Boarding Pass

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the May 2009 issue.
Cochem Castle in Cochem, Germany, stands on a hill 100 meters above the River Mosel. Photo: GNTB/Andreas Kaster

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 399th issue of your monthly overseas travel magazine.

There’s plenty to tell you about this month.

In October, ITN reported on armed attacks and robberies on main roads between Guatemala City and Tikal. Tourists were urged to drive the route in convoys or to travel with a group on a bus.

In late January in Guatemala City, during rush hours several drivers were robbed of valuables by two armed men on a motorcycle.

In February there were two incidents of private tour buses being boarded by at least five armed men, who robbed everyone of cash, valuables and electronics. One robbery occurred in Totonicapán on a bus heading to Panajachel, and the other was in Santa Rosa on a bus heading from San Salvador to Antigua.

On March 25 in Guatemala City, four drivers on public buses were killed, paralyzing traffic in key areas. The occurrence of bus drivers being assassinated in Guatemala began in 2007, with 37 killed that year. About 80 bus drivers were killed in 2008. In 2009, as of March 25, the death toll included 33 drivers, nine bus conductors, nine passengers, two bus owners, one inspector and at least one pedestrian.

President Álvaro Colom said the killings have been orchestrated by organized gangs in response to security measures enacted by the government or to fund criminal activity. In the capital, because police are considered ineffective and perhaps corrupt, many citizens hope martial law will be imposed, but the government has dismissed the notion.

Every day in Guatemala, at least 17 people are murdered and on buses there are about 200 muggings,

In Antigua, couples have been assaulted at after-hours bars. The area has a high crime rate, and it is suggested people travel in larger groups.

In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, just before Carnaval in late February, 13 tourists in a hotel in Copacabana were tied up and their rooms robbed of valuables by men armed with guns, grenades and knives. The next night, the same thing happened to 34 tourists from various nations in a city-center hotel.

A few weeks later in Búzios, a hundred miles northeast of Rio, 30 tourists in a hostel were held hostage and robbed of valuables. Thieves did not enter the rooms of guests who had children.

In the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen, Denmark, turf wars between immigrant gangs and Hells Angels have resulted in more than 60 street shootings since summer 2008.

After a man was killed and two injured (none of them gang members) in a shooting on March 1, a 7,000-member volunteer public safety group, the Night Owls, who helped youths and worked to deter crime, decided to pull out of the area.

Police in Sofia, Bulgaria, said organized crime may have been behind a bomb blast that destroyed a nightclub on Vitosha Boulevard on Feb. 18. There were no injuries. The owner of another luxury nightclub discovered an unexploded bomb outside of his club on Obo­rishte Street on the morning of Feb. 24 and called police.

The US Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, has reported an increase in drink-spiking incidents in the area of Roppongi Intersection (Roppongi Dori and Gaienhigashi-dori).

The victim’s drink is spiked with a drug that renders him unconscious, during which time large sums are charged on his credit card. This type of crime is now widespread in Roppongi district bars.

In Thailand, a stolen cell phone led police to three men who worked for a baggage-handling company and who allegedly rifled through passengers’ luggage in aircrafts.

Lately, many luggage thefts have been reported at airports around the country, especially at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport and Phuket’s airport. Do not put valuables in checked bags.

Theft of luggage and pickpocketing also occurs in airport departure lounges in Thailand.

Don’t make this mistake.

A family in Marin County, California, had their home burglarized because they left the garage-door opener in their car, which they parked in an off-site lot near Oakland International Airport during a trip.

Burglars broke into their car, found an address on documents in the glove box, then went to the home and took a big-screen TV, computer equipment, cameras, cash and, using keys found in the kitchen, a 2008 Mercedes CLK convertible. Fortunately, and inexplicably, the car was found, undamaged; a neighbor called the owner and asked if that was his car that had been sitting in front of his house for a couple of days.

The victim said he would never again keep any identifying information (or the door opener) in his car. The law requires that a driver keep registration and proof of insurance in a vehicle, but police told reporters that he could have used a black pen to cross out his address on those forms.

To confirm the legality of this, I called a local office of the California Highway Patrol. I was told that in section 4454 of the vehicle code, which pertains to this, there is nothing that says the home address cannot be crossed out on these forms. The officer added that some people list a post office box address instead, also acceptable. Another option he suggested — just keep these forms in a wallet or purse which you always carry.

David Emery of Reston, Virginia, has some “What would I do differently?” advice. He wrote, “On a trip to Germany in May ’08, my wife, Olimpia, and I spent a week in an apartment in Eisenach doing day trips around Thuringia, followed by a night in Potsdam and the rest of the time in an apartment in Berlin Mitte.

“If I had it to do over again, I would have spent time on the first day figuring out how the GPS in the rental car worked. Once I figured it out, near the end of our 9-day road trip, it worked great!

“I’d suggest that the rental car companies provide ‘cheat sheets’ for same.”

Diane and Ted Bright of Fairfax, California, will send their collection of ITN magazines to anyone who pays for the postage. “We have virtually every copy from December 1985 to the present, all clean and in good condition,” Diane wrote.

If you’re interested, contact ITN.

Tom Dickinson of Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote, “It has occurred to me on a number of occasions that it would be an enhancement to the magazine if article and letter writers would include their e-mail addresses so as to facilitate some correspondence or enlargement regarding the subjects on which they wrote.

“The ‘family’ character of ITN is one of the many charms of the publication. I suspect that many contributors would be willing to engage in correspondence and share information with fellow ITN readers.”

I wrote to Tom, “Some readers state at the end of their letters that they would not mind others contacting them, and we print their e-mail addresses, mailing addresses or phone numbers, as indicated.

“However, sometimes a letter ends with, ‘You may contact me with any questions,’ and when I ask if that is directed to our readers, I am told, ‘No, only to you, the editor’.”

Readers, if you would not mind having other ITN readers contact you by e-mail regarding a letter or article of yours printed in the magazine, include a line to that effect in your article or letter, making it clear that you are addressing ITN readers, themselves.

ITN will not print anyone’s address or phone number without expressed permission to do so. Further, when we post printed material from ITN on our website, we first DELETE all personal addresses, phone numbers and even e-mail addresses, since the website is open not just to subscribers but to everyone.

For the record, as has always been stated in the introduction to the Travelers’ Intercom section, ITN will forward mail from one reader to another. Tom’s suggestion, of course, would cut out the middleman and speed up communication.

Rest assured, no one should feel obligated to have their e-mail address printed in the magazine and thus be discouraged from writing at all. It’s just an option, and we will remind readers about it from time to time.

While I’m at it, something that would help your friendly ITN editors is including your phone number with any letter or article, not for publication but so that, if we have a last-minute question or need an explanation of something, we can just pick up the phone and take care of it.

Call me old-fashioned, but sometimes extra, helpful information comes out of a casual phone conversation that never would have surfaced in an e-mail or letter.

I’m happy to end this month’s column on a success story.

In the Travel Clubs Bulletin Board in this issue, Hal Grady marks the 10th anniversary of the International Travel Club of St. Louis, now numbering more than 200 members. After a decade as club president, Hal has stepped down from that position. He wrote to me, “They may say I gave birth to the ITC, but ITN was the midwife.”

That’s because the whole thing started with a small notice in this magazine. In the October 1999 issue, among 17 similar notices from readers in other parts of the country, Hal wrote, “I would like to become a member of or organize an ITN travel club in the St. Louis metropolitan area. . .”

Those 18 notices were sparked by a letter from Margo Wilson of Scottsdale, Arizona (March ’99, pg. 22 or July ’99, pg. 44), in which she wrote, “In the November ’98 issue, page 4, Edla McKertich of Natick, MA, asked about starting ‘ITN travel clubs’. . . I would like to share the strategies I used in starting our travel club in the Phoenix area.

“I began by sending an item to the ‘Person to Person’ section asking ITN subscribers in the greater Phoenix area to contact me if they were interested in getting together to share stories of our journeys as well as our resources, knowledge and strategies. . . .”

Margo went on to give membership-building tips. One thing that Hal did was send to his local newspaper, for the travel section, notices of upcoming meetings, telling about any speakers and topics and mentioning money-saving opportunities, etc. That brought in a lot of people, even if they weren’t ITN subscribers. Hal also said that the club has never paid any speakers, though they certainly bring books to sell, etc.

Much good has come from such small beginnings. Read about some of the worldwide accomplishments of the St. Louis club (page 61).

If there have been even a few friendships formed and good times shared by club members, all of us at ITN are proud to have played a part.