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Leonard Retel Helmich films documentaries with a single camera amid the slums of Jakarta. The lack of technical sophistication gives the movies a true cinema verite. We watched one, “Shape of the Moon,” (sometimes referred to as “Shadow of the Moon”) in my class this morning. He follows a Christian family through their lives in the tin-roofed slums of the world’s most populous Muslim country. I’ve never been to Indonesia, but this movie, more than any other I’ve seen, put me back in the warrens of third-world poverty I’ve seen in South America.

It all came back to me – the children begging in the streets, the adults looking on with contempt, the feeling of discomfort that comes with knowing that my basic, cheap room is a luxury and fortune for those who stay while I travel on. In the film geckos ate bugs off a wall, a wastrel son walks on a train track to visit an Imam, and men desperately fight a neighborhood-wide fire with a makeshift bucket brigade, sewer water, and no sign of authorities until the next morning – and even then young boys hold the hoses.

How do you help? How do you not?

The movie camera winds through the streets after a cat, emaciated and fierce. It reminded me of the cats outside my dorm room in Jerusalem. Israel brought cats to fight a rodent problem, and now they have a cat problem. During the day, broken and bloody, they roam the streets. At night in the dumpsters I could hear them fighting, an ungodly screeching that hit pitches I’ve never heard since, and lack words to adequately describe, other than to say it’s the fighting sound of nightmares.

In the movie a man carries two geese in a gunny sack slung on his back. The geese still live. They must be dinner. In the early morning animal market at Otavalo, Ecuador I watched a woman in an old, dirty shift buy several chickens, hail a bright yellow cab, and stuff the flapping, squawking, clawing, violent birds into the taxi trunk. The cabbie helped her wrestle the birds. Trunk closed, they sped off. I couldn’t load my camera fast enough, and missed them. Today the town advertises this traditional, PETA-unfriendly market as a tourist photo opportunity. I’m not sure how I feel about that, either.

Helmich is speaking 7:30 Wed. night in the West Hall Auditorium on the RPI campus, Troy, NY.


I have a new baby. She’s an Osprey, Ariel 75. Oh so pretty.

I hadn’t planned on getting a new pack. Too cost-prohibitive for a grad student researcher salary. But this summer I worked part time at Eastern Mountain Sports. I couldn’t resist.

My old pack, a workhorse Kelty, dates to 1996. My mom bought it for me, in honor of my pending semester in Jerusalem. We went to the only outdoor shop in our little town. The place had a tiny backyard on a major street where a rickety fence tried to hold up a host of kayaks and canoes, which looked like they might topple onto cars at any minute. The shop itself looked like a glorified shack from the outside. Inside, all I remember is my Kelty, a purply-blue and black. It was one of the first packs made to fit a woman. The straps hugged my shoulders, the hip-belt my waist, like the other packs didn’t.

The pack has weathered Patagonia and Lapland, the Alps, the Negev, the Adirondacks, Gibraltar and Machu Picchu, to name a few. The fabric has held up brilliantly. A few years ago I lost a screw thingy that kept a stay in place. Sometime before Peru a couple of plastic brackets fell off, so I had to tie some straps together to keep everything in place. I ditched the chest staps years ago, before I knew what they were for. All those little things added up to big annoyances – and possible safety hazards. In the Adirondacks last summer, the top of my pack refused to stay on straight. In a thunderstorm, on slick rocks, I fell and reinjured my bad shoulder. My fault and the weathers’, but an unbalanced pack didn’t help.

And then I started selling packs. The new versions are so lightweight, they shed pounds from my Kelty. I slipped on an Osprey and knew I had to have it. Could my Kelty have sufficed? Sure. But the Osprey’s high-tech features sang a siren’s song. Like the ventilated back. The differently-size hip belts that can be heated and molded to my frame. The light construction that felt like carrying air.

Working at EMS gave me a mad discount, so here I am – with my my new baby. See the extra thick plastic clasp on the chest strap? That’s an emergency whistle. Clever. Totally freaks out the dog.



Top on my weekend getaway list for the Capital Region/New York City has to be the Mohonk Mountain House. My mother stayed there once for a business meeting and raved about it so much that my brother and I gave our parents a night there for their 30th anniversary. We joined them for the day and dinner, and fell in love with the place.

Mohonk is an old-time castle of warm stone and warmer wood, a high-class version of everything cozy and comfortable about a Catskill or Adirondack retreat – but only 20 minutes max from the highway that connects Manhattan to Albany and Montreal. The house sits on a lake, which in turn rests at the base of a cliff. The house has paddle-boats in the summer and Nordic skis in winter. A gazebo offers warm-weather barbecue. Afternoon tea in a massive great room with sofas is a must. A broad veranda with rocking chairs overlooking the lake offers the perfect place to read, knit or chat.

Day passes to the grounds are available, but an even better option is to make a meal reservation. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are gourmet affairs in a cavernous, circular wood-panelled room with picture windows above the Catskills. Dinner has an old-fashioned jacket, tie and skirt dress code. Room stays include meals, but reservations for a single meal, without an overnight stay, include a grounds pass. So while $30 may be an expensive breakfast (rates range up to $61.50 for dinner), the perks are priceless.

The House also offers a lovely afternoon tea with cookies. It’s meant for overnight guests only, but no one asks questions if day guests quietly join in.

I’m sitting in an Albany coffee shop, trying to work, and a family of 10 just invaded on their way down to Mohonk. A woman said their father is treating them and his grandchildren for a Sunday night there in honor of his birthday. Are you listening, mom and dad?

Travelzoo has a great deal on a new inter-city bus company, Megabus – so good the company’s site has crashed. Free seats. Or come June, $1 seats. I can’t get to the site, and I’m not surprised. From the brief Travelzoo mention, apparently this is a  Scottish discount bus company making a go of the U.S. and Canadian markets. From the picture, the bus looks like a nice charter, and Travelzoo said they hope to put WiFi on the buses soon.

UK opinion on the service is pretty mixed. The biggest complaint seems to be a lack of customer service, long waits, and penny pinching – but the buses aren’t bad and the service is cheap. A typical overview.

In other news, the Atlantic skies are opening (and the Pacific too, but I’ve got an East Coast bias). Easing air restrictions means more inter-continental flights – and hopefully cheaper tickets, thanks to the competition. This has been coming for a while, but the New York Times travel section updates the information.

One fun note: the possibility of RyanAir’s American debut (my Web design professors would have conniptions over the site design, consider yourself warned). The cheap airline – forget merely “low cost” – offers tickets starting at 10 pounds (that’s about $25, give or take) from London across Europe. The UK Telegraph in December reported that RyanAir plans to start $16 r/t tickets across The Pond (again estimating from the Pounds quote in the story). Like other cheap travel offerings, RyanAir works because they offer no frills, ask passengers to put up with delays and other issues, and charge through the nose for every little extra – expect that $16 to balloon after fees for luggage, children (even when seated on their parents’ laps), misplaced passes, and so on. Still, that’s far less than a British Airlines flight, and who wants to pay an extra $300 just for the tea and clotted cream? (Which, by the way, is awesome and almost a reason for flying BA across the Atlantic. Almost).

The changes won’t start until next year. But the really fun bit is the end of the Telegraph story – the possibility of more low-cost flights to India and the Middle East.

Cashing in Frequent Flier miles is all about the stuff they don’t tell you. Most airline Web sites detail how many miles you need to fly where, and how to earn miles. But actually using them can change the game.

For example, I booked my flight to Auckland on American Airlines. Travelers can have one stop-over per continent on their route, for up to a year. I had three options for New Zealand. I could fly Quantas, which stops in Sydney, Air Pacific, which stops in Fiji, or Air Tahiti Nui. I chose the latter, so I get five days in Tahiti, essentially gratis.

A few years ago I looked into using miles to Europe from Texas, to visit friends in London and Warsaw. I could have listed Warsaw as my final destination, and stopped in London, saving the extra cost of a flight to Warsaw. I could have also stopped in Baltimore on the way over or back to visit my folks. I found a great price on a flight to London, so I saved the miles (and boy am I glad!). But I loved the options.

When booking a trip with miles, American holds the seats for two weeks as a reservation before printing the actual ticket. The reservation can change unlimited times, and every change extends the two weeks. When I initially booked my current trip at the beginning of March, my only options had me leaving near the end of June. I called back the day before the reservation expired, and enough other people had changed their minds that I got the dates I wanted – and I have until March 31 to change again.

I’ve always used American and had great luck. The miles link to my credit card, so as long as I spend at least $1 every two years, my account stays current (trust me, that’s not a problem. A little too much of “not a problem.”)

I had Delta miles once. They expired. An entire domestic flight. I’ll never sign up with them again.

One more stopover note: you can’t book a round-the-world ticket on a standard award. So I couldn’t fly to Auckland via London and Dubai, or some such. You have to pick either an Atlantic or Pacific route, whichever is closest, and return the same way. Trust me, I tried.

Blog: a procrastination excuse, or useful writerly/traveling enterprise?

While you discuss, I’m thrilling to a Kiwi blogger who also writes about travel writing. Good on her. I can’t wait to read all her archives. Because half the fun isn’t just the trip, it’s the planning and dreaming and fantasizing about all the cool things you’ll do.

At least, that’s what gets me through the dregs of grad school and pre-spring in upstate NY.

Michael and I had just started dating when my parents came to Boston for a visit with* my aunt and uncle. We decided to join them for dinner, but otherwise use the weekend as an excuse to camp. I noodled around the internet looking for campsites, and found listings for the Harbor Islands. We could camp on islands in the middle of Boston harbor! Well, not us, because the only way there is by boat, which we didn’t have, and the ferry schedule wasn’t right for meeting the folks and cousins for dinner, so we had to pass. Instead we settled far inland, on a tiny lake, where my brother made the mistake of trying to perform Tai Chi in the water, which Michael and I decided was an invitation for a massive water fight. (My brother might have argued “attempted drowning.” Tomato, Tomahto.) But ever since, I’ve decided that one weekend, I want to camp in the harbor.

Chris Klein read my mind. I met Chris online. We took a distance-based travel writing class last winter. He’s a stellar writer, and while I sold a few stories from the class, he snagged a book deal. Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands has a June 1 release. Good for him! And of course, good for me – I get the inside scoop when I finally make it there!

*I used to live in Texas, where “visit” is a noun. I guess I adopted that too.

I was at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism last weekend. Mindblowing. I’ll spare everyone the JournoGeek details (wait, how do you mark your tape for background again?). But I will share coverage of Josh Benton’s Blog talk. Not surprising to anyone already buying in, but he added some real perspective and packaged it in a fascinating way.

Josh called blogs the first conversation of history – the first thing you run home and tell someone after you’ve seen something amazing. You don’t have to know what it means or claim to produce the utmost correct and authoritative versions. But you also don’t have to adopt the dry boring Voice of God of an objective news report. Blogging represents a way back to the original gee-whiz first-person response to the world.

He’s a Nieman fellow, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he got a book deal from his talk. I’d buy it. Hey Josh, need a ghost writer? I’m looking for work this summer.

A friend switching jobs offered to take me on a cruise. It was the same price for her whether I went or not. Remember that, friends of broke grad students. Sadly, we couldn’t work out the timing, with my classes and her inviolate start date. Bummer. Turned out for the best in a way, as I spent Spring Break working, and I’m still so behind I can’t imagine ever catching up at this point. Four days in the sun would’ve totally screwed me. But boy, could I use a vacation. I keep looking at the site we would have used to book – Best Fares. You have to pay a fee to join – it was $25 the last time I was a member a few years ago – but you save that on your first purchase. They’re especially good for cheap European airfare deals. And of course, cruises. If you go, think of me….

I’ve cashed in my frequent flyer miles and am treating myself to a grad school graduation present – a month in the South Pacific. Specifically (or pacifically, as I used to say as a kid), New Zealand for three weeks and Tahiti for one, in June and July. It’s the Kiwi winter, but how can I pass up the chance? Anyone know if any of the Great Walks are still doable that time of year? I hope so!