Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween in Bangkok

We were happy to arrive at a peaceful haven of a hotel on Friday night after traveling by longtail boat, golf cart, van, moving walkway, plane and rush-hour taxi from Krabi to Bangkok.

Phranakorn Nornlen is an adorable "boutique" hotel near the northern part of the Chao Phraya River, not far from the Rama VIII suspension bridge in the neighborhood of Thewet. Our friend Maggie recommended it to us and we would do the same for anyone traveling here who likes sustainability, tradition, and the absense of hotel-chainliness. They serve us brown rice, papaya, fruit smoothies, salads, and other unusual fare for each breakfast. They also have great fresh, local organic food available during the rest of the day, like red curry fried rice, pad thai, and basil egg noodles. Perhaps the topper, though, along with all the cool paintings all over the walls, is the pull-chain CD player in our room, with a variety of homemade mixed collections featuring lots of Asian tropicana versions of classic rock songs like Let's Spend the Night Together."

We woke up Saturday and took the "orange" public river boat to the Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, which stores the Emerald Buddha, and, as you can guess, Jackson was thrilled. It is a must-see for visitors to this city.

Then we strolled along through some street markets, which so far appear to be on every single street in Bangkok. We bought four big ceramic Snoopy bowls for $2.50 as well as a Cap'n Crunch t-shirt, knockoff Billabong shots, and much more.

Jackson woke up from a very hot nap in time to see the world's longest Buddha at Wat Pho. We got lost in the market stalls along the famous backpacker area of Khao San Road befor heading back to our hotel before dinner.

Ended up that we were too tired from walking around the city all day to head back out for the anticipated Halloween celebrations that were guaranteed to overtake the streets. But then again, a usual day in Bangkok feels like Halloween to me. In the words of a laughing Jackson, who, while strolling through the tailoring district, in answer to Rachel's question of "what's so funny?," said "laughing at people, Mommy."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lazy Days Towards the End of Our Asia Trek

Rain has halted some our our outlandish amounts of fun over the past two days here in, yes I'm using the word again, paradise.

But there have been some momentary breaks in the weather and some activity highlights.

Rachel got to climb on some world-class rockfaces on Wednesday morning. She was psyched. Jackson, on the other hand, was none too happy when I took him around the cove to find his mommy dangling precariously off some stalagtites. He broke into his worst and really only tantrum of the trip. I had to carry him back across the peninsula writhing in my arms and screaming, red-faced, "Mommy rock climbing" again and again.

Things lightened up when we went to dinner. After eating most meals at our resort, we discovered the funky side of Railay Bay and ate scrumptious BBQ tuna and red snapper, as well as salads with peanut sauce and naan breads. This was in the backpacker area that the fancy resort people on our side probably figure their clientele don't want to associate with. But it was much more in
line wih mine and Rachel's style.

We somewhat pathetically passed out by 10 p.m., but we much less pathetically woke back up again at midnight to watch Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach, which we rented at the front desk and which I had just finished reading in novel format earlier the same day. As "Anonymous" commented about my recent post on the book, the movie probably isn't as good as the novel. But I thought the producers jammed as much as they could into the 90 minutes they had to work with pretty effectively. And Leo was stupendous as usual.

The movie: **** out of ***** stars

Nothin' much happened on Thursday, other than sitting by the pool, swimming in the ocean, and getting more massages.

On Friday, we'll have time to hike to and explore a nearby cave before catching our flight to Bangkok, where we'll spend two sure-to-be chaotic and wild days.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Thailand Murder Mystery

An African American marine is driving away from the Bangkok airport when the cobras someone has left in his gray Mercedes bite him in swarms.

A man with a shaved head and shaved eyebrows named Pichai, the narrator's "soul brother and partner in insolence," finds the marine dead and also is attacked and killed.

This is how Bangkok 8, the first book in a popular detective series set in Thailand, begins. Novelist John Burdett goes on to describe how many Americans, including tough-guy marines, are scared of snakes. The Vietcong often used them as weapons in tunnels during the Vietnam War. And for good reason, the small python has wrapped itself around the black marine's shoulders and neck and is trying to swallow his entire dead head. When Pichai tries to help, the python leaps to attach itself to his left eye. The narrator tries to shoot the snake but only then does he and the growing crowd of onlookers realize that dozens more snakes are now pouring out the car door. By the end of this horrid opening scene, the narrator has shot all the snakes before they can harm anyone else.

Apparently the narrator and Pichai have previously murdered a "yaa baa dealer" and escaped to a forest monastery where they meditated for six months before being assigned by the abbot "to mend their karma" by becoming cops under his brother's charge in Bangkok's District 8.

The narrator's mother had been a call girl for rich white men. The narrator's name, by the way, is Detective Sonchai Jipeecheap.

I may come back to this book at a later date, probably when I begin to miss Thailand in a few weeks when I'm back at home in the U.S.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are West Palm Senior Ciizen's Looney?

In his book Madness Under the Royal Palms, author Laurence Leamer performed an experiment to infiltrate West Palm Beach, Florida's blue-hair retirement community. Not too rough an assignment, right?

Hold on. After his first few days there, the entire residential board showed up on his doorstep, not to welcome him but rather to tell him he could no longer sit in his bathrobe in his office study without the blinds that were, incidentally, on their way in the mail.

Little did Leamer know that he was experiencing "the tip of a submerged world, which when fully explored, would yield as strange and, in some instances, as decadent a culture as one could find on or off this continent."

He tells the story of one resident, Barbara Simmons, was the former social secretary to the first lady Pat Nixon. She was a big hostess of West Palm social events, where the women were all inevitably at least 20 years younger than their husbands.

For these regular balls, the community's gay men designed the houses, decorated the homes, dressed the ladies, created the ambience, advised the aspiring, and escorted the widows.

None of this yet describes the darkness Leamer claims that the book uncovers, but it hints at it. And being the non-senior citizen that I am (and, hence, not "in the know") it sounds like a book I'm going to continue reading past the the intro.

The Beach: A Difficult Read and a NY Times Best-seller?

In honor of being just a few dozen miles away from the paradisical settings of the classic Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach, I thought it only fitting that my beach read be the original novel by British 30-something Alex Garland (thanks for the recommendation, Peter).

We may go out to Koh Phi Phi ( which Jackson loves to pronounce as "Pee Pee Island) and Bamboo Island to see the spots where filming took place, but the book has creeped me out a little on doing so.

Garland uses simple dialogue and short explanatory sentences in Hemingway's style to tell a pretty good yarn about Richard, a British backpacker who, while staying in a hole in Bangkok, stumbles upon a map to a hidden utopian community on an island off the coast.

Richard finds the community and is allowed to stay because he knows a former member of the clan, Mr. Duck, who has subsequently gone mad. The Beach is clearly influenced by Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, and modern pop culture in general. Subsequently, TV shows like Lost and Survivor clearly owe a debt of gratitude to Garland, who is also the young talent behind the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine.

The best parts of the book are the ones that seem less New-York-Times-bestseller-like. I'd like to think the story is less straightforward than it appears and more about Richard truly and slowly losing his mind (is Mr. Duck real and did Richard actually fight in a war or is he hallucinating about this?). Either way, the book eventually made me think, even though I have no idea whether this was Garland's intention or not.

**** out of ***** stars

Kayaking the Turquoise Waters of the Andaman Sea

Despite Jackson being tired and ready for a nap after our breakfast of fried eggs, French toast, wiener croissants, fruit and pad thai and swims in one of the pools as well as the Zen-like ocean, we rented a kayak and took an hour-long paddle on Tuesday morning.

The guys who carried our kayak to the water recommended, "man in back, man stronger," to which Rachel promptly replied, "Nope, I'm a better kayaker," and away we went. We set out right from in front of our resort on Hat Rei Leh West beach. We went around Happy Island and Bird Nest Island, both considered some of the best snorkeling spots on the Railay peninsula.

By noon, it was way too hot to be in the sun, so Rachel went for a walk while I chilled in the room and in our "cold" tub with the little guy. Then I went for a massage while Rachel took over the chilling duties.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Thailand: Beach Edition

Wow! That really sums up our beach in Railay Bay, just southwest of Krabi in Thailand. Known as a world-class hotspot for rock climbers, we're very lucky to get to spend the next four days here at Railay Bay Resort and Spa.

Our buddy Kwon drove us down from our mountain resort to Au Lang, where we proceded to board a longtail boat with a few other brave people. Luckily, Rachel hurriedly got Jackson's lifejacket on just in time, as water poured in to the back of the boat, while the captain steered the rustic old thing with his inner thighs over fairly bumpy waters. The ride was short, and when reached shore 15 minutes later, we piled onto a short stretch of white-sand beach nestled between sky-high karst formations and aqua-blue warm waters.

Our cottage is back off the beach and is basically it's own little property, with an outdoor cold sauna/tub, a patio and yard with a fish pool, and a lot of luxeries that are down-right ridiculous for the $69 per night we paid through a Web deal yesterday (it's definitely smart to wing vacation plans in Thailand rather than to book far in advance).

The sunset tonight was truly as psychedelic as all the guidebooks say. (I'll post a picure or two here over the next few days.) The tropical drinks are appropriately strong. The red curry was surprisingly spicy for resort fare (very thankfully). And the place's two huge pools are perfect to both keep Jackson occupied and to wear him out so he gets long nights of sleep.

Mountain Pool Lounging in Thailand

Our fears about the quality of our mountain resort from the night before were, shall we say, dramatically unfounded.

We woke Sunday morning to one of the most beautiful views imaginable: a giant rock karst mountain looming thousands of feet above us outside our cute yellow and brown bungaloo.

The chefs got our compliments as breakfast of French toast, pancakes, fresh fruit grown at the resort, baked beans, and bacon and eggs satisfied our need for some good old Western food. And, oh, the coffee in Thailand is so good, especialy after the nasty instant stuff in Cambodia over the past two days.

We took a hike along a lengthy construction of waterways built impressively (and very natural-looking) throughout the resort. At the high point, we ended up at a pool that we were at first unsure about venturing into. Bur with the heat bearing down, it didn't take long for us to jump in. The water felt wonderful and Jackson was soon spraying us with a hose and crawling all over the rocks jutting up throughout the pool water.

We took advantage of the short afternoon rains by napping, reading and playing online a little bit. Then we took another hike to view the sustainably operated resort, with rubber being tapped from the trees to sell; plenty of papaya, coconut, and banana trees; and lillypad farms, to name a few highlights.

More good Thai food ended our day. We'll wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, go for a swim, and head to the beaches. I can't believe my sabbatical ends in a little under two weeks. Life is too good to work!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Indiana Jones: Paul Mackie's Lookalike?

We fit in one last brief visit to Angkor Wat on Saturday morning before our flights from Siem Reap to Bangkok and Bangkok to Krabi, Thailand.

Ta Prohm was our first stop, the wat known as the setting of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It's also known as the one with the massive trees whose roots coil all around the bases of the sprawling stone structures. This is a major wonder of early civilization and a testament to how strong people must have been back then. They were also knowledgeable. It was amazing that a dinosaur was drawn on at least one of the walls. How did they know about the dinosaurs?

We also visited Bayon, a massive temple, but by then the busloads of tourists were swarming the area and Jackson was ready for a nap via a few minutes of Baby Einstein (the portable DVD player has been a life-saver).

We left Angkor Wat by 10 a.m. (whether you have kids or not, be sure to get an early start at Angkor Wat, the heat of the day is almost unimaginable by U.S. standards) but not before spending a few quality minutes feeding a family of little baboon-like monkeys some bananas.

When we landed in Krabi, it was already dark. We went the opposite direction of all the beach-bound travelers. In pitch darkness, our driver Kwon took us into the mountains to Phenom, our eco-resort and home for the next two days. We had a dinner of pad thai, prawn fritters, fried rice balls, and beers with the resort's British owners Jules and Barbara.

We had no idea whether the place was nice, being nighttime, but it seemed a little sketchy as we feel asleep in a hot bungaloo with no sheets on the bed and covered only by a mosquito net.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sunrise in Cambodia

We woke at 5 a.m. to ride with our trusty tuk-tuk driver, Savuth, to the temple complex and proceded to climb the tallest point there, a small mountain with steep steps called Phnom Bakheng (again with Rachel carrying Jackson in the papoose! What a woman!).

We then rode around to a variety of temples. Our usual character would be to rent bicycles. That would be awesome and I highly recommend it to Angkor visitors, but it just would have been too difficut and deliriously hot for parents of a nearly-two-year-old. We wanted to see the "Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom" wat, but the prime minister of South Korea was visiting, so we're saving that for tomorrow. But some of the smaller wats we hit up instead had real Indiana-like looks. Prasat Kravan particularly went on and on, and it was great being there when hardly anyone else was, early in the morning ahead of the crowds.

The temples (built around 800 AD, by the way) were no doubt stunning. But perhaps the highlight of our stay in Cambodia (if not all of Southeat Asia) was our afternoon eco-adventures, starting wih lunch at Butterflies Garden Restaurant and a boat ride to "the floating village" on Tonle Sap, the biggest lake in all of Southeast Asia.

I finally got around to eating one of the most traditional Khymer dishes, fish Amok, which is a lot like a less-spicy peanut curry. It was delicious. Rachel also loved her tofu noodles as we played and ate within a netted butterfly community.

Roddy, a 19-year-old Cambodian high schooler, then took us out on his boat with two friends through a breathtaking 6,000-person village that lives entirely on the water just outside of Siem Reap. On the drive there, we marveled at how poor shacks on stilts in the floodlands (it seems like most of the area is flooded, and it's currently the dry season) were seperated only by the road from the much richer "mansions" on stilts on the other side. As we continued driving, the area became less populated and we eventually pulled up to the spot where we left the tuk-tuk to get into Roddy's schooner.

There were full grocery stores, fish farms, girls with pythons, and tons more on little boats cruising all around. And there were kids playing, bathing, and waving everywhere.

One of the great things about the community is the government's committment to keep the area environmentally clean and to keep disease at a minimum. There is a water-purification station right on the water and residents are instructed only to drink water from there, and not the lake. The water is free of charge to them.

We also stopped by a school. We gave the students some pencils and the nice male teacher some money to get his many students some food and school supplies. Jackson played jump-rope with some of the kids.

We ended our night with a shadow-puppet show at some cheesy tourist trap. Rachel and I took that one for the team, as the food basically sucked but Jackson was captivated during the hour-long show.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Anchoring Down in Angkor Wat

We left our hotel in Luang Prabang Thursday morning and embarked on our second excellent flight on lowly-regarded Lao Airlines. After a 15-minute pitstop landing in Savannakhet, we got to Siem Reap, which is the city in Cambodia that serves as the tourist hub of Angkor Wat.

Even though we arrived in the heat of the afternoon (and I mean H-E-A-T), we went straight to Angkor Wat, which is actually the name of only the biggest temple in a complex of hundreds of temples. The main temple is considered the largest religious structure ever built. Jackson competed for the attention of the throngs of late-afternoon tourists, as many asked us if they could take his photo. He said "cheese" easily 100 times.

We then went into town for the evening and ate Khmer cuisine at a delicious vegetarian restaurant. Siem Reap is much more upscale and urban than we had pictured after living a relatively rural life for the past week in Laos. There were many sights to behold, including a tremendously varied night market, people getting the dry skin bit off their feet by little fish in a big tank, and a musical serenade by a band of landmine victims. Jackson melted down at dinner after a merciless day of heat, so we wrapped the remainer of our curry and French bread with peanut sauce for our hotel room, the lovely Nida Villa, across the street from the decadent Grand Hotel. Rachel said the many hotels remind her of Vegas.

Only here, we have the added benefit of monkeys running in the streets.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Temples and More on Our Last Day in Laos

We started our final day in Luang Prabang, Laos Wednesday with a morning visit to Wat Xieng Thong, hailed as the city's "most magnificent temple" and one of only two wats in town to survive the 1887 Vietnamese sacking.

This was an impressive wat, and no doubt a great warmup for our flight in the morning to Siem Reap, Cambodia, for two days of buddist-temple mania at Angkor Wat.

Afterwards, we shopped and hit the vast night market, noted for its endless parade of red-roofed tents and lightbulbs illuminating merchants offering their silks, wooden carvings, Beerlao t-shirts and lots more. We finished the night at an OK Laos fusion restaurant down on the Nam Khan river to celebrate our last night with Chris, Tania and Jackson and to toast a beloved family member we all lost yesterday.

Exhausted now. Good night.

Waterfall Adventure South of Luang Prabang

Day 3 in Luang Prabang (Tuesday) began with the roosters crowing and the
monks passing our guest house to receive alms from about 5:30 to 7.

It was the beginning of another great day in this tropical paradise. The centerpiece event was when Chris, Tania, Theo, Jackson, Rachel and I boarded a small, 16-passenger longboat at noon to take an hour-long journey south on the Mekong. Then we hopped in the back of a pickup truck to complete the trip to Tat Kuang Si, a many-tiered waterfall tumbling down over limestone formations. Lonely Planet called the many swimming areas along the hike up to the falls "turquoise," but they were really just mud-colored, likely because of the heavy rains in the early morning. We climbed all the way to the top (Rachel with Jackson on her back in a papoose sack, I might add), something not attempted by most of the visitors there. Then we went swimming under a smaller set of falls, with Chris and Tania jumping from a ropeswing, something I wasn't interested in trying, probably because of memories of my famous "Library of Congress flagpole-swinging" incident.

The return boatride was two hours upriver and we arrived a little after dark, but our captain, The General, was a good sport about how long we had lingered at the falls.

Rachel, Jackson and I ate dinner at a French-Laos restaurant right next to our guesthouse that ended up being a great suprise. We had amazing pumpkin crouton soup, fried ginger cheeseball salad, and real-deal panang chicken casserole. We then met the rest of the gang around the corner for late-night drinks at a Belgian bar (late night not being that late night in Luang Prabang, where the town shuts into curfew mode at 11:30 each night).

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Monk Rock City

Having moved into our new digs at Villa Champa (pictured), our second day in Luang Prabang (Monday) was a blast.

After eating in the town's best bakery, JoMa, we oriented ourselves by climbing the tall hill (with steps) in the middle if town, called Phu Si. It was filled with beautiful bronzed buddhas, and Jackson loved every one of them. After all, "buddha" is one of his many new regular vocabulary words.

Another of his favorite words is "monk," which he loudly blurts out every time he sees one of the orange and yellow-clad young monks walking around town, usually with an umbrella to block the sun. They always turn to him with a look of "OK, that would be wildly inappropriate normally but I'll permit it this time since you're so cute." You see, tourists are not even supposed to take photos of monks, but everyone does it, while usually trying to be respectful.

We finished the day with our first real fancy traditional Laos meal, consisting of lots of spicy appetizer sauces, Mekong River weeds with seame seeds, and omelets with spicy peanut sauce. That was at a place, called Tamarind, around the corner from our new guest house. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2009 Misses the Boat on Luang Prabang, Laos

Pictured is the place we stayed last night (Sunday) upon our arrival to Luang Prabang, which is our homebase for the next four nights. called it the third-best guest house in town. But it was right on the main thoroughfare leading into the city center and anyone driving past could easily hear any of Jackson's louder sentences. Who knows what the other guests could hear. As for what Rachel and I could hear? How about motorbikes, drunk English-speaking people, and roosters.

This was all after a dramatic but zook-inducing minivan ride from Vang Vieng. The first five hours were scenic, and it was fascinating to see how the people's lifestyles and wealth levels changed as we got further away from the more urban south of the country. Jackson gave one of our Sesame Street books to a group of children and one kid flipped through a couple of pages before excitedly running away with it behind the road-side huts. But the last hour was extremely difficult on the stomach as we wound down precarious mountain roads back towards flatter lands.

The sickly end of the ride, combined with the sounds and fishy smells of Muonglao Guest House, made for a relatively unpleasant start to the highly-anticipated Luang Prabang. Luckily for me, I decided to check on the off-chance that American football might be live on the tube at 4 a.m. To my delight, there was a game being played in the snow between New England and Tennessee. I stayed up and watched the last three quarters, as the Pats won 59-0 and the voices of the CBS announcers merged with those of the Asia Sports Network ones. Pretty weird, but it was cool to get all the Fantasy Football updates as well!

Rachel and Jackson were pretty-much up this whole time also, and by 7 a.m. we could take no more and hailed the tuk-tuk driver sitting in front of the building (he no doubt knew there were often unhappy travelers who would want to move every morning) to take us to a great place we spotted earlier called Villa Champa, in a better part of town, with wi-fi, and only $40 per night.

How ranked Muonglao the third-best guest house in Luang Prabang is amazing. There must be more than 100 guest houses here, and probably 90 are better!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Such a Happy Kid

Laos must be a great place to grow up.

The kids here are all so cute and happy. And they have beautiful scenery, mountains, rivers, and natural lives.

This is one of many photos I've taken of kids. Jackson bonded with this little girl at a quick shop near our lodgings in Vang Vieng. He also had a blast giving kids in a hill village south of Luang Prabang a Sesame Street book and repeating "hi kids" again and again to them.

Road Trippin' Through Laos

I started yesterday (Saturday) with a traditional Laos massage, in which I was contorted and twisted in ways never before seen in the Western world.

As my muscles both recovered from and relished in the aftermath of the massage, we headed out in a minivan with a hired driver from the flatlands surrounding Vientiane into the rough and mountainous road leading to the town of Vang Vieng. This was our pitstop on the way to Luang Prabang, further north in Laos. But it turned into more than a pitstop really. We stayed at a beautiful bungalow named Nam Song Resort along the Nam Song (Song River) with jagged, cone-shaped mountains surrounding us. We had delicious red curry, tom kai gai soup and other Thai-inflected dishes for dinner and woke up to a misty morning and our first bacon and eggs breakfast since we've been in Asia.

Laos Loves Jennifer Aniston and Friends

Tiny outpost Vang Viene, halfway between Vienchian and Luang Prabang, is a hotbed of Western pop culture, for no reason other than ... wait for it ...

Many of the 40 or so bars have episodes of the TV show Friends on a constant loop. Ex-pats lounge in these bars, which of course serve an abundance of large bottles of Beerlao. You can also usually find the soccer game you're looking for in these hotspots, also known as a hangout for many of the town's backpacking opium heads. We had a fun conversation with a couple of these drugged-out soccer hooligans. They were from Scotland and Wales and were nice enough, if a little unbalanced, as they regaled us with tales of their day floating in tubes down the Song River and bruising hemselves badly in inappropriate diving attempts.

Nobody seemed to know the origin of the town's Friends obsession, but apparently lots of visitors love to sit for hours (if not days) watching the show from the "axe cushions" while drinking shakes laced with pot, mushrooms, opium, and/or meth.

I wonder if Rachel, Ross and the others have been here?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Vientiane, Laos is for Buddhas

We spent a beautiful evening Friday night for my birthday having beers at sunset on the Mekong River in Laos, then a taste-filled dinner with curries, fresh vegetable stir fry, drinks, wine, chile pineapples and coconut ice cream, and tons more. The five of us (Jackson missed it all. He fell asleep for the entire day at 2 p.m.!) had a really expensive meal for about $80 at a restaurant run by Quakers that trains Laos youngsters how to serve and cook.

Earlier in the day, we visited two of the best Buddist temples in Vientiane: Buddha Park (pictured) and Pha That Luang. Then we swam at Chris and Tania's swanky resort in the suburbs (we're staying at a less-fancy but nice place in town and right on the river called the Inter City Hotel).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The SE Asia Trip Begins!

Rachel, Jackson and I are enjoying globe hopping.

London was fun for 36 hours. We stayed in a busy little hotel on Tottenham Court Road near Picadilly Circus. Jackson saw Big Ben and ate Indian food with Rachel's college friends. He was a real trooper on all the flights and a very good boy.

Our 10-hour layover today in Bangkok was also really nice. Inja's dad and his house were a peaceful haven to stopover at in the chaotic city. His helpers served us amazing chicken, papaya salad, and sticky rice when we arrived. Then we slept for a couple of hours and woke up to coffee, mango, guava and papaya before leaving for the airport.

Now we're in our Vientiane hotel alongside the Mekong River getting excited that our room will soon cool down from the AC. And Jackson is hitting me on the chest, yelling "Night night, Daddy" and, of course, "Watch Elmo, Daddy." Time to fire up the YouTube on my iPhone.

Larry David as Woody Allen in Whatever Works

Larry David pulls his same schtick as in Curb Your Enthusiasm in Woody Allen's latest, Whatever Works.

This movie started our trip to Asia during the Dulles to Heathrow leg. David's cynicism and hatred foe humanity gets a little old quickly, but young hottie Evan Rachel Wood sweeps in to save the day by falling in love with the old curmudgeon and making the movie's outlook just a little more hopeful.

Patricia Clarkson and Ed Begley Jr. are wonderfully quirky and funny as Wood's parents, and while this is nowhere near Allen's brightest moments, Whatever Works ends up being a sweet little love story.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Note: While on travel for the next three weeks, my posts will continue to flow, but they won't have as many photos, links, and other fancy doo-dads as usual. At least as long as my iPhone and its little BlogWriter app continues to work. Debatable ...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Non-Profit News Getting Day in Sun Amidst New Media Landcape

Practitioners on the front lines of special-interest, non-profit news organizations told their stories at Saturday morning's plenary during the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Madison, Wisconsin. The bottom line is that it's a lot of work but also a thriving model as mainstream news organizations drop like flies in the new media landscape.

Rob Davis, environmental writer for Voice of San Diego, is an exemplary model for non-profit news. Coming up on 1,000th donor, Davis seems to have a pretty good gig. Unlike many mainstream reporters, he doesn't have to cover city hall meetings just to cover them, he doesn't have to work every weekend, and he doesn't have to cover "the airshow." He said his outlet would fail if it tried to be the paper rof record. He said that other organizations can replicate this model, and that Voice of San Diego is making it clear to everyone that this kind of work is having an impact and it is a model worth funding. It is a very nice looking product worth reading.

Nick Penniman, executive director of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which is walled off from the Huffington Post, said he hopes the model will be replicated throughout the mainstream media. He said the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or other news organizations could create similar editorially walled-off investigative units. The HPIF has a $2million budget and a staff of 12.

Abrahm Lustgarten is the energy reporter for ProPublica, which is an even larger effort that has the largest investigative non-profit newsroom, about 50 staff operating in New York under a $10 million annual budget. He said it will not be easy to duplicate ProPublica's model because the amount of money it raised and continues raising is a large chunk of the pie currently available for these kinds of endeavors.

Finally, Melinda Whittstock, founder and executive director of Capitol News Connection, discussed how she found a niche seven years ago when many local radio stations were simply forgoing their coverage of DC policy issues that affect local populations. So she raised the money to begin covering Congress for these local outlets who could only afford occasional coverage of DC when it was really necessary. She added that, to make up for the fact that the organization has fairly poor clients, it made up the rest of its operations funding by getting grants from foundations. She admitted that raising money and being a journalist is very difficult, especially since foundations, perhaps ironically, never give her the money to have a foundation director to keep sustainable momentum going.

Up the River in Up the Yangtze

This documentary from China creeps along a little painfully at times. However, the shy teenage girl from an extraordinarily poor family is impossible not to cheer for as she leaves home and has life training aboard a Yangtze River cruise ship.

The cinematography in Up the Yangtze is wonderful and captures a world that too few Americans know or care about. The poor girl's illiterate family is about to lose the family shack due to the imminent flooding of the Yangtze River plains. Her coming-of-age story is touching, as is that of the richer 19-year-old boy who sings for the cruise passengers. His good looks and charm end up giving him a problematic ego.

This is a great topic and, in some ways, an important story to be told. Unfortunately, it could have been told in about 45 minutes rather than 90.

Now. I'm going to cancel my Netflix account for awhile and go back to the Blockbuster style of walking to pick up movies when necessary. I've had my last two NFlix rentals since early September!

*** out of ***** stars

Friday, October 9, 2009

Gore Says Climate Tipping Point Will Occur This December in Copenhagen

Former Vice President Al Gore was optimistic about upcoming climate negotiations during his keynote speech this morning to the 700 or so attendees at the Society of Environmental Journalists in Madison, Wisconsin.

He said no public announcement has been made, but that he's certain U.S. President Barrack Obama will not only go to Copenhagen, but will also take a Congress-passed bill with him. The most important thing for reducing emissions through an international treaty is that there is a price placed on carbon for the first time ever. Gore admitted that an international agreement is likely to be weaker than necessary, but will still usher in a promising first step.

Before a Q-and-A session that featured one contentious journalist asking about the errors in Gore's documentary and repeating that the polar bear population is growing, Andrew Revkin of the New York Times pressed Gore on whether this December's United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen will matter.

Gore responded that the potential for change can build up until it reaches a critical mass capable of breaking through past barriers. He thinks the world is extremely close to the tipping point. He cited recent high-profile defections from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. Business leaders are looking at the science and are slowly and steadily beginning to ask questions about how they can be part of the solutions. And corporate advertising campaigns are sending messages about how they are trying to help.

Journalists Need to Help Public Focus on Solutions to Climate Change

My boss, World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash, told a standing-room-only crowd of around 200 that people need to realize there are solutions to climate change. Journalists need to better report on them so that the public can understand that our problems don't have to be those of our grandchildren.

Jane Lubchenco, the head of NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), also spoke at the breakfast session - moderated by New York Times Environment Reporter Andrew Revkin - during the Society of Environmental Journalists conference here in Madison, Wisconsin. She said it is important that environmental scientists have begun to learn from social scientists about how to get better at communicating solutions to the consequences of climate change.

Lash said that former Vice President Al Gore's next book, called Our Choice and to be released November 3, will also focus on solutions. Lash added that the consequences are great from our painfully slow policy reactions, our continued use of fossil fuels, and the economic pricing that fails to reflect our energy usage.

There are bright spots. The reestablishment of scientists in policymaking under President Obama has been enormous, Lash said. But that still hasn't solved the problem that people are more interested in David Letterman's love life than in sea bed methane.

He argued that the "roadmap" approaches being undertaken worldwide, nationally, and locally to reduce CO2 emissions are extremely different and more complicated than any other major environmental undertakings of the past. Goals must be met by 2010, 2015, 2020, 2025, and on. We don't get to a certain point and then we're done.

Lash said the climate debate we're having now is really just about how we're going to make a major economic transition away from burning fossil fuels. If we don't, the world will be four degrees hotter in 2050 than it is now. And it should be pretty clear that nobody wants that.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Food From Laos: The Hot New Thing?

I love, which I use as an application on my iPhone but is also available on the Web.

It uses GPS to show where you are in the world on a Google map, then you can search for nearby restaurants, bars, record stores, you name it, and pins that match your search land all over the map.

An example of why it's so great: It helped me realize there are three Laos restaurants in Madison, Wisconsin, where I am right now. (Strange. I don't think there are three Laos restaurants in all of Washington DC!)

By the look of the Vientiane Palace, I would have never ventured inside. But the customer reviews gave me reason to believe it was worth a try. And the customers were right about four things:

-- The customer service was non-existent and actually mean.
-- The steak salad and pad Lao (like pad Thai but subtly different in many ways) were not much to look at but were an amazing taste experience. (I had never had Laos food before and wanted to try it since that's all I'll be eating in about a week. Check back here for more on that later.)
-- These dishes are not American-caliber spicy. I ordered "medium" spice and it was sweat-inducing Vindaloo hot.
-- It affected my stomach, which was moving around and making funny noises within 30 minutes after finishing the meal.

Bottom line: The food was so good that it was easy to disregard the negatives of this restaurant. Can't wait to be in Laos. Thanks yelp.

Environmental Journalists Converge on Madison, Wisconsin

Enjoying day one at the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Madison, Wisconsin. I wore myself out biking 30 to 40 miles this afternoon around the lake south of town and the hilly and beautiful University of Wisconsin campus, so I can't wait for the writers awards to finish up tonight. I'm going to go back to my hotel room and watch game one of the Cardinals' playoff series then hit the hay.

But a couple of highlights from tonight's speakers:

Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle claimed that his state's residents will be the first to drive their cars on ethanol derived from cheese waste. He told a story about a guy who works in rural Wisconsin in what looks like a little moonshine lab. Once he gets his pure ethanol, he takes it and mixes it directly into tanks in area gas stations. With approval from the gas station owners, I assume.

And Tia Nelson, daughter of the founder of Earth Day, admonished her audience and demanded they to do better reporting on climate stories. She cited a recent study in which 900 peer reviewed articles found zero evidence that the climate wasn't being negatively affected by humans. In the same period, news articles gave as much space to climate naysayers as climate experts in 52 percent of the articles.

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Vol. 10

Girls-Album (2009)
Year's best album
Touchstones: Violent Femmes meets Pavement
****1/2 out of ***** stars

The Grand Archives-The Grand Archives (2009)
California sunset melodies
Touchstones: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young meet Beachwood Sparks
**** out of ***** stars

The Hidden Cameras
-Origin: Orphan (2009)
Weird, unbalanced pop-wave
Touchstones: Todd Rundgren meets Talking Heads
**** out of ***** stars

Harlem Shakes-Technicolor Health (2009)
Literate reality-TV soundtracks
Touchstones: Squeeze meets The Shins
***1/2 out of ***** stars

Heartless Bastards
-The Mountain (2009)
Softy but shouty
Touchstones: Built to Spill meets Yeah Yeah Yeahs
*** out of ***** stars

Handsome Furs-Face Control (2009)
80s-style synth wave
Touchstones: Roxy Music meets The Fixx
*** out of ***** stars

Fucked Up-Looking For God (2009)
Anarchic screaming, guitars
Touchstones: Black Flag meets Motorhead
** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

And One More New York Posting, On the Media

And finally, in honor of my flight in a few hours to the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Madison, Wisconsin, here are some photos I took last week of iconic media-organization buildings in New York City.

Let's Tour TV and Movie Landmarks of NYC

While in New York last week, I took the slightly cornball, but enjoyable 4-hour TV and Movie Bus Tour. Our skipper/guide was Brian Taylor, who has apparently appeared in indie films and also on One Life to Live and Saturday Night Live.

He did a good job leading us through the sites of Manhattan. Personal highlights included the Wellington Hotel on 7th Avenue where Borat stayed,

Al's Soup Kitchen International on 55th Street, home of the inspiration for Seinfeld's Soup Nazi,
the Hook & Ladder 8 on N. Moore Street, made famous in Ghostbusters, and also known as the firehouse Kramer (briefly) worked at in Seinfeld,
The Cosby Show house on St. Luke's Place, with our guide Brian doing some explaining, and

although I've never been a huge Friends fan, the building on Bedford Street was fun to see.

Big Apple Kicks Off Travel-Filled Autumn

So I get in USA Today and all of a sudden I stop posting to the Box. The deal is that I've been doing lots of parenting and also planning lots of travels. I leave for my first visit to Madison, Wisconsin in about nine hours to attend the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference. Then I get back and head immediately for a family vacation in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. In December, I'll be in Copenhagen for two weeks during the highly anticipated United Nations climate negotiations.

So the updates here may be sporadic. I also took my first two-day bus trip to New York City last Wednesday and Thursday. One of the highlights was the great food, including the $60 lunch plate at Sushi of Gari (347 W. 46th), the highly-ranked Keste Pizzaria on Bleecker in the Village, and Famous Ben's Pizza in Soho (not a bad quick slice).