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.

koala-lou

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.

global 2

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

30pcs-lot-vegetable-seeds-font-b-black-b-font-waxy-font-b-corn-b-font-seeds

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.

So about that “Complimentary Trip” (Part II)

Click through for Part I of this travel scam.

So after sending in my certificate to IIG Promotions, including a SASE, we received this from Travel Select Rewards:

“Dear [Recipient]:

Thank you for choosing the Travel Select Rewards 7G.

Enclosed is the Certificate you selected. Please read all the terms and conditions before sending in the Registration Form included in your Certificate. We will not be able to take any calls prior to registering your selected certificate(s). [In other words, we’re not going to help you with this process. If you make the tiniest mistake, you’re screwed.]

IMPORTANT: Depending on the reward you have selected, your Registration Form must be received within 21 days or 30 days from the issue date of your Reward Certificate, or your Reward Certificate is void. Please reference the certificate(s) for clarification of all the terms & conditions and time requirements. Voided certificates will not be acknowledged or returned.

Reward

Here, in full, are the terms & conditions referred to everywhere. My comments are in [brackets and in blue.]

TERMS AND CONDITIONS

You have received an exciting airfare promotional offer. [Note: Unlike the original postcard, this is not a “complimentary vacation.”] Below you will find the terms and conditions regarding this promotional offer. These terms are important to the processing of your reservation. Please carefully read them in their entirety.

[How many people will actually take the time to do this? “I have read and accept the End User License Agreement” is one of the most-frequently told lies on the internet today.]

Description of the Program:

This offer includes round-trip coach airfare departing to and from a major US internaational airport within the continental U.S., Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, Mexico and three days and two nights of standard hotel accommodations for two adults (double occupancy required). Recipient and guest must be 21 years of age or older, be a U.S. citizen and possess a valid driver’s license and a major credit card. A purchase of two additional nights of accommodations at an IIG Promotions approved hotel property will be required if the recipient selects a Mexico destination. [Note: at no time does the “offer” say anywhere that you have won a “free trip.” If you got this certificate as the result of sitting through a high-pressure vacation club presentation, be assured that it is worth precisely $0, and will end up costing you a lot of money.]

Registration Form Requirements:

Log on to http://www.rewardregistrationcenter.com to build your IIG Promotions online profile within 30 days of the issue date of offer. Once your offer is registered, you will be provided a link to your Travel Request Form (TRF) to begin the booking process.

If you do not have internet access, you may complete the attached Registration Form and return the original (NO COPIES) to IIG Promotions. Registration Form must be received within 30 days of the issue date of offer. Once your registration is accepted, a TRF will be emailed to you within 14 business days to begin the booking process. If an email is not provided, a TRF will be mailed to you. [Notice all the time-sensitive dates in this offer. Any delay whatsoever, whether your fault or not, will void the offer.]

A $100 refundable deposit in U.S. Dollars, in the form of a money order or cashier’s check will be required at the time of mailing your TRF. Failure to follow all registration requirements, terms of offer, and deposit not being received in the time frame specified renders offer & certificate void without exception. Mail all correspondence to IIG Promotions, P.O. Box 3479, Lake Havasu City, AZ 86405 [Based on the myriad complaints out there about this outfit, getting any money back from them is either impossible or a nightmare. The fact that they only accept payment in money orders or cashier’s checks is a huge red flag.]

General TRF and Offer Requirements:

  • Three different preferred dates of departure and destinations are required. [They’ll validate the cheapest one for you.]
  • A 60 day minimum advance notice for preferred travel dates is required. [So they can find the cheapest fare.]
  • Preferred travel dates must be in chronological order and be at least 30 days apart.
  • Offer is for double occupancy and both travelers must travel on the same itinerary.
  • Monday or Tuesday departures only [This limits your options significantly. If you didn’t take the time to read these terms and conditions carefully and propose travel dates outside these two days, your entire offer will be voided and the cost will be sky-high.]
  • Refundable deposit will be applied to outstanding travel fees and taxes due at time of booking.
  • Recipient is required to pay all government taxes, carrier/supplier imposed fees, ticketing/servicing fees (approximately $119 to $219 per person) and any upgrades selected at the time of booking. These fees will vary based on the destination and dates selected.
  • Recipient and guest’s base coach airfare (excludes government taxes and carrier-imposed fees) is not to exceed $200 per person. [Note: your base fare can’t be more than $200.00, but taxes and fees will most likely be at least $219 per person. This is hardly what classifies as a “deal” in anyone’s book. In the end, you will end up paying almost as much or more for a trip than if you had booked it yourself online using a travel aggregator and looking for your own deals.]
  • Payment must be made using a major credit card; payment cannot be refunded after travel is confirmed. [This makes it impossible for you to get your funds back if anything goes sideways.]
  • Departure and arrival destinations are restricted to IIG approved international airports. [But they don’t tell you which ones those are before you send in your $100 deposit.]
  • Hotel accomodations are at one of hundreds of nationally known hotels in our system such as Intercontinental, Choice, Wyndham, and other hotel affiliates.
  • Only one offer per household will be issued during the promotional offer time period and all travel must be completed within 12 months from your issue date.

Correspondence:

To keep offer from becoming invalid, all correspondence is time sensitive and needs to be returned by mail in the designated time frames. [If you don’t, the whole ball of wax is void.] You will receive a written confirmation with directions and check-in times (if applicable) by mail or email about two weeks prior to your departure date and only after your vacation has been paid in full for any outstanding governmental taxes, service fees and or additional travel services if ordered through IIG Promotions. It is important that you do not leave for your getaway vacation until you have received written confirmation. IIG will not be responsible for travel arrangements made prior to the confirmation of your trip.

Miscellaneous:

Request for travel dates, cities, ports of departure, travel itineraries and airport offerings outside what is allowed in this promotional offer will result in your travel becoming a discounted trip. [The price of that discounted trip will be astronomical. Have a look at some of the complaints.] Once reservation is booked, failure to show for hotel reservations will result in recipient being charged the full retail value of offer [guaranteed to be some astronomical random number.] Some destinations may be considered high demand year round. This offer is valid for weekday travel during low season with year round usage when available for a surcharge [guaranteed to be astronomical.] During high season, special events, weekends, conventions, holiday and peak travel periods a surcharge [guaranteed to be astronomical] will apply, when available. Holidays and Peak Travel Periods are defined as one full week before, during or after any major government holiday or during the months of March, June, July and August. Non-stop flights, class of service of accommodations, length of getaway not covered in offer are available upon request and require an upgrade fee [guaranteed to be astronomical.] Primary certificate holder must make deposit payment. [If someone else pays the deposit, the offer is void, and good luck getting that money back.] All travel components are restricted to Published and Tariff fares. All travel components are subject to IIG’s promotional availability and booked at IIG’s sole discretion. IIG reserves the right to substitute offer components without notice. This offer does not include the cost for additional guests, extra nights and upgrades or any type of incidental expenses such as but not limited to food, beverages, hotel amenity/resort fees, government taxes, gratuities, travel insurance, and service charges, Sorry, no pets. IIG is not responsible for travel suppliers schedule changes. IIG will make every effort to accommodate your preferred travel date(s) but has the right to add, delete or substitute travel dates, resort, hotel and or destinations. IIG has the option to substitute another promotional travel offer of equal or greater value if this offer becomes unavailable.

Refund/Cancellation Policy:

If a need arises to change travel or services booked, all reservations are final and non-refundable. [Sorry, you’re screwed again.] Cancellation Policy – Cancellation penalties apply and certificate will be ineligible for future use. [Good luck getting any of your money back, sucker.] Confirmed reservations may be changed based on travel supplier policy and at IIG Promotions sole discretion, a minimum fee of $25 applies [but you can be sure it will be a lot more] and is the sole responsibility of the recipient. Should you need to cancel your reservations, prior to being booked, IIG Promotions must receive written notice 30 days prior to the expiration of your travel offer. Cancellation must be sent U.S. Certified mail to: IIG Promotions, P.O. Box 3479, Lake Havasu City, AZ 86405

Limit on Redemptions:

Failure to adhere to the terms and conditions outlined in this offer or appear on a confirmed reservation, late correspondence, submission of an incomplete Registration and or Travel Request Form, will result in forfeiture of offer and wil not be acknowledged or returned. Reissue Policy – IIG Promotions does not assume any liability or responsibility for lost or stolen certificates. [This clause is the biggest loophole of all. If you make a single mistake anywhere along the byzantine booking/redemption process, your offer goes up in smoke, and they don’t even have to tell you about it. Your deposit, were you foolish enough to send one in, vanishes like the dew under a desert sun.]

Non-transferable: No Cash Value:

[Brother, they got that one right.] This offer is non-transferable and cannot be sold or redeemed for cash, nor shall any rebates, refunds or credits be issued for any unused time, day (s) or space. This offer is not valid in conjunction with any other discount or promotional offer, nor is it valid for use with group travel. A group is considered two (2) or more families traveling together or meeting at the same destination with the same arrival date.

Limitation of Liability:

This offer us void where prohibited by law. IIG Promotions reserves the right to substitute the components of the offered vacation and varied itinerary with equal or greater value without verbal or written notification should circumstances so require. [Don’t ask, we won’t tell.] IIG Promotions does not assume any liability for damage, expense, or inconvenience, nor for any loss, injury or death or damge to any person or property at any hotel or on any aircraft/ship, or in transit to or from said hotel/aircraft/ship or for any cause whatsoever due to delays, cancellation due to nature, mechanical breakdown, strikes, or acts of God. All federal, state and local laws apply. IIG Promotions assumes no responsibility for any promises or claims, written or verbal made by anyone, other than those made in the terms and conditions provided herein. [In other words, if the pitchman you talked to promised you anything at all, if it’s not in this contract, you’re out of luck.] This is a promotional offer [note: not a “prize” or a “free vacation”] and is not to be sold to the end user without prior written consent from IIG Promotions. This offer is not to be used as an employee incentive, by any affiliate of IIG Promotions or the sponsor’s affiliate. The offer is null and void if it is used incorrectly [that’s a huge loophole]. In the event of any mediation, arbitration or litigation relating to this Agreement, the parties (1) agree to the exclusive personal jurisdiction of the state courts located in Mohave County, Arizona and the federal courts located in Phoenix, Arizona, and (2) waive any claim of inconvenient forum. [If you don’t like using our bought-and-paid-for justice system, tough luck.]

You may cancel this contract without penalty or obligation within 30 days from the date of purchase or receipt of the vacation offer/certificate, whichever occurs later. You may also cancel this contract if accomodations or facilities are not available purusant to a request for use as provided in the contract. If you decide to cancel, you must notify the seller in writing of your intent to cancel by returning the certificate and sending notice to IIG Promotions, P.O. Box 3479, Lake Havasu City, AZ 86405. IIG Promotions is registered with the State of Florida as a Seller of Travel. Registration No. 37367. [Note: this whole scheme is a devious way of selling you an overpriced trip unter the thinly-veiled guise of an “exciting offer.” Remember: you get what you pay for, and TANSTAAFL.]¹ No person should rely upon reprentations other than thoe included in these terms & conditions. [Read: We know that our salesmen out there are going to lie through their teeth to you, and we take no responsibility for anything they say.] This contract is for the purchase [Note: “purchase,” not “reward.”] of a vacation certificate and puts all assignees on notice of the consumer’s right to cancel under section 559.933, Florida Statutes. California Seller of Travel Registration No. 2093731-50.

To streamline the process, we will not be able to handle any phone calls prior to receiving your registration form. [This is repeated multiple times. They don’t want to talk to you or explain anything. If you make a mistake, it voids your certificate and “offer.”

TL;DR – This is not an award or a complimentary trip. It’s an offer to sell you travel, and a very deviously-designed one at that. You think you’re getting a deal, but in the end it’s almost a guarantee that it will cost you more than if you had booked the travel yourself (assuming you did good research.) The people who operate this company and their attorneys must have been pimps and pedophiles in a previous life.

At any rate, I went to the website² and registered as requested. I was promised an email with further details in return. Stand by for Part III.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


¹There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch

² Just for yucks and giggles, the additional Terms and Conditions on the Website (which didn’t display properly, by the way – I had to “view source” on that page to see them) are below:

Acceptance of Terms of Use. This Web site and the services offered on it (the “Service”) are owned and operated by Infinity Travel. The Service is provided to you pursuant to the terms and conditions of this Terms of Use and any operating rules or policies that may be published by Infinity Travel (including the Privacy Policy), as may be amended from time to time (collectively, the “Agreements”). You shall mean you, any invitee of yours, and anyone who may receive a gift or credit from you which is redeemable by using the Service. BY USING THE SERVICE, YOU ARE INDICATING YOUR AGREEMENT TO BE BOUND BY ALL OF THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS CONTAINED IN THE AGREEMENTS. User Responsibilities. By consenting to the Agreements, you agree: To represent only yourself on the Service, and no other persons, living, dead, or imagined; the Service may only be used by natural persons (i.e., individuals) on their own behalf and not by or on behalf of any commercial entity unless explicitly permitted by Infinity Travel; To provide accurate information to Infinity Travel, including, but not limited to information required to register with the Service; To not use the Service to: Reproduce, duplicate, copy, sell, resell, distribute, publish or exploit for any commercial purpose the software, products, or services provided by Infinity Travel or obtained through the Service without obtaining the express, prior written consent of Infinity Travel. This restriction includes any attempt to incorporate any information from the provide for your own access to the Service, including but not limited to obtaining and maintaining all telephone, computer hardware and software, and other equipment and paying all related charges. Privacy. As part of the Service registration process, you will provide certain personal information to Infinity Travel. Your personal information will only be used in accordance with Infinity Travel’s Privacy Policy. Infinity Travel reserves the right to, but is not obligated to, inform you by email of changes or additions to the Service or of any Infinity Travel related products and services. Vendors and Goods and Services Infinity Travel and your organization will not be liable for any loss or damage incurred as a result of any interaction between you and a vendor accessible through the Service. All matters, including but not limited to delivery of goods and services, returns, and warranties are solely and strictly between you and the vendor. You acknowledge that Infinity Travel and your organization do not endorse or warrant the vendors that are accessible through the Service nor the goods and services that they provide. In the event of any mediation, arbitration or litigation relating to this Agreement, the parties (1) agree to the exclusive personal jurisdiction of the state courts located in Mohave County, Arizona and the federal courts located in Phoenix, Arizona, and (2) waive any claim of inconvenient forum.

“We have been selected” (A come-on from Save On Resorts)

Last week we got a postcard in the mail (I should have thought to scan it, but didn’t realize I’d be writing about it until after the fact.) It had a big picture on the front of a Southwest Airlines jet, and the name “Southwest Airlines” emblazoned across it.

Southwest-Airlines-logo

The back indicated that we had “been selected” to receive two round-trip airfare tickets to anywhere in the continental USA and two nights’ accomodation at the selected destination. A number to call was provided. In tiny print on the back was the disclaimer that all promotions were offered and redeemed by a third-party and were not endorsed by Southwest.

I’ve done this before, so we said “what the heck.” I called the number, and was a few qualifying questions:

  • Was I married?
  • Was I between the ages of 28 and 72?
  • Was our combined annual income over $60,000 per year?

Obviously, they’re pitching to stable, wealthy individuals. The last one of these I got I told them that my income was not quite high enough, just to see what happened, and they told me that they were so sorry, I didn’t qualify for this promotion, but sent me off on a wild goose chase to claim another booby prize which – in the end – was worth precisely squat.

So we set up an appointment, and yesterday my wife and I spent three hours listening to the pitch. We had both experienced timeshare presentations before (the telephone receptionist swore up and down that “this is in no way a timeshare presentation”) and were used to high-pressure tactics, so we thought it might be entertaining. We had lunch at a great Thai restaurant before going down, so the day would not be a total loss whatever the outcome.

The room was set up for four couples. Everyone was friendly and courteous. The slideshow lasted about an hour. The essence of the pitch was as follows:

  • Platinum Unlimited Membership
    • Resorts, houses, Condo’s (sic)
    • Hotels, B&B’s
    • All-inclusive (whatever that means)
    • Packages/Cruises
    • All Inclusive’ (sic)
    • Tours/Excursions, Tickets
    • Reward credits (Something about bonuses being refunded to us)
    • Restaurant Discounts
    • Airfare/Car Rental
    • Family Plan (other family members can use our plan, like at Costco)
    • Guest policy
  • 20 year product $2,999
  • Lifetime product $4,999
  • $149.00 “processing fee”
  • $199.00/year annual dues (payable only during years one uses the product)
  • Special bonus for “retired people”: $1,999 for the 20 year Platinum plan, but valid only now, Now, NOW! If you want to think about it, the price will be $4,999.00.
  • “You’re going to be traveling “anyway,” so you might as well be saving money with this plan.”  The concept of “anyway money” is a big part of timeshare pitches, based on the ones I’ve attended. The trouble is, the numbers never add up. What they’re selling you a timeshare for will usually be significantly more than the average family will spend over twenty years  “anyway.”

So, assuming you’re not retired and spring for the 20 year plan, which comes close to $7,000 including the annual dues, and assuming Save On Resorts doesn’t fold during that time (they proudly trumpet an A+ rating with the BBB), what do you get for your seven grand?

Basically the services of a wholesale travel aggregator. During the pitch they dragged out four or five hypothetical destinations and showed the difference between a single scenario of pricing and their own website’s results. Usually the pitched savings were at about the 50% level. Nothing was ever said about ancillary fees or taxes or all the myriad costs that crop up during the average pleasure trip.

The pitchmen stressed the fact that when you visit multiple sites to compare airline fares, your IP address is being tracked and fares tend to jump up the more often you visit a website. This is true, but there are ways to avoid this particular scummy trick used by places like Priceline, Orbitz, Travelocity, and the airlines themselves.

They admitted that they could not save any real money on airfares, other than to “guarantee” you the lowest possible available fare “without the hassle” by using their private website. Most of the savings would come through buying their aggregated wholesale property packages. But as everyone knows, they are not the only game in town.

After the pitch, I came home and did a little research. Click through for a blog post from a reporter who attended a similar pitch from a company called “Endless Access,” also a front for Save On Resorts. It doesn’t sound too savory. What’s more, if you have to make a decision on the spot to get the best price, there’s no way to go out there and find the myriad complaints about these firms on places like Ripoff Report or Complaintsboard.com. And there are many.

I’m curious to see what my “reward” for attending the presentation amounts to. I have a certificate to fill out and send in within 30 days (or the offer is void,) purportedly fulfilled by Travel Select Rewards and/or IIG Promotions (looking for complaints about this company is a horror show.) One consumer posted this after a similar experience with Save On:

You get a card in the mail that looks like it is from Southwest Airlines offering free flights. You find out it’s really not. but an offer of free airline tickets + hotel if you listen to a 90 minute presentation from SAVEON RESORTS. They aren’t too hard sell. You go home, submit paperwork for your freebie… a month later get the info on the freebie. Turns out you have to depart only Monday or Tuesday. Your “free” coach fare cannot exceed $200 and taxes and fees you have to pay are about $120 – $220.

The full Terms and Conditions on my redemption offer can be found below in a footnote.[1]

Others have reported that you have to pay all taxes and fees before you even find out what your travel choices are; so I will duly submit my information and return and report. It is interesting to note that IIG requires you to send them a SASE in order to get your certificate (this translates as cheap bastard company.)

The bottom line is that presentations like this are almost always a bad deal for the consumer and a good deal for the company running the pitch. The presentation by Save On was not overly high-pressure, but they employed a good number of sales tactics including cherry-picking data, scarcity (offer valid only today), reciprocity (we’re offering you this great vacation, so you should sign up for our program), and others.

No one needs to pay retail prices if they are willing to do a bit of footwork. When traveling, aggregators can save you money; but there are many available on the web, and you don’t have to pay between $2K and $5K plus a recurring annual fee to use their services.

Continued in Part II.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1]

Your Travel Select Rewards© (TSR) is redeemable for (1) reward certificate (Offer) outlined herein. Pictures of products on site and certificates are for illustrative purposes only and may be subject to change. Offers are booked/fulfilled in accordance with the terms and conditions of actual certificate selected. Offers are subject to providing alternate travel dates, a valid governmental 10, credit card, advance notice, double occupancy, expiration dates, no group travel, one per household per year, changes without notice, shipping and handling, deposits, governmental taxes and fees, if applicable. Requests for changes to the original travel Offer will result in Offer becoming a discounted trip. See actual certificate selected for complete details. Offer is non transferable and has no cash value. Failure to follow certificate’s terms and conditions, provide payment, deposits, make selection from list and/or correspondence not returned in the designated time frames renders offer void. A voided certificate/offer will not be acknowledged or returned. Fulfilling Agency is not responsible for mail or certificates that are lost, mutilated, or delayed or failure to book offer online. If product or offer becomes unavailable to Fulfilling Agency they have the option to substitute another product or promotional travel offer of equal or greater value.
The information on the TSR Brochure is provided for informational purposes only and does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation of any of the products or certificates mentioned. Fulfilling Agency agents, assignees, and or delegates act independently of the sponsoring company who issued you the TSR as a thank you. The General Information Provisions and Terms and Conditions of Offer received cannot be changed or amended by any person or company without the written consent of an authorized officer of Fulfilling Agency. No recipient should rely upon representations other than those included in the actual terms and conditions of the certificate selected.
This offer is void where prohibited by law and if not paid for by the primary issuing merchant or distributor who purchased from TSR and issued to recipient. By participating in this trayel reward offer the signatory agrees that TSR will not be held liable for any actual or potential losses, including without limitation, compensation or consequential damages, either in contract or in tort, by either persons or property, arising out of this offer or in connection therewith.

In other words, make a single mistake and you’re screwed. And we don’t care.

Albanian hatmakers in Shkodër, 1900-1920

Albanian Hatmakers

Hatmakers in Skhodër, Albania, 1900-1920. Photo by Kel or Pietro Marubi. Posted by /u/RMSEP at /r/historyporn.

Albania has a long, interesting and tortured history. I have a particular interest in the country, having visited there a number of times over the course of my career, and having gotten to know more than a few Albanians.

My interest in this small but intriguing Adriatic country was first piqued when I read “Albania, Alone Against the World,” an article in the October, 1980 issue of National Geographic. This was before the fall of the Iron Curtain (which, sadly, shows some signs of being raised again, given recent developments in Ukraine, but that’s another story) but Albania’s story seemed to stand out among that of other Communist countries – and at that time, North Korea was not as much in the news as it is today.

The article was written by Mehmet Biber, a Turkish photographer who was based in Istanbul, and is the product of his own visit and notes from that of a visit by Sami Kohen, another Istanbul resident. It contains some captivating photos of what life was like under the iron-fisted rule of Enver-Hoxha, the fiercely independent, brutal, and Stalinist leader of Albania from it’s liberation from the Nazis in 1944 until his death in 1985. From Wikipedia:

The 40-year period of Hoxha’s rule was politically characterized by the elimination of the opposition, prolific use of the death penalty or long prison terms of his political opponents and evictions from homes where their families lived and their internment in remote villages that were strictly controlled by police and the secret police (Sigurimi). His rule was also characterized by Stalinist methods to destroy his associates who threatened his own power.

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This photo from Biber’s article shows the town of Shkodër in 1980. The banner says, “Let us fulfill all our obligations and smash the blockade.” Of course, there was no blockade, and no interest in punishing or otherwise invading Albania, but Hoxha’s paranoia knew no bounds. He wasted his country’s resources on numberless bunkers, supposedly to protect the fantastic wealth and ideology of his impoverished nation from the evil hordes, both Communist and Capitalist, who would overrun Albania like wolves.

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Gjirokastër, the hometown of Hoxha. The banner encourages residents to “Study the Works of Comrade Enver Hoxha.” Photo: Mehmet Biber

Then came the fall of communism, and Albania was subject to changes that shook the nation to the core. A country that had almost nothing in the way of free enterprise and commerce (centrally-planned economy) was instantaneously and disastrously changed into a market economy. On the upside, goods and services that had never been available were suddenly popping up like mushrooms; on the downside, corruption and crime exploded.

Private car ownership was reinstated and businesses re-established. However poor city lighting and road quality became major problems as mud, potholes, street floods, and dust became permanent features on the streets. However, all buildings and apartments were denationalized, second-hand buses introduced, and modern water, telephone, and electrical systems built during 1992–1996 which form the backbone of modern Tirana. Enver Hoxha’s Museum (Pyramid) was dismantled in 1991 and renamed in honor of persecuted activist Pjeter Arbnori. (Wikipedia:Albania)

Bus

A bus in Tiranë, loaded almost past the breaking point, in 1992. Photo: Nicole Bengiveno, published in National Geographic, “Albania Opens the Door” by Dusko Doder, July 1992. This article gives a good overview of the change that hit Albania like a 16-ton weight.

As I visited Albania over the course of several years from 1993 to 2000, I watched Tirana’s central park area and the banks of the Lena river (among others) become choked with illegal and dangerously-constructed buildings. People simply squatted on public land, built what they want in whatever way seemed good, and regulation was nowhere to be seen. Grease the palms of officials and police to look the other way, and presto, a new business was born. In 2000, efforts were made by Edi Rama, a former Tirana mayor, to demolish illegal buildings to return the area to its pre-1990 state, but public land continues to be under pressure from illegal construction, and there is no clear outlook or direction for Tirana’s future at the current time.

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Illegal construction on the Lana River in 2003

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A similar scene, post-reconstruction

Devastatingly for much of the Albanian population, the financial shakeup of 1996-1997 included many Ponzi schemes, invested in by around 2/3 of the population; most of their investment was totally lost, and the resulting social upheaval was catastrophic. While things continue to improve slowly, it will take Albania generations to overcome residual problems in government and society.

Pyramid

The Pyramid of Tiranë, slated to be Hoxha’s mausoleum, then a museum, then a convention center, now a crumbling, defaced eyesore and the subject of debate – preserve or demolish?

I would love to be able to get back to Albania, which is now wide-open to tourism, although there are parts of the country where even the authorities don’t like to go, run by clans that would make the Hatfields and the McCoys look like the Sesame Street crowd. That said, the country has much to offer in the way of natural beauty and culture, and I wish them nothing but good as they shoulder their way into the future.

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The beautiful town of Theth in Northern Albania – found at The Rom Rom.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 

 

 

The Mission Inn at Riverside

Just got back from a little junket to California to see an aunt who’s almost 100, and some other friends and relatives as well. One of the things we saw while we were in Riverside, where one of my cousins graciously put us up (and put up with us) for a few days was the Mission Inn, an amazing hotel which made me think of my earlier visits to the Hotel Del in Coronado.

This enterprise began as an adobe cottage called the “Glenwood Hotel,” built by civil engineer Christopher Columbus Miller in 1876, and like the Winchester Mystery House (but a lot more sanely) has just continued to grow. We only saw a fraction of it, but what I saw was impressive. There are multiple wings with multiple flavors – Spanish, Oriental, etc.

Here are a few photos:

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Special chair built for President Howard Taft for a conference. Taft’s portrait hangs in the background. He later is said to have remarked “I’m big,but I’m not that big.”

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The Steinway Centennial Grand Piano. This piano was crafted as the company’s gift to the USA for the 1876 Centennial celebration. During a national tour, it was somehow “misplaced” – how one misplaces a grand piano is beyond me – but was rediscovered to be the one and only when it was undergoing restoration in the 1980s. Exactly how and when it came to the Mission Inn is unknown, but at the time of its disappearance the hotel was still a simple adobe cottage.

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Herculean painting of the California Alps.

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Campanero, or bell wall, built in 1903 and modeled after the belfry at Mission San Gabriel. Stairs on the right used to lead to the rooftop gardens of the original adobe building, which was later demolished in 1948 to make room for a swimming pool.

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Another view of the campanero.

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Restored cannon

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The Nanjing bell, an imperial temple bell from the Manchu Temple in Nanjing, China. 3500 lbs, cast between 1875 and 1908. More information is readable on the plaque.

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The other side of the campanero.

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The internal rotunda. Normally accessible only by guided tour, we happened to be present when someone came out and we slipped in.

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The rotunda, looking up. The stairs are structurally out of code, and are usable only by tours. There is a wonderful old elevator that ascends to each floor.

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Tiled fountain at the bottom of the rotunda.

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The goodwoman of the house, taking a photo of me as I take one of her.

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The sky.

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Another view of the rotunda.

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An iron spiral fire escape in the bowels of the hotel.

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Tiled dome visible from the top level of the rotunda.

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Another view

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This old building on the left is also part of the Inn’s property, but has yet to be restored.

There’s so much more… I’d love to stay there some time, if I could only win the lottery or something. In the meantime, it’s nice to just stroll the grounds and the lobby.

The Old Wolf has spoken.