Next phase of the United Saga

First, Oscar Munoz “apologized” for re-accomodating” a paying passenger – by beating the snot out of him and dragging him off the plane.

Then, this fine specimen of corporate leadership doubles down by blaming the passenger.

Finally, United offers a real apology and promises changes.

With regards to United’s “apology” for the event,

“The sentiment certainly rings a bit hollow when it follows two previous failures and 36 hours of intense public pressure…The back-against-the-wall, through-gritted-teeth apology isn’t generally a winning strategy.” (Jeremy Robinson-Leon)

Have a look at these articles from the New York Times about the matter:

The Internet, of course, has come up with its own response:

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Keep up the pressure on United until things improve, not only with this airline but throughout the industry.

The security officers involved in this debacle are not squeaky-clean either – three of them have been suspended pending reviews.

Lastly, the social media flap and internal policy reviews are not the only consequences – the affected passenger has retained a high-powered attorney and begun steps to file a lawsuit. As much as I execrate frivolous legal action, I hope whatever happens is a serious financial incentive for United to be careful how it treats paying customers in the future.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, doubles down.

My previous entry dealt with an event in Chicago where a paid passenger was roughed-up and dragged off a flight by Chicago Aviation Security “officers” – notice those scare quotes, they are there for a reason – for refusing to give up his paid seat.

  • In an email to employees, United CEO Oscar Munoz addressed an incident in which an overbooked passenger had to be forcibly removed from a United plane.
  • Passenger described as “disruptive and belligerent.”
  • Munoz: “I emphatically stand behind all of you.”

United’s policies are crack-headed to begin with.

  1. Overbooking is a legal but disrespectful and passenger-unfriendly practice
  2. Throwing passengers off a flight to accommodate deadheading employees (regardless of whether or not they are needed for another flight) is morally reprobate.

Here’s a screen cap from the internal memo Munoz sent to United’s staff:

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And here’s pretty much the reality – the video of the event is damning:

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The customer defied Chicago Transportation Security because he had a right to be on the plane, in a seat which he had paid for. As a physician with patients to see, it’s not surprising that he was upset. When people are upset they don’t always act in the most rational manner, behave like sheep, put their heads down and blindly comply with corporate douchebaggery.

“Mr.” Munoz, dragging a paying customer off an airplane is not “re-acccomodating” him, you insufferable asshat.

If Oscar Munoz thinks that “established procedures” for dealing with unhappy customers should include calling for armed men to brutalize, assault, and humiliate a passenger, that’s a good reason for the flying public to shun United like the Ebola virus.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 

United breaks guitars, and beats up paying customers.

We live in a tumultuous world, with a lot going on around us. There’s a lot that we can’t do much about. But I’ve always felt that corporate douchebaggery and abuse of power need to be called out whenever it happens.

According to a video posted at Facebook, and reported on at the Courier Journal, the following events just took place.

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  1. United Airlines flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. (That practice in itself is worthy of a lot of discussion, but it’s standard operating procedure in the airlines and hotel world.)
  2. Passengers were told at the gate that the flight was overbooked and United, offering $400 and a hotel stay, was looking for one volunteer to take another flight to Louisville at 3 p.m. Monday.
  3. Passengers were allowed to board the flight. (Notice: you’ve paid for your ticket, and you have your butt in a seat.)
  4. Passengers were told that four people needed to give up their seats to stand-by United employees that needed to be in Louisville on Monday for a flight. (United feels that deadheading employees are more important than paid passengers.)
  5. Passengers were told that the flight would not take off until the United crew had seats.
  6. The offer was increased to $800, but no one volunteered.
  7. A manager came aboard the plane and said a computer would select four people to be taken off the flight. (“The Reaping.”)
  8. One couple volunteered as tribute and left the plane.
  9. The man in the video was confronted. He became “very upset” and said that he was a doctor who needed to see patients at a hospital in the morning.
  10. The manager told him that security would be called if he did not leave willingly, and the man said he was calling his lawyer.
  11. One security official came and spoke with him, and then another security officer came when he still refused. Then, she said, a third security official came on the plane and threw the passenger against the armrest before dragging him out of the plane.

So here’s an elderly Asian doctor who needs to see his patients in the morning, who has a confirmed, paid ticket on a United Airlines flight, and because UA overbooked and wants their employees to have free seats, three armed thugs come on board and knock the old man out before dragging him, bloodied, off the plane, because he wouldn’t surrender his rights.

Great work, United. This beats breaking guitars six ways from breakfast.

This is what should have happened:

  1. United doesn’t overbook their flights (Not likely, it’s common travel practice.)
  2. United continues to bump the incentive – $1,000, $1,200, and free hotel, etc. etc. – until enough people take the offer. It would have happened quite soon, problem solved.

Here’s what I’m hoping happens:

  1. The physician in question does indeed get hold of a high-powered legal firm and sues the company for enough money to buy the entire European Union, plus Canada.
  2. United’s stock ends up in the Mariana Trench because nobody ever flies with them again.
  3. The three armed thugs (security personnel, cops, whatever) are fired and end up spending the rest of their days sweeping up after horses in Texas rodeos.

Here’s what’s likely to happen:

  1. Some sort of settlement, and the affair quietly fades away.
  2. United continues to abuse passengers because, after all, most of us are very comfortable and there will be a Starbucks to go to at our destination. (Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people continue to protest in Serbia and Ecuador and around the world because they are tired of government corruption.)
  3. “Proper procedure was followed.”

Disclaimer: I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the event. There are always more facts to any story than are being reported. But regardless, this looks really bad at first blush. If United’s corporate leadership were any sort of humans, they’d be filling their britches and entering DEFCON-5 damage control mode, but I sincerely doubt they’ll lose a minutes sleep over the event.

Don’t fly United. This is really sad in a lot of ways, because for the longest time United was the best of the best in airlines in the USA, and I have a long history of flying with them since the 50s.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 

Ten Commandments for Travelers

I gathered this little bit of shared wisdom long ago before the age of the Internet or even email. I don’t know where it came from – Reader’s Digest, a mechanic’s wall, who knows. But I’ve always saved it and cherished it because as one who has been blessed to travel to many places in the world, I have found the thoughts contained to be accurate and valuable.

I.       Thou shalt not expect to find things as thou hast left them at home…for thou hast left home to find things different.

In an interview with Frances Mayes, author of “Under the Tuscan Sun,” Michael Shapiro quotes a story he heard from his grandfather about a traveler coming into a town.

He asks the first person that he sees, what are the people like in this town? The man replies, what were they like in the last town? The traveler says, they were miserable, horrible, terrible. So the man says, I think you’ll find the people here are just like that. A second traveler asks the man, sir tell me what are the people like in this town? So the man replies, how did you find the people in the last town? Oh, they were wonderful, generous, kind. And the man says, I think you’ll find the people here are just the same.

In describing his perception of Mayes’ attitude while traveling, he wrote,

I think that’s your perspective, too: you come to a place with an open heart and a generous spirit. You go into a restaurant and say, “What’s the specialty of the house?” Not, “I demand this.” I wonder if you have any advice for travelers as to how they can receive the best by bringing their best.

Mayes replied,

“I think trying to leave America as far behind as possible and realizing that the world is still really various. To come here wanting what you get in America is really a sad way to travel.”

It’s sort of like the old saw about relationships:

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I think it was a good idea for the author to put this “commandment” first – because in my experience, it’s the grand key, the summum bonum of travel. If you approach travel with vulnerability, being open to surprises, and take joy in whatever comes – even if it turns out that your “adventure” is a catastrophe – you will most likely have something of value to take away from the experience which will last a lifetime.

Rabbi Hillel said this:

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By interpretation, “That which is distasteful unto yourself – do not unto others. This is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

In the same way, the rest of these “commandments” simply expand upon and refine the central thesis of the first.

II.      Thou shalt not let thy fellow travelers get on thy nerves, for thou art paying out good money to have a good time.

If you travel in a group or with a tour, this is great advice. I’ve always steered clear of such things, simply because then you don’t have to worry about other people’s idiosyncrasies or enforced schedules.

There’s a great movie from 1969 called “If it’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium.” Starring Suzanne Pleshette, it depicts “the humorous adventures of a group of American tourists taking an eighteen-day guided bus tour of nine European countries.” At the moment, the full movie is on YouTube, but who knows how long it will last:

III.     Thou shalt not take anything too seriously, for a carefree mind is the beginning of a holiday

Now, we’re not talking bodily mayhem here. Personal injury, being a victim of crime, things like that can happen anywhere, even in your own comfortable home. These are not things I would wish upon anyone, and if they happen, they have to be dealt with. But beyond that, very little that takes place on a trip is the end of the world. Lost baggage, lost passports, sickness, missed connections… it’s all part of the deal. As Jenkins Lloyd Jones once said,

“Life is like an old-time rail journey — delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride.”

That said, it’s not a bad idea to head for a foreign adventure with preparation aforethought – never take anything along with you that you can’t afford to lose, because even in countries other than Japan, shiatsu happens.

IV.     Remember thy passport that thou knowest where it is at all times…for a traveler without a passport is a voyager without a country.

It’s a good idea to carry your passport and most of your cash in an under-clothing belt or pouch, preferably RFID-blocking. Only have what you need for the day in your purse or wallet, because if a pickpocket strikes, you’ve only lost a little money and your holiday isn’t ruined. Keep that wallet in a front pocket of your pants, not a back pocket or jacket pocket – those are the easiest target for thieves. And keep that purse zipped closed, and with your hand on the straps over your shoulders.

Scams

In this category, it’s wise to be mindful of the fact that there are people out there who see visitors as a walking ATM machine. Just keep a few things in mind and you’ll be better prepared than the average tourist:

  • Watch out for the “can you help me” scam. A friendly soul comes up to you with a map and asks for help finding “Piazza Navona” or some such. You put down your bags, get involved in looking at the map to be helpful, and when you turn around, that laptop or briefcase or suitcase is gone.
  • A “good samaritan” comes up to you and points out some ketchup or mustard on your coat (which they just squirted there), and busies themselves removing it with a hanky… while they or an accomplice rifle your pockets or make off with your bags.
  • The Phony Police Ploy: Two thieves in uniform — posing as “Tourist Police” — stop you on the street, flash their bogus badges, and ask to check your wallet for counterfeit bills or “drug money.” You won’t even notice some bills are missing until after they leave. Never give your wallet to anyone. This happened to me in Romania, but as far as I know, I was fortunate not to lose anything.
  • If you are going to be traveling on trains overnight, especially through high-risk areas like southern Italy, a great trick is to get an economical bicycle lock and coil it through your suitcase handle and the luggage rack rungs. While on the train from Catanzaro to Rome, I had some young punk come into my compartment and try to make off with my bag during a stop in Naples. I was asleep, but woke up in time to get the thing out of his hands. This would have avoided the problem altogether. Baggage thieves don’t usually carry the kind of tools needed to defeat even low-cost locks – they want to be in and out before you wake up or come back to your seat.

A good list of things to watch out for is here.

V.     Blessed is he who can say “Thank You” in any language…and it shall be worth more to him than much advice.

I can’t stress this one enough.

An American tourist on one of those 10-countries in 10-days tours developed a survival tactic that stood her in relatively good stead for most of her trip. She would walk into a store and say in her loudest voice, “Does anyone here speak English?” One day she must have gotten her itinerary confused, because a clerk sidled up to her and whispered discreetly, “Madam, this is London.”

Another joke goes,

What do you call someone who speaks three languages? – Trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks two languages? – Bilingual. What do you call a person who only speaks one language? – American.

It has been my experience that people in foreign lands, long unimpressed by the loud, demanding attitude of the typical “Ugly American,” are delighted when someone takes the time to learn even the rudiments of their language. I recall traveling on business in Rome in 1984; having lived in Naples for about 18 months, I had become relatively fluent in Italian. When I reached the office of the company I was visiting, my contact said, “Ah! Finalmente un’Americano che parla Italiano!” (Oh, finally an American that can speak Italian!) Even learning how to say “Please” and “Thank you” really does go a long, long way in generating good will. A remarkable resource for learning some critical phrases (including “My hovercraft is full of eels”) is Omniglot.

On the other hand, even with some language skills, it’s possible to make an ass of yourself (the joke is funnier if you have some French and some Yiddish.)

Mrs. Rothschild is in a fancy Paris shop; she inquires as to the price of a tablecloth.
“Combien pour ce tischtoch?” (“How much for this tablecloth?”)
“Cinquante francs, madame.”  (“Fifty francs, Madam.”)
“Cinquante francs? Mais c’est une shmatte!”  (“Fifty francs? But it’s a rag!”)
With indignation, the clerk replies, “Une shmatte, madame? Quelle chutzpah!” (“A rag, madam? Quelle chutzpah!”)

VI.   Blessed is the man who can make change in any currency…for lo, he shall not be cheated.

With the advent of the Euro, the issue of changing money in Europe is significantly diminished, but there are still many, many countries that use their own currency and it’s good to have a handle on ways to save money.

Europe Trip - Jun 1971 - Toulouse Market

Market in Toulouse, France

In 1969 and 1970, I was blessed to be able to live in Europe and did a lot of traveling by rail. I recall stopping in to a photo shop in France for some additional film (you youngsters may need to Google the history of photography if you’re not familiar with that term) and as I paid, the little French lady behind the counter smiled and said, “Vous connaissez bien des sous!” (You know your money well!) I have a suspicion that I was shamelessly overcharged for the film, but hey, I know how to count.

CNBC posted a good list of money-saving tips while traveling. To this I would add, Never change money at an airport or at a hotel. You’ll be charged exorbitant service fees and/or be given the lousiest rate possible. If you need funds to get into town, change only the bare minimum, and find a local bank for the bulk of your currency exchanges. Change only as much as you think you’ll spend in cash, because you’ll lose a percentage on the exchange when you hit your next country.

VII.     Thou shalt not worry.  He that worrieth has few pleasures, and few things are ever fatal.

This is related to No. III. Take it easy. Relax. Things will work out. Enjoy each day, each moment, and look for the little joys. Wander the side streets away from the tourist crowd and just take time looking at the architecture or the little touches of life.

Mestre - Italian Courtyard Cafe

Tiny outdoor café in Mestre, Italy (Mainland Venice)

VIII.    Thou shalt not judge the people of a country by the one person with whom thou hast trouble.

You’re going to meet morons. Some, or a few, may try to take advantage of you. Some will by angry at tourists. These are in the minority. Don’t let your vacation or experience be ruined by bumping in to one of these – there are plenty at home as well. If you’ve ever worked retail, or as a server, or a call-center agent, you’ve met all of them. Look for the good, the kind, and the wonderful – you’ll find them.

IX.     In Rome, thou shalt do as the Romans. When in difficulty, use common sense and friendliness.

Culture and customs vary widely around the world. What’s common to the laborer in Kinshasa or the farmer in Viet Nam may seem strange, other-worldly, or downright disgusting to you (I’m thinking casu marzu here, among other things.) But it is critical to remember that our customs and culture may be just as off-putting to them in exchange. It’s all about what you know, what’s familiar to you, and what you grew up with.

Part of the joy of travel is experiencing the lifestyle of others first-hand. Back in the old days – I mean really old – the only way for many people to “travel” was to haul out the stereopticon

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and sit around looking at stereo views of strange and exotic lands.

Beijing

There was no way you could sample a wonderful Phở or a divine bowl of callos from your living room. And enjoying local cuisine is one of the greatest joys of traveling, in my book (and on my waistline).

Short of learning some of the local language, there is no better way to endear yourself to the locals than to express a love of their cooking. I remember sitting around a table with a contingent of translators in Kinshasa, lustily dipping up antelope moamba with manioc fufu, and watching their smiles as I relished what to them must have been as common as a Sabretts™ hot dog to a New Yorker.

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Haggis. If you haven’t had it, you haven’t lived.

Take the time before you travel to learn about some of the basic customs and courtesies of countries you will be visiting, to avoid giving unwanted offense. A great resource (although paid) is CultureGrams, a database of most countries of the world, with reports (Madagascar sample) outlining history, government, culture, customs, and other information that would be most useful for travelers.

For free, Google is your friend. Search for “German customs for travelers” or “American customs to avoid,” for example and scan what you find. You’ll get some good ideas of things to do and not do in any given country you plan on visiting. Some articles are more populist than others, but you can still gather some good information. Forewarned is forearmed.

X.      Remember that thou art a guest in every land, and he that treateth his host with respect shall be treated in return as an honored guest.

Going back to Commandment I, the biggest takeaway is basically Wheaton’s Law (bowdlerized): “Don’t be a moron.” If humanity would adopt this one guideline for life, this earth could be close to a paradise.

Despite the fact that almost anything you get in your inbox with the word “actual” is most likely 100% false or fictitious or contrived, this list of “Actual Complaints Received by Thomas Cook Vacations from Dissatisfied Customers” should be taken with a grain of salt or two. That said, you know things like this have happened – and I’d bet any travel agent worth their salt has heard one or all of these in various forms, so consider these representative fac-similes:

1. “I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”

2. “It’s lazy of the local shopkeepers in Puerto Vallarta to close in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during ‘siesta’ time — this should be banned.”

3. “On my holiday to Goa in India , I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”

4. “We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our own swimsuits and towels. We assumed it would be included in the price”

5. “The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room.”

6. “We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow.”

7. “They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax.”

8. “No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”

9. “Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers.”

10. “We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish.”

11. “The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun.”

12. “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England . It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”

13. “I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends’ three-bedroom and ours was significantly smaller.”

14. “The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the resort’. We’re trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service.”

15. “There were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”

16. “We had to line up outside to catch the boat and there was no air-conditioning.”

17. “It is your duty as a tour operator to advise us of noisy or unruly guests before we travel.”

18. “I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes.”

19. “My fiance and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

Don’t be these people. Be kind, be open, be prepared… and your travel experience will probably be one you will remember with pleasure for the rest of your life.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

The Shame at America’s Borders

Yesterday on February 27th, the New Yorker published a piece about the ordeal of Mem Fox, a well-known Australian author of children’s books, who was coming to the US to be a keynote speaker at a conference in Wisconsin.

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Read the article. You should hear her own account of the events – but I suspect it doesn’t do justice to what Ms. Fox must have been feeling – and what all the other people must have been feeling – as they were detained, barked at, yelled at, bullied, and humiliated by “professional agents.”

“When asked for comment about Fox’s account, Jaime Ruiz, a spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at LAX, said,

“That is not how we treat passengers. We treat passengers with respect and professionalism. We have zero tolerance for passengers being treated unprofessionally.”

Well, Jaime, guess what – that’s how you *do* treat passengers. It happened. It was real. Any sort of statement or apology should include an assurance that steps will be taken to change things. Because it was not just Ms. Fox that was treated that way – it was an entire roomful of other human beings, many who did not even speak English and who don’t have the social status to get on the public radar.

The Greeks have a saying: “Η γλώσσα κόκαλα δεν έχει και κόκαλα τσακίζει” (The tongue has no bones, but it breaks bones.) Your dismissive statement will not heal the deep cuts to the spirit of this gentle lady, and all the other gentle ladies and gentlemen whom your agents treat with all the delicacy of a fourth-grade bully with his posse behind the school.

Another report at the Washington post states,

After returning to her home in Adelaide, Fox filed a complaint with the U.S. Embassy in Canberra and received a “charming” email in response. “I took it as an apology from all of America,” she says.

While I’m glad the embassy responded positively, and that the apology was well received, I have no doubt that the memory of the experience will never truly fade. One kind diplomatic functionary is good, but to eliminate this kind of abomination change must start at the top – because attitude rolls downhill. And from what I’ve seen, it’s the attitude at the top that is enabling this kind of jingoistic, xenophobic vileness.

Ms. Fox, I’m deeply ashamed by the actions of my government, and very sorry this happened to you.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Global Travel Network in Salt Lake City: Avoid these ripsters like the plague.

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Around December 20th, I entered a drawing for a $2,500 mall shopping spree. Of course, I didn’t win – but what I got was a call from representatives at “Rewards Fulfillment,” letting me know “we had been selected” to receive a “luxury vacation.”

Well, I’ve written about this kind of scam before. This time, it was Global Travel Network. They called me, told me “I had been selected based on my demographic profile,” and all I had to do was go up to Salt Lake for a presentation and to collect my prize.

The musicians have changed, but the music remains the same.

I told them I was not interested, and why. Thank you for calling. Goodbye.

Were we done? Not by a long shot. These people or their contractors called me back five times more, each one giving the same spiel, and each one being given the same information from me: 1) I’m not interested. 2) This is the [n]th time I’ve been called. 3) please remove me from your database.

Today I got a call from a lady who acknowledged that I had told previous agents that I wasn’t interested. She launched into a sales pitch, saying she was from quality control and her job was to make sure that her agents were doing their job right. I explained to her Rule No. 1 of sales: “Never try to sell to someone who isn’t going to buy.” Yet she rattled on for 15 minutes, trying to get me to come in for a presentation that I wasn’t interested in (I was just waiting for a car to be repaired and had nothing else to do at the moment.) They must get paid based on how many people they sign up.

Talk about relentless and disrespectful. This outtfit is worse than a rogue debt collector, and there seems to be no way to get them to stop calling. Each call, for what it’s worth, has come from a different phone number.

Here are a couple of horror stories about Global Travel Network: This one and this one.

An investigative report from 9News in Denver give you a good look at how the scam works – apparently Global Travel Network is behind this as well, but in Denver they were representing themselves as Global Connections, and hijacking that company’s BBB rating. Nice and honest, huh? Global Travel Network is not accredited with the BBB; have a look at what the Better Business Bureau has to say about them as of 1/12/2015:

This company has a pattern of complaints alleging misrepresentation during initial contact with the representative as consumers allege being offered several different incentives for attending a presentation such as gas cards, cruises, round-trip airfare, free vacations, etc. with promise that nothing will be required out of pocket and there are no black-out dates or restrictions. Once consumers receive said incentives or attempt to book their vacation they find that what was initially promised to them is not what has been received. There are additional fees required or difficulty booking the vacation.

While the business has responded to the BBB’s concerns and stated all terms and conditions of the offers are disclosed and that additional training has been set in place to ensure that this no longer occurs, BBB has continued to receive complaints with the same underlying issue.

This is an excellent report, and worth watching and reading both. They give you an idea of how deep this deceptive pool of slime goes.

After having the police called on them, here’s the response 9News got from Global Travel Network:

Global

Would you do business with this company? Don’t.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

I love the people of Chamula. *Belch*

Now, aside from several trips to the barrios of Tijuana to help build houses for Project Mercy, I’ve never been south of the border. So I can’t say I know the people of Chamula, a small town in the Chiapan highlands in the South of Mexico, but their syncretic religion fascinates me, a blend of Catholic and Mayan beliefs.

But in an odd blend of the traditional and the modern, the Chamulans have a higher regard for Coca Cola™ than the Hawai’ians have for Spam™; to them, it’s a sacred libation.

san-juan-chamula-church-coke-mam-org-mx

Praying in San Juan Chamula church. Image courtesy of mam.org.mx, which now appears to be defunct. This picture would have been taken surreptitiously, as photography in town is difficult, and in the church entirely forbidden, a transgression which can get you ejected. It’s not lost on me that one of the bottles shown here is Pepsi, but you know, any port in a storm.

What follows is an extract from a blog post by Julieta Cárdenas at the College Hill Independent, who describes the relationship between Coke™ and the Chamulans far better than I ever could. Her entire post is worth a read.

Coke and Candles

In Chamula, Coke is everywhere. Not just in small businesses and eateries, but also places of worship. Within the ash-covered walls of the Church of San Juan, women wearing black llama-fur skirts kneel on floors flooded with pine needles. Men and women alike melt the bottoms of the candles and use the liquid wax as an adhesive to stick candles of different colors onto the floor, arranging intricate, abstract patterns. These patterns are complemented by the carefully arranged coke bottles that sit adjacent to them. I look aroundthere are many, many gallon bottles of Coke on the floor of this church. The aromatic warmth from the pine and smoke is contrasted by the cold-red plastic label of the bottles. All around me, people are using these branded, corporate soft-drink bottles for prayer.

Chamula is an autonomous town about 30 minutes by van from San Cristóbal de las Casas. The people there, of Mayan descent, gained their freedom from the Mexican government and Catholic Church by ejecting foreigners from their town in the 1970s. Chamula maintains its own leadership, police force, and prison system. It is independent to such an extent that it forbids people born elsewhere to live in it or join its culture: that is to say, it is endogamous.

I had come to Chamula because I had remembered the town from a previous visit when I was fourteen, and wanted to revisit and try to learn more about the culture than I had before. I had also wanted to get some pictures, but photography was forbidden inside the church, and  I had to ask permission before taking pictures of anyone. These rules, although reasonable, made me feel like an outsider in a town where, ironically, residents make a considerable profit from sales of artisan crafts to visitors. Although the small town is a site of tourism, as a non-resident of Chamula you cannot help but be constantly reminded that you are only a visitor.

It was peculiar to observe an exclusive community—stringent about upholding a boundary between the indigenous and the imported—also incorporate a first-world soft drink into their religious practices. Luckily our guide, a man from San Cristóbal who spoke English, Spanish, and Tzotzil—the Chamula Mayan dialect—offered an explanation.  After leaving the church, we headed to the home of a local woman, who demonstrated her weaving techniques on a handmade loom with homespun thread, and gave us homemade tortillas sprinkled with pumpkin powder and rolled into delicious cylinders. Standing in the path of a number of hens, and against a backdrop of finished textiles, our guide elaborated on the significance of Coke in religious terms. The people of Chamula believe in a syncretic religion—a hybrid of Mayan and Catholic beliefs—that mixes the iconography of the Saints with more ancient symbols like colored corn, which comes in red, yellow, black, and white varieties, each color bearing spiritual significance. This color symbolism manifeststhroughout the church, in candles made from animal fat or beeswax and most prominently in half-filled glasses of vibrantly colored beverages. Among these beverages are Pox (pronounced posh)—a white sugarcane-based liquor—various orange-flavored drinks, and, of course, Coca-Cola.

A Refreshed Perspective

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Coke, distinctively dark brown, has become a representation of the black corn that is sacred to the people of Chamula and to many of Mayan decent. (Black candles are thought to get rid of envy. White is for the tortillas, an offering to the Gods. Yellow is for money, and red is for health.) Each color means something, and the specific placement of the candles on the floor represents different votive pleas to the Saints.

Coca-Cola has not only found its way into Chamula culture for its color. It serves a functional physical cathartic purpose as well—the gaseous qualities of Coke make it invaluablein the context of the preexisting religion; its carbonation has taken on spiritual significance.

When I was a kid, I was delighted to know that the Japanese Chinese consider belching after a meal to be a high compliment to the chef, and it is supposedly appropriate in India as well. But:

The Chamula people believe that burping is a purgative mechanism. It provides an outlet for the body and the soul, a release for the negative energy that affects a person in need of healing. (Emphasis most decidedly mine.)

Do you hear that? Do you hear that? Now, I’ll thank you very much if the rest of you would just kindly rise up out of my face about my sacred purging of negative energy.

The Old Wolf has belch spoken.