Strike to cause delays at UK ports and airports tomorrow

UKA massive public sector strike planned for tomorrow in the UK will slow down travel in ports and airports.

An estimated 750,000 public sector workers will go on a one-day strike in protest over proposed changes to pensions, and this will include thousands of customs and immigration officials. UK ports and airports will remain open but passengers should expect delays.

Most schools and many other government buildings will be closed tomorrow. Strike organizers complain that the new public sector pension scheme will make employees work longer, put more money into the system, but get less when they retire.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Syria unrest: will there be another massacre in Hama?

Syria, Hama, Syria unrestSyrian army tanks ‘moving towards Hama’.

Just another headline about unrest in the Middle East. I’ve read so many, but this one made me shudder. One thing travel does for you is make the world more than just a headline. I’ve been to Hama.

I visited Syria back in 1994 as a young college graduate with a backpack, a bit of Arabic, and no responsibilities. I spent a month exploring archaeological sites, chatting in smoky cafes, and debating religion in the cool shade of mosque courtyards. Syria is a fascinating and welcoming place, and if the regime of Bashar al-Assad gets ousted and peace returns, I highly recommend you go.

I marveled at the beautiful Umayyad Mosque in Damascus before going to a nearby cafe to listen to a hakawati, a traditional storyteller, recite his tales to a rapt audience. I looked out over the green hills of Lebanon from the turrets of Crac des Chevaliers castle and took a dusty bus ride to the oasis of Palmyra. And for two days I stayed in Hama to see the famous noria, or waterwheels, as seen here in this Wikimedia Commons photo.

There was something strange about Hama. It was supposed to be an old city yet most of the buildings looked new. Plus the tourist map on the wall of my hotel lobby was wrong. I’d copied parts of it into my notebook to help me get around but soon found the names of the streets had changed. Even their layout had changed. It was like a map of a different city.

Then I saw the same map in the lobby of another hotel, and in an antique shop. One night I asked the manager what was going on. He looked around to make sure nobody was within earshot and whispered, “This map shows Hama before the massacre.”I’d heard of that. The Muslim Brotherhood had been fighting against the Syrian government for several years and Hama was their main base. They attacked government targets and the government hauled away anyone who seemed suspicious. Most victims were innocent people caught in the crossfire.

One night in 1982 a Syrian army patrol discovered the local Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and a firefight broke out. The Brotherhood called for a general uprising. Fighting flared up all over the city. Hafez al-Assad, then Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister, ordered the armed forces to surround Hama. The air force dropped bombs while tanks and artillery shelled the city. Then the troops went in, shooting anything that moved. Nobody knows how many people died. Estimates range from 10,000 to 40,000, and all sources agree that most were civilians.

Now the Syrian army is moving towards Hama again. The son is continuing the work of his father.

This morning I flipped through my old travel diary, reliving the time I spent in Hama and Syria: the conversations, the hikes, the sense of wonder of a young man on his first year-long travel adventure. One thing that struck me was that of all the Syrians that diary mentions, none of them have entirely faded from my memory.

I remember the kindly old man who nursed me back to health after my first bad case of food poisoning. And the artist who drew a sketch of me that I still have. Then there was that wisecracking tailor who changed money at black market rates, building a nest egg of hard currency for reasons he’d never divulge. And the metalheads who introduced me to Syria’s underground music scene. It’s strange to think of those headbangers as forty-something fathers, but I suppose, like me, they are.

Or maybe they’ve been slaughtered.

None of those people liked the regime. The business owners hung a picture of Hafez al-Assad on the walls, just like they have a picture of Bashar nowadays. In a dictatorship that’s the price of doing business. But once the customers left and it was just us in a back room chatting over tea, their voices would lower and they’d complain about how the al-Assad family had a stranglehold on power.

The metalheads were louder in their protests and suffered regular police harassment. Since even their concerts were illegal they felt they had nothing to lose. They wanted to live life the way they chose. A few beatings and nights in jail was the price of a few hours of freedom.

I traveled all over the Middle East back then–Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine, Iran–and heard the same stories of frustration and anger in dozens of cities. The only thing that surprised me about the so-called Arab Revolution of 2011 was that it took so long.

In some places it’s succeeded; in Syria it looks like it will fail. Syria doesn’t have much oil so besides a few feeble sanctions, it’s doubtful the West will do much. Bashar al-Assad will imprison or kill anyone who speaks out against him and the protests will be suppressed.

Hama may be leveled again. Thousands may die–they may already be dying–and the city destroyed. After a time new shops and new hotels will open. Their owners will grit their teeth and hang a photo of Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad behind the counter. Then, I hope, they’ll pull out a worn old map of Hama the way it looked before 1982, and hang it right next to him.

GadlingTV’s Travel Talk – Thailand Part 11: Red Shirts


Gadling TV’s Travel Talk, episode 41 – Click above to watch video after the jump

After riding elephants, eating scorpions, walking through Hellfire Pass, and visiting the famous bridge at the River Kwai, one of the only items left on our to-do list in Thailand was to speak with people that were passionate about the sensitive political environment. As we arrived back into the city, we caught word that a “Red Shirt” protest was taking place in Bangkok’s shopping district; so we went straight to where the action was.

To give some brief context, last year’s political events in Thailand resulted from clashes between two opposing camps; Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts. The Red Shirts (formally known as the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship) are mostly middle-class and rural citizens in favor of the progressive former Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. Shinawatra was removed by a military coup in 2006 (organized by the Yellow Shirts), which many Thais believe is due to the fact that Thailand’s Royal Family was threatened by Shinawatra’s success.

While Bangkok is currently stable and nearly all demonstrations have disappeared since the late summer of 2010, we felt privileged to be on the ground during this event, speak with those that had risked their lives for their beliefs, and share it with you here.

If you have any questions or comments about Travel Talk, you can email us at talk AT gadling DOT com.


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Hosts: Stephen Greenwood & Aaron Murphy-Crews

Special guests: Sean Boompracong, International Media Director for the UDD.
Produced, Edited, and Directed by: Stephen Greenwood & Aaron Murphy-Crews
Special thanks: Tourism Authority of Thailand, Trikaya Tours

Travel Talk took Thailand by storm on invitation from the Tourism Authority of Thailand. No editorial content was guaranteed and Aaron & Stephen were free to openly share all adventures that they embarked upon.

England plans to sell all its public forests

forest, forests, sherwood forestEnglish environmentalists, hikers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and pretty much everybody else is up in arms about a UK government plan to sell off all the woodlands managed by the Forestry Commission in England, the BBC reports.

The Forestry Commission manages 18 percent of all England’s forests, some 2,500 sq km (965 sq miles). A portion of the forests are already being sold to raise £100m million ($159 million).

A public poll this week found 75 percent of the public against the move.

The plan will not affect forests in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

This is the dumbest idea the UK government has come up with since selling the Royal Mail. Forests are a national heritage, not something to be sold off by privileged members of government to their old classmates from Eton. The government says that environmental and public use rights will be protected but, to use an English phrase, that’s a load of bollocks. Once the forests are in private hands, it will be much easier for private interests to undermine the laws governing them, or simply ignore the laws if the fines come out to less than they’d make turning the forests into shopping malls and housing developments. This is already standard practice in Spain, and it has ruined some of the best stretches of the Mediterranean coastline.

As a hiker who loves England’s woodland, I have grave concerns over what this will mean for people from England and around the world who go to the woods to see some of England’s most beautiful spots. A few hundred million pounds in the government’s pocket will not solve the economic crisis, or save national health care, or pay off the national debt, but it will mean that the heritage of the English people may disappear forever.

[Image courtesy user ntollervey via Wikimedia Commons]

Controversy over new Turkish Airlines spokesman Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant Turkish Airlines spokesmanIn order to promote the upcoming new Los AngelesIstanbul flights, the new Turkish Airlines spokesman Kobe Bryant has prompted some protest in the Armenian American community. Turkey (as well as the United States) does not recognize the death of 1.5 million Armenians at the end of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire as genocide. 700,000 Armenian Americans in California are hoping Bryant will use his stature to raise awareness and put pressure on the United States to recognize the deaths, threatening to boycott the basketball star and the L.A. Lakers if he doesn’t back out of the deal.

Should he continue with the deal, Bryant will make his own inaugural trip in 2011. “I’ve never been to Turkey,” Bryant told CNBC. “But all the guys on the team in the league who have been keep saying it’s one of the hottest places to go to.” The LAX-IST flights will begin in March, four times a week. Turkish Airlines also has direct flights from New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

Turkish Airlines’ current brand embassador is actor Kevin Costner, though no protests are known against his films or for the work of Benicio del Toro, whose image can be seen all over Turkey in advertisements for Magnum ice cream.



[Photo via Flickr by Keith Allison]