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A Visit from Down Under

January 19, 2007

Australia's tourism minister, Fran Bailey, was in town last week, and as usual, she was a treat. Mostly she sang the country's praises, but we were even more fascinated by her enthusiasm for more flights between Australia and North America. (The fact that it's a long flight is nothing anyone can do anything about; the price of the fare, however, is something else altogether.) Unlike some folks in the government, she fully supports competition with Australia's national airline, Qantas. Let's hope she has some sway. Evidently low-fare upstart Virgin Blue is trying to get flights okayed between the western U.S. and Sydney. If approved it won't happen for a few years, but that'd be a good day, indeed.

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You Can't Get There From Here

Hobbits on the Silk Road Hobbits are an unobtrusive but very ancient people, more numerous formerly than they are today, for they love peace and quiet and a good-tilled earth. . . . Even in ancient days they were, as a rule, shy of "the Big Folk," as they call us, and now they avoid us with dismay and are becoming hard to find. --J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings Tell me about it. I had been in Almaty, a cosmopolitan city in the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan for five days, a stop on the yearlong trip I was taking with my husband, Nick. I was on a mission to find the mythical subculture of Tolkienists--Kazak kids who were so taken with the writer J. R. R. Tolkien's characters from Lord of the Rings that they frequently dressed as hobbits, wizards, dwarves, and other Gandalfian creatures, parading in full regalia through Almaty's tree-lined streets. I had prowled Zhibek Zholy and Tole Bi, the main pedestrian drags downtown, where I'd seen plenty of long-haired metal kids hanging out and drinking beer. I'd also seen a fair number of ashen-faced babushkas, begging bowls before them, beseeching a spare few coins. (Poverty is one of the unfortunate by-products of the demise of the Soviet Union; when state socialism collapsed, so did these grandmothers' pensions.) I had shopped among the nouveau riche as they spent their fresh-from-the-oil-fields cash on the latest electronic gadgets and imported French clothes at the bastion of emerging capitalism, the TsUM department store. But so, far I'd spotted no hobbits. My next stop had been to track down a 21-year-old writer named Erbol who worked for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and who had written an article about the Tolkienists that I'd seen on the Web. Erbol spoke no English, but, using an Internet-based translation program and sign language, we'd had a conversation of sorts. He'd told me he knew a guy named Ilya, a punk rocker--this communicated via an outstretched hand run alongside the length of his head to denote a mohawk--who was down with the Tolkien scene and who also spoke good English. I had returned to my hostel armed with Ilya's telephone number and a Russian Language Beginner's Guide, a necessity in a city where few speak English. Under the bemused glances of the three matrons who guarded the front desk, I had practiced saying in broken Russian "Mozhna pagavarit Ilya's telefonem?" a few times before dialing. After three days I had finally gotten ahold of Ilya, who'd turned out to be a tall, lanky blond fellow with a buzz cut and a baritone voice. He'd informed me that he was no longer a Tolkienist but a writer and poet--one who'd recently received an award as Kazakhstan's best young author, it turned out--but he was familiar enough with the movement to be able to track down some hobbits for me. Which was why that Saturday I had met Ilya at the bus stop at the southern end of downtown Almaty, a few tram stops from my hotel. There, along with dozens of Almaty-ites all dressed up for weekend hiking trips, we'd boarded a packed bus to Butakovka, a wilderness getaway in the foothills of the snowcapped Zailiyski Alatau Mountains. Six miles later, we had alighted at the end of the line and had begun hiking along a cold mountain stream, passing a couple of half-built mansions--part of the upscale urban sprawl spurred by Almaty's new class of oil gazillionaires--before making a turn straight up a steep mountainside. For the better part of an hour I'd trudged up the muddy path as best I could in flip-flops, pausing frequently to breathe deeply and drink water. Ilya had appraised my stumblings with a look of equal parts disgust and pity. At the top of the hill he'd guided us over the ridge and to a grassy clearing he'd kept referring to as the helicopter pad, where he'd promised me my hobbits. We didn't find any. No hobbits. Or elves. Or dwarves. Or orcs. Not even a human. Ilya shrugged. I sat down to pant. Tolkien was right: These hobbits were a bitch to find. There were a number of probable causes for the hobbits' elusiveness. It could be, as Tolkien described, the hobbitian temperament, shy of us "big folk." It could also be the Kazak one. More than ten years after the collapse of the USSR, much of Kazakhstan had yet to shake its totalitarian character. Its statues of Lenin and Marx had long been warehoused, but Almaty still felt vaguely Soviet, and not merely because of the city's Stalinist apartment blocks and ubiquitous Lada cars bucking for lane space with flashy new Mercedes. Politically, Kazakhstan, and indeed all of the former Central Asian Republics, which include Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, have not exactly had great success in democratizing. All of these states are ruled by former Soviet officials who fell into power when the Union collapsed, and these men run their nations with iron fists--more Khrushchev than Kennedy. Kazakhstan is the most progressive of the 'stans, but even here, journalists critical of the government have been arrested or beaten. Religious and ethnic minorities have also been tightly regulated, purportedly to keep tabs on Islamists, Uighur Muslim separatists, and nascent Christian groups. But because the KGB-era cops don't actually bother with subtle distinctions--say, between Baptists, Scientologists, and Tolkienists--the hobbits, elves, and wizards have found themselves branded as members of an unregistered religion and have suffered a good deal of harassment at the hands of Kazak police. They have had their swords confiscated. They've been beaten. They've even been jailed for staging alfresco jousts on the mall. So the Tolkienists had taken to the hills. But now Ilya and I were in the hills. Where were the Tolkienists? Ilya was perplexed. "They come here every weekend in warm weather," he told me. I stared at him, doing my best to replicate the disgust/pity look he'd given me on the trail up. Then I handed him my cell phone. "Why don't you call around?" Ilya did that and discovered where all the hobbits were hiding: under the covers, nursing hangovers. The night before, one Tolkienist had thrown a wild Friday-the-13th party that had gone on till sunrise. But the hobbits would be back in form the next day, the voice on the phone told Ilya, who gave me a no-problem smile. I gave him a yes-problem frown. I'd have to hike this monster mountain again. The next day I hiked the mountain again, in proper footwear this time, and met myself a hobbit, a mercenary, several sorceresses, and an army of warriors. It was the first of many meetings. Later on I'd try jousting, learn Elvish, and come to understand just why the Kazak kids were so Tolkien-obsessed. Reprinted from You Can't Get There From Here: A Year on the Fringes of a Shrinking World, by Gayle Forman. Copyright 2005 by Gayle Forman. Permission granted by Rodale Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735.

Four Sexy, Silly Hotels

Even Hotel Zamas's origins are sexy: Daniel McGettigan and Susan Bohlken were on their honeymoon in Mexico when they discovered a pristine beach south of Cancun; in 1993, they opened their dream hotel. Get laid (back, that is) in one of the thatched-roof bungalows, inspired by traditional Mayan architecture. Each has a private porch with a hammock, and out front on the beach are chairs under a palapa, or palm-thatched umbrella. Nearby is inspiration for anyone looking to monkey around--there is a spider-monkey habitat, not to mention lagoons, limestone wellsprings, and cave pools. Bring a flashlight, as there's no street lighting; walking around after dark (unless there's a full moon) is one of those activities that's definitely better with the lights on (zamas.com, rates start at $80 per night.) Bad boys get a sexy session of detention--if not an outright spanking--at the Kennedy School Hotel, in Portland, Ore. At this 1915 elementary school-turned-hotel, you can bring that fantasy to life in a former classroom outfitted with a bed and cloakroom (even the original blackboards are still intact). Sketch each other in chalk, then head down to the auditorium--now a movie theater--for a serious make-out session. The little girls' room has been converted into a grown-up brewery. Down the hallway, the teachers' lounge was demolished to make way for an outdoor soaking pool. No homework allowed. And don't forget to bring along a ruler, in case anyone gets naughty (kennedyschool.com, rates start at $99 per night). "Don't come a-knocking if the trailer's a-rocking" should be the motto of the Shady Dell, an authentic RV park in the former mining town of Bisbee, Ariz. Nine souped-up Airstream-style trailers--plus a tiki-themed bus and a glamorous yacht--are for rent. Lucy and Ricky wannabees will feel right at home in the 1950 Spartanette Tandem, which has a VCR for playing old movies on the black-and-white television. Pop over and visit Fred and Ethel in their 1951 Spartanette Royal Mansion, equipped with a cocktail lounge for late-night martini swilling. Sinful rates justify the drive an hour and a half south from Tucson (theshadydell.com, rates from $45 per night). Get it on like Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire at the 45-year-old Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, Calif. The 108 rooms are gaudily decorated; some of the kitschiest involve rock walls, like the Kona Coast (rock walls, rock bathroom) and the Caveman Room (rock everything). Or is your style more turn-of-the-century lady of the evening? Try the San Francisco room, with its bordello-red carpet and walls. Cloud Nine, meanwhile, has cherubs everywhere--decorating the bedspread, holding up the lamps, hanging from the ceiling--for anyone who thinks Cupid needs some inspiration (madonnainn.com, rates from $168 per night). Related links:   50 Totally Charming Hotels Under $150   Four Hotels We Wouldn't Be Caught Dead In

A Budget Travel Foundation?

We've gotten some thoughtful replies to Erik Torkells's letter from the editor in the December/January issue, in which he mulled over the idea of a travel foundation. Here's a sampling: I just read your letter and wanted to say that many others share your idea. I was lucky enough to be a principal in a school district with a large number of Chinese students. One community member thought that all of us, principals and teachers, would benefit from visiting China. 40 of us spent 10 days with all expenses paid by our benefactor, except for $300 for our airfare from LA. It was indeed a fabulous experience. We visited schools of course, and I later returned taking 11 teachers with me to teach English to Chinese high school students for 6 weeks in the summer. One other trip followed as well as several visits by the Chinese to our city. One of the highlights of my career I would say, and yes it does broaden your acceptance and understanding of other cultures. Hopefully all that went not only opened their minds to the Chinese but became more accepting of all cultures. --Sandra Miller, Ed.D, University of La Verne, Calif. Your letter in the December/January issue spoke to our hearts. It said why we founded the nonprofit all volunteer our developing world. We knew that "our preconceived notions would be the only thing getting blown up" in a perfect world but that won't happen till people cooperate. Such cooperation won't happen till people know something about each other. Therefore we have a free lending resource library for teachers with artifacts, lessons & visuals of "developing countries" and we take small groups of people who want to see for themselves on Reality Ecotours always with a focus on people, health, socio-economic & human rights. We hope some budget travelers will check out our website. Anyone with lots of time could put together these contacts but for those with limited vacations we guarantee to give you the fullest non-Hilton adventure. --Barby & Vic Ulmer, Saratoga, Calif. In early 2003, while on a trip to Thailand, I met a retired businessman who had recently sold his company. In getting acquainted, he told me he was using part of the money from the sale to finance a "think-tank" of intellectuals and scientists to come up with feasible plans to helpThird World countries by putting money more directly into the hands of the citizens and not having it filtered through corrupt governments or agencies. Your "The View from Here is Pretty Nice" column of December 06/07 struck a note that reminded me of that encounter. I have been a tour organizer for a teacher's organization from the early 60's until my retirement in early 1990 and I facilitated teacher travel through low-cost charters and group programs. These two paragraphs are connected in this way. I suggested to the businessman that his "think-tank" look at the idea that, in place of our current foreign aid programs, the U.S. Government should divert a large part of the dollars going to those programs to very low-cost flights to needy foreign countries, e.g., $100 round trip, plus a tax credit of "X" dollars per person. The participants would spend their own money while on the trip, which money would go directly into the local economies and the pockets of citizens of those countries. Safeguards could be imposed such as discontinuing flights to countries that attach government fees to the flights or add hotel taxes, etc. I am sure that many schemes would be developed by the corrupt bureaucracy, but with care this could be circumvented. I think this would give Americans who currently do not travel abroad something to think about and give a wake-up call to many foreign politicians that their free lunch at our expense can end. --L. Edmond Leipold I write you this email today only one day back from my weekend trip to Munich, but felt a need to respond to you column in the December/January issue of Budget Travel. You, I and the thousands of others who work in the travel industry have to be some of the luckiest people alive. Why you ask? It does not have to do with our somewhat job security, discounts received, great people with whom we work with, but more of the fact that we can see the world for practically nothing be it for work or pleasure. So let me begin by telling you why I wrote. My name is John Luttrell and I live in the tiny state of Delaware. I am currently working for US Airways on the ramp in Philadelphia and have been for the last ten years. Though we have been through many pay cuts and job changes since 9/11 knowing I still have the advantage to travel on a whim for free has kept me hanging in. Over the past five years I have seen many colleagues depart for other jobs and I think to myself what a shame it would be if that day were to ever come for me. For ten years now I have been to and have seen so many places that would have never happened if not for me working in the airline industry. Be it Vegas for a day or the Caribbean for a week these things seem so unattainable to many others in this country who don't have the opportunities we do. As I read your article about how the girl in the coffee shop had wanted to go with you to Iowa because she has never been anywhere it only reminded me of how many of my colleagues don't travel and also of how my friends react when I go away to all these different places. But, the one thing that really got me was to think about the people I know who have never been out of the local Delaware area. This state is in such a great location with driving distance to so much. A day trip to Philly, NYC, DC or ever to Atlantic City, but I have talked to so many who have never been to any of these places and it makes me question why these people have never been far from home. Is it due to laziness, nervousness, scared to try new things, or could it be the fact that these people might not have the means to take these day trips yet alone leave the country for a week. I too believe that travel brings people closer together and what one might have thought of you because of where you live, what religion you are, whom you voted for I think it gets thrown out the window when you really get to know that person for themselves and see how they live their life. So I question your daydream about the Budget Travel Foundation and hope you make it a reality as you and I both know that many people out there should have an opportunity to see what or who is outside their own town. These people should have an opportunity to experience new races, cultures, and creeds so they can see for themselves that this world is a beautiful place once you get out of your comfortable surroundings and let others in. Though I personally don't have the means to start a foundation on my own I would love to help in anyway possible if you were to start anything. It could be using my eight companion passes to help with airfare, coming to NYC to help your staff arrange travel plans, or just doing anything I could do from my home here in Delaware. I know there are numerous foundations helping people who are sick, but I think that a foundation like this would be great for those who have never been outside their hometown and I hope this does become reality. --John Luttrell, Wilmington, Del. My latest copy of Budget Travel arrived today. I so enjoyed your editorial comment. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a Foundation that helps more folks travel! I have had the good fortune to travel for the past twenty years. As with many travelers, the cost of trips is a big factor in my destination decisions. I learned to shop wisely and travel during off seasons. It was snowing in Florence the February I was there, but I WAS in Florence and the museum and sights were still there. Each trip I take, I bring home small items for the children in my life. I have brought home soccer team scarves, cricket balls from England, beads from New Orleans, and puka necklaces from Hawaii. My husband volunteers in a fourth grade class, so each child gets a postcard and/or other small items from my travels. I bring home flags of each country to share with the children. None of these things cost much, but they help show that the world is a different place. My constant message is that travel is something that everyone can achieve. Keep up the good work. --Jackie MacNeil

The View From Here Is Actually Pretty Nice

I wrote a real doozy of an editor's letter, and then I deleted it. It was a rant lamely disguised as wistfulness about what life would be like if we lived in a perfect world: More Americans would have passports (and use them); we'd be allowed to go wherever we want, without too much bureaucracy; the problems with airport security would get fixed, and not just for people who pay to join a Registered Traveler program; we'd take better care of the earth; and so on. I even managed to squeeze in some whining about how sunblock makes you shiny (as the photo makes clear). I ditched it because either you agree with me or you don't. If you do, great; if not, I probably wasn't going to change your mind. The last thing any of us need is more ranting, wistful or otherwise. All in all, most of us are pretty lucky. If you're like me, you usually forget how lucky you are--and occasionally you get reminded of it. A few months ago, I went downstairs to grab a cup of coffee in the afternoon, just as I usually do. "See you tomorrow," said the young woman behind the counter after I paid. "Nope," I said, deviating from our usual script. "I'm going out of town for a few days." "Take me with you!" she replied. I stammered some sort of response about how I was going to Iowa, and while I was excited about the trip, perhaps it wasn't the most glamorous destination on earth. "I've never gone anywhere," she said. Not long afterward, when Warren Buffett announced that he was giving much of his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I began daydreaming about starting the Budget Travel Foundation. (I was on a treadmill, and it was that or watch the cable news blowhards). Our foundation would send people who've never traveled to places (near and far) where they can interact with other cultures. Simply put, travel brings the world closer together, and what seem like insurmountable differences between countries--or faiths, or economic levels--become much less relevant when people meet face-to-face. It's happened to all of us, I'd wager: Our preconceived notions of a place--and in particular, its people--get blown to bits once we actually venture there. And in a perfect world, I hope we can agree, our preconceived notions would be the only thing getting blown to bits.

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