Criticized Or Applauded, Presidential Travel Is One Great Job Perk

presidential travel
ep_jhu/Flickr

This week, President Obama and family fly to Africa for what has been described as both “frivolous spending” and a trip that brings “a great bang for our buck.” The estimated $60 – $100 million trip comes at a time when Americans face a decidedly different flying experience caused by government furloughs and cutbacks. Approve or not, presidential travel and moving the first family around the world is in no way inexpensive.

Traveling to sub-Sahara Africa from June 26 to July 3, the Obamas will be accompanied by hundreds of Secret Service agents and staff, adding to the cost of transportation and accommodations. Still, this is the leader of the free world and protecting him, his family and staff is not going to be a cheap road trip no matter how they do it. When President Clinton visited Africa the price tag was said to be $42.7 million plus the cost of Secret Service protection.

As the trip to South Africa, Senegal and Tanzania gets underway, a reported 56 vehicles ranging from limousines to trucks full of supplies will be flown in via military cargo planes. When the Obamas are on the ground in Africa, U.S. fighter jets will be ever-present in the airspace directly above them. That’s in addition to the cost of operating the President’s ride, Air Force One, estimated to be slightly less than $200,000 per hour.
“It is no secret that we need to rein in government spending, and the Obama administration has regularly and repeatedly shown a lack of judgment for when and where to make cuts. The American people have had enough of the frivolous and careless spending,” Rep. George Holding (R-N.C.) said in a RT.com article.

But the cost could have been higher. The Obama’s original plan called for a Tanzania safari, which would have required a team of sharpshooters to protect them from wild animals. But President Obama, the first sitting president to visit Cambodia and Myanmar, is visiting African countries that reportedly need attention.

“Frankly, there will be a great bang for our buck for being in Africa, because when you travel to regions like Africa that don’t get a lot of presidential attention, you can have very long-standing and long-running impact from the visit,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told The Hill, reports RT.com.

Still, let’s keep these numbers in perspective. The expense of flowers for the White House alone run up a tab estimated to be $252,000 per year. The Presidential limousine is a $300,000 Cadillac that is clad with 5 inches of armor, has its own oxygen supply, a blood bank of the president’s type and can shoot tear gas and smoke grenades.

10 Interesting Facts About Air Force One

Space Travel To Include Interstellar Trips In 100 Years

space travel

The idea of space travel has its fans. But other than NASA astronauts or those wiling to pay a hefty fee to Richard Branson for a sub-orbital flight, few of us will actually see space, the final frontier. Interstellar flight, human travel beyond our solar system, seems even more elusive. The 100-year Starship Initiative, aims to change all that and even has the backing of one former U.S president.

“This important effort helps advance the knowledge and technologies required to explore space, all while generating the necessary tools that enhance our quality of life on Earth,” said former U.S. president Bill Clinton in a statement featured in an MSNBC article.

President Clinton was talking about the 100 Year Starship initiative and its 2012 Public Symposium that kicks off this week. The Starship organization is charged with pursuing initiatives, galvanizing leadership and support, to assure that human travel beyond our solar system can be a reality within the next century.The Starship Organization was started by the U.S. Defense Departments Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), established in 1958 to maintain the technological superiority of the U.S. military. DARPA is all in on this project too, issuing a challenge to create a non-governmental organization for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the many disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel possible.

At this week’s symposium, scientific and cultural leaders will explore the technologies, science, social structures and strategies needed to make capabilities for human travel to another star system a reality within the next century. Along the way, it is hoped that new technologies developed to enable interstellar flight will have land-based applications as well.

Still sound a bit far-fetched? The idea of traveling to the moon might have started with H. G. Wells’ futuristic “The First Men in the Moon” published in 1901, 69 years before it happened.

Yes, the roster of guests at the 2012 Public Symposium will include some StarTrek alums but also feature some of today’s top names in research, design and academics. The four-day Symposium and Expo is being held September 13-16, 2012 in Houston, Texas. Visit Space.com this week for complete coverage of the 100YSS Public Symposium.




Flickr photo by garysan97

The Way: Martin Sheen treks the Camino de Santiago

I’m often skeptical when Hollywood forays into the realm of ‘travel films’.

Don’t get me wrong; there have been some wonderful movies in recent years that capture the true essence of the world of travel & the beauty of venturing on a grand journey: Lost in Translation, Into the Wild, L’Auberge Espagnole, Before Sunrise, Up in the Air, and The Beach (did you really think I wouldn’t mention it?) are just a few examples of travel narratives done right.

But those successes aren’t enough to stop the certain feeling of dread I get whenever I learn that Hollywood has again attempted to tackle the travel theme. Perhaps certain blasphemies like Sex & the City 2 or the recent rendition of Gulliver’s Travels keep this fear alive every time I shell out $11 to go on a two-hour cinematic adventure.

That being so, when I first heard about The Way; a film directed and developed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, I expected the worst. An adventure film produced on the magical wings of nepotism? Sounded like the perfect storm.

But Wednesday night’s New York City premiere in partnership with the Walkabout Foundation promised a dazzling list of A-listers (Former President Bill Clinton, Ivanka Trump, Dhani Jones, Wyclef Jean, & the Sheens, among others) and promised to benefit a good cause, so I packed my cynicism away for a few hours and decided to see the film.

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So, is it worth the trek to the theater? Click on through to find out.

The Way is the story of a Tom (Martin Sheen), a father that loses his intrepid son, Daniel (Emilio Estevez) as Daniel sets out in the French Pyrenees on a solo journey along the historic Camino De Santiago. Devastated by the loss and desperate for a way to reconcile their distanced relationship, Sheen’s character decides to embark on the Camino himself, carrying his son’s ashes every step of the way.

In brief, the Camino De Santiago (or the Way of St. James) is a 500-mile trail that starts in France and ends near the Northwest tip of Spain. It was first trekked in the 9th Century by pilgrims hoping to visit the remains of the Apostle St. James upon their initial discovery. In the early days, it was an arduous undertaking; weather, meager provisions, and difficult terrain all took their toll on the dedicated peregrinos. But by the 14th Century, it’s estimated that 25% of all Europeans walked the Camino and today, over 200,000 hikers complete the pilgrimage every year; for many different reasons.



Through Tom’s journey and the friends he makes on the trail, a very poignant illustration of the Camino De Santiago is presented; the beauty of the environment is vivid, the community among pilgrims is familiar to anyone that’s bonded with strangers on the road, and over the course of the film, the mood of sun drenched afternoons walking, eating, and drinking through the Spanish countryside is tangible. The characters all feel genuine and there’s enough clever humor throughout to make the film a fun adventure to be a part of.

One of the best parts of the film is that the story feels real; from a traveler’s perspective, it’s relatable and stays true to its roots of telling the story of the Camino. It strays from the typical over-dramatized treatment that Hollywood loves and instead tells a very real story that will resonate with many people who have trekked the Camino & anyone that’s ever ventured on a journey to cope with a personal battle. For this reason, I think it joins some of the other great travel narratives as a movie that’s definitely worth seeing for those interested in adventure.

The Way succeeds in staying true as a travel story partially because of how it was produced; Estevez insisted that the crew was never larger than 50 people (including actors), a large part of the film was shot on the go using a versatile Super 16mm setup, and the actors actually hiked a good portion of the Camino throughout the course of production.

In all, I give The Way 4 out of 5 St. James’s Shells. It opens for a limited release in theaters today and a wide release on October 21st. So long as you don’t have to make a pilgrimage of your own to go see it, give The Way a second look this weekend.

Pico Iyer: The surprising charms of Little Rock, AR

Who’d have thought that Little Rock, Arkansas, would prove so diverting?

Paris, Rio, Kyoto: We know pretty well what we’re going to encounter (or at least to savor) as soon as we set foot in any of those cities; part of their gift, polished over centuries, is for knowing how to play themselves to perfection and how to give every visitor just what she wants and expects. Such places are the equivalent of the traveling world’s celebrities, used to projecting themselves compellingly even off-screen. But there’s a different kind of charm in those lesser-known towns that will never be regarded as stars, but that can take on almost any role you ask of them: the character actors among sites, you could say. They offer you unexpectedness.

Take — of all places — Little Rock, Arkansas (yes, take it, please, as a New York comedian might say). If I knew anything about the capital of the “Natural State” before I went there recently, it was that it was small, forgettable, and, as one distinguished travel-writer had written to me, “intriguingly forlorn and melancholy.” Bill Clinton started his political life there, I knew, but that seemed the exception that proved the rule; like many people, I had driven through it on the huge freeway I-40, going across the U.S., and like most people I had taken pains not to stay there.

In short, Little Rock was perfectly positioned to disarm and entertain me as well-worn Paris, Rio, and Kyoto perhaps never could. The first two people I met after I left my hotel turned out to be serious students of Buddhism, one of whom knew and had studied under the one Zen master I happen to know in Kyoto. A brawny guy from Memphis stopped me on the street, outside the Arkansas Literary Festival, and asked me which of Graham Greene’s novels I thought his best. Most wonderfully of all, the town I saw turned out to be an unlikely center of irony, and even self-mockery; at the stately Old State House, the proud and distinguished building from 1842 where Clinton had held his victory celebrations, one whole room was devoted to the history of “Bubbas and hillbillies.”

* * * * *

One beauty of a city of surprise is that at first it offers you little at all, or only what you might have feared. I disembarked in Little Rock on a sultry afternoon in early spring, to find that its baggage carousels delivered luggage at a Samoan pace. The person who was meant to meet me was nowhere in sight. I went over to a public phone booth, to see that it had been stripped of its instrument. The same was true of almost every other public phone booth. Finally I did find a phone, but it gave me no dial tone. I found another, and it was equally mute. People were sitting in their molded plastic chairs as if on their stoops along the Mississippi, watching the world not go by.

“Things move slow round here,” said the sweet woman who did at last arrive to take me into town. “Town” seemed at first blush a euphemism: downtown was over almost before we got there. A convention center, a couple of tall buildings and then a wasteland of empty lots and deserted streets, lean black boys in hoodies drifting across the vacancy, past boarded-up stores that suggested that all life was long gone. I remembered coming into Louisville on just such an afternoon two years before; there was the same, aromatic sense of having come upon some broken capital long after the nation’s leaders had absconded with all the cash.

Then, however, I stepped into the Capital Hotel — a gleaming white historical building with an elevator so large that it had once transported Ulysses S. Grant’s horse, it was said (and once the whole state legislature) — and a smooth man in a suit with perfectly waved brown hair approached me. He made me think, somehow, of a saxophonist doubling as a used-car dealer. “I’m Billy,” he said, “and if there’s anything you want…” The next thing I knew, he was showing me around my room as charmingly as if it were his bachelor pad. A walk-in closet. Some Arkansas toffee, free of charge. The menu to the haute restaurant, Ashley’s, downstairs.

I walked out into the night, three hours later, to find the River Market district down the street abuzz. The sound of blues was pouring out of several raucous bars on a single block. Bouncers as wide as they were tall sat on stools on the sidewalk, giving prospective customers the once-over. Good old boys were revving up their Harleys in a nearby parking lot, while teams of young ladies with cheerleader-perfect hair were fingering shrimp in Flying Fish and other of the restaurants with their windows open to the night. The entertainment district stretched across all of five blocks, but it packed into that small area enough tattoos and blasts of metal and versions of Eric Clapton’s “Cocaine” to keep a stadium entertained for a good long while.

* * * * *

Another beauty of a place like Little Rock is that all the sights mentioned in the tourist brochures are within a few blocks of your hotel, and may give you what you never thought to ask for. Next to the great glass structure that is the Clinton Presidential Library is a Clinton School of Public Service and, not far from that, a huge place called the Heifer International Center, dedicated to social justice from Rwanda to Peru. A quaint house near the huge Public Library was selling used books and coffee and knick-knacks. A sleek Ikea-worthy café serving up specialty foods was run by an urbane gent from Delhi (“There can’t be many Indians in Little Rock,” I tried. “Oh,” came the answer, “there are so many of us here!”). In a hippie coffeehouse I sampled, the fliers were advertising “Extreme Midget Wrestling,” coming to town very soon.

Perhaps what I least expected to find in Arkansas was a sense of openness and even mischief. I picked up the local paper to read a piece by someone who presented himself as a “born and raised Southern Baptist,” yet delighted in an appearance by Christopher Hitchens, here to argue that God is not great. A stranger who identified himself to me as “born and raised on the front row of the Southern Baptist Church” asked me if I thought, from my travels, that faith was collapsing around the world. When I said no, he looked decidedly disappointed. A young woman in advertising told me she was reading aloud the latest novel by J.M. Coetzee to her husband. He, in turn, was writing a book on Tolkien.

Some places — Britain, Canada, and Australia are obvious examples — win one over, whatever their deficiencies, by their refusal to take themselves too seriously. Others (dare I mention Atlanta, Houston, or Los Angeles?) seem to be lacking all sense of perspective regarding themselves and their limitations. But I never expected to find Little Rock proudly, and impenitently, in the former category. “The corruption of law and justice has often proved a challenge to Arkansas society,” said a sign in the Old State House exhibition, apparently with delight. The state it was celebrating, it went on, with almost audible glee, has historically been “a magnet for the unlawful.” In a nearby room were a pair of Florsheim shoes worn by the current governor and a cardboard cutout of Bill Clinton, in shades and leather jacket, playing his sax on national television. Downstairs, his running shoes from 1982 were in another display case.

Arkansas politics in the 20th century, I read in yet another room in the building, was “a circus hitched to a tornado” (and I remembered that Mike Huckabee, the guitar-playing Christian who had briefly won the nation’s attention as a presidential candidate three years ago and once issued a pardon to Keith Richards, was also from here). Sure enough, not far away, I found Huckabee’s Guitar Pick and his Duck Call in a case.

On a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, two boys with art-college glasses, who looked as if they should have been at an open-mic event in a grunge café, stood at the center of the entertainment district, wearing placards that said, “There is only one Church in the Bible” and decrying every other Christian denomination. Some frat boys scribbled out a sign — “This guy is a moron” — and placed it next to one of the boy-evangelists, and posed for a cell-phone photo. On the other side of the street, two older men sipping Free Trade espresso and munching on no-fat muffins chuckled with delight. Getting into the spirit of theological debate, one cool-looking character in a two-tone shirt and shades stepped forward to engage the placard-wearers in conversation.

“You not talkin’ ’bout the Kingdom! You believe in Jesus?”

“Yes I do, sir.”

“Then why you think those who believe in Jesus are goin’ to Hell?”

“If you read Romans 8, sir…”

“You sayin’ we believe in Jesus, but we goin’ to Hell?”

The challenger’s three friends laughed approvingly. The Buddhists I met took me to a pan-Asian restaurant in a mini-mall serving Thai curries and sushi under beautifully framed pictures of faces from Mongolia and Laos and Tibet. Nearby, a bridge was lit up like the one across the Bosporus in Istanbul.

“It really wasn’t what I expected at all,” said one of my hosts, a stylish woman in her early sixties with frosted-blonde hair (who was working hard to try to eliminate capital punishment in the state). “There are a lot of people from other places who have found that this is a good place to live.” I recalled the friendly young woman, who volunteered her free time to teach adults to read, pointing out to me the condos in one tall building at the center of town, and saying that they were the priciest places in town (the $250,000 price tag she cited for them would have made them cheaper than the cheapest places in my hometown in California).

On arriving in Little Rock, I had wondered how someone as charming, quick, smooth, and intelligent as the 42nd president of the United States could have emerged from here as if from the forehead of Athena. By the time I left, I was thinking that much of the city along the sluggish Arkansas River was no less supple and surprising. Imagine — though this may not be for everyone — Bill Clinton expanded to the size of a metropolis. You can’t find that in Paris, Rio, or Kyoto. Or even in Washington, D.C.


Pico Iyer is the author of numerous books, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul. His most recent book is The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

[Photos: Flickr | cliff1066; cliff1066; eschipul; Afroswede; StuSeeger]

5 reasons to be a tourist


After three months living in Istanbul, I’ve gained a stable of a few dozen Turkish words to string into awkward sentences; learned some local intel on what soccer teams to root for, where to get the best mantı, and the best Turkish insults (maganda is the local equivalent of guido); and have come to avoid Sultanahmet with the same disdain I used to reserve for Times Square when I lived in New York. Then a funny thing happened while wandering the Asian side or the city with some visiting friends: I stopped worrying and learned to love being a tourist. Letting your guard down and realizing you will ultimately always be a tourist no matter how “local” and “authentic” you can live, no matter how long you explore a place, is remarkably liberating, even fun. The old traveler vs. tourist debate is one of the most pernicious and tiresome in the travel world, and while there’s a lot of truth and value in being an independent traveler, tourists are a good thing, and being a tourist can be a lot less annoying and worthwhile than the travel snobs would have you believe.

  1. Get unabashedly lost – When I make a wrong turn in Istanbul, I’m so self-conscious about being “caught” as someone who doesn’t belong here, I find myself hiding in alleys furtively studying maps, seeking out street signs from the corners of my eyes, and acting as if that wrong turn was entirely planned for and intentional. Yet on a recent trip to Prague, I was on the hunt for a cafe recommended to me by David Farley, and after giving up on the hopes of finding a wifi connection, I started going into bars and shops and asking directions. Eventually I found the (excellent) Meduza Cafe, saw some interesting dive bars/casinos along the way, and got over my shame of toting a map around.
  2. Do something you could do at home – Sure, you came to Paris to see the Louvre and absorb the cafe atmosphere, not to sit in your hotel room and watch pay-per-view movies, but seeing the everyday abroad can be a great window into another culture. I’ve wandered malls in Buenos Aires, gone to the movies in Turkey, and had coffee at a Chilean McDonald’s (I’m also a big fan of zoos). Each place I have been surrounded by locals and experienced a surreal clash of the foreign familiar.
  3. Eat foreign foreign food – Sushi is great in Tokyo, but so is Korean, Chinese, Indian, and Italian; pretty much everything other than Mexican, which for some reason is a total fail in Japan. Just because something isn’t a “native” dish doesn’t mean it isn’t widely enjoyed by locals or “authentic” to the region. If you are insistent on only eating the national foods, you could miss out on great pizza in Colombia or cheap French food in Lebanon.
  4. Speak English – Learning please and thank you in a foreign language will get you a long way and it’s always a good idea to know a few key words, but English has become the lingua franca of the world and using it abroad is often easier and can lead to good conversations. My fractured Turkish is often met with English responses and I’ve met shopkeepers, bartenders, and taxi drivers eager to practice their English, discuss politics (apparently many Turks would like Bill Clinton to be president of their country, who knew?), or ask if the cafe they frequented while studying abroad in Raleigh is still around.
  5. Stop, gawk, and take pictures of stupid things – Another thing New York instills in you is to not look up, watch street performers, or act as if even the most ludicrous spectacle is anything other than commonplace. Remember when virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played in the D.C. Metro? I’d bet that more tourists than locals stopped to listen. Or what if I’d let my embarrassment prevent Mike Barish from taking a picture of this sign in my neighborhood subway station? Could have been tragic. Soak up as much of the sublime and the ridiculous as you can.

Maybe one day we can eschew the traveler and tourist labels, shed our fanny packs and backpacks, realize we’re all a little obnoxious, and embrace the wonder and fun of exploring a new place in whatever way we want.