Articles by Tom Downey|
"Made Better in Japan"
January 27, 2012
"The Beau Brummels of Brazzaville"
September 29, 2011
"Brazil's Modern Remix"
"Barcelona's Local Catch"
The New York Times Magazine
March 7, 2010
"Kyoto's National Treasures"
Town & Country Travel
"The Case of the Stolen Starter: A Neapolitan Mystery"
Conde Nast Traveler
"A Manhattan in Tokyo"
"Yemen's Exotic Secrets"
The New York Times
December 30, 2007
"Exploring the Untamed Rivers and Remote Baobab Forests of Madagascar"
"In Japan, a Time Capsule of Modern Design"
The New York Times
September 24, 2006
"The Case of the Missing Angulas"
Conde Nast Traveler
"Wild Islands of Cape Verde"
"Check In, Check Out: Barcelona"
The New York Times
March 19, 2006
"The Insurgent's Tale"
December 15, 2005
**"The Insurgent's Tale" has been selected for the "Best American Nonrequired Reading" Anthology**
"Sleepless in Rangoon"
November 22, 2005
"A Two-Day Tour of Tokyo"
The New York Times
September 11, 2005
"Into the Oasis"
September 9, 2005
"War and Its Aftermath"
September 8, 2005
"Eritrea Then and Now"
September 7, 2005
"The Road Not Taken"
Princeton Alumni Weekly
September 15, 2004
"Hazing and Heroism"
The New York Times
January 9, 2004
"A Voice From the Rubble"
The New York Times Magazine
September 23, 2001
"On the Edge"
The New York Times Magazine
July 15, 2001
Articles (in chronological order):
WSJ. Magazine, January 27, 2012
Made Better in Japan
By Tom Downey
Photos by Tung Walsh
Link to original story
WSJ. Magazine, September 29, 2011
The Beau Brummels of Brazzaville
By Tom Downey
Photos by Jackie Nickerson
Link to original story
Afar Magazine, January/February, 2011
Brazil's Modern Remix:How do you make sense of diverse, dizzying são Paulo? Talk to the people who make the sushi, spray the graffiti, and build the giant watermelons.
By Tom Downey
Photos by Joao Canziani
Link to original story
At the bar counter of Kinoshita, I hear cries of "Irashaimasen" ("Welcome," in Japanese) from the kimono-clad hostess who greets customers at the sliding wooden door. The sushi men in front of me, all Japanese in appearance, slice colorful strips of fresh fish, press them into rectangles of rice, and lay them before eager diners. Everything around me tells me I am in Japan, but as soon as the chef, Tsuyoshi Murakami, appears with my next dish, the illusion is shattered. At rest, Murakami might look Japanese, but when he shakes his body like he is dancing the samba, gesticulates to mimic chopping off a fish head, and works himself into a lather over the most minute details of his cuisine, I am reminded I am not in Japan but Brazil. Sao Paulo, to be exact.
Though each piece of evidence is subtle, in total they are overwhelming. The sushi men whisper to each other in hushed Portuguese. Diners start their meal with a caipirinha. And if you look closely you can see the Brazilian inflections in Kinoshita's otherwise very Japanese cuisine: a freshwater oyster you cannot find in Japan; a local momotaro tomato that tastes different from its Japanese counterpart; a composition of unagi (eel), foie gras, and crunchy green apple that you would never taste in Japan--or anywhere but Kinoshita.
As I bite into that unagi dish, Murakami expounds on the differences between Japan and Brazil. "Many chefs in Japan have small hearts," he says, pounding his chest with his fist. Then, reaching below the counter, between his legs: "And small balls. They don't want to share. They don't want to open up. Things are different here. I didn't have to spend 10 years sweeping the floor before I got to touch a grain of rice. I've been able to experiment with the foods, fruits, and tastes we have in Brazil."
Afar Magazine, January/February, 2011
Barcelona's Local Catch:In the city's once gritty fishermen's quarter, a group of activist chefs is reviving--and reinventing--traditional cuisine.
By Tom Downey
Photos by Trujillopaumier
Link to Afar Magazine
At the marble bar of La Cova Fumada in Barceloneta I’m waiting for a fisherman to come and show me his shellfish, cooked here every day. I could just sip a drink and twiddle my thumbs, but why do that, when before me stand mountains of bombas (potato balls), tiers of calamares a la romana (squid, breaded then deep-fried), layers of crisp golden artichokes, and buckets of glistening allioli (Catalán-style eggless garlic mayonnaise)? The barman, Magí Solé, siphons me off a chilled red wine from what looks like a 19th-century chemistry set. I’ll take a couple of bombas, I tell him.
Barceloneta’s narrow streets once housed poor sailors who worked on ships in the adjoining port and laborers who toiled in factories that fouled this seaside neighborhood of Barcelona. Short-line trains shuttled supplies from the piers to the assembly lines and took the finished goods back. As late as the 1980s, the waterfront was a polluted, congested, fenced- off commercial dockland, the gray beach crowded with a shantytown of xiringuitos, beachside drinking shacks. Now Barceloneta is the starting point for a seven-mile stretch of imported golden sand and home to a newly built W Hotel where models and the men who love them dip their toes into an infinity pool and peer over martinis at the quaint old neighborhood. Cramped apartments that were once shared among four fishermen’s families now shelter lone bachelors who commute to the cosmopolitan center across the Ronda del Litoral, the auto bypass built to ease traffic for the 1992 Olympics. La Cova Fumada is one of the few places where the old and the new Barcelonetas converge: Hipster arrivistes sample expensive prawns next to longtime locals biting into Magí’s bombas.
I’ve ordered drinks from Magí for years, and the guy’s never been a talker. But when I ask him about the potato balls he’s downright effusive. “There are only five people in the world who know how to make the bomba,” Magí says. “Me, my mother, my father, my brother, and one notario [a Spanish notary public, who functions like an estate attorney].”
I bite into a bomba bathed in milky allioli and topped with a button of bright red hot sauce, then take the bait: “All right, why the notario?”
“If—and only if—my mother, father, brother, and I are all struck dead at the same moment,” Magí says, smiling, “the notario has been instructed to share the recipe with our next of kin.”
The New York Times Magazine, March 7, 2010
China's Cyberposse: Are China's "human flesh search engines" about justice--or revenge?
By Tom Downey
Illustrations by Leo Jung
Link to original story
Town & Country Travel, Summer 2008
Kyoto's National Treasures: Japanese crafts are evolving from traditional pieces to modern art
By Tom Downey
Photos by Anson Smart
Link to original story
In a small studio in the foothills of northeast Kyoto, Shotei Ibata, master calligrapher, picks up a giant paintbrush half his height. Ibata is a reed-thin man pushing seventy-four, but, wielding the horsehair brush like a saber, he seems to grow younger, taller and more powerful by the minute. Pausing for a moment of meditation, Ibata stands before his canvas, an enormous sheet of thick, rough washi paper that covers the floor, then dips the brush into a bucket of deep black sumi ink.
Steve Beimel, an expert on Japanese arts and crafts who has led me to Ibata's studio, whispers, "This kind of artwork is like exposing your heart to the world. Calligraphy experts can read the soul of a person in his brushstroke." Ibata removes his brush from the ink, then, in a set of swift, complex motions that are more like dance steps than strokes, he drags the wet brush across the fibers, forming an ideogram that means "cloud." The painting is completed in these few seconds of supremely focused and creative motion. The sumi is so concentrated that it won't run, even when the canvas is submerged in water to be mounted. To balance his composition, Ibata selects an empty space and stamps it with a small red character, his personal seal.
Ibata's predecessors hardly thought of themselves as artists; they were artisans working for hire, producing calligraphy to decorate teahouses, temples and stately homes. But after World War II, once he'd viewed modern art and imagined a life outside the constraints of his craft, Ibata conceived a performance that dramatized what he did with his brush, ink and paper. In 1969, when he began to travel the world and create his paintings as performance art, other calligraphers in Japan were caustic in their criticism: this wasn't what Japanese calligraphy was supposed to be. Even today, few artists practicing traditional Japanese disciplines dare move beyond the exacting confines of their specialties. But those who do are some of the most interesting figures in the country, and the people I want to meet.
Most foreigners come to this city in search of a mythical Japanese past: a sighting of a geisha clicking down an alleyway in wooden shoes; a bite of a kaiseki meal cooked the same way it has been for centuries; a soak in a warm bath at a ryokan (inn). Since A.D. 794, when it became Japan's capital — a reign that would last more than a thousand years — Kyoto has served as the guardian of time-honored Japanese customs. This is the birthplace of the tea ceremony and its related crafts, headquarters of the creators of the country's finest kimonos and home to people who take age-old practices seriously, so it makes sense that visitors expect to find a city untainted by modernity.
But I'm here for something different. I've spent a long time in Japan exploring the periphery of its culture, from the cutting-edge architecture in Kyushu to the American-style cocktail bars of Osaka. In my relentless search for the new and unexpected, it has become obvious to me that in Kyoto a quiet revolution is under way. Led by Ibata and other traditional craftsmen, artists trained in the finest, and strictest, customs are taking their art forms in startling, impressive and wonderful new directions while maintaining the quality and integrity of the old ways. Here the past isn't a limitation; it's an inspiration. So on this visit to Kyoto, I'll seek out artists like Ibata, as well as kettle makers, kimono dyers and even chefs, who are redefining what craftsmanship means in modern-day Japan.
After downing a cup of tea and a rice cracker that Ibata's wife serves me, I bicycle along the quiet streets on the east side of the Kamo River, which bisects Kyoto. In this low-rise area, ancient wooden structures housing restaurants, tea shops and inns surround cobblestoned streets and hundreds of temples large and small. A few minutes east of the river, streets give way to little streams, tracts of green forest and steep mountains, and Kyoto comes to an abrupt end. Cycling along these paths after the tourists have gone back to their hotels, when only a few lanterns illuminate the darkening alleyways, I can imagine that this is the real Kyoto: pristine, tranquil and locked forever in a magical past.
But then I pedal west across a bridge spanning the Kamo into another cityscape altogether: hulking high-rises, an eyesore of an observation tower and tangles of aboveground electrical wires. As I ride north along the swiftly flowing river — new Kyoto on one side, old Kyoto on the other — hopeful buskers, young goths and kimono-clad grandparents playing with small children watch the sun set from the riverbank. It's hard to imagine how one city can merge so many disparate worlds.
The next morning, I open my window wide to breathe in the air from a garden at the rear of my hotel. I'm staying at the Hyatt Regency, in southeast Kyoto, not just because it's the best full-service hotel in town but also because it represents the Kyoto I'm seeking. Tucked between two huge temple complexes and behind a wall of bamboo, the building was once a smoke-stained business hotel, but two years ago it was gutted and rebuilt under the guidance of Japanese design wunderkinds SuperPotato. The lobby glows with warm light from standing paper lanterns. The ceiling and walls are made of open-worked aluminum frames that play on traditional designs. And the grounds of the hotel now meld seamlessly with the temple gardens that flank it. This is ancient Kyoto reflected in the most contemporary of architecture.
A few visitors climb into a Ferrari parked in front, but I hop back onto my bike and head out to meet Steve Beimel at Somushi, a modern teahouse in the city center. A thick wall of plants encircles the entryway; sunlight filters in through layers of textiles dyed orange and brown with persimmon juice. We remove our shoes, of course, and step up a few feet onto the comforting leather of the teahouse floor. We sit at the counter and drink a sweet herbal brew from rough-hewn ocher cups that feel like stone freshly dug out of the earth.
For fifteen years Beimel has been bringing institutions and foreigners interested in the arts to Japan; he recently moved to Kyoto and now works only with individual travelers. Beimel's aim is not to lead these patrons to museums and lecture them about art; he wants them to see artists at work in their studios and to understand how these practitioners fit into a larger, vital Kyoto community of craftsmen, suppliers and tea-ceremony devotees.
When I finish my tea, Beimel asks me if he can examine my cup. "Yours is different from mine," he says. "In Japan they're usually not a matched set." Though he has been an authority on Japanese crafts for a quarter century, the rigorous tea-ceremony studies Beimel began two years ago at the renowned Daitokuji Institute have helped him see the profound link between the culture of tea and the crafts of Kyoto. "The 'way of tea'" — the proper Japanese term for the tea ceremony — "is really about cultivating your sense of wonder," he says. "It's taught me that to touch and use beautiful things is one of the great joys in life."
In search of those beautiful things, I go to meet Seiwemon Onishi, the current master of the famed House of Onishi, maker of Japan's most exceptional teakettles. I expect a kimono-clad old workman, but Onishi is in his mid-forties, with a shaved head and wearing tight black jeans. At seventeen he went to art school to learn to sculpt, then returned home to study the work of his ancestors. At a glance he can identify which of the sixteen generations of Onishi artisans designed and produced a given iron kettle. His is a dying breed: on this street in central Kyoto, dozens of kettle makers once turned out their wares (the street is, in fact, called Kamanza, which means "kettle district"). Now he is one of the last on the block.
Everything in the studio is done by hand. In the same way that a contemporary artist may intentionally mar a painting by scratching the canvas, Onishi aims to show that imperfection is a kind of beauty; he leaves deep cracks at the tops of his kettles and marks that scar their surfaces. He has been crafting some of these kettles for more than two decades: that's not twenty years of work on one design, that's twenty years on one kettle. Even a simple Onishi piece can take three months to manufacture and costs about $25,000. Each mold is used once and then destroyed. "I design kettles to be loved hundreds of years from now," Onishi tells me. "It takes that long for a work to become appreciated and really interesting."
At the end of a day spent sipping frothy green matcha tea and seeing the craftsmanship behind a seemingly simple kettle, I'm ready for a taste of something stronger. So I ask some Kyoto friends for a tip on a cocktail bar, a conversation that leads me to a dramatically lit boîte called Setsugekka. It's behind a small door on Sanjo Street, down a twisted hallway, one floor belowground, a place I never would have found on my own. In Japan the most sought-after spaces are private and inward-looking, designed to be hard to find.
Usually in a bar, my eyes are immediately drawn to the cocktail list, but here I stare at the walls, which are made of roughly textured, carefully patterned washi fibers and backlit so the patrons seem to float in a phosphorescent sea. As the bartender mixes my manhattan, he explains that the walls were constructed by one of Kyoto's hottest contemporary artists, Eriko Horiki. Horiki single-handedly revitalized the ancient art of washi, and now the works of Eriko Horiki and Associates hang not just in this stylish bar but also at Narita airport's new terminal and at some of Japan's most important sites for modern architecture.
At a recommended (and, again, somewhat secret) restaurant near the Pontocho neighborhood, noted for its eateries and nightlife, I could easily believe I'm in another artist's studio. Giro Giro's kitchen is ringed by diners on three sides; the fourth side is a floor-to-ceiling window fronting a small tree-lined canal. The food takes the kaiseki concept to radical new heights: goya, a bitter gourd grown in Okinawa, flavors tofu; a local river fish is fried in front of me, then dipped in tartar sauce made with okra and mayonnaise.
Truth be told, much as I like the tradition and serenity of an old-fashioned kaiseki restaurant, I'd rather eat at Giro Giro, which transforms the same ingredients into something singular and unexpected and serves it in a space designed not just for somber appreciation but also, dare I say, for fun. It's a world apart from the tatami mats and low seating of typical kaiseki places, the kind I've eaten in countless times.
On my last day in Kyoto, I meet Beimel to visit a couple of the spots he loves most. Inside the home and studio of dye artist Shihoko Fukumoto, row after row of brilliant blue swaths of fabric hang from the ceiling and sway in the breeze that blows in from her tiny backyard garden. Fukumoto shows me the vats of natural dye she produces by composting indigo leaves and mixing them with ash; she lets the vats ferment for varying lengths of time to extract the shades she needs. Unlike many other dye artists, Fukumoto specializes in just one color and its infinite variations: through careful control of her indigo supply, she extends the range of the dye from light blue to deep purple.
Fukumoto works with fabric from several sources, including hand-spun bark and vines and a kimono-like farmer's coat that's been made in northern Japan for a thousand years from pieces of recycled cloth. She takes these garments apart along the seams, careful never to cut them. Then she dyes each swatch of fabric a different shade before reassembling each coat on a flat surface. Every piece must be dyed as many as fifteen times, so a wall hanging can take up to three months to complete.
Although Fukumoto's current work has a contemporary look, it is still made only from old coats and kimonos she has dyed. "The modern fabrics look very slick," she tells me, "but the human element has been removed." Years ago, Kyoto's traditional craftsmen labored under their own self-imposed constraints, whether dictating their subject matter, materials or audience. Perhaps today, in a world filled with choice and possibility, using only indigo dye has let Fukumoto be more imaginative than if she had the whole spectrum to work with.
This culture of tradition through innovation thrives all over Kyoto. In a small gallery on a street near the Imperial Gardens, centuries-old clothing scavenged from every region of Japan is offered for sale as folk craft by an enterprising dealer who supplies collectors, such as Fukumoto, with some of their raw materials. I meet embroidery artist Toshiaki Nagakusa, who shows me his elaborate silk designs for portable temples, then casually lets drop that he also does window installations for Hermès in Paris. I sit with Shuren Sakurai, the abbot of a Zen temple who took up carving Noh theater masks to pay for the temple's upkeep in the bleak years after World War II and fell in love with the art of mask making. As I talk with these people and others, I learn that while Kyoto's customs may not live on unchanged, even the most modern artists glean ideas, guidance and techniques from preceding generations.
Beimel suggests that we contemplate a final kind of Kyoto artwork: the temple garden. We travel to the far northeast part of town and walk up a stone path through tall ginkgo trees to the Renge-ji temple. I sit on a tatami mat and gaze at the moss-covered landscape. A natural stream that originates in the mountains rushes past bright anemones. Beimel explains that this kind of Taoist garden was inspired by a fabled group of islands off the coast of China. For centuries, emperors searched for this place of legendary beauty, said to grant immortality to anyone who discovered it. But about 2,000 years ago, a Han dynasty emperor decided that since he could not find these Elysian islands, he would emulate them to attract immortal beings to his own temple compounds.
I've spent a week in Kyoto seeking out artists who manipulate traditional materials and employ ancient techniques to create a modern vision. Now I sit before what may be the most startling work I've seen: a simple garden made from only water, wood, shrubs and moss — the most traditional materials of all.
Conde Nast Traveler, February 2008
The Case of the Stolen Starter: A Neapolitan Mystery
Words by Tom Downey, Pictures by Neil Gower.
Link to original story
Download PDF (988 KB) or see below.
Outside's GO, February-March 2008
A Manhattan in Tokyo
By Tom Downey
Download PDF (940 KB)
Thanks to reading Japanese novelist (and former bar owner) Haruki Murakami, I fell in love with the idea of cocktails long after I’d started drinking them. The main character in Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun is a bar owner who describes his occupation as a mystical vocation. His bars are shrines to solo drinkers who don’t want to drink alone. When I first read Murakami, I imagined that the bars he described were, just as he wrote, “castles in the air” Then I traveled to Japan.
It was 2004, and I was visiting a friend in a small city in western Japan called Kanazawa. I had passed through Tokyo before, but this was my first time outside the capital. I knew that Kanazawa had a traditional garden, a samurai quarter, and a zone of old fashioned teahouses still run by geishas. But I didn’t know what the city had to offer in the way of more modern conveniences. As I walked down a narrow alleyway on a cold night, I saw a man step out of a tiny establishment tucked between two taller buildings, and behind him I caught a glimpse of warm lighting bouncing off shiny glasses. A few quiet notes of Chet Baker accompanied the telltale rhythm of a cocktail shaker. I stepped inside.
There were just ten seats, most arranged around the bar, presided over by a lone bartender. Fortunately, English is the international language of cocktails, so I asked for a Manhattan, straight up. With precise movements he placed bottles of rye, vermouth, and bitters before me and proceeded to mix the best Manhattan I’d ever had. I returned to this pocket sized bar a few more times before I left the city and on each visit, as I sampled a new, sublime version of a cocktail standard, I wondered if I had found the one and only bar in Japan that lived up to Murakami’s ideal—and my new standard.
I told the bartender that I was heading to Osaka the next day, and he referred me to Bar K. The bartender there liked to make the once-classic-but-now-forgotten drinks of Hemingway’s Havana watering hole, La Floridita. Each of his renditions was a masterpiece. The bartender at Bar K sent me to a great place in Fukuoka, where I watched master mixologist Kurayoshi-san stand behind a narrowly focused spotlight that shined on his completed cocktails. My visits to bars all over Japan eventually made it clear to me that Murakami’s ideal bars—Christ, any man’s ideal bars—did exist. They were all in Japan.
The Japanese bars I love are small, with only ten or 12 seats and one man, the bartender (ordinarily the owner), who runs the show and creates the experience. The soundtrack is usually jazz standards heard over a meticulously designed stereo installation that intrigues the ear but doesn’t overpower the space. Patrons sit down to drink or wait outside for an open seat—no standing allowed. The lighting is always just strong enough to see a companion but dark enough to let you disappear into the pleasure of the first sip.
A Japanese bartender takes exquisite pride in his creations. He places the raw ingredients before a customer and then begins the chemistry: crushing ice, pounding sugar, trimming fruit, mixing liquids, and finally producing a version of a cocktail standard that’s like nothing you ever had before. Ask for a scotch on the rocks, and he’ll take a chunk of ice and carve out a perfect sphere that fits snugly inside a lowball glass. He’ll have a few coveted bottles of hard-to-find treasures like Tanqueray Malacca Gin (no longer manufactured) stashed away for special requests.
In New York, the bartender, following some hail-fellow-well-met model, serves a drink and makes conversation with the customer. In contrast, the Japanese craftsman forges his relationships with customers through his drinks, showing an obsessive knowledge of obscure recipes and using rare ingredients and long-forgotten methods to create extraordinary cocktails. To me, the ultimate test of a cocktail bar is whether I feel comfortable drinking there alone. In most American bars, drinking alone feels pathetic, even pathological. But the cocktail bars of Japan are the perfect places to sip a brisk Manhattan all by yourself, take in a little Louis Armstrong, and simply enjoy the experience of good liquor transformed into something spectacular.
On my last trip to Japan when i was there to criscross the country by rail, I found Maruume, a small, carefully designed, discrete yet inviting bar in the Futakotamagawa area of Tokyo. There are some places in the world that you just can’t pass by, that draw you inside with a promise of something secret and special. I pushed aside a curtain, slid open the wooden door at the entrance and noticed the bar itself. It was made from one whole slice of a pine tree, with polished bark forming the counter’s edge. Bartender Takashi Makishima told me that his specialty was fruit cocktails. I asked him for glass of his favorite: a rum drink made with kiwis, grapefruit juice, and a dash of Calpis, an old fashioned Japanese dairy-flavored soft drink whose name is a hybrid of “calcium” and “sarpis” the sanskrit word for good taste. Sipping this kiwi cocktail, listening to the jazz softly playing in the background, and looking at the intricate, yet subdued lighting of the bar, I realize that as beautifully as Haruki Murakami described the subtle allure of the moment of cocktail consumption in his novels, the real pleasure is in the sipping.
New York Times, December 30, 2007
Yemen's Exotic Secrets
By Tom Downey
Link to original story
On my first morning in Sana, the capital of Yemen, the call to prayer didn’t just rouse me from sleep, it rattled the window panes, seemed to shake the foundation of my hotel, and spread from minaret to minaret as if the entire Old City was an enormous echo chamber. The scratchy invocations thundered on for so long I wondered whether it was even worth attempting to sleep again.
Out my window, I glimpsed a stream of worshipers scurrying toward the nearest minaret, scarves wrapped around their heads to ward off the morning chill. After trying every possible pillow-as-earplug configuration, I decided that resistance was futile. Of course, just after I’d showered and finished dressing, the calls to prayer abruptly ceased, as if someone had slapped a giant snooze button.
As I sipped strong coffee on the rooftop of my hotel, the Old City came alive seven stories below. There were satellite dishes in view, a lone taxi winding down an alley, and a few stray electric lights. But despite these technological advances, Sana’s Old City is a remarkably well-preserved medieval metropolis.
The city’s boundary walls, a few of them still standing, many just rubble or remembrance, enclose labyrinthine souks, corrals to store livestock brought to market, lush green gardens planted next to mosques, and ancient high-rise homes built of stone and brick (six or so stories tall, many of them dating back to the 11th century). The houses are lavishly decorated with white gypsum detailing that registers like a rhetorical flourish. Top-floor windows are made of alabaster or stained glass to tint the magnificent vistas of both the cityscape of early skyscrapers and the mountains that envelop the city.
Despite its superb architecture, intact traditional culture, stunning vistas and passable tourist infrastructure, Yemen sees only a trickle of visitors, mostly from Europe. Most travelers are understandably frightened off by the shadow of civil war, reports of terrorist attacks like the bombing of the American destroyer Cole in 2000, and stern State Department travel warnings. But for people willing to accept those potential dangers and explore this beguiling country, Yemen offers a pleasure that comes from getting lost in the flow of life, not from visiting long-dead or just-hatched places peopled only by touts and tourists.
On the main street of Sana’s souk, black-clad shadows — local women — duck into fabric stores to buy colorful garments I’ll never see them wear. Working teenagers huddle next to food vendors, eating boiled potatoes and eggs dipped in coarse salt and bright red pepper. A fruit vendor wearing one thick rubber glove carefully selects a prickly pear from a wheelbarrow and strips off the spiky outer skin. Men and boys wear the curious costume of northern Yemen — a Western suit jacket over a one-piece jalabiya. The crowning accessory is a curved dagger called the jambiya that’s sheathed in a fanciful scabbard belted across the belly.
Yemen was long ago crowned Arabia Felix (Fortunate Arabia) because it was covered in fertile fields that made it the richest place in the land. Market cities like Sana grew fat from trade in incense, coffee and foodstuffs. But black gold and natural gas now trump frankincense and myrrh, so Arabia Felix has become the pauper of the peninsula — a stark contrast to the bling of Dubai and the luxurious beach resorts of Oman.
Yet it is a country that retains a strong sense of its own rich past.
Surprisingly, one of the figures who can take credit for preserving the atmosphere of Yemen’s past is the Italian filmmaker and poet Pier Paolo Pasolini, who visited Sana back in 1970 to shoot a sequence for his adaptation of Boccaccio’s “Decameron.” Having seen so many wondrous parts of Italy ruined by modernization, Pasolini worried that long-cloistered Sana, then just opening to the world, would be destroyed by those same forces. He took up his camera and created a passionate plea to Unesco to grant Sana’s old quarter World Heritage status.
Watching Pasolini’s short film “Le Mura di Sana” 37 years later is the ultimate testament to his success. The city he brought to life in his documentary looks virtually indistinguishable from the Old Sana of today, though the city outside the walls is everything he feared, with many neighborhoods razed or transformed.
Pasolini is long gone, but in Sana I met Marco Livadiotti, Pasolini’s heir apparent in the fight to safeguard Sana from the ravages of the modern world. Mr. Livadiotti arrived in Yemen at age 5, when his father became the personal physician to Yemen’s last king, Imam Ahmed bin Yahya. Raised in this storybook city at a time when foreigners were nearly unknown to its inhabitants, Mr. Livadiotti went on to create Yemen’s leading travel company, the Universal Touring Company, and lives in a finely restored ancient residence in the old Ottoman quarter of Sana.
He led me on a walk into the Old City, starting at a vantage point by the Sa’ila, a modern road (courtesy of United States aid) that bisects the Old City and floods when it rains. From this angle, there were only ancient high-rises, minarets and mosques in view; there was nothing of the new city, with its concrete horrors and too-tall buildings.
We wandered past stalls filled with trays of sticky dates, bore past spice vendors dwarfed by giant mounds of pungent powders and leaves, and then found a small plaza in the heart of the Suq al-Milhi (the Salt Souk). Men roared up on motorcycles and quickly dismounted to snarf down a snack of preserved persimmons, dipping their licked spoons into the communal tray to gather more sugar syrup.
Mr. Livadiotti led me through a doorway into one of the last remaining caravansaries in town. It was in ruins, but a few traders still inhabited second-floor rooms that looked over the central courtyard, where once the guests’ animals would have been stored while they conducted business. We exited and peeked into some of the mosques along our route, structures built in a style that seems spare and serious compared with the architectural excess of the homes. Unfortunately, nonbelievers are barred from entering mosques in Yemen, so I could only gaze at these holy places from outside.
The first-time visitor to Yemen will likely be confronted by three iconic images that will no doubt reinforce whatever initial qualms they had about going there, photographs that they will see everywhere, from motorcycle windshields to teahouse walls. The most prevalent is of Yemen’s long-serving leader, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whose bushy mustache and fashion ensembles (military, stately, of the people) make him look like Saddam Hussein’s mini-me.
The second most popular photo is of Hussein himself, who became a folk hero here after his defiance in the first Gulf War. Third place goes to Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, whose call to arms against Israel made him a superstar even in Yemen, despite his being a “twelver” Shiite and most Yemenis belonging to a different sect.
There’s also a virtually unreported war going on in the Sada region of northern Yemen, and the country is certainly not immune to miscellaneous outbursts of chaos. On a previous visit two and a half years ago, I went for a jog one morning and heard a taxi driver complain that gas prices had nearly doubled overnight. A few hours later, I watched thousands of rioters storm through the streets and heard shots ring out.
Add to this political instability a long history of tourists being kidnapped and a recent suicide bombing that killed seven Spanish tourists, and it’s a wonder that any travelers come here at all, despite Yemen’s considerable charms.
SO why visit a place this volatile? I came to find a complete and ancient way of life that is still largely intact. Moreover, despite the country’s problems (and a need for tourists to be both alert and cautious), the place feels surprisingly safe. Indeed, few attacks on tourists have taken place in what I consider Yemen’s two most spectacular draws: the Old City of Sana and the eastern oasis of Wadi Hadhramaut.
Most of the trouble comes from the restive region between Sana and Hadhramaut, an area that is home to the ruins of Marib and to a patchwork of tribes who often oppose the central government. On this trip, in April, I decided to fly from Sana to Hadhramaut and avoid the Marib region entirely.
But before that flight east, I drove west to the Haraz Mountains that surround Sana, perhaps best known for the gloriously intact 11th-century village Al-Hajjara carved into the rocky landscape. The lush green fields we passed through outside of the city were about as far as you can get from the popular image of a barren, desertified Arabia. The fields sprouted khat, a leafy green drug that is virtually omnipresent in Yemen and is chewed daily by everyone from taxi drivers to sheiks.
Our driver insisted we stop at a market town to stock up on khat. I followed him into the dark interior of a tin-roofed shack, where a man with a rounded cheekful of khat presided over bushels that covered every inch of floor. Our driver moved from stall to stall, fingering leaves, dismissing out of hand what he was first offered, haggling over prices, and finally selecting a rubta, the standard measure. That bunch of long, wet branches was wrapped in cellophane and handed over for the equivalent of about $8, a considerable expense in a country as poor as Yemen.
On the outskirts of the market town, the driver pulled over to a lone bunker filled with illicit Scotch whiskey, smuggled cans of Heineken and dangerous looking off-brand liquors. I guess a country that tolerates almost everyone getting high on khat is bound to be somewhat forgiving when it comes to other indulgences.
After staying at a raucous lodge in Manakhah where Yemeni men danced traditional dagger steps into the wee hours of the night (more to lure French female tourists to the dance floor than to celebrate their culture, I think), we drove a few miles to Al-Khutayb. It’s the spiffiest village I saw in Yemen, with newly renovated mosques, swanky pilgrims’ lodging, a fast-flowing fountain and a landscaped park. It turns out that a tomb built for a 12th-century cleric is now a requisite stop for Ismaili pilgrims from India and Pakistan. (The Ismailis are the Muslim denomination led by the Aga Khan.)
The mountains surrounding the town are extraordinary — rolling fertile fields punctuated by mountaintop fortress towns that look as though they’re still ready to resist a years-long siege. The sun started to burn off the morning chill, though fog loomed in the distance. We hiked past acacia trees, waved to men plowing fields, and finally followed an almost-blind old man into town.
In nearby Al-Hajjara I spotted a Williams College T-shirt and met an American tourist, Leo Murray, a semi-retired Hong Kong resident who treks all over the world. When it started to pour and we went inside a hotel for tea and shelter, I ran into a fellow Long Islander desperate to speak English with a compatriot. She said she had tacked on a solo trip to Yemen after a group tour of Saudi Arabia. These were the only two American tourists I met the whole trip.
A day later, I was on a plane to Hadhramaut, surrounded by a few fellow tourists and scores of Hadhramautis returning home, probably from working abroad. (Hadhramaut has traditionally sent its sons abroad to make their fortunes; the most famous of these is Osama bin Laden’s father, Mohammed.)
The crown jewel of Hadhramaut, the longest wadi, or fertile valley, in the Arabian Peninsula, is supposed to be the town of Shibam. But at first sight, Shibam looked like a dead city. The only living creatures in evidence were a few nosy European tourists peeking into people’s homes, some mangy goats chewing on garbage, and a few adventurous children chasing both the goats and the tourists. It was simply too hot — about 100 degrees — for any sensible adult to venture out.
But, I reasoned, the residents can’t live indoors their entire lives, so back at my hotel, I decided to rent a bike and return at dusk. An hour or so before sunset, when it had cooled down enough to go outside, I cycled toward Shibam, about four miles west.
At the town of Al-Hawta, I was greeted by the whoops and hollers of kids snacking on freshly fried potatoes. Then I passed through some pasture lands, where female shepherds led their goats alongside the road. The women wore the distinctive get-up of Wadi Hadhramaut: they were covered from head to ankle in black, and topped this off with a peaked straw hat nearly two feet tall. Supposedly the air circulating inside the hat keeps them cool.
Finally, I rounded a bend, pushed out of a lush palm grove, and beheld Shibam. Its tall, narrow mud-brick tower houses are packed together so densely inside the city walls that the English traveler Freya Stark back in the 1930s christened this city “the Manhattan of the desert.”
Conveniently, all the other tourists had now retreated to a hilltop that offers a silhouette of the city at sunset. While dozens of them snapped photos a mile up the mountain, I entered the whitewashed main gate all alone. Just to the left was a small area covered in rugs where village men slammed down dominoes under the dwindling light of the evening sun and sipped glasses of sweet, scalding tea.
As I sat down and ordered a cup, the wise locals who had been cloistered inside during the scorching sunlight hours emerged to shop for sticky desserts from a trio of vendors. Men streamed into the mosque for the final prayer of the day, and the blue light of the moon cast soft shadows down the dirt alleyways. Inside these city walls, as in the Old City of Sana, you can dart around a corner and leap back centuries.
Men's Journal, December 2006
Men's Journal Expedition: Exploring the Untamed Rivers and Remote Baobab Forests of Madagascar
By Tom Downey
Download PDF (2.3 MB)
New York Times, September 24, 2006
The Cultured Traveler
In Japan, a Time Capsule of Modern Design
By Tom Downey
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Ko Sasaki for The New York Times.
Jon Jerde's Canal City Mall in Fukuoka.
In the early part of the last century, Frank Lloyd Wright traveled to Japan, where he designed a series of signature buildings: a regal Tokyo hotel as grand as an emperor’s palace; a remote hilltop villa in Kansai; and a girls’ school in a Tokyo suburb that seems monastic in its austere beauty.
Wright was perhaps the first superstar architect of the West to build in Japan, and one of many Western architects to have gone east to find fame and fortune. In the 80’s and early 90’s — Japan’s boom period — this stream of Western architects became a river. The country’s extraordinary prosperity meant that businessmen had enough cash to commission anyone in the world to build their dreams.
Perhaps nowhere in Japan was the fascination with Western architecture more pronounced than in Fukuoka, a provincial capital in remote Kyushu province. Nearly every time one of a core group of developers there broke ground, they hired a big gun of the architecture world. And so Fukuoka is now both a monument to Japan’s prosperous “bubble” period, and one of the best places in the world to see the works of world-class contemporary architects side by side.
From the futuristic Nexus World housing development with blocks by Rem Koolhaas and Steven Holl to a bank designed by the Japanese luminary Kazuo Shinohara; from a stunning shopping complex by the mall specialist Jon Jerde to a seaside stadium development housing Cesar Pelli’s Sea Hawk Hotel, Fukuoka has so much interesting construction that it has quietly become a pilgrimage site for architecture students from all over Asia. The highest concentration of notable buildings is in an unlikely location outside the city, a dreary suburban district of ball fields and high-rise apartment complexes. A few minutes’ walk from a bus stop, still near enough to hear the din of the highway, lies Nexus World. The roster of names behind this development reads like an architecture hall of fame, with Koolhaas, Holl, Oscar Tusquets Blanca, Mark Mack, Christian de Portzamparc and Osamu Ishiyama all designing units.
Ko Sasaki for The New York Times.
Blocks by Christian de Portzamparc at the futuristic Nexus World housing development.
The Koolhaas blocks look like enormous reptilian spaceships, but inside the central courtyard each unit has a small, luminous garden foyer. Steven Holl’s clean lines seem to promise the best combination of beauty and livability, and Mr. Ishiyama’s scaffolding-strewn structures make you feel as if you’re living in a piece of conceptual art. Only one small sign, tucked away in a corner of the complex, with both English and Japanese map references, identifies the buildings and their architects. When real estate prices bottomed out during the recession, many local architects snapped up these properties for themselves.
There are no organized excursions to view the architecture of Fukuoka — it’s a strictly do-it-yourself affair — but that’s part of the pleasure. Hidden in the suburbs and the side streets is the physical record of a dialogue between Japan and the West about materials, methods and visions, a dialogue evident in striking housing blocks, sushi joints and majestic greenhouses.
One way to begin an exploration is at Fukuoka’s most centrally located and best-known structure, the Acros Building, designed by the Argentine-American Emilio Ambasz, where terraced step-gardens on the side of a high-rise spill over into an adjacent city park. Toyo Ito’s glass-covered half-subterranean greenhouses, part of the new Island City project, could easily be the next new stop. There are few tourists gazing at these buildings, though Nexus World residents are familiar with occasional architecture groupies angling for an invitation inside their homes, then pondering Mr. Koolhaas’s dark enclaves and Mr. Holl’s rectangular waterways.
Back in the center of town, the Daimyo district has few conspicuous buildings, but its narrow, converging streets shelter some of the city’s hottest night spots and most exclusive boutiques. Since Daimyo originally served as a buffer zone around the city’s castle, the streets mostly end in T junctions, a deliberate strategy to slow down potential invaders that now makes Daimyo feel cozy and contained. The neighborhood has its share of global designer places, as well as local vintage clothing stores. Look for the graceful, slick Comme des Garçons store, or Taco-yaki Sake Akatan, a bar done in the naturalist wabi-sabi style that serves fresh, hot octopus balls.
Ko Sasaki for The New York Times.
The Acros Building.
Daimyo contains the city’s two best bars, cocktail specialty places that take advantage of the Japanese talent for precision and perfection. Bar Oscar (named after Oscar Peterson) is perched on the roof of a building filled with tiny nightclubs and run by a serious cocktail artisan. Nearby Bar Kurayoshi features a dark room pierced by a bright spotlight shining down on a gleaming wooden bar, the place where a master mixologist creates superb cocktails.
Fukuoka is also home to a small-scale architecture and design wonder: yatai, small street stalls unshuttered and assembled each night to become fully functioning restaurants. Scattered throughout Fukuoka are clusters of yatai where office workers sit down after a night on the town to hot bowls of hakata ramen or sticks of yakitori. The best setting for yatai is the banks of the Naka River, near Nakasu Island, where you can glimpse the glittering neon of the night. Two of the most unusual yatai are located nearby, next to Reisen Park. At Hakata Yatai Bar Ebi-chan, a cocktail yatai, the only limitation is that the bartender, Akio Ebina, serves all chilled drinks on the rocks, not straight up, since he doesn’t have enough ice to refill his shakers all night.
Next to the cocktail bar is another oddity, Kikuya Yatai, whose chef and owner once worked in one of the city’s premier French restaurants. Now, with just a couple of gas burners and a tiny countertop, he whips up wonderfully fresh French-inspired cuisine.
Fukuoka isn’t famous for its sushi, but there is one sushi bar, Yamanaka Sushi, worth a trip for both its strikingly fresh local fish and its unusual design. The master architect Arata Isozaki, who designed this restaurant, is best known for his enormous public works projects, many of which dot Kyushu province. Mr. Isozaki knew the sushi chef at Yamanaka and loved his fresh fish, so Mr. Isozaki decided to take on this job, a much smaller commission than he was used to. He brought a large-scale sensibility to the task. Most sushi restaurants are intimate, nearly claustrophobic places. The space Mr. Isozaki built has a vast, beautiful countertop carved from light-colored wood and sweeping 20-foot-high ceilings. The seafood, like kuruma ebi, shrimp harvested in the waters of the nearby Sea of Genkai, matches the grandeur of the environment.
Fukuoka has three hotels designed by internationally known architects — one each by Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli and Aldo Rossi — and a brand-new boutique hotel by the Japanese designer Ryu Kosaka. Mr. Rossi’s Il Palazzo still maintains the same glorious pinkish stone facade that made it an instant icon in the 90’s, but the rooms inside are looking worse for wear. It’s illuminating and a little disheartening to read the coffee table book published when the hotel opened in 1987, which extols the transformative possibilities of architecture and predicts that this striking new hotel will reshape the neighborhood around it. But the most basic transformation so far has been the construction of many “love hotels” nearby, where couples rendezvous for a three-hour room rental. That’s not the sea change Mr. Rossi had in mind.
Ko Sasaki for The New York Times.
Night in Fukuoka.
Just across the river from Il Palazzo is Nakasu Island, the city’s red light district. At night, local businessmen flood into the tiny place, which packs about 2,000 restaurants, bars and street food stalls — and most likely as many “massage parlors” and “soaplands” — into a few rows of narrow alleys. Nakasu also houses Nakasu Dining, an unusual restaurant and reason enough to brave the sordid isle.
Owned by a man who once worked for Royal Host, the Japanese equivalent of Denny’s, Nakasu Dining specializes in perfectly executed versions of comfort food served inside an old wooden house overlooking a bright green garden.
Opposite Nakasu Island are the Canal City Mall, designed by Mr. Jerde to mimic the canyons and waterfalls of the American West, and the adjoining Grand Hyatt Hotel. In the Hyatt, guests can sip a cocktail in the downstairs bar overlooking the artificial waterway that runs into the shopping mall. This could feel horribly tacky, the Japanese equivalent to hitting the lounge at any chain restaurant attached to your local shopping mall. But somehow it doesn’t. A Western jazz pianist takes requests, then croons out standards, and late at night, the deserted, beautiful mall next door is a strangely haunting backdrop, as if you’re illicitly drinking, after hours, inside a place you’re not meant to be.
An enterprising hotelier bought two cookie-cutter businessmen’s hotels in Daimyo and then refurbished them as well-priced boutique properties: the Plaza Hotels. You can still see the outlines of what these two buildings once were, but the end product is somehow more interesting. The ghosts of businessmen past seem to haunt the halls of these boutique havens. The Plaza Tenjin Hotel houses a dark, atmospheric bar called Bacchus where you can sample well-mixed drinks or in summer eat a spectacularly sweet local mango that costs 3,800 yen, or about $32 at 120 yen to the dollar.
The two Plaza Hotels offer a different approach from the architectural vision of the bubble period, when it seemed to make the most sense to just tear things down and start fresh. This new style — using what’s already there to create something new — seems to correspond to the sensibility of today’s Japan, a country dipping in and out of economic recession but experiencing a cultural renaissance. It probably won’t be long before the architectural legacy of the bubble period is also, somehow, recycled anew. Given the overwhelming power of nostalgia in Japan — a Tokyo teenage hip-hop fan once told me he wished he had grown up in the Bronx in the early 80’s — you can just imagine people soon yearning to relive the boom years by gazing on the wondrous buildings from that time scattered all over Fukuoka.
The flight from Tokyo to Fukuoka takes 90 minutes and costs about 15,000 yen, or $127, at 120 yen to the dollar, each way. In a country where airports are often far from the cities they serve, Fukuoka’s airport is only a 10- minute subway ride from the city center. The flagship train of Japan Railways, the Nozomi, speeds from Tokyo to Fukuoka, a distance of more than 700 miles, in just over five hours.
WHERE TO STAY
Plaza Hotel Tenjin, 1-9-63 Daimyo Chuo-ku, (81-92) 752-7600; www.plaza-hotel.net. Doubles from 11,550 yen, about $98.
Plaza Hotel Premier, 1-14-13, Daimyo Chuo-ku, (81-92) 734-7600; www.plaza-hotel.net. Doubles from 13,125 yen.
Grand Hyatt Fukuoka, 1-2-82, Sumiyoshi, Hakata-ku, (81-92) 282-1234; www.grandhyattfukuoka.com. Doubles from 33,495 yen.
Hotel Il Palazzo, 3-13-1, Haruyoshi, Chuo-ku, (81-92) 716-3333; www.ilpalazzo.jp. Doubles from 25,410 yen.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Hakata Yatai Bar Ebi-chan (Cocktail Yatai), Hakata-ku, Reisen Koenmae, (81-90) 3735-4939. Drinks from 1,200 yen.
Kikuya Yatai (French Yatai), Fukuoka-shi, Hakata-ku, Reisen Koenmae, (81-90) 9561-5238. Dinner from about 2,500 yen.
Akatan, 1-13-12 Daimyo, Chuo-ku, (81-92) 738-3253. Drinks from 500 yen.
Yamanaka Sushi, 2-8-8 Watanabe-dori, Chuo-ku, (81-92) 731-7771. Dinner around 7,500 yen.
Nakasu Dining, 2-6-3 Nakasu, Hakata-ku, (81-92) 283-5338. Main courses from 1,200 to 1,800 yen.
Bar Oscar, 1-10-29 Daimyo, sixth floor, Chuo-ku, (81-92) 721-5352. Cover, 500 yen.
Bar Kurayoshi, 1-3-32 Daimyo, La Corte 7F, Chuo-ku, (81-92) 726-9405. Cover, 530 yen.
Bacchus (third floor of the Bassin restaurant), 1-9-63 Daimyo, Chuo-ku, (81-92) 739-3288. Cover, 500 yen.
WHAT TO DO
Nexus World is the place to see many of the world’s great architects in one location. Sadly, none of the apartments are open to the public, but you may be able to persuade a friendly resident to let you take a peek. To get there, take the No. 22 or 23 bus from the Tenjin post office to the Ryugakusei Kaikanmae stop.
Also worth visiting is the new Island City development. The highlight is Toyo Ito’s greenhouse complex. In the center of Fukuoka is Emilio Ambasz’s Acros building, where you can climb up an exterior trellised with green plants. Jon Jerde’s Canal City shopping mall has a water display in the center and the usual consumer offerings.
Fukuoka Now, published by a Canadian expatriate, Nick Szasz, is a good online English-language source of information about the city; www.fukuoka-now.com.
Conde Nast Traveler Magazine, June 2006 Issue
The Case of the Missing Angulas
Words by Tom Downey, Pictures by Neil Gower.
Download PDF (4.1 MB) or see below.
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Wild Islands of Cape Verde
Our writer discovers the Atlantic's greatest secret: Cape Verde, a multisport paradise with white-sand beaches, world-class windsurfing, and epic volcano hiking.
BY TOM DOWNEY
Photo by Jorg Badura
I’m a sucker for shortcuts. Whether I’m being led by Papuans with no concept of time or distance I can perceive or dragged through epic canyons by Ethiopians for whom a three-day walk is a typical errand, I can always be persuaded to tackle a steep trail or cross a frothing river if I think it might shave time and miles off my trip. So when Eduardo Gomez, a canyoneering guide from Spain, invites me on a shortcut up to Cova crater on the island of Santo Antão island, part of the Cape Verde archipelago, I eagerly step off the stone path and follow a faint trail around a boulder. The thing about shortcuts, though, is that sooner or later they make you pay a price.
Make that sooner. Immediately Gomez’s shortcut goes nearly vertical. We clamber up a muddy slope, lost in clouds that cut visibility down to five feet. Over the next 90 minutes we claw our way up, sometimes clinging to roots, and when that fails digging into the soil with our fingers. Finally we drag ourselves over the summit. We saved maybe 30 minutes on the ascent, but my heart’s pounding — from lack of oxygen, but also from the vertigo. I’m over it quickly, however, as the clouds part to reveal the flanks of the long-dormant volcanoes that roll down Santo Antão to the Atlantic. It’s the kind of intricate landscape you could stare at for a lifetime: rocky canyons, green hillsides, stone huts built into the mountains.
“Now you can see why I left Spain,” Gomez says softly.
I first heard of these islands when I read the printed insert in a Cesaria Evora album and thought, Cape Where? Evora, the “barefoot diva,” is a world music sensation, and her haunting melodies intrigued me. The 10 islands of Cape Verde, which lie about 300 miles off the coast of West Africa, were first settled by the Portuguese in 1462, who shipped in slaves to man this outpost of their empire. The high winds that streak across the islands also made the archipelago a regular stop on the sea journey west to the Americas. The same winds are now bringing a new generation of explorers ashore.
Along with Gomez, other expat adventurers — from world-class windsurfers and fanatical kiteboarders to expert canyoneers and intrepid trekkers — have discovered these islands, each of which has a separate identity and different advantages for hardcore adventurers. Overnight I hatched a plan, a shortcut if you will, to the ultimate Cape Verde multisport odyssey: hop from island to island putting myself at the mercy of these adventurers to better experience the stunning treks, crystal-clear dives, high-yield fishing trips, and monster winds.
After landing in Praia, the capital, I hop onto a local flight to Boa Vista, where I have come in search of the godfather of Cape Verde windsurfing, François Guy. A Frenchman born in Hanoi, the 53-year-old Guy is one of windsurfing’s founding fathers, both as a competitor and instructor. In the mid-’80s, after years of teaching on the French Riviera, he studied sailing charts to home in on the ideal place to windsurf. He found it in Boa Vista — with its enormous white sand lagoons, powerful 20-mph winds, and 10- to 15-foot waves — and never left.
As soon as I arrive Guy hops into the water and gives me a lesson. He preaches a Zen-like approach to the sport. “Breathe,” he says, “and each time you exhale you will feel your sail pick up the wind.” It sounds corny, but when I get on the board I see what he means. By forcing myself to relax through breathing I stop fighting the sail and let the wind do the work. Soon I’m rocketing along the empty beach.
Photo by Jorg Badura
After a couple of hours Guy calls me in: “Rest, eat, relax now.” He invites me up to the small turret above the windsurfing center on the beach, which has a view of the topless bathers down below — and the sunset. This is where he sometimes sleeps, lying in a hammock in the open air. “Early in the morning, right after sunrise, I often pull out a board and windsurf all the way down the coast,” he says. “At that time it’s just me and a few fishermen awake on the whole island. That’s why I stay in Boa Vista.”
I make my way to Sal Rei, a town of pastel-colored buildings and tiny bars that spill out into the street. At sunset I sit down on the stoop of a beachfront bar with a cold Sagres draft. Cape Verdean dance music blasts from a house next door, and an informal restaurant springs up: three charcoal grills, a mountain of spicy skewered goat, and a mangy mutt to lick up the scraps. In the morning I reschedule my flight; Boa Vista deserves an encore.
My next stop is Ponta do Sol on Santo Antao, where I trade my windsurfing harness for hiking boots and scuba fins. Waves crash into the village’s old stone pier, and locals clean red fish on the rocky shores. Ponta do Sol feels like the end of the world — and in a way it is, the last outpost of the Old World before the long trip to the New.
Just a year ago Eduardo Gomez, the author of 24 guide books on canyoneering and climbing, zoomed around Barcelona with his rope and gear on the back of his motorcycle and rappelled down tall buildings whenever an antenna or box needed emergency action. Then Gomez, who is in early 40s, decided to trade in the concrete monsters of Europe for the volcanic slopes of Cape Verde, a destination he’d been scouting for years. He sold everything and moved to Ponta do Sol.
When I track him down Gomez offers to show me around the island, starting with his favorite retreat. When the road peters out we dismount from his ATV and hike through a canyon filled with palm, mango, and papaya trees. After 35 minutes the path and canyon abruptly turn to the left, revealing a 300-foot waterfall. On the way back Gomez fires up his ATV, and I hang on as we careen down a cobblestone track, where a few inches — and no guardrail — are all that separate pavement from plummet.
During a smooth stretch I glance across the lush mountainside and look down on the waves pounding the coast. That ocean is what first brought people to this land, and the labor of the sea, often aboard New England whaling ships, is what took so many people away. Much of the music I’ve heard in Cape Verde is about the longing inspired by separation; the Cape Verdeans call this feeling of exile, nostalgia, and sadness sodade. Even in the high peaks I can smell the sea breeze, and I understand why the sight and scent of the sea must bring flooding back memories of family and friends who left long ago.
I spend five days with Gomez in what amounts to a multisport boot camp. “After I mastered ropes I learned canyoning,” he tells me. “After I knew everything about rock types, guiding, opening new canyons, I became a dive master. I always need a new challenge to keep me going.” Each day he wakes me up at 7 am and we explore, hiking six hours from mountain peaks down to the sea, fishing from a boat using line wound around a block of wood, and diving to see swordfish and moray. We return at sunset to sip caipirinhas made with grogue, the local sugarcane firewater, then scarf a simple meal of grilled fish washed down with a crisp Portuguese vinho verde. My balcony faces the ocean, and at night I leave the windows open and fall asleep to the muffled detonation of waves sucking on the pebbles.
My final stop is the upstart town of Santa Maria on the island of Sal. Popular with intrepid Italian and Spanish sun-seekers, Sal also has powerful winds and heavy wave breaks that make it a premier surfing, windsurfing, and kiteboarding destination. On my first day I wander down to the beach and find Rod Smith, 39, an Arizonan who has lived here since 2003.
Photo by Jorg Badura
Smith suggests we pile some sailboards into his Land Rover and take off for a remote break. He says he hasn’t been to America in 20 years. First surfing, then windsurfing, now kiteboarding all over Europe and Central America, Smith finally settled here in Sal to open up shop, because “it’s got the best winds and waves in the world, all year long.” Smith says the only other American to settle in Sal is his friend Josh Angulo, a former waveriding champion from the North Shore of Oahu who married a Cape Verdean woman. Angulo runs the other surf shop in town.
We power through a half mile of sand on our way to Ponta Preta, Sal’s most famous break, which often tops 15 feet. It’s late afternoon when we arrive, and the ocean is calm. I glide back and forth around the deserted point with Smith and Djo Silva, the best local windsurfer on the island, acting as my wingmen. After a couple of hours we all head back toward the truck and stand looking out to sea, mesmerized by the sunset. I ask Smith if he’s explored the rest of Cape Verde. “Once I kiteboarded to Boa Vista and back,” he says. “But normally I don’t leave Sal. I’ve got everything I need right here.”
On my last morning I hit the beach for an early jog. A full moon and the rising sun share the horizon. As my feet pound the sand, I weigh who has Cape Verde dialed most perfectly. Guy is likely watching this same sunrise from his hammock in Sal, Eduardo is waking up to the rocky red cliffs of remote Punta del Sol, Rod is enjoying the lonely breaks of Ponta Preta. Each of these men has managed to snag a piece of paradise where he can live his passion on his own terms. But which island would I call my own?
At first the answer is obvious: Santo Antão, with its steep volcanoes, rocky coastline, and the feeling that you’re perched at the end of the world. Then I’m not sure. When seeking that personal paradise, there can be no shortcuts, and there are a handful of other islands I don’t get to see: ports you can reach only by stowing away on a cargo ship, uninhabited islets that hide secret coves, unknown beaches, hidden canyons. Clearly my search isn’t over.
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Check In, Check Out
Barcelona: Grand Hotel Central
By Tom Downey
Stefano Buonamici for The New York Times
The staircase at the Grand Hotel Central
THE BASICS For a long time the best Barcelona hotels were clustered around Eixample or along Las Ramblas. In recent years, boutique hoteliers have opened new accommodations that place guests in the heart of the scenic Gothic Quarter or the too-trendy barrio of Born. The Grand Hotel Central, close to Born and the Gothic quarter, but in neither, sits on a block that until now has housed only less grand establishments.
THE LOCATION The hotel is situated on Via Layetana, one of the busiest — and ugliest — arteries of this part of the city. But just across this street, opposite the hotel, lies the Cathedral, La Seu, and the labyrinthine Gothic Quarter. A block west takes guests to the newly renovated Mercat Santa Catarina and a five-minute walk toward the ocean puts them in the bustling heart of Born. While it shares a block with bland tourist-oriented restaurants and uninspiring chain cafes, the hotel is perfectly located in the middle of tourist attractions.
THE BUILDING The building dates to 1926, though the bland façade could be from any time. The first floor interior offers sleek lobby space with soft Balinese music and wafting Asian incense. There's something dark and vaguely Soviet about the long, dim hallways, covered by black ceiling tiles that seem better suited to a suburban basement than a boutique property.
AMENITIES The best thing about the Grand Hotel Central may be the roof deck on the eighth floor, which offers sweeping views of the old and new cities from an infinity-edge plunge pool. A handsome, well-outfitted library stocks an impressive range of Barcelona guides and coffee-table books. Sadly, the hotel lacks a real bar, but Actual restaurant, one floor below the lobby, makes up for that. In a city where innovative cooking almost always comes at a high price, this hotel restaurant surprises with a prix-fixe dinner menu of 35 euros (about $42 at $1.21 to the euro). The buffet breakfast served in Actual (and included in some room deals) was satisfying, featuring tasty bocadillos of jamón iberico.
THE ROOM There are 147 rooms, including 22 suites, but only 5 of these feature separate sitting rooms. The rooms vary from the lower-tier Central and Executive, which differ only in their views, to the mid-range City and Loft rooms, which are actually the best in the hotel, to the Grand Suites. The hotel's style is extreme, if generic minimalism. The romantic and subdued lighting would be alluring if you could change it at will. Unfortunately I ended up having to pull a plug out of the wall to turn off a floor lamp. There are large flat-screen televisions, free minibars, hi-speed Internet access in the rooms and Wi-Fi and computer terminals in the lobby.
THE BATHROOM The bathrooms feel spacious and well-designed, especially in the Loft rooms and up. The only glitch is that the door to the toilet and bathtub is engineered to slide closed but not fully shut, making the toilet seem exposed. The gigantic and luxurious shower head feels like a waterfall, and the separate shower room (a feature of the Loft and Grand Suite rooms) is expansive. Following the ethic of extreme minimalism, there are no hooks, trays, or ledges and no light in the dark shower stall.
ROOM SERVICE The 24-hour room service bills itself as coming from Actual, the restaurant downstairs, but the food served in the room bears little resemblance to the cuisine on offer there. The snacks and drinks in my room's minibar felt stingy.
THE BOTTOM LINE Decent value at a discount, such as the opening promotions available at the hotel group's Web site (www.epoquehotels.com). Otherwise the 272-euro rate for a basic room or 510 euros for the Loft room I stayed in seem excessive, considering overall quality. Grand Hotel Central, Via Layetana 30, Barcelona; (34-93) 295-7900; on the Web at www.grandhotelcentral.com.
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A veteran foot soldier reveals his role in the jihad -- and why he's having second thoughts about a holy war that seems to have no end
By TOM DOWNEY
Khalid had been in Iraq for only a few weeks, but he was already sick of the place. It wasn't the missions that bothered him. He was fighting alongside a small group of Saudis, and they were consummate professionals when it came to jihad, completely focused on the lightning-fast attacks they staged each day on the foreign invaders. The ambushes usually lasted no more than five or ten minutes, but Khalid reveled in the chance to hit the streets and fire off his AK-47 at the American soldiers and their allies, four grenades strapped to his waist so he could kill himself if captured.
After the attacks, however, Khalid and the other fighters were confined to safe houses in Mosul and Haditha -- dark, dank places with no hot water or electricity. The biggest problem was the Iraqis, the very people he was there to help. Sometimes it seemed as though there were double agents everywhere, checking him out on the street, trying to overhear him speaking the Yemeni dialect that would betray him as a foreigner, all so they could pick up their cell phones and call in the Americans, maybe even collect a reward. That made this jihad more dangerous and unpredictable than the other wars Khalid had fought in -- Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, places where they were often treated like heroes. When they weren't out on missions in Iraq, he and the Saudis were forced to stay in the safe house, the shades pulled down, with only a well-thumbed copy of the Koran and five prayer sessions a day to break the monotony.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was a pillar of strength to the insurgents. Khalid knew him from a decade and a half ago, when they were fighting the Soviets and their proxies in Afghanistan. But now, meeting al-Zarqawi in Mosul, he was amazed at the changes in his old comrade. Back then al-Zarqawi was an ordinary foot soldier like Khalid. Now, flanked by two bodyguards and barking orders with fiery determination, he was the most wanted man in Iraq, an Islamic militant with a $25 million price on his head. He had been hailed by Sheik Osama bin Laden himself as "the prince of Al Qaeda in Iraq," but al-Zarqawi still had time for a word with someone from the old days. He and Khalid chatted for a few minutes, recalling their time together in Afghanistan, before al-Zarqawi rushed off to make arrangements with an ally in Kurdistan to try to send some insurgents off to Iraq's northern mountains to fight.
That was more than two years ago, when the insurgency had been looking for fighters like Khalid, veteran soldiers who could be relied on to attack foreign troops with skill and precision. Now, back in Yemen, Khalid heard that they were looking for suicide bombers only. He would watch kids he knew signing up to go to Iraq, unaware that they were being recruited to kill themselves. It made Khalid glad he wasn't in Iraq anymore. Not that he had anything against that kind of mission -- it was a noble calling -- but he thought that a person willing to fight and die should know what he was meant to do before he left home.
At thirty-two, Khalid was beginning to have serious reservations about the course of the insurgency in Iraq. They are overkilling there. Fighting foreign soldiers was one thing -- he had been doing it all of his adult life. But did his faith really sanction killing civilians in their own country? The blood of people is too cheap. Fifteen years in the jihad, fighting in five foreign wars, imprisoned in England and Yemen, enduring the death of a close friend on a mission in Iraq -- enough. The cost was just too high. Although he was proud of all the fighting he had done in the past, Khalid wanted to settle down to an ordinary life as a father, husband and son. He was a soldier fighting a war. But what if the war had no end?
Khalid, who agreed to recount the story of his jihad on the condition that his identity not be revealed, is a Yemeni from the ancient city of Sanaa in northern Yemen. The country is one of the most lawless and drug-addicted places in the world. Despite a recent government crackdown, hand grenades are laid out alongside fresh produce at street-side markets, and sources estimate that there are at least 10 million guns in circulation in a country with a population of 20 million.
Social life revolves around qat, a leafy, reddish-green plant that contains amphetamine-like substances. Eighty percent of adult men in Yemen chew regularly, and important political and business decisions are routinely made in the mafraj, a room in many homes specially designed for chewing sessions. The leaf combines the talkative affability of pot with the drive of speed. First comes euphoria and intense sociability -- not ponderous, marijuana-induced ramblings, but a deep appreciation of the flow of conversation. In this stage, five hours can pass in what seems like ten minutes. Next comes reflective quiet -- a comfortable silence descends as people look inward, contemplating the contents of their minds. The final stage is depression and insomnia -- it's not uncommon to see solitary cloaked figures roaming the streets at night, waiting for the effects of the drug to pass. On average, Yemeni men spend about a third of their income on qat, and commerce in the leaf accounts for a third of the nation's GNP.
I met Khalid at a qat chew in the mafraj of a friend. The room was hot and stuffy, the way chewers like it, and each man in the room was identically posed: left knee up and right arm resting on a cushion. Cold bottles of "Canada" -- the Yemeni term for water, based on the market dominance of Canada Dry -- were distributed all around. The room was clean, but people were already beginning to litter the floor with leaves or stalks too thick or firm to chew. After a few hours, the middle of the room would be blanketed with a thick green carpet of discarded qat.
Qat sessions usually begin with a raucous flow of conversation. But Khalid was quiet, smiling at jokes, carefully pruning his stalks, venturing little. When he finally spoke, he told me that he had just been let out of a Yemeni prison. I asked him why.
"I was arrested as a terrorist," he told me in English, with a trace of a working-class British accent.
Late one night, he went on, an undercover anti-terrorism squad had dragged him away from his family's home in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood of Sanaa. He was locked up and questioned repeatedly by Yemeni police in the presence of American agents. To curry favor with the Bush administration, Yemen's president, Ali Abdullah Salih, has arrested hundreds of suspected terrorists, imprisoning almost everyone who returns to Yemen with a Syrian or Iranian stamp in their passport -- prima facie evidence that they fought in Iraq. Khalid was released after thirty days when a family friend posted a large bond to ensure that he would stay out of trouble.
At this point, a friend at the qat chew hissed at Khalid in Arabic: "Why are you telling him this? Don't talk about these things."
"I have nothing to hide," Khalid told him. He then proceeded to recount the extraordinary story of his fifteen years fighting as a foot soldier in the jihad. Although it is impossible to independently corroborate every detail of his tale, other Yemenis confirmed Khalid's long, frequent absences from Yemen, his presence at training camps in Afghanistan and his imprisonment in Yemen by the anti-terrorism police. His passport contains entry stamps to Syria that match the dates he said he had gone to Iraq, and the account he gave of his arrest in England mirrors one reported by police in the U.K. around the same time. Moreover, the details Khalid gave of fighting in relatively obscure battles in Bosnia, Somalia and Afghanistan match events that actually took place. In the broad strokes of his story, at least, he appears to be telling the truth.
Khalid is not an ultraorthodox, unbending Muslim. Although he meets to chew qat wearing his Yemeni dress cut midcalf, in the style of an Islamic purist, he also wears button-down shirts and European hiking boots. He has lived in England for years and has befriended Westerners. Slight and handsome, he has the quiet charisma and modesty of the guy who is elected class president based on his low-key appeal. In short, he is not the kind of enemy we have been led to believe we are fighting. He harbors some of the same doubts that our own soldiers have about what brought them to fight and, perhaps, to die, in a place so far from home. To hear a polite and thoughtful man talk casually about his friends in Al Qaeda is to have the whole enterprise reduced to a more fragile, human scale. It is to see this war for what it is: a battle between men filled with contradictions, inconsistencies and weaknesses -- not a mythic struggle between our supermen and their ghosts.
Khalid's jihad began with a videotape he viewed at a mosque in Sanaa in 1989. He can still remember the anger he felt when, at the age of sixteen, he watched that footage of Muslim brothers and sisters being slaughtered in Afghanistan. A friend of his had died fighting there -- a martyr promised the rewards of paradise. Khalid didn't think much about his own decision to follow his friend into battle; it was the natural, instinctive thing to do. He had seen what the Russians were doing to the brothers, as Khalid calls his fellow soldiers in the holy war. His best friend had stood up to them and died. Now it was his turn.
Yemen is pious and militant, and it has supplied many thousands of the young men who have filled the front lines of jihad, fighting for their faith from Afghanistan to Iraq. The country is the ancestral home of bin Laden, whose father was a one-eyed Yemeni dockworker, and among the few people successfully prosecuted by the Bush administration on terrorism charges were the "Lackawanna Six," Yemeni Americans from Buffalo, New York, convicted of attending an Al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, and Sheik al-Moayad, a cleric from Sanaa convicted of conspiring to support terrorism.
There was nothing in Khalid's childhood to suggest that he would wind up joining the jihad. His father was a moderate Muslim with a steady job as a civil servant in the Yemeni government. Khalid worried that he wouldn't be able to get a passport or leave the country without his father's permission. But the recruiters for the Afghan war were acting with the support of the Yemeni government, and within a few weeks, whether or not his father liked it, Khalid had a brand-new passport stamped with a visa for Pakistan.
The final hitch was that a close relative of Khalid's worked at the Sanaa Airport. Khalid feared that an airport clerk might recognize him and alert his family. The recruiters got around that by driving him directly onto the tarmac. Khalid climbed aboard the plane to Pakistan without even passing through immigration.
The reality of jihad, Khalid quickly discovered, was very different from the images presented on the videotape. When he finally made it into Afghanistan, he spent his first night near the front. That evening, a soldier who had been killed was brought back for burial by the mujahideen. Khalid didn't know the man, but seeing his body terrified him. "I'm scared," he told a friend. "I just want to go home."
"Everybody feels like that at first," his friend said. "But soon you won't be scared."
Khalid fought in Afghanistan for two years. He learned to use his weapon, to fight, and to pray with the precision and punctuality of the Salafis, the Islamic purists who were driving the holy war. It was a harder, less forgiving kind of Islam than he had known in Yemen, but its rigidity gave him the strength and discipline he needed to survive as a homesick kid at war in a foreign land. He had arrived in Afghanistan at a pivotal moment. The war against the Soviets was giving birth to a new breed of Arab fighters known as "Afghan Arabs." It was there that the seed of allegiance was planted for the thousands of young men who had flocked to the mountains of the Hindukush to help fight the communists. Afghanistan represented the birth of the global struggle. By helping defeat a superpower, the jihadists showed the world the power of Islam. And in the decade that followed, they would spread that war to the rest of the world.
In 1993, after Khalid had returned home from Afghanistan, he began to hear about a war in Europe where Christians were slaughtering Muslims. Stirred by the stories, he went to join the fighting in Bosnia. Again, as in Afghanistan, he was on the side the world viewed as the good guys -- the Bosnian Muslims who were the victims of relentless "ethnic cleansing" at the hands of the Serbian nationalists led by Slobodan Milosevic. The combat was much more intense than the action he had seen in Afghanistan, where the Soviets used superior firepower to bomb them from a distance. In Bosnia, the enemy was right in front of you, and you had to kill or be killed each day. Khalid fought alongside a group called the Green Berets, named not after the American Special Forces but after the color of Islam.
One day, after a year at war in Bosnia, Khalid was on the front line between Tuzla and Zenica, battling Serbian snipers who were shooting into Muslim villages from a nearby mountain. Suddenly, he came face to face with a Serb. The Serb got the jump, firing seven bullets into Khalid's stomach. Bundled up in heavy winter clothing, Khalid at first couldn't even tell how badly he was hit. When he started to peel off the layers around his stomach, part of his guts leaked out into his hands. He stuffed whatever he could back in and lay down on the ground. When a Saudi brother managed to drag Khalid beyond the reach of the Serb snipers, it took three injections of morphine to quiet his screaming. "You must be a heavy drinker," said the medic from Bahrain who administered the shots.
"No," Khalid said. "I chew qat." The medic, who had never heard of the plant, thought Khalid was hallucinating.
It took hours to carry Khalid down the mine-covered trail. When he finally arrived at a triage area at the base of the mountain, he was put with a group of those too far gone to save and left to die.
Soon after, the medic who had given Khalid the morphine arrived and began searching for his patient. He found Khalid lying among the rows of the dead and ordered a Bosnian army helicopter to speed Khalid to a hospital, where he woke up in pre-op. For six months he lived off an IV tube, his intestines hanging outside his body in a sterilized bag. He shrank to skin and bones -- under seventy-five pounds -- until he looked like "an African famine victim." The hunger was so intense, he would claw at his own stomach.
On his way to Saudi Arabia for further surgery, Khalid stopped home in Yemen. When he arrived at the airport in a wheelchair, his father slapped him across the face. "This is all your doing -- tell Sheik Zindani to help you now," he said, referring to a firebrand cleric who had urged Khalid to go to Bosnia. But Khalid received a warmer welcome in Saudi Arabia, where people from all over the country visited him in the hospital, leaving gifts of flowers, perfume and money for a man they considered a hero.
It took Khalid several years to recover from his wounds. In 1996, he joined a group of Arab fighters going to Kosovo, where Christian Serbs were once again menacing a Muslim minority. By the time he arrived, however, the Serbs had already sealed off the country, making it impossible for him to enter. Unable to join the jihad, Khalid decided to move to England, where many of the brothers had settled.
England is the home of one of the largest concentrations of Yemenis in the world; parts of Yemen were long ruled by the British, and thousands of Khalid's countrymen have settled there. When Khalid arrived, he went to see a Palestinian cleric he knew, who helped connect him to the Yemeni community. Khalid settled down to work at a corner store, chewing qat all day while manning the register. The leaf is legal in England, and Khalid's store stocked and sold qat to Yemenis in the neighborhood.
Khalid was twenty-three. For the past seven years, he had been fighting in battles all over the world. He had never been on a date, never kissed a girl, never really talked to a female who wasn't a close relation. So he did what many a lonely guy does when he's stuck in a city he doesn't know very well: He fell for the waitress at the coffee shop.
She was of Irish descent, and she smiled every time she brought him his coffee. Khalid went to a Yemeni friend and explained his quandary: He was in love, but he didn't know what to say.
"No problem," the friend told him. "I'll ask her out for you."
The waitress was receptive but confused. "I like him," she told the friend. "But why doesn't he just talk to me himself?"
Things were rocky from the start. On the first date, she wanted to go to a disco, but Khalid refused. Outside a restaurant, he grew angry when a passing man looked at her. "What are you going to do if I walk on the street with you?" she asked. "Fight everybody in the city?"
A couple of dates later came the gifts: three bottles of pricey perfume and a ring -- the ring. He could barely get the words out in English: "I want to marry you."
"Marry me?" She was surprised, amused even. "What's my name?"
"It's hard for me to remember it," he stuttered.
He gave her a week to decide. His gallantry must have won her over, because they were married within a month.
Right after that, the misery began. Khalid tried to control her and force her to wear the hijab, the head scarf worn by devout Muslim women. Their arguments were so loud that neighbors knocked on the door and banged on the walls. He realized the way he treated her was wrong, but he didn't know any other way. They separated, and Khalid got a British passport out of the marriage.
Khalid returned to the only life he knew. This time, his destination was Somalia, where a radical Muslim faction was attempting to impose strict Islamic law, known as sharia, on the entire country. Posing as a Red Crescent worker, Khalid bribed a pilot to fly him from Nairobi to the Somali town of Luuq, where he delivered $40,000 in cash to a Somali warlord allied with the Islamic faction. The money was from Arab backers, mostly Saudis, who were using their disposable income to influence the many conflicts that plagued Africa and the Middle East. Their cash not only advanced the cause of Islam -- it also bought allies who might help the struggle in the future.
There were forty Arab fighters in Luuq helping to fight the Ethiopian army, which regularly attacked from across the border. The longer Khalid stayed, the more dire conditions grew. At times the insurgents survived only by eating pure sugar. The brothers eventually organized a counterattack and retook the city. Khalid fought for two days straight, until he and his men ran out of ammunition. Reduced to throwing stones, most of the Arab and Somali fighters were killed. At one point the few remaining survivors were so desperate, they started to dig their own graves.
Khalid escaped, badly shaken but alive, with neither the money nor the means to get home. What do you do when you're on jihad, all the money's run out and you just want to leave? For Khalid and his remaining men, their only chance was to try and get a piece of the forty grand that Khalid had already delivered to the warlord.
"I can't help you," the Somali leader told him. "We need all that money for our fight."
Khalid wasn't a high-school debater; he was a holy warrior, so he did what came naturally: He put a loaded gun to the man's head. "I'll kill you or you'll help us get out of here," he said. "We brought you $40,000. Now you need to help us." The warlord was convinced. Khalid and his fellow insurgents eventually escaped to Yemen by crossing the Gulf of Aden on a dhow packed with goats.
When Khalid finally arrived home, his father was furious. "What the hell happened to you?" he demanded. "Where did you come from?" To calm him down, Khalid promised to stop fighting and start a normal life.
But whenever the call came, he answered. In 1999, Khalid traveled to Tbilisi, in Georgia, and tried to get into Chechnya, where the Russian army was slaughtering Muslims. But many mujahideen, he learned, had died trying to walk across the mountains to Chechnya. Khalid was willing to die fighting for his cause, a gun in his hand, but freezing to death on a mountaintop was no way for a soldier to give up his life. He headed back to England, returning to his job as a clerk at the corner store, chewing qat to keep himself alert, always on the lookout for the next opportunity.
In 2001, he got a call from Afghanistan. The brothers wanted him there.
When Khalid arrived in Afghanistan early that year, the Taliban had unified most of the country under the strict banner of sharia law. The ragtag bands of foreign jihadists who had fought the communists were gone. In their place was a sophisticated network of training camps run by Al Qaeda. This was a new age of jihad, a well-organized, well-financed struggle led by Osama bin Laden. Jihad, Khalid discovered, had been institutionalized.
At first, Khalid ran a sort of hostel in Mashhad, deep in the rugged Iranian frontier. The 600-mile-long border between Iran and Afghanistan is difficult to police because of its steep mountains and many trails, and Al Qaeda was taking advantage of the covert passageways, sheltering jihadists at Khalid's hostel before sending them over the mountains into Afghanistan.
That summer, on a trip into Afghanistan, Khalid met bin Laden at the leader's camp near Kandahar. They talked about the course of jihad and the situation in Yemen, a country for which bin Laden had a special fondness -- his father and one of his wives were born there, and Yemen had always supplied some of the best and bravest mujahideen, men bin Laden relied on as his most trusted fighters and bodyguards. Khalid thought jihad should be extended to Yemen, but bin Laden disagreed, saying it would stretch his forces too thin. "There is no justice in Yemen," he told Khalid, "but we can't fight there now."
By the summer of 2001, there was a palpable feeling in the camps that something big was about to happen. Around that time, Khalid ran into an old friend from his days in Bosnia: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani who had risen to prominence as an operational chief of Al Qaeda. Mohammed asked Khalid to volunteer for a mission to the United States or Europe -- his British passport would enable him to slip in and out of a Western country. But Khalid refused. He was willing to fight foreign soldiers invading Arab lands, but he wasn't ready to take the war to America or Europe.
On September 11th, Khalid was near Kabul when a Libyan cleric announced that the World Trade Center had been destroyed. Everyone in the camp exploded in jubilation -- the mood was exhilarating, insane, like Mecca at the height of the hajj. As Khalid remembers it, it was the moment when everything changed. The mujahideen had struck a blow against the West that would never be forgotten. And in the process, they had made themselves the target of the world's only remaining superpower.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan, Khalid saw his most intense fighting in and around Khost. Even with help from a local sheik, the foreign fighters couldn't do much against the American onslaught. One night, Khalid was sleeping in a car near Khost with three other fighters. When he woke up and walked away to relieve himself, the car was blown to bits. Khalid later helped to bury a body he believed to be the wife of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's second in command. The woman had been killed in a school where many Al Qaeda families had sought shelter from the American bombings.
After a few weeks, as the relentless bombing continued, a message arrived from bin Laden: Any mujahideen who could still travel should return to their home countries. There was no point in dying in Afghanistan. "There was no way to fight a decent war there with the Americans," Khalid recalled. "We hardly ever saw a soldier to fire at." Though the Bush administration believed it had routed the Islamic forces, the mujahideen, in fact, had beat a strategic retreat. American commanders, reluctant to expose ground troops to danger, had relied on a strategy of bombing from above that allowed many Al Qaeda members to slip away, ready and willing to fight again another day.
In late 2001, Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda operational chief, ordered Khalid to guide a group of fifty women and children to safety in Iran, over the same mountains he had crossed to enter Afghanistan. "You know the route," Mohammed said. "Take some families with you." He gave Khalid thousands of dollars to pay for Afghan guides and to take care of the Iranian border guards.
The journey to Iran took two weeks. They trekked across high mountains -- a string of women and children wandering through a remote corner of the world, eating dates, plants and whatever animals they could kill along the way. When they reached Iran, pro-Taliban allies were waiting to shuttle them to safety. For weeks after the trip, Khalid's shoulders ached from carrying so many children on his back.
In the years before September 11th, Khalid and his fellow mujahideen could move around the world with relative ease -- creating fake passports, bribing border police, claiming that they were Iraqi dissidents fleeing the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Immigration officials were a nuisance, but there was always a way around them. Now, returning to England from Afghanistan in 2002, Khalid discovered that even a real British passport couldn't protect him from scrutiny. When he changed planes in Abu Dhabi, the police stopped him, suspecting that his passport was fake. A well-dressed supervisor came out to question him. "What's Marks and Spencer?" the man asked.
"A big British department store," Khalid said. "Look, I'm a British citizen, from Yemen. I'm Shiite. Why would I want to go and help the Taliban? They hate Shiites. I was on a pilgrimage to holy places in Iran." After a few hours they let him go, and he boarded a plane to London.
At Heathrow, he was detained again. British officials asked for his luggage and he told them he had only hand baggage. Strike one. They examined his ticket: one-way from Tehran. Strike two. As he sat on a hard bench in a glass-paneled interrogation room, deathly afraid, he could see officials leafing through his passport in the next room. They kept coming back to one page -- a page that had been doctored in Afghanistan to remove a Pakistani visa. He claimed he had accidentally left it in his pants and then ironed them, but they didn't buy it. Strike three. At midnight the agents handcuffed him, shoved him in the back seat of an unmarked car and took him to a maximum-security detention facility.
They questioned him for five days. As the interrogation continued, however, Khalid came to see that he was safer in England, protected by the country's due-process laws, than many of his brothers detained by the Americans in Afghanistan. Realizing that the police had nothing on him, he denied everything. They finally let him go, unable to hold him without further evidence.
The incident communicated something important to Khalid: The jihadi's life had changed after 9/11. Not long ago he could travel all over the world with impunity; now they were hassling him at Heathrow just because he was flying in from Tehran on a one-way ticket with a piece of hand luggage.
Khalid lived quietly in England for a year and a half, working at the corner shop and praying at a local mosque. Around that time, he befriended a fellow Yemeni who would come to share his passion for jihad: Wa'il al Dhaleai, who was well known in England as a leading tae kwon do instructor and Olympic hopeful.
In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was clear to Khalid where he would next do battle. Getting into Iraq from Syria was no more difficult than dressing up like a farmer and walking across the border with phony papers in the middle of the night. But the fighting was a different story. In the early stages of the war, there weren't many foreign fighters like Khalid in Iraq; the bulk of the insurgency was comprised of native-born Sunnis who simply wanted to drive the Americans from their country. They welcomed the foreigners -- they weren't in a position to be choosy -- but they weren't interested in jihad's broader goal of imposing Islamic law on Iraq.
Khalid quickly discovered that it was impossible to blend in -- Iraqis tend to be bigger than Yemenis, and their body language and dialect are hard to imitate. Shiites were especially quick to report foreign Sunnis to the authorities. Khalid and his Arab brothers had the same problem as the American forces they were fighting: They didn't know which Iraqis they could trust.
Most of the foreign fighters in Iraq were very young. At thirty-two, Khalid felt like an old man. Stuck in their safe houses, the mujahideen had to rely on Iraqi insurgents to report on the movement of American convoys, scouting for an opening that would allow them to attack. Months after President Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq, Khalid was ambushing U.S. forces in the northern city of Mosul. Around the same time, Saddam Hussein's sons died in a fierce gun battle there. That October, Khalid's friend Wa'il also died, fighting the Americans in the town of Ramadi.
After three months in Iraq, Khalid returned to England through Syria. But jihad seemed to shadow him everywhere. One evening, after returning home from work, Khalid heard a helicopter overhead. Seconds later the police kicked in the door, handcuffed him and arrested him on suspicion of terrorism. People on his block couldn't believe that the friendly guy who sat behind the counter at their corner store was an Al Qaeda fighter.
The agents interrogated Khalid about his past. They knew he'd been in Syria. Business, he explained. They knew he'd been detained in 2002 after returning to England from Iran. Shiite pilgrimage. I've never been in Afghanistan. I don't want to go. They knew there were Yemeni fighters being held in Guantanamo who said Khalid had recruited them to train in Afghanistan. Liars. They knew he had spoken on his cell phone to Wa'il, shortly before his friend had died in Iraq. Just a chat.
After Khalid spent a week in prison they let him out, just like they always did. They didn't have enough evidence to keep him. When he was released, his next-door neighbors, mostly white Britons, were there to welcome him home. "I might doubt my own son," one old man said, "but I'll always believe Khalid." Most of the Yemenis and other Muslims who had been Khalid's friends had deserted him when he was arrested, fearing for their own safety. When he saw his British neighbors standing by him, Khalid couldn't help bawling.
After the arrest, Khalid returned to Iraq for two more months in 2004, in part to honor the memory of Wa'il. Living in safe houses, he once again went out on raids against the Americans. The heaviest fighting he saw was in Al Qa'im, where thirty Arabs and more than a hundred Iraqis fought for a week against the Americans. Khalid saw seven brothers killed, mostly from Syria and Saudi Arabia. He believed the insurgents killed about ten soldiers from the other side.
By this time, however, the nature of the insurgency had changed. Al-Zarqawi had succeeded, for the moment, in taking over the homegrown resistance. Many of Saddam's former secret police and Republican Guard were now integrated into cells with jihadists like Khalid. The leadership of Al Qaeda had financial resources and strategic expertise that the Iraqis lacked, and the foreign fighters were more willing to die than the local Sunnis -- and more willing to kill civilians.
Disturbed by the killings, Khalid began to rethink the role of jihad in his life. Would his faith really justify killing his British neighbors in their own country? Would he ever be able to live a normal life? Hearing about Yemenis he knew who had disappeared into the gulag at Guantanamo, he feared he could end up in prison for life, a fate he considered worse than death.
The doubts intensified after he returned home to Yemen and was arrested earlier this year. "Enough is enough," his father implored. "It's time to settle down and stop this stuff." After Khalid was released from prison, he and a group of other Afghan Arabs -- the blanket term for those who fought or trained in Afghanistan -- were summoned to a meeting with Ali Abdullah Salih, the president of Yemen, who was trying to contain the jihadists. In private, Salih called them "my sons" and said he had been pressured by the Bush administration to crack down on them. He also did something seldom acknowledged in the war on terror: He offered to pay them off to stop fighting.
"We will help you get jobs, get married," Salih told the men. "Write down your name and what you want."
Khalid didn't take the money, but he was tempted by the offer. He wanted out of jihad. On a trip back to England in late 2004, he had proposed to a Muslim woman he met through friends. In August, his fiancee and her family visited him in Yemen. He was visibly excited about the prospect of settling down and starting a family. He and his betrothed would go on heavily chaperoned picnics to a park outside Sanaa with their extended families, or visit the home of a close relative. They have never been alone together, and he has never seen her face.
But Khalid can see no way to escape from his past. Like many veterans, he looks back on his years of fighting with nostalgia -- the thrill of battle, the feeling of brotherhood, the steadfast devotion to a cause. But on some days, it feels as if he has no place in the world. He lives in Sanaa, but it no longer seems like home. Every few days he walks down to a storefront calling center and phones his brother in England. He doubts he can ever go back to the life he knew there. He often visited the mosques frequented by the London bombers, and he fears police will arrest him if he tries to return. But if he stays in Yemen, the brothers will keep trying to draw him back into the struggle.
These days, when they come over to his house and try to rally him for a mission to Iraq or Sudan, Khalid looks bored and says that he can't go anywhere now, that it would put his family in Yemen at risk. Even his fiancee's younger brother tried to enlist his aid to join the insurgency in Iraq. Khalid told him he couldn't help. He doesn't want any part of the fighting, but uncertainty might be seen as betrayal. So he keeps silent, and waits, and imagines the day when the war, and all that comes with it, will finally end.
(Posted Dec 05, 2005)
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Sleepless in Rangoon
On his second visit in four years to the same Burmese pagoda, Tom Downey embraces his jet lag and revels in travel’s power to reveal change
Photo by Tom Downey
A friend counsels me with his remedy for jet lag: Pretend to have insomnia and get an Ambien prescription from the doctor. But I resist. Sometimes jet lag can work wonders. On a February morning I awoke in steamy Rangoon, Burma to a perfect pre-dawn. As soon as I stepped out of range of my over-cranked air conditioner, a blast of heat and humidity hit me. At 4:30 a.m. the heat was tolerable, even pleasant, after a frigid night.
From the balcony of my hotel I could see the shining rings of the Schwedagon pagoda and hear the faint sounds of monks chanting from the hilltop temple, perched on a glorious peak that towers above this port city. I pulled on a pair of pants, threw on a T-shirt and stepped out into the still dark morning with the pagoda as my beacon.
It was still too early for the workaday bustle of the streets to have begun, and the few people I encountered eyed me knowingly, assuming that I was walking off a boozy night. When I reached the grand stairway ascending to the temple, I realized that I had been there before in almost the same circumstances. But this wasn’t déjà vu.
I had been there before, four years before. I had forgotten the exact time of my first visit to the pagoda, but now I remembered wandering these same streets on an early morning even hotter than this one. Then too I had felt the tug of the too early morning, the chance to wander a city virtually alone, and I had been drawn to the nighttime heart of this city: the Schwedagon Pagoda.
For some people there is a distinct pleasure in return: the possibility of gaining greater intimacy with a place you know. For me there is something else. I go back not just to see how a place has changed, but also to see how I’ve changed. Travel offers a rare opportunity to view myself outside of the web of work, family and friends that both defines me and confines me. That morning in Rangoon was like that uncommon diary entry that records not just the movement of life from day to day, but also its larger arc.
I climbed the steps of the pagoda alongside a few lonely pilgrims. Come daytime the steps up to the temple are lined with hundreds of tiny stores selling everything from gaudy trinkets to holy relics. Now the shops were shuttered closed and instead of the polite invitations of shopkeepers to examine their wares, I heard only the muffled footfalls of pilgrims going up the stairs.
Photo by Tom Downey
The circumstances of this return visit to Rangoon were much different than the circumstances of my first trip. Back then I slept in a fleabag hotel and I awoke early as much from discomfort as from jet lag. I was filled with a restless energy that had propelled me all over the world. That year alone I would visit not just Burma but also Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, and nearly every country in Southeast Asia. I was traveling alone, working a job that was hard to love, and wondering what the future might hold. The four years in between visits had changed me. I was closer now to the pole of adulthood than to post-collegiate life, which was like a second childhood. Now I was traveling with my girlfriend, had just completed my first book, and I had the patience to see the present without the future continually intruding.
When I made it to the top of the pagoda I circled around the base with pilgrims who were stopping to pray at each station. As they stopped along the way to pray of I know not what, I thought about my journey back to Burma. Travel has always been my most reliable record of myself. I can recall my thoughts and dreams 12 years ago on the back of a pickup truck in Sudan more distinctly than my thoughts and dreams last week on the uptown number 2 train.
Going back to a place doesn’t make me feel the same way again. At first I sense the gulf between my old self and my present one. Then I feel the unity: how circumstances can’t really change the stuff that holds me together. And then, after doing that mental work, I look around a little more perceptively.
I sat down on the cool marble and watched small sandalwood flames flicker out into nothingness. Behind them was the pagoda, meticulously cared for and coated in gold leaf. As the flames sputtered out, the pagoda started to shine with the hint of the morning sun. Sunrise is a blink of the eye so close to the equator. Soon the whole golden pagoda was reflecting the dawn. I climbed back down into the city.
Photo by Tom Downey
Now the place had awakened. The heat was less comfortable. The car engines were poisoning the air and the busy street commerce of the third world had begun anew. I made it back to the hotel and stood on my balcony for a few minutes. It was a different city now. Had I popped that Ambien, I would never have seen that other city, the cool and dark city of dawn, that had seemed a city made for me alone.
* * * * * *
Tom Downey is the author of The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse. He writes about travel and politics for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Slate, Men’s Journal, Condé Nast Traveler and other publications. Photos courtesy Tom Downey.
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A Two-Day Tour of Tokyo, Stretching $500 Worth of Yen
By Tom Downey
Evelyn Hockstein/Polaris, for The New York Times
The night scene in downtown Shibuya.
MENTION to any traveler that you're headed to Tokyo and be prepared to hear a litany of warnings: hotel rooms in Shinjuku equal to the cost of a month's rent in New York, breakfasts that can cost more than dinners at Per Se. Even the most in-the-know travelers persist in believing that Tokyo is a destination fit only for the superrich.
But given today's strong euro, Tokyo can actually be less expensive than some major European cities (and even cheaper than New York) - if you know where to go and what to avoid.
One weekend in June, I had a chance to test this theory. My goal was to enjoy two days in Tokyo on a total budget of just $500.
One thing that would help is that low-priced hotels are surprisingly easy to come by in Japan. Most of them cater to Japanese businessmen and are clean, safe and conveniently situated; just don't plan on doing any jumping jacks in these tiny rooms. I opted for the Hotel Excellent Ebisu ($86 for a single, at 106.38 yen to the dollar, the exchange rate in June), a highly functional if slightly shabby establishment just 30 seconds away from a major transport hub in Ebisu, a popular stop on the Yamanote Line, the city's main transport artery.
I started my weekend with cash in my wallet fresh from the A.T.M.: five crisp 10,000-yen notes and some small change. The Japanese prefer cash, not credit cards; also, the notes would make it easier for me to track my expenses and know when I was beginning to reach the end of my stash.
My first stop, on Friday afternoon, was Restaurant T, an organic establishment opened by Shinya Tasaki, Japan's most famous sommelier, that serves only food grown in Tokyo prefecture. It has a serene setting: perched high above the city in the Atago Shrine complex, it felt miles away from the bustle below.
There were just three choices for lunch, which was helpful given that the menu was in Japanese. The best Tokyo bargains are found in places geared to Japanese customers, not foreigners, which means no English menus, price lists or written explanations. How to cope? I pointed, asked questions and hoped for the best.
The pickled fish served over a bed of rice ($14 for the set lunch) tasted like smoked salmon gone mad and came with a small sautéed spinach starter, a big bowl of daikon radish soup, unlimited iced tea and a final cup of strong coffee. Many restaurants offer free, unlimited hot or cold tea with the meal, but charge extortionate prices for à la carte soft drinks or coffees.
I finished with a walk in the garden surrounding the restaurant, wandering along a rocky path that circled a small pond filled with hungry koi. Supposedly salarymen are granted success if they sprint up the main staircase that connects this shrine to the city streets below, but I didn't have the energy to attempt that feat on a full stomach.
Navigating the trains and subways of Tokyo proved easier than navigating the menus, since every station had maps and signs in English. I took the JR Chuo line west to Kichijoji to visit Tokyo's hottest new museum: the Ghibli ($9.40 admission). On the edge of vast, green Inokashira park, the museum is devoted to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Japan's master animator, whose Disney-distributed movie "Howl's Moving Castle" recently hit American theaters.
The museum chronicled the development of animation - from flipbooks, to spinning dioramas, to Claymation - with displays that transformed abstract history into tangible form. The desk and workspace of Mr. Miyazaki were meticulously recreated, though it seemed a bit strange that he had let himself be deified in this way.
Back in Shinjuku, I stepped into a Japanese dream of the 1970's: Samurai, a bar run by a haiku master who caught the jazz bug. The tiny bar has lucky cat statues everywhere, and the experience of listening to great and long-forgotten jazz tracks with thousands of little white cats staring me down and waving their paws was nearly mystical - especially after a stiff drink ($12 including cover charge). One thing to be aware of is that a cover charge is leveled at many Japanese bars and restaurants, which usually ranges from $4 to $10; service is always included in menu prices.
Later that night, I journeyed to Milk Wonton, in Yurakucho. Set under the railroad tracks in a tiny storefront, Milk Wonton was a great place to sample home-style Japanese cooking. Regulars walked in and the omakase feast began: 14 small dishes cooked right behind the counter and served in a sequence that always comes around to the house specialty: milk wonton, handmade dumplings in whole milk ($25 for the meal, plus $7 for a large beer). Milk Wonton serves some challenging fare for the Western eater - things like grilled eel fin twirled on a stick, natto (fermented, stinky soybeans) and sticky yam - but these foods are well worth sampling.
After a huge meal, I made a mad dash for the subway; ending up stranded would have left me with the prospect of an extremely long walk or a $50 taxi ride back to my hotel.
I set up a Saturday morning rendezvous with a service called Tokyo Free Guide. (The name says it all.) The guides are English-speaking locals who want to show foreigners around their hometown and brush up on their language skills.
I met Kaz, the woman who founded Tokyo Free Guide, in Sugamo, a neighborhood she picked out when I told her I wanted to see an old-fashioned section of town. We wandered through the neighborhood, peeking into small shrines with tiny statues shrouded in bright cloth, browsing in miso-paste shops and watching the many clothing stores get ready for a big shopping day in a place known as the Grandmas' Harajuku. (The real Harajuku is a famous shopping area for teens.)
Next, we hopped a tiny train, the Toden Arakawa Line ($1.88), a one-car affair, which navigated the worlds of the future and the past, snaking through backyards where grandpas tended their gardens, into a neighborhood with an ultramodern shopping complex.
After a few very Japanese meals, I needed a break. Tokyo's range of great global cuisine is surprising considering that Japan has one of the most ethnically homogeneous populations in the world. But Japanese chefs are brilliant and meticulous mimics and, in everything from pasta to pâté, the copy often outshines the original. I ended up at If, in Ebisu, where the cuisine (pasta followed by veal cheeks, $33.50 with two beers) was nearly as delightful as the cutting-edge interior design.
An hour later, after a much-needed nap, I awoke and decided to hit a hipster enclave called Naka-Meguro, a half-hour walk from my hotel. I walked whenever I could in Tokyo. Constant train transport makes the city disorienting, and even locals seem to understand Tokyo more as a series of train stops than as a unified whole.
Naka-Meguro is beautifully situated on the Meguro River, which is shaded by old trees that hang across its banks. At Cowbooks, a strikingly well-designed little bookshop, I found the perfect purchase: a small cloth bag ($17.75) meant to carry just one book, embroidered with a barely English sentence: "Everything for the Freedom." A giant L.E.D. display flashed questions around the bookstore as earnest readers browsed.
I wanted to plunge back into the city center for Saturday night, so I rode the train to Shibuya. I stepped out into the Shibuya night, filled with over-made-up teenagers, Japanese hip-hop posers and gaijin like me. One of the primal (and free) thrills of Tokyo is being swept up in the crowds of people that parade through the neon-drenched streets and feeling the rush as you ride the human wave across the alleys and boulevards.
I had picked Kuu in nearby Shinjuku, a charcoal-grill restaurant towering above Tokyo on the 50th floor of the Sumitomo Building, for a snack with a view. A friend told me that the Japanese have a saying: "Stupid people love high places." Call me stupid, but the view from the top of Tokyo was breathtaking, and the illuminated high-rises that stretched far into the horizon on every side made New York, Paris and London all look like tiny towns.
At Kuu, the grilled chicken served with a yuzu paste was the signature dish ($26.85 including cover charge, food and two beers). The Japanese prepare their chicken medium-rare, still pink in the middle, so if you prefer it cooked well-done, ask.
The izakaya is Japan's answer to the tapas bar. Originally places to drink sake accompanied by some simple snacks, nouveau-izakaya cuisine is now sweeping Tokyo, incorporating fine wines, Western food and high-concept design into a traditional line-up of sake, shochu and Japanese standards.
Ofuro in Shimo-takaido, a wine-centered izakaya with masterful food, was hard to find - three blocks from the train, around a corner and downstairs. Like Ofuro, many Japanese bars and restaurants turn inward not outward and are in the basement or on an upper floor, making it difficult to assess places from the street - and making recommendations even more important. When I asked, in English, for a suggestion off the Japanese-only menu, the waiter pointed to one dish and said only "corn." Fluffy, sweet and delicious, this divine incarnation of the corn fritter was a perfect complement to the crisp Sancerre I was drinking (meal total: $34.75).
For the last morning of my Tokyo weekend I wanted to visit Yasukuni Shrine, which had been much in the news recently because every year Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi continues to visit this place, which enshrines Japan's most notorious war criminals. As I got closer, I saw some activists too young to have ever fought in the war dressed in old Japanese army gear, and a young family decked out in fatigues and camouflage.
The museum ($7.50 admission) was an interesting exercise in historical revisionism, observing, among other things, that the Japanese had in fact inspired the anticolonial struggles of Southeast Asia. My Japanese friend Miyuki was so sickened by this propaganda that she insisted we visit the nearby tomb of the unknown soldier, Chidori ga Fuchi Senbotsusha Boen, which was a serene antidote to Yasukuni.
With transport, snacks, a few more meals and convenience store purchases totaling $131, I managed to come in $7 under my $500 limit.
I wrapped up my weekend convinced that even when experienced on a budget, Tokyo, with its speed, energy and constant flux, its local delights and its celebration of the cosmopolitan, deserves a place of honor among the world's great cities of the 21st century.
THE BOTTOM LINE
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Excellent Ebisu, 1-9-5 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku, (81-3) 5458-0087; www.soeikikaku.co.jp. Singles are $86; doubles, $105.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Restaurant T, Atago Shrine, 1-5-3 Atago, Minato-ku, (81-3) 5777-5557. Closed Monday.
Samurai, Shinjuku 3-35-5, Shinjuku-ku, fifth floor, (81-3) 3341-0383.
Milk Wonton, 3-7-9 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku,(81-3) 3215-1939.
If, 3-2-5 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, (81-3) 5739-0848.
Kuu, Nishi-Shinjuku 2-6-1, Shinjuku Sumitomo Building, 50th floor, (81-3) 3344-6457.
Ofuro, 4-45-10 Akazutsumi, Setagaya-ku, (81-3) 5300-6007.
WHAT TO SEE
Ghibli Museum, 1-1-83 Shimorenjaku, Mitaka Shi, (81-5) 7005-5777, www.ghibli-museum.jp. Reserved timed tickets; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; closed Tuesday. Tickets available at Lawson convenience stores in Japan or JTB Travel Agencies; www.jtb.co.jp/eng/ghibli/ticketsystem.html.
Tokyo Free Guide, www.TokyoFreeGuide.com, has English-speaking residents who offer free guided tours.
Cowbooks, 1-14-11 Aobadai, Meguro-ku, (81-3) 5459-1747, www.cowbooks.jp. Open noon to 9 p.m., closed Wednesday.
Yasukuni Shrine, 3-1-1 Kudankita, Chiyoda-ku, (81-3) 3261-8326, www.yasukuni.or.jp/english/index.html. Grounds open 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily; museum 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (5 p.m. winter).
Chidori ga Fuchi Senbotsusha Boen, Sanbancho 2, Chiyoda-ku.
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What Went Wrong in Eritrea?
The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia seems tailor-made for a U.N. resolution. There are no actual deep-seated ethnic enmities at work here. Rumors abound that the nation's two leaders are actually distant cousins. The conflict was a dispute over a border, and when the two sides agreed to a border commission's binding decision in 2000, it seemed like that would be the end of this fight.
Five years down the road, though, there is simply no end in sight. The world's policeman is bogged down democratizing Iraq and pacifying Afghanistan, and though 4,000 blue-helmeted troops can, for the most part, keep the two sides apart, they don't have anywhere near the muscle needed to force real peace. One Western diplomat I spoke with was even skeptical about whether either side wants peace at all. "If [Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles] Zenawi agrees to the border commission's decision, he's dead at home. If Afewerki makes peace, he has to face implementing the constitution. Maybe they both want to be at war."
There was a flicker of American interest in cultivating Eritrea as a military partner in an increasingly volatile region that is seen as a likely home to many al-Qaida operatives. Rumsfeld even paid a visit to Afewerki. But it's unlikely that many al-Qaida members are active in Eritrea—even unsanctioned Christian groups are thrown in jail, and radical Islamists are high on the government's list of enemies. The military-to-military ties with the United States now seem largely symbolic—visits from military brass but no bases. When it comes down to it, the United States doesn't really have a dog in this fight.
The conflict between these two neighbors is a stupidity contest, and on the basis of recent behavior, Ethiopia is edging out Eritrea. Ethiopia agreed that the decision of the border commission would be final and binding, but then, after they saw this meant that they would lose the symbolically vital (but utterly worthless) town of Badame, they changed their tune. They said that it would be binding "in principle," but they would negotiate the specifics. That's hogwash, and everybody knows it's hogwash. The reality here right now is that the United States and the other major players are reluctant to publicly and forcefully side with Eritrea against a much more important commercial and military ally in the region. But if we want this kind of mediation to ever work again (and we will clearly need it in Africa and the rest of the world), then we need to put something behind this decision.
The problem is that Ethiopia, a much larger nation that receives close to $2 billion of international foreign aid per year, is both a donor darling and a more important player in the region. Ethiopia's leader, Meles Zenawi, has been actively courting the West, glad-handing around the world and joining Tony Blair's Africa Commission. Afewerki, on the other hand, retains the mindset of an embattled commander. Diplomats told me that this government is difficult to meet with and impossible to argue with. The only conceivable way to force Eritrea and Ethiopia to make peace is to threaten to suspend their foreign aid. But since most of that aid goes to humanitarian programs, it's political suicide for any Western politician to try to cut it off.
Ironically, the one possibility of U.S. sanctions against Eritrea comes from the International Religious Freedom Act. American Christians have been quick to point out that Christians are being persecuted in Eritrea for joining unsanctioned religious groups. Never mind that for years, journalists, opposition leaders, and even two local U.S. Embassy staffers have languished in jail. Throw a few Pentecostal Christians in the hoosegow, and suddenly the secretary of state has designated Eritrea a country "of particular concern" under the act.
The only substantive treatment of Eritrea in the U.S. media came in a 2003 Robert Kaplan piece in the Atlantic Monthly, which profiled the "sleepily calm, and remarkably stable state of Eritrea." Though Kaplan identifies many of the dangerous tendencies of Afewerki and spends a couple of paragraphs chronicling human rights abuses in Eritrea, one is left with an ambivalently positive impression of Afewerki's government. It seemed clear to me, from the people I spoke with on the streets of Asmara, Massawa, Keren, and the towns in between, that in the two years since Kaplan's piece, things had changed. Pseudo-peace and economic misery have now fractured Eritrean society and angered the young people that bear the brunt of the wartime burden. But the painful truth is that, unless al-Qaida explodes in Eritrea, the only Americans interested in this nation will probably be Eritrean expats and a few earnest readers of the Atlantic Monthly and other similar publications.
And so the West helps feed the people of Ethiopia and Eritrea. U.S. aid to Eritrea for 2005—about $200 million—is triple the 2004 amount. The leaders of these two nations waste their people's money on guns, tanks, and rockets. The United Nations stands by, doing what it can to keep the peace. And the whispers on the streets of Asmara continue, never rising up to a roar because Afewerki has been careful to let his people know that any dissent means they will be erased from the face of the earth—dead, maybe, but at the very least disappeared.
Tom Downey is the author of The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse. Based in New York, he travels frequently to write about politics and travel for the New York Times, Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic Adventure.
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What Went Wrong in Eritrea?
War and Its Aftermath
In July of 1998, war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The rallying cries echoed across both nations, calling on young men to take up arms to defend their women, their families, themselves, from the evil outsider lurking next door. The young men who listened, or who couldn't figure out how to evade mass conscription, ended up as machine-gun fodder in a conflict that killed an estimated 100,000 people.
Eritreans had been raised on war, and to the veterans who heard the call to arms, the paradigm of battle was something familiar. For the young people that I talked to, those who had never fought in the war of national liberation but had grown up listening to stories of the glory of war, this was their chance to defend the nation. Faith in their leader was unshaken, even after Ethiopian tanks rolled to victory across the south, and Eritrea was forced to accept a brokered peace it had once flat-out rejected. The cease-fire came in 2000, two years into a senseless border conflict over a worthless and barren swath of land that both nations had somehow decided was essential to their very being.
But the cease-fire didn't bring real peace; instead it brought a fragile stalemate that still holds today, a stalemate that threatened to collapse the week that I landed. The head of the U.N. Mission to Eritrea and Ethiopia said that war could break out at any moment. An opposition Web site, based in Sudan, recounted a meeting in which Afewerki supposedly told his highest-ranking ministers that "war is imminent." But this information, like every other rumor or innuendo, is impossible to confirm because the government control over information is now almost absolute.
Chinks in Afewerki's armor started to appear in 2001, when 15 high-ranking party members wrote a letter that criticized the way the president had conducted the war with Ethiopia. Newspapers published this letter and began to investigate the allegations. Afewerki waited for the perfect moment, and then in September 2001, just a week after the 9/11 attacks, when the world was looking elsewhere, he struck. Eleven opposition figures from that group of 15 disappeared into the Eritrean gulag, and they have never been seen or heard from again. The members of the press that aired or printed the allegations were also jailed, and most of them remain in prison today. Even foreign journalists have been kicked out of the country.
But the truth was out. And people began to question, for the first time, what their leader was doing. Mass desertions from the army followed. One young man who I met on the street told me flat out, "Please, please ask your country to impose sanctions on our government." Later I heard many more stories of disillusionment and desertion. One man had served a total of five and a half years in the army when he went home on leave and found his family desperate for him to earn money to support them. After he went AWOL, he was caught in a roundup of deserters. First he was shipped to nearby Adi Abeito prison, where he and hundreds of others ate just a few scraps of bread a day in overcrowded quarters that were never meant to accommodate the masses held there. (In late 2004 Adi Abeito was the site of a riot that allegedly ended with about 25 prisoners dead.) Then he was shipped off to Assab, one of the hottest places on Earth, where he suffered three months in solitary, then spent nine months sharing a 13-by-20-foot cell with seven others like him.
Others were even more desperate to evade the army. One man escaped from the front with three other friends and then tried to make his way to Sudan by paying a smuggler hundreds of dollars to take him across the border. Caught and sent back to prison in Asmara, he bribed a guard and escaped again, only to be finally rounded up and sent away for a year. I wish I could name these men and the many others like them who I talked to, furtively, in the alleys and street corners, the cafes and restaurants of Asmara. But of course I can't, for that would mean certain imprisonment and persecution for them. In a country where a word of dissent can bring years in jail, young people were still talking to me about the wrongs of the government, knowing full well that their words could land them in deep trouble.
Desertion and betrayal would have been inconceivable during the first war against Ethiopia, when young men and women lined up to fight, convinced of the justice of their cause. But now that zeal has become bitterness—almost every young person I spoke to had nothing but hatred for the government that had sent so many of them to die for nothing. With an estimated 10 percent of the population in the standing army, Eritrea's cities are without their main pool of labor: young men in their 20s and 30s. I was told by many that some army commanders even used their soldiers for free labor on their personal farms. Everywhere across the nation I saw the signs of war—soldiers drinking in bars, military vehicles speeding down the streets, young men with nothing to do staring into space, rifles by their side—even though there had been no real hostilities for five years. An unending draft has become a way to control and disperse a young urban population that might otherwise rise up in protest and a way to infinitely defer implementing a democratic constitution.
One good thing you can say about the Afewerki government is that it has remained virtually incorruptible, especially compared with its African neighbors. But even this integrity is a double-edged sword—in other nations a dose of corruption might have moderated otherwise harsh official policies, allowing people and goods to pass over the borders if small bribes were paid.
Each morning, like many others in the capital, I would wander into an Internet cafe and browse opposition Web sites that originated outside the country to find out what was going on right around the corner. Strangely, the opposition Web sites have not been blocked in Eritrea. I assume that the reason the government doesn't bother is that these Web sites reach only a tiny minority of educated elite who can afford to browse the Web.
By official accounts, the government has an answer and explanation for every charge. But after the accumulation of so many different allegations, it becomes impossible to take their excuses seriously. Eritrea has become like an abusive parent caught telling too many lies to explain away their child's bruises. Perhaps Afewerki really does believe that what he is doing is for the good of the country. After the years he fought, the sacrifices he made, and the struggles he endured, I'm willing to give him that. But that doesn't make the abuse of power any less damaging to the people on the streets of Asmara.
In Eritrea, peace hasn't been easy. There isn't a clear enemy in peacetime. There aren't simple solutions to solve structural economic and social problems. And peace isn't won or lost with the clarity of war. War doesn't just kill, it also unites, at least in the beginning. And war deflects criticism away from home to the outside. Perhaps Eritrea's leader, raised on war, returned to battle when peace just became too hard.
Tom Downey is the author of The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse. Based in New York, he travels frequently to write about politics and travel for the New York Times, Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic Adventure.
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What Went Wrong in Eritrea?
Eritrea Then and Now
ASMARA—Eritrea is a country of whispers. When I first check into my hotel, a man whispers to me, "Change money?" Only later do I learn exactly why he is whispering: Possession of any foreign currency lands an Eritrean in jail for two years. The government is running out of hard currency reserves, and they are desperately trying to get their hands on every dollar or euro that enters the country. Then there are the whispers of war, imprisonment, persecution, and collapse that regularly circulate through the streets of the capital, from table to table at the Italian-style cafes where men sit sipping just one tiny glass of tea for hours, all they can afford. But these whispers never materialize into a full voice or a shout, never pass from rumor to recognized fact, never circulate outside of the ring of gossip and hearsay. People are afraid.
I meet one young man who tells me that his friends witnessed a massacre of prisoners at a nearby detention center for army deserters. I ask him to find his friends and then come and talk to me. We make an appointment for that afternoon. He never shows up. Another person promises the same thing, and when this guy does finally find me, eating dinner in a restaurant, he takes me outside, down a dark alley, and whispers, "Nobody will talk." None of this would be particularly surprising—intimidating African dictatorships are a dime a dozen—if Eritrea hadn't been one of the most promising countries I'd ever seen when I first visited seven years ago.
Nowadays Eritrea merits media coverage only when some tangential connection to terrorism emerges—that one of the London copycat bomber suspects originally hailed from Eritrea or that Donald Rumsfeld visited Asmara to converse with another global ally in the war on terror (even if that ally can do little to help that war). But this insistence on terrorism as the only story about Eritrea masks truths that are much more important to the people on the ground: like the fact that there is no end in sight to the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea or that the economy, crippled by the war, makes it barely possible to survive here. The real story isn't terrorism, it's Eritrea's tragic journey from the possibility I saw seven years ago to the desperation I see today.
Back then, the ink on the referendum for freedom from Ethiopia was barely dry. People on the streets displayed a pride in their nation that would have put a July 4 celebration in the deepest heart of Texas to shame. And this wasn't empty sentiment: The Eritrean triumph over Ethiopia was one of the great underdog stories of the century—a small grass-roots army with no international support going up against an African superpower backed by the most powerful nations in the world. Women fought alongside men. Children were schooled in the battlefield. Doctors worked in a vast underground hospital built to withstand carpet-bombing from above.
After independence, Eritrea seemed to have in Isaias Afewerki a shrewd, forward-looking president who eschewed the standard-issue African leader's cult of personality. He wouldn't be bullied by the West, and he had helped draft a constitution that promised extensive protection for civil liberties and minority rights. Though Afewerki insisted on a single-party system until the country was ready to implement that constitution, it seemed like he was serious about eventually democratizing the nation. Clinton even identified him as one of the leaders of an African renaissance.
I remember going to cafes in Asmara where they wouldn't let me pay the bill. Every time I would try, some old man would have taken care of it, and he'd tell me, "Welcome to Eritrea." Young people loved their country. Old people were ecstatic that their long struggle for freedom had finally paid off. And everyone looked forward to the peace and prosperity that independence would bring.
Seven years ago, Eritrea was dirt poor but brimming with hope. There were no beggars on the streets of Asmara. Little kids didn't follow me around and ask for pens, or food, or water. Afewerki preached an ethos of self-sufficiency: demanding that all foreign aid be on Eritrea's terms and rejecting aid programs that wasted too much money on costly foreign consultants. This belief in self-sufficiency seemed to trickle down to the streets of the new nation, making it inconceivable that anybody, no matter how poor, would beg.
This time, I noticed the difference right after I landed in Eritrea—as soon as I took a seat at a sidewalk cafe, an army of beggars and street kids accosted me. When I looked into their hungry eyes, I couldn't blame them. Eritrea had become a beggar nation, and the man who once so proudly rejected the aid of the West was now feeding his people through foreign food grants. I shared a table with a foreign NGO worker who pegged a nearby vehicle as the secret police. "They follow me everywhere," he said. When I hailed a taxi to my hotel, about a half-mile away, the taxi driver wanted $5 for the trip. I thought he was just fleecing the foreigner, but when I got in the cab, I found out that gas was selling at $6 a gallon. Taxi prices were on par with New York City in one of the poorest nations in Africa. The next day, someone offered to buy my cell phone, sight unseen, and when I asked him why, he told me that the government hadn't allowed any new electronic equipment into the country for months. Every cell phone was valuable now.
What a difference those seven years have made. This African renaissance is now over. They've sunk back into the dark ages. Eritrea has been dealt one of the cruelest hands in Africa. First there was brutal oppression at the hands of Italian colonists. Then there was a bloody struggle against Ethiopia. Now there is the specter of a homegrown despot, intent on retaining power even when that means driving his nation to ruin.
Tom Downey is the author of The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse. Based in New York, he travels frequently to write about politics and travel for the New York Times, Men's Journal, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic Adventure.
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Into the Oasis
It doesn't get any wetter, or wilder, than the middle of the desert
If I wasn't in Arabia, I'd swear I was in Arizona. Before me spreads a red-rock gorge called Snake Canyon, a steep abyss that gets only deeper and darker ahead, promising waterfalls, swift-running rivers, and fields of giant boulders. But we've just sped along a highway posted with big yellow camel-crossing signs, past women in black veils. The locals seemed baffled to see us: The canyon, in Oman's Western Hajar Mountains, isn't a place they're likely to venture. How do I explain to them my desire to plunge into a gorge with no way out except by swimming, wading, climbing, or praying?
I don't explain. I take a deep breath and a running start and jump, sailing past the dusty canyon walls until I slam into the water and holler from the shock of the icy cold -- especially jarring because the air temperature tops 110°. I sink to the sandy bottom, stroke up to the surface, and look back up at a thin ribbon of blue sky surrounded by jagged rock. It's as if I've tumbled into the center of the earth. My guide, a mad Englishman named Rob Gardner, yells for me to follow him downriver, nudging forward the backpacks floating at our sides.
Welcome to the other front line in the Middle East: adventure travel. Bedouins speeding through the sands in Toyota 4WDs; blazing heat followed by scrotum-shrinking water; vast caves only two hours from sprawling megamalls; lonely canyons that even longtime desert dwellers don't dare enter -- all this is my introduction to Oman, a sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula that's beginning to be discovered by adventure travelers. Once T.E. Lawrence and Sir Richard Burton used to wander through the desert sands of the Middle East. Now this region is more likely to conjure up images of suicide bombers than of literary explorers.
But there's an upside to today's stereotypes: Almost nobody comes here. A huge Omani cave network that should draw thousands averages a mere 150 visitors a year. The capital, Muscat -- with its labyrinthine souks and whitewashed sultan's palace -- still feels like an ancient frankincense port. Less than 40 years ago the city's gates were locked each night to fend off intruders; now, with its oil reserves dwindling, this nation can no longer shut out the world. Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos, is betting that his country's unique landscape and intact culture can make adventure tourism a new growth industry.
The roping, scrambling, swimming, and splashing I'm doing today is called swim- trekking, an activity devised by Gardner, a former engineer who moved to Oman eight years ago and had such a blast exploring its rugged countryside that he hung out a shingle as a travel outfitter. I paddle behind him for 50 yards before we beach on a sandy riverbank. I'm panting for breath and water is gushing out of my backpack, but the drops have barely hit the ground before Gardner breaks into a run. This is supposed to be a day trip, but we're only a quarter mile downriver -- at this pace we'll have to crack open our emergency overnight supply of blankets and food. We pound even harder, leaping across a small stream, splashing along the banks, and following a gray outcrop of rock. We slam to a stop and stare down the mouth of a waterfall 15 feet high -- the only way into the rock-filled pool below. Gardner pulls out a length of soggy rope and deftly loops it around an anchoring boulder. He steps right off the cliff and rappels into the waterfall, his legs working against the slippery rocks. He motions for me to go next. The first step is the worst, as I plunge backward off the top. But then I get a good grip on the rope, find a couple of footholds, and lower myself to the bottom with a cool stream cascading on top of me.
The word oasis may evoke a cartoon image of a couple of palms sprouting out of the parched earth, but real oases are different -- large microclimates where rivers run for miles and fields of shady date palms bloom. The weather here is radical and unpredictable. A strong downpour can change the course of the river or wash everything out of the gorge -- including us. Eight trekkers died in Snake Canyon during a vicious flash flood nine years ago.
We follow the river through a passageway no more than five feet across and into a dark cave. We swim through its three chambers, each one smaller than the last, until the rock roof meets the waterline and we have to plunge below, splashing through the darkness to find the exit. When we emerge the canyon walls widen and the sunlight reveals a field of boulders taller than I am. As we continue around another bend, Gardner looks perplexed. The water level has dropped since he was last here; instead of a river, there's now a steep cliff and a small pool 12 feet below. Gardner thinks we can jump into it, as long as we spring far enough out that we don't hit the cliff but near enough to avoid the big rocks on the other side. He shimmies down to a foothold, stretches out as far as he can, and makes a blind leap. I see him surface with all his limbs intact, so I hang off the cliff and fling myself backward through the air. I splash hard into the turquoise water, narrowly missing the rock behind me, and surface to find Gardner already making his way to the far shore. I guess he knew I would make it.
It's high noon now and the sun shines directly above us, so we sit in the shade of a rock wall and wait for the midday heat to pass. I take stock of my aching body: bruises all over my legs, bloody cuts on my knees and elbows, pebble burn on my ass. As we scarf down a few energy bars, Gardner is already talking about our next adventures: Tomorrow, he proposes heading to an enormous cave southeast of Muscat that took him months to locate. Then we'll cruise the crystal-clear Gulf of Oman, where we'll climb on a coral island or go diving and game fishing. I'm still exhausted from the morning's workout, but Gardner, as always, looks ready to hit the trail again.
In the afternoon we rope down steep ledges, swim across placid pools, and run along the riverbank. The setting sun is racing us to the horizon as we reach what looks like an impenetrable wall of rocks. The only possible exit seems to be a narrow crevice where the river slides 25 feet down the rock. "Be the river," yells out Gardner, so I make like a human flume log, slip into the stream, and glide toward the opening, hugging my arms to my sides and pointing my toes down. I shoot downstream, water rushing by my sides, and lean back to look up at the bright blue sky. My joyride is over when I splash hard into the pool below. We sprint-swim across a final stretch of water, pull ourselves up onto the rocks, and chase after a flock of brown birds as we come out of the gorge, just in time to see a blood-red sun set over Snake Canyon.
We stroll along an ancient irrigation canal and come to a white-clad old man in a brightly embroidered skullcap. In the adrenaline rush of the end of our journey, I imagine him reaching into his pocket for a leather-bound copy of the Koran or a weathered plug of tobacco. But then I see his fingers wrapped around a more modern appendage: a cell phone. There may be powerful echoes of Lawrence's and Burton's Arabia all around, but apparently you can also pull down a GSM signal here in Oman.
For more information on swim-trekking and other activities in Oman, contact Rob Gardner at Muscat Diving and Adventure Center, 968-2448-5663, holiday-in-oman.com.
For the rest of "New Frontiers" pick up a copy of the September 2005 issue.
Photograph by: Katherine Kiviat (September 2005)
Princeton Alumni Weekly
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The road not taken
In a “better” life, something is lost
By Tom Downey ’95
My mother always told me not to become a fireman. “It’s a horrible life for your wife,” she told me, when I was way too young even for a girlfriend. “Long nights sleeping alone, wondering if your husband is dead or injured,” she intoned.
When I was a child I ignored her. I loved to visit the firehouse where my father worked. I liked to smell the smoke on my dad when he came home from work. But I didn’t become a fireman. Maybe it was my mother’s words, maybe not. Probably it was the deeper social ambition that those words also expressed: her desire for me to do better than my parents had done; to be more educated, wealthier, more successful than them, and to continue that quintessentially American upward social climb that had begun when my grandmother landed at Ellis Island in 1926.
After I graduated from college and talked to some cousins and uncles who still were firemen, I became interested in the way of life I had left behind. New York City firefighting is much more than a job. I wanted to know how these men lived.
That impulse set me off on what became a four-year journey filming and writing about firemen. I focused mainly on one firehouse in Brooklyn, a place called Rescue 2, one of the elite units of the FDNY. My experience documenting the lives of these men began two years before the 9/11 attacks and continued for a few years.
Now, after all that has happened, it is almost impossible to conceive of New York City firefighters from any perspective outside of tragedy and heroism. The stories, myths, and legends of these men have been firmly imprinted on our national consciousness. But when I walked in the door at Rescue 2, more than four years ago, the job wasn’t only about those things. Tragedy and heroism were a part of the fireman’s job – Rescue 2 had lost a man in 1996, and saved many others in prior years – but there was more to it than that: There was also fun, excitement, and a healthy dose of insanity.
The culture that I encountered was almost completely closed off to the outside world. There was a deep distrust of civilians who presumed to say anything about what these men did. The only reason I was able to nose around the firehouse kitchen without getting my ass kicked was that my Uncle Ray was these men’s chief. He wasn’t the kind of chief any fireman wanted to mess with. When he was captain of Rescue 2 the men would have fun downstairs, scuffling and screaming as he worked in his office. But as soon as they heard his steps on the stairs even the toughest guys would disentangle themselves from their wrestling matches and replace their sarcastic smirks with deferential and serious looks.
What I found at Rescue 2 was a culture that harked back to an old New York City, a New York that I had read about but never experienced, because I was a child of the suburbs. These men cared more about doing good, making a sacrifice to help others, and deeply loving their job than they did about making a mint. Those were values that had been in steady decline in New York through the greed-infused ’80s and the booming ’90s. The ethos of these men was much closer to the World War II era than it was to my time.
I’m not saying they were saints. Far from it. They were tough on each other. Brutal at times. At first I recoiled a little bit at this end of their job: the hazing, the harassment of new guys, the ball-breaking that everyone had to bear. But when I saw what they had to go through when they came up against a good fire, I understood a little bit better why they wanted to make sure that new guys could take some pain and suffering. The iconic images of 9/11 show these men shocked and stunned by what they see in the towers above them, or crying for a brother who is gone. But the images of day-to-day firefighting are a little bit different. I think of men doubled over in the gutter, puking up their guts after taking a huge feed of smoke inside a fire.
I live in New York City. Part of what made me understand the tougher side of the firehouse was my own recognition that, if my apartment caught on fire and I was burning up in my bed, I didn’t want some timid guy leading the charge to get me. I wanted the toughest son of a bitch they could find to pull me out of the flames.
One thing I found in spending so much time with these men was an insight into the social world that I had left behind when I went to Princeton, became a filmmaker and writer, and decided not to fight fires or arrest perps as people in my family one generation before me had done. I saw a kind of bond formed in the firehouse environment that I would never find in my job and that my friends – mostly lawyers, bankers, or other professionals – wouldn’t find in their occupational worlds either. Firemen have freedom in their working lives. And they immediately see the fruits of their labor when they walk out of a burning building. In many ways they are some of the most unalienated laborers you can find in America.
In the summer of 2001 I began to work on a book about these men. I was still filming a television documentary, but I wanted to capture stories in the book that I couldn’t get on film. One thing that I realized after 9/11 was that my book would have been impossible to write before then. Not because I was writing about 9/11, but because the tragedy made the men more willing to talk.
I was doing interviews a few months after the attacks when one firefighter whom I knew well, but who had never been willing to talk with me on the record, said he wanted to be interviewed. I sat down with him for a long time and he spoke eloquently about his life and the lives of other men in Rescue 2. At the end of the interview I asked why he was willing to speak with me now when he had been unwilling for so long. “I want my son to know what I do,” he said. “I’ve never told him about the job. I don’t want him to be a fireman. But if I get killed I need some record of what I’ve done so that he can understand.”
And so these men opened up to me for a little while after 9/11 in a way they never had before. At first I had my own problems writing the book: I couldn’t think about my subjects as anything but heroes or victims. In addition to losing my Uncle Ray, who died alongside 95 men from his special operations battalion, I also had known eight men from Rescue 2 and 11 men from Rescue 1 who perished. But I didn’t want to write a tragedy. I wanted to capture the experience of these men before 9/11. And to show that their lives weren’t tragedies. They had humor, perseverance, even ecstasy in the face of fire.
I recently had a reading of my book and invited the two firemen who figure most prominently in my narrative, along with their wives and children. I agonized over what to read because, while I wanted to honor them, I didn’t want to embarrass them. As I read from the book I looked out at the audience. I think, from the look in their eyes, that I was telling a tale that they are proud to have their children know. And that means more than anything else to me.
Tom Downey ’95 is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. His book, The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse, was published in June 2004, by Henry Holt & Co.
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January 9, 2004, Friday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section A; Page 19; Column 2; Editorial Desk
Hazing and Heroism
By Tom Downey
After an assault at a Staten Island firehouse on New Year's Eve, in which one firefighter is accused of striking another in the head with a metal chair, putting him in critical condition, there has been much condemnation of "firehouse culture." We have even heard calls for more rigid hierarchies in firehouses and stricter top-to-bottom oversight in the New York Fire Department.
But from what I've seen over the past four years of filming a documentary and writing a book about a firehouse in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, I think the Staten Island case is an extreme aberration. And I fear that taking well-intentioned steps to moderate the atmosphere of the city's firehouses could be a deadly mistake.
What happened on Staten Island is of course inexcusable, but it has little to do with the firehouse culture I have come to know, which demands a baseline respect for fellow firefighters and fellow human beings. Unless such respect was at the center of a firefighter's outlook, why would he risk his own life to help others?
The group I have been following, Rescue Company No. 2, is an elite unit within the Fire Department, and its old-school, tough-guy attitudes are even more pronounced than those in most other city firehouses. New recruits have to earn the respect of veterans by enduring the silent treatment, tolerating jeers about their masculinity and bravery, and performing menial tasks like taking out the garbage and cleaning bathrooms. But this "hazing" is not an expression of gratuitous cruelty; it is a rite of passage that earns young men the respect their elders had to earn in the past.
One new Rescue 2 firefighter had a cake he brought to the company tossed into the trash can on his first day at work. Some of the older men wouldn't even speak to him at first. But he responded in a way that has worked for every firefighter I know: he manned a nozzle and pushed into an apartment roaring with flames. After that, he was accepted in the firehouse kitchen.
This process of joining a brotherhood is critical because firefighters are more like soldiers than civil servants. They work, live and bond like military combat units. Such bonding is a value that society appreciates in the armed forces, where even in today's reformed boot camp, harassment remains part of the making of good soldiers.
Like soldiers, firefighters see things that nobody else wants to: bodies burned to cinders, people in pain at the end of their lives, best friends dead at an early age. But soldiers typically see these things in foreign lands, which can allow them to more easily separate this extreme experience from their everyday lives. A fireman, however, must pull a screaming burn victim out of a fire, then drive home to dinner with his wife and children. Make no mistake about it: this is a job that exacts a tremendous psychological toll. And, since Sept. 11, 2001, that toll has increased immeasurably.
The physical toll is also remarkable: smoke headaches, sore joints, a perpetually runny nose, deep cuts and bruises from crawling in the dark, lungs and throat filled with black mucus, and a powerful nausea that can make a guy bend over and retch. One Rescue 2 veteran, Jack Pritchard, dragged a crib out of a room so hot that the plastic bars of the crib melted in his hands. My uncle Ray Downey, a former captain of Rescue 2, badly scorched his lungs when he ran without an air tank into a fire to save a young man. (He rose to deputy chief before he was killed on 9/11.)
Firehouses need to create men like these, men who are willing to risk their lives or get badly injured in order to save others. Amid all the hazing, firefighters are really seeking an answer to a simple question: is this the guy I want coming down the hallway for me if I get trapped in a burning building?
No question, the banter that flies across the kitchen table at Rescue 2 can be crude. Still, the taunts strengthen men and prepare them for a situation of absolutes. A firefighter who can keep cool in the kitchen is more likely to remain level-headed when things go horribly wrong at a fire. And respect for senior men is enforced because when all hell breaks loose in a fire, you need the junior men to follow their lead.
The ridicule firefighters often direct against one another's weaknesses is also important. When pride is at stake, a man is often able to push himself beyond pain and exhaustion. Peer pressure is a remarkable motivator. If a fireman flinches, he'll be eaten alive in the kitchen. A man can't ever back down from the flames -- not with the brothers watching his every move.
However, there are clear limits on how far one firefighter can go in harassing another, and physical violence is going too far. Partly, these limits are imposed by the firehouse captain; partly they are enforced by the men themselves. One reason the Staten Island case is so upsetting to firefighters is that is violates their most sacred duty: to protect other firefighters.
I believe that top-down oversight and a heavier hand by chiefs would threaten the bonds that connect firefighters, destroying the informal attitude that makes them teammates, regardless of rank or time on the job. Capt. Phil Ruvolo, the commander of Rescue 2, explained it to me this way: "Everything's equal when you sit down in the kitchen. You're up for grabs. It doesn't matter if you're the new kid or the senior man, the lieutenant, the captain or the visiting chief. It's a great equalizer."
Yes, some firefighters can get out of hand -- and perhaps the most worrisome thing about the Staten Island assault was how eager the other members of the company apparently were to cover it up. But we must accept the risk of rare excesses -- punishing them severely when they do happen -- because, overwhelmingly, New York's firehouse culture creates good firefighters who are also very decent people.
Tom Downey is a filmmaker and author of the forthcoming "The Last Men Out."
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September 23, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 6; Page 106; Column 1; Magazine Desk
A Voice From the Rubble
By Tom Downey.
Lincoln Quappe, a firefighter who worked for three years for Rescue Two in Brooklyn, is among the missing. He spoke with Tom Downey in March. These are Quappe's words.
The rescue companies are the eyes and ears for everyone. If you get a report of people trapped, then we'll spearhead our attack up to that particular area. And maybe be able to control the fire enough to warn the guys upstairs that it's really getting bad here, and maybe it's time for them to get out. At Rescue Two, our main duty is looking out for the safety of all the firemen. Really that's what we're there for. And we've shown time and time again that when there's a fireman hurt, we'll drop everything and get him.
"Being a fireman's fireman comes with experience. I still have so much to learn. I only have 16 years on the job. At Rescue Two, I felt like a probie all over again. I found that some of the most unassuming guys are the most fantastic firemen. They're always there at the right time, they're always in position, and in the heat of battle, they never shy away. It comes from years on the job. Part of it is instinct. All the guys here at Rescue Two are firemen's firemen. It's something you feel when you work with them.
"When you're in a fire, things are running through your brain a million times a minute, and you're just trying to do your job. In those situations you look back at your experience. You think, I got burnt the last time I stayed around in this situation. I won't let that happen to me again. You go by all the telltale signs and from what other firemen have told you. Guys say, Listen, we saw this happen. We talk about fires all the time. We're constantly learning, learning every day, and even in a mundane fire you learn something, and you're like, Oh, man, I didn't know that. Or I forgot about that, but now it's reinforced in my mind. I've been burnt before so I have an idea of how much heat I can take. But you still get burnt, because you still have to continue to do what you have to do. The heat comes onto you. It's tremendous up there on the fire floor. You feel it around the side of your mask. You pull off your glove a little bit, and you can feel it.
"Every fire is scary. That's the way it is. You're a damned liar if you say you're not scared. It's hard to say which fires are most dangerous. Each is completely different. Some fires that seem small can be the most horrific with firemen dying. Even a silly little fire can get a guy killed. It all comes down to fate. But there are signs that you can pick up on at a fire when it's getting bad. I don't have all the answers, but I have an idea when it's time to go. I use other guys in my company as barometers. I'll be in contact with my guys. I know what they look like as far as body features. I hear them on the radio. If Bobby says it's time to get out, I'm going. I use him as my guardian angel, because I know he's seen a lot of things in the past. The captain too. If the captain says, We're getting out of here, I'm going. I don't want to die here."
Tom Downey is a filmmaker who is producing a television documentary about rescue firefighters in New York. Their chief, Raymond Downey, the writer's uncle, is presumed lost.
July 15, 2001, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 6; Page 66; Column 1; Magazine Desk
On the Edge
By Patrick Brown as told to Tom Downey
When you're a firefighter, no decision is risk-free. And even the
heroic ones can haunt you.
You could tell by the guy's voice something was going on. It was May
of '91. I was a covering lieutenant in Rescue 1 in Manhattan. We were
ordered to respond to Seventh Avenue and 48th Street. They're
starting to say on the radio that there's a bad fire - people are
trapped. We make a right onto 45th Street, and there was a garbage
truck there. Instead of waiting for him to clear, we backed out and
went around. So we get there, and two people are hanging out
different windows. We started charging up the stairs. It was a
12-story building. I was so pumped I don't even remember that being a
I've been on the job a long time, and I've been around real tragedy -
situations like what just happened a couple of weeks ago where our
guys got killed. Even if you don't do anything wrong, you can get
killed on this job. I'm always trying to be ready for whatever can
The entry team and I went to the floor the fire was on, the top
floor, and my guys started forcing the door. I ran up to the roof
because I wanted to see where these guys were trapped. There was
nobody up there. The eeriest thing was that they were constructing a
building right across the street. There were all these construction
workers eye-level to me. They're all screaming and pointing a little
way down. I had to climb up on the parapet to see where this guy was.
There he was right below me. It was roaring right next to him, so I
ran back to the stairwell and I told them to get up here.
I crawled out on the parapet to scream to the victim. He looked up at
me as if he was braced to jump. I said: ''Hold on. We're going to get
you.'' He wasn't responsive. He just looked. Pat Barr was carrying
the lifesaving rope. It's always been a tradition everywhere I know
that if you're carrying the rope, you're the guy they're going to
lower. For safety, we take a separate rope, and we tie it to the guy
that's lowering the rescuer. He's attached to an object on the roof
so he doesn't go over.
Now we realize we don't have anywhere substantial to tie this rope
the way we're supposed to. This guy was going to jump any minute, any
minute. Even thinking of it now, 10 years later, I get all upset. As
a lieutenant, I could have said that we aren't doing this. And the
guy would have died. I could have said that it's too dangerous, and
nobody would have said a word. If I had finagled around and said,
''Break the wall so we can tie off and have a safety line,'' he would
have been gone. The victim was four or five feet below, looking up at
me. It was either let's do it or let's not.
I just said, I know we can do it. ''Here's what we can do,'' I told
the guys. ''Kevin, brace yourself against the wall. We're going to
hold you down.'' We had tied Pat to Kevin, and he had gone over on
the rope. Now Pat's hanging 13 flights above the street, and we're
slowly lowering him. I was scared to death. In 1980, a guy from my
firehouse got killed from the same thing. He had rescued another
firefighter, and the rope snapped and they fell to their death. That
guy, Larry Fitzpatrick, was a good friend of mine. I had been a
fireman three or four years when he got killed. Now here I was
directing the same thing.
This victim was on the precipice of life. It was seconds. Pat Barr
grabbed him, and that dead weight stretched the rope so intensely
that Kevin, who was lowering him from the roof, started pinioning
right up. At this point, Paddy O'Keefe lay on top of Kevin and pushed
him down. We lowered them to the floor below, and they're just
hanging there. I'm screaming on the radio for somebody. The fire is
roaring 10 feet from them. Everybody in the street saw it. But nobody
on the floor below knew they were there. That was the scariest moment
I think. If the fire had come out, it would have burnt the rope.
Pat swung around and broke the windowpane with his hand, while
holding onto the victim. A fireman saw them, and they all ran and
pulled them in. The construction workers started cheering.
Everybody's going, ''All right!'' But I remember saying to Paddy,
''There's another guy trapped on the other side.''
As we came to where the other guy was trapped, another fireman from
Ladder 24, this guy Ray McCormack, came up to the roof. All I said to
him was, ''You got a belt?'' He said yeah. I told him, ''O.K., you're
going to lower Kevin.'' And we did exactly the same thing as the
first one. We saved both these guys. I was elated. But there was no
rah-rah to it. I was humbled. I often think that if we had waited for
that garbage truck, or if I didn't go up on the roof and look around,
they'd have been dead.
I had nightmares for weeks about what could have happened. There are
so many unknowns in this job. Sometimes I wonder. It worked out
great; it worked out fine. But even now I think, Man, oh man, that
was such a close call. It was the right thing to, do but it was right
on the edge.
Patrick Brown is a captain in the New York Fire Department. Tom Downey is a filmmaker who is producing a television documentary about New York rescue firefighters.
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