A Cup of Heavily Armed Coffee: In Search of the Elusive Coffea Arabica in East Timor

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In Dili, East Timor, my morning cup of coffee was always robust and aromatic. And unnerving. It wasn’t the java. It was the group of guys sitting around me bearing holstered 45-caliber side arms and slung F88 Steyrs.

Even if the soldiers sported U.N. fashion-forward, baby blue baseball caps, it was still disconcerting to see all of those gun muzzles while wiping sleep from my eyes. And now that I think about it, the possibility of someone popping-a-cap-in-my-ass later in the day wasn’t such a hot idea either. Accessorizing with guns, while acceptable in war-zones, is considered gauche in my Nuuanu neighborhood back in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Maybe this sounds overly simplistic but even if these were the good guys, people armed with guns are still people armed with guns. All that steel sparkling in the dawn’s light meant there were going to be lots of bullets in the air coming from lots of different directions if things went south later that day.

But unlike the guys packing heat, my only defense was to duck. Which is for a guy – under pretty much all circumstances – demeaning. And engaging in a firefight armed only with a ballpoint pen is a lot like gaming at a Vegas casino: chances were, I was gonna lose.

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Bathed In Luxury: The Turkish Baths of the Middle East

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Originally Published on March 23, 2008 (Honolulu Advertiser)

“First time?” asked Nbil with a broad smile as I walked through the doors of the Al Pasha Turkish Bath.

“Yes!” I exclaimed, delighted that even after all of my years of world travel, when you look hard enough there are still first times.

The Al Pasha is perched atop one of the oldest of the nine hills that now comprise Amman, Jordan. This thoroughly modern Middle Eastern city of 5 million residents, boasts every conceivable amenity: shopping malls and art museums; beauty parlors and Starbucks Coffee Shops; Coke-a-Cola and Burger Kings. Still, Amman has not abandoned a past that reaches back more than a thousand years before Christ was born.

Hammams like Al Pasha are living cultural treasures. The word hammam derives from the Arabic word for “heat.” The public bathhouse is not an idea original to the Arabian plateau. It began with the Greeks. The Romans expanded on the concept adding libraries and gymnasia. For the Romans, the bathhouse became the center for social interaction; a place where politics, social issues and family matters might be addressed. But the Ottoman Turks took a good idea and made it better. They merged art and architecture with leisure and religion and made the Turkish bath an integral part of the Middle Eastern social order.

An essential tenet of Islam requires that its followers be pure in both mind and body. Consequently, before entering the mosque for prayer, Muslims perform the ablution known as the wudhu. This requirement for personal cleanliness comes from the prophet Mohammed himself; “Wudhu is the key to prayer as prayer is the key to Paradise.” The ritual washing focused mainly on the five human senses; the eyes, the mouth, the ears, the hands, and the feet. It is not enough for Muslims to pray five times daily. They must prepare themselves physically before they may worship their Almighty.

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Warriors of the Wind: The Ancient Art of Arabian Horsemanship Rides Again


Arabian Horse Painting

Published Originally in February 2008 (Arabian Horse Times)

“They are the daughters of the wind,” says Said Huneidi as he relates the Bedouin creation myth of the Arabian horse. He removes his glasses and leans forward to emphasize a point, “The legend is that a fierce wind came from the south storming across the land and from this heat and swirling sand, the Arabian horse was born.” He pauses for a moment, “Because of this birth they are able to run faster than the wind itself.”


Isla de Flores: Where Maya and Missionary Cultures Met in Guatemala


Originally Published in October 2007 in Hawaii Luxury Magazine

An entire civilization dissolved into the sweltering Central American jungles about a thousand years ago. Superb engineers and mathematicians; artisans and historians; warriors and bureaucrats — all of them gone. The sophistication of their culture can be seen today in the pyramids and lesser ruins the Maya left behind throughout Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and in the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama.

What happened still remains a mystery.

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Rare White Hawaiian Honey: The Volcano Island Honey Company

Richard Spiegel Bee Keeper

When Candace Choy gave me the directions to Volcano Island Honey on the Big Island, it sounded like this: “Head for Honoka’a; at Tex’s Drive-In make a left; go up the mountain for a while; when you cross the second one-lane bridge, take the next right at the big tree then keep going until you are at the end of the road.” Not a single street name. I substituted earth for road and smiled to myself.

“OK. Got it,” I said lying through my teeth, “See you soon!”

As I headed out of Hilo driving northbound on the Hawaii Belt Highway, I held my phone out at arm’s length and let go. It plunked onto the passenger’s seat with a clank as it butted up against an empty diet Pepsi can hiding under a 7-11 “Jumbo Hot Dog” wrapper. It was 10:34 A.M. By Honolulu time, I was already late. By Big Island standards, it was just the morning.

When I finally pulled into the gravel driveway of Volcano Island Honey, I was met by a smiling Richard Spiegel, owner and beekeeper-in-charge. Richard is that lovable, eccentric, uncle everyone has in his or her family. He has a Jewish surname, dresses like an Amish farmer and is a devout Buddhist. There’s more. Richard left Washington D.C. over 30 years ago, abandoning a law practice to move to the backwaters of the Big Island. He was in every sense of the word, a “hippie.” He took up bee keeping because he didn’t know a damn thing about them and was “interested in what they were doing.” Volcano Island Honey now produces some of the best honey in the world.

“I tell people,” Richard says with the cadence of a Rabbi, “that the reason our honey tastes so good is because of all the love we put into making it.” Nice sound bite but there’s a lot of work in addition to the warm and fuzzy aura. What does make it special is that Richard’s honey is creamy like butter. Unlike the clear, syrupy honey you buy at the supermarket, Volcano Island Honey is opaque. And what makes it rare is that it’s the only honey on earth that comes from the nectar of the Keawe tree’s white blossoms. The label for his honey reads appropriately enough, Rare White Hawaiian Honey.

It’s good stuff. Chef Jon Matsubara likes it because, “Richard’s honey is so creamy and delicate, I think it’s the best honey I have ever tasted – not just in Hawaii but anywhere.” He’s not alone. Chefs across the entire island chain rave about it.

Gourmet shops both here and on the mainland can’t get enough of Richard’s honey. “You know,” he says with an impish grin, “This past year I turned down about 200 orders from people on the mainland who want my honey.” We head across the yard to the production area, “There’s only so much my bees can make and when that’s gone, its gone.”

Richard is not alone in the lost art of Zen honey making. It takes all kinds. Take Jerry Shumate for instance. When I met him he wore blue jeans and a torn T-shirt. He joked easily with Richard and had a Grateful Dead kind of presence about him. He was the guy who designed and built the apparatus that separates the beeswax from the honey without using heat.

“Honey is a living entity filled with proteins and enzymes that would be destroyed by heat,” explained Richard. As a Buddhist, “destruction” is a four-letter word. That’s when Richard called Jerry for help. Jerry is overqualified or under qualified engineer depending on whether you see your beehive as half full or half empty. Jerry never worked with bees before (under qualified) but he had worked on the telescopes at the Keck Observatory (overqualified). And if he could repair a telescope that looked so far into space it could help to explain how the universe began, Jerry could figure out this little bee problem too. He did.

As we left the processing plant, we walked under a string of Tibetan prayer flags tacked to the main house. Richard wanted to show me the guest quarters he was building for visitors. One of the rooms is a meditation area with a large glass door that has a view of the ocean, a futon mattress for sitting comfortably and soulful calm.

In an adjoining building, we wound our way to Richard’s pride and joy. You see, he wants to be off the grid. He’s a greenie and he wants his bee farm to be totally, energy self-sufficient one day. To that end Richard bought a generator called a Lister, whose design was appropriated by some resourceful manufacturers in India. It’s a monster of a machine. Imagine a chunk of iron 4 feet high and 4 feet wide. Then chip away everything that doesn’t look like a generator. That’s a Lister. But when it arrived, it needed a starter so Richard called Mr. Keck Observatory. Of course.

Richard waved me over to where he was standing and pointed. I stared downward at a used flywheel from a Chevrolet, an old starter motor from a Mercedes Benz, and some scavenged metal cannibalized from other engines all welded together and attached to a car battery. This was Volcano Island Honey’s new, but slightly used, push-button starter assembly. Thank you, Jerry. The beauty of the generator for Richard is that it is virtually pollution free. It doesn’t burn petroleum as a fuel. It consumes the spent vegetable oils collected at the local restaurants. Richard beamed as if he was going to say (but didn’t); “Isn’t this just totally groovy?”

That’s not all that gets recycled here. The beeswax after the honey is extracted? Candles. The empty honeycombs? They are cleaned and reused. The honey that can’t be separated from the wax? It is collected and fed back to the bees.

“Hey!” Richard exclaimed, “Can-ya-stay for tea?” It was four in the afternoon and the daily ritual allows pretty much everyone to stop what they may be doing. It was teatime. The warehouse at Volcano Island Honey Co. becomes Harrod’s of London. By the time we sauntered in, Nicole already had the kettle on. I was overcome by the thought that I had somehow stumbled upon the last civilized place on earth. “Have some banana bread,” she offered politely, “it’s homemade.” At that very moment I considered never, ever leaving.

The group of us sat at a banquet table surrounded by cardboard boxes, used honeycombs, metal folding chairs, cut wood, and other dusty stuff. The discussion beneath the wooden rafters of this beekeeper’s warehouse touched lightly from subject to subject like they were flowers. Politics. Art. Music. Literature. For that brief while, we were our own intellectual beehive. And life, as they say in the business, is sweet.


The Miracle of the Black Jesus: Isla de Flores, Guatemala


Originally Published on March 12, 2006 (Honolulu Advertiser)

“It is the celebration of the Jesús Negro,” whispered a young Guatemalan woman standing next to an eight-foot long crucifix of the Christ. The cross was being displayed prone instead of vertically and I watched as a long line of supplicants waited patiently to kiss the knees of the Christ figure. “It was a miracle,” she said.

This church overlooking the central square in Isla de Flores, Guatemala was filled with dark-skinned men, women and children. The western style dress couldn’t hide the angular features of faces that looked a lot like the stucco paintings of their Mayan ancestors. Here, in the heart of Mundo Mayan, the missionary zeal of 16th century colonial Spain still had a home.

Miracles, it seems, can happen anywhere, even in this tiny little town in the northern reaches of the El Petén region of Central America. “Why is the Jesus black?” I asked in a hushed voice. Not being embarrassed at my own ignorance is one of my best personality traits.

She spoke deliberately, searching for just the right words. “Some years ago, a cathedral near here burned to the ground.” There was a long pause. “After the fire, the church was all burned … but not the Jesús. It was only charred black.”

The First National Bank of Yakuza: Playing (and Winning) Pachinko in Tokyo

Kamakura Buddha

“This doesn’t look good,” my mother whispered to my Aunt Betty with concern resonating clearly in her voice. She was right. But dark alleyways in any part of the world look forbidding. Even one in Tokyo, Japan.

I am certain that Rule #1 in Tour Guide School admonishes “A Good Tour Guide Always Avoids Dark Alleys.” I knew this was not the kind of place we were supposed to end up. But then again I’m not a tour guide and these weren’t tourists; they were family. Which, on retrospect, doesn’t sound like much of a defense. But they were as much to blame as I was for being there. So the Japan with the temples and the geishas and the cherry blossoms would just have to wait until tomorrow. At that very moment everyone simply had to accept the fact that we had strayed pretty far from the travel brochure.

The night was innocent enough when it began. We had been walking along a small street just down from a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop. As we passed an opaque glass door, my mother and aunt became intrigued at the lights and sounds coming from within. I recognized it immediately: “Mom, Aunt Betty,” I began pleadingly, “I don’t think you want to go in there.” I implored, “It’s a Pachinko Parlor!”

For the uninitiated, “Pachinko” translates (roughly) into English as “a place to change dollars into regret.” But since I’m not much of a prude, I abdicated responsibility entirely and deferred instead to my mother’s age as a trump card to what little authority my tour guide status conferred. So open the doors I did. And there they stood staring delightfully albeit with confusion into a place where I had, on many earlier occasions, lost a good deal of time and … yen.

But as soon as they crossed the threshold, their eyes lit up like the lights on the hundreds of flashing pachinko machines standing side-by-side in neat, little Japanese rows. By the looks of excitement on their faces I knew then that both my mother and my Irish Aunt Betty had spent too much time together in Las Vegas. In this joint, with all of its clanging and banging and bells and twirling lights, they were no longer gaijin strangers. They had flown westward toward the “Land of the Rising Sun” for nearly nine hours to arrive finally in (their minds) … Las Vegas. Sumimasen.

A Monastic Life: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Kushinagar, India

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Published Originally on January 23, 2000 (Honolulu Advertiser)

Kushinagar in Eastern Uttar Pradesh, India, is as remote as it is small. It is not a tourist destination. It has no airport. It does not even have a train station, which is saying something in a country that boasts one of the world’s most extensive railway systems. At other times in its history, it has been known as Kushawati and Kushinara. Regardless of its name, it has been the end point for Buddhist pilgrims since before the 5th Century A.D. The remnants of his cremation stupa marks the location of Buddha’s last breath. This is the reason that Kushinagar exists at all.

Venice, Italy: Adrift in a Lagoon


Originally Published on February 13, 2005 (Honolulu Advertiser)

“The plague!” declared Lorenza Lian through her puffy, Venetian lips, “We were, how do you say … relieved of the plague by Santa Maria and so every November 20th we light the candles at the Chiesa Santa Maria della Salute in gratitude.” She beamed as she talked as if her Venice had been delivered from the deadly scourge just last week. But the Black Death she was speaking of that killed every third person across Europe (nearly 25 million people) occurred nearly 700 hundred years ago.

Venetians, like the history of their little city, have memories that go way back. Outside there was no end in sight to the line of faithful who inched across a temporary pontoon bridge that reached across the Grand Canal to the church. Well-dressed Venetian women in fur coats and couture shoes and stylishly appointed men, crept along a typically meager calle. It was so narrow in one place that I was sure it was named Calle Thermopylae.

While standing motionless within the crush of worshipers, I concluded that every one of the 30,000 residents of Venice were coming to the church to light votive candles in thanks to Saint Mary. Their devotion reveals a lot about how Venetians view time. In a city as ancient as this, time is relative. To speak of Genghis Khan, Marco Polo, or Cristoforo Columbo is not so much ancient history as it is gossip.

Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy: An Alpine Village with History, Fashion, and Winter Fun


Originally Published on February 3, 2003 (Honolulu Advertiser)

You have seen Cortina without knowing it by name. The opening scene of Slyvester Stallone’s movie “Cliffhanger” had him clinging to the face of the Tofane which looks down onto the Ampezzo valley. Agent 007 in ‘For Your Eyes Only’ skied backwards on glistening white slopes while firing at enemy pursuers. But Cortina also provides a venue for serious international competition as one of the sites for the Annual World Cup downhill ski challenge. And in 1956 it played host to the Winter Olympic Games.

The nearly vertical rock face of the Tofane Range stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the Pomagagnon and Cristallo peaks to form the backdrop to Cortina. They also inspire its name; ‘the Curtain.’ For over 1,000 years, this reclusive town nestled in the Ampezzo valley, has been coveted for conquest. However, despite its relative success at remaining politically independence throughout most of the millennium past, it has been entirely unsuccessful at repelling the recent and repeated seasonal invasions of models, movie stars, entertainers and royalty.