Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Five Things to do in Hollywood (Because the Tourists Don’t)

High season in Hollywood doesnt seem to ebb anymore. Come January, these days, it feels like there are as many people tromping off tour buses to stare at the stars on the sidewalk as there are in August. When it comes to seeing Hollywood like the locals, there are ways to avoid this slow-moving soup of humanity and experience the reality, and even charm (yes, it does exist), of the neighborhood. 

1. Yamashiro  
                               Courtesy of Yamashiro

Finished in 1914 as a private residence and showplace, Yamashiro has been by turns mansion, boys’ military school, members-only club for golden age Hollywood elite, and finally restaurant and hotel. While the tourists will be a mile away at another high-end sushi joint on Hollywood & Vine, paying too much for an upscale name, you’ll be gazing at the koi in the garden pond, mixing nicely with the Hollywood Hills set. If nothing else, head up for a drink and the vista. With its crowning location at the tip-top of the hill on Sycamore Avenue, it offers enchanting views of the Los Angeles basin. 

1999 N. Sycamore Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90068

2. The High Tower Stairs 

                                        Rachel Parsons

The Hollywood Heights micro-neighborhood of High Tower Court is perhaps best known for its role in the film The Long Goodbye. But for residents, its known as a serious workout. One of a handful of hill neighborhoods in Los Angeles inaccessible to cars, its a maze of walk-streets and stairs that the primary architect, Carl Kay, said was modeled after hillside-clinging Positano in Italy. Kay built the private elevator the High Tower circa 1920 because his wife got tired of climbing all the stairs. Tourists will be at Runyon Canyon, the park to the east, open to dogs, where its crowded, noisy with chatter, and smells of doggy waste. 

High Tower Stairs
2178 High Tower Dr. 
Los Angeles, CA 90068

3. Mashti Malone’s 

                               Team Dalog via flickr creative commons

Dont let the questionable exterior of the grungy two-story strip mall scare you (it does most tourists), the ice cream is the thing for a hot day in L.A. Thirty years ago, when two Iranian brothers one named Mashti bought an ice cream shop on La Brea called Mugsy Malones, but couldnt afford to replace the whole sign, Mashti Malones was launched. With flavors like Saffron, Orange Blossom with Pistachios, Lavender, and Rosewater, its a local favorite for a cool taste of the Middle East. 

Mashti Malones Ice Cream
1525 N. La Brea Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90046

4. Tiago Coffee Bar

                           Courtesy of Tiago

All right, you will find a couple of tourists in Tiago Coffee Bar + Kitchen. But theyre only the Europeans whove sniffed out the best coffee in the neighborhood, perhaps all of Los Angeles. Owned by an Argentine who really knows his beans, Tiago prides itself on handcrafted, authentic coffee, often in the European style, that comes in appropriate sizes usually one. Even a regular cup of joe is made to order, so dont be impatient. But do try a cappuccino: one of the best outside Italy. 

Tiago Coffee Bar + Kitchen
7080 hollywood Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90028

5. The Musso & Frank Grill

                           Courtesy of The Musso & Frank Grill 

The lack of tourists in Musso & Frank on an average night is perplexing because of its location (since 1919) right on Hollywood Boulevard. Perhaps because its on the end of that famous street that caters to the local nightlife crowd and not the busloads of tourists down the boulevard staring at the Chinese Theater, its essentially a neighborhood hangout. It has seen every incarnation of Hollywood, both the neighborhood and the biz.You can still sit in Charlie Chaplins favorite booth and watch discreetly as modern A-listers slink in through the back door. Much of the staff have worked there for decades. See if Manny will make a martini for you at the bar; just dont ask him to shake it. 
The Musso & Frank Grill
6667 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood, CA 90028

The High Tower Stair climb, beginning at the corner of
Camrose Drive and Highland Avenue. 


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Join a Different Type of Mile-High Club

Get your head out of the gutter, that's not what I'm talking about. I mean you can be a founding member of the club of people who can say they first developed their passion to pursue a degree in music theory on an airplane! All right, that may not be as exciting a prospect as the other type of mile-high club, but hear me out.

JetBlue has just announced that Coursera, the online university service, will be one of its content providers offering courses through the airline's new onboard wi-fi hub. The carrier already claims that it's got the "fastest wi-fi in the sky," and now it's partnering with a slate of entertainment companies, including television and publishing giants, to offer free content, through a hub accessible on a personal device while in flight.

So, if you've ever suddenly though to yourself, in the middle of that red-eye, "Gee, I'd love to take business 101 right now," you're in luck. Coursera is providing 10 e-learning videos including courses from Berklee School of Music, University of Edinburgh, and Wharton Business School. I can see where people'd get off on that. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Viewer Question Answered: Am I Ever in Danger?


Howdy ... just caught your Rio show. Nice footage! Loved the skater scenes as I am an old skater myself. Skaters around the [world] unite! I know you're a brave dame, but have there been any scetchy scenes you have cut? And have you ever been truly worried about a situation where your safety was in question? Cheers!


No, there have never been any situations that made me concerned for my safety. There was a comical Pink Panther moment in New Delhi years ago, when a man tried to follow my mother and I down a busy street. He was so horrible at tailing people he stuck out like a sore thumb. We turned and stared him down, I even waved at him, and he went away. 

Past that, I'd say living in Los Angeles is more dangerous than most of the places I've traveled. But, if there were an instance like that caught on tape while I was filming, I wouldn't cut it out. I do my best to be as honest as possible, and show a place for what I experience it as. So, I'd have an obligation to include any footage that documented anything worrisome, anyway. Thanks for watching! I'm glad you're enjoying it!


Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Elephants did the Whispering

Lawrence Anthony thought of killing every one of them. Of the hundreds of animals that belonged to the Baghdad Zoo, 35 were left, barely alive. They were dehydrated and starving by the time he got there shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Anthony was afraid that none of them would survive in the war zone.

But the enormous white South African conservationist, standing 6’3” with a Santa Claus beard and a penchant for baseball caps, joined the struggling zoo veterinarian -- who didn’t know Anthony was coming. They, along with the few remaining staff members, and several U.S. soldiers who volunteered to help, saved all of the animals. 

“I thought he was going to be gone for three weeks,” said Francoise Malby-Anthony, in a thick, Parisian accent about her husband’s time in Iraq. “He was gone for six months. Lawrence was an adventurer.”

After spending half a year in Baghdad, the self-made wildlife expert wrote an international bestselling book about his experience, called “Babylon’s Ark.He followed with another bestseller, “The Elephant Whisperer. 

Then, in March 2012, Lawrence Anthony suffered his third and final heart attack. It happened one month before the launch of his third book, “The Last Rhinos,” which details his last effort to stem the poaching of rhinoceros horn for trade in the Far East. On the black market an ounce of horn -- used in traditional oriental medicine -- can fetch more than $1,600. 

“This is a call to arms to all, to join us in a final battle to save the rhinos,” Anthony said in his last interview, nine days before he died. “Because as South Africans, this is our heritage. Our rhinos are going to be gone.”

“Lawrence was an exceptional person,” said Dr. Ben Ngubane, a close friend of Anthony’s and former Minister of Arts, Culture and Technology under President Nelson Mandela. “Even in the old days of apartheid when black and white had to be separated by law, he crossed that boundary. Lawrence could sit with the Zulu people at the traditional ceremonies, sitting there on the ground. It was natural for him. And so the people learned to value the animals; they no longer poached at Thula Thula. If there was anyone who did, others would report that person. That was a gift of Lawrence.”  

Some boundaries Anthony crossed drew fire, literally and metaphorically. Not one to shy away from a war zone, he infamously met with high-ranking members of the Lord’s Resistance Army, including Vincent Otti, in 2007 to negotiate the protection of the last four Northern White Rhinos left in the wild in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the LRA had taken control. 

Some in other conservation groups viewed his willingness to reach out to people wanted for war crimes as heinous. “When you do the sort of work I do, you'll always get criticized,” Anthony told The Observer in 2009. “When I explained [to the LRA] there were only four rhinos left in the wild they were genuinely shocked. “They thought there were still hundreds of them.” 

His effort paid off. The LRA agreed to the protection of the animals in the succeeding cease-fire agreement with the Ugandan government.

Before turning conservation into his profession, Anthony had been an entrepreneur, working in real estate in Durban, keeping his passion for wildlife an avocation until his late 40s when he and Francoise had the chance to buy 5,000 acres of bush in the country.  

In 1998, they bought a defunct big game hunting reserve in southeastern South Africa. They called it Thula Thula and Anthony made it his base of operations for his fierce campaign to save African wildlife rather than hunt it.

The couple built two luxury lodges on the property and opened it to the public for safari vacations. She ran the two hotels, and he ran the reserve, home to his herd of once highly dangerous elephants, which he chronicled in “The Elephant Whisperer.”

“It was the elephants who did the whispering,” Anthony said. “What I did was listen. Humans and animals can connect, there’s no question.” 

He founded a nonprofit, The Earth Organization, posthumously renamed the Lawrence Anthony Earth Organization, in response to the ineffectiveness he witnessed from other animal advocacy groups in the conflict areas he worked in. The first order of business was to present a draft resolution to the United Nations asking that animals in war zones, specifically endangered species, be given protection under the Geneva Convention. 

Anthony attacked every project with zeal and determination. Eventually, the strain caught up to him. “He simply wouldn’t slow down, you could not get him to slow down,” Francoise said from their home at Thula Thula. 

But to Lawrence Anthony, the problems of the world were too great to slow down. “The price is high,” he said in his final interview. “We’re fighting for the soul of our planet here. We have to.” 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

LA Phil Aims at Fresh Young Patronage

How to develop future financial support for the symphony? Free drinks. 

While the classical arts may be ageless, their patrons aren't. Keenly aware of their aging donor base, for years symphonies, ballet, and opera companies across the country have struggled with how to attract young people to what has often been seen as something that only old, white, rich people do. If one saw a 20-something in the audience of any given symphony, he or she was probably a budding musician. Everyone else that age was at a rock concert or a club.

The question became: how to attract and keep people in their 20s and 30s who didn't have prior experience of classical music? The gang at the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been parsing that one for a while, and, taking a page from the New York Philharmonic's Young New Yorkers program, they've just announced their newest marketing plan that seems to be aimed at engaging a youthful base of future support: CODA.

CODA is a membership group that functions like, and shares many of the same benefits as, the symphony's long-standing donor-membership group Friends and Patrons of the LA Phil; except that it's specifically made for music lovers in their 20s and 30s. While benefits programs for annual donors are nothing new to the symphony, their being tailored to a younger adult crowd are. Given the success of the LA Phil's large community outreach programs for children on one end and the Friends program that typically comprises older patrons on the other, it's surprising they've waited this long to tailor something to this crowd. The Young New Yorkers program has been around since 1994.

For the moment, the folks at the Phil are calling CODA a marketing initiative, not a donor initiative. They're testing the waters before asking the members for money. In this inaugural year, the membership fee is waived and future fees have not been determined, according to the LA Phil's PR team. 

The perks are similar to those of the Friends and Patrons group: meet-and-greets with musicians and artistic guests; discounted tickets; concert after-parties exclusively for members -- guaranteeing one gets to party only with peers, and free drinks. Although, the complimentary drinks listed on the LA Phil's website as a benefit of CODA are not blatantly stated as a benefit on the Friends and Patrons page. This symphony really knows its target demographic. 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Seven Creature Comforts I Never Fly Without

While it's still tempting, even after all these years and long-haul flights, to cram everything but the kitchen sink into my carry-on (I tried the sink once; impossible), I've managed to whittle it down to seven items that truly make a flight of any length more comfortable.


True, this isn't something that goes in the carry-on, but a sports bra is a critical tool when navigating airports and travel that lasts for days. With the sheer number of times I pull bags off and on my shoulders in one trip, there's no way I can handle traditional bra straps slipping off and generally pissing me off, uniboob be damned. When it comes to outer wear, however, in the slob vs. snob debate over travel attire, I'm definitely in the snob category. I'm in public for God's sake, sweats are not appropriate.


Good for everything from discouraging an unwelcome, talkative seat mate to trying to drown out the crying child as well as the sharp upper tone coming from the jet engines, ear plugs are with me all the time. I'm sensitive to noise across the board, so when I get to my destination they do their primary job by helping me sleep through strange new sounds.


File this one under "moisturizer" in general, because the air in a plane hovers around 30 percent humidity, i.e., the same as a desert climate. If I'm on an overnight flight, I take off all my makeup and apply a heavy facial moisturizer. Regardless, I always have eye drops. It takes the scratchiness away in-flight so I can read longer and means I don't have bloodshot eyes when I deplane, even from a red-eye.


That's right: two. Not one, but two. One for my neck and shoulders and another for my lap, since on domestic, and even some short international flights, in coach anyway, the complimentary blanket has gone the way of the Dodo.


Even if I'm already wearing socks with my shoes, I bring a pair of warm, fuzzy, dry socks to change into on the plane. It's no fun to pull off one's shoes and have damp, chilled feet for eight hours. I'm usually cold enough on a flight as it is. 


Not just for granny anymore, on long-haul flights I change into orthopedic compression tights along with my comfy socks. It means that after the 24-hour flight to South Africa from Los Angeles, for example, I don't have grotesquely swollen ankles and I'm much more comfortable in the high-pressure cabin. People with certain medical conditions may be advised by their doctor to use these when flying, but even if you're in good health, it makes a world of difference. Compression wear comes in a variety of socks, stockings, sleeves, and tights. If the ├╝ber sexy beige ortho model isn't to your taste, try runners' websites or stores. 


Not pictured: my old faithful. I take a large, empty sports bottle through security and fill it at a water fountain near the gate. It's not Evian, but it does keep me from badgering the flight attendant to death for seven thousand of those small, plastic cups of water that only contain one swallow's worth. Remember, the low humidity is dehydrating enough. Have caffeine and/or alcohol too, and I walk off the plane looking like an Egyptian mummy. No one wants that. 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

The Past and Progress of Salt Lake City

"The church, the church," my friend says with a mild eye roll, "built a beautiful new mall. But it's not open Sundays."

And so goes the complex city of Salt Lake. It's a blend of progress and hindrance, with growing racial diversity and a positively hip social scene that's tempered by the control that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints exercises on politics and daily life. Sure, one can shop on Sundays, just not at the shiny, chic City Creek Center the church built downtown. Though, of the 22 dining options listed on the center's website, two are open Sundays. 

Just south of Temple Square, City Creek Center
is a mixed-use work/play/live construct.

This town has changed much since I started visiting nearly 20 years ago. To be fair, a very rich arts community has always been here.The Mormons that founded the city brought the traditions of story-telling, music, and even dance, according to my friend Joan, co-founder of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. "They had to do something to keep people alive during the winter here," she says. Dance caught hold in a big way; I'm in town to attend the opening-weekend performance of RW's 51st season. Joan tells me one of the first structures the religious pioneers built when they arrived in the valley was a theater. They knew their priorities. 

Those Mormon masons could cook.
The Salt Lake City and County building, opened 1894,
is on the U.S. National Register of Historic places. 

The arts scene, as well as the whole city, has been enriched further by the increasing ethnic and racial diversity. The old aryan creepiness I felt as a kid is no longer prevalent, at least to my eyes. I'm pleasantly surprised to see so many faces of every color in the city center, a noticeable change from the general blond-haired, blue-eyed caucasian-ness of my first visits, years ago.

is home to 10 -- count 'em 10 --
resident companies including
Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.

The addition and continuing expansion of a light rail system, TRAX, begun in 1999, has also done the place a world of good. It connects the jewels of the city center, including the theater district along West Broadway, to the airport to the west and the beautiful University of Utah to the east.

The University of Utah, founded in 1850, boasts beautiful
architecture and is an ideal place to stroll or jog.
On the eastern-most end of the enormous -- and I do 
mean enormous -- campus is the Natural History Museum of Utah, the site and architecture of which are as impressive as the huge collections of the organization.

The Natural History Museum of Utah, designed
by Ennead Architects. 
The design is meant to mimic the canyons and
natural bridges of the Utah wilderness. 

Step out to the fifth floor observation deck and take in the
whole valley.
The views of the valley from the museum aren't too shabby either. It's a great perch from which to consider, and appreciate, the direction Salt Lake City is going, and how far it's come.  

Friday, August 01, 2014

Viewer Question Answered: What Makes Me Travel Solo

The real question now is, what wouldn't make me travel alone....


When did you start roaming alone, and out of curiosity, why? What has been your favorite destination?


In 2006, I spent three weeks tromping through Italy, ostensibly to do some soul searching. At 27 years old, I'd already gotten off several lucrative and potentially long career paths and I didn't know what to do next. Each thing I'd done professionally ultimately bored me. Nothing satisfied my ego and my intellect at the same time. I came up with the idea to head to Europe on a lark; I'd never thought of purposely traveling alone, but none of my close friends or family could go, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I didn't want any of them there, anyway. They would get in my mental way.

Off I went from Rome to Venice, through Tuscany, muddling through with what little Italian I'd learned from CDs. I realized quickly that I wasn't going to curl up and die because I didn't speak the language and every American who'd warned me about how dangerous it could be was completely ignorant -- most of them had only traveled on large tours, herded like cattle. I was freer to exist in the culture without friends there to keep me in a semi-detached bubble of comfort. And I made friends. I dated a waiter in Rome, made friends with a couple of ex-pats in Cortona, and when it was all said and done, the loneliest, hardest moments were the ones that taught me the most about myself.

And that's what travel is really about. It's a tool for self-discovery and introspection that little else rivals. Traveling is, I think, more about learning and experiencing yourself than learning about the destination. Being alone makes the focus sharper.

As for my favorite spot, I can't say. I can only tell you that I know there are places I'll go back to over and over, whether I'm filming. South Africa has a pull that will always tug me back. London is still my favorite city, I've been going since I was 17. Italy is certainly a country I'm terribly fond of. I'm long overdue for a trip to New Orleans, which I believe is a quintessential American city. Fiji is my favorite archipelago, hands down. But I have a lot to cover. I've been to only 19 or 20 countries in my life. I'm trying to catch up to a professor of mine that counts his in the 70s. Happy travels!


Thursday, July 17, 2014

Israel: Love and Disappointment

“If you ask now, most Israelis will tell you it’s time to give up the West Bank and share Jerusalem as a capital.” This was in 2008. My guide, Charles, and I were standing at the Western Wall in the late September heat.

By “most Israelis” he meant moderate Jews and secular citizens. He explained that the average, educated Israeli doesn’t see the sense in continuing to occupy and suppress an entire Palestinian nation. It’s pointless and people are getting tired of it, old grudges held by old men in government.

But, Charles emigrated from Canada as a young man and though he has called Israel home for decades, he is too young to have been around for the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 in which Israel won control of the West Bank and Gaza from its neighbors. He’s progressive.

And this is the West Bank we’re talking about, led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is recognized internationally on the diplomatic scene. Not the Gaza Strip, which has been under the thumb of Hamas for seven years, a group that most Western countries view as a terrorist organization, and with whom, currently, Israel is trading bombs.

I’ve been to Israel just that one time, and my only regret is that I didn’t go into Palestinian towns in the West Bank when I had the chance. Israel was a place of surprise to me. I didn’t know what to expect but I loved it. It was safe and culturally rich, austerely beautiful and people were kind.

But, it saddens me to see what’s happening there again. Regardless of how most Israelis may actually feel, Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are practicing the same old heavy-handed, knee-jerk brand of defense that has kept Israel and the Palestinians on the same merry-go-round for generations now.

In June, the murder of three Israeli teens in the West Bank prompted full-blown raids of Palestinian territory and retaliation has escalated to war in the southern enclave. Again.

Hamas is dangerous, no doubt. And realistically, they probably are outright crazy. In less than a decade they’ve misgoverned Gaza further into the ground than it was. The group still claims to want to wipe Israel off the map and, according to some reports, has now declared that all Israelis are viable targets, not just the military.

The problem is that’s exactly the way Israel has been behaving since bombing started earlier this month. Israeli strikes have killed more than 220 people – many civilians – in Gaza. They’re killing children and somehow justifying that in the name of sovereign defense. Earlier this week they were kind enough to start warning people in Gaza that strikes were imminent so some might be able to save their own lives.

Israel has spent years flouting international treaty by continuing to settle the West Bank and has walked away from U. S.- and Egypt-sponsored peace talks time and again, refusing to deal in a serious way with the PLO. It pulled out of Gaza in 2005, claiming its occupation there was over, but kept tight control of its borders, restricting trade and movement, effectively trapping Palestinians and paving the way for radicalization. Hamas stepped in and took advantage.

Today, there was a five-hour cease-fire to allow the United Nations to get aide into Gaza. During that window mortars were launched into Israel. It’s unclear if Hamas was doing the firing. After the cease-fire, Israel went back to work with its strikes. And now, as I write this, Netanyahu is sending ground forces into Gaza.

People on both sides of that border are suffering. People are dying on both, though far, far more in Gaza. People are burying their loved ones on both sides. 

I developed a keen affection for Israel in the short time I was there, but it’s heartbreaking to see it overreacting one more time, killing people one more time. I’m afraid until the old men with old grudges die off, none of the senseless retaliation, the decades-long cycle of repression and violence will end for longer than the time of the next tenuous cease-fire.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Viewer Question Answered: Travel Tips for Small Budgets

One TPD viewer recently wrote in with questions about traveling on a low budget. While I don't always go the most economical route, I do use a couple of tricks and tools to keep costs low.


I am starting a new phase of my life, now that my youngest has moved out. Watched your show on Belize, and I would like to learn more. You mentioned being able to find a private room at $25.00 per night. Did I hear that correctly? I am a government employee and budget is limited, would rather spend money on fun activities than on place to sleep. Any tips for low budget traveling?


So glad you tuned in; yes, you heard the room rate correctly. 

First of all, congratulations on your new-found freedom! If you are asking specifically about Belize, the good news is that the exchange rate stays right at two to one. So your U.S. dollar goes twice as far. The $25 U.S. rate that I mentioned was for a room on Caye Caulker in Belize in a hostel that has private rooms and dormitories. The price is low because it was a room with a shared bath. And that's the real trick. Sharing a bathroom will usually cut the price of a room anywhere in half, or close to it. In another episode, you'll see that I had a room in the heart of Buenos Aires for about $40 per night because I shared the bath which was women only. So don't hesitate to do this -- conditions are hygienic and sanitary, and the savings is significant. 

The other tool that I find immeasurably valuable, of which I speak in other episodes, is Couch Surfing. It's a hospitality service that allows you to find and stay in people's homes (with them) all over the world for free and see their culture as they live it. So if you're a little more adventurous, it's wonderful. I've used it many times and only had good experiences. Even if you choose not to stay in someone's home, it's a very good resource for meeting locals simply to have coffee with and spend time. 
Let me know where you choose to take off to first! Remember, don't be afraid, be a peregrine dame!


If you have questions or comments please visit the TPD facebook page or comment on this post.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

U.S. Department of State Does not Preach the Gospel: When to Ignore Travel Warnings

I’ve never been one to follow the rules. I left a safe, secure job to create a travel series for public television, for crying out loud, so I can say with some certainty that insecurity doesn’t bother me as much as it might some people. To that end, I also tend to ignore authority when its tenets inconvenience me; especially U.S. Department of State travel warnings, and here’s why (in some cases) you should too:
They are largely political plays
Often, State Department travel advisories and warnings are based on geo-political pandering on the one hand and brinksmanship on the other. For many places, they are aimed specifically at members of the diplomatic corps or for people with dual citizenship that may get into sticky situations when leaving their other country — as has happened to Iranian-Americans — not at the casual traveler.  

That’s not to say I’m drooling to go to Syria or Eastern Ukraine (both of which have department warnings posted) at the moment — I’m not. But it wouldn’t stop me from swinging by Kiev if I happened to be in the neighborhood. 

I’ve never felt safer than in some countries with warnings issued

Of the 37 countries with travel warnings and alerts listed on the department’s website as of this writing, I’ve only been to two. Pretty paltry, I know, but both Israel (where I filmed episodes for the original webseries) and Mexico (where I filmed a full episode for the public television series debuting this Friday) had those warnings in place at the time I traveled through. 

And the truth is, I felt safer in each of those countries than I sometimes do in Los Angeles where I live. (Only yesterday, the main street at the end of my block had a reported bomb threat that shut the whole thing down.) And yes, I filmed in Cancun, Mexico — tourist trap of the Western Hemisphere — not Ciudad Juarez. I’m not on a mission to get kidnapped, I just don’t let the demagoguery intimidate me. 

As for Israel, being alone there was a huge plus. Not only did I never feel threatened in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, because people weren’t quite sure of my ethnic makeup, individuals from all walks of life warmly reached out to me. My one regret is that I didn’t go into Palestinian-held territory when I had the chance. 

In actuality, the one city in which I’ve known I was being followed and might have been threatened was New Delhi. A country rapidly becoming infamous for horrific violence against women only now being widely reported, India is not listed in the State Department’s warnings.

Ignore commercially-funded media and cross-check information

The U.S. media machine is the worst I’ve ever seen for spreading the epidemic of fear when it comes to international coverage. Our commercial news outlets are ravenous ratings-monsters outdoing the sensationalism factor of every other free-press and even some not-so-free-press countries in which I’ve watched the news. And that’s 19 or 20 countries at this point. 

I have South African acquaintances who were in Baghdad when Western forces pushed into the city in 2003. They watched the CNN feed reporting bombings all around them one night and when they didn’t hear any they walked out of the hotel to a quiet neighborhood. 

Take any commercial media reports with more than a grain of salt, and if you need other information about a destination you’re considering, check the United States' information against other countries’:

        Great Britain https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice

The one department function I do think is a decent idea for solo travelers is to register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. STEP is helpful in expediting the issue of a new passport while abroad or, in extreme cases, helping to locate and evacuate you when the dung hits the fan. 

        But keep in mind that is rare. For many of us, we are much more at risk inside the United States than we are elsewhere; regardless of what our media and government would have us believe. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Four Haunts Napa Valley Locals Probably Don’t Want You to Know About

Napa Valley put the United States on the wine map of the world decades ago. The instant Chateau Montelena’s chardonnay won the fabled Judgement of Paris in 1976 the wine world went nuts (as soon as it got over its collective gasp of shock, dismay, and — for some — horror). 

Each year millions of visitors from all over the globe descend on the valley appearing like clouds of locusts, decimating every winery tasting room in their path. The insatiable thirst for wine, wine, and more wine drives people to throw massive amounts of cash over the counters as if they’re possessed by demons and they largely stick to the beaten path during weekend trips. But for valley locals, both workers in the trade and simple civilians, there are a few favorite places to escape the hordes because, sometimes, you just need a beer. 

Pancha’s of Yountville

The hamlet of Yountville boasts some of the most venerable haute cuisine in the U.S. It’s famous for several of Thomas Keller’s shingles (it still takes months to land a reservation at French Laundry) and all the classiness and pretense that go along with high-end food and wine. But when Keller’s staff, front and back of house, want to get away from all that class and pretense, they head to Pancha’s. Be warned: it’s a dive bar. And not the trendy sort of hipster dive one might find in San Francisco or L.A. Pancha’s is a smoking-allowed-your-feet-will-stick-to-the-floor dive. The owner is infamously prickly (on a good day). Don’t ask to charge your phone or complain about the jukebox. But if you’re looking to escape the overpriced tastings and all that class too, it’s the place. 

Trancas Steakhouse

There’s Napa Valley and then there’s Napa town. Trancas Steakhouse, in the town of Napa, is where the townies go for serious meat. They may actually have the “World’s best prime rib, according to Norm” (Norman Sawicki, the owner) but I had the filet mignon so I wouldn’t know. What I do know is that the place has a warm, casual atmosphere run by people who seem to really care that you’re there. The walls are covered in photos of customers and family and the food is quite good. Even in the middle of a Saturday night rush Norm makes the rounds to say hello. He welcomed me back mistaking me for someone else though it was my first time and when he realized he was wrong, he bought the first round for me and my friend. I love townies.


If there’s wine anywhere behind the bar at Billco’s, I didn’t see it. I was too dazzled by the 60 bright, shiny taps lining the wall behind the bartender. In the very heart of old Napa town is the come-as-you-are pool hall slinging so many microbrews and imports that it’s slightly paralyzing. But the barkeeps know that look and will help with your decision-making, so tear in. It’s the kind of place where a few visitors skinny up to the bar between the latino farm workers who harvest their favorite wines, and the winemakers and cellar managers who are so sick of wine they can’t look at it for one more hour. That doesn’t mean they aren’t all still connoisseurs, though. These people appreciate a well-made brew as much as well-made vino. Just don’t get the tasting room worker next to you started about the ubiquitous, tipsy bridesmaids’ parties that infest the valley.

Napa Valley Biscuits

While the bridal parties are sleeping it off, the locals are grabbing breakfast — at breakfast time. Owned and operated by local couple Tara and Curtis Lindley, NVB is a southern comfort-food diner in a place known for culinary experimentation. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and an East Texas boy, Lindley does his share of experimenting, but it’s with traditional southern structure. I gobbled up the obligatory chicken and waffles, but there’s more deep(er) south on the menu. Like the collard greens with turnips and apples. The staff is swift and sweet and that Curtis ain’t too hard on the eyes back there, still working the line.