. Prompt, Polite and Inexpensive. We used Uber for short and long rides within KL, and had wonderful experiences.

Historical sites of Malacca. The Red Church was built in 1753, they compared it with “American Independence” of 1776
Visit to an AKIDO session conducted by Master Ramlon Mohammed Ortega
The Chinese suburb of Seri Kembangan and the delicious food including Chicken in paper wrap
Roti Canai and Teh Tahrek

Generosity of Malaysians I knew and we met.

While luxury goods are more expensive than in the USA, goods made in Asia are attractively priced
English understood in general
Curiosity of those whom we met socially about the culture of American Indians.
They also spent two days at Taj Vivanta Resort in the island of Langkawi which they loved for its scenery and beauty. All in all, they took home a very favourable impression of Malaysia, not to mention they loved shopping in Chinatown.
Whenever Americans ask me to help them visit Asia, I would recommend Malaysia a an arrival and departure point, the infrastructure is comparable to western standards and it is safe and it is a soft way of getting into a culture so vastly different from their own.
I made sure that they had an introduction to Malay, East Indian and Chinese cultures, as well as the history of Malaysia and while in Malacca we visited the Portuguese settlement.



lundi 20 juin 2016


Two tourist spots and two different forms of extraction of your dollar.
At the end of the day we are just dollar signs to the locals at the tourist areas, observed a seasoned travel writer. Locals driven by different needs than the tourists who are either pushed (dissatisfaction with their lives at home) or pulled (attraction of exotic) there, think of their paychecks, tips and other mundane aspects of their lives rather than the cultural aspects of Serbia or the peculiar eating habits of Norwegians. To be fair, the majority of the tourists also have very little interest in the local culture, while paying lip service to off the beaten track, immerse in local culture.
What if the local culture is minimal to non-existent and an imitation, a poor Xerox copy, of the very same culture you came from?
Examples of such fractured societies abound, more common in the Caribbean than elsewhere:
Cayman Islands
Saint Martin/Sint Maartin; the island I just left
The same cannot be said of the islands of the Pacific, where people had been living for thousands of years when the European adventurers of that time arrived looking to “discover”.
In the span of a few days I was in two places, very different from each other, both attracting thousands of tourists.

Siem Reap in Cambodia
Saint Martin in the Caribbean

They are visited by different kinds of tourists, the merits of visiting either is varied. One is very easy to reach, just three hours from the east coast of the USA, but also has direct flights to Paris and Amsterdam, because of a colonial anomaly.
Siem Reap is difficult to get to, have no direct flights from Europe or USA or Australia. Most of the tourists to Siem Reap are either European or Australian; whereas the majority of tourists to Saint Martin are from the USA.

Why do people leave their comfortable lives and subject themselves to heat and flies and humidity? Not to mention unfamiliar food, as in Cambodia or cheap imitation of the bad food from the USA, as in the Dutch Sint Maartin?  Saint Martin is familiar and Siem Reap is exotic. One has a beach and very little else, the other necessitates fairly fit physique and at least a mild interest in history of these millennia old archeological ruins, the largest in the world.
These varying aspects define the kind of tourists who go to either of the places.
The idea of a comparison of these two recently visited places occurred to me when I was leaving SXM, a flight full of Americans going home:
Mainly middle aged
Almost entirely White
Many married couples, mostly looking unfit.
There were some young couples with children.
This variety of tourists would be a rarity in Siem Reap. The visitors to Siem Reap exude gaiety, mainly young single Europeans looking for exciting experiences, in search of off the track adventures along well-trodden paths laid down for the tourists.

What culture?
For whom?
In Saint Martin, many of the workers that the tourist encounter are immigrants from other islands, and ignorant of the rudiments of history of this bi governmental island.
When I was a child, being very curious about the geography (before age 10, I could name a variety of countries and their capitals), I knew that two unique geopolitical entities existed: the condominium of New Hebrides where the islands were governed six months at a time by Britain and France respectively as well as the island of Saint Martin divided between France and Holland, with the locals holding nationalities of their metropolitan countries.
The island of Saint Martin is barren, a producer of salt in the olden times, with a shabbiness, especially on the Dutch side, of a poorly run colony, and the appearance of “France” with their baguettes and bistros on the French Side with prices in Euros to match, where the inequality is camouflaged under the tricolors displayed on Fort Louis.
Locals on either side of the “International Boundary” are poor, but in different ways. Poverty of Culture does not exist in Siem Reap but a culture of can be seen and felt in Saint Martin, much similar in other tourist islands whose focus is USA and its very superficial icons.
Being a traveler and very proud of my millennial culture, but well integrated into the countries and cultures I visit, what I want to tell people on both these tourists spots is this:
Keep your culture, it will always be valuable. It was VS Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winning writer from Trinidad who labelled the Caribbean as Fractured societies. Pablo Neruda exhorted people not to become vessels without anchor in a storm, the autochthonous culture replaced by a poor photocopy of some metropolitan culture.
Give up your culture without being an immigrant, you become a foreigner in your own land. You become shadows of your own selves, not knowing where you are going or what you are doing. On the Dutch side no Dutch is spoken, USD is the currency (the official currency is NA Florints), the orientation is to USA, where they can visit without a Visa on their Dutch passports.
You cannot be Dutch even with a Dutch passport, if you can’t even speak Dutch. (You cannot be a Cuban if you don’t speak Spanish and non-Cubans are not entitled to Cuban nationality)
The history of these islands, even the ones densely populated, are not difficult to comprehend. Their histories before Cristobal Colon largely unknown, there has not been much happening in the last 500 years: all the islands have very much similar histories, warfare involving various metropolitan navies, introduction of sugar and slaves, then indentured labourers from India and China and the arrival of Tourism. Caribbean remains a strong draw for American leisure travelers.
Siem Reap is a Travel of Not Plenty compared to Sint Maarten’s Travel of Plenty. Majority of tourists to Siem Reap do not spend too much money locally, stay in cheap guest houses (in Siem Reap, you can stay at guest houses which are only 10 dollars per day, and eat meals which cost only a dollar or two. Interestingly Cambodia also uses USD as its currency of the day whereas the local Riels are widely available but not preferred). The tourists to Saint Martin better come with some money in their pockets. The hotel I stayed at was a throwback to another time and very generic with immigrants from Jamaica and Trinidad handling its operations, would have bought me three nights at an elegant boutique hotel in Siem Reap.
The flight was staffed by DC based ex-US airways crew, thus friendlier than the usual AA ones and I had my first taste of American Food, after being away from the USA for one month on journeys to the Far East.
Curiously enough, I had a desire to return to Saint Martin, to explore the French side, and I was even told of a resto called Kakao..  

samedi 18 juin 2016


I had been travelling for one month, Etihad Airlines to leave the USA and then visiting Cochin, KL, Malacca, Phnom Penh, Kampong Thom, Siem Reap, Salalah and Brussels. Food in all those places were more than satisfactory. The last stop of my month long journey was the Dutch side of Saint Martin in the West Indies. There I had the first taste of the "americanized" food. 
I called my sister in Miami, my next destination and told her that my tongue and stomach did not feel good after the taste of food at St Martin, and that I will not eat whatever the Airlines offered me on my last leg. 
When I arrived at MIA close to 11 pm and Uber took me to her house by midnight and it was a nice sight at her kitchen, a plate of food waiting for me.

it was a healthy meal and satisfactory one and I promised myself that I will try not to eat any processed food during my ten days stay in the USA
The next morning she had prepared what I had termed many years ago, Genetic Food, the food that ones ancestors ate. 
apart from Guacamole, all the other food: goat cheese, egg, olives, Labne, Olive Oil, pita all would have been consumed by my ancestors and it is a neutral food for those who do not know what their ancestors ate.
While not many people, especially medical professionals and nutritionists paid any attention to what I was saying, scientific studies from Israel has not shown that the metabolism of food one eats depends upon ones genetic and especially Microbiome content rather than the absolute caloric or micro nutrient content.
and they have also shown that there is a relationship between feeding your microbiome the wrong sort of food (like me eating American food) and Diabetes, Obesity and Cardiovascular disease.

Tel Aviv, one of the most technologically advanced cities on Earth, with more start-ups than any where else. No wonder Israel has been called The Start Up nation

We have to think about nutrition in an altogether different fashion.
For those of you who cannot bother to delve into your genetic food, I will give you what 80 year old Pak Lim said to us in Bangkok:
Eat Less and Love More..

mardi 14 juin 2016


In Bruxelles, in the European Quartier, I used to pass by a Tabac when I walked along with LBGS to her Garderie. On the way home, I may buy LBGS, a “chuppie”, Americans may call Lollipop, worth only 25 centimes. The old man behind the counter, reeked of tobacco, was mostly unkempt and always grumpy. But we didn’t realize how much we missed him till one day there was a sign outside the Tabac: closed indefinitely due to illness.

We want to say hello to him. We saw him only during the weekdays and that too not often, but he had become part of our lives. Same thing was happening to the concierge of the apartment building, the Italian man who ran the café where I have my morning coffee and pain au chocolat(both hot and not warm), the Persian hairdresser (incongruously bald himself) at the end of Rue Archimede, we nod to each other as I pass by his salon, Darriush who spoke only French and Farsi.
Fernando Pessoa, that great Portuguese writer, well known for his personal insecurities had written:
“If one of the faces that I pass daily on the streets disappear, I feel sad, yet they mean nothing to me, other than being a symbol of all life.”
For me, a great pleasure is being able to recognize faces in faraway places, as I enter a hotel, a restaurant or a common place. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than greeting the receptionist by name, at Double Tree at Kuala Lumpur (12 time zones away from my habitual residences) or at the AVIS rent a car counter at Omaha Airport or the waitress with the sonorous name, Ochun, at La Burrito Habanera along the Rampa across from the Riviera cine in La Habana or look for a familiar place along the streets of Palermo in Buenos Aires.
It is different from recognizing people when I enter an Indian reservation, where it is a form of acknowledgment of things that has happened and will happen, and show respect and formalizing our presence in the lives.
But with people you meet so rarely? Fleetingly? S the receptionist in Salalah has been in touch for the past two years and was eager to have dinner together, only to realize that we really don’t know each other but teaches a lesson to accept the other person wholeheartedly as possible. It is a sort of a milestone in this ever changing world which has become so superficially globalized. Such a simple interaction gives me a satisfaction, a sense of purpose of living, that I am not just passing through this life- these are not pit stops on a journey with a purpose, but pit stops that are necessary for me: Siem Reap, Salalah, Cochin, Kuala Lumpur, Buenos Aires, Leticia; cities which have nothing in common with each other, just that I am a part of these far flung cities where passersby can offer me a greeting. Some cities descend into oblivion: Suva, Yangon, Kingston, Baracoa..the list is long indeed. The earth rotates and I find myself in another part of the world; In Easter Island I no longer feel a stranger, it is I who is not changing with the revolving scenery, like the stage that rotates during a theatrical performance.
Just yesterday, I passed a farm worker along a dusty road east of Salalah in Oman, who wanted me to drop by on my next visit to the Sultanate. 

The haze over the mountains dividing the Sultanate and Yemen gave me such an exhilaration! I thought of my ancestors who might have traversed these mountains centuries ago but I thought mostly of the day, Inchallah, not in  too s distant future, I will be walking along the sandy beaches of Mughsayl with LBGS, and I would ask her:
Do you remember the Tabac in the Quartier Europeen in Bruxelles where the old man who reeked of tobacco and didn’t smile?
Do you miss him?

I always miss so many people that tears come to my eyes when I think of a reunion at KLIA just four years ago. It is not a nostalgia nor a longing but a true reliving of the innocence and the mindfulness of that moment. Saudade, perhaps, as Cesaria Evora would sing it!
This is what I would like to teach LBGS.


The Exuberant Uber Driver of Kuala Lumpur
My two North American Indian friends were going home after a very enjoyable study/vacation/knowledge trip of 2 weeks. I had accompanied them on this trip, their first to Asia.
We were at Double Tree by Hilton at KL, said goodbye to the staff at the Executive Lounge at 34th floor. I wondered, what does it say about a trip, a city, a country, a hotel when you feel sad saying good bye to the staff? There was genuine tenderness.

We requested an Uber XL since we had plenty of luggage with us and very soon Mr. CCC arrives in his car, we had to fit in four suitcases in the boot, there were badminton racquets and balls. He apologized for keeping us waiting (just seven minutes after we requested Mr. C was at the front of the hotel!). The conversation began with the usual politeness, about the utility of Uber and the roads of KL and the traffic and such.
C had a cheerful personality, like many of his generation keeps in touch with the World News. When I told him I was from Cuba and my friends are Americans, he remarked about the thaw in relations between Cuba and USA and had a suggestion that the reason for warm relationship of Malaysia with Cuba was a rebuke to the USA by then PM, Mahathir Mohammed. He has travelled regionally and is up to date about what is happening in the region. Of course, like most Malaysians he is concerned about the quotidian struggles of living in Malaysia, while appreciating all what “God” (he later confessed that he had become an atheist) had blessed Malaysia with: forests, sun and the rain, exempt from cyclones and tsunami and natural wealth. Of course, we are not that lucky with our leaders, he blurted out laughing and we all laughed about the recent scandals of the current PM receiving nearly a billion dollars into his private account as a “gift” and the attorney general clearing his name, saying all is fine and the other politicians banding to say that we must forget the scandal and move on to more Islamization and kindness and RM 500 to every civil servant during Ramadan. Even if the PM were to pay it out of his “gift” he would still have money left over for himself and his family. I confessed to C my own “Malaysian Dilemma”, I love this country more after each visit and have made some very good friends, I love the food here. Being a Jew I am a little uncomfortable with the nature of Islamization which is not taking the forward and in fact taking it nowhere. We laughed about certain incongruities of Malaysian life as we cruised towards KLIA.
When I told him I was a doctor, he proudly turned to me and said: How old do you think I am? I said it is difficult to guess the age of middle aged Asians, they are either young or old or middle aged but there are no thirty something look or fortysomething look as is evident among the Europeans. I am fifty, he proudly announced.
He then told us the story embellished of course which had all of us laughing till we reached the Departure area of KLIA.
He is actually is a self-employed owner of a business, which employs about 15 employees and most of them are Malay. His doctor had advised him, on reaching 50 years of age that he must give up smoking and drinking. He felt that he was drinking and smoking due to the stress of the nature of his business. He hit upon the idea of becoming an Uber driver after work, so that his mind will be occupied and keep him away from cigarettes and alcohol as his doctor had ordered. He loves being an Uber driver, he feels far more relaxed and has given up his smoking habit and is cutting down of his alcohol intake, which he hopes to give up completely. We were rolling with laughter at the way he was relating the story, mixing it with his business, his travels, the local politics and health. If laughter is the best medicine, this man is the healthiest person around.
For my American Indian friends this was the highlight of a well-rounded and enjoyable visit. The best! I shouted as he drove away. Our Uber experiences in KL has been nothing short of excellent but C certainly is the cream of the crop...
So, for the chubby, inactive Malaysians, of which there are plenty, the lesson is