Category Archives: Green Globe Trekker

Green Globe Trekker: Caribbean Goes Organic

This popular post has moved to my new blog PoptimisticCLICK HERE to be taken directly to Caribbean Goes Organic.

Please join me at my new blog Poptimistic—the fresh, frank, fun outlook on life. Like Oprah, my life has grown from a single TV show into an entire network.  Thanks to the success of Alphabet City, my award-winning humorous book and blog about my sitcom life, I’m thrilled to launch a new online network called Poptimisitic.  With that charming gay Mary Tyler Moore spirit you know and love, Poptimistic has even more room to explore a fun, fresh, frank approach to life.  So check out my line-up of shows about relationships, food, travel and culture, and start living a Poptimisitic life!

 

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Green Globe Trekker: Mexico’s Hope

Today on Green Globe Trekker: JP worries about Mexico’s recovery from narco-trafficking violence.

Last year in the Yucatan Peninsula

Last week, I had the rare opportunity to dig a little deeper into someone’s Spit List—the controversial Thanksgiving game of nominating someone you so detest you’d spit at them on a red carpet.  This year, Chef stopped dinner conversation cold with his choice: Recreational Drug Users.  As he explained, their choice is tearing apart his home country of Mexico.  Little did I know at the time that an assignment from Condé Nast Traveler would take me South of the Border to check out the affects of narco-trafficking violence on tourism—for contract reasons, you’ll have to read the full story in the March issue of the magazine.  But here’s what I can say: there’s a spirit of optimism afoot that things will improve in Mexico—but I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.

The last time I wrote about Mexico for Condé Nast Traveler was November 2004, and I commented on an excitement about the country shrugging off decades of authoritarian rule and looking forward to enjoying true democracy.  In the intervening years, Mexico has become the notorious site of drug cartel warfare.  Experts like University of Miami’s Bruce Bagley told me that was a direct result of the “success” of the American-backed war on drugs in Colombia that has just shifted the drug trafficking up through Mexico.  He believes that Mexico’s 71 years of one-party rule has left a young democracy’s institutions vulnerable—the courts, the police, and the military are cracking from corruption due to the incredible amounts of profits made from drug trafficking.

Where’s that optimism I mentioned?  Many people I spoke with told me a version of, “It’s safe here for tourists.  Drug traffickers don’t want to hurt North Americans.  They are the source of their profits, after all.  They’re the ones who buy their drugs.”  Yikes.  A forceful crack down on trafficking won’t ever stop the problem—there’s just too much money to be made.  Instead, we need to focus our resources on targeting the cause—Chef’s “spitees.”

The other hopeful note Mexicans sounded was that elections are coming in two years.  The likelihood is that the country will shift back to the PRI party—the same one in charge for 71 years—who will make a quiet deal with the drug cartels, and the violence will go away.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t sound like progress to me, but to many in Mexico it seems like the safer choice.

Bottom line, America’s “war on drugs” is a costly, failing effort that is ripping apart a country so dear to my heart.  After all, Mexico has given me so many gifts—and not just the seven or so nativity scenes that are part of my Christmas decorations.  The country blessed me with Chef, and as I’ve said before, I love being the Tex to his Mex.

Let’s put an end to the spitting, and to the drug war.

Check out StopTheDrugWar.org for more.

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Green Globe Trekker: iPho Vietnam—Motorbikes & Golden Cock

Today on Alphabet City: Jon Paul relives memories of Vietnam through his traveling outfits.  Filmed on location: Saigon, Hanoi and Halong Bay.

The days after returning from vacation, I find myself wearing some of the same items I had packed for the trip.  The American Apparel v-neck yellow t-shirt may be freshly laundered, but it transports me back to sunrise over Vietnam’s Halong Bay.  Despite a much needed washing, that short sleeve Lucky Jeans western shirt still has faint whiffs of noodles and mysterious herbs from a Saigon pho shop.  Paired with a cup of coffee made with beans transported from Vietnam (“it’s a country, not a war” was my favorite slogan), I ease myself back into life at home with Frida and Chef.  Alas, no stunning breakfast buffet from Hanoi’s Sofitel Metropole restored to its colonial grandeur.  Not even a welcoming smile from Trung or Tuan, our guides from trusted gay-friendly tour operator Purple Dragon.

Here then, favorite memories—and outfits—from our recent Southeast Asia voyage.  If you spot me this week, you can tell by my clothes my feelings and dreams.

Halong Bay, Vietnam.  An overnight trip on a private boat through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever experienced—truly.  This was a last minute addition to our itinerary thanks to the strong recommendation of our Purple Dragon guides Trung and Tuan—the latter moved last minute heaven and earth to make it happen for us.  Photographs from this collection of 2000 rock formations appear in everything from guide books to the movie Indochine—seeing them up close and personal is indescribable.  Reason enough alone to make your way to Vietnam as soon as possible.  Did I mention there was spectacular fresh seafood and karaoke onboard at night?  Outfit: yellow v-neck t-shirt pops in pictures; Parke and Ronen swimming shorts less risqué than Speedo for early morning swim.


Pho & Banh Mi.  Let’s face it, when write about food and travel with (a) Chef, eating is pretty much the centerpiece of a journey.  And boy did Vietnam deliver.  The traditional dish Pho—a traditional noodle soup, often with chicken or beef—differs in flavor and spices from Saigon to Hanoi—so we tried them all, and loved them all.  Don’t miss Pho 2000 in Saigon made famous by a Bill Clinton visit or Hanoi’s Mai Anh near Metropole.  Our guide Trung had a lot of rules about when we could eat Banh Mi (pretty much only in the morning), but ultimately took pity on us and let us buy a couple at Saigon’s Nhu Lan (run by an “old lesbian couple” he told us) and eat with our Pho.  Outfit: red American Apparel v-neck or H&M white t-shirt.

Motorbikes & Golden Cock(s). Every trip, Chef and I latch onto something that we comment upon endlessly.  Summer in Scandinavia, it was the never setting sun.  In Vietnam, it was the motorbikes.  No one walks here, everyone is on a scooter, ignoring any semblance of traffic regulation or laws of gravity—the amount that can be balanced and carried on one was awe-inspiring.  Crossing the street seemed life threatening, but we followed the advice of our guide Trung, “Keep moving, don’t stop, don’t run”—sage advice applicable to many situations really.  All those motorbikes just made the men seem sexier driving up to Hanoi’s gay hot spot Golden Cock—a bar that wouldn’t be out of place in New York’s East Village.  Outfit: Penguin graphic TV t-shirt.


Old Quarter, Hanoi.  This warren of streets, each featuring a specialized vendor—from locksmiths to shoes to fresh meat (frog legs)—was endlessly fascinating and mesmerizing.  Also the perfect spot for Chef to pick-up a Vietnam communist-inspired cap.  For me, an addictive Vietnamese coffee got me amped up for the chaos.  Outfit: Lucky Brand short sleeve Western shirt.

Sofitel Metropole, Hanoi.  One of those classic grand dame Southeast Asia hotels on par in colonial splendor and history with Grand Raffles in Siem Reap and Raffles Singapore—the latter Chef and I were asked to leave the lobby because we were not dressed appropriately in shorts.  Never mind that I was trying to give them a copy of Alphabet City that features the hotel in a scene of getting locked out on the Presidential Suite’s balcony.  It was one of those “my how the might have fallen” moments.  Sofitel has done a meticulous job of restoring the Metropole—the dark hard wood floors made me feel like Catherine Deneuve in Indochine.  Chef had a thing for the outfit worn by the lobby attendant—the hat in particular.  Outfit: linen plaid short sleeve from Penguin, paired with floppy hat from Saigon’s Chinatown market.


Coffee & Bia with Purple Dragon Guides.  Although it’s totally possible to navigate through Vietnam independently, Chef and I had limited time—and we wanted an insight into the developing gay scene in this burgeoning country.  Gay (and gay friendly) tour operator Purple Dragon was the perfect solution.  Trung in Saigon and Tuan in Hanoi were welcoming, willing to share details of life and struggles as gay men in Vietnam, flexible in our itinerary, chose outstanding restaurants and food stalls, and were the perfect companions for breaks over coffee and beer.  I became addicted to the Vietnamese strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk (yum), while Chef became enamored by Bia Hoi—a draft beer made in small batches delivered that day to the establishment.  When Trung found out how much we missed and adore Frida, he brought his own puppy Boy to see us off at the airport.  Outfit: H&M green t-shirt and striped sailor top.


Chef.  My lifetime traveling companion never ceases to amaze me with his enthusiastic embrace of all things travel.  There’s not a jaded, complaining bone in this boy’s body who literally eats up all travel experiences.  From the Asian menu in Japan Airlines business class (special thanks to Platinum American Express’ 2-4-1 deals) to the mysterious sausages somewhere on the road from Halong Bay, Chef dives right in with a smile.  Ten years of traveling together, and he still makes me laugh and smile and try new things.  We’re constantly amazed at other couples traveling together—sniping at each other, frowning.  Sure, travel these days is far from glamorous and can be a bitch—but no matter how tired I am—one look at Chef’s smile is all it takes for me to see the wonders of the world through his eyes.

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Green Globe Trekker: Little Elephant that Could

Today on Green Globe Trekker: JP gets a lesson in the Power of One from a little South African elephant-hero named Jabulani.

Camp Jabulani Lounge

Several years ago I found myself in the midst of an elephant herd in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, part of a TV series I was producing for Condé Nast Traveler.  I was so mesmerized by the tender and sweet familial interaction of the giant animals, that we turned off the cameras, not wanting to interrupt their routine—or more importantly trigger big Mama’s protective instinctive over her babies.  It’s one of those powerful moments that stays with you for a lifetime.

Given the economic power of South Africa’s safari tourism industry, it’s no surprise then that innovative lodges, like the one I staid in Ulusaaba, are perennial favorites in the category of Wildlife Preservation in the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Awards.  But this year’s winner, Camp Jabulani, has a particularly sweet “birth” story involving a lost little elephant that went onto become the “breadwinner” for a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center.

The wildlife center helps rehabilitate cheetahs

Adine Roode, Managing Director, of the property will be on the panel I am moderating on Oct. 20 called “To Preserve and Protect” at the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in Singpore.  She managed to take some time away from the bush to speak with me about how much she and her family and employees have learned about the importance of wildlife preservation.

“Thirteen years ago, an injured baby elephant came to our rehabilitation center, and we hand raised and tried to release him on reserve.  And it didn’t work.  He wanted to stay with the humans who were now his herd.  And then 8 years ago, we had the opportunity to rescue some other elephants, endangered by war.  When we brought them here from Zimbabwe—no easy task—our little elephant Jabulani took to them immediately.  It was beautiful.  Taking care of elephants is quite a heavy burden.  So we decided to build a separate camp around the elephants to generate income to support them–as well as our cheetah program.  And so Camp Jabulani was born.”

Much of the time we think of wildlife as being endangered by poachers and farmers, but this case was even more complicated.

“War instability was a part of the problem.  Zimbabwe war veterans took over the land there, and they were demolishing the land for the food.  They wanted to destroy the elephants.  We stepped in and brought them to South Africa.  It was a very tight schedule and complicated operation—no video or photos because the war veterans were quite tense.  The whole thing was controversial—a lot of people do say that there are enough elephants—why bring them over?  People say, ‘why don’t you just shoot the animals?  It’s easy to talk a lot, but you have to stand before that animal and make a decision.  And it’s not easy.  It’s difficult.  I have a passion and wherever there’s life, I will still fight for that.”

Today, the benefits of that fight are comng to life.  Camp Jabulani operates 2 safaris a day with the elephants, even though it would have easier to send Jabulani to one of the many zoos that initially wanted him.

“I love seeing Jabulani happy and a have a chance to have a herd.  An elephant doesn’t want to be on its own.  It wants a herd structure.  And that’s what we provided.  It’s funny, it’s supposed to be that humans must take of the earth and animals.  But here, the animals take care of humans—generating incomes for all the families here.”

Even the waste of the elephants is put to use in creating jobs.

“We use elephant dung paper.  And we sell that paper.  It’s part of the job creation—we have a lot of elephant dung but we’re able to put people to work to make it useful to us in so many ways.   I take that paper all over the world making sales calls because people can’t believe it when they smell it.  It’s part of the education program for schools and children to teach them about recycling how to make these things.”

The outreach to the local community doesn’t just stop at an education program.  Real decisions made on the property help create even more employment opportunities.

“Take for example on the reserve.  There are a lot of easier ways to do bush clearing, but we think it’s better to get farm workers and dig manually, that way you feed a family.  There are easier ways with machines that could do the work but at end of day you have to support the local community.”

Adine hopes her passion and enthusiasm spreads far beyond her reserve’s borders.

“It’s important to realize that one person can make a difference.  There are no boundaries for a person—everyone can make a difference.  Like now, we are bringing in the schools and locals, to educate them.  Once they see a cheetah in our endangered species program, they understand more.  The importance of wildlife becomes part of their daily life.”

And to think it all started with the power of one little elephant—who’s now a World Saver.

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Green Globe Trekker: Blue Bahama Mama

Today on Green Globe Trekker: Jon Paul dives into Bahama coral reef preservation with Kerzner Marine Foundation’s Debra Erickson.

I’ll admit that sometime in February—during the deepest, darkest of New York’s seemingly never-ending winter—I’m tempted by the advertisements to book an affordable getaway to Atlantis Bahamas.  But then I wonder how I can support such an enormous property operating near ecologically sensitive areas like coral reefs?  After speaking with Debra Erickson, Executive Director of Kerzner Marine Foundation, who will be part of the panel I’m moderating at the Oct. 20 Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in Singapore, I’m happy to report that environmental degradation is not an issue that the company is ignoring—but tackling head-on.

“All of our properties are built near beautiful marine ecosystems, and we realized that if we want them to be around in 20 years or so, it’s incumbent upon us to take care of them.  So the company established the Kerzner Marine Foundation five years ago to foster the preservation and enhancement of marine environments.”

 

Kerzner Marine Foundation's Debra Erickson dives deep in her support of marine preservation

 

Debra seems to be the right person to head up that mission—she has a long background in overseeing effective social responsibility programs for organizations as diverse as the San Diego Zoo and Anheuser-Busch.

“One of the most important lessons I have learned over the years is that if you want to make a long term impact on ground, small discreet donations just don’t do it.  So, at the Kerzner Marine Foundation we fund a program for three years.  Right now, we’re in the second year of a three-year program to protect the coral reefs in the Bahamas.  It’s a multi-prong approach that involves doing scientific evaluation and education outreach.”

The program to which Debra is referring is ambitious—involving a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Bahamas National Trust.  The ultimate goal is to greatly increase the size of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) on the west side of the largest island in The Bahamas, Andros, which has some of the most spectacular and intact marine habitats left in that area.

Debra believes that the ultimate success of a preservation project depends on the partnership with a local NGO—she has definite take on what it means to “go local.”

“One of key things I ask when evaluating funding for a program is, ‘Who is going to lead the project?’  Before we give any money, I fly to the project site and spend at least two days, ask to speak to local government officials, making sure that NGO has support, interacting with community leaders to see who supports the project and their level of interest.  I can pretty much tell in the first ½ day if what the organization says their going to accomplish is going feasible.  The key is always how involved are locals in project?  A lot of Western NGOs go overseas, make a lot of promises, and then the project is done.  They go back to where they came from and didn’t develop an infrastructure or leave funding that phases out over time that’s going to keep the project going.  If I don’t locals, and if the plan has no one locally getting a salary, I won’t fund it.  You have to think about locals.”

Like many others in the travel industry, Kerzner and their properties are trying to figure out how to engage their customers in the challenge of preservation.  But Debra sees it as an opportunity.

“One of the advantages we have over others in the industry is our incredible aquarian interaction program that really changes people’s lives by putting them in contact with wildlife.  We’re trying to figure out how then you ask them to take the next step and contribute to a program that helps save the coral reef.  A lot of people want to contribute—I do get checks from guests who want to help.  We are working on a way to engage guests in a more structured way.”

We’ll dive—pun obviously intended—much deeper into these issues with this “Blue Bahama Mama” on our panel in Singapore.  For now, I’ll keep Atlantis on the list of possible last minute winter escapes.

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Green Globe Trekker: Shampoo Down Under

Today on Green Globe Trekker: Jon Paul travels Down Under to Melbourne’s Alto Hotel on Bourke to explore the travel industry’s dirty secret—shampoo.

I wear my love for Australia on my sleeve—literally.  An image of the famed Sydney Opera House forms part of a tattoo sleeve on my right shoulder.  So it’s no surprise that I’m thrilled by the cutting edge eco-luxe efforts of Melbourne’s Alto Hotel on Bourke.  The property won Condé Nast Traveler’s World Savers Award in the Preservation Environmental and/or Cultural category, and General Manager Gary Stickland will be appearing on my panel at the Oct. 20 World Savers Congress in Singapore.  We recently discussed a dirty little travel industry problem—mini-shampoo bottles.

Those little plastic amenity bottles of lotions and hair products are quite the source of conversation—and frustration—in the hotel industry.  While most recognize them as a detriment to the environment, many properties are unwilling to eliminate them for fear of upsetting guests and a claim that there are not better options.

 

Alto's soap dispenser has raised no eyebrows

 

Alto placed a nice dispenser next to the vanity and in the shower, but even the boss Gary was suspect when he took over as General Manager.

“My first thought as a hotelier was that’s not going to work. But surprisingly, there’s been no feedback about it.  The contents that we use are same grade and quality—so it’s not that we’re skimping on quality.  I think a majority of guests have their own.  And when you start to run the numbers, it saves a significant amount of waste.  With about 25,000 rooms in Melbourne, on average about 10,000 bottles of shampoo are going into landfills every month—filled with chemical waste content.  Multiply that across the globe and you get a sense of the problem—we can’t afford to ignore it.”

Still, the problem remains unsolved and complicated by issues of security—would some crazy person pour toxic chemicals inside the shampoo and the next thing you know you’re blonde?  We’re definitely tackling this issue on the panel.

In addition to the shampoo solution, Alto Hotel on Bourke has a number of other cutting edge eco-initiatives including being Australia’s first carbon neutral hotel and providing guest key cards made from biodegradable cornstarch.  No wonder Al Gore’s environmental team took note and used the hotel as base camp during an important conference.

Not to say they’ve solved every problem, including the off-color issue of toilet paper.

“Finding the right quality toilet paper that is sustainable and also appears nice and white and bright is a problem.  A lot of the recycled post consumer waste or bamboo sugar cane products still appear grey.  And guest perception is they want white and fluffy.  But we’re not giving up.”

So has being so eco-forward been a competitive advantage for the property?

“Maybe right now with some of our corporate clients who know about what we’re doing and want to be supportive as part of their policies.  But I don’t see it as a long term competitive advantage because I hope that other hotels will be doing same type of things or a lot more.  Think of it this way.  Would you stay anywhere where you can’t have Internet?  No.  Today, web access is standard practice.  But it wasn’t always so.  Sustainability will one day be the same.”

For the sake of the planet, let’s hope that’s true.  But first we have to find a way to wash that shampoo right out of the room.

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Green Globe Trekker: Trashy Thoughts

Today on Green Globe Trekker: The politics of global travel industry trash is trickier than JP imagined.

Grand Hyatt Santiago developed a innovative recycling program benefitting local non-profits

Lately, as I fall asleep, trashy thoughts have been filling my head.  For that, I thank Hyatt Hotels & Resorts.  Not because of any particular steamy hotel fantasies, but because of a conversation I had with their head of Corporate Social Responsibility, Brigitta Witt.  We spoke because Brigitta is part the panel I am moderating in Singapore at the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Congress on Oct. 20.  Our discussion is titled “To Preserve and Protect—Can Going Green Coexist with Luxury?”  I wondered about the challenges a global operation like Hyatt might have vs. a smaller outfit like Costa Rica’s Cayuga Sustainable Hospitality that I wrote about previously.

What I got was a lesson in trash—the complexity of recycling, to be exact.

“We operate in 45 different countries.  Even in the United States, what a hotel in San Francisco can do is different than what one in Wichita can do.  Our hotels in San Francisco can recycle all of their waste, they can compost, because they have the support of the city and municipality.  Hotels in a lot of other places have a tremendous challenge in recycling—it takes a lot of infrastructure to pick up tons of glass.  Some cities don’t have a program, or even businesses to support us.  Even in California, we have hotels that physically must transport the waste on their own to a recycling center, because we can’t find someone to hire to do it.  Then the economy takes a dive, and it becomes too expensive to recycle because no one even wants it.  If we face that in just the United States, imagine what it’s like in other parts of the world.”

But all is not lost.  As Brigitta explained, even in cities or countries without a culture (or business) of recycling, hotel employees are coming up with inventive solutions.

“At our fairly large property in Santiago the employees were frustrated that they couldn’t recycle.  There was no recycling service spearheaded by city.  The hotel put out tons of glass and aluminum and paper every single week.  Our team there came up with a great idea—organize local charities that help children and families to come by once or twice per week and take the waste to local centers, and the charities get all the money.  It was a perfect solution for everyone.”

In fact, the team has been able to divert approximately 110 metric tons of waste from local landfills per year while helping local organization like Cenfa, which helps families in need, and Coaniquem, which works with child burn victims.  Now with a grant from Hyatt’s corporate office, the hotel is working with a non-profit called Fundacion Casa de la Paz to give the community a new waste management system and educate them about the importance of recycling.

At the panel, Brigitta will have much more to say about that despite the challenges of measuring carbon emissions and energy usage at various hotels around the globe—Hyatt is committed to reducing both by 25% (they even post their progress on their website).

For me, no more complaining about the extra clear recycling bag I have to drag to my NYC curb every Tuesday.

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