Archive for October, 2007

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Halloween Thrills All Over the Place

October 30, 2007

It’s very last minute, but if you still aren’t sure what to do for Halloween, try one of these events:

Haunted Happenings in Salem, MA
Salem wasn’t the only place to hold witch trials, but it’s the most famous. Whether you’re seriously into the Wicca thing or you just want to see masses of people dressed up and eating caramel apples, Salem is a great place to spend the holiday. There are arts and crafts, haunted houses, psychics, games, and even a pirate museum. Yar! I spent a couple of Halloweens here when I was a student in Boston, and it was always a good time.

Voodoo and Beignets in New Orleans
For a truly terrifying trip, why not combine a graveyard adventure with vampires and voodoo down south in New Orleans? The above-ground tombs, built to prevent the dead from floating away when the water levels rise under this below sea-level city, are like nothing you’ve ever seen. If you escape the cemetery, you can lurk around Anne Rice’s house and attend the Witching Hour Ball put on by her fan club. Learn more about gris-gris and the voodoo priestess who made it famous (Marie Laveau), or visit Emeril Lagasse’s restaurant, NOLA (Sure, the food is heavenly, but those prices? Yikes!). Catch some jazz in the French Quarter to mellow out afterward, and use your ISIC for discounts on tours, lodging, and meals.

All Over the Map
Want something dark and dank? Try Ruby Falls Haunted Cavern in Chattanooga, try out one of 600 corn mazes in North America, or use www.hauntedhouseonline.com to find a haunted place near you.

Out on the West Coast
There’s nowhere eerier, and nowhere with a better view of San Francisco, than the former island prison of Alcatraz. Is that the Birdman I hear, or just some seagulls? Head south to L.A. for a visit to Knott’s Scary Farm, and have a scream on their ghoulish roller coasters.

Sun and Rum
If you prefer to plan ahead, check out Fantasy Fest 2008 in Key West, held from October 19 through 28. There will be street parties, costume balls, beach games, a pet parade, plus all the usual spring breakish activities, but you get to wear a mask.

Finally, if none of these suggestions work for you, well, you can go to Hell. (It’s in Michigan.)

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Iraq: The Ultimate Travel Adventure

October 29, 2007

Jane StillwaterNo matter how far off the beaten path you’ve been, the crazy modes of transportation you’ve taken, or the number of locals you’ve hung with, you haven’t done anything like the trip Jane Stillwater is on now.

After months of paperwork and planning, Jane left for Iraq a few weeks ago. She moved into a cot in the Green Zone alongside journalists, Marines, and politicians, and after a bit of waiting, hopped into a helicopter where she was sent to Ambar.

Is Jane an adrenaline junkie? Has she spent her life seeking thrills and travel experiences no one else has? Nope. Jane is a 64-year-old grandma and blogger. She’s one of those peace-loving Berkeley types you read about who joins protests and attends city council meetings and who you’d think would be completely anti-Iraq.

And that’s where Jane would have you fooled. She’s not particularly pro or anti anything, other than being all for meeting her fellow human beings, finding out how they’re doing, what they like and what they want, and doing her best to let the rest of us know what’s going on, traveler to traveler.

Have a look at some of her blog entries from Iraq. They may not read like Lonely Planet, but you get a good feel for what she’s doing there, the sights she’s seeing, and the very real people she’s meeting. It turns out that Jane loves the Marines. She thinks most of them are doing a fabulous job. She also loves the Iraqis and their hospitality, and she really loves the food.

This is why Jane is my travel idol right now. She may not be a 20-something with time on her hands and enthusiasm for weeks of bus travel and hostel living, but her passion and persistence got her to a pretty unreachable part of the world, and she arrived with a wide open mind about what she was going to find there.

Aside from the details about life in Iraq, Jane is also sending back the message that you’re never too old to go somewhere new, and your travel goals are never unattainable.

Travel safe, Jane!

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Juvenile Justice Abroad – Part Three

October 25, 2007

Sydney Opera HouseMissed the beginning of my Mugged in Australia story? Read Part One and Part Two. 

The afternoon of our conference I walk from Central Station down Elizabeth Street, crossing to the other side of Cleveland Street into Redfern. The PCYC building is just a few blocks in. There’s nothing spectacular about the outside, but inside the walls are covered. Any space that isn’t decorated with a bright mural or student artwork is used for announcements: community events, support groups, hotlines for abuse, alcoholism and depression, dates of local plays and concerts.

I find Liz in a bright blue and yellow classroom she’s setting up for us. Six chairs are arranged in a circle. Biscuits and tea bags are laid out on a table behind us.

The boy arrives next, just walks into the room. He parks his bike in another room and comes in. Liz introduces us and he says hello. I try to smile but I think it’s more of a grimace and he sits down at a computer and fiddles around with it while we wait.

His mother comes in. When we are introduced she shakes my hand and hers feels cold and weak. I notice a large bruise under her right eye and my stomach turns. I don’t know anything about this family. I feel out of place, far from the middle-class California suburbs I grew up in where the most controversial social issue was how to separate your recycling.

The boy’s teacher and a large, muscular constable join us. The conference happens. We take turns talking. Liz is careful to make sure that we each have our say while the others listen quietly, but the rules and etiquette of it all make the setting too formal and get in the way of any real communication.

The boy says little, not out of pride or arrogance, but because he’s 14 and has a room full of authority figures staring at him. Every now and then he looks at me, briefly. He’s not angry. He seems more curious. His eyes look me over like maybe he’s never seen an American up close before.

When I speak my voice shakes a little from emotion. I tell him about that night, what I did, how I felt. I don’t know if it makes a difference. Maybe yelling and getting angry would have more of an effect.

His mother apologises to me. I didn’t want her to. She wants him to learn from this, to do better. His teacher says he’s a good kid with almost perfect attendance. He’s just completed a five-week chef course and did well in it. She hopes this was the beginning and end of his criminal record.

It is agreed that he will commit to this school program for the next six months. He’s already been there for a year and a half, so it’s doable. His teacher will keep tabs on him. His mother will make sure he follows his curfew and other conditions of his bail, which I didn’t know he had. If he breaks any of these conditions he will go back to court, and possibly to jail. We all sign off on this plan, leave the biscuits uneaten, and put the tables and chairs back in place, turning the room into a classroom again.

Liz offers me a ride back into the city and I’m relieved not to have to walk back as it’s beginning to get dark. “Will it work?” I ask. “Do you think he’ll do ok?” She doesn’t know. Some do, some don’t. She says it doesn’t help that a lot of teenagers know people in jail, so that it doesn’t seem like a scary place to them. They have friends and family inside to hang out with.

The Department of Juvenile Justice Annual Report states that Aboriginal people are over-represented in the NSW juvenile justice system, making up around 40% of the detention centre population.

I try to picture him there, but he looks too young to go someplace so hard, someplace where the walls aren’t painted in rainbow colours. I see him in a chef’s hat instead, working in a kitchen, making friends, having some money to bring home to his family. I wonder which picture of himself he has.

beach“Well, enjoy the rest of your time in Australia!” Liz says. I thank her and she drives off, leaving me in the middle of the city. Darling Harbour is to the west, the Opera House straight ahead, my place near the beach to the east. I think about all of the sights on my list of things to see in Australia, the people I wanted to meet: Surfers and koala bears and bushmen and backpackers. But not this kid. This isn’t the cultural experience I planned to have. It won’t go into my photo album, but it’s the one that will stay with me the longest.

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Juvenile Justice Abroad – Part Two

October 24, 2007

Miss Part One? Start Here

I am a victim. I know I am because people keep telling me so. The police call me ‘the victim’. The judge called me ‘the victim’. The counsellor who rings to schedule the youth justice conference asks if she is speaking with ‘the victim’. My official statement labels me ‘the victim’.
It jars me every time I hear it because I have trouble seeing myself this way.

Immediately after the mugging, I was ‘the shocked’. That night, missing out on dinner plans and a party I was supposed to attend, I was ‘the annoyed’. Over the weekend, with all of my credit cards, mobile and house keys gone, I was ‘the inconvenienced’. But I never saw myself as a victim. Yet that’s what they all insist on calling me, and eventually, through the language of bureaucracy and forms, I do begin to feel victimised.

The boy, on the other hand, is not labelled ‘the mugger’ or ‘the deviant’ or ‘the criminal’. No. He is ‘the young offender’ as if his crime was incessant swearing or wearing an inappropriate t-shirt. The stigma has been taken away from him, so I wonder, if he’s an offender, can’t I simply be ‘the offended’?

The most recent reminder I’ve had of my victim status is a Youth Justice Conference notification. The cover letter signed by Conference Administrator/Manager Michael Dyer states, “I have been informed that you are the victim of this offence. As the victim, you are entitled to meet the young offender and to seek resolution for the harms you have suffered because of the offence.”

I hadn’t realised that I was suffering, so this is new information for me. Maybe I’ve somehow blocked out my pain and need to reconnect with it.

I move on to a pamphlet entitled “Making Complaints About a Youth Justice Conference”. The fact that they’re already letting me know how to express my dissatisfaction with an event that hasn’t yet taken place doesn’t fill me with confidence. I set it aside.

The “Information for Victims” handout is more warm and fuzzy. It explains that during a youth justice conference, “the emphasis is on healing the hurt and overcoming offending behaviour rather than handing out punishment.”

Now that I know I’ve suffered, “healing the hurt” sounds like a great idea.

The handout says I’m supposed to ask myself, “What action by the young person would heal the hurt she or he has caused to me, and the community.” Well, gosh. Yard work probably isn’t what they had in mind. Maybe having him earn the money to pay me back the whopping $15 that was in my wallet, but no, I don’t want that either.

The thing is, I know that he hasn’t caused me as much hurt as he’s caused himself. He’s gotten himself a juvenile record. He has spent months dealing with police officers and lawyers and court dates. And while 28% of offenders who take part in one of these conferences never re-enter the justice system, 72% do, so maybe this was just his gateway crime. I can’t imagine he’s going to come out of this feeling better about himself, no matter how much tea and biscuits they push our way.

I’ve never studied child psychology or juvenile crime. I don’t know what he needs. If I had to guess, I would say what he needs is a plan, somewhere to go, something to do with himself. He needs someone to check up on him. Not a parole officer, but a mentor, someone to help him make the right choices, someone who can give him hope.

The court doesn’t hand out guardian angels though, so I try to think of the next best thing. Nothing comes to mind. I’ve never been a teenage boy, or a young offender, and I have no idea what to do with either. I’m hoping somebody more qualified will.

*        *        *

Opera HouseI meet Liz Brown, my appointed conference convenor, at Gloria Jean’s in the Broadway shopping centre, just across the street from the scene of the crime. When we made the appointment by phone she told me to look for a middle-aged woman with red hair. I arrive first and take a seat, but spot her soon after, standing just outside the shop. I wave and she comes in to join me.

These pre-conference meetings, along with the conferences themselves, are always held in what Liz refers to as “neutral territory”. I was not asked to come to her office, but to pick a place that would be comfortable and convenient to me. She says that when we get together with the boy and his mother it will probably be at a community centre or school. There might even be tea and biscuits, but she can’t promise.

Liz began her career working in juvenile detention centres in the early 90s and has just recently completed the training required to mediate the conferences between victims and young offenders. In fact, this is her first. She’s excited about this opportunity to keep more kids out of the detention centres, allowing them to remain with their families, and seems very concerned with the “healing” part of the process.

“Really, we want you to feel like you have closure with this,” she tells me.

“It was nine months ago, I feel pretty closed,” I say.

“Yes, you seem pretty together,” she laughs, then shrugs her shoulders apologetically. “I can still offer you this pamphlet.” She hands me an olive green paper that reminds me once again, “You Have Been A Victim”. It offers phone numbers for counselling hotlines and information about how I should be feeling.

I ask Liz if she has met the boy yet, or if she knows much about him. She hasn’t met him, and hasn’t actually had time to read the whole case file either, other than to get the basics down. There are more than 30 caseworkers handling youth conferences just in the Sydney area, around 400 in New South Wales altogether, and they all stay busy.

“Is there that much youth crime?” I ask her.

“Unfortunately, yes,” she says. She looks a little defeated for a moment, shaking her head at the thought of it, but then smiles again and asks me to give her the dates when I will be available for the conference. I am amazed by this resilience, the fact that she has worked in juvenile crime for years but can continue to be cheery and optimistic about the process. I hope it’s because she’s seen some success stories.

Before rushing to her next appointment Liz asks me to think about what punishment, or “outcomes” I would like to discuss at the conference. She says my wishes and recommendations will be taken into consideration when she sits down with the young man and draws up an “action plan” with him, outlining the steps he must take to accept responsibility and make amends for his crime.

I ask her about counselling or mentoring. I feel petty demanding that he do community service because I spent a weekend without a credit card, when the bigger issue could be that his home life is dysfunctional, or possibly even damaging and unhealthy.

“Well, that could be something that comes out during the discussion, and we’ll take it all into consideration,” she says.

It all sounds happy and nice, and I do believe Liz is doing her best to help, but for all the talk about this not being about punishment, I start to think that even after all of this effort and time, this kid could still fall through the cracks, and never have anybody really hear him. I’ll have to wait until our meeting to find out.

Continue to Part Three

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Tea, Biscuits, and Juvenile Justice Abroad

October 23, 2007

I wrote this a couple of years ago when I was living in Australia, but I like it, so here you go. Read it and think about the kinds of adventures you run into by accident – the experiences you have while traveling that let you learn more about a culture than you ever expected.

June 2005 – Part One

Sydney Opera HouseWhen I first arrived in Australia to spend a year as a student I thought about all the cultural experiences I wanted to have. I looked forward to snorkelling the reef. I wanted to bushwalk in the Outback. I thought it might be fun to pet a kangaroo.

Spending several months involved with the juvenile justice system wasn’t on my list. It wasn’t pictured in the brochures or written up in Lonely Planet. But then I should have known that becoming fully immersed in another culture wouldn’t be as simple as opening an account at ANZ and getting a pre-paid mobile. So instead of sunning at Bondi or touring the Hunter Valley, today I’m going to court.

I always expected courthouses to be forbidding, imposing. Criminals should become anxious at the sight of them. But the Bindura Children’s Court in Glebe, where I have been subpoenaed to appear, could be mistaken for a bed and breakfast.

The main administration building is a two-storey house with yellow and green awnings, set back from the street. The colourful flowerbeds and orderly front lawn remind me more of a trip to grandma’s house than the big house.

Behind the house is the actual courthouse. It’s made of concrete and glass, sort of like a large jail cell, but more influenced by a greenhouse or secret garden. A relaxed security guard smiles and shows me to the witness room. This is my first time in a courthouse for anything other than jury duty.

The guardian of the room, a hunched and wobbly older woman with a cane, asks if she can get me ‘a lovely cuppa’. I decline, and she treats me to a story about the new carpet instead. I’m surprised I haven’t been asked to leave my shoes by the front door. She calls me ‘dear’ and asks if I wouldn’t at least like a nice biscuit.

An hour goes by and I’m finally called into the courtroom. The female judge waits until I’m seated behind the prosecuting attorney, who I just met this morning. He’s representing my case on behalf of the state. I wouldn’t have thought to press charges on my own.

A 14-year-old boy is slouched in a chair on the other side of the small room. He’s in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and worn sneakers. I never would have recognised him. There’s no reason that I should. The last time I saw him it was from the back of a police car, where I ID’d him as the boy who mugged me just an hour earlier.

It was a Friday night and I was headed out to meet a friend around 7:00, in a well-lit, populated area. I saw two boys riding their bicycles directly toward me, but thought they planned to swerve at the last minute, just to give me a scare. Instead, the one in front grabbed my purse as he swooped by. My right hand sustained a few small cuts and my ring finger had to be snapped back straight.

It all happened so quickly that I hardly saw his face, but I ran after him and took note of his large size, his bright blue baseball cap and his black jacket.
That was almost nine months ago. Looking at him now, he seems smaller. He’s had a haircut. His baseball cap is gone, tied up in an orange plastic bag along with his jacket as evidence – the clothes I identified in my statement, the ones that made me sure it was him. Apparently he hadn’t thought to go home and change. Maybe he didn’t expect to get caught so soon. Maybe he didn’t have any other clothes to change into.

The night before, as I set out my good suit jacket and slacks and got my statement and other papers together to re-read, I wondered what my mugger was doing to prepare for court, if anything.

Was he scared? Would he wear a tie? Was his mother ironing a good shirt for him? Was it new? Did he only have a hand-me-downs? Would someone wake him up in the morning and help him to get ready? Did his family even know he had a court date? I couldn’t begin to imagine what his home might be like.

For weeks after the mugging I had to keep retelling the story to everyone I knew, plus credit card companies, bank managers, mobile phone customer service people and anyone else I had to deal with to put my life back in order. The part I hated most was how we found the kid.

I tried to leave it out but people would always ask, “How did they catch him? Where was he?” When I replied, “Redfern”, the next question was inevitably, “Is he Aboriginal?” I cringed every time I had to say he was. After that some people would grin as if to say, “I knew it!” while others shook their heads, sad that their stereotype was confirmed.

It made me sad either way. His background shouldn’t have mattered, but it did. It made my simple mugging into some kind of political statement. Not only was I a crime statistic, I was a foreigner swept up in Australia’s race issues.

My life was back to normal within a couple of weeks, but for him the trouble was just starting. I felt sad for him, for whatever the reasons were that made him decide to mug me. But maybe it was just my liberal views making him the victim. Maybe he really was just a punk.

In the courtroom, his lawyer, a ponytailed man from legal aid, reads out a brief bio and I get to fill in some of the blanks in my mind. My mugger is the oldest of five children. He lives with his mother. He attends a special school in Redfern just three days a week, and hasn’t had any other offences since the night of the mugging. There is no father in the picture.

As the lawyer talked I watched the boy’s mother, sitting in the row behind her son with a younger boy. She was very small, bony even. Her hair was pulled back in a messy bun, unkempt. She wore blue sweatpants and a matching sweatshirt. She looked hunched and tired, worn out, like someone always struggling to stay afloat. But she was here, and she looked concerned, and that had to mean something.

Earlier, in the hallway, my lawyer asked if I wanted to be part of the sentencing process. Before I had time to picture myself in a black robe, banging a gavel and saying “Guilty!” he went on to tell me about youth justice conferences.

If I agreed to participate, the case would be sent to a mediation centre and a meeting would be scheduled for the young man and I to sit down together with a counsellor. I would tell him how his actions affected me. He would have to admit to the crime and apologise to me. It’s a touchy-feely sort of justice, pioneered in New Zealand due to Maori concerns about the traditional court process.

New South Wales first began holding conferences in 1997 after passing the Young Offenders Act, and now holds up to 1600 a year. About 65% of victims agree to take part in the conferences and the others are held without them. It’s an option for crimes that are too severe for a caution or warning, like vandalism and theft, but not serious enough for detention, like sexual assault or serious drug offences.

My lawyer says that young offenders who are forced to identify with their victims are less likely to re-enter the criminal system. I say I’ll do it. Now that our paths have crossed and he’s forced his life into mine, I feel like I have a responsibility to do what’s best for this kid.

With both lawyers in agreement that this is the best way to handle the case, the judge allows punishment to be deferred, thanks me for my generosity, and sets a follow-up date for six weeks later.

After court is adjourned I stop to talk to the detective who took my statement the night of the mugging and my lawyer joins us to fill me in on what happens next. He thanks me for agreeing to the mediation and says it was a good option in this case.

“The kid’s a little shit, but you never know. They usually wind up crying at the end of these things.”

Continue to Part Two

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Hostel Life Lets You Travel Cheap

October 21, 2007

Christchurch, New ZealandIf you’re headed abroad for a short-term stay, say two weeks or less, a hostel is an ideal place to crash. There are plenty of other travelers to socialize with, generally clean restrooms, a kitchen for preparing your own cheap meals, and sometimes they offer perks like television, free Internet access, laundry, or sightseeing discounts.

In a large city you’ll likely have a dozen or more hostels to choose from, ranging from huge hotel-like structures with their own bars and restaurants, to the smaller, mom-and-pop places that may not offer as many amenities, or even hot water. In smaller locations, say deep in the Australian outback or in out-of-the-way South American villages, your choices will be more limited, but not necessarily less comfortable. One of the nicest I came across was the Prarie Hotel in Parachilna, South Australia, population: 7.

Your best bet for finding a good hostel is to ask other backpackers for recommendations. If you don’t have time though, go through Hostelling International, as they only give their seal of approval to places that meet their standards. (Although those standards do seem to vary here and there.)

You need to have a HI card to get a discounted price, but if you’re going to be traveling for more than three weeks during a year, it will pay for itself in discounts. You can pick one up at any Travel CUTS shop, or online. The HI website has a list of hostels by city, so you can get addresses and plan ahead.

When packing for your hostel stay, there are a few essentials:

  • Plastic bags, both big and small, are perfect for packing any shower items that might drip or leak, as well as dirty clothes, muddy shoes, or snacks.
  • Flip flops make great shower shoes (as in going to and from, or during, if the floor’s too creepy).
  • Most hostels give you bed linens, or let you rent them for a few dollars, but it can’t hurt to bring along a simple sheet. Check your local thrift store and get something you won’t mind throwing out before you return home. You can sew the sides of the sheet together to make a sleeping bag out of it, or leave it in tact to use at the beach, out camping, or on a bus or train ride.
  • A small flashlight is ideal for late-night trips to the bathroom. Try to find one of those small things that attaches to a keychain and lights up when you squeeze it.
  • Finally, a clothesline is compact and can be hung just about anywhere so that you can handwash and dry clothes.

When choosing a place to stay, also remember that you have the right to look a hostel over and see a room before you hand over any money. If you walk into a place that feels sketchy or makes you uncomfortable, walk back out and look for something else.

The hostel culture is perfect for travelers who can eat, sleep, and shower anywhere. But even if you’re not sure that sounds like you, give it a try for a few nights. It’s laid-back, friendly, and you’ll meet people and have experiences that you’ll remember forever. You’ll probably get some great stories out of it too, so share the best, and worst, of what you find.

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Mary Poppins, the Original Backpacker?

October 17, 2007

How dull is it in the foggy San Francisco suburbs today? In the words of singer Jason Mraz, “I dreamed I went to Singapore, got bored and robbed a liquor store.” Not that I advocate felonies or misdemeanors of any kind, but you know what I mean. Some days, you want to be anywhere other than where you are.

Sometimes I think that instead of taking the new job I started last month I should have just stuck with the Mary Poppins lifestyle I’ve been leading for the last five years: Land somewhere, live out of a bag, have some fun, do a little dance, make some friends, leave an impression, then pack up and go wherever the wind takes my umbrella transportation unit, ideally leaving a young muffin like Bert in my wake wishing he’d had just a few days more to soak up my enchanting presence.

It worked for the guy on Quantum Leap, and Doctor Who. And in a less fantastical way, George on Seinfeld. He had that one episode where he decided to always leave on a high note.

And although traveling alone can be, well, lonely, I reaped huge rewards from my nomadic existence. In any given week now I get email from Germany, postcards from Norway, phone calls from Japan, or text messages from Australia. I met people who introduced me to people who then scattered all over the world, going back to where they were from or traveling on further.

For the past five years I’ve kept in touch with a guy I met at a nightclub and talked to for all of about two hours. I still hear from a girl who I shared a bus ride with three years ago. It’s awesome to have friends all over the world, especially when my vacations usually involve borrowing a couch for a few days, and I’m always ready to pack my bags for somewhere new.

Where is your mind wandering off to?