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We stayed here overnight - not much privacy!

We stayed here overnight – not much privacy!

People wonder why we go to some of these more remote places –“It’s so dangerous!” they say. Well, we recently returned from Colombia, which is still the subject of a travel advisory from the US State Department. The people of Colombia could not have been nicer or more helpful. Sure, there were lots of checkpoints, and we did not go to some of the more dicey places, but we travelled to very remote locations and went through a bunch of military checkpoints and felt no more threatened than at home. In fact, I felt much safer than, for instance, in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, much of New York, or even nearby little Stockton, the “Murder Capital of the US.”  Foreigners coming to the United States think of it as being practically an armed camp – everyone is toting a gun! And you know what, they are right – compared to where most of them live, it is very dangerous! Surprisingly, even our bank told us that they would not help us if we had financial trouble while we were there. We could use our ATM card and all, but if anything went wrong, it was our problem – thanks a lot!

Remote little Mitu, near the border with Venezuela on the Vaupes River, is one of the places that scares people.  We went out and spent a couple of nights in remote villages in hammocks, neither of which had any doors between us and the great unknown. We were even awakened in the middle of the night to be told (we finally comprehended the very broken Spanish) that our guide was caught in the rain storm and could not make it back until the next day. We had neither phones nor electricity so our guide had called the village chief who had a phone and walked into the community hall where we were sleeping and woke us up with his flashlight. I must say that he seemed to be at least as apprehensive as we were. He probably thought we might have a gun or something. It was raining as hard as I have ever heard, and it was a little difficult to get back to sleep in our hammocks – tin roof on a thatch, sheeting rain, thunder – you get the picture. Still, the only really anxious moment was when the guy came in with the flashlight and we did not know him.

We also went through many checkpoints in the area around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as it is a FARC hangout, but again – no feeling of danger. (This may have been very different ten years ago) The most off putting time for us was our first forays into Latin America years ago. Guards seem to be about 15 years old and they carry automatic rifles or machine guns. They are everywhere, from airports to restaurants, but you get used to it, and have never seemed especially aggressive to us. I admit we look pretty “white bread,” but that could also work against us.

 

the Llanos area was full of scarlet ibis.

The Llanos area was full of scarlet ibis.

We don’t stay in expensive hotels or eat in expensive restaurants, and, of course, we don’t travel with any expensive jewelry or tons of equipment. I’ll never forget this Aussie dude who was complaining about being pick-pocketed in the Patpong area of Bangkok. He had been walking down the street with his wallet in his back pocket, and they just lifted it from him – the indignation! Well, imagine that – being pickpocketed in a notorious sex district, walking down the street late at night with his arm around a prostitute (he had hired her for the week so we met her – about 16) and a big Rolex on his arm and gold chains around his neck. I thought he was lucky he wasn’t totally stripped! That kind of attitude won’t fly in most cities, never mind which world.

We’ve been pickpocketed once, on a bus in Costa Rica. They didn’t get anything but embarrassed for being caught – stay aware of your surroundings!  My favorite story is when I left my purse with all my travel papers, passport and money on the train from Casa Blanca to Fez. (Yes, I know – really dumb.) Got all the way in to the train station and realized – OMG! Ran back to the compartment where the cleaners were just finishing up – no sign of my purse. A train conductor asked me what was wrong and escorted me to the police station in the terminal where the police were digging into my purse, trying to find something to identify me. They insisted that I count my money before they let me go. Not a penny was missing and all papers were in order. So you see – travel is not as dangerous as you might think!

We just dragged the boat down these rocks on the Vaupes River

We just dragged the boat down these rocks on the Vaupes River

Hospitality on the Llanos

Hospitality on the Llanos

Flamngoes on the Caribbean coast of Colombia

Flamngoes on the Caribbean coast of Colombia

 

 

 

Beautiful mystic view of Danum Valley
Beautiful mystic view of Danum Valley at sunrise

Borneo. Just the name sounds so exotic, but like all of Asia it’s both nostalgically exotic and yet super modern. We got there in our usual way, using EVA to Taiwan and then AirAsia to Kota Kinabulu. We love EVA – it’s super safe, has good seat pitch even in coach, and the flight attendants are very nice. They wake you up all the time for food and snacks, and they have great movie options. You’ll be spending a lot of time on these flights (14 hours to Taiwan from California) and these things are important. Be advised, however, their food is more Asian than Western. We like it that way.

There are several pieces of Borneo, and the first thing you must do is decide what you want to see. There is Malaysian Borneo – the states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the Indonesian side of Borneo – Since we are usually interested in wildlife, we chose the north-eastern state of Sabah, with just one venture into the western state of Sarawak. Proboscis monkeys, pitcher plants and hornbills were big draws, and I had read about the ” lost world” of the Maliau Basin which drew me like a magnet.DSCN2413

For those who speak some Indonesian, the language is quite similar, and there are lots of immigrants from Indonesia in the Malaysian part. Most people speak some English in the touristy areas, but if you get out in the country, you will need a guide or a translator. To get to all the places that I wanted, I decided to use a local tour company called Absolute Borneo, but not sure they are still in business. At the time, I checked Chai Chierong out on the net and found several listings with birding groups that recommended him or mentioned him in conjunction with benefit events. Generally, it is much cheaper to arrange tours once you are on the ground in an area, but we Americans have such short vacations that it is best to plan ahead. There were lots of places we wanted to see in Sabah, some of them difficult to access, so I pre-arranged a tour to the Maliau Basin and the Danum Valley. This involved both a bank transfer and handing over a wad of cash once we had boots on the ground, but it turned out to be well worth it, if a little nerve racking. They arranged the Maliau Basin Trek, a few nights in the Danum Valley at reasonable prices, and time on the Kinabatangan River. All of these can be arranged on site, but getting around can be a challenge, so we booked ahead.DSCN2445

Chai arranged for us to be guided by a couple of avid birders, so our trip over the Crocker Range in a car driven by Ben Duncan (he sounds like a Scot, but he’s a Kadazandusun) included a stop by the sea for shorebirds and sighting a rare white-fronted falconet at the summit. The park guides were also most knowledgeable, although it was really frustrating to know that another rhinoceros hornbill had just flown over without being able to see it! The sound of a hornbill flying over is quite distinctively pterodactylish – whup-whup-whup – but one of the disadvantages of pristine jungle is that all that foliage interferes with your view.

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The majority of our time was spent with one Lee Teck Seng. We called him Lee, even though, being of Chinese origin, that was actually his family name. He was the guide who took us to the Danum Valley, and then we arranged for his services on the Kinabatangan River. Lee was all that a good guide should be: funny, flexible, knowledgeable, not too intrusive with what we call “lbb’s” (little brown birds), but always able to interrupt with a good spot. In our experience, birders make the best guides since they usually know all the flora and fauna in addition to the birds. They also can look in the right places when they hear a call. So, for instance, if they hear a hornbill, they can tell you which hornbill it is and where it is likely to be. This makes spotting wildlife much more productive, and we saw a lot. The Danum Valley Field Centre (the cheapest option, as the Lodge is quite pricey) was good for spotting our first orangutan (and several more) and lots of red leaf monkeys and Crested Firebacks. We saw giant flying squirrel and colugo on the night drives, along with lots of civet cats , (although nothing could beat the beautiful little civet that hung around hoping for treats at the Nepenthes Camp in Maliau.) But the Kinabatangan was the best. River spotting is usually good since you are both quiet and, being on the water, essentially invisible to your quarry. Plus, it’s a lot cooler than hiking.

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Trees full of proboscis monkeys lined the banks of the river, and one tree held 14 hornbills at one time. River otters loped along the banks, avoiding the macaques, monitor lizards and crocodiles, while chattering at us to go away! This part of our trip was arranged on the ground with the help of Lee, and it was a much cushier (and pricier) place than we usually stay, but we definitely enjoyed it very much. Since we had a guide, he arranged for private boat tours so we could stop and look as much as we wanted with no one announcing that they were bored. The Kinabatangan is such a destination that once you stopped, other boats cruising along zoomed over to see what you were looking at (a phenomenon well-known to African safari adventurers). Of course, since we were often looking at some little colorful bird like a Pygmy Kingfisher or a blue bee-eater, it may have been a disappointment to those joining our party. They were mostly on a very tight time table, so only stayed a little, which was fine with us! We sat and watched for an hour while a troupe of bachelor proboscis monkeys challenged two stable harems – lots of yelling and posturing, jumping from branch to branch, great excitement!

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We visited many other parts of Borneo – hiked Mt. Kinabulu, snorkeled in the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, hiked to the Niah caves, (site of a 40,000 year old human habitation and currently harvested for swift nests (birds nest soup – you really don’t want to know what goes in that!), flew (twice!) to Bario and trekked on a trail that we shared with water buffalo, and spent a night at the Lambir Hills Park close to Miri. Due to the weather, we had to spend several nights in Miri, a coastal town in Northern Sarawak, a different State. If anyone is going or has friends there, please send us the recipe for the butter crab that is served in a small food court at the corner of Jalan Brook and Jalan Setia Raja … stall #3. Terry thinks it might be the best thing he’s ever had and can’t seem to replicate it at home.

If you have any questions, please let me know. This is a great place to visit and I would love for you to get there.

 

Every sunny day...

Every sunny day…

What a great week it’s been here in our little burg. We started out by going to see the National Theatre production of War Horse at a local movie theatre. What an amazing tour de force, although I admit I was a puddle of tears from the beginning. Even the little puppet foal made me cry – it was so good. The entire troupe was just amazing – singers, actors and puppeteers. Get a look at it here Making War Horse. Despite being able to see the puppeteers, the horses were truly alive. Our choir has been practicing the Dona Nobis Pacem by Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the words were resonating with the entire movie. World War I was such an awful war – the gas, the tanks, the trenches and barbed wire. Why do people do this?

Then on Friday, we went to see Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in our local Veterans Hall. I’m not a big lover of jazz, but you couldn’t help but enjoy the high quality of the players – they were all world class. Even the teen-aged Czech Republic student that we brought could tell that this was a premium quality event. Wynton played an encore at the end with a small jazz quartet – just the perfect thing to end the evening. He is simply the best trumpet player I’ve ever heard.

Saturday, after checking the bees and seeing that they were full up with honey and needed another super (hooray!) we went to see Stephen Sondheim’s Company, put on  by our local Sierra Stages in the Nevada Theatre. It wasn’t like Broadway of course, but no question that they did a good job, and there were a couple of standout renditions – Another 100 people and Getting married today. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Then Sunday, we attended the Music in the Mountains benefit – Franklyn D’Antonio and Friends. Lovely setting a few miles down the river from us but they have this gorgeous S-curve and some pretty cliffs to look over – lucky dogs. However, the music was what made the day. Franklyn began by playing the Bach Chaconne, a tour de force for any violinist, and very demanding – superb job, but that was just the start. He was joined by Toon Vandevorst on the piano for a reduction of an orchestral arrangement of West Side Story. OMG – fabulous playing and wonderful arrangement. After the intermission another solo written by Essa-Pekka Salonen – pretty outré for this crowd, but impeccably played so it went over well, and then finishing up with the Brahms Trio for Violin, Horn and Piano, Op. 40. Pete Nowlen on the French horn and Toon were both fabulous, and Franklyn finished with another wonderful performance. All in all, a great concert, thoughtfully put together and exquisitely played.

We are so lucky to live here and have these wonderful things and yet go home to our fifty acres on the river and our garden and animals. What a life!

Some folks have asked what I do to moisturize in conjunction with my treatment for rosacea, so here is my routine:

First, I wash with CERAVE HYDRATING CLEANSER 12 OZ, then use Olay Regenerist Micro-Sculpting Cream, 1.7 Ounce lightly to moisturize, although if you are young, I would just use the cheaper versions of their moisturizers, like Olay Moisturizing Lotion, Sensitive Skin, 6-Ounce (Pack of 2).
After applying moisturizer, I apply the sunscreen mix as outlined elsewhere, but just to the perinasal region/T-section where the mites seem to hang out (there is a slightly different kind of oil here, and I think this may be what makes it so homey for them – research topic anyone?). My skin is oily there, so I don’t usually have much moisturizer, but sometimes I do if it feels dry, and I just apply over the moisturizer – works fine. Also, I find that the dryness seems to go away after a while, possibly because I don’t put much of the sunscreen mix on, just a light application seems to work. In fact, my sister-in-law has cut down to every other day, and it seems to work for her also, so once you have it under control, experiment and let me know how it works!

Borneo highlands

Flying into the heart of Borneo

 

There’s more to choosing an airline than just the price. The picture above was taken the second time we made this flight. The first time, they turned around because the descent into the hanging valley in the Bornean Highlands was too dicey. Believe me, if these guys who fly into this valley every day are not willing to take the chance, it’s best to trust them. So, where possible, choose an airline with experienced pilots. When I flew for Pan American, I always knew that the pilots had been air jockeys in some world war, and so they knew a whole lot more than just how to land a plane without instruments!

One of the first places to start your research on an airline you are not familiar with is Skytrax, at http://www.airlinequality.com/. They rate for safety and a bunch of other things you will want to know about. They also have a comments section for people who have just flown that airline.

Another very good place for information is http://www.seatguru.com/. Here you can find the seating charts for your flight and see how much room you have in and between seats, as well as the kind of entertainment options you will have – important on a very long flight. For instance, here I could figure out that the long flight from the USA to Johannesburg could be done in comfort or misery, with small differences in the price. Delta had the best price, but South African Airways was a much better deal for us. At the time, the pitch for Delta’s flights to JNB was 31-32″(pitch is the term for the distance between the seats). South African Airways was slightly more expensive, but they had a pitch of 34″ and the configuration was two and three (two seats along one side, three on the other), meaning that the two of us could take a whole row and not have to deal with other people for bathroom, exercise and chat breaks. When you are going to be in a plane for 14 hours, these little things add up quickly. We have learned that making conversation with a total stranger can be very difficult after the first hour or two. If you choose your airline wisely, you can make a long trip into a refreshing nap and time to catch up on the latest movies!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

frogs love water

Frogs love rain

Rain at last! Much needed by these little guys, although they will soon make the woods resound with their calls, and I will lie awake and wish they would hush! Weather guessers still saying the drought is upon us, and that’s true, but it sure looks better than before we had that 10 plus inches of rain! Sadly, this does little for our snow pack, which California depends on for summer water. Warm storms (nicknamed the Pineapple Express because they come via Hawaii) fill the reservoirs but don’t magnify the snow pack by much – snow level is too high. We need 20-30 feet of snowpack in the mountains, and the best are looking at around 4 to 6 feet. Still, my bees will at least have a spring flush of bloom, and there’s some more rain in the forecast, so – fingers crossed! California has been known to make up a drought and then go over into flooding in the course of one or two storms. Hopefully we won’t get that far, but a few more frog chokers would be really good, and snow down to say 3,000 feet would just make it that much better.

Steinbeck’s East of Eden (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics) has the best description of the rain cycle in California, but anything he wrote is evocative . For most of my lifetime, the rains were as dependable as Christmas or Valentine’s day. The New Year brought the new rains, and Californians depended on them. For the last few years we have had a pattern of early fall rains, then nothing until late winter or spring. This has been the pattern this year, and we hope to break it soon. They are currently predicting an El Niño event next year – usually signalling flooding for us, but we shall see. Nature does what she darn well pleases!

Those who know me will have no trouble realizing that I have rosacea – the telltale butterfly flushing is hard to miss, especially when I get excited or interested in something. This is not high on the list of complaints – there are so many worse things, but it is kind of annoying and a bit embarrassing. I’ve had it as long as I can remember to some degree, but in the last five or six years, it has gotten much worse and the eruptions have really started to be obvious. I tried lots of things – including green tea, low level electric charge, Metrogel, various soaps and creams, etc., but nothing really seemed to help except, of course, taking doxycycline when we travel to malaria areas. But I did not want to take that for the rest of my life – amongst other things, it really messes with your digestive system.

Last fall, it got really bad. I was having two or three new pustules every day – yuck! Plus, it itched a bit – not terribly, but I could tell it was there. Acting upon lots of advice in the various online forums, I tried using zinc oxide and sulfur combined and it works like a charm. What I did was combine Ocean Potion Suncare Face Potion Clear Zinc Oxide SPF 45 — 1 fl oz with Braunfels Labs Sulfur Powder – 2 Oz, mixing about a teaspoon of sulfur into the whole container of sunscreen and the pustules and eruptions stopped appearing overnight. I apply it to the perinasal area, just over the area that flushes. It took a week or so for all the eruptions to heal, but it has been months and there have been no new eruptions – hooray! This cheap effective treatment for rosacea beats the heck out of the price of Metrogel and works better and even feels better on the skin.  I use my regular moisturizer right over it. I leave it on all day and don’t even notice it except for some slight flaking overnight. This may be due to the sulfur – not even sure if you need the sulfur but it doesn’t hurt either.

This immediate relief made me sure that it is an allergic reaction to the demodex mites which scientific studies prove are far more prevalent in rosacea sufferers’ skin than the average population. Acting on this I also sprayed my bed and pillow with Sawyer Premium Permethrin Clothing Insect Repellent Trigger Spray, 24-Ounce which I had hanging around because we use it for travel to tropical countries. Just for good measure, I washed the dog and the dog’s blanket and sprayed his bed with the same stuff. I know it’s a different strain of mite, but it can’t hurt.

I am so happy that it has worked, but what I don’t understand is why doctors are so hesitant to try a simple solution like this. Even if it did not work (and it does), it is good for your skin! My allergist unequivocally denied any connection between a mite allergy and the rosacea symptoms. Wouldn’t even consider it. Same for my dermatologist. I think this is somewhat akin to those doctors who vehemently denied any possibility of ulcers being caused by an infection right up until it was proved that H. pylori caused them. This seems ridiculous to me since they are always recommending that we use more sunscreen, and that’s just what this is, with the added benefit of possible rosacea treatment. What’s to lose?

If you try this, please let me know how it worked for you. We need to get the word out!

Kindness of strangers

Making fire in the Baliem Valley

Keep an open heart while you travel, and expect the kindness of strangers. I know you’ve met many folks who seem to go through life expecting the worst, and oddly enough, that’s usually what they get. People seem to be especially apprehensive about traveling to a really foreign destination, and will often close down socially so that they don’t have to deal with any strange (to them) people.

In my experience, people want to be kind. It makes us feel good to do good deeds, releases a good drug in our brain, and frankly, it’s often easier to do for strangers than to be kind to your neighbor that you know for certain is a lay about and doesn’t deserve anything! Well, other people feel just the same. Leave yourself open to good experiences while maintaining common sense about your safety.

Case in point -we were in Indonesia several years ago, and had just landed in Jayapura, needing to get a surat jalan to travel into the interior. Now this was before the Indonesian airlines had really gotten it together, and I was not sure when or even if we could get to Jayapura from Manokwari. Consequently I had made no plans for the travel pass we needed to get – involving presenting your passport before officials some way from the airport, and then waiting for the appropriate permissions which could take several days. Bottom line – we had no idea what to do once we put foot on the ground and were hoping to figure it out when we landed. We entered the small airport and were targeted at once by a small, dirty man with a friendly but very red smile from chewing betel nut. He could speak enough English that we could convey our need for the requisite papers. As it turned out, the bridge on the road to the office we needed to get to was blocked, and we could not have made the journey anyway, except on the backs of motorbikes. Our new ally took us to a hotel and then to a place to make copies of our passports. We gave him passport pictures (always travel with a few) and the money to purchase the papers. He zoomed off across the broken bridge. Fingers crossed, we went back to our hotel to await his return. The money was not too much – $25 apiece if I remember correctly, and then $25 for the transaction, but we did not have much faith that he would come through. We sat in our dingy hotel room and munched granola bars, afraid to go out and miss our friend’s return. We had almost given up and gone to bed when, sure enough, he tapped on our door and we got our official surat jalans and he helped us get flights to Wamena. Once there, we went through much the same thing with our new hosts, with equally good results.

Bottom line, if we had not been willing to trust in the kindness of strangers, we would neve have had a terrific day with the stone age tribesmen who lived in the Baliem Valley. So – expect good things. Often they will come!

Almanac Nevada County December 2013

Does too snow in California!

Last days of 2013, but it’s sunny and the light is increasing. Nights are frosty, and there are still a few spots of snow left in the shadows of the river valley and shady sides of the roads. At our elevation, we get snow several times a year, but it typically melts quickly. Walking into the hoop house during the day feels like a tropical jungle. Just planted spinach, lettuce, cabbage and snap peas, but I notice the spinach I gave up on long ago has started to sprout. It is truly a miracle how quickly plants notice the change in the seasons. I have some miniature iris between the pavers on the patio, and they start to poke their noses up just as soon as the days begin to lengthen, no matter what the thermometer says. Chickens, too – I usually get the first egg around the end of the month – my birthday present!

Down at the hive, the bees are buzzing during the short days. Not sure what they are getting, but they are coming in with panniers full of pollen, so there’s something out there for them – probably including the coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) that’s blooming now (it snows, but it’ still California!). We are just finishing up the driest year on record – glad that’s over. They are currently predicting some rain by the first week of the New Year – a happy way to start off, and let’s just hope it continues. Everywhere you go in our town, someone is talking about the dry weather, so you know it’s getting bad (although some are just griping about the poor skiing, of course!).  Yes, California is always very dry in the summer, but we depend on the snow and rain to build our summer water supply. No snow equals no water next year, and farmers and ranchers are worried. Almost all of our 40 inches of rain falls between October and May, but so far, we only have a couple of those in the bag, including our recent “big” snow. I laugh at that because the year the Donner Party was snowed in, there was an accumulation of 60 feet of snow over the summit – no worries about water for them, but they had some other issues…;>))

 

travel advisor flights, remote airlines

We had to buzz the field to get rid of livestock

So you’re trying to get from point A to point B and it seems to be insanely expensive. Here are a few tips to help you out. My first go to is http://matrix.itasoftware.com/ This site DOES NOT sell tickets, but you can get a great overview of what’s available in various categories and who flies where and when for most of your major destinations. You can customize it greatly for a month’s time period, non-connecting flights, multitude of airports, etc. They don’t list the cheapest airlines, but it’s a great starting point for information. If you like what you get, click on the details and take to a travel agent for an estimate or try to get directly from the airline if it is a single source or partner route. However, if you can’t get a flight into your destination or think you might get a better deal, try these tips:

First, are you trying to get there using one of the major search engines like Expedia or Travelocity? They can get you some great prices, but they have contracts only with major airlines, and most lower cost/no frills airlines will never appear on them. Also, they prioritize those airlines that give them the best percentage. You’ve probably noticed, for instance, that Southwest never appears on these search engines. That’s because Southwest can’t afford to give them a cut and also offer low prices (with baggage, by the way)!

Secondly, don’t forget that there a whole bunch of airline sites out there (http://www.vayama.com/,  http://www.mobissimo.com/search_airfare.php, http://www.cheapoair.com/ to give just a few), all of whom  will be happy to take your money over the internet and provide you with e-tickets. Check them out if lowest dollar is most important, and be sure you are comparing apples to apples (I.e. is the tax included, etc.).

Thirdly, are you trying to get to some tiny airport in some out of the way place? Chances are, you can’t get there on Mega Airlines, you’ll have to do your own scheduling. There are several websites out there which will list all the airlines that fly into your destination (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_low-cost_airlines, http://www.whichairline.com/airports/, http://www.skyscanner.com). Log onto the website and there will usually be an English icon that you can click for more clarity. Note that often they have substantially different prices for citizens of their own country, or for flights originating within their own country. Check this out as you might save yourself quite a lot. Often there are sales listed on the home page. I personally think it’s best to try and schedule directly with airlines yourself, especially for the cheaper ones. That way, you have their own paperwork and confirmation number, not some third party paperwork that you are trying to show to someone whose language you don’t speak very well! If you have the flexibility, it’s often best (or only possible) to try to schedule once you arrive closer to your destination.

Finally (for this post) if you really want to research in depth or you have a very complex itinerary, check out the Official Airline Guide site. They offer monthly subscriptions at a pricey cost, but they also offer a free 14-day trial (http://www.oag.com/Traveller/OAG-Travel-Planner-Pro#free-trial) which might fill your needs. They also offer free tools at http://www.oag.com/Travel-Tools that might do what you need. Another good sight to check is http://www.airsafe.com/ – self-explanatory, but sometimes you want to know, even if you decide to take the risk!