Labadee port guide

If you have do-gooder friends that like to share their tales of helping the world’s woe-plagued, including their voluntourism trips to Haiti, you’ll get a lot of value from any cruise that stops in Labadee, Haiti. Imagine the thrill at cocktail parties of saying how concerned you were about the inequality that you saw in Haiti:

Sign in front of the private luxury subsection within Labadee.

This lease, which runs through 2050, was a stroke of genius by Royal Caribbean. It is only a few steps from the dock to the beach and, for folks who have trouble with steps, the beach is wonderfully accessible to the wheelchair-bound. There are concrete paths along the beach and balloon-tire wheelchairs and boat shuttles from the dock to the farther beaches.

Here are a couple of overview drone photos, one from the top of the insane zipline, that the manager of the resort shared with me:

The nearby town of Labadie had a population of about 1,200 when Royal Caribbean showed up in 1986. Due to migration from other parts of Haiti, the population is up to 5,000. There is a carefully circumscribed tour to a corner of this town that is kind of interesting. The locals are grateful to the company for the electricity and clean running water that has been arranged. One worker in the resort had been born in 1981 in Labadie. He was enthusiastic about the Royal Caribbean presence: “The money that my father earned building this place was used to send me to college and learn English.”

Labadie is atypical, despite not being part of the Royal Caribbean lease, because there are no roads connecting this town with the rest of the country. People who want to shop or see friends take a two-minute water taxi to a dock next to the Royal Caribbean area and then a 30-minute 8-mile $5 minivan taxi to Cap-Haïtien.

A big part of the tour was on the topic of medicinal plants, of which dozens are used for specific ailments and for which specific preparations are required. I explained to our guide that medicine in the U.S. is more advanced, especially in Massachusetts. We have found a single plant that is said to cure all ailments: medical marijuana.

There is a Trump-style border wall between Labadee and the rest of Haiti:

Big question: If a pregnant woman scales the wall and gives birth on the Royal Caribbean side, is the resulting infant entitled to a birthright Seapass and lifetime membership in the Crown and Anchor Society?

When a small ship such as the Empress of the Seas is the only ship in port, the beach is wonderfully uncrowded. The beach barbecue is basic, but the chicken was perfect. You can tell do-gooder friends about how you weren’t afraid to eat any of the food offered in Haiti and how everyone there was enjoying at least 6,000 calories per day (note: everything that you might consume in Labadee was loaded onto the ship in Miami). Prices for excursions are reasonable. One couple we talked to did a 45-minute jetski tour for less than $100 and raved about it.

This was the last stop on our tour and it was a little sad to be sailing away…

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Cruise ships should be wired up for stargazing

One of the luxuries of being out at sea in the old days was seeing stars that would never be visible from light-polluted cities. Cruise ships don’t offer this, though, because they don’t want people stumbling and falling on the upper/outer decks.

The officers of Empress of the Seas talked about trying to darken the top deck for stargazing during a ferry trip (crew-only). It turned out to be impossible. “Every time we thought we’d turned off some lights with a breaker, an emergency system would come on and replace them. We ran around for about an hour trying to turn off individual switches, but gave up.”

In case any future cruise ship engineers happen to read this… how about a system where a top deck area can be darkened for 15 minutes? Passengers can walk up there for an event. Once they’re all comfortably established on the ubiquitous lounge chairs, the crew can kill the lights.

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Jews of Cuba and Cuba-Israel relations

I’d forgotten how prominent Cuba once was on the world stage, but our guide in Havana reminded us that Cuba and Israel are still on bad terms. Wikipedia notes that Cuba was a military ally for Egypt and relations were broken off by Cuba in 1973, when the countries were at comparable levels of economic development. Apparently not enough has changed in the intervening 45 years for relations to be reestablished!

Our guide said that roughly 1,500 Jews remained in Cuba and that most were elderly, the young Jews having emigrated to Israel. These facts are consistent with Wikipedia.

It makes me wonder what the point of having physical embassies might be. If relations were established tomorrow, could it really make sense for cash-strapped Cuba to set up and run an embassy in Israel where almost everything costs more than in the U.S.? Similarly for Israel, why pay someone an Israeli wage to sit around Havana and drink mojitos when almost any conceivable issue between two nations could be negotiated at the UN in New York and/or via Skype?

[A fellow guest at dinner shared her theory that all of the casinos in Cuba were funded with “Jewish money” and that, following the revolution, this money was used to build Las Vegas (see also the Wikipedia history of Las Vegas). That’s one of the beauties of cruising, in my opinion. One is exposed to a much broader range of people and opinions than at home. (This theorist was an African American from Connecticut, retired from a government job.)]

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New Year’s Wish: National and Global Unity via more cruise ships

A wealthy (through marriage) and virtuous (through Trump-hatred) friend posted while on a $1,000+/day luxury vacation on Grand Cayman:

I mentioned the fundamental lack of sustainability of any economic ecosystem involving cruise ships filled with passengers interested in snorkeling coral reefs and visiting white sandy beaches. How the destruction of mangrove forests for the sake of resort development will only increase the damage done by future hurricanes, and that it was my hope that tourists not want to visit places with gross wealth disparity between themselves and the local population: the simile is an invasive species that devours resources to (the resources’) extinction before moving on.

This is consistent with a lot of what I’ve seen and heard from elite Americans. They say that they’re upset by inequality. They also say that they hate cruises and they mock cruise ship passengers as obese, uneducated, undiscriminating, and uncouth.

My response:

If you dislike wealth disparity you should welcome cruise ships. They are the cheapest form of vacation. A week on a cruise ship that visits St. Bart’s is cheaper than one night of hotel on that island. (Currently on a Royal Caribbean ship where the cost per person per day is less than $100/day including food, entertainment, and transportation to all of the ports visited.)

Let me devote New Year’s Day, then, to celebrating the cruise concept, which enables people of many different income levels and nationalities to come together and experience the world. Empress of the Seas is the smallest vessel in the Royal Caribbean fleet, but we still had crew from 59 countries and passengers from 39 countries on board. The cost of visiting Cuba via this ship was less than half of the cheapest land-based “person-to-person” tours that I’d ever seen. Roughly 20 percent of the Americans on board were African Americans. Due to the policy of mixing up passengers at tables for eight, I saw more mixed white/black groups in a week on the ship than in a year of dining out in Boston. Retired government workers (loyal Democrats!) conversed politely with working small business owners.

Here I am with a new friend:

(my Facebook friends posted some similar images, minus the golden halo, after each had found one African American friend to join for Black Panther)

One block of cabins on our ship was occupied by graduates of a Taiwanese engineering college enjoying their 60th reunion(!).

Who else, other than Purell sales reps, will be brave enough to join me in hoping that 2019 sees further growth in what has already been a spectacular growth story and a force for national and global unity?

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The dangers of traveling in Israel

Friends who read the newspaper and watch CNN didn’t want me to come to Israel, which as far as they can tell is the world’s most dangerous country.  If this is true, someone forgot to tell the Israelis.  They gather in huge crowds at beachside restaurants.  They stroll around Tel Aviv at all hours of the day and night.  They pack the highways and shopping malls.  They meet at huge dinner parties with friends and extended family.  In short, they are sitting ducks.

When I go back to the U.S. tomorrow morning I’ll be risking getting eaten by a Mountain Lion in a Colorado suburb (it happens), being killed by a Grizzly Bear almost anywhere in the West, getting swept away by violent rivers and waves, being mugged in Cambridge by local kids who aren’t grateful for a lifetime of taxpayer support, being blown up on Amtrak or in NYC by Islamic terrorists while attempting to go to a Broadway play, being killed in a post office by an angry worker with a high-powered rifle, etc.  And then there is my first helicopter lesson on Monday morning….

Anyway the bottom line is that Israel seems to be at least as safe as most densely populated parts of the U.S. and Europe.  The obsession with violence in Israel is a foreign obsession.  The world would be a much safer place if people focussed more on reducing violence in their own backyards.

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Flying in Israel

Spending a few days on Martha’s Vineyard listening to birds chirp, waves break, golfers golf, and … airplanes flying overhead at all altitudes and in all directions.  Quite a contrast from general aviation in Israel, where I did two flights last week in Cessnas.  [Snapshots at]

Every American pilot ought to fly in Israel, if only to see just how
bad it is likely to get as the U.S. suffers from more terrorist
attacks.  Getting into a general aviation airport is very difficult.
You have to explain who you are and why you need to fly.  In 2000 and
1992 Israeli security officials lost interest as soon as they figured
out that I was a native-born U.S. citizen.  Attacks from Muslims born
in European countries, however, have turned the Israelis into
xenophobes.  If my host/pilot hadn’t been friends with the chief of security
for all airports in Israel, I wouldn’t have gotten into the parking
lot much less an airplane.

Once you’re seated in the plane the security remains just as tight.
You make a radio call to request permission to start up the engine.
You make a radio call to activate your previously filed flight plan.  Unless you’re coming in on an instrument flight plan from a foreign country, everything happens in Hebrew.  It is basically illegal for anyone without an Israeli license to operate an airplane, or even touch the flight controls without an instructor on board, under VFR within Israel.  This is partly due to the fact that the controllers aren’t accustomed to working in English but perhaps more due to the complexities of navigation.

Once in the air the entire airspace of Israel is forbidden except for
a handful of designated VFR routes and altitudes, which are not in a
standard GPS’s database.  Even though the controllers have very good
radar coverage of the entire country you make regular position
reports.  If you deviate more than one mile horizontally from any of
these routes the controllers will chastise you; keep in mind that the
State of Israel is only about 10 miles wide in the middle–if you get
off course you will be straying over the West Bank and the government
is afraid that Arabs will shoot at you.  In the good old days you
could fly down the valley of the River Jordan, land at the Jerusalem
airport, fly over Jerusalem, etc.  In 2003 all of that is closed off.
With virtually nowhere to go it will presumably be time to land soon.
If an airport closes at 5:00 pm, it is forbidden to land after that
time.  There is nothing like the pilot-controlled runway lighting that
is standard in the U.S.

Safety ought to be better in Israel than in the U.S.  The weather is
almost always clear.  In the U.S. you may depart from New Jersey in a
small airplane and arrive several hours later in Maine to completely
weather that is completely different from what it was in NJ, from what
it was in Maine when you took off and got a weather briefing, and from
what was forecast.  By contrast, the whole country of Israel is no
larger than New Jersey and the weather tends to be very similar across
the whole landscape.  In any case you take off and land at the same
airport most of the time, usually flying for less than one hour.

Mid-air collisions only constitute a few percent of the accidents in
the U.S.  Nonetheless they seem even less likely in Israel because all
airplanes are on designated routes at designated altitudes in radio
contact with and under the control of air traffic controllers.

In the U.S. an airplane operated privately has to be inspected and
recertified airworthy by a merchanic every year.  An airplane operated
commercially, either by an airline or a flight school, needs a
mechanic’s inspection every 100 hours.  In Israel an airplane has to
be inspected and certified airworthy every morning.  A mechanic walks
out onto the flight line and signs off all the machines that are going
to fly that day.

One thing that is very odd about Israeli pilots is that they are not
trained to lean (adjust the fuel-air mixture to compensate for air that is thinner due to heat or high altitude; your car does this automatically but little airplanes generally run on 1930s technology). 

They taxi full rich.  They take off full rich, even
when it is 40 degrees C (over 100 F) outside.  They cruise full rich,
unless they are over 3000′ MSL.  They really ought to all have died
from either fuel exhaustion or failure to climb when fully loaded on
very hot days.  The performance and range figures in a Pilot’s
Operating Handbook (“P.O.H.”, the owner’s manual that comes with the
airplane) are calculated by American pilots using American procedures,
which include leaning very nearly to peak exhaust gas temperatures.
Most Israeli airplanes are ancient Cessnas that don’t have fuel flow
gauges but it seems safe to estimate that Israelis are using 50
percent more fuel than would be predicted by the P.O.H.  Probably what
saves them is that the distances are so tiny; you could fly almost
anywhere in Israel from Tel Aviv using only what an American pilot
would keep as a fuel reserve.  For climb-out at a high density
altitude Americans who fly in the West learn to find a peak power
mixture setting on the ground and then richen just a bit for cooling.
Perhaps what keeps Israelis alive is the near sea level elevations of
all the airports here and the fact that the terrain isn’t very
dramatic, i.e., you never have to climb very steeply to clear a hill.

Oh yes, and the hourly rates for all of this are about double that of what it costs in the U.S.

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Weekend in Gettysburg

Richard and I flew down to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania over the weekend to visit his brother, a professor at Gettysburg College.

On the way down we stopped at the Kingston-Ulster airport and were picked up by Richard’s friend Annie, a flying kinetic whirl of activity whose mass could only be characterized by a probability distribution.  We drove a few miles to Bard College’s new auditorium, designed by Frank Gehry.  From the air this had seemed like a misshapen metal-clad lump.  From the ground it still looked misshapen but not ugly.  It cost $60 million to build.  Running a not-for-profit college would seem to be a very good way to accumulate cash.  Even after spending $60 mil the school had enough money left over to pay lots of security guards.  A performance was in progress in the small theater and every door was locked and guarded.  Annie was not be deterred.  We walked around the back and walked in the stage door with the members of the Charles Mingus Orchestra, unchallenged past the security guard who was reading a book.  Lesson:  never hire a hippie college kid to work security.  The main theater did not impress but the backstage was amazingly huge and intricate.

While the local swells attended a play the students played Frisbee and sang folk music in front of the Student Center.  Posters advertised a show of “Palestinian Art; Four Decades of Response to Oppression” (with the world’s fastest-growing population (5% per year) and most of their money being siphoned off by kleptocratic rulers perhaps the Palestinians are now going to support themselves via indigenous arts and crafts).  We walked past the booths selling tie-dyed clothing and through the campus until we arrived at a mansion on the Hudson River, complete with formal garden.

After a late lunch in Rhinebeck we got back into the DA40, bound for Gettysburg.  We flew up a beautiful river valley that crammed together an enormous open-plan new prison, an enormous fortress-like old prison, a golf course, and a scattering of McMansions around the fairways.  We followed a ridge of uplifted hills, cut through by rivers and highways, then climbed to a more efficient altitude of 6500′.  We passed near Harrisburg and over the Three Mile Island nuclear power plants (two cooling towers dead; two blowing steam) before landing at the Gettysburg Airport.  This airport is right next to a mobile home park in which you could buy a nice trailer for $20,000 then rent a hangar for $200 per month.  All the convenience of an airpark without the expense!

The Gettysburg battlefield park is one of the best-preserved and most interesting among those in the U.S.  This was the pivotal battle of the War of Northern Aggression (know to the victors as the “American Civil War”).  The Southern armies under General Robert E. Lee had come to bring the fight into the North and were briefly in a position to reach the big cities of the Northeast.  After the South went home on July 4, 1863, the outcome was inevitable.  This was the first time that artillery, the rifle, and the digging of trenches came together to give the defense a huge advantage.  The Civil War was thus the first modern war in terms of tactics, in terms of press coverage (photographers were embedded with the troops), and in terms of the total mobilization of industrial civilian economies.  The offense did not gain the upper hand until Hitler’s air power, tank columns, and mechanized infantry conquered Europe in the 1930s and 40s (we’re still in the “offense wins” epoch of war, apparently, if the invasion of Iraq can be considered typical).

[To see what an improvement in political leadership can be achieved via professional speechwriters and Microsoft PowerPoint, check out the Gettysburg Address (original and improved).]

Being a professor at Gettysburg College seemed like a lot of fun.  First of all, even on a professor’s salary you can afford a large newish house on several acres of land, typically part of a recently subdivided farm (subdividing farms is to this decade what day trading was to the 1990s).  Now that you’ve got the big house you can start throwing parties for your colleagues.  Most of them will show up because there isn’t much else to do in Gettysburg.  Thus your life consists of going from one party to another, mixing with academics from every area of inquiry.

[Why doesn’t this happen at MIT?  First, the young fun people who work at MIT can’t afford to live anywhere near the school unless they want to cram themselves into a studio or 1-bedroom apartment, not suitable for parties.  Second there are all kinds of social and entertainment opportunities in a big city like Boston.  Third, there are too many professors in one’s own department to get to know and therefore one is unlikely to be coerced by circumstance into socializing with people from other fields (the EECS department at MIT has more than 150 faculty).]

Having soaked up the scenery and the smell of the apple blossoms it was time to depart this morning.  We were greeted by a dreary mist, clouds hanging on the hills, and a steady rain.  Flight Service said that the warm front was coming through sooner than expected but that the weather was clear to the northeast.  Richard and I departed under instrument flight rules (IFR).  This is a bit tricky at an airport with no control tower and no radio repeater for the air traffic controllers (ATC).  You need to take off and gain altitude before you can talk to ATC but it isn’t safe, prudent, or legal to climb into the clouds unless you’ve already talked to ATC.  We picked up our clearance with a cell phone call to Washington Center from the airplane as we sat on the ground in Gettysburg.  They cleared out the airspace north of Gettysburg for 10 minutes, giving us enough time to depart (if we’d had a problem taking off we would have called them back to cancel).

Despite a headwind, we were on the ground in Boston 2.75 hours later.  We had climbed up to 5500′ and never entered the clouds.

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