Archive | May, 2010

Railed

27 May

Matt B. Simon

For years air travel was a romantic venture. It was new and wild and dripping with heroes. The inherent strangeness, the realization that we as humans have no business flying, was for a short while part of the gratifying consciousness of travel. (The same principle applies to bungee jumping. Once you’re plummeting you remember how unnatural the act is, even if you’re confident of the rope tied around your ankles.)

Then we got comfortable. Air travel morphed from a frontier into a cut-throat business, and sanitization ensued. Today, both the airlines and their passengers seem to wallow in defeatism. It’s to the point where even having a window seat has lost its value.

Train travel, which today exists with much of its original romanticism, avoided the type of rigid regulation that zombified the airlines. There aren’t any more hold-ups or acrobatics on the tops of cars, to be sure, but trains still hold that sense of human accomplishment, the pride that we can build such powerful machines. The same could be said for jets, but their inaccessibility – you’re either in them or nowhere near them – seems to paint the beasts with a tint of elitism.

Contrariwise, trains are the people’s machines. We’re invested. Americans laid the tracks and dynamited the tunnels. Good people were forced off their land by conscienceless railroad barons, and at least a few of those exiles took their revenge by hoboing on the lines, secretly hopping trains to migrate between seasonal farming regions. American artists have since taken control of freight cars as a medium, painting their monikers, tags, and full-blown compositions. It’s rolling art on a truly national scale.

Trains are as much about classic, massive industry as they are about awe, convenience, and infatuation (compare the myriad train magazines to air travel’s best offering: Sky Mall). And as oil prices inevitably climb, expect to see a new era of investment in American railroads, both for freight and passengers. Railroad addicts will reap the rewards of a resurging industry while air travelers surrender their shoes to the TSA.

In Kansas City, think barbecue – Bryant’s Barbeque!

26 May

By Jim Bell

When wife Susan and I travel, we are on the lookout for great places to eat. When in Kansas City, we know where to go: Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque at 18th Street and Brooklyn Avenue.

If we are flying, we usually head directly to Bryant’s from Mid-Continent International Airport. (It’s half an hour’s drive: take I-29 south to I-70, head east on I-70 to the Brooklyn exit and travel south to the restaurant).

Writer Calvin Trillin called Bryant’s “the best restaurant in the world” in the New Yorker in 1974. When you step through the front door, the aroma sends a strong signal: this is the place!

Bryant’s offers generous portions of ribs, chicken, pork, beef and combination dishes. It has wonderful fries and serves ice-cold micro-brewed beer. Order your meal at the counter in the back of the restaurant. Watch for a look inside the oven as an attendant retrieves a slab of succulent barbecue.

Then, as Kansas City native Trillin described it in a Playboy article, “the counterman tosses a couple of pieces of bread onto the counter, grabs a half pound of beef . . , slaps it onto the bread, brushes on some sauce in almost the same motion.”

Now a VodoModo writer, I first tasted Bryant’s fare in the 1960s when I worked at the Kansas City Star. The restaurant has changed little since. I later worked at the Los Angeles Times. A Times colleagues – also a Star alum – once flew Bryant’s fare to L.A. for a party.

There are 100 barbecue restaurants in Kansas City, which calls itself the nation’s barbecue capital. Bryant’s is a direct descendent of the town’s first ribs joint. Henry Perry immigrated from Tennessee and began serving barbecue in 1908. When he died in 1940, a man named Charlie Bryant took charge. Arthur Bryant took over from his brother in 1946.

Arthur died in 1982 (in a bed in the back of the restaurant) but his place continues to prosper. It has served presidents, famous athletes and common folk alike. It remains humble and unpretentious, however, with formica tables, paper napkins – and the best barbecue anywhere.

New video blog

26 May

A bad day like no other

15 May

By Nancy Steiner

Talk about the worst first week on the job ever… In my research for a VodoModo script on the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, I discovered a man who may just be able to claim that distinction.

Lieutenant Kermit Tyler started an assignment at the information office in Honolulu on December 6th, 1941, just one day before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

A friend had told Tyler that a Honolulu radio station that normally didn’t broadcast at night would remain on the air if Army Air Force B-17 bombers were flying in from the mainland — the signal helped them stay on course. Tyler heard music on his car radio on his way over, and knew that bombers were scheduled to arrive that day.

So when he was told of unidentified planes heading towards Oahu, he figured it was the returning B-17s.

His response to the radar station: “Don’t worry about it.”

Unfortunately, they were not American planes but Japanese bombers en route to Pearl Harbor.

Forty minutes after Tyler got the message, Japanese aircraft bombarded the United States’ Pacific Fleet with bombs and torpedoes. Almost 2400 Americans lost their lives in the attack.

An investigation by a Navy Court of Inquiry determined that Taylor had received little or no training, lacked supervision, and had no staff to work with. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, and went on to have a distinguished Air Force career that included commanding fighter units in the Pacific during the war. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1961.

But for Tyler, the words “Don’t worry about it” would live in infamy for the rest of his life.

Traveling on the Strange Wings of Total Trust: All Hail the Era of Couchsurfing

13 May

Matt B. Simon

In September of 2008 a friend and I arrived by train in Tucson, Arizona. Waiting at the station was a woman we had never met before. We shook hands, piled into her car, and drove to her apartment. She showed us the couches to sleep on and said goodnight.

Technically, we had met. My friend and I found her on a worldwide social network called Couchsurfing, a rapidly expanding website that today claims more than a million members. The principle, however weird to those whose mothers warned us not to trust strangers, is simple: people announce the availability of their couches and travelers accept the offers.

What you get is a free place to stay. And the experiences therein, according to the site’s statistical review of host-surfer feedback, are positive 99.63% of the time. Hotels can boast no such rate. Nor does a hotel come with a built-in tour guide, someone to lead you home when you’ve had far too much to drink. You could ask the bellboy to come along, but management would probably throw you out on general principle.

To say you’ll have great experiences and meet wonderful people, on top of being trite, is to simplify the matter. What you’re actually doing is changing the idea of travel to include a level of faith most people find bizarre. We’re told not to trust those we don’t know, and we’re especially not to trust foreigners. To a brave new league of travelers, the Chinese aren’t godless communists, Americans aren’t zombified cowboys, and the French don’t just don berets and lie around, eating baguettes and smoking cigarettes. I’ve met French people who don’t smoke at all.

If you consider yourself cosmopolitan and can fit on a couch, become a couchsurfer, so that we might for once use the Internet to bring people into actual physical contact. Hell, even if you’re too big for the couch, there’s always the floor.

Off the Deep End

12 May

By Eric Shipley

I can’t claim to be tremendously well-traveled, but I have taken a few trips. Most notably, my wife, Charlotte, and I were able to make an exodus to Egypt in 2005. This was the first time either of us had been outside North America. And while it was a fantastic trip, let me offer a piece of advice to anyone contemplating visiting another continent for the first time: DO NOT choose a country where (simultaneously) you are in the minority, the language bears no resemblance whatsoever to your native language, and the culture is drastically different. It is nerve-wracking. I’m sure it would’ve been different if this had been oh, say, our tenth overseas trip. But it wasn’t, so our introduction to this kind of travel was of the sink-or-swim variety. (Which is an odd metaphor, I suppose, given that we went to a country that is mostly desert.) One other thing—get your passports early. We underestimated how long it would take and ended up paying extra to have them expedited.

But I clearly remember that underlying all the stress was tremendous excitement about getting to go to one of the countries I’ve wanted to see since I was very young. I’ve always been fascinated by ancient history, so Egypt has been at or near the top of my “Places to Visit” list for as long as I’ve had one. Luckily, some good friends went to Cairo to teach for a year and issued a blanket invitation to play host to anyone who could make the trip. How could we pass up an opportunity like that? We couldn’t, of course, so we decided it was time to actually do some of the traveling we’d talked about for so long.

Preparations began in earnest. We started getting travel clothes and other accoutrements, and we worked on learning some basic words and phrases in Arabic. The departure date crept closer and closer, and we were feeling good about things. Then, about a week before our flight was to leave, the nightly news announced that there had been a suicide attack at Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili market that killed 21 people, including an American tourist. This was perhaps the first sign that we were diving off the deep end.

The next sign came when we discovered just how much 9-11 had changed travel, particularly overseas to a Middle Eastern country. When the bombing at Khan el-Khalili happened, we decided that instead of a trip to Egypt, we’d take a trip to Italy (another destination at the top of the “Places to Visit” list). And it worked out nicely because our itinerary was to fly from Chicago to Milan, and then from Milan to Cairo. So we figured we wouldn’t use the tickets to Cairo—we’d just stop in Milan and tour Italy. Easy, right? Well, not so much. We quickly discovered that our airline (I don’t recall which one) was (and no doubt still is) very touchy about unplanned changes. Apparently, this is a tactic terrorists use. Unfortunately, it’s also a tactic innocent travelers use to avoid dangerous situations. The airline refused to take this into account, though, and informed us that if we didn’t take our connecting flight into Cairo, they’d cancel our return tickets. This left us faced with the choice of going through with our Egypt plans or losing the money we’d spent on plane tickets and other preparations.

Luckily, our friends in Egypt (Lee and his wife Faith) assured us that conditions were actually safer immediately after the bombing than before because the Egyptian military had tightened security to very high level. We didn’t fully understand at that point, but Egypt’s economy is supported primarily by tourism, so they take protecting tourists very seriously. (More about this later.) So after some deep breathing exercises, and a few calls to reassure parents, we decided to stick to the original plan.

There’s more to tell (much more, in fact), but I’ve got a day job too. So stay tuned if you’re interested in the rest of the story. I’ll be back…

Can you guess what the most photographed building in Miami Beach is?

5 May

In August 2000, Donatella Versace put the Versace Mansion on the market for $25 million. It was rumored that rap star Puff Daddy bought it for his first love, Jennifer Lopez, but J-Lo decided not to hook back up with puffy. The current owner, Peter Loftin, a North Carolina-based telecommunications baron, bought the house for $19 million “just to party in.” He soon renovated it, and now it’s a five-star private-invitation-only club, the setting for posh parties and gatherings. Members pay $40,000 to join plus $3,600 annually. To stay in one of the 10 rooms for a night puts a $5,000 dent in your wallet.