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Hugo Chávez calls Israel a “cursed terrorist and murderous state”

June 7, 2010 Leave a comment

(WJC)–In his latest diatribe, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frias has called Israel “genocidal” and a “cursed terrorist and murderous state”. In a speech broadcast on national television and amid shouts of “Long Live Palestine” Chávez also accused Israel of supporting the local opposition against his government. “Israel is financing the Venezuelan opposition. There are even groups of Israeli terrorists, of the Mossad, who are after me trying to kill me,” he said.

In the same speech, Chavez sent his “greetings and respect” to the local Jewish community. “They know they have our affection and respect,” he said, adding later that “I doubt very much that a Venezuelan Jew would support such an atrocity.”

The local Jewish community has had a strained relationship with the government following a spate of attacks against Jewish houses of worship last year, including an assault against the city’s main synagogue.

Other Latin American nations closely aligned with Chavez have also come out strongly against the Jewish state. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa recalled his country’s ambassador from Tel Aviv, while Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said he was suspending diplomatic relations between the two nations. Venezuela severed its diplomatic ties with Israel last year, following the war in Gaza.

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress.

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Boom times in Manta reminiscent of San Diego last century

March 16, 2010 10 comments

Seaside development being graded on coastline of Manta, Ecuador

Last in a series

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

MANTA, Ecuador—There’s a San Diego feel about this city near the equator.  The same tuna companies – Van Camp, Bumblebee—that once made San Diego their homes now have canneries here.  Although it recently closed, a U.S. Air Force base here that monitored possible drug traffickers in nearby Colombia brought single servicemen to this city – and many of them took Ecuadorian wives.   And there is a shoreline that is reminiscent of San Diego County in the early 20th century, with miles and miles of bare promontories overlooking secluded beaches.

Residential area in Manta overlooking the Pacific

Still another reason why Manta may generate nostalgia among long-time San Diegans is that there is a building boom currently taking place, with an estimated 500 to 1,000 apartment, condo and single family homes being built each year to take advantage of an influx of retirees from the United States, Canada and the former Soviet Union, according to Maria Fernanda Carrasco Cordero, one of the busiest real estate agents in Manta.  Old time San Diegans can remember similar days of opportunity in their county.

Nancy and I met Carrasco and her husband, furniture manufacturer Juan Pablo Arteaga Calderon, through the Alexander and Helen Poddubnyi of Podd & Associates of Vista, California, who operate air cargo charter offices in San Diego County.  Poddubnyi purchased a condo in Manta and subsequently became a business associate of Carrasco’s.

Although we aren’t ready to retire yet to the Latin American shoreline—although the prospect  is tempting indeed— Nancy and I were interested in learning what life is like for the growing American colony in this port city that was on MS Rotterdam’s itinerary during our cruise from Lima, Peru, back home to San Diego.

Maria Fernanda Carrasco Cordero

Carrasco met us in her car near the gated entrance of the Port of Manta and took us on a whirlwind tour of hillsides currently being graded for condominiums overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  Some of these still unbuilt units already have been sold, and, judging by the number of phone calls Carrasco received during our time with her—more are being sold every day.  In fact, Isofali Kundawala, a retired physician from Richardson, Texas, shared the tour with us—and he told us he had decided to buy in Manta after checking out other potential retirement spots along the Mexican, central American and South American coasts.

Why Manta? We asked him.   He described it as a small town with some large town amenities, including at least seven flights daily to the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, from which international airline connections can be made back to the States or to other parts of the world.    He also said he found the prices appealing—not only to purchase real estate, but also for domestic services, taxes, gasoline, and the like.

Residential developments here invoke the names of various seaside paradises around the world including Santorini, Greece;  Portofino in Italy, Fortaleza, Brazil, and La Jolla in California.   The latter is where Poddubnyi purchased her condo, with Carrasco having served as her agent.

Carrasco told us that most people who purchase condos in Manta initially visit the city on multi-city real estate tours, decide that Manta is where they’d like to locate, and then come back to find the specific property they’d like to purchase. 

“Every day there is someone moving here, “ Carrasco said.  “I think it is because people who are on fixed income are able to have a better standard of living here.  You don’t have to have medical insurance because doctors here are inexpensive compared to the States.  We have good weather and a good location.  If someone is renting here, they can get a nice two bedroom place for approximately $600 a month plus $200 utilities.  For $1,500 to $2,000 a month you can live quite luxuriously here.”

Small homes for purchase cost approximately $150,000  for two and three bedrooms in the Manta Beach colony, whereas a large, luxurious home will cost approximately $500,000.  Forty hour a week domestic helpers who can cook and clean are paid $240 per month, with another $60 paid to the government for their nationally mandated health insurance and social security, she said.

Plumbers, gardeners charge between $10 and $20 per visit, and doctors charge between $30 and $50 per office visit.  Overnight stays at the hospital cost approximately $100 per night, but transportation to Guayaquil may be required for more complex hospital services.  “But it is still cheap compared to the United States,” Carrasco said.

In December 2011,  Manta will host the South American Beach Sports competition, an event which Carrasco believes will increase the city’s visibility among real estate investors.

Carrasco and her husband had lived in Madison, Wisconsin,  so they are familiar with the ways of Americans and both speak very good English.

While Carrasco met with some business clients, a driver took Nancy and me to the bamboo furniture factory of her husband, Juan Pablo Arteaga Calderon.

Juan Pablo Arteaga Calderon

Walking us through the complex, he told us that originally he had a dairy farm on the location, which benefitted from the proximity of companies that extracted oils from fish and from various plants in the area.  But when Ecuador decided to make the U.S. dollar its currency in 2000, prices of the feed went up, and Arteaga was faced with the necessity of purchasing pasture land to feed the cows and hiring more people to watch over them as they grazed.

Bamboom dining room set

Figuring costs closely, Arteaga decided to instead sell the cows to other ranchers.  He converted his farm into a bamboo factory where, after purchasing bamboo from rain forests on the Pacific side of the Andes Mountains, he initially manufactured handcrafts and other small items predominantly for the tourist trade.

As his workers’ skill level increased, they began crafting handmade bamboo furniture—chairs, tables, desks, cabinets, and beds.  With his family background in furniture retailing, Arreaga opened a store called “Bamboom” a few blocks from the entrance to the Port.  His wife also maintains her offices there.

Arreaga said the name “Bamboom” is taken from the sound that bamboo wood makes when used for firework displays.  Bam!  Boom!   More importantly, the name suggests the excitement that making such furniture generates – especially now that business in booming, er bam-booming.

Arteaga has been busy making special orders of doors and room furniture for hotel lobbies and for owners of new condos who’d rather purchase a full suite of new bamboo furniture than ship their old furniture.

Bamboom has 19 employees in the factory and six in the showroom.  

Manta Yacht Club

Nancy and I met the couple’s two children who were taking sailing lessons at the Manta Yacht Club.  We enjoyed a fine lunch at the club, enjoying the ever-changing tableau of a former fishing village that is becoming a bustling retirement and tourist community.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Compiling a digital menagerie on Holland America cruise

March 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Seventh in a series

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

ABOARD MS ROTTERDAM – Not really conscious that I was doing so, I turned this Holland America  cruise ship into a digital Noah’s Ark while voyaging from Lima, Peru, to San Diego, USA.

In port after port, I photographed whatever seemed interesting that crossed in front of my lens.  This included shops, architecture, signs, people in national costume, flags—the usual eye-appealing parade of color that catches the eyes of tourists. To my surprise,  it turned out that in every port—even in one at which I was feeling too ill to get off the ship—I photographed animals. 

Some of the animals were alive, some were representations in art, but  the growing unplanned collection seemed a testament to the fact that no matter where in the world where we go, humans find animals irresistible to watch and to admire.

Our cruise started in Callao, which is the port for Lima, Peru.  In the Plaza des Armas, near the presidential palace, various artists had decorated life-sized sculptures of cows.  I was told that this was  a public art project that eventually through auction will raise money for charitable causes.

Iguana Park in heart of Guayaquil, Ecuador

The next stop was Guayaquil, Ecuador, and from the pier, courtesy shuttle buses took us to a park in the center of town famous for the iguanas that roam there along with the pigeons.   Admired, photographed, oohed and ahhed over, the iguanas are quite used to the Ecuadorians and tourists who come to see them on a regular basis.   They even seem to tolerate the pigeons, which like to share in the iguanas’ bounty.

Tuna fountain in Manta, Ecuador

Manta, Ecuador, is home to tuna canneries –and tuna are celebrated with public art showing them jumping out of a fountain and flying across a main street.

In Puerta Caldera, Costa Rica, I felt too ill to get off the ship—a short bout with  a  gastro-intestinal malady had done me in – but a black bird of a species I couldn’t identify apparently took pity on me, flying right to the Promenade Deck outside the sliding door of my cabin. 

It was if the bird knew, even before I did, that I had this  animal photo streak going, and didn’t want a little thing like a stomach upset to spoil it.

Next it was to Puerto Chiapas, Mexico, where woodcarvers at work inside a giant tourist pyramid made various animals before our eyes, including a frog.

Huatulco shopping district

In Huatulco, the Gabriel the Owl store invited tourists to buy gold at 40 percent off with the promise on an outdoor sign that “we won’t cheat you too bad.”  How reassuring!

In Acapulco, at Fort San Diego, exhibits showing trade goods carried in the times of the Manila galleons included a sculpture of a horse carrying a Spanish soldier.

In Cabo San Lucas, our last port before San Diego, we were fascinated by the large, friendly pelicans that loafed along the waterfront.

The ship also contributed to my photographic zoo.  Two large sea lions dominated the swimming pool on the Lido Deck, carved watermelons in the buffet line looked  like seahorses, and on many nights in our cabins, towel animals created by our stewards tickled our whimsy.

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Next: Boom times in Manta, Ecuador
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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Cruising through Latin American history

March 14, 2010 Leave a comment

Francisco Pizarro statue in Lima

Sixth in a Series

By Donald H. Harrison

Donald H. Harrison

ABOARD MS ROTTERDAM—From the earliest days of the conquest of Latin America to the years of liberation, our cruise ship sped us through some of the most dramatic moments in Spanish colonial history.

For us, a recent voyage aboard MS Rotterdam began in Callao, the port serving nearby Lima, Peru.  Inside the Cathedral on Lima’s Plaza des Armas, one can find the tomb of the conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who nearly 470 years after his assassination is still a controversial figure in Peru.

Renato Monteverde

As guide Renato Monteverde of taxilimaperu.com narrated the story, Pizarro is hated in Peru for having slain so many Incas during the time of conquest.  A well-known statue of him astride a horse once was located in front of the Cathedral, according to Monteverde, but the church didn’t consider a horseman with a sword consistent with its image as the helper of the people.  So, said Monteverde, the statue was moved by city authorities in front of the presidential palace.   But the president—being a politician who wants to court the support of the people—didn’t want so controversial a figure in front of his building either.  Spain was asked to take the statue back, but according to Monteverde’s version, the former colonial power would do so only if Peru paid for the shipping.  Eventually, the statue was moved to the catacombs by the river, in the hope, according to Monteverde, that it would be someday washed away.

While one might quibble with the historical veracity of Monteverde’s tale, it certainly portrayed in most vivid fashion how some people feel about the Spaniards who brought their weapons and their diseases to the Incan Empire.  At least for some parts of the population, Pizarro is an absolute anathema.

Fernando Lopez Sanchez

Fernando Lopez Sanchez, an historian trained by Lima’s Catholic University who today serves as chief archivist at the Cathedral, offers a more forgiving assessment of the conquistador.  “History tells us the facts that took place; it is up to us to interpret and understand the time in which he lived,” Lopez said.  “He was doing what all the soldiers of the time were doing, which was conquest.”

However, he added, “The intentions of Pizarro and the conquistadors was not just to come in and kill everything in sight; the intention was to try to spread faith to a population.  At first they tried to negotiate with the indigenous people, but once the negotiations failed, it turned into violence.”

It is true that many Incas died, “but what you have to take into account was that most of the deaths were not caused by Spanish arms but by the diseases” they unknowingly brought to South America with them.

Pizarro founded Lima in 1535, and he is buried in the cathedral “because the city would not have been established were it not for Pizarro and it was his dying wish to be buried in the cathedral.”

The conquistador of Mexico, Hernan Cortes, was a second cousin of Pizarro’s.  Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs in 1520 and Pizarro’s conquest of the Incans in 1532 are often equated.  However, said Lopez, “although there are similarities in the Mexican and the Peruvian pasts, the Mexicans today are ultra nationalists, whereas Peruvians are more open to people from different cultures.   Mexicans view their history with more hatred.  They hate Cortes, they say ‘he killed us all.’  What is happening here in Peru is that we try to understand the Spanish instead of just hating them.”

Spanish rule lasted in Peru for nearly 300 years, until 1821, when the Argentine general Jose de San Martin liberated Lima and became known as the Protector of Peru.

The next port of call for MS Rotterdam was Guayaquil, Ecuador, where San Martin in 1822 reportedly had his only meeting ever with the liberator of northern South America, Simon Bolivar.  Nobody knows for certain what the two men said, although it is believed that San Martin acceded to the idea of modern-day Ecuador and Peru becoming part of Gran Colombia, the confederation of South American states that also included modern day Colombia and Venezuela. 

La Rotunda in Guayaquil celebrates meeting of Bolivar and San Martin

The content of the meeting between the two great liberators today is still a source of speculation among historians.  The fact that it was held in Guayaquil is a matter of great pride to the port city, which in its commemoration built La Rotunda, a heroic sized monument  on the Malecon, a wide walkway along the Guayas River.  Those interested in Spanish colonial history can easily combine a visit to La Rotunda with a short walk to the Museo Nahim Isaias, in which a banker of Lebanese descent compiled a storehouse of Spanish colonial art, most of it on Christian religious subjects.

After stopping in Manta, Ecuador;  Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, and Puerto Chiapas, Mexico; MS Rotterdam pulled into Huatulco, Mexico, which in association with Veracruz on Mexico’s Atlantic Coast and Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific Coast was an important port in keeping Spain’s colonial empire in Latin America together.  Acapulco was the next port after Huatulco on MS Rotterdam’s itinerary.

Small boat dock in Huatulco

Spain sent European goods and crops across the Atlantic Ocean to Veracruz, where they were sold at market for the silver mined and coined in Mexico.  Afterwards, the European goods were sent to Huatulco and Acapulco.  Those that went to Huatulco were put onto ships for Peru, where the goods were exchanged for Peruvian precious metals, furniture and crops.  European goods that went to Acapulco were put on galleons bound for Manila in the Philippines, where the goods and Mexican silver were exchanged for the silks, spices, and ceramics of the Far East.

Fort San Diego in Acapulco

Fort San Diego in Acapulco is located across the street from the cruise pier, making it a popular destination for tourists.  Shaped like an irregular five-pointed star, Fort San Diego had a commanding view of ocean and land approaches to Acapulco. Its cannons were able to protect the treasures of the galleons from pirates and other enemies of the Spanish crown.

In 1813, however, the Mexican revolutionary Jose Maria Morelos was able to capture the fort in Acapulco, effectively bringing to an end the era when the Pacific Ocean was considered a Spanish lake ruled by the Manila galleons.

From Acapulco, MS Rotterdam proceeded to Cabo San Lucas, which most people know for the famous stone arches that mark the point where the Sea of Cortes and the Pacific Ocean divide.  In Spanish colonial history, this picturesque port spelled danger because it was a favorite hiding place for British pirates ready to plunder the galleons. 

Tendering to Cabo San Lucas

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese sailor in the employ of Spain, passed Cabo San Lucas en route to Alta California.  He claimed modern-day San Diego Bay for Spain in 1542, naming the area San Miguel.  However, Cabrillo’s discovery was all but forgotten for six decades.  After the pirate Thomas Cavendish made short work of the galleon Santa Ana in 1587, Spain realized it had to do more to protect the Manila-Acapulco route, perhaps by establishing forts in areas where the pirates were likely to strike. 

In 1602, Spain authorized Sebastian Vizcaino to explore the coast of Alta California.  Not recognizing the area that Cabrillo had named San Miguel, Vizcaino gave the bay and the city that would spring up in its vicinity its modern name of San Diego.  Homeport to the MS Rotterdam, San Diego was our final port in a brief, but fascinating, excursion into Spanish colonial history.

Next: Animals in Cruise Ports

‘Man Overboard!’– Drama aboard MS Rotterdam not to be forgotten

March 10, 2010 2 comments

Lifeboat maneuvers to floating object in Pacific during
recovery operation.  Photos: Donald H. Harrison

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By Donald H.  Harrison

-Second in a series–

ABOARD MS ROTTERDAM –Recovering the body of a man who threw himself overboard and avoiding a possible tsunami in the wake of a large Chilean earthquake were unscheduled and unforgettable events during a recent cruise aboard the Holland America cruise ship Rotterdam.

Passenger Walter A____  apparently climbed to a railing near the fantail on the Lower Promenade Deck of the Rotterdam and, according to a witness, cast himself into the sea off the coast of Colombia close to noontime  Friday, Feb. 26,  as other passengers, including his wife Judy, were having their lunch. 

The witness was another passenger who came horrified upon the suicide as it was occurring. She   immediately reported the event to a deck officer, who in turn relayed the information to the bridge crew, and they in turn notified the master of the vessel, Captain Rik Krombeen.  Within six minutes of the occurrence, Kronbeen ordered the ship to turn around and to begin a search for the victim, he later told this reporter.  My wife Nancy and I were also among the 1,330 passengers aboard the 780 foot- long, 59,885-gross ton ship.

So that passengers would not become alarmed by the ship’s sudden change in direction on its sea day crossing the Equator between its ports of call at Manta, Ecuador, and Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, the captain (shown at left)  announced that a man was believed to have gone overboard.  He asked the passengers to watch the waters for any sign of him.  At various times as the ship ran a search pattern, he also asked for complete silence on deck in the event that the victim was yelling for help.

The wife, thinking her 72-year-old husband was trying to nap, brought lunch down to their first-deck cabin, but found that  he was not there.  She called the Front Office and informed the personnel there that her husband was unexpectedly missing.  Cruise Director Joseph Pokorski made two announcements on the public address system asking Mr. A ____ to please call the Front Office.   When Mr. A___  did not respond, it became understood throughout the ship that he was the man in question. Captain Korbeen and Holland America authorities asked that the man’s surname be withheld in this report.

After backtracking to the approximate location where Mr. A___ had gone into the water, the ship’s crew began dropping small buoys in order to determine which way the currents would take them and how quickly.  Meanwhile, a search and rescue airplane, which Captain Korbeen said had been dispatched from Colombia at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard, flew over the area.  

Given that the Pacific Ocean waters were calm and warm, it was estimated that a victim desiring to stay alive could do so for up to 36 hours in those seas.  However, if as suspected, Mr. A___ had the intention of taking his life, the Coast Guard might choose to end the search far earlier.  Whereas a victim who wants to stay alive will wave his arms and yell for help, an intended suicide typically will do nothing to assist his potential rescuers.  Wearing gray and white clothes on an overcast day, Mr. A___ could not be seen from a distance greater than 70 yards away.

Guided by the mathematics of time and currents, the cruise ship and rescue plane (shown at right) proceeded in ever narrowing circles.  Approximately four hours after the incident occurred the airplane messaged that it needed to return to land to refuel.  Accordingly, it had but one pass left, and Captain Kornbeen requested that it fly along a line paralleling the ship’s calculations of the man’s drift. 

The airplane spotted something in the water and reported the Global Positioning System location to the ship.  Captain Korbeen announced to the passengers that he would be going quite quickly to that position and might need to make a sudden turn.  He urged passengers to be prepared to balance themselves.

A lifeboat had been lowered to the Lower Promenade Deck to permit crewmembers easy access when it was time to retrieve the body.  As the crew members clambered into the life boat, security officers directed passengers to move several cabin widths away.  Once in the ocean, the lifeboat maneuvered in such a way as to screen from the passengers a view of Mr. A___’s body being lifted into the lifeboat.   Passengers then were asked “out of respect” to clear the deck so that Mr. A___’s body could be brought aboard and moved to the small morgue aboard the Rotterdam.  Five hours had elapsed since the original incident.While all this was occurring, on-board care teams stayed with Mrs. A____ and with the woman who had witnessed the suicide, offering both women comfort and counseling.  Meanwhile, Holland America’s office in Seattle, Washington, got in touch with Jason, the son of Mr. and Mrs. A____, recounted to him what happened, and arranged for him and his wife to fly to Costa Rica to meet his mother and to help with the formalities for claiming and transporting Mr. A___’s remains back to the United States. 

Mr. and Mrs. A____ had been active cruisers who had liked to post critics’ comments about various experiences at sea on line.  A group of these cruisers were aboard the vessel, and a memorial  service the following morning for Mr. A___ led by an onboard minister was arranged. 

Holland America’s main office gave permission to Captain Korbeen to try to make up as much time as possible en route to Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, meaning that instead of proceeding at 19 knots in the evening and overnight, the ship at times reached nearly 25 knots—burning fuel at the rate of more than $70 a minute.  Originally scheduled to come in at 8 a.m., this procedure would have brought Rotterdam to its Costa Rican port at 9 a.m.   However, news came of the great 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Concepcion, Chile, presenting Captain Korbeen with two new challenges – one nautical and one intensely personal. 

There was a possibility that the Chilean earthquake would generate dangerous tides in the bay of Puerto  Caldera, Costa Rica.  The water might come into the bay and then just as quickly go out, leaving a ship entering the bay without sufficient water to proceed or pushing it in the wrong direction. In consultation with local authorities, Kornbeen decided to wait in ocean waters outside the port until it could be determined what the tidal effects were.  As it turned out, the tidal effect was insignificant, and Rotterdam reached its berth at 9:32 a.m.

More pressing was a problem on board the ship.  A young woman who worked in the gift shops was from Concepcion, Chile, and she was unable to reach anyone by telephone.  For three days, she frantically tried to telephone home, but was unsuccessful.  She later learned that her own apartment had been destroyed, and so had that of her brother.  Luckily, her brother was staying with their parents during the earthquake—and the home of their parents had survived the earthquake.  Although both the employee and the brother had lost their homes, the important matter was that all her family members were safe.  

The young woman debated whether she should try to fly home immediately, but her family urged her to remain on board.  Concepcion was in chaos, and there was little she could do at home.  On the other hand, the money she was earning aboard Rotterdam would be of benefit to the family.   When fellow crewmembers learned of what had befallen their shipmate, they took up a collection to help the family.

Sometime after Mr. A___’s body was taken off the ship, his son Jason posted a note on the Intenet site of the cruise critics expressing his gratitude and that of his family to Holland America for its compassion during a most difficult time. “My dad, Walter was the individual that went overboard on the 26th off the Rotterdam,” he wrote.  “Dad was a very strong individual that lived life to its fullest.  He had become progressively more ill and knew that there was little he could do to change it.”  Of his mother, Judy, he wrote that the ships personnel “became her guardian angels. She would like to personally thank each and every crew member that assisted her in her time of need.  Holland America went above and beyond the call of duty in taking care of both her and my wife and I.”

Jason said after flying to Costa Rica, he met with his mother and  Care Team members who were “invaluable guides for us in Costa Rica as we underwent the long, arduous process of working our way through the government bureaucracy that stood between us and getting dad home. It took us five days and they were our ever present friends and guides. They were our moral and physical support. They helped us figure out how to get dad from the mortuary to the funeral home, how to get his body cremated, how to prepare the required embassy paperwork, arranged transportation, meals and lodging for the entire ordeal.  They cried with us and laughed with us.  They are our heroes.”

It was not only the family that was grateful to the cruise line.  At a “Life at Sea” presentation in which passengers had the opportunity to question the captain, cruise director, hotel manager and chief engineer on a wide range of subjects including precautions against gastro-intestinal infections, elevators that weren’t working, on-board movie selection, and even the status of the karaoke machine, one man rose to say, “during the tragic event we had, I must compliment you captain and your crew the way you picked up that body.”

There was spontaneous sustained applause from the audience that filled the main floor and balcony of the show room.
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Next in the series: Warding off the GIS virus

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Contrasting an airline that doesn’t care about its passengers with a cruise line that does

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Nancy waiting in Fort Lauderdale, not suspecting the time crunch to come

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First in a series

By Donald H. Harrison

LIMA, Peru—Were it not for cruise ships like the one we embarked upon here in the wee hours of Monday, Feb. 22, I believe I’d be ready to consign my leisure travel to the lazy boy chair in front of the television in my home.   I’d much rather go nowhere than to have to subject myself constantly to airlines.

I’ll tell of the Delta Airlines experience by which we arrived in this South American capital and port city—an experience that I believe typifies what happens on airlines today.  The story I will tell is not about some fabulous exception; rather it concerns the low standard of service that is becoming common place. Airlines may try to excuse themselves by saying they have to adopt certain customer-adverse policies and measures because of the difficult economic times, but I believe the problem goes much deeper. 

It seems apparent that airlines no longer value their customers, except as numbers on a chart.  An attitude of contemptuousness has taken hold of the airline industry, an attitude that began in the board room where such policies were approved as all-but-eliminating sufficient leg room in economy class, charging passengers extra for luggage, and nickeling and diming passengers for snacks and beverages, movies and other amenities.  This lack of appreciation for customers eventually was transmitted through middle managers all the way to the service personnel. 

I’ll start my story in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where Nancy and I had attended a wedding.  We arrived at the airport there, which seemed comparable in size to San Diego’s Lindbergh Field, about two hours prior to our flight.  Because our ultimate destination was an international one rather than a domestic one, we were not able to check our bags curbside but instead were required to do so inside the terminal.  However, the terminal was so crowded that we were not permitted to simply check our bags.  Instead we and other passengers were herded into an area across a corridor from the counters and told to wait there until the time our flight was called.  Then and only then could we proceed to check our baggage.

No one explained why this procedure had been adopted, but by asking questions we were able to ascertain that the baggage belt was working only intermittently, requiring many bags to be ferried by hand. We waited well over an hour with other passengers, who either were standing with their baggage or sitting with it on the floor, until finally we were permitted to proceed to the ticket counter, where there was little or no order.  By the time we actually got to a ticket agent, another twenty minutes had elapsed.  To add insult to injury, once we  arrived at the ticket counter,  an agent curtly told us we should have been at the counter a half hour earlier.  We replied that had been our intention, but her own colleagues had prevented us from doing do.

The counter agent processed our luggage and handed us our boarding passes and quickly moved on to another customer.  We worked our way through lines to a screening area where an employee checked our ticket against our passports.  They didn’t match; the ticket agent somehow had given us the wrong boarding passes, made out in someone else’s name.

Nancy told me to wait with all the carry-on luggage—and she charged back to the ticket desk—explaining what had happened.  “Find the agent who helped you,” she was told.  “She’s not here,” Nancy answered in a panic. “And our flight is about to leave.” 

Grudgingly another ticket agent got onto the computer, and issued proper boarding passes.   Nancy dashed back to where I was waiting, and with the new documents we were allowed to proceed—to security, where we had to go through all the regular procedures of removing everything from our pockets, taking off our shoes, putting my laptop computer in a separate tray, and so forth.  As I gathered up everything, Nancy ran ahead to the gate.  As she turned the corner, she heard an agent say “last call for Donald and Nancy Harrison.” 

“We’re here, wait!” Nancy shouted at a dead run.  

Nancy found that they had reassigned the airplane seats we had reserved—and that the gate agents were completely unaware what was happening in the ticket area.  “Do you want to go without your husband?” they asked Nancy, “because we’re closing the doors.” 

“He’s coming,” Nancy replied.  “He’s at security, just putting his shoes on.”  “Well I don’t see him coming,” the agent said.  “Do you want to board anyway?”  At that point I made my appearance.  They whisked us down the gangway and put us into the seats by the boarding door.

Next, we went to Atlanta where we caught the flight to Peru, thinking that embarkation was blessedly uneventful.  But we were incorrect in our assessment. Although we had no problem boarding the plane, it later developed that one of our two large bags did not.

On the six-and-a-half hour flight to Peru, some of the flight attendants evidently were in a bad mood.  Instead of placing snacks on trays, one flight attendant practically threw them onto the passengers’ trays in economy class, as if she were dealing cards at a poker table.   When Nancy asked another attendant  near the end of the flight, “if you have time, could I please have some water?” he responded in a surly tone, “I don’t have time!”—making several passengers wonder what had prompted him to exhibit such hostility.  He might simply and courteously have responded.  “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to get back to you before we land.”  Evidently he was having a bad day, and decided to take out his pique on passengers.

After arriving in Lima, we sought to retrieve our bags.  It’s a sickening feeling when the bags on the carousel keep repeating themselves—but your bag is not among them.  Eventually, after every other bag was taken off the carousel by passengers, we had to admit the obvious.  Although Nancy’s bag had made it to Lima, somehow mine didn’t.  We reported the problem to a courteous gentleman at the baggage desk, who was able to establish that my bag was still in Atlanta.   Normally, this is not a problem, he said, as the bag could be sent on the next flight and delivered to the person’s home or hotel. The problem was that our cruise ship—the MS Rotterdam—would be leaving Lima Monday afternoon and the next flight from Atlanta wouldn’t arrive until late Monday evening.  “Perhaps,” I suggested, “the bags could be delivered at the next port,” which would be Guayaquil, Ecuador, on Wednesday, February 24.

The baggage agent said that he never had to deal with the problem of reuniting luggage with a passenger on a cruise ship before, and was uncertain what the procedures were.  He asked a colleague to photocopy our passports as well as an information sheet with Holland America’s contact numbers.  He said he would leave a message explaining the situation for Delta’s morning supervisor of luggage in Lima, and gave us that person’s contact number. 

I went with another Delta employee who wanted to photocopy our passports at the Delta office – which was up a floor and down a corridor—only to find that the office had been closed and that she had no key.  So she radioed for assistance, and eventually someone opened the door, and she copied the documents.   Meanwhile,  Nancy dashed ahead to find the driver whom we previously had engaged by long distance phone calls and emails to take us from the airport to the cruise ship terminal.  She was concerned that the driver,  Renato Monteverde of taxilimaperu.com, would have become discouraged after waiting for us for such a long time, but there he was with our name printed on a placard and with a smile on his face. 

Monteverde helped to rehabilitate our image of the travel industry.  He got us quickly, efficiently and politely to the Port of Callao, where MS Rotterdam was docked.  Security guards checked the ship’s manifest against our passports and ran our luggage through an X-Ray machine.  Once aboard, we were escorted to the front desk to report our missing luggage.  Although the problem had been Delta’s, not Holland-America’s, the ship’s personnel did everything they could to help.  Immediately and with a cheerful smile, they presented me with a courtesy kit of toiletries, so that I’d be able to shave and to brush my teeth.  The next day, a loan of a sports shirt was made to me so that I would have something different to wear at the captain’s informal reception for new passengers.   Meanwhile, personnel aboard the ship made contact with Delta Airlines to arrange a rendezvous for the luggage.  They had hoped it would be in Guayaquil, but in fact it did not catch up with us until the following day, Feb. 25, in Manta, Ecuador.

While not having my suitcase was an inconvenience, thanks to Holland America – and to Nancy who volunteered to shop in the Miraflores area for a few more necessities—it was not the serious problem it could have been. 

Holland America proved to be a company adept at solving passenger problems rather than causing them.  This made me feel glad that I would be taking this ship all the way to San Diego, rather than having to fly home by an airline. It was good to be treated like a mensch instead of as a serf.  I was certain that the rest of my vacation would go well, now that I had put myself in the hands of the right segment of the travel industry – the segment that believes that next to safety, service to customers is the highest value.  As I shall describe in part two of this series, Holland-America was soon to find itself facing some tough tests of that philosophy—tests not of the cruise line’s making.

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Harrison is editor of San Diego Jewish World

Iranian terror cells reportedly infiltrating Latin America

December 3, 2009 Leave a comment

BUENOS AIRES (wjc)–Alberto Nisman, the Argentinean prosecutor investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires warned of Iran’s growing terror network in Latin America. “The Iranians are moving fast. We see a much greater penetration than we did in 1994,” Nisman told a conference of the American Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

He said that Iran, particularly through Hezbollah, now had a growing presence in Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, using techniques it honed in Argentina before the country took steps against Iran.

Nisman spoke of sham operations involving taxi drivers, who conducted surveillance without arousing suspicion, fake medical school students who could stay in the country for many years without raising eyebrows, and business fronts that helped funnel cash to operatives.

Iranians cultivated ties at the local mosques to search for people who could be radicalized. Today, he said, Argentina was considered a “hostile environment” for Iran, but the Iranian terrorist groups were finding fertile ground in other Latin American countries. “The stronger element that happens today is the complicity of the government,” he said, pointing to the networks Iran develops through its embassies. “We know that [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez allows Hezbollah to come in.”

Nisman said there were “too many countries in Europe that continue to turn a blind eye … like with the Nazis.” He called on these countries to refuse to welcome Iranian leaders to international forums like the United Nations until they adhere to the Interpol-backed warrants and hand over the men wanted by Argentina in connection with the AMIA bombing. “Iran will not long be able to resist,” he contended. “It cannot fight against the entire world.”

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Preceding provided by World Jewish Congress