NEW BOSS, SAME AS THE OLD BOSS
I admire people who live by their principles–even when I don’t agree with them. I don’t much like communism, particularly the soul crushing evil done in its name through much of history, but I have a romantic’s soft spot for an old Bolshie who took to the hills as a young man, believed in their heart that they were liberating their people from oppression (particularly if whoever they were fighting against was a uniquely bad bastard). Perhaps this will explain my visceral loathing for Daniel Ortega–seemingly the President For Life of Nicaragua, a guy who, clearly, has two sets of principles. One for the Nicaraguan people–and one for himself. My detestation of Nicaragua’s Maximum Leader is exceeded only by my admiration for its people who deserve so much better.
The Nicaragua show is the last (for a while) of a trio of sad, angry episodes. For the next few weeks anyway, you can be assured of some somewhat more upbeat hours of television. But I was angry this time around. ”Socialist” and “Greedhead” are two words that really don’t go together, but too often do in my travels. And for an old lefty like me, that goes down hard. Of course, it wasn’t all downbeat. Nicaragua is, after all, a spectacularly beautiful country. The food is great. The rum even better. The people are proud, generous, funny and sophisticated at every level of society.
I hope the show makes people want to visit this poor but beautiful nation with so much to offer–to see not only what Nicaragua is, but what it can be. I try–I really try–to stay away from politics on my show. I’m not that smart. I’m a guy with a travel and food show. But what people eat–or aren’t eating–is the elephant in the room. And from time to time, that’s worth mentioning.
A miserable, hypocritical prick–whatever the system of government–is still a prick. I tend to look at the world, still, from the point of view of a restaurant guy–a small business owner. Right? Left? I don’t care. I look at “leaders” as if they were managers of my restaurant. I go away for four years and come back. If my business has gotten inexplicably worse, I have fewer customers, the neighbors are pissed, my employees unhappy and there’s money inexplicably missing from the till, I call that a bad leader. I don’t know if that’s politics or simple good sense.
In any case, it’s back to something I know more about next week: Dick jokes and stuffing food and alcohol into my face.
Right now, I’m sitting 26 floors up above Macau. Technically a part of China–yet a gambling mecca whose revenues exceed Vegas’s by a multiple of four. It’s Chinese. It’s Portuguese. It’s confusing–in a good way.
The main streets at night are lit up like the Strip, but a few blocks over, it’s like a Wong Kar Wai film, grey and a little shabby and filled with neon lit rooms where delicious things are being prepared and street stalls offer dumplings and noodles and other mysteriously enticing goodies. I’m happy here–where people speak English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Portuguese and patois–often interchangeably. People from the mainland’s rapidly expanding middle class come over to gamble and gape. The lobby of my hotel displays ivory and jade carvings from the private collection of its fabulously wealthy owner and people stand three deep around the glass cases, taking photographs.
“To get rich is glorious” Deng Xiaoping, leader of China’s communist party famously said. This is a phrase that’s come up a lot in the last few weeks–and one that follows us still. Nowhere, it seems, are free market principles practiced with such wild abandon as in China. The locals, relatively restrained in their love for games of chance, are all too happy to reap the benefits from the gambling addicts next-door. Irony anyone? Yeah.
This week, the much afflicted but gorgeous Nicaragua. Next week, I think, Vienna, where I explore my tortured relationship with German speaking countries–a byproduct of a bad Austrian barber as a child. “Helmut” was responsible for one horrifically traumatizing haircut after another in my young years–events which led directly to schoolyard violence-confrontations from which I rarely emerged the victor.
This season’s theme revolves (more or less) around a theme of “out of my comfort zone”, and believe me, Austria was a place I resisted going–despite much urging by friends. Alpine vistas, Austro-Hungarian architecture, intricate pastries, figurines, even chocolate held nothing but terror for me. But I ended up loving the place. Who knew? It helped that veteran No Reservations producer Tracy Goodwin came over from her new home in Berlin to help out with husband Stefan and new baby. But Vienna, like all the best places, confounded expectations at every turn. The food was not precious–nor was it overwhelmingly heavy. The wine was good. And there are excellent sausages everywhere. Even in between scenes, I’d have to slip out of my hotel and across the street like a crackhead, where a conveniently located stand issued seductively pork-scented smoke. And as a movie fan–with a specific fascination for the Carol Reed classic, “The Third Man”, it was nice to find that the Vienna I only knew from that film is still in evidence. The opening scene in the vast underground sewers were filmed in exactly the same locations as Orson Welles was hunted down.
They tell me the world’s tallest bungee jump is here. I’m tempted.