Month: June 2015

Exotic travel is real adventure in Baku, Azerbaijan

There are many styles of travel these days, from low cost camping to a luxury cruise costing thousands of dollars a night. You have to find your own comfort zone. I traveled recently to a country rarely visited, a type of travel I would classify as exotic.

Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was my destination for a week. I found a predominantly Islamic country that amazed. The mosques here do not broadcast their calls to prayer. Most women do not cover. Although formerly part of modern Russia, the society retains many ancient traditions. The local rabbi told me he is greeted warmly by imams all over.

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Georgia/June 7

We left the hotel at 8:45 for the Telavi market, supposedly famous throughout Georgia for its fresh produce from the region. We travelled by our bus. The market was nothing special as far as these markets go. We were given 1 hour to explore, and most people were ready to leave in 30 minutes.

When time to leave came, people had to use the restroom. So we returned to the hotel, which it turned out was walking distance from the market, although we didn’t realize it.

Next stop was an interesting stop in Gremi where we visited a site that was the center of this area for a long time until the Iranians came in and took over. The story was fascinating. Our English speaking guide spoke unintelligible English, but a good film with English subtitles explained the history. I’d like to find more information on Youtube. The church at this site is the Church of the Archangels constructed by King Levan of Kakheti (the name of the area over which there was fighting for control). The church wasn’t as interesting as the living quarters of the monarch. Many Georgian students were visiting. It was very crowded.

Roughly at the same time that the US was being discovered and settled, in Gremi, Christian aristocrats were fighting Persians who wanted control. It’s something that we don’t think about as Americans. The story is told at https://youtu.be/DW9L4oBD-vc. You can see that the problems in the Middle East go back centuries.

After visiting the church we had time for a coke at a small restaurant on site next to new construction where Christian pilgrims from all over can come and stay.

We left this place and went to Winery Khareba for lunch. This winery was a short drive away, beautiful, situated at the top of a hill. An elevator took us several stories up where we enjoyed the vistas. It was a very Western place with very nice facilities, toilets and Western prices.

After lunch we had a wine tasting of 3 “European” style wines. Here that means they are aged in barrels or metal tanks. They were pretty good wines—finally. I liked the semi-sweet red. The winery was mainly an aging center with vast underground tunnels in the hillside.

In the surrounding green lush countryside you could see many large vineyards.

Following lunch and the wine tasting we headed to see how huge earthen vessels that are used for Georgian-style wine are made. This was at one of 3 homes in a particular area where this tradition has been passed down for generations. The Georgian way of making wines used for centuries is to age it in earthen vessels buried underground.

Following this visit we went to a restaurant where we eventually would have our “farewell” dinner, a very downbeat affair. No one had any celebratory plans. One member made a feeble toast. On the way to this restaurant, Qartuli Eza, I noticed we passed the Telavi market. So we were generally in the suburbs of Telavi all day.

Before dinner we were shown how traditional Georgian bread is made in  round ovens. We had a chance to try it ourselves.

We also had a demonstration of how the traditional sweets, churchkhela, are made. Walnuts are strung together and dipped in a 50% grape juice reduction mixed with flour. Then they are left to dry. They look like candles. Not to my liking.

Before dinner we tasted a red and a white Georgian wine, also not to my liking. We also tasted “chacha,” the Georgian vodka made from a distillation process from the left over grapes skins in winemaking. Georgia wines are fermented with the skins and all. In the European style, the grape juice is separated from skins that drop to the bottom of the barrel. Tastes like pure grain alcohol.

We were all done eating around 8 PM, about 1 hour ahead of time. We all wanted to leave, but the Georgian leader seemed to delay that for as long as possible. Finally we left at 8:30, headed for the airport as several of the group had 4 AM flights to catch.

It would have made no sense to go to the hotel and then leave an hour later for the airport check in process. But it would have made sense to leave at 8 and get a few hours rest! But to the Georgians, dinner has to last a long time.

Speaking of dinner, the food was the same uninspired dishes we have now been served many times here. No imagination. I wasn’t hungry from lunch so ate very little.

We arrived at the airport at 11:30 after stopping twice to use the restrooms where we had to each take a turn as there was only one toilet for women and one for men.

It began to rain as we were driving to the airport. The weather for the trip had been great. This was actually our first extensive rainfall. It didn’t affect us as we were in the bus, except when we went to use the toilets.

We arrived at the Hotel Georgia in Tbilisi where we would stay the night before leaving tomorrow around 12:30 AM. Everyone was very tired. About 7 in our group, including us, would leave from the hotel for the airport at 3 PM tomorrow. When we arrived at the hotel, in a back alley somewhere, it was completely not obvious where the entrance was, down a hidden staircase.

The room was very basic, again. We were hoping for a nice room, as Jackie needed a good night’s sleep, still suffering from a cold. That was not to be. We were only given one towel and had to request a second. The air conditioning controls were missing—we had to request them. Once we got settled in, we slept fairly well. Tomorrow we leave.

 

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Georgia/June 6

Last night’s sleep was the worst ever. I think the hotel was the worst I have ever stayed in. It may still be under construction, but I couldn’t really tell. There’s no front desk. The rooms came with a bed—a very hard bed—and nothing else. No amenities. Maybe it will get better with time???

Breakfast was simple. Fried eggs, bread, jam, butter, and the standard cucumbers and tomatoes. Afterward I used the bathroom in the room avoiding getting everything wet by putting the shower towel on the floor to mop up the water.

The day today was mostly bus ride. We left the hotel at 8:45, 15 minutes before schedule and arrived at our first destination, past Telavi, at 5 PM, stopping along the way first for a highway roadside shop with groceries (very modern) 45 minutes, then an hour later for lunch (1½ hour), and 2 other bathroom breaks (about 15 minutes each). With such a long bus ride I was able to catch up on my sleep as I didn’t sleep last night. Half of the ride was retracing out steps to Tbilisi from the East and then forging new ground as we went Northwest of Tbilisi for the last few days of touring.

Our first stop was at Tsinandale, the ancestral home of a Georgian poet, ambassador, and warrior. There is a museum there. It was in very shabby condition with uncut grass and worn out look. An English speaking guide showed us around, but a no photo policy was strictly enforced by stern guards who reminded me of the Soviet Union’s KGB. They seemed to be everywhere. There were many students celebrating graduation there at the time as well as at least one bride. Not too impressive. While there we were given a single sample of a white Georgian wine at a tasting station set up next to the on-site coffee shop which appears to be a hangout for young people, with a library, piano, etc.

A few minutes from there, at around 6:30 we headed to dinner at a large winery in Georgia, Teliani Valley, one of Georgia’s 5 largest companies. There we sampled 2 wines, both dry, a red and white, and toured a small area where wine is aged in barrels with an explanation in English by one of the winery employees. The wine was the best I tasted in Georgia, but I still don’t see how it has gained its reputation based on my samplings. I wish the wine activities had been earlier in the trip so that we could have enjoyed purchasing wine and drinking it during the trip, as it is difficult to transport home by air.

The food was typical with dishes being brought out one after another in small portions and with several salad type dishes and Georgian bread on the table when we arrived. I find a lot of the food to be salty, even the bread and especially the cheeses. When we have soup, it is usually isn’t salty, but this usual course was not served this evening. The main dish was swadi (spelled phonetically), what we would call shishkabob, meat cooked on a skewer, only in Georgia they don’t intersperse the meat with vegetables. The meat this evening was pork. Very “tasty” as the Georgian speaking English would say. Highlight of the meal was, again, the pan roasted new potatoes. The traditional dish, kachapuri, like a cheese only quesadilla with thicker bread, was particularly good this evening, but felt very fatty and rich, probably with butter. Speaking of butter, it is rarely served even though bread is always there. This night was no exception. By the time the main dish—in this case swadi—was served, we all had pretty much filled up on the other things served first—a great way to save on the amount of expensive meat that is consumed!

Last stop, around 8 PM was the hotel. A big step up from the prior night. Jackie is feeling sick with a cold. I hope she gets a good night’s sleep. And me, too, although I am not tired having had plenty of time to sleep on the long bus ride.

 

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Georgia/June 5

Everyone is beginning to look forward to returning home at the end of the week, beginning to twitter about arrangements on the last day. So it was surprising when almost everyone was up at 7:30 and chomping at the bit to have breakfast which wasn’t set to begin until 8.

We were scheduled to get on the road at 9, but actually left early at 8:45.

A crisp morning temperature of 57 degrees Fahrenheit at the beginning of the day was about 10 degrees cooler than the hotel interior.

Around 10 AM we stopped in Kharshari 3 times in succession, first looking for a pharmacy, then a restroom (only one, a long line), and then a roadside sweet bread stop. There were several women right next to each other standing in front of roadside huts with ovens in them selling a typical warm, sweet bread, called nikuzi, right out of the oven.

At noon we stopped for an hour at a promising looking multistory building marked S Restaurant Hotel Café. Once inside, no one spoke English and nothing we wanted to order was available except for garlic eggplant, which I am told was good. They also had cold coffee, tea, bread, oranges, beer and soda. Most people managed to scrape together something to eat. Bathrooms were Western with soap and towels.

By the time we reached the Kataisi region, destination for our touring today, the temperature had risen  to about 80 degrees.

Kataisi is the second largest city in Georgia with a population of 20,165! It is a very old city, founded in the second century BC. It was once the capital of Georgia.

High atop a mountainside overlooking the city is Gelati Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built by David the Builder in the 12th century and consists of 3 main churches. With a guide who spoke understandable English, we visited two of them, the Church of the Virgin and  the Church of St. George. We ran out of time before seeing St. Nimo’s Church.

The 2 churches we saw were decorated in beautiful frescos that were whitewashed by the Turks in the 14th century in an attempt to wipe out Christianity. Most had been restored in the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The guide explained the history of the place and St. George who died in the 13th century. We saw his grave next to the church vineyards where monks make wine for church ceremonies and for drink.

All in all, Gelati, unlike Rabati yesterday, was the real McCoy, not a reimagining of an old site, quite interesting.

Leaving Gelati we went searching for a restroom, as there were none at Gelati and would not be one for another hour to our next stop. Our bladders aching, we stopped at 2 places that turned us down for using their toilet. Finally we landed at a restaurant in Kataisi for this purpose. The place looked like it would have  been a better choice for lunch than where we had stopped.

All bathroom refreshed we found our bus had conked out. We boarded another one—old, un-air conditioned, and almost didn’t make it back–for the trip to Prometheus Cave, taking only what we needed, as instructed.

Prometheus Cave was a huge cave that, judging from the comments, everyone enjoyed, even though there was nothing particularly Georgian about it except its location. The site was discovered in 1984 and opened as a tourist attraction in 2012. It says there are 800 steps and 1450 meters of walking in the caves. It was pretty much like most caves, but it was uncharacteristically very well developed with handrails and lighting that were up to Western standards. The cave did have an interesting Disney-esque end with a boatride on an underground river from inside the cave to the tour’s endpoint.

Our bus was undergoing repairs, so our baggage was delivered to us at the hotel where we checked in immediately before dinner. The hotel had the same toilet/shower combination bathrooms we all had in Ajerbaijan without any way to keep the bathroom floor or toilet dry when the shower is used.

The evening dinner was the same as the many banquet meals we had in Georgia served family style with small portions delivered to each table one dish after another. The dishes included the same basic fare we have seen many times now: tomatoes and cucumbers, an eggplant dish, Russian salad, a carrot salad, pan fried potatoes, beef stew, stuffed bell peppers, and overdone chicken. The free white wine was pretty bad.

One of our members, Shirley, had checked into her room but did not show up to dinner. When one of us went looking for her they found that she was locked in. The door did not open from the room side. A hotel staff member had to be given a key through the window and open the door from the hall.

Seems there is only one room key per room, strapped to a heavy key ring that no one would want to carry around if they left the hotel. Shirley could not call the desk as the rooms are very basic, meaning there is no phone, no TV, really no furniture other than a single armed dinner table chair, and no place to put clothing—just a very hard bed. So we lived out of suitcases another day. Breakfast was set at 8 AM with bags packed to move on to another location tomorrow—hopefully with the bus in operational order.

 

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Georgia/June 4

Breakfast had “Georgian yogurt” to which I added honey. Just like Greek yogurt. Tasted like ice cream!

Who would have thought that the largest park “in Europe” exists in Georgia? It does, and we visited it. Actually Georgia is in Asia, but, that’s being very technical, I guess.  Georgia looks toward Europe, not Asia.

The park is like the parks in the US, only you can hike the longest trail that takes 5 days. We didn’t see them, but were told that there are cabins for hikers. Jackie met a couple from Poland hiking. There are brown bears and foxes, but they stay away from humans. I hiked it a bit, but the foliage was just like at home, the ground was muddy from the rain the previous night, and the path was hard to walk as there were many large rocks. It was fairly level on the easiest trail. Private homes bordered the entrance. I broke away from the group and was able to walk a bit by myself enjoying the beautiful sounds of the babbling brooks and birds on a delicious day, around 75 degrees.

After this, we set out for lunch in a nice restaurant, Inka Café, with a nice toilet—a large matter when choosing where to eat. I chose to go a few doors down to a bakery for desert and shared them with the table at the Inka Café. They weren’t very sweet, a characteristic I found in common with Azerbaijan. Two large deserts at the bakery were about $1.60 as opposed to the $2 for a piece of cake at the Inka Café. I also had an ice cream pop, 25 cents, from the mini grocer next to the Inka Cafe. Boy it seems living here would be cheap!

Next stop was Rabati Castle, a reimagination of what the castle used to look like at the same location where different rulers over the years have defended this part of Georgia. Only small parts of the original walls remain. It was about an hour’s drive from Borjomi to get there. Not much to it, really, but worth a look. There is supposedly a synagogue near the castle but we were unable to get there due to access being on an inclining narrow dirt road and us traveling in a large bus. Interestingly, Rabati Castle has the best displayed museum we have seen yet in Georgia, better than the National Museum in Tbilisi. With modern lighting and display cabinets, and explanations in English, it feels like you’re in America. No photos allowed. Its excellence is probably because BP paid for it all as a way of giving back for its energy development. Rabati Castle has a hotel on site for those  that want a Disney-like experience of staying in a castle.

Back at the hotel we packed again for another change of hotel.

 

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Georgia/June 3

The day was mostly travelling by bus. We left around 9 AM. Travelling back over roads that we had previously travelled until near Gori and turning east. From there the scenery was distinctly green with lots of agriculture and more developed countryside, as opposed to the very rural areas we had been to.

Our final destination was Borjomi, a formerly popular Russian resort. Now it is depressingly in disrepair. We ate at a restaurant at the former train depot. You could tell it was once glorious, but it was all run down. A train that hadn’t been used in years was on the tracks. Inside a few homeless occupied passenger seats.

The grass in the nearby park was long and unattended. The nearby restaurants looked like they had no customers.

We headed out of the center of town to what is now a redeveloped area that looked quite nice, actually. Borjomi is known for its natural healing waters. Around the springs the Polish, Georgian, and local government have collaborated to create a beautiful tourist area with a grand Crown Plaza hotel that will be finished next year. I could see coming back here, if it weren’t so hard to get to. I definitely would not drive as the mountain roads are treacherous. The spring water is salty and tastes bad to me, but people come with huge jugs to fill with it.

A stop at the local museum before heading to the hotel. The museum was very basic, obviously in need of a lot of money to bring it up to modern standards.

The hotel, Vilavita, was actually in a nearby town, Bakuriani. We’ll stay there 2 nights. It’s quite nice but in a very rural part of a ski resort that is essentially closed down for the summer. The bus driver couldn’t find it without having a local lead him to it in his car. There are cows outside our window.

Dinner was very good—anything would seem good after last night’s truly terrible dinner.

By dinnertime I was exhausted, although we really hadn’t done much at all today. Heavy rains started before I went to sleep early, around 9:30. My leg was hurting badly. Took some pain killer. Bed was a sagging thin mattress. Good thing I was tired—fell right to sleep.

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Georgia/June 2

Up at 5:30 with the sun to a beautiful snow peaked mountain view. A little chilly, but nice. A good Western style shower. Breakfast was set for 8 AM with departure at 9.

We set out continuing on the  Georgian Military Road headed for St. Gergeti Trinity Church. It’s high in the mountains under the shadow of Mount Kazbeh, tallest in Georgia. Snow covered and awesome.  I climbed to the church. When I was told I would have to walk down, I decided to abort my climb about 7/8th of the way up.

The “jeep” ride down in a Mitsubishi van was almost harder than the climb.

After lunch we headed to Daryel Gorge, said to be the only canyon in Georgia. Turned out to be a big yawn. Only thing it is at the Russian border. So people enjoyed getting out  to see the checkpoint on the  Georgian side. You could not see the Russian side as there is a 1.5 kilometer neutral zone.

We ended up finishing early. So we made a stop at an uninteresting Russian monument on the way back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel we had time for a rest before dinner at 7. It was among the worst meals I have had. Heavily salted shredded chicken and lettuce along with chopped tomatoes, a tasteless beet salad, highly salted chicken noodle soup, and some other unidentifiable tasteless stuff. The highlight of the dinner was tea with local honey. When that happens, you know there’s a problem.

Since there is nothing around our hotel, we watched a movie on the Kindle before I dozed off.

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June 1, 2015–Beginning a week in the Republic of Georgia

A banquet last night with the same food as other banquets we’ve had here: Mediterranean salads, kachipuri, eggplant rolled around walnut paste with a pomegranate seed on top, chicken and potato stew, lamb stew, Georgian bread, with assorted fruit salad desert.

This morning, headed to Uplistsikhe caves, the site of a 4th century BC pagan town dwellers that lived in sandstone caves in the mountains near Gori. The site has only been recently excavated. The time period makes it about 100 years earlier than Ephesus. Yet the civilization here was nowhere near as sophisticated. Around 6th century it became inhabited by the local Georgian Orthodox Christians who added rooms for their use. They remained here until 1970.

Next stop was Gori, site of Stalin’s birth and a badly run down museum in his name. The Georgians would probably rather forget he ever existed, given the atrocities he committed. The (barely) English-speaking tour guide didn’t help elucidate the exhibit, a series of artifacts and photographs in rough chronological order. She would say, “Here is a picture of Stalin with the Minister of Agriculture.” “Here is a picture of Stalin in Sochi with his second wife.” She added no context whatsoever and told no story of Stalin’s place in history.

We took the “Georgian Military Road” to our hotel, Cross Pass in Gudauri, stopping on the way at Ananuri where the air was very cold. Right after passing Ananuri we hit snow on the road. Then rain. In the distance you could see peaks of the Caucasus Mountains covered in snow. They remain with snow year round.

Finally arriving at our hotel–in a ski location during season—we had a buffet dinner after checking into our basic rooms with rather sparse heating. At least we have a private room with a shower that has a stall. For 2 weeks we have been showering with the toilet!

It’s beautiful outside. The internet says it’s 45 degrees.

Looking forward to a day of adventure tomorrow.

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Nairobi

May 15, 2015

Kenya is the most developed country in Eastern Africa, and Nairobi is its capital. Taxis are the most common form of transportation for visitors. With street lights and traffic signs that are culturally treated as suggestions only, driving is dangerous. Seat belts are a rarity, but you’ll want to use them if they exist.

Contrary to what you expect in Africa, because of its elevation Nairobi doesn’t get extremely warm. It rains a lot, leaving lush green flora all around. Mansions exist next to slums. Along the main streets leading to upscale malls, make-shift retailers hawk all sorts of wares from sandals to sofas to chickens. Given recent terror attacks, the safety of a brand-name hotel is recommended
Many diplomats call Nairobi home because one of the United Nations’ main offices is located there in a golf course-like campus in a neighborhood of Nairobi with hilly, clean streets lined with single family residences.

On the day I visited the UN, I had tried to make a telephone reservation but could not get through. So I just showed up, passport in hand. As luck would have it, I was explaining why I didn’t have a reservation when a guide from the tourist office was reporting to work. She explained that the reservation system was on the blink (something that should not surprise anyone travelling in the developing world). She walked me quickly past security and ended up being my tour guide in a group that included the Kenyan rugby team, treated like rock stars there. Such unexpected encounters like this are what makes international travel exciting.

Set aside a half day for your visit to the UN. Your guided walking tour stops to examine and explain the meaning of the sculptures in the gardens — gifts from member states. “Green” buildings, friendly on the environment and low on utility usage, are meant to set an example to member nations. A ceremonial pathway has flags of all the member nations displayed. The main assembly room where UN organizations meet on a regular basis is filled with all the expected, regalia and sophisticated translation equipment as well as untypical air conditioning and Wi-Fi. During your visit you’ll be able to stand where world leaders address the world.

Plan to eat lunch in the on-site cafeteria which has food from around the world. There you can drink the water, something that is not generally recommended in Kenya. UN workers in their native dress make it a truly international experience.

Other highlights of Nairobi include the site of the old U.S. Embassy, blown up in a terrorist attack in 1998. Today the site is an oasis from the downtown chaos with a quiet park and memorial. Kenyans will come to eat a bag lunch on a park bench. Because of its small entrance fee — equivalent to about five cents — mainly meant (I think) to discourage use of the park’s public restrooms, there are fewer people than the hordes on the surrounding streets. Inside the small memorial building, a very moving film re-tells the story of that devastating day almost forgotten in the shadow of 9/11 three years later.

After seeing the embassy memorial, walk to the Railroad Museum close by. If you ask nicely the cashier will explain the highlights. You come to understand that the history of the railroad is intimately tied to the colonialization of a continent. Not so ancient railroad cars and communication gear make it clear how far we’ve come and how fast. Old maps explain how East Africa was developed and why.

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9/11 Memorial and Museum

Fountain at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. / Photo by Michael Wald

When you go online to make your reservations, the first few sites that pop up in a Google search are not the official sites. They indicated that tickets were sold out on the day I wanted to go. But there were plenty of tickets available and more time options on the official site. Friday and Saturday are the most popular days, with extended hours, but on the Friday I went, the line at the walk up ticket booth was only three people deep. I could have saved the $2 handling fee. I had reserved for 1:30 p.m. but because it was so easy to get there by subway (arriving at the Cortlandt Street station on the R train puts you right in front of the Museum), I was early and had spare time.The sky was a bright blue and clear on a beautiful spring day in New York City when I visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, much like the fall day in 2001 when tragedy struck the U.S. I first made reservations online for my ticket ($24 plus a $2 handling fee). Although high, the entrance fee supports a memorial that is needed to preserve the memory of that day. I overheard many children — too young to know — asking questions about that day.

Approaching the site, you cannot see the beautiful memorials. In the footprint of the North and South Towers of the former World Trade Center, fountains drain water into holes so deep you cannot see the bottom. Around each fountain, the names of those that perished in that place are inscribed. This is a solemn cemetery for many family members. Visitors can memorialize their thoughts in special stations for this purpose. Next to the memorial is the museum for which you need a ticket.

Once inside, you are directed to download an app that is meant to explain the museum using your own smartphone. There is also a device you can rent. I suggest you do that. The smartphone app was not well done. I frequently found myself listening to an explanation without knowing where the item discussed was supposed to be located. But don’t get distracted by the app, which only deals with artifacts about the tragedy displayed around the actual exhibition, which I almost missed entirely.

In the center of the artifacts, which are located two floors below ground level, is a dark exhibit hall that takes you through the history step by step, starting with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. No app works here, and no photos are allowed. The exhibit hall is located directly below the North Tower fountain on ground level, two floors up. It is dark, crowded and extensive. If you become overwhelmed, there are doors that let you exit before you reach the end of the exhibit, which could easily happen. If you wait to see this main exhibit to the end of your museum stay, you may lose stream before you can absorb it all. I recommend starting here. It won’t be uplifting. In fact, I was depressed. But it is important to see and remember.

As I left the exhibits at 2:50 p.m., I posed a question to a guard who mentioned a “great film” in the auditorium “beginning at 3 p.m.” The auditorium is located on the second floor. In other words, it is three stories above where I was. There was no signage indicating this movie existed. And there were few people in attendance. I had to run to catch it as it was far from the exhibit hall. The movie turned out to be a highlight of the visit. Don’t miss it. In it public figures in charge that day recall their thinking and actions.

Although very sobering, put this place on your must see list. Everyone who goes to Hawaii visits Pearl Harbor. Everyone who visits New York should experience this wonderful museum and memorial.

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