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Biking Through The King’s History

By | Mississippi | No Comments

Elvis Presley’s Mississippi hometown now offers Elvis-themed bike tours

The Arizona Republic — July 15, 2018

TUPELO, Miss. – “Lord almighty, I feel my temperature rising.”

Elvis birthplace

The modest, two-room house where Elvis Presley was born

I was pedaling my 10-speed hard on a sweltering June day through the streets and dirt backroads of this town in the hills of northeast Mississippi and the lyrics of my favorite Elvis Presley song – “Burning Love” — kept running through my head.

“Help me, I’m flaming, I must be a 109.”

Sweat-drenched shirt aside, I was thoroughly enjoying myself as I explored the sites related to the formative years of one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century.

Elvis Aaron Presley was born in Tupelo in 1935 and lived the first 13 years of his life here before moving to Memphis with his parents.  Today, 41 years after Elvis’ untimely death at his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tupelo attracts 50,000-100,000 Elvis-loving tourists a year.  Many arrive on tour buses from Memphis, a 90-minute drive away.

But for those who want less of a cookie-cutter experience you get sitting on a bus tour, there’s now another alternative.  In May, Tupelo’s Convention and Visitors Bureau inaugurated a self-guided, Elvis-themed bike tour that takes visitors to 13 marked sites throughout the city tracing the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s upbringing.

If you can endure the heat, it’s an inexpensive and flexible way to see the sites at your own pace and work off some pounds from the tasty – but fattening – southern comfort food in which you’re likely to indulge.

Elvis booth

The “Elvis Booth” at Johnnie’s Drive-In, where Elvis used to sip RC Cola after school

For $12, you can have a bicycle delivered in the morning directly to your hotel and then have it picked up at the end of the day.  For maps, descriptions of all the sites, and to order a bike, visit

So far, the response has been better than the city hoped.

“Cycling is such a big thing right now and people want to explore a city in a different way,” says Jennie Bradford Curlee, director of public relations for the Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau.  “Anyone can get in a car and see all these sites.  But you’re exploring more like Elvis would have as a child.”

Fittingly, I began the bike tour by pedaling a mile east from my hotel to the humble, two-room dwelling where Elvis was born and lived the first two years of his life.  His parents struggled financially and the family moved several times during Elvis’ 13 years in Tupelo.

The house, built by Elvis’ father, grandfather and uncle in 1934, is the centerpiece of a 15-acre park that includes a “Walk of Life,” a series of concrete blocks that traces each year of Elvis’ life.  Next door to the house sits the Elvis Presley Museum, which contains memorabilia related to Elvis’ legendary career, most of which was collected by a family friend.

Elvis statue

The “Homecoming Statue” of Elvis in front of Tupelo’s City Hall

The complex also includes a transplanted Assembly of God church that Elvis attended as a boy.  It was here that Elvis was first exposed to the rich, Southern gospel that became a staple of his musical repertoire.  Inside, visitors can experience a multi-media presentation of a 1940s Pentecostal church service, complete with an actor playing a young Elvis singing in front of the congregation.

From the birthplace, I rode down some dirt roads to visit the Mud Creek Swimming Hole, where Elvis and his friends would sneak a dip so their mothers wouldn’t know they were swimming unsupervised.

By then, it was lunchtime.  I pedaled to Johnnie’s Drive-In, where Elvis used to come with his friends after school for a cheeseburger and RC Cola.  It’s still an operating restaurant today and was packed, mostly with locals.  I had to wait for a family to finish its meal before moving into the popular “Elvis Booth,” where Elvis was once photographed.

Yes, I ordered a bottle of RC Cola.  While it was a bit too sugary for me, I figured if it was good enough for The King, it was good enough for me.

Two blocks away, I visited Lawhon Elementary School, which Elvis attended from 1941-1946.  A decorative guitar sits out front, in honor of the still-functioning school’s most famous student.

Lawhon Elementary

Lawhon Elementary School, which Elvis attended as a child

After reaching stardom, Elvis returned to Tupelo in 1956.  His concert in a park in front of City Hall is immortalized in “The Homecoming Statue,” based on a photo in which Elvis reached into the crowd to touch hands.

Perhaps my favorite stop on the journey was at the Tupelo Hardware Co. on Main Street in the city’s historic district.  Founded in 1926 by the same family that still owns it, Tupelo Hardware may be the only hardware store in the country that employs a full-time docent.

“I don’t know anything about hardware,” admits “Elvis Docent” Connie Tullos.  “Don’t want to know anything about hardware.”

What Tullos does know about is the nuts-and-bolts behind Elvis’ first guitar, which his mother Gladys bought him for his 11th birthday.  The two came into the hardware store to shop for Elvis’s present.  The story goes that Elvis wanted a rifle or bicycle, but his mother refused.  A store employee then brought out a guitar and handed it to Elvis.

“He took the guitar,” says Tullos.  “And the rest is history.”

Tupelo Hardware

Elvis got his first guitar at The Tupelo Hardware Co.

For those wanting a break from the Elvis-related sites, Tupelo is the headquarters of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a historic travel corridor used by Native Americans, European settlers and soldiers.  One of the prettiest stretches of road in the country, the parkway spans 444 miles from Nashville, Tenn., to Natchez, Miss.

There are numerous walking trails, camping sites and exhibits located near the road, which has a rigidly enforced speed limit of 50 mph.  I’m told the Natchez Trace is breathtaking when the leaves are changing color in the fall.

It’s also worth visiting the Tupelo Automobile Museum, which has a collection of more than 100 cars, dating back to a 19th-century steam-powered vehicle.  There are cars owned by Liberace, B.B. King, and of course, Elvis.  In addition to a 1976 Lincoln Elvis bought and gave to a friend, the Elvis exhibit includes a collection of 33 original movie posters from his movies configured to spell his name.

National Ranching Heritage Center

The scenic 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway is headquartered in Tupelo

About 38,000 people live in Tupelo, who proudly embrace their favorite son’s impact on pop culture around the world.  Seemingly, every store, restaurant or music venue in town has some sort of Elvis reference.  For dinner at the popular Neon Pig, a combination butcher shop and restaurant, I ordered the “Belvis Burger.”  It was a hamburger topped with pork belly.

On my final morning in Tupelo, I stopped at a downtown restaurant for breakfast.  On the sign of the Strange Brew Coffeehouse was a clever spin on one of Elvis’ biggest hits:  “Can’t Help Falling in Love with Brew.”

I’m guessing The King would have smiled.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Lubbock: Much More than Memories of Buddy Holly

By | Texas | 2 Comments

West Texas city offers visitors underrated wine industry, rich ranching history and vibrant arts scene

The Arizona Republic — June 17, 2018

LUBBOCK, Texas – Like its favorite son, rock ‘n’ roll legend Buddy Holly, this city of a quarter-million people on the high plains of West Texas is far more than a one-hit wonder.

Caprock Winery

The picturesque grounds of the Caprock Winery in Lubbock

True, most of the nearly six-million visitors to Lubbock each year come to learn about the life and legacy of Holly, a musical pioneer who had a profound influence on such artists as The Beatles, Rolling Stones and James Taylor.

But tourists are discovering Lubbock also offers a chance to witness a burgeoning wine industry that is beginning to draw comparisons to California’s Napa Valley, a rich ranching history, and a surprisingly vibrant arts scene anchored by a major university.

John Osborne, the president of Visit Lubbock, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, says tourists are now beginning to discover a city he calls a “hidden gem.”  Osborne says that Lubbock, which is about a 12-hour drive or a two-hour nonstop flight from Phoenix (American Airlines offers daily flights), has experienced a 30 percent increase in tourism over the last nine years.  Sixteen hotels with 1,400 rooms have opened since 2014, bringing the city’s capacity to 6,400 rooms.

Buddy Holly statue

Statue of rock ‘n’ roll legend Buddy Holly in downtown Lubbock

Despite perceptions to the contrary, Lubbock isn’t just another hot, flat, dusty, West-Texan town with blowing tumbleweeds, oil derricks and endless cotton fields.

“Most people who have never been to Lubbock have a preconceived notion of what it’s like,” says Osborne.  “And what they find out is that it’s very different.  There’s actually a lot of culture here, there’s a lot of excitement; there’s a lot of energy and a lot of fun things to do.”

During a recent four-day visit, I particularly enjoyed learning about the growing West Texas wine industry and visited six wineries in the region.  About 90 percent of the wine grapes in Texas are grown within a 100-mile radius of Lubbock, many in fields that used to yield less-profitable cotton.

West Texas produces a wide variety of reds, white and rosés.  I sampled everything from locally made Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, to lesser-known varietals such as Trebbiano and Viognier.

Without exception, the locals will tell you that Texas wines are underrated and can hold their own with some of the best wines produced in California and France.  Indeed, several of the wineries have more ribbons on display than you’ll find at a military parade.  Texas wines routinely win national and international competitions.

West Texas Vineyards

About 90 percent of the wine grapes in Texas are grown within a 100-mile radius of Lubbock

“When you start looking at the California wines, West Texas has a very similar type of climate and therefore, we produce very similar wines,” says Osborne.  “Many of the wine connoisseurs will put West Texas wines up against any of them made in California.”

For the cost-conscious wine aficionado, Lubbock is a tempting alternative to California wine country.  A tasting at a Lubbock winery costs $5-$10, a fraction of what a Napa Valley winery typically charges.  If you want to take a bottle or two home, a high-end, award-winning Texas wine can be had for less than $20.

As for Holly, he draws visitors to Lubbock from all over the world.  Arguably, he was more popular in Germany, England and France than in the United States.  There are several sites commemorating the singer/songwriter’s trailblazing contributions to the music industry.

Born in Lubbock in 1936, Holly was known for his trademark black horn-rimmed glasses and such hits as “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Oh, Boy!”  He died in 1959 at the age of 22 in a plane crash in Iowa that also killed performers Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.  Don McClean, in his iconic 1971 song “American Pie, hauntingly referred to the tragedy as “the day the music died.”

Buddy Holly grave

Buddy Holly’s modest grave site at the Lubbock municipal cemetery

Holly’s historical importance is tastefully chronicled at the Buddy Holly Center, located in the heart of the city’s Depot Entertainment District.  It features a museum full of memorabilia from Holly’s short life.  I was especially moved to see a display with the glasses Holly was wearing when he died in the plane crash.

Outside the museum, there is a statue of a guitar-strumming Holly in front of the West Texas Walk of Fame, which honors Holly and other notable West Texas musicians, including Waylon Jennings, Mac Davis and Roy Orbison.

To pay your respects to Holly, visit his modest grave in the city’s municipal cemetery.  On his granite headstone you’ll find all sorts of gifts left by fans, including flowers, coins and guitar picks.  When I visited, someone had left a pair of high-heeled shoes next to the grave, presumably worn by a woman with fond memories of dancing to Holly’s music.

Texas Tech art

Texas Tech features 88 pieces of art, including a sculpture called “Agave Dreams” by Julian Voss-Andreae

As a way of honoring Holly’s contributions to the local arts scene, Lubbock is in the process of building a $155 million, 2,200-seat theater named the Buddy Holly Hall of Performing Arts & Sciences, which is scheduled to open in early 2020.

Lubbock is home to three universities, the largest being Texas Tech, which has about 35,000 students.  Its sprawling 1,839-acre campus is the second-largest in the country (behind the Air Force Academy).

Walking from one end to the other is like walking through an art gallery as there are 88 outdoor sculptures on display.  The eclectic collection has been named one of the top 10 public art collections in the U.S. by the Public Art Review.

Lubbock’s largest museum, the National Ranching Heritage Center, is affiliated with Texas Tech and is located on the northern edge of campus.  Even though the museum is located in the heart of the city, visitors feel like they’re in a rural area in a different century.  The 27-acre site houses 30 transplanted structures related to the city’s ranching history dating back between 100-170 years.  It’s a fun way to learn about the lives of the frontier settlers and the challenges they faced.

National Ranching Heritage Center

The Eclipse Windmill, built in 1898, at the National Ranching Heritage Center

Finally, no trip to West Texas is complete without a visit to the quirky Prairie Dog Town, created in 1935 by a Lubbock man who was concerned about the possible extinction of the species.  It was the first protected prairie-dog colony in the country.

The burrowing rodents now number in the thousands in a natural habitat in the city’s Mackenzie Park.  You can get within a few feet of the critters, although they’ll likely try to scare you off with a high-pitched bark.

Visit Lubbock’s Osborne says Lubbock may not have the glitz and glamour of more popular Texas destinations like San Antonio and Dallas.  But for those wanting an authentic Texas experience steeped in wine and history – especially in the areas of music and ranching – Lubbock is hard to beat.

“There’s a chance to learn about Texas history right here in one town,” he says.  “It’s an affordable place to come.  It’s an easy place to get to and you get the West Texas hospitality that is so famous.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

24 Hours in Shanghai

By | China, Jewish Travel | No Comments

Exploring the city’s inspiring Jewish history during a brief visit Jewish Life Magazine — April 2018

SHANGHAI — China’s largest city of 23 million people features one of the most dazzling skylines in the world, a booming economy and a compelling mixture of Eastern and Western cultures.

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai’s dramatic skyline

But not many people are aware that Shanghai also offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into the history of one the most unique Jewish communities in the Far East.  As a city that accepted about 20,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust in Europe, Shanghai became known at the time as a “Noah’s Ark” for Jews who had no other place to go.

With only 24 hours to explore the city at the conclusion of a 14-day Asian cruise on the Holland America Volendam, I opted to take a half-day “Tour of Jewish Shanghai.”  It was led by Dvir Bar-Gal, an Israeli-born journalist who has lived in Shanghai for the past 17 years.

With a style that was part history professor, part standup-comedian, Dvir taught our group of 15 tourists – mostly Americans – all about Shanghai’s Jewish past and took us to the sites that helped bring to life a Jewish community that once thrived here.

It took me just a 20-minute walk from where the Volendam was docked to join the tour.  Appropriately, we met at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, which was built by Sephardic Jews from Bagdad, who were part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to Shanghai in the late 19th century.  This group included two prominent families – the Sassoons and Kadoories.

Dvir Bar-Gal

Dvir Bar-Gal leads a “Tour of Jewish Shanghai”

“People came here with nothing and created an economic empire in the Far East,” noted Dvir about the Baghdadi immigrants.

A second wave of Jews arrived in the 1920s, Ashkenazim fleeing pogroms and revolutions in Russia.

From the Fairmont, our group walked one block to The Bund, Shanghai’s pedestrian riverfront with a spectacular view across the Huangpu River to the city’s enormous skyscrapers.  It was at The Bund where Dvir told us about the third – and most famous – wave of Jewish immigrants.

From 1933 to 1941, Shanghai accepted about 20,000 Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust.  Most came from Germany and Austria, which had stripped Jews of their citizenship and encouraged exile before turning genocidal.  Outside of the Dominican Republic, Shanghai was the only place that allowed Jews to enter as it did not require a visa.  In fact, by 1939 more European Jews had taken refuge in Shanghai than in any other city in the world.

Shanghai Jewish refugees

Monument at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

Why did China offer Jews a safe-haven from the Nazis when so many other countries turned their backs?  Dvir says it wasn’t a conscious decision by the Chinese government.  In fact, Shanghai at the time was an international city not completely under Chinese control.  Several foreign powers, including the United States, France and the United Kingdom, claimed portions of the city and a visa was not required to enter Shanghai until August 1939.

Still, Dvir says once the Jews arrived, they were treated well by the Chinese, who have long been known for their lack of anti-Semitism.  Dvir believes there are many reasons for this, including that the Chinese identify with Jewish suffering, relate to their status as an underdog and were “oppressed themselves by foreign powers.”

Jewish life in Shanghai prospered during the 1930s.  At one time, there were six working synagogues and about 10 Jewish newspapers.  Jews lived harmoniously with the Chinese in a section of town called the Hongkou District, which was dubbed “Little Vienna” because so many Austrian Jews lived there.

The final group of Jewish refugees to arrive in Shanghai included about 300 Polish Jews from the famous Mir Yeshiva, which ultimately became the only European yeshiva to emerge from World War II intact.  The Jews from Mir Yeshiva first escaped in 1939 from Poland to Lithuania, where they received transit visas from the Japanese consulate general in Kovno, Chiune Sugihara.

Ohel Moshe Synagogue

The renovated Ohel Moshe Synagogue

All told, Sugihara issued more than 3,500 visas to Jews, earning him the title “the Japanese Schindler.”  With the help of several overseas Jewish organizations, the Mir Yeshiva students and rabbis and other Jews who had received visas from Sugihara made it safely to Kobe, Japan, before arriving in Shanghai in 1941.

During World War II, the Japanese occupied Shanghai, which ended the flow of foreign funds to the Jewish refugees, who were becoming increasingly impoverished.  The Japanese also imposed restrictions on where Jews could live, creating a “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees,” better known as the Shanghai Ghetto.

Conditions in the ghetto were difficult but a vast majority of Shanghai’s Jews survived the Holocaust.  Most emigrated to Israel, the United States, Australia and Hong Kong after the Communists took control of the government in 1949.

Dvir drove us by van to the city’s Hongkou District where we walked through narrow streets and parks lined with blooming cherry-blossom trees to explore the traces of what once had been bustling Jewish life in the area.

The highlight was a visit to the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum on Changyang Road, which contains exhibits, monuments and an exhibition hall in which more than 140 photos are displayed with a multi-screen projection system.  Dvir served as an adviser to the Chinese government when it opened the museum in 2007.

Shanghai Jewish newspaper

A newspaper from 1941 on display at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum

The museum also houses the former Ohel Moshe Synagogue, built by Russian Jews in the 1920s.  It later became the hub of Jewish life when the community was ghettoized in the 1940s.  After the war, the synagogue was confiscated by the Communists and converted into a psychiatric hospital.  It reopened in the 1990s and was later restored to its original architectural style in 2007.  The building has been inscribed on the list of architectural heritage treasures of Shanghai.

Ohel Moshe is not used for religious services and the city has only has only one other remaining synagogue – Ohel Rachel.  The largest synagogue in the Far East, Ohel Rachel was built by the Sassoon family in 1920.  But it currently does not host services on a regular basis and is not open to visitors.

With no functioning stand-alone synagogues, Shanghai’s current population of about 4,000 Jews have a choice of praying at one of three Chabad branches or in private venues.

Chinese acrobat show

A Chinese acrobat show

The tour also included a visit to a home where Jewish refugees once lived and the former site of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which provided immense financial support to Shanghai’s Jewish refugees during their years of hardship.

Dvir says about 3,000 tourists take his tour every year, a majority of whom are Americans.  He adds that before their arrival, many had no idea about the city’s rich and inspiring Jewish history.

“Some people have some knowledge about Jewish life here, but it is vague,” he says.  “It comes to life when they take this tour.”

For information about booking a Jewish tour on a trip to Shanghai, email:  The cost for a half-day tour is about $70.

After the tour was over, I had a few hours left to enjoy Shanghai before I needed to return to the Volendam.  I chose to see a Chinese acrobat performance at a downtown theater, where I watched an amazing array of gymnasts, jugglers and motorcyclists who speedily whirled their vehicles inside a cage.

Shanghai at night

Shanghai at night

Back on the ship at 10 p.m., I took one last look at the city’s wondrous skyline – lit up like a pinball machine – and reflected on what I had learned during my 24 hours in this crowded and frenetic city.

Perhaps an exhibit at the Jewish Refugees Museum best sums up what a Holocaust historian has called “the miracle of Shanghai.”

In 1993, Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister, visited the site and inscribed the following:  “To the people of Shanghai for unique humanitarian act of saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War, thanks in the name of the government of Israel.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Pickleball Hits the High Seas

By | Cruising, Sports Abroad | No Comments

Holland America leading the way in adding the sport to cruise ships

USA Arizona Republic — April 1, 2018

SOUTH CHINA SEA – Pickleball, one of the fastest growing sports in America, is now starting to make a splash on the high seas.

Pickleball at sea

Pickleball being played on the Holland America Volendam in the South China Sea

The sport, hugely popular in Arizona, especially in active-retirement communities, has recently been added to the stable of sports offered on all 14 of Holland America’s ships.  And the line’s newest ship, the Nieuw Statendam, which debuts next December, will feature the game as well.

Other cruise lines, including Princess and Regent Seven Seas, also have added pickleball to some of their ships.

Pickleball is a racket sport that combines elements of tennis, table tennis and badminton.  Paddles are made of wood or composite materials; the ball resembles a wiffleball.  The sport can be played with either two or four players, although doubles is far more common.

Pickleball was invented in the 1960s in Washington state, but only recently has seen a huge growth in popularity; it now routinely attracts more players than tennis in 55+-housing developments.  In fact, the U.S.A. Pickleball Association (USAPA), which is headquartered in Surprise, calls it “the fastest growing sport in North America.”

Pickleball paddles and ball

Pickleball paddles and ball

Erik Elvejord, Holland America’s director of public relations, says adding pickleball to the company’s ships was a no-brainer “because of many requests we were getting from guests.”

As an avid pickleball player myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see “meet for a game of pickleball” in the daily program on the first day of a recent 14-day Asian cruise on the Holland America Volendam.

I quickly ventured up to the ship’s sports deck and saw that Holland America had retrofitted a court that formerly had been used for mini-tennis to pickleball.  The costs for the cruise line were minimal – put down some yellow lines on the court, buy paddles and balls, and lower the tennis net a few inches.  The courts are surrounded with netting to keep stray balls from landing in the ocean.

The nets may not quite be to exact specifications and the swirling winds can blow a well-executed shot off course.  But despite some of the onboard challenges, I was delighted – after years of cruising — to finally have the chance to experience the game at sea while working off a few extra calories from the Volendam’s overly tempting desserts in the process.

Holland America Volendam

The Holland America Volendam docked in Shanghai, China

Jack Thomas, the national president of the USAPA and a Scottsdale resident, says it’s about time cruise lines started hopping on the pickleball bandwagon.

“I think the cruise industry has figured out that pickleball is a very inexpensive way to attract and entertain their passengers and will soon become a must-have onboard activity,” he says.  “It is super easy to learn to play, great fun for all ages and creates camaraderie among fellow shipmates.”

Tino Carrillo, the Volendam’s assistant cruise director who overseas all of the ship’s onboard sports – table tennis, shuffleboard, basketball, and pickleball – says the latter has been a hit with the ship’s mostly older clientele.

“You typically play doubles, so it’s less tiring than some other sports,” he says.  “It’s more accessible for everybody.  It’s something fresh and new that more and more people are enjoying playing.”

This particular sailing of the Volendam started in Hong Kong and ended in Shanghai, with stops along the way in the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan.

Many of the ship’s nearly 1,400 passengers – representing 34 countries – had never heard of the sport.  But there was a hardcore group of pickleball fanatics who would show up on sea days for open play or tournaments.  And some passengers came out of curiosity to check out a game they knew only for its rather peculiar name.

“My wife and I are in the early stages of planning our first cruise adventure,” says the USAPA’s Thomas.  “We are not even considering ships without pickleball.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Kosher pad-thai?

By | Jewish Travel, Thailand | No Comments

New Chabad facility in Phuket, Thailand opens its doors to throngs of Jewish travelers — February 2018

PHUKET, Thailand — It was a Thursday night last August when Rabbi Mendy Segal, the chief Jewish emissary, or shluchim, of this island off the southwestern coast of Thailand, received a phone call every rabbi dreads but must deal with on occasion.

Phuket Rabbi Segal

Rabbi Mendy Segal on the rooftop of the new Chabad Phuket House

Two Israelis were in a Thai jail on drug charges and needed the rabbi’s help to bail them out.

The call came at the worst possible time.  Chabad Phuket had a series of events planned that coming weekend in conjunction with the opening of a swanky new $4 million facility and people were coming from all over the world to celebrate.  Rabbi Segal barely had a second to spare.

Still, he planned to go down to the police station the following morning to offer his assistance.  When you’re the only rabbi in a popular tourist destination where there are so many Jewish visitors, it’s an unpleasant – but necessary — part of the job.

Then, he learned that the two men arrested were actually Arabs with Israeli passports.

Should he go, or should he stay and plan for busy weekend ahead?  He sought counsel from the chief rabbi of Thailand in Bangkok, Rabbi Yosef Kantor.

“And he said, ‘Mendy, you go,’” recalls Rabbi Segal.  “You have to be a mensch.  God wants you to be there.”

Hebrew in Phuket

There are several Israeli-owned businesses near the Phuket Chabad House

So Rabbi Segal went down to the jail Friday morning and helped get the two men released on bail.  In the process, he met one of their friends, another Israeli named Vadim.

“I started to talk with him and learned his mother is Jewish.  I was so happy.  I found out the reason I came.”

Vadim, whose father was Arab, had never set foot in a synagogue before.  He was afraid it would cause tension in the family back in Israel.  But after some coaxing from Rabbi Segal, Vadim came to Chabad.

“He put tefillin on for the first time in his life,” says Rabbi Segal.  “And then he came for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  We didn’t see a happy ending in this type of situation.  But then we found out he was a Jew.  This is the purpose of Chabad – to help another Jew without thinking about getting anything back.”

In Phuket on vacation, I recently wanted to learn about Jewish life on the island and check out the new Chabad campus, now one of the largest facilities of its kind in all of Asia.

Phuket Chabad House

The new six-story Phuket Chabad House is located on a quiet side-street

I walked 30 minutes from my condo down one of the main thoroughfares in Patong, Phuket’s busy tourist hub known for its white-sand beaches, water sports and bawdy nightlife.  I had heard Patong was popular with Israelis but had no idea what awaited me as I got within a few blocks of Chabad.

There were several signs in Hebrew marking Israeli-owned businesses, including travel agencies, restaurants and car/motorbike rental outlets.

Miracle of miracles, in this island paradise in the Andaman Sea, I found myself strolling through a Jewish neighborhood.

Just two blocks from the beach, a “Chabad House Thailand” sign directed me down a side-street lined with parked motorbikes to the six-story building called the Dimenstein Family Campus.

But I had made the cardinal sin of forgetting my passport and the guard at the entrance understandably wanted to ascertain that I was telling the truth when I said I was an American Jew and not a potential security threat before letting me inside.

“Can you say the Kiddush?” he asked.

Fortunately, I rose to the occasion.

Although I rarely attend services as an adult, my post bar-mitzvah years as the oldest son reciting the blessing of the wine at our family Shabbat dinners back in Arizona came in handy and I quickly launched into the prayer to prove to the guard that I really was a Jew, albeit a mostly secular one.

Kosher pad-thai in Phuket

Kosher pad-thai for lunch at the Chabad House restaurant

He stopped me well before I got to “borei p’ri hagafen,” smiled and nodded for me to go inside.

Upon entering, I was introduced to Rabbi Segal.  The 40-year-old Israeli has been leading Chabad’s chapter here for nearly three years, along with his wife and co-director, Miriam.

Inaugurated this past August – the weekend when the two Israeli Arabs were arrested — the new Chabad Phuket building offers an array of facilities and amenities of which some larger and less transient Jewish communities would be envious.

In addition to a synagogue that can hold up to 300 worshippers, the 26,000-square-foot facility features a mikvah, rabbinical quarters, a social hall that can seat 400 people, and a busy Kosher restaurant that serves everything from hamburgers to Middle Eastern fare to Thai dishes.  Kosher meat is imported from Argentina.

I tried the pad-thai, a local noodle dish that was a bit on the bland side.  Rabbi Segal explained that Israelis, who make up about 70 percent of the clientele, tend not to like their food too spicy.  And kashrut law puts limitations on the Israeli chef’s use of certain spices.

“Could be the regular pad-thai tastes better, but to make it Kosher, you have to make it in the right way,” says Rabbi Segal.

Chabad Phuket synagogue

The synagogue can accommodate up to 300 worshippers

Phuket is not a large island.  The population is less than 400,000 and it’s only about 200 square miles, which makes it less than half the geographic size of my hometown of Phoenix, Arizona.

But more than 5 million tourists visit each year, including a large contingent of Israelis, many of whom fly nonstop from Tel Aviv to Bangkok (Phuket is a 75-minute flight from Bangkok) and spend weeks or even months travelling around the country after completing their military service.

Rabbi Segal says it’s impossible to determine how many Jews live in Phuket year-round, although he guesses that it’s likely only “a few hundred.”

In 2004, Phuket was ravaged by an Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.  While Indonesia was hit the hardest, Thailand also was in the path of destruction.  The tsunami struck the west coast of Phuket, causing about 250 fatalities and extensive damage to the island’s hotels and beaches.

Many tourists, including young Israeli backpackers, were stranded without food, water or shelter.  That was the genesis of Chabad Phuket.  The group dispatched a group of emissaries that offered assistance.

Patong Beach

The popular white-sand Patong Beach is just a five-minute walk from the Chabad House

“They helped not only Jews, but non-Jews” says Rabbi Segal.  “They came here to give food, a place to sleep and to help find Jews who had passed away.  The tsunami woke people up to let them know that this place needed a branch.”

Chabad quickly outgrew the small building in which it started.  In August 2015 ground was broken for the new facility; it opened two years later.  About $4 million was needed for construction.  Thus far, about $3.25 million has been raised, thanks in part to a generous donation from a Swiss family, the Dimensteins. (To make a donation, visit and click on “donate” or email Rabbi Segal at

When the additional funds are raised, there are plans to install a sukkah and chuppah on the building’s rooftop for weddings and other special events, a venue that would offer spectacular views of the Andaman Sea and surrounding mountains.  Rabbi Segal, who works 15-16 hours a day, seven days a week, needs help and plans are underway to add living quarters for rabbinical students from Israel to help carry some of the load.

Already, the new building has brought a 50 percent increase in visitors.  During the winter high season, Rabbi Segal says about 500 people typically come for Friday Shabbat dinner.  Two seatings are needed to accommodate everyone.  About 700 worshippers attended Rosh Hashanah services last September.

What’s it like to be a rabbi in an island paradise?  Rabbi Segal says the demands of the job give him virtually no time to enjoy the weather, scenery and attractions that bring so many tourists to Phuket.

“When you’re in Chabad, you’re on a mission,” he says.  “You’re not here to enjoy the beaches because the job is inside the Chabad House.  This place is open from the morning to the night and we’re here all day, so we don’t have the time to go out and enjoy it.  The rabbis of Chabad don’t really get to enjoy the beauty of the places they stay.”

Andaman Sea

Day cruises on the Andaman Sea near Phuket offer spectacular scenery

When the rabbi does get out into the community, he has found the Thai people warm and welcoming of Jews, with no hints of anti-Semitism.

“We respect them. They respect us,” he says.  “It’s something you don’t see in different places in the world.  They are really nice people.”

Even though I’m not particularly religious, whenever I travel, I make an effort to connect with the Jewish community – no matter how large or small.  It greatly lessens the culture-shock of visiting places so far from home.  There is a sense of comfort derived from being with other Jews, even if our religious views might be widely divergent.

While I don’t keep Kosher or wear a kippah outside of synagogue, I’m always looking for ways to intertwine my sense of Jewish identity with my travels.

When I told Rabbi Segal that my visit to the Phuket Chabad Center happened to coincide with my deceased father’s 94th birthday, he was kind enough to recite the Kel Maleh Rachamim, a remembrance prayer for the soul of the departed.  After reading the prayer in Hebrew, he took the time to explain the meaning behind it in terms I could understand.

Chabad now has about 3,500 chapters in more than 85 countries.  The Hasidic group, which I’ve grown to appreciate over the years for its hospitality and acceptance of non-religious Jewish travelers like myself, has a presence in four different Thai locations – Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui and Phuket.

All offer an oasis of Jewish values and relative tranquility in a country with a reputation for being one of Asia’s most boisterous party spots.

There is an old Hasidic saying:  “Every descent is for the sake of a future ascent.”

Such is the case with Chabad Phuket.  It was born 14 years ago following a deadly tsunami.  It has now ascended to heights even few shluchim would have imagined possible.


Editor’s postscript:  On one of my final Friday evenings in Phuket, I accepted Rabbi Segal’s invitation to attend Shabbat services.  The synagogue was packed; men and women were segregated by a wall.  It was a very different service than what I’ve experienced in the past.

Afterward, I sat down to Shabbat dinner with about 500 people (there had to be two seatings as the social hall only has space for 400).  The food was traditional Jewish fare — salads, fish and chicken — and plentiful.  In between courses, there was a lot of clapping, singing, dancing and praying.  Some people even stood on their chairs.

Rabbi Segal couldn’t have been more gracious.  He made sure I had an English prayer book during the service and sat me next to a fellow American at dinner so I’d have someone with whom to converse.  I emailed him a thank you note a couple of days letter.

His reply summed up Chabad’s overriding mission: “Thank you very much for coming,” he wrote. “It is our pleasure to make another Jew happy.”

© 2018 Dan Fellner

The Magical Mekong

By | Cambodia, Cruising, Vietnam | No Comments

River cruise offers unique glimpse into Vietnamese, Cambodian cultures

The Arizona Republic — February 18, 2018

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – “Can you please pass the tarantula?”

Deep-fried tarantula

Deep-fried tarantula is a Cambodian specialty

I was joking – sort of – at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, after the waiter brought two of the large and hairy deep-fried arachnids to the table following the main course.

At first, I mainly just wanted to photograph the dish popular in rural Cambodia, attractively presented on a serving plate with a lime and spicy dipping sauce.  But the rest of our group dared me into taking it a step further.

I bit.  Literally.  In two bites, I downed the creature – eight legs and all – to the laughter and applause of the group.

Welcome to the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia, which offers an unvarnished and fascinating glimpse into the fabric of an exotic and welcoming culture that has changed little over the centuries.

Scenic Spirit

The Scenic Spirit anchored on the Mekong River near Tan Chau, Vietnam

I recently spent a week cruising the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia aboard the Scenic Spirit, a 2-year-old 68-passenger ship owned by Scenic Cruises, an Australian-owned high-end line with a growing presence in North America.  Most of our passengers were from Australia and England; I was one of five Americans on the trip.

Mekong cruises offer a chance to sail past ancient hilltop pagodas, floating villages and seemingly endless fields of rice, fruit plantations and sugar cane.  And you’ll do so in relative solitude compared to cruises on more heralded rivers in Europe like the Danube, Seine and Rhine.

Indeed, during the Vietnam portion of the trip, we didn’t encounter even one other cruise ship, a pleasant difference from river trips in Europe where there are often so many ships parked in port at one time, you need to walk across several other vessels to reach your own.

View of Mekong River

View of the Mekong River from the Wat Hanchey Monastery in Cambodia

Known as Southeast Asia’s “rice bowl,” the Mekong is the lifeblood of hundreds of millions of people in the region, who use the river for trade, transportation, farming and fishing.  The river traverses six Asian countries – starting in China’s Tibetan Plateau before meandering through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.

We leisurely covered about 180 miles over seven days on a small portion of the river, sailing upstream from My Tho, about a two-hour bus ride southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, and disembarked in Kampong Chan, Cambodia.  Most of the ship’s passengers also booked post-cruise land tours of Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious monument, in northwestern Cambodia.

Aside from the tarantula, I sampled rice wine infused with a venomous cobra snake (the locals call it “Vietnamese Viagra,”) and a fiery red chile-pepper I picked right off the vine that made a jalapeno from back home taste like a bland cucumber in comparison.

As most of the villages we visited didn’t have docking facilities for large boats, the Scenic Spirit would drop anchor in the Mekong and we would take sampans – long, narrow wooden boats – into towns along the river.  Once on land, we rode rickshaws, tuk-tuks and ox carts to see the sites.

Cambodian monks

Monks chant a blessing at the Oudong Monastery in Cambodia

We visited an outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam, where they peddle everything from live roosters to fresh red snapper to roasted rat meat.  It’s where the locals go to buy their dinner each day, unlike the touristy floating markets you’ll find in Thailand.

There was a trip to a rural school, a silk factory and the opulent Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, where the country’s 64-year-old King Norodom Sihamoni resides.

I especially found meaningful a visit to the home of a 70-year-old man who had fought in the South Vietnamese army alongside Americans.  After the war, he was sent to a “re-education camp.”  It was a stark reminder of the region’s tragic past.  Despite all they have endured, I have found the Vietnamese some of the friendliest people on the planet, always quick with a smile.

As far as any lingering anti-American sentiment from the war years, we never experienced the slightest hint of it.  Duc Ho, one of our Scenic tour directors, says attitudes of the Vietnamese people changed dramatically in 1995 when – thanks in large part to the work of Arizona Sen. John McCain — the two countries re-established diplomatic relations.

Sa Dec market

Produce vendors at the outdoor market in Sa Dec, Vietnam

“Before, people were really angry toward Americans,” says Duc. “The younger generation now thinks differently.  It’s over.  It’s history.”

While we waited on the Mekong to clear immigration at the Vietnamese-Cambodian border, Scenic brought onboard a local dance troupe, which performed a traditional acrobatic Vietnamese lion dance. It’s believed the dance brings good luck and fortune, not to mention a chance for the ship’s passengers to admire some delightfully animated costumes (see video shot by the author: Vietnamese lion dance).

At Phnom Penh, we veered off the Mekong to the Tonle Sap River to visit Oudong, the former capital of Cambodia and home to the country’s largest monastery.  Cambodia is a devoutly Buddhist country and it was fascinating to learn about the lives of the hundreds of monks and nuns who live in Oudong.

In fact, one of our Scenic guides, Mao (nicknamed “The Chairman,”) had spent six years himself as a monk and offered our group unique insights into the faith and the integral role it plays in Cambodians’ lives.

Mekong sunrise

Sunrise on the Mekong River in Vietnam

At the monastery, we sat on the floor of a temple for a private blessing as two monks wearing traditional saffron robes chanted Buddhist prayers and tossed jasmine flower petals at us (see video shot by the author: Buddhist monks chant blessing).

We also visited a monastery on a hilltop overlooking the Mekong called Wat Hanchey, home to novice monks, most of whom are teenagers.

The Mekong is ideal for travelers looking for a less-crowded, more authentic experience than is found on many other river cruises.  This year just 19 ships catering to foreign tourists are cruising the river; most hold well fewer than 100 passengers.

As for the tarantula, I survived without even a hint of a stomach ache.

More importantly, after a week on the Mekong, I’ve had a memorable taste of rural life in a culture so remarkably different from our own.

© 2018 Dan Fellner

Atlantic City’s Famous Boardwalk

By | New Jersey | No Comments

Guest post by Gabe Miller

Atlantic City may have the reputation of a city in decline, but its boardwalk remains a sought-after destination. The city is actually attempting to bounce back from some severe financial difficulties radiating outward from unsuccessful casino and real estate deals, and a little bit of life is coming back to it.  Even during the worst of times though, the boardwalk held a certain charm – despite portions of it having something of a lighthearted ghost town vibe.

Many don’t fully grasp the history of the Atlantic City boardwalk as – almost ironically – a symbol of American progress and grandeur.  It may actually help to know that it is this same boardwalk that, along with other locations around Atlantic City, inspired the board game Monopoly (in which the Boardwalk is famously the most expensive and lucrative property on the board). It’s just a game, but in a way this gives you an idea of how the area was once perceived, in its heyday.

Atlantic City

But what is it actually like to walk the Atlantic City boardwalk today? You can’t get quite the right idea from playing Monopoly of course, nor from watching the famous drama Boardwalk Empire. Furthermore, most travel articles focusing on Atlantic City revolve exclusively around the casinos, and neglect to convey the boardwalk’s appeal. Here, though, are a few things you can still enjoy about this particular attraction, regardless of any decline the city around it may have experienced.

For one thing, you can get a strong sense of history. There remains a sort of intangible, late-19th or early-20th century vibe on the boardwalk, such that you can almost imagine it as a thriving hot spot in simpler times. The very idea of a boardwalk such as this is less and less common, particularly in the American Northeast, so if you like to have a sense of the past when you travel, this is something you can really cherish.

In a more active sense, you can also enjoy easy access to the beaches and the surf that run alongside the boardwalk. Atlantic City’s beaches don’t have the most glowing reputation around the country, though most who have spent time there would agree that there’s some complexity to the perception. Surfers have called the ocean dirty, sketchy, and beautiful simultaneously. The Netflix comedy Friends From College spent a whole episode more or less mocking Atlantic City as a destination before showing characters on the beach at dawn admitting that from the right angle, the place is kind of beautiful. Basically, it’s a beach area you have to experience the right way and gain an appreciation for, but in its own way, it’s quite nice.

Atlantic City

The Boardwalk also gives you quick access to some of the main casinos of Atlantic City. Now, as implied previously, these aren’t quite what they were once upon a time. Casinos played a role in largely bankrupting Atlantic City, and the comeback of the gaming industry has taken place largely online, with New Jersey’s sites for legal gaming attracting a great deal of activity and revenue. With all of this said though, the actual casino venues of Atlantic City are, if anything, nicer than their reputation. They are not shabby, poorly maintained traces of what they once were; they’re simply not quite as glamorous as some would like them to be. If your goal is a nice meal at a fancy restaurant, a few cocktails in a casino lounge, or the games themselves, you’ll still have a nice time.

Lastly, but maybe most importantly, you can enjoy the establishments that line the boardwalk itself. Little shops and cafes are still operational along the boardwalk, and there’s just something charming about being able to make your way along a wooden walkway on a nice day, popping in and out of these establishments and enjoying the ocean views. Candy shops, clothing stores, souvenir shops, and even places for fresh fudge and salt water taffy are among your options.

All in all, though it may not be quite what it once was, the Atlantic City boardwalk remains interesting and, in its own way, charming. It’s worth a stop on any vacation to the general area.

Gabe Miller is a freelance writer and travel enthusiast.  He writes about popular landmarks, exploring new cities, and various other adventures around the world.

Exploring “The Graduate’s” History in Berkeley

By | California | No Comments

Fifty-year anniversary of groundbreaking movie presents sightseeing opportunities for the film’s fanatics

The Arizona Republic — October 22, 2017

BERKELEY, Calif. – Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson.

December marks the 50-year anniversary of the release of “The Graduate,” named the seventh best American movie of all time by the American Film Institute.  The film, which won an Oscar for director Mike Nichols, defined the zeitgeist of a generation starting to rebel against convention and pre-ordained life paths.

Downtown Berkeley

View of downtown Berkeley from the Graduate Hotel

The spirit of the groundbreaking movie, immortalized by Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Robinson seducing an angst-filled Dustin Hoffman, still survives in this free-thinking college town in which parts of the movie were filmed.

To mark the anniversary, the Berkeley Historical Society is offering a walking tour Nov. 11 to see the sites shown in the film, many of which are still in use.  Steve Finacom, a past president of the society, will guide the tour.  He said interest is strong and more tours might be added.

“I think people are interested in seeing places from history — even fictional history,” Finacom said.  “The ‘60s has a hold on the imagination.  Berkeley did really capture the attention of the nation in that era.”

I recently spent a long weekend in Berkeley on my own self-guided tour into cinematic history.  I was too young to see the movie when it first came out, but I’ve seen it numerous times as an adult.  “The Graduate” spoke to me on so many levels. 

Graduate poster

“The Graduate” movie posters hang in each of the 144 rooms at the Graduate Hotel Berkeley

I also wanted to learn more about Berkeley, a city of about 120,000 people just north of Oakland and across the bay from San Francisco.  It’s known as a boisterous epicenter of left-wing political activism.

Appropriately, I stayed at The Graduate Hotel, which made a brief appearance in the movie and is one block from the University of California-Berkeley campus.  Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, pursued Elaine — a Cal-Berkeley student and Mrs. Robinson’s daughter — in hopes of winning Elaine’s heart.

But the hotel’s name has nothing to do with the movie.  Known as the Hotel Durant when the movie was filmed, it became The Graduate last summer when it was acquired by a company that owns a chain of 10 hotels in university communities around the country. (The Graduate Tempe is on Apache Boulevard across the street from Arizona State University’s campus.)

Nevertheless, the hotel has capitalized on its name, hanging “The Graduate” movie posters in each of its 144 rooms and offering occasional “vinyl nights” in the hotel bar, in which the movie’s famous soundtrack — recorded by Simon and Garfunkel — spins on an old turntable.  Berkeley’s quirky counterculture is represented by bong-shaped lamps in the guestrooms and a restroom urinal painted with the logo and colors of Stanford, Cal-Berkeley’s arch-rival.

As I took a short walk from the hotel to Telegraph Avenue to explore the filming sites, I passed the types of shops one might expect to see in Berkeley — a Buddhist bookstore, a restaurant selling “America’s first USDA certified organic fast food” and tie-dyed shirt stalls.  A man known simply as “The Wizard” gazed into a crystal ball while predicting the futures of passersby on a busy street corner.

Graduate boarding house

The Victorian boarding house in which Dustin Hoffman’s character rented a room while pursuing Elaine

My first stop was a stately Victorian house built in 1895 at the corner of Channing Way and Dana Street that served as Ben’s boarding house in the film.  This is where a crotchety landlord played by Norman Fell (who later starred as Mr. Roper on TV’s “Three’s Company”) accused Ben of being an “outside agitator” before evicting him.

Today, the building is divided into six apartments.  Finacom is petitioning the city to have the building designated as a historic landmark, noting that it’s “already an informal landmark; it should be an official one.”

Two blocks away, I stopped at the now-closed Caffe Mediterraneum, where Ben sipped a beer while surreptitiously watching Elaine emerge across Telegraph Avenue from Moe’s Books, a Berkeley staple known for its eclectic selection of used books and posters.

Moe Moscowitz, who founded the store in 1959, passed away 20 years ago.  His daughter Doris Moscowitz runs the business and proudly displays a large photo of the storefront seen in “The Graduate.”  She said it’s a point of pride that Moe’s Books appeared in such a landmark movie, adding that Nichols did a wonderful job of capturing “Berkeley’s iconic funkiness.”

Sather Tower

Sather Tower, located on the UC-Berkeley campus, is the third-tallest bell-and-clock tower in the world

Just down the block from my hotel I found the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity house, where Ben frantically parked his red Alfa Romeo Spider convertible and rushed inside to find out where Elaine was getting married.  It’s still an active frat house but no one answered the door when I repeatedly knocked on a Saturday morning.

Cal-Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, the main square on campus, also was shown in “The Graduate,” although parts of the movie were also filmed at USC and UCLA in Los Angeles.

Today, Cal-Berkeley remains a hotbed of student activism.  Free campus walking tours are offered every morning at 10:00, leaving from the football stadium.  Indeed, the tour I took was briefly interrupted by a passing march for women’s rights.

There aren’t a lot of typical tourist attractions in Berkeley.  Perhaps the most noteworthy landmark is Sather Tower, located at the center of campus.  At 307 feet, it’s the third-tallest bell-and-clock-tower in the world.  For $3, you can take an elevator to the top, where there is a 61-bell carillon, not to mention stunning views of downtown San Francisco.

Country Joe McDonald

The legendary Country Joe McDonald performs at the Berkeley Historical Society

But visitors typically don’t come to Berkeley for the sites.  They come to experience the vibe.

A sample of the city’s energy and rich musical history is now on display at the Historical Society, which recently opened an exhibit – which runs through April — called “Soundtrack to the 60s: The Berkeley Music Scene.”

My visit happened to coincide with the exhibit’s opening, featuring a performance by the legendary Country Joe McDonald, a Berkeley fixture who has lived here since before “The Graduate” was made.  As the lead singer of Country Joe and the Fish, McDonald, now 75, wrote and recorded one of the most famous anti-Vietnam War anthems of the ‘60s (see video shot by the author: Country Joe McDonald performs anti-Vietnam War song).

Like a 50-year-old suede vest with bright psychedelic trim, Berkeley is a bit frayed at the edges.  The city has a serious homeless problem.  But Berkeley’s charm, vibrant spirit and retro-feel more than compensate for some of its dinginess.

Just like Ben experienced with Mrs. Robinson 50 years ago, once you get past the brazen exterior, you’ll likely be seduced into wanting more.

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Cruising Russia’s Volga River

By | Cruising, Russia | One Comment

Despite political tensions, cruising gaining steam on Europe’s longest river

The Arizona Republic — August 13, 2017

MOSCOW, Russia – A political pariah?  Perhaps.

Scenic Tsar

The Scenic Tsar docked on the Volga River

But are Russia’s geopolitical controversies, heightened tensions with the United States and reports of election meddling keeping Western tourists away?

If you look at the recent surge in cruising on the Volga River, the answer is clear.


Traffic on the Volga, Europe’s longest river, has rebounded sharply in the past two years, as we learned on a recent two-week cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg.  Travelers looking for a more adventurous trip than is offered on Western European rivers like the Danube and Rhine are finding the Volga a compelling alternative.

We were sailing on the Scenic Tsar, a 112-passenger ship chartered by Scenic Cruises, an Australia-based line that also markets its trips to North Americans and Europeans.

Volga River

Scenery on the Volga between Moscow and St. Petersburg

Scenic, along with Viking, Uniworld and other cruise lines, is increasing its presence on the Volga.  Last year, Scenic offered four cruises on the river.  This summer, the number jumped to 10 with passenger capacity close to 100 percent.  And next summer, Scenic will have 12 sailings from May through October; 60 percent of the cabins already are sold.

The growth in the Volga’s popularity is easily visible.  There were as many as nine cruise ships at one time in some ports along the route.  Indeed, to return to the Scenic Tsar after a day of sightseeing we often had to cross through the lobbies of several other ships that were triple- and quadruple-parked by the pier.

Diana Lapshina, our Russian-born cruise director who has worked for Scenic since it first started sailing the Volga in 2012, says travelers aren’t deterred by negative media coverage of Russia.

“You go, you see, you taste, you experience, and only then you can tell whether the mass media was right or wrong,” she says.  “You have to see it yourself.”

River cruising makes a lot of sense in Russia, where English is not widely spoken and getting around by bus or train can be challenging.  Moscow’s hotels are some of the priciest in the world.

Red Square

Moscow’s Red Square on a rainy afternoon

The trip started with three days in the Russian capital, Europe’s most populous city with 18 million residents in its metropolitan area.  Traffic is a mess as Moscow’s infrastructure is undergoing extensive construction in preparation for next summer’s FIFA World Cup soccer finals.

We visited the Kremlin and walked past the office of President Vladimir Putin, then dodged the rain in nearby Red Square with its iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral.  We saw the internationally renowned Russian circus, attended a show featuring 50 dazzlingly costumed folk dancers and toured the State Tretyakov Gallery, which houses one of the largest collections of Russian art in the world.

I especially enjoyed the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics, where the Russians trumpet their many accomplishments during the space race with America, including putting the first man into orbit in 1961.

After touring the museum, we were given a private audience with Alexsandr Leveykin, a former Soviet cosmonaut who spent six months on the Mir space station in the 1980s.  I asked what his reaction was in 1969 (he was 18 at the time) when he heard the news that U.S. astronauts had landed on the moon.

Peterhof Palace

The upper gardens of Peterhof Palace near St. Petersburg

“I did not have any disappointment and was very happy people made it to the moon,” he said through an interpreter, adding that America’s achievement received little coverage in the Soviet media.  “With no competition, there is no progress.”

After leaving Moscow, we stopped at several villages along the Volga and its tributaries, where we experienced a more tranquil side of Russian life.  In Uglich, a town of about 35,000 people believed to be more than 1,000 years old, we attended a mesmerizing concert at an Orthodox church in which a small choir was accompanied by Russian balalaikas (see video shot by the author: Uglich church concert).

Onboard the Scenic Tsar, we took Russian language classes, learned how to paint matryoshka (nesting) dolls, attended lectures on Russian history and sampled vodka and caviar.  As much as I tried, I just couldn’t develop a taste for borscht, a bright red beet soup that’s a Russian staple.

The cruise ended with three days in St. Petersburg (called Leningrad during Soviet times), considered Russia’s cultural capital.  A popular stop on Baltic Sea cruises, St. Petersburg is home to the Hermitage, one of the largest art museums in the world.

Lake Ladoga

Sunset over Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake

We also visited two of the most magnificent palaces outside of Versailles — Peterhof and Catherine’s Palace, the summer residence of Russian tsars.  Scenic also treated us to a private ballet performance at a downtown theater, complete with a champagne and caviar reception.

All told, we sailed about 1,100 miles between Moscow and St. Petersburg.  Along the way, we visited four UNESCO World Heritage sites, traversed the largest lake in Europe — Lake Ladoga — and did our best to more fully understand a country that continues to be a source of angst and fear for many Americans.

“This is a trip about learning, not sunbathing,” cruise director Lapshina says.  “Here, you have to see something and contemplate it.”

© 2017 Dan Fellner

Diplomacy Needed in Indonesia — Not Military Might

By | Indonesia | No Comments

Fulbright program important way to counterbalance extremism

The Arizona Republic — August 1, 2017

DENPASAR, Indonesia – The world’s most-populous nation with a Muslim majority doesn’t typically garner much attention in the United States, other than when there’s a tsunami or terrorist attack.

But it should.

This country of more than 260 million people in Southeast Asia is vitally important to American strategic interests as it decides what type of country it wants to be in the coming decades.

Fulbright Indonesia

Lecturing as a Fulbright Specialist about America’s media system at a university in Surabaya, Indonesia

Even though Indonesia has a relatively secular constitution, there are hardline Islamic elements who are pushing the country toward Sharia law.  Already, a province called Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra Island has formally adopted Sharia law.  In Aceh, “offenses” such as homosexuality, adultery and selling alcohol are now punishable by public whipping.

In May, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, a Christian with Chinese ancestry who was the former governor of Jakarta, was sentenced to two years in prison.  His crime?  “Blasphemy against Islam” for allegedly referencing a verse from the Quran in a heated political battle with a Muslim opponent.

Indonesia is at a crossroads and sits precariously on a line between religious extremism and a tolerant, inclusive and democratic society.  The battle for the hearts and minds of Indonesians will likely be determined more by the power of persuasion than military might.

Enter the foresight of Sen. J. William Fulbright, a forward-thinking American statesman who realized the importance of diplomacy. In 1946, Sen. Fulbright created the landmark program that still bears his name.  Passed unanimously by the Senate and funded by the State Department, the Fulbright program sponsors Americans and foreigners for exchanges in endeavors such as the sciences, business, academia, government and the arts.

Since the first Fulbrighters went abroad in 1948, the program has had an extraordinary impact around the world; there have been more than 250,000 Fulbright students, scholars and teachers.  Each, in his or her own way, has led to the overall goal of advancing mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries.

In my case, I had the privilege of lecturing at six different universities in Indonesia this spring.  At two of the institutions, I was the first American to have lectured in person in the university’s history; both were schools more than 30 years old.

Dan Fellner on Indonesian TV

Appearing as a guest on Indonesian TV

The administration, faculty and students and faculty welcomed me with open arms and were truly interested in hearing my thoughts about our political and media systems.  Most of my talks were standing-room-only; one lecture at a university on the island of Java attracted more than 400 people.  My lectures were widely covered by the Indonesian media.

While questions and comments from the audience indicated Indonesians didn’t always agree with American foreign policy, they did seem overwhelmingly positive toward Americans and receptive to the values I espoused — the importance of a free press and the formal separation of religion and government.  I experienced similar open-mindedness to American ideals in prior Fulbright teaching stints at universities in Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and Bulgaria.

The Fulbright program has faced potential budget cuts in recent years, which could cripple its ability to preserve and enhance America’s leadership abroad.  This year is no different.  The administration has proposed a 47 percent cut in Fulbright funding.

It’s vital to our country’s national security that Congress supports funding at the continued level of about $235 million, a relative drop-in-the-bucket compared to the money spent on our military.  Indeed, the entire Fulbright budget is approximately the cost of one-third of just one B-2 Stealth Bomber.

In this uncertain world of grave threats from numerous fronts, winning hearts and minds in places where some want to do us harm has never been more important.  In this respect, the Fulbright program is every bit as valuable to our national security as a tank or fighter plane.

© 2017 Dan Fellner