Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Another Amtrak Passenger Hassled by Authorities

A couple of posts back, I wrote about a businessman being rousted from his roomette on the California Zephyr by the Nebraska cops in Omaha. It was 5:00 in the morning and, after being questioned and his luggage searched, they departed with nary a word of explanation. I asked a friend of mine – a judge – about that and was told that the cops are generally given a lot of leeway when they have a reason for taking that kind of action. You can protest and refuse, of course, but run the risk of prolonging the hassle. How often does something like this happen? I dunno … but here comes the report of another incident that makes us wonder about what’s happening to our personal freedom.

Last year, a grad student holding both U.S. and French citizenships was heading back to New York on Amtrak's Adirondak following a visit to Montreal. The border patrol people came on board and when they got to this young man, they told him to turn on his laptop and enter his password so they could see what was on his hard drive. The story is a bit unclear, but I gather he objected and, for his trouble, was taken off the train, grilled for an hour, then finally released … but they kept his laptop. So why was he singled out? No idea, but the young man was angry – and who wouldn’t be? So he went to the ACLU and they filed suit on his behalf. If nothing else, he wanted his laptop back. He is, after all, a graduate student and presumably much of what was on the laptop had to do with his academic obligations.

But here’s the rub: Two weeks later, he flew to the UK and when he came back into this country was taken into a room and grilled by immigration people for over an hour. Clearly, he is now flagged in the government computers and he’s now convinced he’s a marked man, due to be hassled whenever he travels. Why? Because he didn’t think the government should be able to search his hard drive just for the asking.

We’re all aware of the threat of terrorism and we expect the cops to do their job effectively in preventing bad things from happening. But at what price? I have no idea what the answer is. If confronted by an incident like these, I guess each of us, as individuals, must decide where we personally are willing to draw the line – go along or refuse. Either way, it sucks.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Three More Memorable Travel Experiences

I think the one train ride I remember as being the most spectacular was the Bernina Express, which we took from Tirano in Northern Italy across the Alps to the Swiss town of Chur. It’s a narrow gauge train because of the steep grades and sharp curves. And the pace is leisurely, which is really perfect, because you certainly wouldn’t want to speed through all those mountain passes. The train windows are huge for optimum viewing and, as you would expect from the Swiss, they are sparkling clean.
On one of our two trips to Hungary, we witnessed one of the most amazing displays of horsemanship I’ve ever seen. It was on the pusta, the great Hungarian plain. The highlight of the demonstration occurred when one of the cowboys – the Hungarian word is csikós (pronounced CHEE-kawsh) – raced past us with a team of five horses at flat-out gallop – three in front, two in back – while standing on the backs of the two horses in the rear. He held the reins for all five horses in one hand, and was furiously cracking his bullwhip in the other. It was a very big WOW!

When on the subject of my more memorable travel experiences, I couldn’t possibly forget the spectacular train ride though the Copper Canyon in Mexico, which is, believe it or not, five times bigger and a thousand feet deeper than the Grand Canyon. The one moment I remember most vividly was stepping to the wooden railing at the rim – this was in the town of Divisidero – and gazing into the canyon and seeing buzzards circling lazily far below me.

Years ago, way back in Connecticut, I worked with a woman who saw no need to travel. In fact, she told me – rather smugly, I thought – that she had never been farther north than Boston or farther south than New Haven. I thought that was amusing at the time. Now, thinking about her again after all these years, I realize how sad it was.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Holding On to the Real Hawaii for Dear Life ... Mother Nature Permitting

Those of us who have lived in Hawaii for more than a few years -- for me, it will be 50 years in May of next year -- can’t help bemoaning the relentless over-glamorizing of so many of the hotels here. As the renovations have added marble in the bathrooms and modern statuary and triple-tiered swimming pools, fewer and fewer of these posh resorts bear any resemblance to the wonderful, simple, real Hawaii we old timers remember so fondly. Happily, there are still some of the classic, traditional hotels around.

The grande dame of these classic hotels is the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach, affectionately known to all of us as “the Pink Palace". Some years back, some numbskull at Sheraton corporate headquarters said that maybe it was time to do away with the traditional pink color of the Royal. Big mistake! The resulting screams of outrage brought an abrupt halt to that heretical notion.

Another is the Moana Hotel, also in Waikiki, which came damn close to being torn down 15 or 20 years ago. Thankfully, it was not only renovated, but beautifully and lovingly restored to its original grandeur using the original architectural drawings from back in the 1920s … and at considerable expense, too. (Worth every penny!)

Here on Maui, sitting smack on Napili Beach, is the simple, two-story Mauian Hotel. The rooms are modern and attractive, but step into the middle of their central courtyard and you’ll think you’re back in the 60s, which is a delicious warm, comfortable feeling. Trust me: you can spend hours sitting on that incomparable beach just staring at Moloka’i across the channel. Their rates, by the way, are about a third what you’ll have to pay at one of those faux-ritzy places.

Then there’s the wonderful, incomparable Kona Village Resort on the Big Island. More than a hundred thatch-roof bungalows scattered over the lush grounds. Guests wishing privacy had only to place a coconut in front of their door … and the only television set available was in the bar. At any given time, more than half the guests were repeat visitors.

But here's the thing: two weeks ago, the tsunami generated by the earthquake in Japan pretty much wrecked the place. More than 20 of the bungalows were swept off their foundations and there was great deal of other damage. Many of the employees had been at the Kona Village for 20 or 30 years, but all 200 have been laid off. We dread the thought, but it is possible that this wonderful treasure of a place might be gone for good. We dread even more imagining what might be built in its place. When and if that happens, more than a few tears will be shed.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Latest Edition of “All Aboard” is Now Available

If I may be permitted a bit of self-promotion, the 3rd edition of my book, All Aboard-The Complete North American Train Travel Guide, is now in bookstores and available from on-line outlets such as Amazon.

My original publisher was acquired by Random House and for years they dithered before finally deciding they were too big to bother with a new edition of this book. They returned the publication rights to me and my super agent, Janet Rosen, soon found the good folks – the very good folks – at Chicago Review Press.

There was a 13-year gap between the 2nd and 3rd editions and, as you can imagine, that meant a great deal up updating to do and a lot of changes to be made. We also added new illustrations and lots of new photos.

Here’s an excerpt from a very generous review by author/reviewer Henry Kisor that ran in, the premier rail oriented site on the internet:

“Quite a few guidebooks to train travel in the Americas jostle for the reader's attention, but these days the freshest, most comprehensive and, frankly, the best is the brand-new third edition of Jim Loomis' All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide. In clear and lively prose he takes in hand his readers... through the practical ins and outs of booking a trip on the national railroad. His bread and butter is plenty of brass-tacks information about planning the details of the trip, such as deciding upon accommodations, packing, dress, etiquette and tipping.”

Note, please, that while the book includes descriptions of the various routes offered by Amtrak in the U.S. and VIA Rail in Canada, it does not provide the typical mile-by-mile route guides. For one thing, both railroads provide detailed route guides for most of their trains. For another, there are too many other, more interesting things to discuss when it comes to train travel. Off and on over the coming weeks, I’ll reproduce some excerpts from the book here … how train travel developed, the transcontinental railroads in the U.S. and Canada, how trains and railroads work, and the future of rail travel in the U.S., plus how to book train travel and what to expect once you’re actually under way.

I find the whole business of rail travel fascinating and I wrote about all those things that interest me. If you’re at all into trains and train travel, I really do think you’ll like this book and I would very much appreciate any comments or suggestions for a possible 4th edition.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Comes a Knock on the Door in the Wee Hours

Ten days ago, at just after 5:00 in the morning, the California Zephyr was stopped at Omaha, Nebraska, on its daily run from the Bay Area to Chicago. Businessman Greg Travis, sound asleep in his roomette, was suddenly awakened by a knock on his compartment door. Groggy and still half asleep, Travis opened the door to be confronted by a Nebraska State trooper demanding to know who he was, where he was going and where he had been. Then, with Travis’ permission, his luggage was searched. Two or three other passengers on the same corridor were being similarly questioned.

After the fact, once the Zephyr was underway again, Travis had second thoughts about the experience. In fact, he was quite thoroughly pissed. “If I had my wits about me,” he later told a reporter for an Omaha TV station, “I might have said, ‘No, I don’t want you looking through my dirty underwear.’”

I confess I don’t know what I would have said or done under those circumstances. But since the police offered no explanation and had no search warrant, I hope I would have had the presence of mind to tell that cop to f--- off! Of course, I have no idea what might have happened next.

There have been similar stories from passengers traveling on the Lake Shore Limited which runs close to, but does not cross, the Canadian border … immigration officials boarding the train in the middle of the night and demanding to see IDs from some of the passengers.

Am I completely off base in thinking these incidents are outrageous? What the hell is going on here?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Red Sox Nation - Citizenship Crossing All Borders

Wear a Boston Red Sox cap or T-shirt almost anywhere -- and I mean literally anywhere in the world -- and you will get a nod or a grin or a handshake or even a spontaneous conversation from others who share the same passion for that baseball team. I have long since stopped being surprised when it happens.

Before taking the glorious trans-continental train ride across Australia on the Indian Pacific, I had three days to kill in Sydney and wore my Red Sox cap as I strolled around the city. Three times I was greeted with a cheery “Go Sox” from other sightseers - fellow citizens of Red Sox Nation. (Oh, yeah … and once by a muttered “Red Sox suck!” from a passing cretin, clearly a New York Yankee fan.)

Then there was the time in the lounge car of Amtrak’s Southwest Chief when I was approached by a 30ish Japanese doctor who had spotted the distinctive red B on my cap. He was returning to Japan after two years of residency at a Boston hospital where he had been studying the newest techniques in organ transplants. During his time in Boston, he had become a rabid and very knowledgeable Red Sox fan. We ended up having dinner together that night in the dining car.

A year ago, I had taken some visiting relatives to the top of Haleakala, the 10,000-foot dormant volcano here on Maui. We were all gazing down into the crater when I noticed that a middle-aged man standing near me was also sporting a Sox cap. He had already spotted me and of course we struck up a conversation. It turned out we had both graduated from the same boys’ school back in Connecticut. Go figure!

But the weirdest experience so far occurred a dozen or so years ago in the town of Pecs in the south of Hungary. My wife and I were on our way to visit the town’s weekly outdoor market and came across a battered old Skoda – the eastern bloc equivalent to a VW beetle – parked on a side street. A huge decal almost filling the entire rear window read:


I hung around for a while, hoping the owner would show up. He never did, but all these years later, I wish I had waited longer.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Every Tsunami Generates a Tidal Wave of Morons

As everyone knows, the first sign of an approaching tsunami is when water recedes, exposing the sea bottom or reefs. That was the case here on Maui, minutes before the tsunami that was generated by the earthquakes in Japan reached our shores. And, as always when there’s a tsunami alert, a lot of idiots came out of the woodwork. Most are surfers –- hotshot visitors, not the locals, I hasten to note -– who grab their boards when the sirens go off and head for the beach.

Maui News photo

Then there are the mega-morons like this bozo, who take their little cell phone cameras and actually walk out from shore to be sure they get a good view of whatever is happening. The problem, of course, is that someone could end up risking his life trying to save one of these meatheads.

There was indeed a surge shortly after this photo was taken, and it went well up and over that sea wall and road in the background. However, since there were no deaths reported here, this guy evidently managed to get back to high ground all right. Dumb luck. Very dumb.

Friday, March 11, 2011

It's Time to Think About Our Priorities

Update: This photo was taken on April 1, 1946, when a tsunami generated from an earthquake in the Aleutians struck the town of Hilo on the Island of Hawaii and killed 159 people.
Apropos of today’s events, and coming from the perspective of someone who has gone through a number of tsunami events over the past 50 years, I trust you will understand if I reproduce, without further comment, the following news item:

WASHINGTON » A spending plan approved by the House would slash funding for a tsunami warning center that issued an alarm after the devastating earthquake in Japan.

The plan approved by the GOP-controlled House last month would trigger deep cuts for the National Weather Service, including the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii.

A union representing workers at the tsunami center said the proposed cuts could result in furloughs and rolling closures of National Weather Service offices.

Barry Hirshorn, Pacific region chairman of the National Weather Service Employees Organization, said the GOP bill would affect the center's ability to issue warnings similar to those issued after Thursday's earthquake in Japan.

Democratic Rep. Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii called the GOP cuts reckless and even dangerous.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Some Unforgettable Travel Experiences

I was exchanging emails the other day with a friend and the subject was unforgettable travel experiences. Whether we travel a lot and visit exotic destinations, or less often and stay close to home, we all have had travel experiences that are truly unforgettable. Here are three that I remember vividly.

The Grand Canyon is truly grand … and if you think it’s impressive during the day, just wait until you’re standing at the rim as the sun is going down!

Seeing polar bears close up from the outside platform of a tundra buggy near Churchill, Manitoba, on the shores of Hudson Bay. Two minutes earlier, I had heard the guy driving our buggy say that these bears are one of just two mammals in the world that will cunningly stalk and kill a human being. (The other is man.)
Waking up on my first morning in Tahiti, going to the window and opening the curtains, and seeing the island of Moorea in the distance across Matavai Bay. It literally took my breath away.

In some future posts, I’ll come up with more of my experiences and see if I can’t find some of the photos I took on those occasions.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Amtrak, High-Speed Rail, and Pols Still Don't Get It.

Looking sharp! Amtrak has unveiled a new color scheme for their locomotives, reverting to an up-dated version of the red-white-and-blue striping that was used a number of years back. Handsome, isn’t it! I don't know about you, but I will never stop feeling a thrill when one of those wonderful machines rumbles into a station ... especially when it's about to take me somewhere.

If you build it (and run them), people will come. One of Amtrak’s biggest success stories is their Cascades service, running between Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington, with twice daily service on up to Vancouver, BC … a 10 percent increase.

It’s astonishing to me that the anti-rail people continue to say that no one wants more and better trains. Once again, Amtrak has announced another increase in ridership: almost 29 million passengers in their most recent fiscal year.

And, on that same subject, I chafe whenever I see that the anti-rail people cite as their source someone from the Cato Institute. This is a Libertarian “think tank” which invariably offers knee-jerk opposition to any new initiative by government, no matter how necessary or sensible. That is, after all, the essence of their ideology.

People really do want high-speed rail! A new poll on the subject of passenger rail – and specifically high-speed rail -- has produced some surprising results: most Americans have only a foggy understanding of high-speed trains. And why should they? Only 30 percent of us even own a passport and most Americans have never, ever ventured beyond our own borders, even to Mexico or Canada. That means that a very small fraction has ever had the chance to experience high-speed trains. But here's what's so interesting: despite those seemingly discouraging numbers, the poll reveals that a very solid majority of U.S. citizens are in favor of more and better and faster trains. Whaddaya know! There is hope after all!
Words from the wise. And here’s a great on-point quote from William Withuhn of the Smithsonian: "America doesn't get rail transportation. The politicians don't understand trains because most have never ridden one. The press is all caught up in Amtrak not making a profit as if that's somehow remarkable. Roads and airports don't make money either...In the meantime, other countries--lots of them now--have moved ahead and built these sleek, efficient and awesome machines. They get rail, but we don't."

Here's an idea: Let's make all the anti-rail politicians actually ride some trains ... first on the French TGV, then on Amtrak. At the very least, it'll make them think twice before they start blathering about how we're so much smarter than everyone else.