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I Totally Just Witnessed a Bribe Go Down in a Buenos Aires Cafe

spy-vs-spySo here I am sitting in an outdoor cafe in Recoleta, sipping a few glasses of chardonney, eating my pizzeta, and trying to use the slow wi-fi to get my Tinder on in Buenos Aires when I overhear a peculiar conversation going on at the table next to me. The two gentlemen had accents that at first I thought were British, but later I thought maybe were from another part of the Empire, perhaps diluted through travel or time away from the homeland, wherever that may be. Usually I can place accents pretty well, but these could have been South African or maybe northern England or maybe they were just disguising them in public in advance of the operation that was about to go down.

Now a brother ain’t trying to get these two chaps in trouble in case I am semi-wrong so I won’t name the exact companies they were talking about, but suffice it to say they were discussing some sort of business deal related to a natural resources exploration company for an emerging energy storage market. They repeated the name of the company several times, so I googled it and read all about it.

Then out of the blue, and to the surprise of one of them, one of the schiesters says, “Shake my hand.” The other is taken aback a little and says, “What?” Then homeboy repeats, “Shake my hand.”

That peaked my curiosity so I looked over at their table right as I saw a HUGE stack of hundred dollar US bills wrapped in a rubber band go from one of the dudes’ hands to the other. There must have been 3-5 thousand US dollars in the stack, judging by its girth. The recipient schiester hurriedly stuffed the stack of cash in his jacket pocket and suddenly the chatter turned more friendly and deal-oriented.

Meanwhile, I look back over a couple times, halfway hoping to catch the eye of one of them in order to convey a sly look of “I know what you did last summer… or 3 minutes ago.” About 10 minutes later they wrapped up their convo and skeedatled.

I’m about to go check out the Recoleta cemetery where Evita is buried. If I end up stuffed into one of the graves, it’s probably because I’ve seen too much today.

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Fake Business Class Strikes Again :-(

Welp, I thought the days of European Fake Business Class were in the past, but boy I was wrong.

On a recent little jaunt over to the fabulously besieged Ukraine for a long weekend, I had the pleasure of flying Lot Polish Airlines for the third and fourth legs of my never-ending journey to Kiev. I haven’t been to Poland in years, but the last few times I was there I absolutely loved the country.

And while Poland has come a long way after qualifying for EU entry and modernizing a lot across the board while still retaining a lot of Old World charm (especially in Kraków!!!), the same cannot be said for Poland’s national airline, Lot. For the sake of accuracy, let’s just call it Not-a-Lot for now.

So I flew into Prague from New York today on Delta and enjoyed my 8 hour Delta One experience. By the way, Delta’s int’l business class product has come a long way over the past 5 years and is the leader aesthetically and in terms of offerings among US airlines. And their stand-out lead is even more pronounced domestically.

Anyway, I digress. So I flew a real airline over to Europe and then found a relatively decent biz class fare the rest of the way on to Kiev on Not-a-Lot for around 450 buckaroos. Ohhhhh but how quickly I forget about those sneaky snake Euro airlines though.

You see, if you’ve never flown business class within Europe or between Europe and the Middle East, you may not know what I’m talking about. And if you’ve flown it, well you still haven’t flown business class. You’ve flown fake business class, as I’ve always called it.

In 2012 when I ran a company in Egypt and traveled back and forth between the US and Cairo every month, I used to take KLM or AirFrance quite a bit. The trans-Atlantic flight was fine, marvelous in fact. Those classy Euros know how to treat their pax. But once you got to Europe and connected on to another destination, they pulled a bait-and-switcheroo on you and you quickly found out you were stuck in the infamous European fake business class.

So what do I mean by “fake” biz class, you ask? Well, I say fake because they called it a biz class seat but it totally wasn’t. No really, it was a plain old coach seat – the exact same one that was behind you in the coach cabin. The only “difference” was that they didn’t seat anyone in the seat next to you. And if the seat next to you was empty, somehow they justified calling that “business class” and taking your money for it when you thought you were getting a real business class seat. B to the S, right?

You would work 783 extra shifts at Taco Bell so you could spoil yourself a little and shell out (no pun intended) for a luxury comfy premium seat on your flight and you’d find out half way through your trip – surprise, it’s fake business class you actually get. In other words, we are keeping all of your pesos for selling you that special “business” class seat and we’re sticking you in a coach seat. But we won’t sit anyone beside you, at least. So you can squeeze into your coach seat that you paid more for and not have to look at another person for a whole 2.2 feet.

What added insult to injury most of the time is that if you looked back into the coach cabin, there were usually fewer passengers the rows back there than up in the fake business cabin. So while you paid more for a coach seat with no ONE beside you, they paid less for the exact same seat and often had no one else on their whole row of seats. So it’s like you got fake biz class and they got fake suites class or something. Except they weren’t the suckers who paid more for it like you.

This bait, switch, and don’t disclose shit has pissed me off for years. And before anyone whines about some spoiled dickhead not getting his business class seat… it’s about getting what you paid for and were sold in good faith with an expectation for something within the realm of an industry standard product.

In other words, if I sell you a taco supreme and only give you a regular taco but include pretty wrapping paper with it, you’re gonna be pissed off, right? We all know that the extra shit that comes with a taco supreme – whether you get it at Taco Bell or Uncle Julios or your mamma makes it at home – there is more stuff inside the taco. If the “supreme” part is just the wrapper and you get an ordinary damn taco but paid a butt load more, you’re going to be pissed, right? Bam!

So anyway, here I am in yet another euro fake biz class seat and writing this rant while descending into Kiev. On a related note, I didn’t think to check about the fake biz class phenomenon on this flight today because I thought this was a thing of the past. I had read and been told that AirFrance and KLM had phased out their older fake biz class seats years ago, and I didn’t even think it possible that major Euro airlines would still be peddling this kind of product.

Now I know. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, we can’t get fooled again. At least I have the beautiful people of Ukraine to look forward to meeting when I land in a few minutes.

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Vodka with my Communist Breakfast

I flew to Prague last night on a whim en route to Kiev, Ukraine to explore another city and country over this long Memorial Day weekend, because, well, what the hell – vacaying in war-torn Ukraine for the weekend is normal, right?

As you know, long haul eastbound flights are almost always overnight, so we get served a decent dinner and a semi-decent breakfast on da plane. Well, I’m still ok on the same 6 rotating dinners, but I’m absolutely sick of airplane breakfasts. So on this trip I decided to skip breakfast on the plane and wait for the biz lounge in Prague to grab a bite on my layover for Warsaw. Bad idea.

The Czech Republic, or Czechia as they want us to call them now (and they think sounding more like Chechnya is going to be good for tourism?), is in the EU now, unlike the last time I was here. So that leads me to assume the biz class lounge in the Prague airport will be one of those nice international lounges with huge buffets, comfy seating, and stylish decor.

Holy shit was I off the mark! So, to drown my sorrows along with my toast with jam n’ foil (no bend-and-peel top so I’m sure I got foil bits in my jam now trying to poke and peel it open) and my soggy generic corn flakes-ish cereal, I’ve opted to go ahead and start drinking at 10am.

Ehh, it’s Europe. They do that, right? Better yet, it’s Eastern Europe, so even more so… maybe? Or is Czech… ahem, Czechia still considered Eastern Europe now that it’s in the EU?

Whatevs. Everywhere I go, revolution seems to follow. So maybe after I hit the Ukraine this evening Putin will just decide to take all of Eastern Europe back and it’ll be a moot point anyway.

At least the shitty breakfast they serve at the airport lounge here will already be considered up to standard for the new USSR. And drinking with breakfast will be even more acceptable to the Russians.

Cheers to that, comrade.

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Sand Surfing the Sahara

I’ve never surfed nor snowboarded, but I think I deserve some partial street cred on both skills for being absolutely awesome at sand boarding. On my last trip to Egypt, my buddy Dave and I struck out to the desert around Fayoum Oasis about an hour south of Cario and hit the dunes to surf the sand.

Back in 2003 when I first moved to Egypt, some friends took me out to Fayoum for the first time and I loved lollygagging out in the huge dunes adjacent to the desert lake. Just a short drive from one of the largest and most congested cities in the world, you could literally feel like you’re 2000 miles from civilization in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

As an aside, we say Sahara Desert in English, but since sahara means desert in Arabic, it’s like we’re saying the Desert Desert. Although it’s probably quite fitting to double down in the name of that desert because it’s certainly one hell of a desert – like a DESERT desert!

Anywho, riding the dunes on boards was fun as hell, and I was better at it than I thought I would be. Most Middle Eastern countries have awesome dunes (even if they don’t all have a Desert Desert), so you can sand surf in a lot of places even if you’re not traipsing around Egypt all the time like moi.

sand surfing

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Holy Crap, I’ve Died and Gone to Heaven… err, Maldives!

Island View 2What can I say about the Maldives? It’s far as hell, it’s expensive, and it’s remote, but it. is. freakin’. GORGEOUS!

When a friend invited me to join him for part of his recent around-the-world adventure, I looked at the calendar and found a few periods where I could sneak away and work remotely while jetting off to a few of the places where he happened to be on those dates to meet him and experience some exotic newness. One week that happened to work for me was when he was going to be in the Maldives and Sri Lanka. I’ve always wanted to go to those places and figured I would at some point in my life, but why the hell not now when the opportunity is presenting itself, I thought.

Although I certainly wanted to check these two countries off of my bucket list (my bucket list happens to include every country in the world, but I’ve never been one for parsimony when it comes to travel), but I couldn’t help but wonder for most people whether it was worth it to travel half-way around the world or farther just to get your tropical on. I mean, just a few inches from the U.S. we have the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, neither of which we need a passport or a jumbo-jet for, and the Bahamas too. And the rest of the Caribbean is right in our backyard. Could it really be worth the long-haul journey to vacay in the Maldives?

In sum, OMG yes! The place was stunningly gorgeous, the journey wasn’t that bad (ok I was in Emirates first class, so hate me a little and then take that last comment with a grain of caviar), and the experiences there were simply amazing. I’m not convinced the Maldives is just a copy of the Caribbean or South Pacific islands, and I think it’s unique enough that it’s worth a visit all on its own. Also, it’s cool as hell. I mean, it just sounds exotic. And how many other people do you know who vacation in the Maldives?

I will say, though, that I’d recommend visiting in conjunction with a visit to another destination in the region to get the most out of the journey over there. My friend Dave and I also went to Sri Lanka in the same long week. I’ll write more on that later, but consider visiting Sri Lanka or India or stopping over in Dubai or somewhere else for a few days too while you’re over there. It’ll make for quite the contrast, and quite the trip!

I’ll write more about this trip shortly, but I had to start off with this musing on the basic wisdom of the destination itself. So while you’re waiting on more, check out all this sexiness below and start planning your own Maldivian vacation. And let me know when you do. I want to go back!

John Goodbye IMG_5923ATW Trip - 0383 ATW Trip - 0466

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Sleeping With Art

NOTE: This article can also be found here on my mainstream (i.e., non-sassy) travel column at The Huffington Post

I’ve stayed in all types of hotels all over the world — from the extravagantly luxurious to humble properties with “character” to youth hostels (when I was more youthful, admittedly) and from charming B&Bs and to the worldwide corporate chains that are often copy-and-pasted in city after city. Boutique hotels are by far my favorite, but it’s getting harder and harder to find boutiques that are truly unique.

Back in the summer I was aimlessly wandering around the streets of Old Montreal at night when I walked past a beautifully lit ornate facade on Rue McGill. That canvas of stone and light turned out to be the Hotel St. Paul, and on my next trip I made sure to book a room there and try it out. Little did I know that I would soon be sleeping in one of the most uniquely artful boutique hotels in North America.

In 1905, Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway Company needed a new building for its administrative offices in Montreal in addition to space for one of its subsidiaries, Canadian Express. It acquired land on the corner what is now Rue McGill and Rue St. Paul and spent the next two years constructing a 10-story building, the maximum height allowed by Montreal’s building code at the time. The architects at Hutchison and Wood constructed the edifice in a neo-baroque style, which ensured that it was ideally situated for dramatic modern lighting more than a century later when I randomly walked by one night.

In 1961 the government of Quebec acquired the building and housed its immigration, transportation, and other provincial offices there through the early 1980s, when it was sold to a European developer. In 2000, its current owners began a complete modernization and renovation of the property, and voila — the Hotel St. Paul opened the following year.

As if it were not already charming and design-forward enough, the Hotel St. Paul is now undergoing a phased redesign of the rooms and common spaces, and even the most discerning guests should expect to be thoroughly impressed. One of the most unique aspects of this property is that nearly every free-standing object — from the sofas in the lobby to the mirrors in the rooms to the art throughout the building — is custom designed by the owner’s wife. And if the pieces in the hotel strike your fancy, there’s a small boutique from which you shop some of her collections.

When I first pulled up to the hotel to check in for my long-weekend stay in Montreal, the first thing I noticed yet again was the ornate exterior. There’s something about the facade that looks and makes you feel classy just knowing that you’re staying there. The lobby is small, which is normal for a boutique hotel. But you can tell immediately that your stay there is going to be unique based on the furnishings and decor, including a chic walk-around fireplace to warm up beside when winter in Montreal starts to really kick in.

Just off the lobby but also accessible from the street is Hambar, the hotel’s meat-themed restaurant and bar. Although it only opened in 2012, I noticed while I was there that Hambar isn’t just populated by hotel guests. Montrealers who live and work in the area also frequent the restaurant for lunch and dinner, which is always a good sign for a restaurant within a hotel. But even if you don’t dine there, you’ve got to at least have a drink at the bar to admire all the delicious looking hams suspended from the ceiling by the entrance.

The rooms in the Hotel St. Paul are actually quite large and spacious. Boutique hotels are usually small properties, and space within rooms is always at a premium as owners and designers try to squeeze in more units and amenities. So upon entering my room, I was struck by how much open space there was. Just like the lobby, there’s also fascinating works of art in every room too. But really everything in the room is a piece of art, since it’s all custom designed for just this hotel.

While any room here will be great, check to see if the “Black Suite” is available during your stay and splurge a little to snag it if it is. It’s one of only two all-black hotel rooms in the world, and as S&M-esque as it sounds, it’s actually a really cool room.

You also can’t beat the neighborhood that the Hotel St. Paul is in. Situated on the southwestern edge of Old Montreal, everything you want to see in the old city is just a short and pleasant stroll away. The Montreal History Center is right around the corner and is definitely worth a drop-by. The museum occupies a beautifully restored old fire house that was built about the same time as the hotel. I’ve been to Montreal many times now and it wasn’t until my stay at the Hotel St. Paul that I discovered this essential museum that documents the surprisingly multicultural (not just French) history of Montreal. There are also lots of really delicious and ultra-trendy restaurants in this part of town too.

The Hotel St. Paul is an amazing oasis of art, design, and quaint luxury right in the heart of where you want to be when staying in Montreal. It’s one of the more unique boutique hotels I’ve stayed in because of the special emphasis it places on custom art and artistic modern furnishings, not only in common areas but in each guest room as well. The rooms are large, the staff are all super friendly and on the ball, and you can’t beat the location or the value. I would highly recommend this boutique property to anyone visiting Montreal.

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The Most Disappointing Destination in Europe?

I love Europe. Who doesn’t? It’s filled with so much sophistication, dotted with beautiful cities and villages, steeped in history that has shaped the rest of the world, and infused with an energy that makes visiting nearly anywhere on the continent an incredibly worthwhile trip.

I’ve been to most of the big countries in Europe, and I don’t think I’ve visited a single town or city that I didn’t like. As are many avid world travelers, I’m amazed by the lives so foreign to mine that people lead even in the simplest or most remote of towns and villages. I can always find beauty in the dreariest of places. The row after row of communist-era apartment blocks in rural Polish communities come to mind, their formerly drab exterior walls now sometimes painted in bright colors to add a splash of life and flair.

I’ve also always been fascinated with small countries, ones so tiny that you can literally walk from border to border or run the entire width or length of the country to get a good workout. And because I’m a history buff – and usually royalty provides us with a living linkage to a country’s past – I’ve always been particularly intrigued by the tiny principalities of Europe.

I was in the south of France in May for the 68th annual Cannes Film Festival. I was actually just going to Nice when I read online that the beaches there left a lot to be desired while Cannes, just down the road, had a nice sandy strip of beach on which I could work on my tan. So I hopped in a cab at the airport and booked a room on Hotels Tonight, and an hour later I was smack dab in the middle of one of the most famous international events in the world.

I love film festivals and I’ve always wanted to go to the one in Cannes, but it was total coincidence that I landed there in the middle of this year’s event. That explained why the room rates were so high, but I just thought it was because it was the French Riviera.

After getting my tan on – priorities! – and being amazed at how this sleepy little village comes to life when stars and elite from all over the world helicopter or yacht in for the week, I was really eager to take the train just up the coast to Monte Carlo and check out one of the most fabled city-states in the world.

I didn’t make it that time, strangely enough, because the Monte Carlo Grand Prix was going on right after Cannes and if I thought hotel prices were high in Cannes during the festival, those might as well have been Motel 6 rates compared to how expensive Monaco was going to be. So I skipped the fairytale principality on that trip but vowed to come back. After all, surely Monaco was worth a dedicated trip all on its own.

The opportunity to go back to the French Riviera came even quicker than I thought recently when I promised a friend I’d meet him in Barcelona for a long weekend while he was there for work. But flights to BCN were too full last-minute, so I caught one to Nice instead that was a little more open.

Since I was there again and had missed out on Monaco last time, I decided that this would be the time when I was going to finally visit the land of playboy princes, hollywood princesses, jet-setters, mega-yachts, ritzy casinos, amazing experiences, beautiful people, glamor, excitement, fashion, fun, and fabulousness – all one square mile of it packed full of the images I’d always had in my head of this place since I was a child.

When I stepped out of the train station in Monte Carlo, which I almost missed because it was so quick to get there from Nice, I was in awe of finally setting foot on Montegasque soil (which is rhetorical because there’s naturally not much left in the entire country that isn’t built upon or artificially landscaped, but in a high-density country that you can walk across in 8 minutes that’s certainly to be forgiven).

Looking out across the narrow road, the first thing you see are yachts, but not nearly as many as I thought and certainly not as many as I had seen in Cannes earlier in the year or even in El Gouna on Egypt’s Red Sea coast. But a few of the yachts were big and beautiful and there were a lot of other smaller boats dotting the marina.

Then you look up and to the south and see the hilltop castle, home to the princes who have ruled Monaco for centuries, former home to THE Princess Grace of Monaco, God rest her soul. While majestic from sheer history and height, it was surprisingly not very castle-like in appearance. But there it was nonetheless, and I forced myself to be in awe because, well, there I was in Monaco standing next to yachts and looking up at the castle… IN MONACO.

I strolled down the boardwalk a little past some dusty run-down storefronts that were closed or dead until I saw a sign for the casino. But this wasn’t just any casino. This was THE casino… in Monte Carlo… in Monaco. This is where, as common knowledge tells us, the rich and the royals and the jet-setters have gone to gamble and frolic for nearly a century and a half. I imagined beautiful women in sequined gowns and fur stoles and men with slicked-back, jet black hair in tuxedos drinking champagne as they crowded around lively games of craps and roulette at all hours of evening, night, and into the morning.

I climbed several flights of steep stairs and wound my way through a garden path to finally stumble on the plaza over which the fabled Casino de Monte Carlo reigns, but was surprised at how small it was. Still, that was it and there might as well have been Red Bull running through my veins because I was so pumped and excited to be standing right where I was at that moment.

As I looked around the small plaza, Ferraris and Lamborginis and Porches and Bentleys were parked all around its edges, and tourists and Monegasques (ok probably just tourists) sipping espresso and wine filled the outdoor cafes on what turned out to be an incredibly gorgeous early autumn day. A billboard promoting an upcoming concert by Tarkan, the Turkish mega-star, lorded over everyone in the distance, and the ultra-modern architecture of the buildings across the road contrasted beautifully with the classic facade of the Hotel de Paris to round out the plaza’s perimeter.

But it was still early and I must have looked like a hot mess because I came straight from stepping off of an eight-hour flight to hopping on the train to walking half-way across the country (literally!) to finally find myself in the middle of it all. I hadn’t even checked into my hotel yet, but luckily I was only traveling with a small backpack filled with my MacBook, a few magazines, and a few starter clothes (I usually prefer to buy a few outfits when I arrive so I don’t have to carry as much luggage). Still, I wasn’t dressed for my first real Monaco experience, so off to find my hotel I went.

I walked nearly the entire length of the country in my first hour there between my initial exploring and making my way to the hotel. I had a reservation at the Le Meridian, which is at the top edge of the country just inside of its northeastern border with France. As I strolled about en route to the Le Meridian, I passed Ferrari and Rolls Royce dealerships and shops for some of the most recognizable names in high fashion, but I was strangely taken aback by how 1960-ish most of the buildings looked. This was Monaco, but it looked somewhat like Baltimore, just with more Ferraris casually passing by.

The hotel was nice enough and I was exhausted by this point, so I opted to settle in for a little while and take a short nap to get ready for what would surely be a dazzling Friday evening and night out on the town in Monte Carlo. I don’t normally travel with a tuxedo, so after my rest I threw on the trendiest outfit I had with me and stuck back out to hit the town.

Back at the plaza, I pre-gamed on pumpkin ravioli and white wine at a cute little outdoor cafe and watched the tourists and the Ferraris come and go. I instagramed my dinner, finished off the bottle, splurged on dessert, then made my way over to the casino to win my playboy fortune.

There was a 10 euro cover charge for the casino, which I was totally ok with because I assume tourists come there all the time just to check out the famous casino and not actually patronize it. But I was there to gamble, and 10 euro was a small price to pay for the glamorous evening that surely awaited me inside.

Once in the Casino de Monte Carlo, one can’t help but be struck by the ornate grandeur of its interior. The building was no doubt beautiful and classy, even if it was rather small. But that’s about where the fairytale came to a screeching halt. When my head turned from looking up at the ceiling to looking around the room, it pains me to say that I was sorely disappointed in what I saw – two wide open rooms largely devoid of not only people, but also gambling.

There were a few games here and a few tables there, a few small restaurants off to the side, and of course a bar, but that’s about it. I’ve seen a more robust gambling scene at roadside bingo halls in the Carolinas than I was seeing at THE famous Casino de Monte Carlo in Monaco. Surely this was all just a bad dream and I had yet to wake up from my nap. Alas, it wasn’t so.

Of course I still couldn’t give up the opportunity to play a few hands at blackjack. There were only two tables – a 25-euro table and a 100-euro table. I started out at the 100-euro table and played for about 20 minutes before I got bored. There was only one other player at the table and just no excitement whatsoever in the room. It was a Friday evening in Monte Carlo, and I might as well have been at a nursing home in Madison.

After losing a few hundred euro, I left. I have no problem paying (i.e., losing) good money for a few hours of fun and excitement in a casino. But this was a snoozefest, and I bolted to go explore some more.

I wandered into the centrally located Fairmont Hotel just around the corner, which, like many of the buildings in central Monte Carlo, appeared rather bland and run down. But just off the lobby was another casino that looked ever so slightly more lively than the Casino de Monte-Carlo, so I settled in there for a few more hands of blackjack. Within an hour I had won 1000 euro and I cut myself off. I decided to go back to my hotel and call it a night.

I had held Monaco in such high regard my entire life as a glamorous playground for the rich that was always abuzz with fun and excitement. This trip certainly burst the bubble of that image, and I could not have been more disappointed. Perhaps there’s more to Monaco that I didn’t see or experience. But on a Friday night in the center of what everyone thinks of as the global capital of ritz and glamour, nothing to justify the hype was evident or apparent.

I would love to visit Monaco again and be proven wrong. I would love to find the true Monaco that I’ve always dreamed of. I’d love to wake up from my nap and waltz into the room that must be out there of beautiful women in sequined gowns and handsome men in tuxedos laughing and engaging in witty and sophisticated conversation in French and English, clutching champagne flutes while throwing down hundreds of euros on a few hands just for entertainment during conversational lulls.

But until Monaco returns to its glory days, or until someone wakes me up to the hidden Monaco that I didn’t see, I’ll just have to keep dreaming.

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There’s a body floating in the wine tower

As I sit here tonight at the bar at the Raddison Blu in Zurich, I can’t help but be mesmerized by the show inside the wine case.

I know, I know… you think I’ve had too much vino from the aforementioned bar, but not so fast grasshoppers. I’m only buzzed and having a great time chillin’ out at the hotel bar with friends but not hallucinating yet.

But seriously, there’s a person floating upside down inside of the wine tower behind the bar. And this has been happening every 15 mins or so. This is so cool. Check it out:

 

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Food Tour of Europe… In One Day

Today I accomplished quite a feat by having breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Well, that’s a feat in and of itself, since I don’t normally eat 3 squares a day. But no, I had these 3 distinct meals in 3 distinct cities today. Actually, I had them in 3 distinct countries… all in one day.

I usually hate waking up early and would rather trade extra sleep for morning calories. But this morning, after galavanting around Spain for a few days with some amigos from the States who were there on a work trip, I had to get up early and head to the airport. So to kill the time, I had breakfast at the airport in Barcelona.

Then, because a week ago when I was in Brussels I was druzunk leaving the bars one night and left my phone in an Uber, I flew back to Brussels to pick up my phone from a friend who recovered it from the Uber Brussels office. That’s one of the 5,687 things I love about Uber. So while in Brussels, I had lunch with my friend there.

Later, I flew onward to Zurich to meet back up with my friends on the biz trip. I got there too late to order real food for dinner, so I made a dinner out of bar peanuts. Still counted as my dinner though, and was probably more nutritious than 90% of my dinners anyway.

So there you have it. In one day I had breakfast in Barcelona, lunch in Brussels, and dinner in Zurich. Three meals, three cities, three countries, all in one day. I can check that off the bucket list. Actually, that wasn’t on my bucket list. But it’s pretty dang neat anyway, right?

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Is Israel Safe for Tourists?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Israel is located smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s biggest political hotspots. But it does take a few to keep this tiny country along the eastern Mediterranean safe and secure, and that seems to be why Israel is bouncing back big time in 2015.

Israel is no doubt one of the planet’s top bucket list destinations for travelers from all over the world. As a hub of three of the world’s major religions and being cradle-of-civilization-adjacent, the modern state of Israel literally sits on top of thousands of years of incredibly dense history. At the same time, it is also a diverse, vibrant, trendy, and modern country with great night life that would be a top tourist destination even without its ancient biblical roots.

In the past, semi-frequent wars and skirmishes with its neighbors have kept many would-be tourists at bay, and as recently as last summer a short conflict with the Hamas-led government in Gaza on its southwestern border ensured a recent flood of sensational news headlines in the States and Europe that left Israel’s tourism industry decimated.

But unbeknownst to many, over the past 15 years Israel has implemented a series of both low-tech and high-tech solutions that have amazingly rendered the vast majority of the country perfectly safe and secure even during the occasional flare-ups around its borders.

In 2002, following another round of suicide bombings intentionally targeting Israeli civilians, the government built a physical wall around nearly its entire border with the West Bank. The combination of enormous concrete slabs along some of the more urban stretches with highly sophisticated “smart fences” (which can detect cutting, climbing, jumping, and even stray animals) along the more rural parts of the border almost immediately helped bring about a 98% decline in terrorism in the country by the following year.

Similarly, Israel’s state-of-the-art Iron Dome missile defense system detects and shoots down any rockets that are now fired into the country from the militants who embed themselves in civilian neighborhoods in the neighboring Gaza Strip. While these rockets usually don’t go any farther than the desert area surrounding that border, ones that find their way farther into the country are met with not one but two Iron Dome intercept missiles as backup. Israel is even now nearing completion of a much more advanced system to intercept and destroy longer range guided missiles, such as the kind that more militarized countries like Iran would have access to.

While we in the United States have only had marginal success developing our own missile defense systems dating back to the days of the Star Wars initiatives under President Reagan, Israel has implemented a system of both tight border and air security that allows Israelis to now go about their daily lives under a blanket of relative calm, stability, and security. For tourists to Israel, this means that visiting the country and even traveling around within it is completely safe, despite the occasional incident or flare up that makes the news back home.

Last September, just two months after the brief conflict on its border with the Gaza Strip, a friend visited Israel for a week of vacation just to see what the situation was like on the ground. As predicted, hotels were empty, ancient and holy sites that are usually bustling were quiet, and tour guides were out of work and twiddling their thumbs on their couches. My friend said he felt like he had the whole country to himself at times, and indeed he was posting no shortage of fabulous selfies of himself alone at the King David Hotel’s pool and walking around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Wailing Wall, and the Mount of Olives without anyone else in sight.

Despite tourists’ initial queasiness with returning to Israel in mid to late 2014, this year has begun to see a return to higher levels of international visitors. Just this month, in fact, Israel once again hosted the Middle East’s only LGBT Pride celebration in Tel Aviv and it was its largest one to date, not to mention one of the world’s hottest (and I’m not talking temperature) and most diverse Pride celebrations anywhere.

DJs on the beach pumped music out over the white sand and azure Mediterranean by day, and clubs and bars packed in crowds from all over Israel in addition to Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America by night. Cafes, restaurants, and tourist sites throughout the rest of the country were finally bustling again, and many visitors were even giving Jordan a little tourist love too by jetting over to Petra for a day while they were close by.

There’s no doubt that the political situation in the region remains tense and there are some very serious and consequential issues of territory, citizenship, and governance of the Palestinian people that must be settled before a true blanket of peace will fall on this part of the Middle East. But even while the political processes, dialogues, negotiations, and yes even occasional fights and skirmishes continue, the reality on the ground within Israel proper is that the country is certainly a secure and safe destination for international tourists to visit.