Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Disability Friendly Cities

From Disability Scoop:
"Cities Ranked On Disability Friendliness"

Factoring everything from affordability to accessibility and quality of life, a new ranking is grading the nation’s cities on how desirable they are to people with disabilities. For the fourth year in a row, Overland Park, Kans. is topping the annual listing. It is followed by Grand Rapids, Mich., Denver, Salt Lake City and Aurora, Colo. The annual ranking evaluating the country’s 150 most populated cities is produced by the personal finance website WalletHub. The analysis is based on 28 criteria relevant to people with disabilities including the availability of health care providers, park accessibility, the employment rate for those in this population and the cost of living.  WalletHub ranked each city in three broad categories — economy, quality of life and health care — which collectively were used to assess what it called the “most livable places for people with disabilities.” Extra weight was given to some factors including the earnings and employment rate for people with disabilities, the share of poverty for those in this demographic and the effectiveness of state Medicaid programs, WalletHub said. Coming in dead last was San Bernardino, Calif. Greensboro, N.C., Providence, R.I., Winston-Salem, N.C. and Brownsville, Texas rounded out the bottom five.

^ Those cities ranking at the top (being the most disabled-friendly) should be proud and other counties around the country and the world should take note of what and how they accomplished that. Those cities at the bottom (being the least disabled-friendly) should hold their heads down in shame and work to fix the issues and problems immediately. ^

Fake Win

From the BBC:
"Iraq takes disputed areas as Kurds 'withdraw to 2014 lines'"

Iraq's military says it has completed an operation to retake disputed areas held by Kurdish forces since 2014. On Monday and Tuesday troops retook the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk and its oilfields, as well as parts of Nineveh and Diyala provinces. Peshmerga fighters had seized the areas while battling so-called Islamic State. The military operation came three weeks after the Kurds held an independence referendum, which Iraq's prime minister said was now a "thing of the past". Mr Abadi called for dialogue with the Kurdistan Regional Government on Tuesday night, saying he wanted a "national partnership" based on Iraq's constitution.  People living in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed areas overwhelmingly backed secession in the referendum, but Mr Abadi declared it illegal and rejected calls from Kurdish leaders for negotiations. A statement issued by the Iraqi military on Wednesday announced that security had been "restored" in previously Kurdish-held sectors of Kirkuk province, including Dibis, Multaqa, and the Khabbaz and Bai Hassan North and South oil fields. "Forces have been redeployed and have retaken control of Khanaqin and Jalawla in Diyala province, as well as Makhmur, Bashiqa, Mosul dam, Sinjar and other areas in the Nineveh plains," it added. Peshmerga fighters moved into the areas after IS swept across northern and western Iraq in June 2014 and the army collapsed. A senior Iraqi military commander also told Reuters news agency: "As of today we reversed the clock back to 2014."    A statement issued by the Iraqi military on Wednesday announced that security had been "restored" in previously Kurdish-held sectors of Kirkuk province, including Dibis, Multaqa, and the Khabbaz and Bai Hassan North and South oil fields. "Forces have been redeployed and have retaken control of Khanaqin and Jalawla in Diyala province, as well as Makhmur, Bashiqa, Mosul dam, Sinjar and other areas in the Nineveh plains," it added. Peshmerga fighters moved into the areas after IS swept across northern and western Iraq in June 2014 and the army collapsed. A senior Iraqi military commander also told Reuters news agency: "As of today we reversed the clock back to 2014."

^ Iraq should not see this as a victory. They didn't win anything. The Kurds allowed them to take the disputed area. The Kurds are the ones who also did most of the major fighting against ISIS and are the reason that terrorist group is nearly destroyed in Iraq. The Iraqi Government and Military were minor players in that fight - they couldn't even protect the Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad from being over-run by regular Iraqis. The Kurds in Iraq deserve more praise and their independence and Baghdad and the rest of the world (including the US, EU, UN, etc.) own a huge debt to the Iraqi Kurds for dealing with ISIS. ^

Countdown To Countdown

Channels are going to start the Countdown to the Countdown to Christmas before Halloween. I'm just starting the 13 days til Halloween today.

Cover Services

From the BBC:
"Quebec bans niqab for public services with neutrality law"

A Canadian province has passed a controversial religious neutrality law that bars people from wearing face coverings when giving or receiving a public service.  Quebec recently expanded the law to include services provided by municipal and public transit services. Women who wear a burqa or a niqab will now have to show their faces while receiving a government service.  Quebec's National Assembly passed Bill 62 by a 66-51 vote. The provincial Liberals, who have been in power since 2014, tabled the bill two years ago.   Bureaucrats, police officers, teachers, and bus drivers, as well as doctors, midwives, and dentists who work in publicly funded hospitals and health centres, will have to have their face uncovered.  The law will also stop provincially subsidised childcare services from offering religious education.  Quebec's Bill 62 does not specifically mention the Muslim faith.   The government says the bill includes all types of face coverings and is not meant to target Muslims. But the new legislation would affect Muslim women who wear face veils when it comes to accessing government services, whether taking the bus or using the library, or getting healthcare and education.   Critics say the law will marginalise Muslim women who cover their faces by limiting access to government work and services.   Bill 62 does allow people to request exemptions. A woman who wears a face veil could ask for an "accommodation" to receive a government service while having her face covered.  That request can be refused if "warranted in the context for security or identification reasons or because of the level of communication required", according to the bill.  It is unclear how many women in Quebec wear religious face coverings, though an Environics survey from 2016 suggests about 3% of Canadian Muslim women wear the chador and 3% wear the niqab.  Similar legislation has been proposed in Quebec twice before as part of the province's efforts to impose state secularism.  Before losing the 2014 provincial election, the Parti Quebecois proposed a so-called Charter of Values bill.  That would have banned all public servants from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols or clothing, including turbans and yarmulkes.  It would also have mandated that a person's face be uncovered if they are to receive a government service.  Legal experts have said they expect Bill 62 to be challenged in court.  A number of European countries have passed legislation banning Islamic face veils, including France and Belgium in 2011.

^ I've read the law (in French) and it seems to do exactly what this article says so I believe it may be challenged in court, but will survive. ^

Monday, October 16, 2017

QR Rubles

From the MT:
"Russia Unveils QR-Coded 200, 2,000 Ruble Bills"

Russia’s Central Bank and the National Mint Goznak unveiled new 200- and 2,000-ruble bills on Thursday. The front side of the new banknotes are fitted with a QR code which links to the bank’s website where there is detailed information on their artistic design and security features.  Speaking at a Moscow-Vladivostok-Sevastopol teleconference from the state-run TASS news agency’s office, Central Bank chairwoman Elvira Nabiullina said the bills will begin circulating in December. “First in October, the new banknotes will be received in the regions that are depicted on them: the Far East, Crimea, as well as Moscow,” Nabiullina said. The 200- and 2,000-ruble bills will enter into circulation in stages after banks and businesses upgrade their technology to accommodate them, she said. Following a public vote, the Chersonesus museum-reserve in the annexed Crimean peninsula and Sevastopol’s Monument to the Scuttled Ships were chosen to be featured on the 200-ruble bill. Vostochny Cosmodrome and a cable-stayed bridge connecting mainland Russia’s Vladivostok with Russky Island are featured on the 2,000-ruble bill.

^ It seems interesting to have QR-codes on currency. I am curious to see how it actually looks in person and how easy it is to use the code and also what information you get after using the code. ^

Anne Frank Halloween

From USA Today:
"Anne Frank Halloween costume pulled after social media criticism"

A Halloween costume company has pulled an Anne Frank girls costume off their website Sunday, after the costume received criticism on social media.  The company,, had offered a costume that featured a long sleeve blue button-up dress, a brown shoulder bag and a green beret listed as "Anne Frank costume for girls." The costume description described Frank as a World War II hero and an inspiration stating "we can always learn from the struggles of history." Social media users on Twitter didn't take to the costume or its description.   Public Relations Specialist at, Ross Walker Smith issued a statement via Twitter apologizing for the criticism on the girls costume. "We sell costumes not only for Halloween, but for many uses outside of the Halloween season, such as school projects and plays," Walker Smith said on Twitter. "We have passed along the feedback regarding this costume, and it has been removed from the website at this time."

^ I worked at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, I just got back from Yad Vashem in Israel and it still amazes me after working and going to these Holocaust museums/memorials at how little people around the world know about the Holocaust or its current impact 70 years later. I guess the only thing I can say about this Anne Frank Halloween costume is that I'm glad the company chose her wearing regular clothes and not her death camp uniform with shaved head.  ^

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Israel: Leaving

We checked-out of our hotel a little after midnight and waited by the entrance to be picked-up by a driver I had hired from Bein Harim Tour Company months ago. They were the same ones we had problems with when we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and the driver even tried to leave us at some random place instead of our hotel. Because of this bad treatment I was waiting for something awful to happen. I was not disappointed. Bein Harim never showed up!!!!!!!!!!!! I had confirmed everything back in September and was given written confirmation on the dates and times so I know it wasn’t something I had done. It was Bein Harim and their disorganization. I got the feeling of being scammed when going from the airport to the hotel and we got scammed again by them when trying to go from our hotel to the airport. I would NEVER recommend anyone use Bein Harim Tours to transfer from Ben Gurion Airport to your hotel or vice versa. Just take a regular taxi. Since I had heard that Ben Gurion Airport was very tight with their security when flying out of Israel I had planned for extra time. Since Bein Harim never picked us up we had the receptionist at the hotel call a taxi which came a few minutes later. Even though I had already prepaid for Bein Harim I now had to pay the taxi around $100 for the trip. The taxi driver smelled of bad body odor and his taxi smelled of bad incense, but he got us to the airport pretty quickly. When we got to the entrance of the airport the taxi guy turned all the inside lights on and stopped for half a second at the check-point then dropped us off at the terminal.
I was hoping for a better experience leaving Israel than we had when arriving – but that wasn’t to be. Everything seemed disorganized. We waited for the luggage area to be opened. A woman security guard asked us a few brief questions and then left with our passports. When she came back she put a yellow sticker on the back of the passports and let us go to the airline check-in. We were again flying Swiss Airlines.. There were two lines for Swiss Economy (we were really in their Premium Economy Class) and of course I picked the wrong lane. The Swiss employees – all Israelis – were very slow and lazy. They took a long time to even come to the counters and then even longer talking/joking with each other and texting on their cell phones. When they finally started checking people in the lane I had chosen still had no employee. I asked a very surly employee in the other lane if ours was open and he just said “Yes.” After about 10 minutes of waiting a man who had been sitting at another desk flirting with his co-worker walked over to our counter and after getting things ready there finally opened. He didn’t say one word to us. He didn’t us for our passports, he didn’t ask where we were going and he didn’t ask where our final destination was so our bags could be checked right through. I finally had to ask him if our bags were going through to Boston and got a very curt “Yes.”
After checking-in we went to Israeli Exit Immigration. There was a guy standing right in front of the lane for “Foreign Passports” and I went up to him and tried to give him my passport. He was more concerned that I had interrupted his texting and pointed to some self-scan Immigration kiosks. We went over to them and I tried several times (my sister even tried scanning my passport once) and nothing happened. My sister had no problems with her passport and got the same postage stamp-sized Exit Border Card like we got when we arrived. I walked back to the guy and handed him my passport and told him the kiosk told me to see an Immigration officer. He said something in Hebrew, scanned my passport, and basically threw my passport and Exit Card at me and told me to leave him alone. I called him a “prick” and walked away. After Exit Passport Control (with the same dumb self-checkout machines that never work as you see in the markets) we went through Israeli Security. It was not the strict security I was expecting and whereas at Logan we had to take off our shoes and belts and go through a full body scanner in Israel we kept all that on and just walked through a metal detector that looked like it had been in some public school in New York City for decades. After security there was a large waiting area with lots of Duty Free stores and a few places to eat. There was a Pizza Hut open and so we ordered a pizza – even though it was so early in the morning – the cashier barely spoke English – almost no one at the Airport seemed to speak English and it’s really the only airport in the whole country and you would expect them to know English. We then dealt with a woman at a closed coffee shop who also didn’t speak English and then went to another coffee shop and then sat down. When our pizza was ready I went to get it and asked him for two plates. The guy had no idea what “plates” were and I pointed to the plates right next to him and showed two fingers. It wasn’t until an Israeli passenger behind me said it in Hebrew that he finally gave them to me. So much drama for something so simple.
After eating we headed to our gate. We boarded on-time and had the same seats as before. When we took off I was actually very glad to finally be out of Israel. While I had a good time there overall there were way too many problems and issues.
The flight to Zurich was uneventful. When we got to Zurich (the same terminal as before) we had to walk a long way in a semi-circle right after getting off the plane and found ourselves at Swiss Security. That was surprising since we didn’t go through Swiss Security when we had arrived from Boston and were going to Tel Aviv. There were no major issues going through, but afterwards we had to wait several hours for the monitor to tell us which gate to go to. Of course, like before, it was the furthest from where we were. The Zurich Airport at the same one machine to get a WiFi password valid for 2 hours and the men had to walk up 3 flights of stairs to the bathroom. When we were waiting for our gate to be announced we saw several gates get blocked off with barriers. Apparently, it was the airline doing Passport checks and secondary screening. They did the same thing at our gate but we only had to do the Passport check and not the extra screening. I am surprised that they did all of this extra stuff to go to the US and yet did absolutely nothing extra for when we were going to Tel Aviv.
The flight to Boston was long and tiring, but nothing major happened. When we landed at Logan I was prepared for problems and issues since I have had them at Logan before. We deplaned and went to US Immigration/Customs. Logan just completed a new Immigration Arrivals section this year and yet it was pretty confusing. The signs didn’t add up with the lanes and several foreigners went to the US Citizens only lane. We had to first go to the stupid kiosks where you scan your passport, answer the same Customs questions you already answered on the printed form on the plane and then waited for one of two Immigration officers to go through everything again. I don’t see how this is supposed to save time when you are just doing the same thing that the Immigration officer is going to re-do. We did have a little wait, but it wasn’t that long (nothing like the wait or the chaos in Israel.) There was a funny thing that happened when we were waiting in line to see the officer. Besides the fire alarm going off (I wasn’t going to evacuate until I got my bag even if they told me to) a guy with a very thick Spanish accent kept going on the announcements and only saying one or two words before cutting off. Each time he finally added another word to his sentence before cutting off and for every new word we cheered. By the time we got to the Immigration officer the guy was finally able to say his whole, very short, sentence. It was like the Little Engine that could. The Immigration officer took our slips and passports asked us where we were coming from (to which we said “Israel”) handed our passports back to us and said “Welcome Home.” It was sweet and simple. Sadly, I didn’t get a single Immigration stamp in my passport this whole trip.
After Immigration we picked-up our bags with no issues and headed out of the terminal. It was by far the quickest and stress-free Immigration/Customs arrival I have ever had at Logan. We got the shuttle to the off-site airport parking lot we have used many times before, paid and then headed right into rush-hour Boston traffic. We got lost once because we listened to our GPS rather than follow the street signs, but eventually made it out of Boston. We stopped for dinner at Friendly’s (because that’s what you do at the very end of traveling for 22 hours straight.) We made it back home, saw the house was fine, started unpacking, I downloaded some pictures to Facebook and tried to relax as best we could. The next day I picked up my dog from the kennel  - she had just been groomed – and then came home to start writing these entries. Even during my trip I was hounded by several people on Facebook to add pictures and write about the trip even before the events and tours had happened. 
All-in-all I have to say that the trip to Israel was a good one. It was not the best trip I have ever taken and it was not the worst trip I have ever taken. I spent around 8 months researching, planning and even had everything pre-paid for the trip (including coming with Swiss Francs for Zurich and Israeli New Shekels for Israel) and now it seems that I didn’t get as much of an experience as I thought or hoped I would. I do believe the Israelis have to work on their organizational skills. They seem to have everything organized for military matters, but not for: airports, schedules, signage, driving, tours, basic living, etc.) There also doesn’t seem to be a Hebrew word for “Customer Service” and telling someone “Is Ok” doesn’t mean it really is okay or that you solved anything. We kept hearing, throughout Israel and the West Bank, how few tourists come visit and that they were so glad we had come and to tell our friends to also come. Maybe if they fixed the issues I wrote above more people would come. Also, there’s no need to be scared about security check-points (there were none at any stores, hotels, markets, restaurants or the majority of religious sites as I had been told and had read about) throughout Israel. They are few and far between and when they were there it was more of the kind of security people used decades ago – both the practices and equipment used. I encountered tighter security going to the musical “Chicago” in Moscow a few months after the Chechen terrorists took over a theater and many hostages were killed by both the Chechens and the poison gas the Russians used to free them – then I did anyplace in Israel (including David Ben Gurion Airport.) I know some people will ask if I would recommend going to Israel. I DO NOT recommend using Bein Harim Tourism Company for airport/hotel pick-ups/drop-offs, but DO recommend going to Israel (as long as you realize they go by  Mediterranean time and not Israeli time and that everything will be a lot more expensive.) With that said you will get to see lots of important and historical places (both from Biblical times as well as more modern times.)

Israel: Jerusalem

The next day we went on a tour of Old and New Jerusalem. After being stuck in holiday traffic there the day before I was expecting the same, if not worse, today. We met our tour guide in Tel Aviv and headed to Jerusalem. Rather than driving all around the city and getting stuck the bus dropped us in the Old Section of the city and we just walked everywhere. Our guide wasn’t all that great. He walked too fast, weaving in and out of all the people and not really making sure everyone in our tour was keeping-up. He also didn’t say very much and when he did he spoke very quietly. We did see the Dome of the Rock from the outside. Our guide said that no non-Muslims - especially Jews  - were allowed to enter it and then showed us a covered path that non-Muslims had to take to enter the Dome. We were getting conflicting information. I’m not really sure if Christians are allowed to enter the Dome of the Rock or not. I know Jews can’t. We walked throughout the Jewish and Muslim Quarters and saw Israeli police and soldiers at the spot when the two quarters meet. That's really the only time we saw any patrols. We walked underground for a very short time seeing the old market and then went through different bazaars. We then went to the Wailing/Western Wall. It was only the second time we had to go through any security while in Israel. You had to put your bag on the X- Ray machine and then walk through a metal detector.  It was very crowded and our guide only gave us 10 minutes. Women had to go to the Female side and Men to the Male side. I had to cover my head with a skull cap (there was a bin of them where people who had just come from the Wall took their’s off and threw it in the bin where those of us just entering the Wall had to pick one of the “dirty” ones to wear. Not the most hygienic. There were so many people on the male side that I didn’t make it to the actual Wall.
After the Wailing/Western Wall we saw different sections of the Christian Holy Sacraments (on the Via Dolorosa) on our way to the Christian Quarter and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified. While waiting outside the Church we heard the Muslim Call to Prayer which was pretty loud. We then went into the Church. It is one of my favorite places of the whole trip. It was very large and beautiful (on the inside.) The outside looked sandy and plain. I even got to touch the stone where Jesus was laid after he died so his body could be cleaned.
After the Church we walked to a restaurant in the Muslim Quarter. It was clearly for tour groups, but was such a small room. There was a buffet lunch – although not as good as the one in Jericho. The owner was annoying and pushy. When we left we saw 5 different tour groups enter the same restaurant and I remember thinking there wasn’t enough room for all of them in that small place. After lunch we walked to our bus and left the Old Part of Jerusalem and drove to Vad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and Museum.
I used to work at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and had long heard about Yad Vashem and how great and big it was supposed to be. I have to say the grounds of Yad Vashem are much larger than the USHMM, but the actual exhibit building seemed the same size. Our tour guide wasn’t allowed to say anything inside the Museum and so he told us a time to meet him at the exit. I have studied the Holocaust for a long time and so was telling my sister what happened during it, but I wonder what the majority of people in our tour group learned, if anything, since there was no guide to help them. The one aspect I did not like at Yad Vashem was the Children’s Memorial. The outside was very nice, but then you walk into a completely dark room with only a few candles and you have to walk throughout the memorial holding the railing and not being able to see. Once outside you could see the different trees and memorials to the Righteous Among The Nations (the non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust.) I won’t say I “enjoyed” Yad Vashem   - especially when you consider what the museum is about, but I will say it was one of those places I always wanted to see for myself and am glad I finally got to go. That was our last stop in Jerusalem and we were then brought back to our hotel in Tel Aviv.

West Bank: Bethlehem/Jericho

The next day we were going to the West Bank. When I booked the tour months before I had to give all our passport information to the Israelis to get an Israeli permit as well as a Palestinian permit (we never actually saw these permits though.) The Israelis and Palestinians also wanted to make sure that no Israeli citizens were going on the tour since both sides forbid Israelis from going to the Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank. So Israelis aren’t allowed in the Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank and the Palestinians aren’t allowed in the Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank or in Israel itself.  I was a little apprehensive to leave Israel and go to the West Bank, but at the same time I wanted to go there since not many people visit. We started the tour in a small van and then changed into a big bus in Jerusalem. We had an Israeli tour guide (a few Israeli guides are given permission by both the Israelis and the Palestinians to enter the West Bank to take non-Israeli tourists around.) We had some traffic within Jerusalem (because of the holiday and road closures) while picking-up people from their hotels. We then entered the Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank – there was an Israeli check-point, but we didn’t even slow down for it. Then we started seeing very scary warning signs in Hebrew, Arabic and English about how dangerous it is inside the West Bank and reminding Israelis that they aren’t allowed there. We entered the Palestinian-controlled part of the West Bank. There was a Palestinian check-point but again we didn’t even have to slow down. Right after the check-point we stopped and picked-up a local Palestinian guide. She kept telling us (in English, French and Spanish – even though it was an English-only tour) that she was a Palestinian Christian and that Christians used to be the majority in Bethlehem, but now the Christians are the minority and the Muslims are the majority there. I didn’t care for the Palestinian guide. She was very pushy, spent more time talking in French and Spanish than she did in English and kept saying “Listen my brothers and sisters in Christ….” before every sentence.  Even our Israeli tour guide (who stayed with us) kept getting annoyed with her and snapped at her several times – which was funny. We got off the bus and walked to Manger Square and then to the Church of the Nativity (where Jesus was born.) Everywhere we went people gave us the “Peace” sign and kept telling us how peaceful Bethlehem was while at the same time you could see posters praising different martyrs (terrorists who bombed targets in Israel and Israeli-controlled West Bank) so what the people were saying wasn’t what they were preaching. You could also see several areas of destroyed homes from Israeli retaliation raids. I continued to feel uncomfortable the whole time I was in the West Bank.
We started at the Church of the Nativity and no one had told us beforehand that most of the Church was being renovated and that whole areas – especially the areas we had to wait to get to the actual spot where Mary, Joseph and Jesus had been – were covered-up. It was very crowded and took a long time to go anywhere. Our Palestinian guide kept trying to push us (literally) to spread-out only to then have to push to get into a small door. I eventually told her to leave me alone. After that she didn’t dare touch me or try to tell me what to do. After the Church of the Nativity we went to a Souvenir Shop that was associated with the tour company. It had all the same basic souvenirs as every other shop around Israel and the West Bank.

There are two people from this tour (besides my sister and me) that stand out. One is a guy from France whom the Israeli tour guide kept calling “Paris.” “Paris”  - I never learned his name  - was always just a few feet away from my sister and me and that became a running joke between her and I. I even took a picture of my sister and when I looked at it back at the hotel I saw that “Paris” was in it right next to her too. The second person was an American whom the Israeli tour guide called “New Jersey.” She was pretty odd. She was short and had a very high-pitched voice (like Bernadette from “The Big Bang Theory.”) She just seemed to keep popping-up one minute by my sister and myself and then the next minute she had disappeared. I even heard her talking to “Paris” and when “Paris” asked her if she was from near New York City she said “No” even though New Jersey is closer to New York City than France is to New York City. A side-note: the Israeli tour guide was talking to some girls from Switzerland and said he had visited their country before and mentioned the name of some town and asked if it was near where they were from. The girls said “No. It is very far away - - a whole 45 minutes away.”  Again they were closer to this town at 45 minutes away than the Swiss town was to Israel.
After the Souvenir Shop we went to Sheppard’s Field and visited a nice, little, old church there. After visiting this church the Palestinian guide left – since she wasn’t allowed inside Israel -  and we left the West Bank (again we didn’t have to stop at either the Palestinian or Israeli check-points.) For some reason our tour company (Bein Harim) thought it was a smart idea to leave Bethlehem and the West Bank to re-enter Israel, go to Jerusalem to drop a handful of people off at their hotels. We spent 3 hours in traffic in Jerusalem because of the holiday road closures only to re-enter the West Bank (again no issues with any check-points) and go to Jericho.
Jericho was clearly more militant-looking than Bethlehem was especially when first you first entered that part of the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. We still saw the different martyr posters along with many military-style clothing (not from anyone who looked like an official.) Like in Bethlehem we didn’t personally experience any issues in Jericho, but you could feel tension right below the surface (like I did when I was in Northern Ireland.) Jericho is known as the oldest, inhabited town in the world. Most of the town looked like a Third World town with bomb damage, etc. We had a buffet lunch at a restaurant  - where you paid one price for the food and could have as much as you wanted and only had to keep paying for your drinks. I had the best pita pizza – tomato sauce and cheese on pita bread – there. It was pretty good.
After lunch we went to the ruins of old Jericho. We watched a short video in English about the history of Jericho and its ruins and then walked around the ruins themselves. It was like a mini-Masada (although Masada is better.) Our tour guide told lots of stories from the Bible – especially those pertaining to Jericho. After the ruins we stopped at a look-out point and saw a monastery on a mountain (we didn’t actually go anywhere near the monastery) and had some figs. I’m not a huge fan of figs, but they were free. It was getting close to being dark and we left Jericho and the West Bank. I was relieved once we were back in Israel. I wouldn’t recommend people going to the West Bank by themselves or staying after dark. From the West Bank we drove back to Jerusalem and this time the tour guide didn’t try to stop at every hotel like he tried to earlier in the day when we got stuck for 3 hours. He dropped everyone off who was staying in Jerusalem at the Light Rail Station (an American woman was killed by a Palestinian terrorist on the Light Rail earlier this year so it most have been a little nerve-wracking for these tourists to have to use the train.) We then headed back to Tel Aviv.

Israel: Haifa/Rosh Hanikra

After enjoying our free days we jumped right into more tours. Again we were picked-up from our hotel and taken to a bus and then met our guide (Norbet.) Norbet is originally from France and even though it was an English-only tour he translated everything into French for the few French and French-Canadians on the tour (which got annoying.) We first went to Caeserea roman ruins. I have been to Roman ruins in different parts of Europe and so wasn’t so impressed with this one. It had everything all the other ones did, but was still nice to look at. After Caesera we drove to Haifa. We didn’t see much of the city except for driving to the Bahá'í Gardens. It was the first time since we went through TSA security at Logan Airport in Boston 6 days earlier that we had to go through any type of security – or had even seen any security. It was just a guy with a wand looking in your bag. The Gardens gave a great view of Haifa and so it was nice that we got to go there. We didn’t stay long and after leaving Haifa we went to Acre.
In Acre we stopped at the shop of the last Jewish family in the town who was also a metal-worker (most of Acre are Israeli Arabs – not Palestinians.) We stayed at that shop way too long, but I was finally able to go to an Israeli Post Office and buy stamps for my post cards. I had been trying for days throughout Israel to get stamps, but they were so hard to find - as was a mailbox, but I think I found a working one and put all my post cards in it. I'll have to wait and se if anyone writes me that they got a postcard. We then went to a local restaurant where they had long tables with different salads and lemonade on it. You could then order shawarma, chicken schnitzel or falafel. I got the shawarma and it was pretty good.

After lunch we drove up to the Lebanese border to Rosh Hanikra. Rosh Hanikra was built by the British during World War 2 to bring supplies from Palestine to Lebanon. Once the British left and the State of Israel was proclaimed in 1948 the Israelis destroyed parts of the place so the invading Arab armies (coming from Lebanon) couldn’t use it. There was a cable car at the site, but the line was several hours long because of the holiday – if you are sick and tired of always hearing about the holiday and the closings and crowds caused by it you are not alone – I was very sick and tired of always hearing and experiencing the delays. Instead of the cable car we left our big tour bus and got into a smaller bus that drove us to the tunnel and grottoes. I have been to grottoes (in Malta) and underground caves before and while these ones were very small and we spent less than an hour there it was still a very cool place. Rosh Hanikra was our last destination for that day and so we then drove back to the hotel.

It wasn’t all that late when we got back and so we walked to a busy street and had dinner at a Mexican/Tex-Mex Restaurant called “Mexicana.” It was pretty good. After the restaurant I walked into a nearby market to get some waters for our next tours. I  got four bottles (all we needed) and saw they had a Kinder Egg -  it was the first Kinder Egg I have had since December 2014. I brought that and the water to the cashier. She said something in Hebrew and then switched to English. She told me I couldn’t leave the store until I bought 6 bottles of water. I told her I didn’t want 6 bottles – only 4 bottles. There was now a huge line behind me and I was getting extremely angry at this stupid woman. The only thing that saved me from opening up every swear word I knew and making a huge scene was the Kinder Egg. I hadn’t seen any Kinder Eggs in any of the other places I had previously been to (and as it turned out didn’t see any Kinder Eggs anyplace else afterwards) I bite my tongue and got the 6 bottles of water and my Kinder Egg and said a few, very loud, choice words to that dumb woman as I was leaving the store. We then went back to the hotel to rest up for our next tour.

Israel: Free Time

The next two days we had nothing scheduled to do. We had planned it that way because it was the Jewish Sabbath and things would be closed – we didn’t know about the holiday though until we arrived in Israel. We spent the free days (the two together: Friday and Saturday and then the one separate on Wednesday – we had scheduled a free tour of Tel Aviv for that day but it was cancelled because of the holiday) mostly at the beach. It was very hot and sunny and the Mediterranean Sea was so nice. We bought some towels and used a machine to rent 2 beach chairs and 2 umbrellas. You then had to search the beach for the guy who sets-up the chairs and umbrellas for you. We had two different guys and I didn’t like either one. They acted as though they didn’t speak English when you spoke to them and then you would hear them flirting in English to other people. You also couldn’t pick where you wanted them to set everything up – wherever they were standing when you finally found them was where they put everything.

One thing that was funny is a group of Americans were telling funny and dirty jokes in English near my beach chair and when one of them said they should be quiet because what they were saying was rude and inappropriate another one of them replied that I was a Sabra (a native-born Israeli) and so didn’t understand them anyways. I’m not sure if being called a Sabra is good or not but they were telling some very funny jokes and I had to keep from laughing. By the time we left the beach I had a minor sun bun (luckily we managed to find a store that had after-sun lotion and sun screen – it wasn’t easy to find since the name of the store was only in Hebrew and we were told the name in English.) During our free days we ate breakfast at the hotel (we didn’t know what most of the items were, but there were a lot of them – their potatoes with garlic sauce were great.) We then had lunch at a café or restaurant on the beach and a few times went to an ice cream shop (I kept getting asked if I wanted my milkshake made with milk or water – which is weird.)

We walked a little further into Tel Aviv one day to get some shawarma and eventually we found a place. On the second free day we were too tired to walk anywhere for dinner and so we asked the Russian receptionist to help us order Dominos’ Pizza and have it delivered. Their website was only in Hebrew and a little confusing, but the receptionist did a great job and in the end we not only had good tasting pizza, but also the first non-Kosher food (our pizza had ham on it) in 5 days.

Another good thing on our free days was being able to wear shorts and sandals. It was always so hot and yet on the tours I had to wear pants and shoes (even though other people were not dressed correctly and still allowed into the different religious sites.) The two back-to-back free days were nice since we went swimming at the beach both days and the third free day at the end of the trip was peaceful since we got to relax after having four 12 hour tours in a row.

Israel: Masada/Dead Sea

The next day (our first full one in Israel) we had a tour to Masada and the Dead Sea. The hotel’s breakfast buffet didn’t start until 7 am and most tours (in Hebrew, Russian and English) started around that time. You would think the hotel would have realized that and made it’s breakfast from 6 am- 9 am instead of 7 am- 10 am. We ate at the 24 hour bakery/café instead. We were met at our hotel by a guide who walked us to a bus. The whole thing was a little crazy. You had to know the company’s (Bein Harim) system. You got met at your hotel by a guide and brought to a bus. Then that bus brought you to a park in Tel Aviv where a bunch of other buses and vans were waiting and you had to find which one was for your tour and sometimes you then had to change again when you got to Jerusalem. Some guides explained all of this and others didn’t. When we got to our correct tour bus we had a female guide (I forget her name.) We drove to an Elvis Diner rest stop (it wouldn’t be our only time there) and had to pay for the restrooms – it was the only time in Israel we had to pay for them. Then we stopped at an Ahava Dead Sea Soap and Lotion Store. Next we entered the Israeli controlled part of the West Bank – there was a check point, but we didn’t even have to slow down. We dropped some people off at a Dead Sea resort (that we would return to in the afternoon) and then headed to Masada.
Masada was pretty impressive. The palace/fortress was immense. It was very hot (in the mid-90s) and very sunny that day. We took a very crowded cable car up to the top and then our guide walked us around the grounds explaining things. She was very informative and gave lots of history. I took a lot of pictures and enjoyed the views from the top of Masada to the Dead Sea miles away. At the end of the visit we were ushered onto the bus and couldn’t use the bathroom or get drinks.  One thing I didn’t like is that because we had gone out of our way to drop the people off at the resort earlier in the day we weren’t going to have lunch until 3 pm and I was starving. We then drove back to the Dead Sea resort and were given 2 hours free. The guide brought us to a cafeteria and left us. The place was expensive and wasn’t very good. It wasn’t until we got to the beach that I saw  the really good smelling places to eat. We rented some towels and then went to the changing rooms to change and then put our stuff in a rented locker and headed down to the sea.
Since it was a holiday it was very crowded. I was surprised that the Dead Sea wasn’t deep at all. It only went to my ankle. I did swim – well float – and took some pictures. All in all I wasn’t that impressed with the Dead Sea. While the scenery was nice, like I wrote before, the sea itself wasn’t deep at all. When it was time to leave we got on the bus and they drove us close to our hotel in Tel Aviv – we arrived around 7 pm. We went back to the 24 hour bakery/café for dinner and then back to our hotel.

Israel: Arriving

When we landed at David Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and deplaned we were supposed to be in the best and most secured airports in the world. What I found was complete chaos and not an organized chaos. We had to walk about 35 minutes from our plane to Israeli Immigration and then we saw what can only be described as Hell on Earth. 800 people from many international flights pushing and shoving in a small room with no AC and no airport security, Immigration guards (except in their booths) and no signs or even lanes to get into. People (mostly the Russians and Ukrainians) were elbowing and cutting in front of people. I had to use the skills I learned when I lived in Russia and when I visited the Ukraine (no, not my Russian language skills, but my “keeping people in their place by blocking them with my elbow and my body skill.”) We waited just over an hour to get to the Immigration officer (a woman) and then in less than a few minutes (even with me stupidity replying that we were there for “Business” instead of for “Pleasure”   - I blame being tired from the flight, from being in the heat and smelly Immigration Hall for so long and for having to push people from pushing us – we were given our passports and left. We were only asked if we were there for Business or Pleasure and if someone was picking us up. I have been to many Immigration/Passport Controls around the world and Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport is the most disorganized and worst of any I have used.
Right after Passport Control there were automated gates with no signs and no airport employees to tell you what to do. Apparently, you just had to know that you needed to scan your Arrival Card (that they use instead of a Passport Stamp and is the size of a postage stamp) to open the gate and go to the baggage area. Once we realized what we had to do and went through we saw a very old man holding a sign with my name on it. I had booked and pre-paid for 4 tours as well as pick-up and drop-off to/from the airport and our hotel.  The old man asked, in very hard to understand English, where we were coming from and when we said “Zurich” he replied “Sydney.” Once he finally understood he told us to get our bags while he waited there.

We got our bags quickly – not surprising since Passport Control took so long – and went back to the old man. The old man then took out several pieces of paper and gave us a brochure of the tour company (Bein Harim – more on them later) that we were using for the transfers. He made 4 calls in Hebrew and nothing was happening. He didn’t even tell us a thing until I got annoyed with him and started asking him what was taking so long. He, like many Israelis I would later encounter, just kept saying “Is Ok. No worries. Is Ok.” After about 20 minutes of things not being “Ok” I finally shouted to the old man that I was beyond mad and if he didn’t get our driver in the next 5 minutes we wanted a refund and would take a taxi to our hotel. Finally he called another person and then a light bulb seemed to click in his head – not sure what was inside it before. He said he found our driver and used the excuse we would hear over and over again throughout our trip: that it was because of the holiday.

He walked us out of the secured area and took us to a man and woman. They only spoke Hebrew to each other and would only tell us what was going on when I asked – which was very annoying. They tried to place the blame on us, but apparently they had been waiting and the old guy just didn’t have his senses with him to know what to do. We then followed our driver (the man) to his car. He didn’t even offer to take my sister’s (or my) suitcase. He drove us out of the airport and into Tel Aviv and I thought everything was going to be better – I was wrong. He stopped on some random street and said that it was our hotel (De La Mer.) I had seen pictures of the street and the hotel before booking it and knew it wasn’t our hotel and told him that. He argued with me and I stood firm that he needed to take us to OUR hotel and that he wasn’t to leave until I had made sure he was dropping us off at the correct place. He mumbled something in Hebrew and then drove to our hotel as though nothing had happened. At the hotel he got out. Again didn’t touch our bags and walked into the reception. I knew from the sign outside that we were in the correct place and I allowed him to leave. I was glad we hadn’t shut the door of his van because when he drove away he then had to stop, get out and close it himself. Serves him right for how he treated us.
That was our official “Welcome to Israel!!” It was one of the worst welcomes (both the chaos in Passport Control and the transfer to the hotel.)
We checked into our hotel (the receptionists changed every few hours – there was only 1 working at a time – but they were all friendly and all spoke: Hebrew, Russian and English. We went to our room on the first floor (second floor to Americans) and instead of using an electronic card to enter the room you had to use a small key and turn it twice to lock. You had to lock the door both when you were entering the room and when you were inside the room. The room was small, but had two beds, a TV (at least the TV had many channels in English or at least the American shows  - like “The Big Bang Theory” - were shown in English), a micro-fridge, a bathroom with shower and a small balcony.
Once we got settled we went out of the hotel to see what, if anything was open (because of the holiday.) We walked down our small, one way hotel road (which had 3 other hotels on it and cars, vans and buses parked everywhere) to a larger street where we found lots of businesses, stores and restaurants/cafes – most closed. Nearly every sign was in Hebrew, Russian and English – I thought we were in Little Russia or some neighborhood like that, but later found the same thing around the whole country.

We went into a little market where you could barely walk down the small aisles and got some bottled water. We later learned it was a Russian market (well a regular market run by Russians) and it was the first time I used the New Israeli Shekels I had brought with me. Afterwards we found an open bakery/café. We learned they were open 24 hours and so went back to them a few times during our stay - - at least we knew we wouldn’t starve. We noticed right away how expensive everything is in Israel from clothes to food. I have never spent so much money on food and gotten so little food for what I paid as I did in Israel.  We also saw how bad and dangerously the Israelis drive. Huge buses tried to outrun other huge buses and fit into tiny spaces and onto tiny roads. People on bikes - both motorized and regular – didn't follow any of the signs and just did whatever they wanted to. Also every second person you met or heard talking was a Russian-speaker. In most of the stores and restaurants cashiers have to know Hebrew, Russian and then English (in that order.)

After taking a quick walk and noticing those things  - that were later reinforced throughout our stay in Israel – and since it was getting late and we were tired from the flights and the bad arrival experiences we went back to our hotel. That was our first taste of Israel and Israelis.

Israel: Starting Trip

A few days before we left for Israel I picked my sister up at my local airport. The only issue I encountered doing that was very dense fog in certain spots. After meeting up with her we went and ate at Friendly’s. It had been over a year since I had been to one and years since my sister had gone (there are none in her state.) It was nice having someone to eat and talk with (although I, of course, did most of the talking.) We didn’t do much during the day and a half before our trip started so I’ll skip that.
The morning we left for Israel we dropped my dog off at the local kennel. It was the first time in 5 years that she was going there rather than having the lady from the kennel come to my house to take care of her twice a day. My dog seemed fine with going. I guess she thought of it as going on vacation herself since she would get to see other dogs and get pampered and groomed before coming home.
Shortly after dropping my dog off my sister and I headed for Boston’s Logan Airport. It had been several years since I had flown out of that airport (I usually use the smaller, local airport to me.) We didn’t have any issues with traffic or directions getting to the off-site parking lot I have used many times in the past. The place seemed packed, but I had pre-paid for my spot and so we found one and we immediately picked-up by their shuttle and brought to Logan.
We were dropped-off at the Arrivals section instead of the Departures area (probably so we would know where to meet the shuttle when we returned.) We just had to go upstairs, look at a monitor and then walk to the other end of the terminal to find our airline: Swiss Airlines. I had checked us in online the night before and the airline had even sent us luggage trackers for our bags (I have never seen an airline do that and wasn’t very comfortable using them.) We got the regular airline luggage tracker tags from the Swiss employee at the desk and so it wasn’t really an issue in the end.
We had no problem going through the TSA security (I have in the past at Logan) and was ready for anything – which is probably why nothing happened this time. We found our gate and waited. While we waited two things stick out to me. The first thing is the Swiss employee at the gate desk trying for about 20 minutes to put the lane divider (used when boarding) together. He was talking to another employee while doing it and was clearly struggling yet didn’t want to give up. In the end (after 20 minutes) he simply tied the rope around the pole rather than putting it into the slot. The second funny thing was watching all the men walk down to the Women’s Bathroom. The Men’s Bathroom was past a store and so not right next to the Women’s and yet we saw around 18 men walk down to the Women’s Bathroom (2 men did it twice) and we waited to see how long it took them to realize what they had done and turn around – it took most of the men a while to realize.  It probably wouldn’t have been as funny in any other situation, but we were bored and waiting for the flight to board so these two things helped to pass the time.
When we did finally board there wasn’t any major issues. We found our seats (I had picked and paid for them months ago and we had the same seats for every flight on the trip.) They weren’t in the main Economy cabin and so it was less crowded. Unlike some airlines that only start their video entertainment when you are in the air, Swiss had it on right away and you could choose from lots of movies, music or TV shows. It was a good and uneventful flight to Zurich (I know this whole trip so far seems that way, but just wait……) The airline food was good for airline food. I was surprised that Swiss only used German and English on the flight since Switzerland has 4 official languages, but other than that it was pretty straightforward and pleasant – although long – flight.
When we landed in Zurich and deplaned we found ourselves in what, at first, seemed like a small airport and most of the food places and businesses were closed even though it wasn’t all that early. We had several hours until our connection to Israel and so had plenty of time to explore the Zurich Airport. There was no Swiss Immigration check or security. I have to say that I’m not really impressed with the Zurich Airport. While it is clean it is not very well planned or thought-out. All of the bathrooms are the same: you open the glass door and find the Women’s Bathroom right there and then have to walk up 3 flights of stairs to the Men’s Bathroom. You could see most of the men having problems with their carry-ons while using the stairs. Both the Men’s and the Women’s Bathrooms should have been on the ground floor. Also, the airport may seem small at first, but in reality it took about 25 minutes to walk from the one end to the other with no moving walkways. They had free WiFi, but only for 2 hours and you first had to find the one and only machine in the terminal for it then scan your boarding pass to get a printed code. Most airports just give you free WiFi without having to jump their hoops.
It was also very difficult to find any airline or airport employee during the layover. The monitor only said that our flight was leaving out of the terminal we were in and not which gate. We were at the other end of the terminal when the monitor finally announced the gate and so had to walk the long way to the other end. I had heard many times and from many sources that any flight to/from Israel had extra security checks, etc. and so was looking for them. There were none. From the time we left our house until 7 days later we didn’t see or go through any security checks except the TSA in Logan Airport.
 The gate to our Tel Aviv flight wasn’t blocked from all of the other flights and the Swiss gate agents weren’t very good. They came to the gate at the last minute and were then surprised to have to deal with lots of people and their problems (I didn’t have any and so just sat and watched.) There was a very annoying and loud Australian man in the waiting area who kept asking lots of dumb questions about Israel to anyone and everyone even when he was telling them it wasn’t his first time to Israel. It was while listening to him (he was speaking pretty loudly) that I first heard there was a holiday – Sukkot -  in Israel. I thought I had done all my research and planned the best time to go since it was after the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but I was wrong – more on that later.
Unlike, most airlines at the gate that give you a warning that they are going to board the plane in 20 minutes our gate agents weren’t very good (as I have already said) and the only announcement they made was that the flight was boarding right then. It was then a mad rush of people all over the place. We boarded the same exact style plane and sat in the same exact seat as before so we were fine. The on-board entertainment was also the exact same. The only difference was a very annoying Israeli couple and their several kids. The father sat on the side of our seats with his 3 kids while the mother sat directly behind me. Throughout the whole flight they were loud  - in German, Hebrew and English (mostly the mother) and pushing against my seat and running back and forth  - even when we were eating. It wasn’t very fun. When we landed in Israel the Dad just took-off without any of his kids or his wife  - which seemed pretty odd. Some people only seem to think of themselves and not the comfort of anyone else and this family was definitely one of those kinds.

Monday, October 2, 2017

On The Go

^ I'm going away for a little bit and that's why I included the holidays early. ^

Dual Holidays

Thanksgiving/Action De Graces

Columbus Day

Unity Day

Las Vegas Attack

From the BBC:
"Las Vegas shooting: At least 58 dead at Mandalay Bay Hotel"

At least 58 people have been killed and hundreds injured in a mass shooting at a Las Vegas concert.
A gunman, named as 64-year-old Nevada resident Stephen Paddock, opened fire from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel towards an open-air music festival attended by 22,000.  He killed himself as police stormed the room where 10 guns were found. Investigators have found no link to international terrorism, despite a claim from so-called Islamic State. In an address from the White House, President Donald Trump described the attack as "pure evil". He praised the efforts of the emergency services, saying their "miraculous" speed saved lives, and announced he would be visiting Las Vegas on Wednesday.  With First Lady Melania by his side, he later observed a moment of silence on the White House lawn.  The final shows of the three-day Route 91 country music festival were in full swing when the gunman struck.  Thousands were enjoying a performance by top-billing singer Jason Aldean when the first of several bursts of automatic gunfire rang out - hundreds of shots, witnesses say. That was late on Sunday night - 22:08 local time (05:08 GMT on Monday). Hundreds of concert-goers scrambled for cover, flattening themselves against the ground, rushing for the exits or helping others to escape as Paddock sprayed the site from his high vantage point.  One man had blood all over him and that's when I knew something was seriously wrong," Mike Thompson from London, told the BBC.  "People were running and there was chaos."  Concert-goer Mike McGarry, who survived, told Reuters he lay on top of his children when the shots rang out. "They're 20, I'm 53. I lived a good life," he said. Many hotels on the Las Vegas strip close to the scene were placed on police lockdown and parts of Las Vegas Boulevard were shut. Aldean, who was rushed off-stage, shared his reaction on Instagram.  "Tonight has been beyond horrific," he wrote. Las Vegas police say the number of people injured stands at 515.   Stephen Paddock, from a community of senior citizens in the small town of Mesquite north-east of Las Vegas, booked into the hotel on 28 September, police say. His motives for carrying out the deadliest mass shooting in recent US history remain a mystery. Some investigators have suggested psychological issues, but there is no confirmation of this.  His brother, Eric, is dumbfounded that he acted this way.  Las Vegas Sheriff Joe Lombardo described the shooting as a "lone wolf" attack.  "We have no idea what his belief system was," he said.  So-called Islamic State (IS) has claimed to be behind the attack, saying that Paddock had converted to Islam some months ago.  But the group provided no evidence for this and has made unsubstantiated claims in the past.  FBI Special Agent Aaron Rouse told a news conference: "We have determined at this point no connection to an international terrorist organisation." The investigation continues to gather pace, with searches at Paddock's Mesquite home, where more weapons were found, and a second property.  Paddock lived in Mesquite with Marilou Danley. Police have interviewed her but say she does not appear to have been involved as she was out of the country. They are hoping to speak to her again. Police say he used some of her identity documents to check in to the Mandalay Bay.

^ This is just plain sick. I don't believe he was part of ISIS, but a mentally-unstable man who murdered 50+ people and wounded 500+. ^

Catalan Vote

From the BBC:
"Catalan referendum: Spain region 'not seeking traumatic split'"

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has said he is not planning a "traumatic" split with Spain, after a disputed independence referendum on Sunday. He said he wanted a new understanding with the central government in Madrid. Catalan officials say voters overwhelmingly backed secession. Madrid has warned it could suspend autonomy of the wealthy north-eastern region. Spain's top court banned the vote and almost 900 people were hurt as Spanish police tried to stop it going ahead. Officers from the national police and paramilitary Civil Guard seized ballot papers and boxes at a number of polling stations. Thirty-three police officers were injured on Sunday, Catalan medical officials said. More than 2.2 million people were reported to have voted, according to Catalan authorities, out of 5.3 million registered voters.  Just under 90% of those who voted backed independence, they said.  A Catalan spokesman said more than 750,000 votes could not be counted because polling stations were closed and urns were confiscated. Turnout was put at 42.3%. More than 40 trade unions and Catalan associations called a region-wide strike on Tuesday due to "the grave violation of rights and freedoms".  At a news conference on Monday, Mr Puigdemont said: "We don't want a traumatic break... We want a new understanding with the Spanish state". Mr Puigdemont, who earlier said Catalonia had won the right to statehood and the door was now open to a unilateral declaration of independence, said he had had no contact with the government in Madrid led by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. The Catalan leader also announced that he was setting up a commission to investigate Sunday's violence and was taking legal action against national police. And Mr Puigdemont appealed for international mediation to help solve the growing crisis.  Mr Rajoy spoke of a "mockery" of democracy, saying that Catalans had been fooled into taking part in the illegal vote. "At this hour I can tell you in the strongest terms what you already know and what we have seen throughout this day. There has not been a referendum on self-determination in Catalonia," he said on Sunday. The prime minister is now expected to hold urgent talks with Pedro Sanchez, the leader of the main opposition Socialist party, as well as Albert Rivera, the head of the centrist Ciudadanos party. Meanwhile, Spain's justice minister warned that any declaration of independence could lead to article 155 of the country's constitution being invoked, which allows the national government to intervene in the running of an autonomous region. Spain's complicated relationship with the region of Catalonia is headed for the unknown.  After violence by Spanish police, a declaration of independence by Catalonia's regional government seems more likely than ever before.  Meanwhile, the European Commission described the crisis as "an internal matter" for Spain, that has to be dealt with in line with the constitutional order.   "We trust the leadership of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to manage this difficult process," it said in a statement, urging all relevant players to move from confrontation to dialogue.  TV images showed Spanish police kicking would-be voters and pulling women out of polling stations by their hair. Officials said 893 people had been hurt in clashes, including 33 police. The majority had minor injuries or had suffered from anxiety attacks. TV footage showed riot police using batons to beat a group of firefighters who were protecting crowds in Girona.  The national police and Guardia Civil - a military force charged with police duties - were sent into Catalonia in large numbers to prevent the vote. The Catalan police - the Mossos d'Esquadra - have been placed under Madrid's control. However, witnesses said they showed little inclination to use force on protesters. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, who voted blank on Sunday, condemned police actions against the region's "defenceless" population, but Spain's Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria said police had "acted with professionalism and in a proportionate way".  Large crowds of independence supporters gathered in the centre of the regional capital Barcelona on Sunday evening, waving flags and singing the Catalan anthem.

^ No one can say the referendum didn't happen because it did happen. They can say whether it was legal to hold or not, but after the Madrid Government's brutal response on innocent people whose only "crime" was trying to vote Madrid lost whatever high ground they once had. The people of Catalonia risked beatings to cast their vote and that says a lot about them. They wanted to show their voice in a peaceful way (by voting) and were met by Madrid with violence. ^

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Raising Cruelty

From the BBC:
"Animal cruelty sentences to rise to five years in prison"

 People in England who commit the most serious crimes of animal cruelty could face up to five years in prison, the government has said. The move - an increase on the current six-month maximum sentence - follows a number of cases where English courts wanted to hand down tougher sentences.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove said it would target "those who commit the most shocking cruelty towards animals". The RSPCA said it would "deter people from abusing and neglecting animals".  Under the government's plans, courts will retain the ability to hand out an unlimited fine and ban an offender from owning animals in the future.  However, they would now also have the ability to sentence the worst cases more harshly. The new legislation will also enable courts to deal more effectively with ruthless gangs involved in organised dog fights, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said. The plans will only apply in England, as animal cruelty powers are devolved to the nations of the UK.   The maximum sentence for offenders in Wales is six months in prison, while the maximum sentence in Scotland is 12 months.  The Scottish government said it had recently committed to increasing the maximum penalty for the most serious animal cruelty cases to five years' imprisonment. The move in England will bring maximum sentences for animal cruelty in England into line with Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic, Australia, and Canada. It comes as judges and magistrates in some English courts have complained they wanted to hand down tougher sentences to those guilty of abusing animals. "These plans will give courts the tools they have requested to deal with the most abhorrent acts," Mr Gove said. "We are a nation of animal lovers and so we must ensure that those who commit the most shocking cruelty towards animals face suitably tough punishments." David Bowles, head of public affairs at the RSPCA, welcomed the move.  He said: "The strength of feeling behind a move to toughen up these sentences is huge. "At the moment the courts are limited by the law under which the strongest sentence for animal cruelty is six months' imprisonment and an unlimited fine - but this rarely happens." The Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) said about 1,150 people per year are convicted for animal cruelty - but fewer than five receive the current maximum sentence. Claire Horton, chief executive of Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, added the change will be "very positively received by the public". Philippa King, from the League Against Cruel Sports, said it was "excellent news" that the government had "listened to the people who are dealing with this on the front line". "There are people in this country who find it either enjoyable or profitable to force dogs to attack each other, and the law at the moment is a pitiful deterrent," she said. "If these proposals lead to five-year jail sentences for those involved in dog fighting, this will be a massive step forward." The government is expected to publish draft legislation for consultation at the end of the year.

^ This is such a great move. I would love to see the US and other countries follow-suit to protect animals. ^

Cuba Warning

From USA Today:
"U.S. warns Americans against visiting Cuba, cuts embassy staff"

The U.S. State Department, responding to a series of mysterious "attacks" on diplomats in Havana, warned Americans on Friday against travel to Cuba and ordered more than half of its diplomatic personnel to leave the island. The warning comes as the Trump White House was already moving to reverse the Obama administration's easing of travel restrictions two years ago as part of an effort to improve relations between the longtime enemies. In 2015, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro restored diplomatic ties. Embassies re-opened, and travel and commerce restrictions eased. President Trump has reversed some changes, but broadly left the rapprochement in place. The latest decision will deliver a heavy blow to the Cuban economy, which increasingly depends on tourism.   The State Department, in issuing the formal travel warning, said on its website that the U.S. has been unable to identify the source of the attacks on diplomats and believes that "U.S. citizens may also be at risk. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that while there are no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected "the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens." He said the decision to pull out non-emergency diplomatic personnel and their families was done to ensure their safety. "We maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our work in Cuba continues to be guided by the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States," Tillerson said. "Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort."  The U.S. is expected to pull out roughly 60% of the embassy's U.S. staff and halt the processing visas in Cuba indefinitely. Cubans seeking visas to enter the U.S. may be able to apply through embassies in nearby countries. The U.S. will also stop sending official delegations to Cuba, though diplomatic discussions will continue in Washington. The decision by the State Department follows a series of unexplained reports, beginning almost a year ago, of health problems for some 21 diplomats and their families. Significant injuries have included ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual complaints, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping, the State Department said.  After a lengthy lull, the U.S. noted renewed attacks in August, senior State Department officials said in a background call with reporters ahead of the official announcement. One official said the means and methods of the attacks remain unknown and therefore could not be characterized as "having stopped in August."
The FBI and other agencies that searched homes and hotels where incidents occurred found no devices. And clues about the circumstances of the incidents seem to make any explanation scientifically implausible. Some U.S. diplomats reported hearing various loud noises or feeling vibrations when the incidents occurred, but others heard and felt nothing yet reported symptoms later. In some cases, the effects were narrowly confined, with victims able to walk “in” and “out” of blaring noises audible in only certain rooms or parts of rooms, the Associated Press reported. Diplomats from Canada, which has warm relations with Cuba, have suffered similar health problems.

^ It does seem strange that this is happening to Americans (and Canadians) in Cuba. I had no plans to ever go to Cuba, but definitely wouldn't go now. ^

Separate Europe

From the DW:
"Beyond Catalonia: Separatist movements in Western Europe"

Catalonia's regional government plans to hold its independence referendum on Sunday. But separatist movements are not unique to Spain: There are several other European regions that have aspirations to become autonomous. The fall of the Soviet Union and break up of Yugoslavia created several new countries in Eastern Europe. Borders in Western Europe, by contrast, have remained firm. Yet, this foundation is being challenged by a series of independence movements, some of which are militant. They have varying chances of success.

Nowhere in Western Europe is the call for independence louder than in Catalonia. The regional language was oppressed in the Franco years, but Catalonia has since achieved a considerable amount of cultural and political autonomy, including its own regional parliament. That is not enough for many of Catalonia's 7.5 million residents. They want their own country, largely for economic reasons. They believe that the central state is sucking their wealth dry. The region that includes Barcelona accounts for 20 percent of Spain's GDP. On Sunday, the regional government wants to have a referendum. Spain's conservative government led by Mariano Rajoy is firmly against it, calling it unconstitutional. The central government in Madrid is trying to block the referendum through the courts and by using police force.

Basque Country
Catalonia looks to its Spanish neighbors in Basque Country. It is the only region in Spain that does not send its tax revenue to Madrid to be shared across the country. Basque Country is responsible for its own taxation, sending just a small amount to the central government. However, it is a poorer region than Catalonia. Like Catalonia, Basque Country was also oppressed by the Franco dictatorship. Its history has created a more militant push for independence, giving rise to ETA separatist group, which killed more than 800 people in 50 years of attacks. In 2011, the organization declared an end to violence. Neither attacks nor talks have brought Basque Country closer to independence: Madrid rejects the idea as it does for Catalonia.

Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom for more than 300 years, and many Scots have been less than happy about that. They already have their own parliament, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) has been pushing for full independence. The referendum in 2014 failed to achieve that, however, but independence sentiments were again stoked by the Brexit result in 2016. Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (SNP) reasoned that her country, which voted largely to remain in the EU, should not be forced to automatically leave the EU along with the rest of the UK. She is floating the possibility of another referendum for 2018, when the details of Brexit are clearer. But opinion polls show the result would likely be the same as in 2014.

The pro-independence leader of the New Flemish Alliance, Bart De Wever, leads Belgium's current Chamber of Representatives. Wever is convinced Belgium will one day break up and his Flemish-speaking Flanders region would be economically better off without the country's other region, majority French-speaking Wallonia. If that were to happen, there would be little of Belgium left: It would lose more than half of its people and economy, calling into question Brussels' status as EU capital and NATO headquarters, as well as the future of Wallonia. The leftover Belgian region could then be absorbed by France, Luxembourg or even Germany. At the moment, however, there are no immediate plans for a Belgian break up.

The secession movement in northern Italy is purely financially motivated. The region is Italy's industrial powerhouse and banking center, producing most of Italy's GDP. Many in the north feel their poorer compatriots to the south make off with their hard-earned money. The Lega Nord party in the 1990s wanted a complete split from the rest of the Italy, calling their region "Padania,” referring to the Po river valley. Since then, the focus has shifted away from a clean break and towards more control over finances.

South Tyrol
Even further north in Italy is the region that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War. There followed a period where South Tyrol was Italianized under Mussolini, before gradually gaining more political and linguistic autonomy after the Second World War. Now the prosperous region is allowed to keep and control most of its revenue. South Tyroleans were largely satisfied with this arrangement, but separatist sentiments were stirred up by the debt crisis. After Greece, Italy has the highest amount of debt in the Eurozone. Many in South Tyrol didn't want to have anything to do with the problems of Italy's central government in Rome.

France has long tried to deny the island of its local language and fought strongly against independence movements. The National Liberation Front of Corsica (FLNC) tried to pressure France by force, attacking representatives and French state symbols. The separatist group announced an end to hostilities in 2014, but the potential for conflict remains. French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin made some cautious proposals in the 2000s to allow for some autonomy. This was strictly opposed by the opposition. They feared other regions would then want to break away, too. The central government in Paris tends to pay little regard to regional languages, which are viewed as a danger to national unity.

^ This is just in Europe. Nearly every major country (including Russia, the US, Canada, etc.) have regions or groups of people that want their independence. Some, like Quebec, have been shown why it will be better to stay within their current country and allowed to hold independence votes that have failed because the Federal Government used democracy to keep them. ^