Monthly Commentary – April 2003

After years, of negative commentary, I promised to lay out the positive case. The promise was lucky because the events of March indicate that we may be looking at a fresh bull market. A major rally or new bull market was widely expected with the opening of hostilities in Iraq. In part that belief rested on the idea that the market and the economy were held up by uncertainty about the situation in Iraq. War is positive by removing the uncertainty. The rally forecast also rested on mirroring off 1991, when the most powerful bull phase in history was launched on the very day the Kuwait War began. In 1991 we had been in a bear market, stocks had rallied off an October low then fallen back, and the economy was in recession. You could not have a more perfect likeness of events. The hangup is that mirroring, while popular and enticing, rarely works out. As we now know, the rally opened five days before the war began, reflecting bullish anxiety to get things going. In only eight trading days the market was up 12%, or about 60% of the total three month first stage bull market rise in 1991. The swiftness reflected the high degree of anticipation, but the move was too big to be sustained. The market then sold off, but the decline was not serious enough to break the upward bias. So far, so good. Despite wide expectation of a rally, investor sentiment indicators were predominantly bearish in early March, which is positive. These surveys have moved up only slightly since the rally began. A considerable swing to bullish sentiment can be expected before the up move is threatened. Technically, the market looks good. We have a triple bottom: a low in August, a slightly lower second bottom in October, and a third higher bottom in early March. This leaves us with a technically strong base extending over five months, and suggests a new bull market, not just a rally. Individual technical indicators are also positive. My most telling directional indicator is daily advances minus declines. Although we hit new lows below those of October on both NASDAQ and ASE, NYSE A/D held. The NASDAQ and ASE are better indicators than NYSE, but A/D is not a good indicator at bottoms anyway. It is terrific at showing a building top, but not a bottom. Overall, a positive showing. Daily new highs and new lows are positive in that new lows at the March bottom were way down from October, when the level was extreme, probably climatic. A nice progression of rising new highs has unfolded as the rally continued. While not useful day to day, high-lows are excellent long term indicators. Aside from sensing a bottom in unusually attractive pricing, the only timely signal I have ever found is a nine to one up volume day. As a new bull market kicks off, one of the early days will have volume on the NYSE for stocks going up that is nine times greater than volume for stocks going down. This is a rare event and indicates such depth and breadth of buying as to create a momentum that lasts for a while. In 1991 we had something like five such days in the first two weeks, but usually only one is required. We had that big volume day on March 17, the fourth day of the rally, and it was an impressive 13 to 1. Follow through on the big mo signal was weak, but the sell off was not too bad considering disappointing news from the front. Another positive factor is time. Bear markets last six months to a year, serious bear markets (say 1973-1974) last at most two years, and even the depression market declined for only two years and ten months. March would have been the third anniversary of this decline, so we were close to setting a record (if the bear market is over, last October will be the bottom). The problem with this analysis is that at the end of the 1929-1932 and 1973-1974 bear markets, stocks were extraordinarily cheap. The foundation of those bottoms was that stocks had gone down as much as they could with values so extreme. Smart money could no longer resist. That is not the case this time. Over the long term, markets work from extremes of valuation at either end. Eventually we are likely to have an outstanding buying opportunity, but it will be hard to see because the economy will look worse than it does today. A somewhat similar positive argument is that the economy must improve. There is no such thing as a double dip, it exists only in government economic data. A double dip recession is merely a longer than usual one. The economy looks terrible now, but only because of the long time we have spent bumping along a bottom. Things always look worst just prior to a pick up. This is not a normal inventory recession, and I suspect things will remain slow for some time, but eventually there will be a pick up. Why not this summer? For the market timer, tops are easy. Bottoms are another matter. The reason market timing is unpopular is not that it can't be done, but the fear of missing bottoms, and that fear is justified. Bottoms are always hard to call. I use a strategy of going ahead and buying stocks that are extremely cheap and seem to have run out of steam on the downside, knowing there is no way I will be able to call a bottom. The worst that can be said about the market is that if we reached a bottom, it is by far the highest priced in history. The absence of genuinely cheap stocks after such a lengthy bear market will limit gains. Bear markets have always produced attractively priced stocks, and here we have a really big bear market and few bargains. The reason is the extremely depressed level of earnings. If the economy does not bounce back, and fairly strongly, a rally is far more likely than a bull market. Interestingly, many of those looking for a big up move still do not think the bear market is over because of deep rooted economic problems that are either not being addressed or are too intractable for the usual cures, and may be worsened by a deficit getting out of hand. The absence of attractively priced stocks supports that viewpoint. Although I am not yet convinced that the trend has reversed to the upside, the odds are decent that we have seen a bottom. There is no law saying a bear market must produce great value. As to the economy, I don't believe in basing my investment stance on something so unpredictable. I don't like that right wing economists see nothing but sunlight despite the clouds, but these people are in control of the government and they may well give us another big tax cut. You have to ask, if the economy really is picking up, why in hell are we going for another tax cut with an exploding deficit (the answer is that the right believes any tax cut any time is a good one). On the other hand, that cut is likely to be positive over the short term. Aside from what is shaping up as a good rally or bull market, the long term picture is not positive for more reasons than high stock prices. I am reminded of a comment by a man who builds his economic theory around historical precedent, a long perspective I much favor, who said, you would have to be crazy to be bullish on the U.S. economy. Our venture into aggressive warfare, the historical curse of leading nations, on top of a loss of interest in fiscal responsibility, has inspired me to begin reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But that decline took centuries, and I will be long gone by the time of the fall.

Georgia

Georgia FlagThe newly independent nation of Georgia is hard to describe in terms of one particular region. Some consider it part of the Middle East, others Europe, and still others Asia. The reason for this may be because it is so closely related, both geographically and culturally, with all of these places. Once it broke from the former USSR, Georgia suffered some civil unrest, but as the situation stablizes, Georgia is becoming a major player in world affairs. Unfortunally much of the political affairs with which it is associated today have to do with the conflict in nearby Chechnya. But the government is working hard to bring tourists and the like to Georgia, to show the world the virtues of this crossroads where so many cultures meet. Food is a highlight of Georgian culture, and one of the biggest draws for tourists. Georgians ascribe the same importance to their food as they do to family, friends, and God. Mealtime is full of long-honored rituals, with each meal led by an elected head of the table called a tamada (for very large parties, the tamada may in turn select assistants called tolumbashis). The tamada is always a humorous and philosophical individual who is known for his abaility to improvise speeches for long periods of time. He offers toasts throughout the duration of every meal, including toasts to friends, country, family, guests, and more. It's customary to toast with wine or some other drink (not beer, as that's seen as a slight insult) before new courses are brought out, and to wait for a toast before eating each new course or starting a new drink. As a guest, if you need to excuse yourself from a table, it's tradition to stand and offer a toast to your hosts before leaving, but it's worth noting that the tamada must give permission before anyone other than himself offers a toast. (This is not meant as a constraint, but does provide a certain order and discipline to the meal.) Georgian mealtimes also often include singing, dance contests, and revelry. And then there's the food... Georgia MapGeorgian cuisine involves many common ingredients, but due to variations in recipes and combinations of its "obligatory" ingredients--such as walnut, regional herbs, garlic, vinegar, red pepper, pomegranate, barberries, and more--each dish takes on a unique taste and aroma, which make Georgian cuisine very popular. Georgian food typically involves an abundance of different kinds of meat, fish, and vegetables, various types of cheese, pickles, and seasonings. And the meals themselves are huge: four, five, or more courses; and it's considered impolite to not accept food when offered. If you do plan on traveling to Georgia, it's best to aviod the northern region. This is still a dangerous area, where land mines and kidnappings are common. The unrest that surrounds Georgia's neighbors has spilled into Georgia at times, so most border areas require extra attention to safety. Traveling in Georgia There are domestic flights between Tbilisi and other major cities, such as Kutaisi, Butami, and Senaki. Many roads are in poor condition and can be dangerous. There have also been reports of tourists being car-jacked, so it may be better to hire a car with a driver. There is some rail service, but due to conflict in neighboring countries, it can be very frustrating to use. Busses run regularly and may be the best way to get around Georgia. There is a subway in Tbilisi, but thefts have been known to happen there, so taking a taxi may be a safer alternative for traveling in this city. There are many places to eat Tbilisi; the city is truly a gourmand's dream. Most food is served fast and in abundance and is not very expensive. What you see on the table is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. And if you have a Georgian order for you, be prepared for at least five courses piled one on top of one another, but save room because, just when you think the meal is done, there's always another course on the way, which is usually tastier than the last. Nonsmoking sections are unheard of in Georgia, so don't ask. Citizens of Poland, Bulgaria, and the other CIS countries can enter Georgia without a visa. Everyone else must have a visa to enter. It's best to obtain this before leaving home at the Georgian embassy in your country. A visa purchased in the U.S. will cost US$40 for a two-week stay; that increases to US$80 if purchased upon arrival at Tbilisi Airport. Visa information is available at http://www.mfa.gov.ge/consular.html. There is a severe shortage of basic medical supplies in Georgia. It's recommended that you bring your own syringes (with a note from your doctor) if necessary. Also, doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services. The local currency is the Lari (GEL); 1 Lari is approximately equal to US$0.50. Weather in Georgia Georgia is generally accessible to tourists year-round, and there's always something to do. However, if you'd rather travel in the warmth, then June to September is the best time to go. Travel in the summer is also less cumbersome, as you will not be restricted by snow in the mountains and outside of the cities. Also, October is ideal for it's cool weather, and happens to when Georgian wineries are most active. Georgia Information Population: 5.2 million Government: Presidential Republic Square Miles: 27,200 sq mi (69,700 sq km) Capitol: Tbilisi Official Language: Georgian (71%), Russian (9%), Armenian (7%), Azerbaijani (6%) People: Georgian (70%), Armenian (8%), Russian (6%), Azeri (6%) Religion: Georgian Orthodox (60%), Russian Orthodox (10%), Muslim (11%), Armenian Apostolic (8%) Major products/industries: Heavy industry (steel, aircraft, machine tools, locomotives, cranes, motors, trucks), textiles, shoes, wood products, wine

Market Commentary – April 2003

After years, of negative commentary, I promised to lay out the positive case. The promise was lucky because the events of March indicate that we may be looking at a fresh bull market. A major rally or new bull market was widely expected with the opening of hostilities in Iraq. In part that belief rested on the idea that the market and the economy were held up by uncertainty about the situation in Iraq. War is positive by removing the uncertainty. The rally forecast also rested on mirroring off 1991, when the most powerful bull phase in history was launched on the very day the Kuwait War began. In 1991 we had been in a bear market, stocks had rallied off an October low then fallen back, and the economy was in recession. You could not have a more perfect likeness of events. The hangup is that mirroring, while popular and enticing, rarely works out. As we now know, the rally opened five days before the war began, reflecting bullish anxiety to get things going. In only eight trading days the market was up 12%, or about 60% of the total three month first stage bull market rise in 1991. The swiftness reflected the high degree of anticipation, but the move was too big to be sustained. The market then sold off, but the decline was not serious enough to break the upward bias. So far, so good. Despite wide expectation of a rally, investor sentiment indicators were predominantly bearish in early March, which is positive. These surveys have moved up only slightly since the rally began. A considerable swing to bullish sentiment can be expected before the up move is threatened. Technically, the market looks good. We have a triple bottom: a low in August, a slightly lower second bottom in October, and a third higher bottom in early March. This leaves us with a technically strong base extending over five months, and suggests a new bull market, not just a rally. Individual technical indicators are also positive. My most telling directional indicator is daily advances minus declines. Although we hit new lows below those of October on both NASDAQ and ASE, NYSE A/D held. The NASDAQ and ASE are better indicators than NYSE, but A/D is not a good indicator at bottoms anyway. It is terrific at showing a building top, but not a bottom. Overall, a positive showing. Daily new highs and new lows are positive in that new lows at the March bottom were way down from October, when the level was extreme, probably climatic. A nice progression of rising new highs has unfolded as the rally continued. While not useful day to day, high-lows are excellent long term indicators. Aside from sensing a bottom in unusually attractive pricing, the only timely signal I have ever found is a nine to one up volume day. As a new bull market kicks off, one of the early days will have volume on the NYSE for stocks going up that is nine times greater than volume for stocks going down. This is a rare event and indicates such depth and breadth of buying as to create a momentum that lasts for a while. In 1991 we had something like five such days in the first two weeks, but usually only one is required. We had that big volume day on March 17, the fourth day of the rally, and it was an impressive 13 to 1. Follow through on the big mo signal was weak, but the sell off was not too bad considering disappointing news from the front. Another positive factor is time. Bear markets last six months to a year, serious bear markets (say 1973-1974) last at most two years, and even the depression market declined for only two years and ten months. March would have been the third anniversary of this decline, so we were close to setting a record (if the bear market is over, last October will be the bottom). The problem with this analysis is that at the end of the 1929-1932 and 1973-1974 bear markets, stocks were extraordinarily cheap. The foundation of those bottoms was that stocks had gone down as much as they could with values so extreme. Smart money could no longer resist. That is not the case this time. Over the long term, markets work from extremes of valuation at either end. Eventually we are likely to have an outstanding buying opportunity, but it will be hard to see because the economy will look worse than it does today. A somewhat similar positive argument is that the economy must improve. There is no such thing as a double dip, it exists only in government economic data. A double dip recession is merely a longer than usual one. The economy looks terrible now, but only because of the long time we have spent bumping along a bottom. Things always look worst just prior to a pick up. This is not a normal inventory recession, and I suspect things will remain slow for some time, but eventually there will be a pick up. Why not this summer? For the market timer, tops are easy. Bottoms are another matter. The reason market timing is unpopular is not that it can’t be done, but the fear of missing bottoms, and that fear is justified. Bottoms are always hard to call. I use a strategy of going ahead and buying stocks that are extremely cheap and seem to have run out of steam on the downside, knowing there is no way I will be able to call a bottom. The worst that can be said about the market is that if we reached a bottom, it is by far the highest priced in history. The absence of genuinely cheap stocks after such a lengthy bear market will limit gains. Bear markets have always produced attractively priced stocks, and here we have a really big bear market and few bargains. The reason is the extremely depressed level of earnings. If the economy does not bounce back, and fairly strongly, a rally is far more likely than a bull market. Interestingly, many of those looking for a big up move still do not think the bear market is over because of deep rooted economic problems that are either not being addressed or are too intractable for the usual cures, and may be worsened by a deficit getting out of hand. The absence of attractively priced stocks supports that viewpoint. Although I am not yet convinced that the trend has reversed to the upside, the odds are decent that we have seen a bottom. There is no law saying a bear market must produce great value. As to the economy, I don’t believe in basing my investment stance on something so unpredictable. I don’t like that right wing economists see nothing but sunlight despite the clouds, but these people are in control of the government and they may well give us another big tax cut. You have to ask, if the economy really is picking up, why in hell are we going for another tax cut with an exploding deficit (the answer is that the right believes any tax cut any time is a good one). On the other hand, that cut is likely to be positive over the short term. Aside from what is shaping up as a good rally or bull market, the long term picture is not positive for more reasons than high stock prices. I am reminded of a comment by a man who builds his economic theory around historical precedent, a long perspective I much favor, who said, you would have to be crazy to be bullish on the U.S. economy. Our venture into aggressive warfare, the historical curse of leading nations, on top of a loss of interest in fiscal responsibility, has inspired me to begin reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But that decline took centuries, and I will be long gone by the time of the fall.

Crossing the Continental Divide: The Building of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is among the most popular cruise sites in the world, and deservedly so. Its fascinating history and spectacular size inspire, and its purpose is well served by tankers, cruise ships, and more on an almost constant basis. A day going through the canal is filled with loudspeaker information on its construction and operation, but enjoyment of the passage can only be augmented with more knowledge of the canal’s history. One of the best books on the subject is David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas, but for those seeking information without reading this or other lengthy books, what follows is a brief account of passage through this historic canal. Panama Canal Map - LargeConstruction of the Panama Canal was started by a French group in 1881. The company, called Compagnie Universelle du Canal Interocéanique de Panama, was headed by Ferdinand de Lesseps, who gained fame building the Suez Canal. De Lesseps was not an engineer, as many presume, but a diplomat and promoter--some might compare him to a modern-day Wall Street investment banker. His zeal for the project, and inexperience in technical matters, got the project started with the backing of the French government. However, de Lesseps’ greatest skill was his charisma and the ease with which he was able to attract interest and financial support from the public by selling speculative shares in the canal project. This led to much the same situation that brought about the recent collapse in the U.S. stock market: de Lesseps undertook massive promotion to sell the project to investors, all the while underestimating costs, exaggerating progress reports to raise more money, and covering up when the project ran into trouble. The promotion was not unlike an internet IPO, starting fast and intensifying despite huge losses. In fact, after the French company unexpectedly went bankrupt in the face of inevitable failure, de Lesseps very nearly went to jail, escaping only because his health collapsed. The reason behind the company’s failure was de Lesseps’ fixation on building a sea-level canal similar to the Suez Canal. The Suez Canal is in the flat desert where dredging at sea level was significantly easier than having to cross a small mountain range--as in Central America; plus the arid environment there was much more manageable that the damp, overgrown Caribbean jungle the French faced in Panama. Digging a canal where the French plan proposed required going over the Continental Divide, not high at the narrow Isthmus of Panama, but still at an elevation of 275 feet at its lowest point. To make the sea-level canal work meant cutting a central passage, wide enough for ships to pass, through the entire 275-foot wall of basalt rock. Further, particularly at the coasts, the ground was discovered to be extremely unstable, so that far more ground had to be removed than planned. On either side of the cut the land was high, making removal of slag and earth a major problem. A sea-level canal would have required moving so much rock and dirt that the job would have been nearly impossible. As the French began, they had four principle problems: water, disease, faulty engineering, and irregular management. The digging started up the Chagres River, but there was so much rain, especially in a wet season, that men, equipment, and their work were often washed away in flash floods. Poor equipment made it nearly impossible to make reasonable headway on the project, in spite of the harsh climatic conditions, and the underused and too-light Panama Railway, which had potential to guarantee removal of earth as it was dug from the various pits along the main channel, did not even reach most of the active digging sites. The problem of disease came from mosquitoes, which the wet weather made particularly serious. Hospitals had yet to draw a connection between mosquitoes and the spread of yellow fever and malaria. In an effort to rid themselves of insects in their facilities, hospitals took to placing dishes of water beneath bedposts and elsewhere, so infesting bugs would drown instead of making their way into patients’ sheets. This standing water, however, provided a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes carrying much more deadly diseases than the other insects might have. While yellow fever and malaria spread rampantly through work camps, the hospitals themselves were notoriously thought of a "death traps"--a reputation that deterred even the sickest individuals from seeking medical help. Being assigned to the project as an engineer or supervisor became virtually a death sentence. Most of the labor was brought in from Jamaica, and death tolls ran in the tens of thousands. When the U.S. later went in to build the canal, the government of Jamaica refused to allow its people to go. (The U.S. recruited mainly in Barbados.) Finally, the scattered management took a tremendous toll on the crews, contractors, and the project as a whole. Because of a combination of ill health, old age, inexperience, and lack of sufficient progress, the chief of the canal project--known as the "director general"--was replaced more than six times before the French company collapsed. Slow progress played havoc with costs, engineering flaws virtually ensured the sea-level canal would not be built, disease ravaged the workers and management, and finally, after publicly raising funds several times, the company went bankrupt in 1889. More attempts were made to revive the French project, under different names, new companies, and more realistic designs, but by the turn of the century, the Panama Canal project was being woefully handed over to the United States. Still, the French work was helpful when the Americans picked up the job and some of the huge dredges (many of which were American-made) they left behind turned out to be useful. But there is now only one remaining sign of the French work: as you enter the canal from the Atlantic side, looking to the left, the original French channel is still visible. Tugs getting the boat ready to enter the Miraflores lockThe answer to the engineering problem that de Lesseps’ original team faced was actually in front of them the whole time. When the French government originally took bids on plans for the canal, one of the top engineers of the time--a man named Baron Nicholas-Joseph-Adolphe Godin de Lépinay--had suggested, instead of a sea-level canal like Suez, that they build an above-ground canal involving locks and artificial lakes for water transfer. A victim of his own pride, de Lesseps ignored this alternative suggestion and went ahead with his sea-level plan. When the Americans started work, they saw value in the notion of an above-ground canal. It was the best way. The idea was to make use of a tremendous amount of water by creating an artificial lake in the middle of the isthmus and a series of locks leading up to and away from that lake. Gravity would do all the work in filling and emptying the locks as needed, depending on the direction of travel. The Americans still faced the problem of disease, but even that was eventually solved with the realization that mosquitoes were the carrier. Once this was understood, hospitals and camps were screened and every effort made to limit the accumulation of standing water. Disease was still a problem, but it was brought under control. In fact, mosquito control has been so intense for so many years that presently you will not see a single mosquito in the canal zone. While the mosquito as disease bearer was supposedly discovered in Panama, advanced medical experts connected with the Spanish American War had found the answer in Cuba about five years before, but the idea seemed so incredible that it was easily dismissed. Ship entering the Miraflores lockAt the time of the canal’s construction, Panama was not an independent country, rather it was part of Columbia. As the Americans became involved in the project, President Theodore Roosevelt supported the plan to keep the canal roughly where the French had started it, in Panama. There were many calls from Congress and the public to move the site to neighboring Nicaragua, where the project could be restarted with a clean record, but eventually--with the support of engineers, politicians, and business people--Roosevelt won out. When the Columbian government objected to the American presence in the region of Panama, sending troops to quash local support for the United States, the president encouraged and then formally supported a revolutionary group that created a new independent Panama in 1903. Roosevelt took his payoff in the form of a generous ten-mile-wide Canal Zone, which was administered entirely under the American government. When the original treaty expired in 1978, Jimmy Carter turned the zone back over to Panama, which now operates the canal exclusively (though Americans continued in a few supervisory rolls into the 1990s). The under the Americans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work in 1904, and the canal was finished in 1914. The huge Gatun Lake was created by damming up both ends of the Chagres River, where locks are now located. The lake passage makes up the largest portion of the day-long trip through the canal, and is, in my mind, the least interesting part. Looking to the right going in from the Atlantic side at the Gatun locks, you will see a long stretch of high lake level land with waterfalls and a hydroelectric plant part way up. This is an earthen dam made from material drawn from the high ground; thus, it serves as both a dam and a disposal area. Looking back at the closed lock on the CanalThe greatest problem for the Americans was the cut--the high ground in the middle part of the isthmus (actually about three-quarters of the way through from the Atlantic side) at the Continental Divide. Going through the canal today, you will see walls somewhat higher than a cruise ship, reinforced with bolts and heavy screens. Originally the land was almost 200 feet higher at this point (bearing in mind that a boat floats roughly 83 feet above the lake bed). The plan was to make these walls steep, like the Corinthian Canal in Greece. Photographs taken at the Panama Canal’s opening reveal considerably higher walls than you will see today, but a tremendous slide closed the canal soon after it was officially opened. The ground at this point consisted of layers of slippery shale and a loose conglomerate that easily absorbed water and became mudlike, allowing the shale to slide much like snow and ice in avalanche conditions. Looking beyond the current walls, you can see that the land is fairly flat for a considerable distance. This land was originally much higher than in the cut itself, offering some idea of the huge amount of material that had to be removed to stabilize the area. The work was done like a large open pit mine, with terraced flat areas on which huge steam shovels picked up loads of earth and dropped them into railroad cars, the tracks being continually stretched and rebuilt as progress was made. That one of the original backers of the American plan to keep the canal site in Panama was also part owner of the Panama Railway Company is no coincidence. There were many such cross-interests among the canal’s management and supporters, which had the effect of making them even richer. Shortly before the beginning of the cut (from the Atlantic side), lies the work town of Gamboa. Just beyond the town on the left, you will see a river coming into the canal. This is the relocated Chagres River, then as now the principle source of water to Gatun Lake. In order to better control the water supply, up this river about a mile is another dam, not visible from the boat. If Panama had a serious drought, the canal could become inoperative from the large volume of water let out each day from both ends. Trains holding the ship off the wall The canal is built with three all-together steps up at the Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side, and one- and two-step locks on the Pacific side, with the mile-long Miraflores Lake in between. There is a marina on the left-hand side, but not much else on this lake. As I understand it, Gatun Lake is very clear and beautiful once off the traffic path. It is a huge body of water, stretching back well away from the main traffic lane into many nooks and crannies. As ships become bigger, there is a temptation to widen the canal by building another set of locks. While the canal itself is very profitable, the cost of such a project would be so great that it will probably never happen, despite Panama’s announced plans. Instead, on a worldwide basis, large ships are built to either go through the canal or not. The largest ships able to navigate through the canal are called "Panamax." Anything bigger than these must find another way to move their goods across the isthmus. One alternative includes smaller cargo ships that operate almost exclusively within the canal, taking containers from terminals on either side. A number of large container ships may be passed during the passage, though generally traffic is all in one direction for half of each day. One interesting fact is that U.S. naval design has in part been determined by the width of the canal. Tracks for the trains between the two canalsThe most famous feature of the canal is the system of trains operating on either side of the locks. The original concept for these trains was to pull ships through the locks while their engines were off. The fear was that a ship could get caught in gear, not be able to stop, and ram one of the gates, spilling out the water and closing the operation until the gate could be fixed and the water level raised. It’s easy to imagine this happening at the three-step Gatun locks, causing a massive flood of the entire lake rushing into the Atlantic. As an extra precaution, there were once huge chain brakes stretched across the locks. These precautions have now been eliminated. The chains are gone and ships get in and out of the locks under their own power. I suppose engines were less reliable in the old days, but today the risk of such an accident seems remote. But the question remains, why are the little locomotives still there? The answer is, they always had second purpose: to keep ships locked in position as the water swirls rapidly in and out of the huge chambers. The cruise ships that daily go through the canal come very close to the canal’s side walls (cruise ships are also built with an eye to the Panama Canal). Given the great weight of these ships, considerable damage could be done both to the ship’s sides and to the canal walls. While operating the trains is obviously expensive, it is cheaper than having to constantly repair the canal, not to mention damage to the ships, and using bumpers, such as you see elsewhere, would strain the system by reducing the already precious width of the canal. I went through in a tandem lock with an oil tanker that just barely fit. It took much longer to get the ship in and out, and the process halted part way because one of the tanker’s sides had apparently struck the canal wall. Transcontinental bridge, Bridge of AmericasAs you come out to the Pacific, you pass under the soaring transcontinental bridge and then pass a breakwater on the left several miles long. This is the refuse from the Pacific-side construction. It is the largest and longest breakwater I have ever seen, and again reminds me of the immensity of the job. One final feature that always interests me is the large number of ships waiting to go through at either end--a reminder of how important the Panama Canal remains today.

Nassau – Bahamas

Nassau is the capital, largest city, and commercial centre of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. The city has a population of 260,000 (2008 census), nearly 80 percent of the entire population of The Bahamas (330,000). Lynden Pindling International Airport, the major airport for The Bahamas, is located about 10 miles (16 kilometres) west of Nassau city centre, and has daily flights to major cities in the United Kingdom, United States, Canada and the Caribbean. The city is located on the island of New Providence, which functions much like a federal district. While there is no local government, it is governed directly as an administrative division of the national government.

Bombay Stories – Part 2

Editor's Note: Marshall Schoenthal is a Washington, D.C.-based manager for a technology company, living in Bombay, India, for one year. The following travel log aims to illustrate not just elements of Indian culture, but also the thoughts and reactions of a twenty-something Westerner transplanted into a new and different world. We hope to offer regular updates from Marshall in the coming months.Saturday, April 26, 2003 Last weekend we decided to take a little break from reality and spend the day at the Taj Hotel swimming and relaxing. It was great to spend a day away from rickshaws, horns, and people. Although I am enjoying India the constant activity, sounds and smells will get to anyone not accustom to such activity after a couple of months. After laying next to the pool for a couple of hours, we topped it off with a massage. I continue to fail in my efforts to get away from the office for extended periods of time, so the rest of the weekend was spent going out in Bandara and working. Occasionally I will sit back and just find it completely weird that I am living in India. This happened yesterday on my way to work. Mike and I left the apartment as usual, flagged a rickshaw and prepared for our daily drive. The only difference is that, until now, I had not ridden in a rick that smelled like sewage to the point that I was almost sick. The real low point was that the driver blared Celine Dion the whole way. No matter where you go in the world you can not escape that woman. Monday, April 14, 2003 Prior to the internet, life living overseas would have been much more difficult. I woke up Sunday to a panic attack that I had not done my taxes. Five years ago this would have been a problem, but in a couple of hours my taxes were complete and submitted to the IRS. On Saturday I spend the afternoon with a recruiting firm, who we are hoping can help us find some new senior people for our office here. I am continually amazed that tasks that can be rather simple at home are two or three times as hard here. You can't just go to a job site and wait for the resumes to come in; plus, here, the resumes are full of fabrications. The weather continues to be hot and the humidity is rising. Wednesday, April 09, 2003 I found an article about the fashion show I went to earlier. No matter where you live, not every day is interesting. The past couple of days, have included work, sleep, work, sleep.... Working for a global company and reporting to a boss five time zones behind you can make life very difficult. Just about the time that you are ready to leave for the day, everyone has at the head office has gotten around to reading the emails you sent earlier and is responding with additional work for you to complete. What makes life even more interesting, is the over-flowing email inbox when you get to work in the morning. Each morning is shot reading messages sent while you were getting your five hours of sleep. While work has been the majority of my life the last several days, there have been a couple of notable exceptions: 1. Playstation 2 My roommate, Mike, who has been here about six weeks longer than me, decided that he had finally had enough of Indian TV, so it was time to get some alternative entertainment. Because of this I have spent the last three nights (which means from 10:30 P.M. to 12 A.M.) getting run off the road in "SpeedRacer 2," body slammed in "WWF," and body checked in hockey. Needless to say, my game skills have deteriorated, and the complexity of games has increased since I had my Atari in the early 80s 2. Running To make another change to our lives Mike and I decided that we could not continue eating butter chicken with nan or take out pizza, and drinking two 40s of Kingfisher beer every night without countering the effect with a little exercise. So instead of changing our diet, we have started running every morning. Not far mind you. To understand what it is like to run in Mumbai you should try the following. Collect the a week’s worth of garbage and about twenty large rocks and load it all in a hot steam room. Now take a hose, attach it to your car’s exhaust pipe, and run it into the steam room. Run around for 20 minutes inside said room and see how you feel at the end. I am not sure it is healthy at all. 3. Rolling Stones When the Stones came to Washington, D.C., the price was between $200 and $400 dollars per ticket, so when the option of paying $20 to see them was presented I could not pass on it. The concert was great, they played every classic song you could ever want to hear, because they had never been to India. The only problem was it was about 90 degrees, so by the end of the concert it felt like someone had just dumped a bucket of water over my head. Everyone in the audience was great except one group that decided I did not deserve the spot I had occupied for about an hour. When you are in a country where you do not speak the language and four guys decide to move you, unless you are bigger or dumber than me, you give in to them. For a brief minute I thought about standing up to them, but the thought of explaining to the police (who also do not speak English) that I was in the right, getting arrested and spending a night in the Mumbai city jail ran through my mind, and I decided I would be better off moving. Even without this it was a fantastic concert and it will be a good story to say I saw the Stones in India one day. Nothing major is planned this weekend, hopefully going sailing on Saturday again which should be even more fun with the 10 degree increase in temperature. Tuesday, April 01, 2003 Saturday was spent shopping for an electronic gadget with the guys from the office. This was not like a trip to Circuit City--everything you can imagine is available, you just have to haggle for the price. There is an art to this that I have not yet mastered. You must start low, but as I learned, not too low or they just laugh you out of the store. The favorite tactic of the sales guy is to put the item in a bag and get it in your hand, so you’ll be that much closer to paying whatever he wants you to pay. My other favorite tactic was, if you say you need to go get money (because all transactions are cash only), the salesperson will walk with you to the ATM, so there’s no chance to get away. Hajiali Juice CentreI did get the opportunity to try a new favorite stop called Hajiali Juice Centre. It is not quite juice, because it’s thicker than a "Frosty," but the Mango juice was fantastic... I will return here. Sunday King and I went to Chor Bazaar, it is said that you can get some real steals here but you must have a lot more patience than I have. In addition, the pointing and looks we got [for being foreigners] after two hours were more than I could handle. I had to return to my quite home in Bandra. Cat walk at the Fashion ShowSunday night I saw a different side of Bombay. Fraser took me to a fashion show. I will say this, it was quite an experience: the clothes (not sure who would wear them), the girls (very attractive), the crowd (you could tell there is a big gap between the haves and the have-nots in Bombay). Monday I had a great evening with one of the best hosts in all of India. It was a great opportunity to meet people from outside the office and continue to expand my understanding of India. I am continually amazed by the hospitality of everyone I meet. In addition, it was one of the better meals I have had since I have been here. Now back to work... Saturday, March 29, 2003 No matter if I am in London, Tampa, or Bombay, I always seem to end up in the same seedy bar--usually of the clothing-optional variety. When my colleagues said they were taking me to a "dance bar" last night I figured it would be same as a strip club. I was almost right, men sat around, with rolls of cash, drinking, while women danced in front of them. There was even the token guy who actually believed the girls liked him for something other than the rupees he waved in front of her. The one difference was that the women here were fully clothed in traditional Indian dress. I could imagine in earlier times, lovely women dancing in front of the maharaja in a similar setting.

Baja Ha-Ha Without the Laughs

I’d been reading about the Baja Ha-Ha, the sailing rally from San Diego, California, to Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, and was eager to go. Although I’d been sailing in Southern California for over twenty years, this would be my first long passage and first time south of Ensenada.Preparing Moondance, my 1994 Beneteau Oceanis 400, wasn’t difficult. The boat came equipped with radar and an integrated GPS/chart plotter, a device that combines a satellite-based global positioning system with an electronic map that will show your boat's position on a chart. Linked to an autopilot, the system can steer a boat to any point on any ocean. Three months before departure, two of my three crewmembers dropped out for personal reasons, leaving Ed and I to go it ourselves. Ed Redman is a longtime friend and has been my trusty crew since I first started sailing small boats. Leaving my home port of Long Beach, California, we arrived in San Diego a few days early to take care of last minute rally paperwork, attend the skippers' meeting, and do a little last minute provisioning. While on the hook (that is, anchor) in the crowded anchorage, we met some of our fellow rallyists and other sailors. While not part of the Ha-Ha rally, Chris Lolliss had sailed Shan, a classic small engineless wooden schooner he’d built himself, down from Seattle. Bound for the South Pacific, Chris picked up crew where and when he could, but often sailed single-handedly since the boat had little to offer besides adventure. Simple of design and construction, she had no modern sail handling devices and relied on muscle power alone to get things done. With a small cramped interior, there was no head (or bathroom), merely a cedar bucket on deck, and the shower was a black plastic bag full of water warmed by the sun. With our comfortable interior, enclosed head, hot showers (water is heated whenever the engine runs), and TV/VCR, Ed and I felt like true hedonists. We began to refer to Chris as a true buckaroo sailor, and when we invited him for dinner aboard Moondance, he eagerly accepted, glad for a break from his normal fare of energy bars and peanut butter. Sunset during Baja Ha-Ha Sunrise over Baja hills Paperwork finished and meetings over, all 112 boats participating in the rally departed San Diego on October 31, 2000, under sunny skies with the promise of good wind to come. By noon we were in Mexican waters. Filled with a sense of adventure, we made progress, and as the sun set, my first night at sea was about to begin. I had made several night crossings from Long Beach to Catalina Island, about 25 miles from the mainland, but those had started just before sundown and we’d always arrived well before midnight. This was different. We began our watch schedule of four hours on and four hours off promptly at 6:00 P.M. The start date of the rally is planned to coincide, as nearly as possible, with the full moon, and as the sun set, the moon was already up. As the darkness became deeper and more intense, the moon became brighter until it was a lantern in the sky laying down a long glittering trail of light that we sailed straight down. Alone in the cockpit from 10:00 P.M. until 2:00 A.M., I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty of the night and my nervousness began to fade, only to return around the end of my shift. By now we were fifty miles offshore and when the moon slipped below the horizon it suddenly became very dark. Thankfully, the plotter screen and the instrument lights on the panel in front of me glowed steadily and reassuringly. On the second day, while hoisting a light-weight sail designed for heading downwind, a piece of hardware malfunctioned, the sail fell to the deck, and the halyard--the rope, or line, that raises the sail--went clear up the mast. That was a bit of bad luck, but we could still sail downwind with the foresail, called the genoa, set on a whisker pole. A whisker pole is a telescoping aluminum tube, twenty feet long and used to hold the sail out at the proper angle to the wind. We were sailing in a configuration called "wing and wing," where the genoa is poled out on one side of the boat and the mainsail is set on the opposite side, so the boat appears to have sprouted brilliant white wings as it glides across the sea. Those first three days were some of the most sublime sailing I’d ever experienced. They were warm, clear, sunny days and moonlit nights. The wind blew a consistent sixteen knots day and night. (To find miles per hour, multiply knots by 1.15.) The boat often surfed the eight-foot swells that rose up astern and we were able to average seven knots, which is very respectable for a forty-foot sailboat. Mexico Mexico During the day we read, listened to music, kept track of our position and wrote in the log. Whoever was awake kept an eye on the horizon as the autopilot steered. Sometimes, just for fun and something to do, we steered by hand, but not for long. Without a visual reference to steer by, it’s difficult to hold a compass course. Your attention wanders, the speed drops, and before you know it, you’re twenty degrees off course. With the autopilot in control, we could watch the digital numbers on the knotmeter rise and consistently stay high. We soon discovered that a boat making seven or eight knots through the water is not exactly a quiet, restful place. The forward cabin was mine and with it came the bumps and thumps and the loud rushing noise of water moving past the hull, plus the rhythmic creak of the mast and its network of stainless steel support cables, collectively called the rig. Ed claimed the aft cabin for himself, which was subject to the noises of running the boat: the winches when the sails required adjustment, bumps and thumps of moving around, and the creak of the interior woodwork as the boat moved along. After a while, earplugs became our best friends. Before departure, we had carefully planned the menus and had a full complement of tasty and nutritious food aboard, but we quickly found meal preparation while the boat lunged and surged became a matter of "Just how hungry are you?" We discovered that a bowl of instant oatmeal or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich could fill the holes in our bellies and we started to rely on just one hot meal a day, a dish we came to alternately loathe and love. It wad a one-pot affair made up of a can of condensed soup, a can of water, a cup of rice, and a can of meat--chicken or beef. Brought to a boil and simmered for twenty minutes, it was hot and there was plenty of it. Ed and I had been friends for a very long time and we knew each other well, but one thing we discovered early on is that we have different styles of dishwashing that are so incongruous, it was impossible for us to work together on that chore. This presented one of the quirks of living in such closed quarters with another person: you learn to adapt your ways in the name of mutual agreement, because if you don't, nothing works and nothing gets done. We resolved that we'd take turns with the dishes, which included all the drying and stowing, he completing the task his way on his turn, and I mine. The first stop for the rally fleet was a small isolated village approximately halfway down the coast of Baja California (in Mexico) at a place called Bahia Tortuga, or Turtle Bay. The day before our arrival at Turtle Bay, most of the fleet was on the VHF--a two-way radio for marine use--discussing the pros and cons of the entrance to the bay. Experienced sailors were of the opinion that it was an easy entrance, without too many hazards. "Just be wary of the scattered rocks on the southern headland and stay out of the kelp fields on the northern headland." In spite of our best efforts to slow down enough to make a daylight entry, we arrived at the entrance to the bay about 3:00 A.M., after the moon had set. Lighthouses on both sides marked the entrance, but in the pitch dark, without other distance references, it’s very difficult to tell how far away a light really is, and this was third-world dark: an inky blackness so intense it seems to swallow up any light you shine into it. Exhausted from three days of continual sailing and with growling stomachs, we decided not to lay off until dawn and to enter right away. After all, we had all modern electronics aboard... What could possibly go wrong? Bad question. That's exactly when our radar/chart-plotter screen konked out on us; after several tries, I was able to get the chart-plotter function to come back up, but the radar refused to work. My chart plotter showed I was too close to the rocks, but I could see anchor lights from other boats already in and I convinced myself that I had plenty of room. So with an eye on the depth sounder we slowly headed toward the lights. Suddenly, the boat was surrounded by what appeared to be very long, eerily glowing strings of phosphorescence, a kind of spooky sargassum that seemed to be lit from below. Then strange shapes of considerable size appeared in the water and moved with incredible speed and grace. Like glowing torpedoes, they headed straight for the side of our boat, and just before impact disappeared underneath and reappear on the other side. Almost unconciously, I slowed down. Area of interest My heart thumping, I looked over the side, wondering what these strange apparitions could be. It dawned on me then that the rope-like material was kelp and the glowing shapes streaking through the water were dolphins lit up by the phosphorescence. I slowed to a crawl. Despite the chilly night, I broke out in a nervous sweat and sent Ed up to the bow with the 500,000-candlepower spotlight. It wasn’t a minute later that I heard him yell. "Rocks! Rocks ahead! Hard to starboard, hard to starboard!" I’ll never forget the note of urgency in his voice, or the sheer dread I felt when I looked where he had shined the light and there, rising up out of the water, was a jagged black rock rimmed with green, the size of a dump truck. Spinning the wheel, I cut the throttle back even more, suddenly afraid of catching that kelp in my prop. That could trap us there, close to the rocks that were just waiting for an unlucky, or unwise, sailor to stumble upon them. I didn’t relish the thought of going over the side in the dark to cut it away. Fingers crossed, we chugged along. The kelp gradually thinned and the dolphins mysteriously disappeared. It’s a known fact that fatigue can make a cautious, prudent skipper careless. We’d avoided a catastrophe by the skin of our teeth and I'd made up my mind to head out to sea and wait for the dawn, when we saw the lights of an approaching vessel, undoubtedly another Ha-Ha participant. This boat was big--around 50 feet--and as it went by I could tell the captain wasn’t feeling his way in like we had been; he knew exactly where he was and exactly where the entrance was, as though he’d been there before. We quietly fell in behind him and headed in to drop anchor among a forest of masts and a constellation of anchor lights. The bay, set in a bowl formed by the low brown desert hills of Baja, provides good protection for literally hundreds of boats and almost no one passes it without stopping, either northbound or southbound. To call it isolated is an understatement. Most maps don’t even show it, but it is located just south of Punta Eugenia, the tip of the large horn midway down the Baja peninsula. The amenities are few; one or two small restaurants serving great seafood, and one tiny hotel. Fuel and water are available, at a price. Almost everyone is employed at the fish cannery or on the local fishing boats. The local residents--especially the kids--look forward all year to the arrival of the Baja Ha-Ha fleet, which brings not only Halloween treats, but donated clothes, shoes, and school supplies. During the huge beach party, many of those local kids earn a few pesos "guarding and cleaning" the dinghies on the beach. After doing boat chores, which included hoisting Ed up the mast in a special chair to retrieve that errant halyard, we arrived late for the beach party. Beach landings in an inflatable dinghy can be hilarious entertainment for those already ashore. Ed and I approached the beach cautiously, but in spite of all efforts to the contrary, the dinghy managed to get sideways to the small waves and I found myself sliding right off the side into the water. Ed thought that was hysterically funny, but I’d get even with him later. We stayed long enough to drink one beer and then headed back to the boat. After a great dinner, cooked in a galley that wasn’t rocking and rolling, and a good night's sleep, the fleet pushed on the next morning. A perfect breeze shaped the sails and the sky was an inverted blue bowl of good weather. As if to add the final touch of magic, a huge pod of dolphin appeared, swimming and leaping alongside and playing in the pressure wave at the bow. We took it as a good omen for the upcoming leg, which turned out to be only partly true. The next day, just at dusk, we were sailing downwind in fifteen knots of breeze, a good speed for downwind work, when suddenly the whisker pole swept forward, pivoted on its mount on the mast, crashed into the forestay, and bent to a 30° angle. With the pole bent and that big sail cracking and snapping in the wind, the mast shook and vibrated the whole boat. The noise was horrible. Suddenly, I was faced with a situation I’d read about but had never dealt with before. In a matter of seconds we went from a great downwind glide under perfect conditions to an emergency that would steel my nerves. Now I had to leave the relative safety of the cockpit and go forward to deal with a problem in the gathering darkness. Strapping on a lifejacket and clipping my harness onto a stout line, I slid forward onto the pitching foredeck. I managed to get the whisker pole down and lashed on deck, but in the process, the lines that control the sail tangled themselves into a hard wet knot so tightly, I couldn’t straighten them out. That meant the sail couldn’t be set or rolled up and stowed and was now madly whipping about like an angry beast intent on flinging me over the side. The only thing to do was to wrestle the sail onto the deck as the bow gyrated wildly on the waves. I struggled out there for what seemed like hours but was really only thirty minutes. The sail down and lashed tight, I made my way back to the cockpit, winded and thirsty, but also proud of myself for handling the situation. We continued under the mainsail and still managed to make five knots. At least we were going downwind. If we’d been going upwind, it would have been much worse and we could not have made much progress without that headsail. Baja Ha-Ha Group shot from the Baja Ha-Ha Two nights later, approaching Bahia Santa Maria, I received my introduction to rain squalls packing thirty-knot winds and torrential rain. These squalls rolled up from behind us in the pitch darkness after the moon had set and were difficult to avoid. They averaged about fifteen minutes apiece, but they were intense fifteen minutes. If Turtle Bay was isolated and sparsely populated, Bahia Santa Maria is absolutely desolate. Also surrounded by low brown desert hills and beautiful in a spare, forbidding way, the bay provides flat water for anchoring, but the prevailing wind sweeps through a gap in the hills and huffs and puffs almost continually. With no permanent residents--only a temporary fish camp--no fuel or supplies of any kind are available. We came into the wide entrance at about 4:00 A.M. during a slashing rain storm and dropped the hook. The hot shower and scrambled eggs were wonderful and I fell into my bunk and slept for at least ten hours. Many rallyists, us among them, spent an extra day there to catch up on rest, eat a few meals and do minor repairs. In the frantic struggle to get the genoa down, I’d lost the stainless steel shackle that attaches the top end to its halyard. In order to raise it again, I laced the halyard shackle to the sail with a very strong nylon parachute cord. At ten o’clock on the third evening, we and several other boats departed in order to make our approach to Cabo San Lucas in the early morning, two days later. A twelve-knot breeze blew for the first twelve hours and, with the moon high and bright, it was a truly magnificent sail down the coast, but the next morning the breeze died and we motored the rest of the way to the cape over glass-smooth seas under sunny skies. Arriving just at dawn, Ed and I marveled at the sheer beauty of the coast there. High rocky tan bluffs, to which grand houses clung, plunged almost straight down into a cobalt-blue sea ringed with frothy white waves crashing on shore and the sky was so blue, it seemed to have been painted that way. Rounding the rock formation known as Los Arcos, or The Arches, we headed in to the inner harbor for fuel and water. These distinctive rock formations have been a navigation landmark since the Spanish treasure galleons sailed from Manila in the sixteenth century. Sailing north a few degrees latitude, they headed straight across the Pacific until they reached the North American coast; when they spotted Los Arcos, they knew where they were and what the course to Acapulco was. In the last twenty years, Cabo has grown from a small fishing village to a major tourist vacation destination. It is also home to one of the worlds largest sport fishing fleets. The inner harbor is chockablock with gleaming, foreign-owned boats and space is very expensive. I knew we'd have to drop the hook in the outer anchorage, which is, in reality, a rough and rolly open roadstead over a sloping shelf of sand that is constantly sliding into the deep submarine canyon that lies just offshore. This was where the fun started to leak away. In getting the hook down, we began to experience a severe vibration in the engine and the recommended mechanic, an American expat named Kenny, diagnosed a transmission problem. Removing the transmission, he took it back to his shop and gave me the word the next day. "The clutch discs are shot," he proclaimed. "Have to order new ones from San Diego." Don’t worry," he said when I turned pale, "I’ll have you out of here in a week, ten days tops." Ten days turned into fifteen days. I was burning up my vacation time, not to mention our stores, and I was beginning to suspect some kind of scam. The parts did arrive in Cabo but Mexican customs wouldn’t clear them into the country. While anchored in the open roadstead off Cabo San Lucas, we became resource management experts by necessity. We had taken on fuel and water when we arrived, but after two weeks, water for showers and dishwashing was running low. We used bottled water for cooking and had saved one three-gallon jug and several one-gallon jugs, giving us a ten-gallon transport capacity. Loading all the jugs into the dinghy, we made the two mile run into the marina. Since the water faucets all had removable handles, we had to find someone aboard their boat and ask them if we could fill our jugs, which we would then take back to Moodance and pour the contents--one at a time--into the water tank. This had to be done at least every third day. Anchored right off the main beach that hosted the big resort hotels, we became very familiar with the resort activities. The parasail boats--large, powerful inboards--appeared each day about 9 A.M. and raced around until sundown. These boat threw large wakes that rocked us constantly, and they passed so close that at first I was concerned they would tangle their tow line in my mast, but it never happened. All the hotels rented jet skis, which buzzed and circled us from dawn to dusk like huge angry mosquitoes. Mexico Mexico I had quite a collection of music aboard, but after a few weeks we’d heard all the CDs so many times we knew all the lyrics, and suffered the same fate with the two dozen or so movies we'd brought. When Ed found a video rental place, I agreed to a nightly movie, which had the added benefit of improving our Spanish, since the dialog was in English with Spanish subtitles. Spending so much time in the anchorage did have one advantage: we met a lot of people. I woke one morning, came up into the cockpit with a cup of coffee, looked around and thought I recognized a new arrival. Chris Lollis had arrived on Shan. He’d had a terrible run from Turtle Bay, he said, and lost his pretty little home-built dinghy in the bargain. Fortunately, he was able to buy an inflatable one from a cruiser that had a spare. To add insult to injury, his pocket was picked that very night. We met many cruisers, but, since Ed and I were two guys on a boat, we tended to spend time with other guys, those sailing solo or with one or two crew. Stephen Mann had sailed to Hawaii from San Francisco in a race for singlehanders and had placed well in his division. Now he was back, planning on spending a few weeks in Mexico before sailing back to San Diego, where he was employed as a professional rigger. A cruising veteran who had been up and down the West Coast of North America many times, he was fluent in Spanish. His boat, a Wylie 39, was a model of efficiency on deck, with most of the creature comforts down below: microwave, TV/VCR, a well-equipped galley, and the most extensive CD collection I’d ever seen on a boat. He also had a robust autopilot that could have steered the Queen Mary. We met the couple sailing Illusion, the thirty-four-foot steel-hulled boat they’d built themselves. Bob and Stephanie were from the Pacific Northwest, both expert sailors, and planned to spend a season or two in Mexico before heading out to the South Pacific. We also had plenty of time to observe the local flora and fauna around us, which included the water we floated in. We were in one place for so long that a marine ecosystem began to form under and around our hull. Barnacles and other small crusty creatures appeared right at the water line. Small fish showed up to feed on these organisms, and larger fish appeared to feed on the smaller ones, until soon we were able to watch the daily struggle for survival as the bigger ones chased the smaller, and on down the line. Once we saw two manta rays leaping out of the water over and over as they swam side by side parallel to the beach. In the evenings, as the land cooled, the wind would shift and swing the boat on its anchor so the incoming swells would strike the boat on its side, making us rock back and forth so hard things fell off shelves and out of lockers. We became experts at deploying the stern anchor from the dinghy to keep the bow into the waves and so turn the rocking motion into a pitching motion, which is easier to take. Cruise ships anchored about a mile from us, and I frequently spoke to them by radio to get weather reports. When a cold front rolled through with wind and rain, I didn’t get much sleep for three days, because we were anchored on what’s called a lee shore, a condition where the wind blows you toward land. If my anchor began to drag, or even broke free from the poor holding ground, I would have to sail the boat out to sea and out of danger. Fortunately, the anchor was well set and we didn’t move. On the twenty-seventh day in the anchorage, I started the engine to recharge the batteries as usual. There seemed to be more vibration than usual that day, and in looking things over, I noticed by the tachometer that the idle speed was a little low. When I adjusted it, the vibration disappeared. Very suspicious of that mechanic and tired of the moribund Mexican bureaucracy, I had him reinstall my old parts with new fluid. The transmission has worked perfectly ever since. Area of interest Time was running out, but I still wanted to get to La Paz ("The Peace"), so fueled and watered, we departed Cabo early one morning. With no wind and short on time, the plan was to motor to La Paz in one twenty-four-hour passage. Rounding the corner into the Sea of Cortez that afternoon, the wind was suddenly twenty knots out of the north, with six foot seas. We had to slow to three knots to avoid pounding into the waves. Passing the anchorage at Los Frailes, I had a notion to head in and drop the hook, but we were making reasonable progress and decided to push on. Late that night (isn’t it always), Ed woke me out of a sound sleep with the news that the genoa was starting to unroll from the inside, a dangerous situation. Getting that sail down on the plunging bow with the dark water only inches away was a thrill I’m not anxious to repeat. In La Paz I opted for a slip in a marina, and the Marina de La Paz was just the ticket. The staff took care of the Mexican government paperwork procedures, for a fat fee, and the café was good and convenient, if not exactly cheap. Four days in the marina zipped by and it was time to head out again, only this time, we were headed home, pushing to make it by Christmas. Nervous about the "Baja Bash" as the trip up the coast is called, I’d been monitoring my fuel consumption and went over the figures again and again. The conclusion was always the same. Even with the measures I’d taken, I didn’t have the fuel capacity to make Turtle Bay from Cabo. The marina store was sold out of five-gallon jugs, but the big hardware store in town had two, along with two six-gallon polyethylene water jugs. Combined with the fuel bladder I had, these brought my fuel capacity up to eighty gallons. Departing Cabo in mild conditions, we pushed for two days and nights into a wind that steadily increased until it was twenty knots dead on the nose. The Perkins diesel was burning fuel like mad, and we were down to the last tankful with still too many miles before Turtle Bay. Suddenly, the engine faltered. Switching the fuel filters brought it back, but the alternator chose this moment to head south too. As we passed between the headlands of Turtle Bay in the gray dawn, I crossed my fingers for the engine, but when it faltered again I expected it. As luck would have it, it came back long enough for us to get into the bay and get the hook down. We blew a day on rest and food and the next morning, I attacked the engine. Within an hour, I had checked all the filters and bled it (removing air from the fuel system) thoroughly. It started right up and ran at a fast idle for twenty minutes. Problem solved, I thought. I purchased eighty gallons of fuel and prepared to get underway. Seven o'clock the next morning found us San Diego bound, but just between the headlands of the bay, the engine again began to stumble and soon died. We quickly unfurled the sails only to watch them flap uselessly in the still air of early morning. The rocks--the same rocks that had scared me on the way down--looked blacker and sharper than ever, until we put the dinghy back in the water and used the outboard to tow ourselves back to the anchorage. An enterprising mechanic came out to offer his services, but I declined and went over the systems again. The engine ran for forty-five minutes and never missed a beat. "We’re out of here!" Anchor up, we again headed for the entrance, but we didn’t make fifty yards before the first stumble, and very soon, with a resigned shudder, the engine quit. I began to get an inkling that there was more than met the eye here. I managed to get it running again, but when I tested it under load it quit yet again, and I hired the mechanic. Cero did everything I had done, with the same results, and I began to take a perverse satisfaction in his failure. See, I told myself, it wasn’t that simple. A few hours later, the whole fuel system was in pieces. The main salon and the aft cabin, Ed’s living space, was strewn with tools, chunks of rubber hose, fuel filter elements, plastic tape, and other detritus; and the smell of diesel fuel hung in the air like a fog. Fuel Pump Moondance's rebuilt fuel pump Cero worked for about eighteen hours over three days and determined the problem to be a lift pump fouled by debris left over from the Racor filter installation. Of course, I didn’t have a spare pump, and he didn’t have one to fit. I had visions of us trying to order parts from San Diego again, with all the attendant problems of distance, time, money, and Mexican officials. I mentioned to Ed that it seemed like it might take many days, even weeks, to get back home. I had to stay, as it was my boat, and because I was self-employed and had no boss to worry about, I knew staying was an option not out of the realm of possibility. Ed drove a cab for a living and could take all the time he needed, but I also knew he very much wanted to be home for New Year's Eve, a lucrative holiday for cabbies. I told him he could get on a bus if he wanted to, and I'll never forget his reply, which was shrouded in Ed's unmistakeable sense of humor. "Do you know the difference between 'involved' and 'committed'?" he asked. "No," I replied. "What is it?" "In a bacon-and-egg breakfast, the chicken is involved," Ed paused for effect, "but the hog is committed. I'm like the hog. You and I are going to get this boat back to Long Beach, whatever it takes, never fear about that." We shook hands on it and soon thereafter, in the best tradition of make-it-work-with-what-you-have, Cero cobbled together parts from various sources and came up with a working pump that fit my application. He’d also taken my finicky and troublesome alternator to his shop, where he performed ministrations on it that had it working again. When he was finished and the test, which had us powering around the bay in the dark, proved successful, it was time to talk money. Just so there would be no mistake, I handed Cero a pen and paper and he wrote down a number. "Pesos?" I asked, thinking I had it covered. "No," he replied indignantly. "Dollars! Muy trabajo. Much work!" Three hundred bucks! I simply didn’t have it in cash. I showed him credit cards and a drivers license, and promised to send him the money, but to no avail. He wanted his money now. There are no ATMs in this tiny little town and the Western Union office can’t receive wire transfers. The closest bank is a twelve-hour bus ride away, then twelve hours back. I had visions of Mexican jails, the boat impounded, Ed and I stranded on the beach, but Ed had an idea. Cero was not happy about it, but he could see his options were limited, too. I ended up trading him my nine-inch color TV/VCR, my spare handheld VHF marine radio, and some other electronics for his work. This is where I got back at Ed for laughing at my earlier beach-landing efforts. Ed took Cero ashore in our dinghy. When he returned and was boarding Moondance, he let go of the wrong line and turned to see the dinghy blowing away in the stiff breeze. Since they are very light for their size and have almost nothing under the water, inflatable dinghies blow away very fast; ours was already twenty feet away. Ed began to shed shoes and clothes and, down to his skivvies, he dove after it, swam at top speed and managed to catch it about fifty feet away. He climbed in, started the engine and motored back, wet, cold, and haggard from the exertion. Knowing he couldn’t tell the story about my dunking without hearing about his too, we declared a truce that was mostly observed. Northbound once more, the weather turned to low clouds and mist pushed by a twenty-knot wind with an eight-foot swell, and again we had to reduce speed to keep from pounding the hull into the oncoming waves. It was December 22 and we were making less than four knots over the bottom. It would be a miracle if we made Long Beach by Christmas. Forty-eight hours after leaving Turtle Bay the alternator packed up again, taking the engine panel gauges with it. We were slowly draining the house batteries and the engine seemed to have an even more voracious thirst for fuel. Slowing to three knots, we tried to conserve what little fuel we had left. Ensenada wasn’t too far, but in order to make a daylight passage of the southern entrance, we needed to slow down even further. Participant Another Ha-Ha participant Once again we were hungry, cold, forced to go slow, and, unable to generate power, we couldn’t help but wonder what piece of equipment would fail next. Late that night, I woke early for my watch and began to feel an odd stirring deep in my gut. I ignored it and tried to go back to sleep, but in the next several minutes, it became worse, until, unable to lay still, I had to get up. Moving up into the cockpit, I slumped onto the seat and couldn’t stifle the groan that escaped. It felt like my insides were being twisted into knots and another involuntary groan escaped. "Are you all right?" Ed sounded calm. "I don’t know," I said. "My stomach hurts." Another groan boomed forth as I grabbed my middle. This didn’t feel like mal de mer, nor did I feel hungry, although I’m sure I must have been since we nearly always were. This was more like a twisting, grinding sensation that made a cold sweat break out all over me. I groaned again. "Should I try to radio the Coast Guard?" Ed wanted to know. "No," I replied, but deep down I wondered if that was the right decision. After twenty minutes of torture and more groans, I had an idea. I asked Ed to bring me a one-litre bottle of ginger ale and a box of crackers. I began to munch Ritz crackers four at a time and wash them down with mouthfuls of Canada Dry. It’s well known that the ginger in ginger ale will ease stomach pains and relieve nausea, and after a while, I began to feel a little better. I sent Ed below and before my four-hour watch was over, the box and bottle were both empty. At dawn, Ed came up to relieve me and asked how I felt. "Better," I said. "You had me worried there. What made your stomach hurt so bad?" I had no idea. Suddenly, the autopilot began to wander off course, and over the noise of the engine and wind, I heard a new noise. Peering into the locker where the drive unit for the autopilot was, I could see it working back and forth and hear it groaning, as if it too had a belly ache. I turned it off. It’s been said that cruising amounts to fixing your boat in exotic locations. There's a great deal of truth to that statement. It wasn’t a happy ship that was slowly plodding northward. Ed and I alternated steering. It was exhausting trying to maintain a compass course at this very low speed, then suddenly Ed leaped to his feet. My immediate thought was that something else had gone wrong, but Ed looked at me. "I know what we need," he said. "What?" He said nothing, only grinned and went below. I wondered what he was doing down there, but forty minutes later the aroma of frying bacon lifted out of the hatch and I felt my spirits lifting with it. An hour later Ed appeared, carrying a plate piled high with pancakes, corned beef hash topped with a fried egg, and a huge serving of bacon. "Had to cook all the bacon," he said. We’d shut down the refrigeration to conserve the batteries and it was starting to show. "I’ll take the wheel, you eat first." I was stunned. I knew that before Ed could cook up this glorious feast, he had to clean the galley--no mean feat in these conditions--but he’d done it, and I began to gratefully shovel it in. Breakfast never tasted so good. When I finished I took the wheel back and Ed brought his plate up from the oven. Suddenly, we had a new outlook on things. We were still afloat, the rig was still up and the engine was running. We were on course and making progress--slow progress to be sure, but moving in the right direction. I began to ask myself: Do I want to spend the rest of today and all of tonight out here, steering by hand, with the possibility of the navigation lights failing and the engine quitting, or do I want to head into Ensenada at best possible speed? After all, the southern entrance is 2.5 miles wide and marked by two lighthouses. We decided to go for it. That night was one of the darkest I’d ever seen. A heavy mist, blown about by the wind, seeped into everything. Approaching the entrance, I took stock. With the chart plotter down and the batteries too weak for radar, I had paper charts spread over the cockpit table and the handheld GPS in my hand. The southern light, on Punta Banda, glimmered through the misty darkness. Thirty minutes later, another light shimmered through the gloom ahead of us. According to the chart, there should be three lights, one on the southern tip of Islas de Todos Santos, a revolving light on the smaller island to the north, and a light on Punta Banda, but we could only see two. The revolving light on the small northern island was invisible even though it had a range of twenty-two miles. Scanning the cruising guide once again, I noted the mention of a red light atop a tall radio antenna southeast of the southern headland. Ed’s keen eye quickly picked it out. Very nervous, damp and chilled to the bone, I nipped below to use the head. On the way back I paused at the DC panel to check the battery voltage and pondered that old saw about there being no atheists in fox holes. Nor in cruising boats, I added, then I asked the powers that be to watch over us and see us into the anchorage at Ensenada. Back in the cockpit, I plotted one more position, checked the lighthouses and caught the loom of the revolving light on the underside of the clouds. The "X" of the plot hovered at the center of the entrance and we made our turn. The lights on both sides of us slowly moved aft as I plotted the course for the harbor entrance at the head of the large bay. Moving through the cold, damp darkness, I spotted what looked like a huge pile of rocks off starboard, but the chart showed no such rocks and the depth sounder was mindlessly blinking the same number over and over. The spotlight beam that spotted the rocks at Turtle Bay was now swallowed up by the murky gloom. Looking for the red and green lights of the harbor, we slowly moved ahead. What, I silently wondered, would I do if the engine suddenly quit--out of fuel or from some other cause? Contingency plans began to pop into my mind. Drop the dinghy and try to tow the boat into the harbor. If the outboard ran out of fuel, I planned to let the main anchor and all 200 feet of chain go out, hope it snagged the bottom before I went on the rocks and at the same time call for help on the on-board VHF. Skipper Skipper at the helm Suddenly, the clouds seemed to part and there they were: millions of lights spreading in lines and patterns up and down the hills. To spot the harbor, we looked for the lights of a cruise ship, but none were visible. There was, however, a line of glowing orange orbs that seemed to hover in mid-air that I recognized as the malecon, the promenade that runs next to the harbor. Soon the flashing green light that marks the left side of the entrance blossomed out of the dark, followed quickly by the red. Turning into the harbor, I was mildly shocked to see how much it had changed in the six years since I’d been here last. It was Christmas Eve, and every Mexican Navy ship within several hundred miles was in port; we slowly motored through a watery landscape of silent mist-shrouded gray shapes. Seeking the transient yacht anchorage, we looked for other sailboats, and finally dropped anchor at 11:15 P.M. Sitting in the cockpit with a cup of spiked cocoa, we waited for midnight. When it came, the fireworks, explosions, horns and sirens that announced Christmas Day was truly stunning--a sight and sound spectacle I’d never seen in the U.S. Christmas Day dawned cool, bright and sunny. The enormous Mexican flag at Bandera Plaza slowly unfurled and collapsed, over and over, like a gigantic sail in the building offshore breeze. The malecon was thronged with people in their holiday best. No work was done that day. On the 26th, the boatyard of Baja Naval directed us to come alongside the staging pier. Robert in the office and Rogelio the dock master are both super guys who put themselves out time after time to make sure we were taken care of in a timely manner. Moored to the staging pier, we had a front row seat for the goings on. Baja Naval has become the boatyard of choice for larger boats in Southern California to come and get work done, and they specialize in paint of all kinds. Ed and I watched a sailboat of classic design tie up nearby. The Evelyn Roberts had been sailed down from Seattle by her owner Tom Roberts. He was on his way to further adventures in warm, sunny Mexican waters and had stopped in Ensenada to do what’s called a bottom job: apply a special growth-inhibiting paint containing ground copper to the boat's bottom. Since he was a singlehander, we invited him for a sundowner and ended up exploring much of Ensenada together over the next four days, while work was done on Moondance. Baja Naval, located near the heart of the city, made everything convenient and to my pleasant surprise, the yard bill, for alternator work and fuel, was very reasonable. Repaired, refueled, and ready to head north once again, I checked the autopilot and found the problem to be a bit of stray metal too close to its electronic compass. That taken care of, the run to San Diego was a cake-walk motor in cool, clear, sunny weather. Entering San Diego just after dark, we tied up to the Harbor Police Pier to clear customs and get a slip assignment. Customs formalities were minimal and after a simple dinner, we turned in early. The run to Long Beach started in great weather, but off Newport Beach thick, gray fog closed in. With the alternator now working, I turned on the radar. Returns popped up all over and I was very glad of the clear-weather practice I’d done. Large fast-moving blips approached to within a mile then curved away, invisible in the clinging gray blanket. Other blips appeared on the edges of the display and slowly moved one way or the other. A tug towing a barge crossed our bow about a half-mile off and we never saw a thing, only two blips that stayed close together all the time. Approaching Long Beach, we spotted Queen’s Gate on the radar and made one small course correction. I’d never been so happy to see the sickly yellow port lights of Long Beach in my life. Passing through the gate and into the Downtown Marina, we shut down the engine at 9:30 P.M. on December 30, 2000. After two long months we had not only survived our first Mexico trip, but gotten an incomparable education in the process. When asked now, would I do it again?, I think, Absolutely... But I'd head out to the Channel Islands for a shakedown cruise first.

Turks and Caicos

Turks and Caicos FlagSituated about 575 miles southeast of Miami, the Turks and Caicos make up a Caribbean archipelago with few people and a long history. The original residents of the Turks and Caicos were the indigenous Tainos; however, as in much of the rest of the region, these peaceful people were driven into extinction by war and disease, in large part by way of the arrival of Europeans in the post-Columbian era. During the height of the colonial times, the island group was handed off between the English, French, and Spanish, never remaining a possession of any one nation to develop a positive identity. In the mid-1600s, an industrious group of Bermudians emigrated to the Turks and Caicos to find their fortune peddling "white gold," that is, salt. Many of the salinas, or salt ponds, mills, and historic structures can still be found scattered throughout the islands. The market for salt from the Turks and Caicos disappeared for good in the 1960s, but for a time during the 1600s and 1700s, these man-made salt flats dominated production and export of the substance around the world, the main recipients of which were the cod-fishing communities of the northeastern North American colonies. In the years after the American War of Independence, a number of Loyalist plantation owners tried their luck farming cotton on the Turks and Caicos, bringing with them slaves from their U.S. plantations. The farming operations failed and the land-owners left for greener pastures, but many of their former slaves stayed to work as rakers in the salt flats. Today, the locals whose lineage dates back to the early days of the Turks and Caicos, a group known amongst themselves as "Belongers," can traces their heritage to the Bermudian salt industrialists and the transplanted slave rakers. Turks and Caicos MapThe political identity of the  remained fuzzy for some time, as governing bodies changed hands, from the Bahamian government to Jamaica, to the British, French, and finally British again. Currently, the islands fall under the blanket of Great Britain, though talk of independence occasionally crosses the tongues of residents. The salt fields have become a relic of the olden days, and the land is by and large too arid to farm. That leaves the sea and the beaches to provide a regular income for the Turks and Caicos. Since the 1960s, tourism has exploded there, with the biggest draw being the reefs and sea walls that comprise the many scuba diving opportunities there. There are many beautiful beaches and some bird watching to be done, plus the islands have, for the most part, kept a quiet Caribbean feel--with only Providenciales (or "Provo") becoming somewhat overrun with resorts. Many of the islands are sparsely populated with few cars and people who's way of thinking embodied "island time. The latest residential boom has come from retired corporate executives and wealthy individuals who sometimes have ties to illicit trade (e.g., the drug trade). Traveling in Turks and Caicos Most travelers reach the Turks and Caicos from the U.S. Direct flights can be taken from New York, Ft. Lauderdale, and Miami. Canadians can charter flights out of Toronto, but if you're coming in from Europe or elsewhere, you'll probably connect through the U.S. on the way. There are a number of local Caribbean Airlines that will take you from nearby islands and islands hopping around the Turks and Caicos themselves. For yachters, there are customs offices at Provo, South Caicos, and Grand Turk. Citizens of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and the E.U. can travel to the Turks and Caicos without a visa. Most other national will need to obtain a visa. Legal photo identification (i.e., a passport) is required for everyone. It's not cheap to travel to the Turks and Caicos. A budget travelers might easily spend US$100 a day. More extravagant travelers could go up to US$300 a day. A moderately priced restaurant meal will cost up to US$25. Credit cards and traveler's checks are widely accepted on Provo and Grand Turk. On the smaller islands, it's best to keep cash on hand. Currency can be exchanged at local banks. Taxi is the best mode of transport to get around each island. Be sure to settle on a fare before departing, as most cabs will charge per person, rather than per mile traveled. Many drivers will also double as tour guides for an extra fee. It's possible to rent cars and mopeds, as well, but there is a government tax placed on all rental vehicles. It should be noted that drivers are on the left side of the road in the Turks and Caicos. Weather in Turks and Caicos Temperatures range from and average of 77°F (25°C) in winter to an average of 90°F (32°C) in summer. Average annual rainfall is 21 inches (53 cm). Most of the rain falls in summer. The only truly uncomfortable time of year to be in the Turks and Caicos is from August through November, when the weather can be swelteringly hot and inescapable. Turks and Caicos Information Population: 17,502 Government: British dependency Square Miles: 166 sq miles (430 sq km) Capitol: Cockburn Town (pop 4900) Official Language: English People: Mainly African descent, plus Haitians and Dominican immigrants, and North American and European expats Religion: Baptist (41%), Methodist (19%), Anglican (18%) Major products/industries: Tourism, finance, fishing

Toasts in Tbilisi: Adventures in Caucasia

by Christopher G. Shepard Republic of Georgia "Jame! Jame! Jame!" Georgians cry as plate upon plate of scrumptious food, stacked nearly on top of one another, vied for space on a table already crowded with wine, vodka, Borjomi water, and lemonade bottles. "Eat! Eat! Eat!" they said. Georgian’s have a reputation for being among the world’s greatest hosts. Indeed, I was told they treat visitors "like gifts from God," and I found out just how true that is during my two-week visit to the Republic of Georgia in May of last year. The trip was motivated by my usual wanderlust and a strong sense of family duty (my Georgian relatives had invited me to come). I felt compelled to live up to the ties of my family, but when I left, I barely imagined I’d fall in love with the country and make friends for life.
The flight to the ancient city of Tbilisi took an exhausting twenty-four hours, but I made good use of the time reading the twelfth century, poet and philosopher Shota Rustaveli, who wrote the Knight in the Tiger’s Skin, the moral of which reflects all that Georgians hold dear: a person’s worth is based on friends and family, not money. This poem is widely regarded as a precursor to the European Renaissance. With the hills of Chechnya in the background, Alaverdi is the tallest of all Georgian cathedrals.Waiting in line for customs clearance in Tbilisi International Airport, I thumbed through Rustaveli’s well-worn epic, relating especially to line 899: "So I resolved to wander, for life in the cave grew irksome." The customs officials didn’t speak a word of English. I paid $80 for the entrance visa, walked through the gate, and spied my bag alone in the middle of the floor--all the while, I was ignored by a group of uniformed police carrying machine guns. No one stopped me or asked questions. It was the easiest entrance into a foreign country that I’d ever experienced. My cousin, Kita, fetched me from the drab Tbilisi airport and we drove to the hotel. I checked into the Sheraton Metechi Palace at 3 A.M.--the man at the front desk spoke English and wished me a pleasant stay.
The lobby of the Sheraton was a cavernous display of Western architecture, with contrasting red marble tile and three glass elevators rising up from behind the fountain in the lobby. Each floor afforded a magnificent view of the triangular-shaped modern atrium. I felt like I could have been in Atlanta or Houston--but in Tbilisi, it all seemed somewhat out of place. I followed the bellhop to my room, made a cocktail from the mini-bar, and collapsed in the comfortable queen-sized bed. From my room on the eighth floor, I had a sweeping vista of Lotkini Mountain and a closer view of Svanetisubani, a sprawling hilly area of Tbilisi that featured honeycombed houses with red terra cotta tile roofs. Calmer moments as the Georgian Military Highway wanders through the Caucasus Mountains.The first day was much warmer and sunnier than I had expected. Beautiful skies promised crisp fresh air; however, driving with the windows rolled up on congested Rustaveli Avenue to the appropriately named Tbilisi Restaurant, I discovered that Georgia is the land that the catalytic converter forgot. Almost every vehicle belched out huge clouds of black smoke. But combined with the ubiquitous cigarette smoke in all vehicles, the exhaust fumes were a welcome relief. There are few working lights on the roulette wheel that is the Tbilisi system of roads. Every intersection was an adventure, with the highlight of the trip being an evasive maneuver into oncoming traffic. The first night I begged jet lag to my host, but Kita convinced me to go out with him. We went to a few stylish pubs and ended up in Georgia’s version of the Hard Rock Café--called The Beatles--which is located in the heart of Rustaveli Avenue. At the door I was asked two questions: "Do you have a gun?" and "Can I frisk you?" Inside, there was a DJ spinning the latest grooves from Moscow, and young women dancing under the strobe light, while packs of young men surrounded them dancing together or by themselves. This bar was known for its low lights, anonymous romance, and expensive (by Georgian standards) drinks. After a few plates of potatoes, a bottle of wine, and a few vodkas, I asked for the bill and was told that Georgians are obliged to pay when they are with visitors to their country. I found that, much to my dismay, during my two-week visit I was unable to pay for a thing!Tourists are warned not to go out at night in Tbilisi. However, I discovered that with a taxi arranged through the hotel for the evening, or with a Georgian friend, I was safe. Never once did I think I was in danger. Despite their Formula-1-like driving, seventy years of harsh communist rule, and the copious daily consumption of wine and cigarettes, Georgians are among the healthiest people in the world. According to census figures, Georgia boasts more than 100 people over the age of 100--more per capita than any other country in the world. Georgians told me the secret to their longevity was simple: they eat food without preservatives; drink plenty of wine; walk the hilly terrain; enjoy Borjomi mineral water; and have a deep love for their family, friends, and God.
The weather is moderate in spring and summer with the rainiest month being May. In Georgia, the climate runs the gamut from subtropical in the east by the Black Sea, to a drier temperate climate in Tbilisi, to year-round snow in the Caucasus. Daytime temperatures in Tbilisi range from 40° to 90°F; the warmest months are May through September, and during the summertime in Georgia, it stays light until 10:30 P.M. Bell tower of the cathedral at Ninostminda.Within Tbilisi, there are many museums to visit, albeit most without electricity and with guides who speak only Georgian, Russian, and German. There are also many historical sights to visit, including ancient fortresses and spectacular churches. Georgians are one of the ancient people of the world. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was chained to a rock in the Caucasus. Jason steered his ship the Argo to Colchis (now known as the region of Mingrelia, on the Black Sea coast) in his quest for the Golden Fleece. There, he married Medea who helped him steal it. Historically, Georgia was an integral part of the Silk Road. This trade route linked Asia and Europe from 100 B.C. until the seventeenth century. Like today, silk was a highly desired commodity and the Silk Road provided an overland passage for this valuable Asian product. Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Marco Polo, and Genghis Kahn all used the Silk Road during their bloody conquests. Prince Murat, dressed in a traditional Georgian military uniform, singing a Mingrelian love song.Today, Westward-looking Georgia is in the news because the United States has sent in 100 military advisors to Tbilisi to train Georgian troops to fight terrorism. The U.S. has also given $1.5 billion in the past few years to improve the infrastructure, specifically the roads in the country. In Tbilisi, now free from marauding invaders but rich in history, it is best to strike out on your own and walk the hills of Old Tbilisi. Explore the narrow cobblestone lanes; numerous open parks; and the unique combination of Georgian, Arabic, and Soviet architecture. Once a major commerce center on the Silk Road, Tbilisi is well situated as the locus of day trips by car to famous places in and around Georgia. Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Iran are all within a day’s drive, if your kidneys can handle the vibrations from the many potholes.
Forty miles north of Tbilisi is the eleventh century church of Mtskheta--in the ancient capitol of Georgia--the site of a presumed miracle. Beggars greeted me at the gate and even the poorest gave to those who had even less. Mtskheta was littered with people praying and crying, whispering and lighting the ubiquitous thin mustard-colored candles that were bought at the church’s entrance. "Georgians call this church ‘Jerusalem the Second’," Kita said as he led me past a wedding in progress. "And now, I show you the miracle." Kita explained in a low voice that according to legend, after Christ’s crucifixion, his robe fell into the hands of a merchant from Mtskheta who gave it to a rabbi who, in turn, brought it back to the ancient city. At the city gate, the rabbi’s sister Sidonia took Jesus’ robe in her hands and died on the spot. She was subsequently buried at Mtskheta with the robe. With this in mind, Kita took me to the rear of the church and pointed to a group of people. I looked closer at an icon of the Madonna hanging over the crowd and saw two tears streaming from her eyes. Next to the small crowd of believers was a statue of Jesus with holy oil dripping from his foot. As we departed, I thought about the "miracle." One month earlier, there was a terrible earthquake in Tbilisi that registered 6 on the Richter scale. It caused a lot of damage to Tbilisi and killed three people. It was after the earthquake, Kita said, that the icon started crying. One day we rented a car and driver for a trip to the beautiful savannah of Karheti, Georgia’s wine region. The Georgian proverb about the region’s fertility is that, if you plant a pencil in the soil, it will grow into a tree. The weather was incredible, and each sight more spectacular than the last. The final stop of the day was Alleverdi--a sixth century church within spitting distance of Chechnya. After touring the amazing church we gave an old beggar woman from Azerbaijan and a priest, who was at least 90 but looked 65, a lift into town. We ask them about the Chechnyan war and the Russians.
The priest told us that the Chechnyans are good people when left alone. "But," he said with a smile, "you wouldn’t want to fight them. As long as you are not Russian they’ll always take care of you." We dropped them off and continued back toward Tbilisi. At 9 P.M., the sun was still a few inches above the horizon, and we cruised the 180 kilometers back to the capitol marveling at the glorious countryside. The highlight of the trip for me was a weekend excursion to Kazbegi to visit a mansion that once belonged to my family. During Soviet occupation the "family home" was converted to an ethnographic museum, which, in post-Soviet Georgia, is called the Alexander Kazbegi Museum. Typical roadside stand features fresh fruit and vegetables.The Tergi River was swollen from the spring melt and all along the road we saw horses and mules drawing heavily laden carts with people steering from high above. Alongside the famous route through the Caucasus--the Georgian Military Highway--peasants sold sheepskin hats, multicolored woven skullcaps, fresh fruit, and the ubiquitous churckhela, a candy made from boiled grape skins and walnuts. Medieval stone watchtowers from the days of the Silk Road were still prominent on both sides of the valley. Upon the breathtaking backdrop of the rugged Caucasus, Russian military vehicles and Czech buses spewed their putrid black smoke into the crystal mountain air, and four-wheel-drive Lada’s burned across the military highway at the bidding of their reckless drivers. On this excursion, the Austrian ski resort Gudauri Sporthotel, about 40 miles from Kazbegi, would be our command post. Nestled in the Caucasus at an altitude of 6,000 feet, Gudauri is situated just before the Jvari pass, 7,200 feet in the Mtiuletis Kedi range known as Georgia’s Khevi region. Coming through the Jvari pass, I was treated to a brief glimpse of the 15,000-foot Mt. Kazbek, but by the time we had arrived the clouds had covered her up once again.
Table moans under the weight of food.We spent a few hours working out the kinks from the bumpy ride and ate a traditional multicourse Georgian lunch before embarking for Kazbegi and the family home. This was a smart idea since we found out only upon our arrival that the Russian-owned Intourist Hotel in Kazbegi had been closed for about a year. The majestic Caucasus’ towering peaks, bleached white with snow, made the Kazbek mansion look like a doll’s house. Mt. Kazbek watched over Kazbegi like a silent protector from the ancient invaders of the north. In front of Mt. Kazbek was a smaller mountain, Kvena-mta, on which is perched the famous Tsminda-Sameba monastery. In 1827, the Russian poet and author Alexander Pushkin was so moved by the beauty of this sight that he wrote a poem, "Monastery on the Kazbek," in which he said "Torn white clouds are covering the mountain peaks, but the monastery bathed in sunshine seemed to float in the air, carried by clouds." I was told that it was a two-hour hike to the Tsminda-Sameba monastery, but it was rather late in the day and considering the lack of public restrooms--a common occurrence--we decided to forego the climb. We toured the Alexander Kazbegi Museum and small economically depressed village instead. The mansion/museum was surrounded by an ornate concrete and stone wall that encompassed a bell tower, family chapel, graveyard stables, and a guesthouse. Upon arriving, we were shocked to see the run-down condition and apparent neglect of the graveyard; it seemed that it doubled as the town’s landfill. Standing in the courtyard, I let emotion wash over me and imagined what life must have been like in this place 90 years ago, before my grandmother and her mother Chakuria escaped Georgia and the Bolsheviks under the cloak of darkness in an ox-drawn cart with only the possessions they could carry. A dirty young man approached us and offered to guide us through the mansion. I felt like I had stepped into the pictures that hung above my grandmother’s sofa when I was a child. The sprawling two-story building, a little older and worse for wear, awaited us. Gone was the ornate wooden verandah and covered outdoor staircase that characterized the face of the building in my grandmother’s day. But the stone exterior seemed as strong as the day it was built. The house became a museum during the Soviet occupation of Georgia, and it was occasionally used as a garrison for ranking Soviet military officials. However, as early as the turn of the twentieth century, my grandmother’s great-grandfather, Nicholas Kazbek owned the mansion and the surrounding land. The Bolsheviks named the museum for his brother, the famous Georgian poet and writer Alexander Kazbek. The church, there, was built by my ancestor Gabriel Kazbek, who played an important role in the relationship between Russia and Georgia. Historically, the various kingdoms that comprised modern-day Georgia had political ties with the southern neighbor Persia to ensure their protection. In 1775, however, Tsar Irakly II united two of the larger regional kingdoms to form Georgia proper, and subsequently broke the alliance with Persia, favoring the protection of neighboring Russia and that country’s willingness to help unite even more territory under Irakly’s rule. Gabriel Kazbek’s land started at the mouth of the Dariel Gorge and continued south through the Caucasus as far as the eye could see. The fact that he controlled the gorge was not lost on Tsar Irakly or the Russian allies to the north. Gabriel, an intelligent man who spoke many languages including English, was invited to a conference with the tsar and representatives from St. Petersburg to discuss Russian passage through the Dariel Gorge. Gabriel saw the futility of his situation: he was up against the pressure of the "great bear"--if he didn’t allow the Russians access to Georgia through his land, he would be forced to do so by the tsar and his new allies. The threat to his territory had transferred from that of the Persians to the Russians. Against the protestations of the tsar’s own son, Gabriel granted Russia permission to travel through the narrow and deadly Dariel Gorge. For his consideration, Gabriel was given the name Kazbegi and the rank of general by the Russian emperor Alexander I. Later, the alliance between Georgia and Russia, which had been initiated in the name of expanding Georgia’s footprint, proved to be the country’s undoing. In 1801, under the rule of Irakly’s grandson David, Georgia’s treaty was formally broken by the Russians, who then took possession of the country. Among some documents unearthed at Kazbek, were correspondence between Tsar Irakly and Gabriel Kazbek. In one letter, the tsar asks Gabriel to supervise the transportation of a present to him by Irakly--a very rare and delicate fruit called the potato!
The result of this long and fascinating history can be seen in what’s left of the Kazbegi Museum: the mansion, cemetery, and Gabriel’s own chapel. Standing there, I was so moved and excited by the breathtaking mountains and thoughts of my ancestral past, as soon as I saw the aged, cracked bell, I clambered up the bell tower and, much to the chagrin of my guide and the good citizens of Kazbegi, I rang the bell. Its jubilant peel sang out across the valley as if to holler, "A Kazbek had returned home!" But as the echo died in my ears, I noticed Kita walking toward me. He was furious. "You must not have done that." he admonished. "Only the priest is allowed to ring the bell!" Within minutes, the townspeople began walking to the church for service, waiting for the priest who was not there. My last day in Tbilisi arrived and I was treated to a fabulous tour through the Kazbek beer, lemonade, and iced tea factory in the depressed town of Rustavi, about 80 miles east of Tbilisi. Rustavi was a booming steel industrial city during Soviet occupation. When Georgia declared independence in the 1990s, the Russians ceased operating Georgian factories. This caused widespread unemployment and forced many towns into bankruptcy: 15,000 workers in Rustavi alone lost their jobs almost overnight. Beer is a drink traditional to the highlanders of Georgia, as wine is to the plainsmen. The Kazbek factory is considered a post-Russian success story. In 1994, Gogi Topadze--known as the "Patriarch of Georgian Beer"--founded the Kazbegi brewery. By 1997, Topadze had gathered a group of entrepreneurs to finance and update a new state-of-the-art factory, where they began a bottling and beverage production for beer, tea, and lemonade. The brewery is an impressive display of Georgian entrepreneurship (100 percent Georgian owned and financed) combined with Western ingenuity (modern German brewery equipment and high technology). But even with recent upgrades, the time-honored traditions of the Georgian highlanders, the Mtieli, have been upheld. After the tour of the factory and bottling plant, we got in a sturdy but comfortable Russian-built Volga, driven by Kazbegi’s Chief of Security (who looked like he came from central casting for the role of KGB agent), and drove through the factory grounds and into town. We toured a chapel built for the town by the Kazbegi corporation and sat down for a sumptuous outdoor traditional feast at a restaurant that was a favorite spot of Soviet and Georgian dignitaries during World War II and throughout the Soviet occupation. After multiple toasts to God, family, friends, and safe passage, we languished over fresh fish, vegetables, pork, wine, vodka, and beer, celebrating the success of Kazbegi beer, as well as my visit, in a distinctly Georgian way: with food. We returned to Tbilisi in time to go for a massage and soak in the sulfur baths--Tbilisi literally means "hot water." The baths, which are world famous for their curative powers, were not hard to find nestled in beautiful Gorgasali Square in Old Tbilisi. Just look for their frosted glass domes bundled together like igloos in the Arctic. The sulfur-alkaline mineral water in the hot tub scalded to the touch. I turned on the cold water, but got a disapproving look from the Armenian masseur. Eventually, the water cooled to a bearable temperature, and I soaked for twenty minutes. I was then led to a nearby table where I was washed and massaged. A bucket of steaming water rinsed the soap off and I jumped back into the bath. Finally, when I felt like passing out, I climbed out of the mineral water with pruned skin and collapsed in the dressing room. Just then, a woman entered with espresso and two icy Kazbek beers. I drained the Turkish coffee and held a cold bottle to my forehead. I felt tranquil and calm like never before. I was again ready to jame like a Georgian. But I was not quite ready to say, nachwamdis--goodbye.