Wednesday, September 29, 2010

La Mercè, Barcelona

La Mercè is the major Barcelona festival of the year, highlighting very Catalan traditions. Originally to commemorate the feast day of one of the city's patron saints, Our Lady of Mercy (24 September), the event has expanded to over three days of festivities. At the opening ceremonies on Thursday night, the huge papier maché figures known as gegants paraded and danced through the crowd in the old city. Over the weekend, the wines and cavas (sparkling wine) of Catalunya were exhibited in a festival along the harbour. Tasting was reasonably priced, and buying wines was pretty cheap - a reserve bottle for 6 euros!

Friday and Sunday we watched castellers representing each Barcelona neighborhood vie to construct the tallest human towers. The base is made with a sheer mass of castellers locked together (we should note that in our pictures, the first layer you see is actually the second level). Note the helmets on the kids - that's apparently because one child actually fell and died a few years back - and the castellers biting on their collars - that is so their shirt doesn't start to slip as someone is climbing up on their shoulders. It was an amazing spectacle... although admittedly, not for the faint of heart, as when the castellers start to shake and the tower begins to sway, the crowd is collectively holding its breath. We actually saw 2 different towers collapse, and everyone was okay, but seeing a pile of people including kids free fall from several stories high is just absolutely terrifying.

Another example of how gutsy - or crazy - Catalans can be is the Correfoc, or fire run. The Gates of Hell, ironically erected near the Cathedral, open with huge fireworks and drums booming. Diablos, again representing different neighborhoods, run around with torches and spray the crowds with fireworks. The streets are packed so ash and sparks are continuously falling on everyone, and apparently, later at night, the diablos actually start chasing people! In all fairness, the announcements for the Correfoc do actually carry a warning for wearing proper attire: long pants and long sleeve shirts of non-flammable material, hats, and goggles if you got'em (How is that for PPE?!).

The adjunct BAM festival hosted free concerts all three evenings in cool venues all over the city. We got to see Goldfrapp in the massive Parc del Forúm, Ok Go and Belle & Sebastian overlooking a historic Estrella Damm factory (brewed in Barcelona since 1876), and a couple of smaller bands next to a Christopher Colombus monument. One evening we went home at 3:30 am and were still considered early birds for it!

Even Pepper got a little into La Mercè festivities. The city park where we walk her was filled with special light displays, tapas stands, and a disco area. The fantastic laser show we wandered into near the entrance, which went off on its smoke and light display every few minutes, did make her suspicious.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Pepper Gets A Move On

One of the big challenges of moving to Spain is bringing our dog, Pepper. If you do not want your pet to sit in quarantine for months (horror stories and poor survival rates), there are a series of seemingly simple steps you are supposed to take. In practice, it ranked pretty close to planning a wedding but not quite as bad as getting Richard a green card.

Timing is the most important. You should start at least 6 months in advance. Now, if you do not know where - or even IF - you are going outside of the country, as was the case with us, you are already behind because regulations differ from country to country. We assumed that eventually we might possibly want or need to bring Pepper to her grandparents in England, which is like the worst case European scenario for transporting animals. England does not have rabies in the country so Pepper needed an expensive rabies titer test and subsequent paper work. Oh, and hopefully, all of this was preceded by implanting a microchip of the appropriate standard - bet you didn't know there were multiple kinds? or that getting your microchip company to tell you which one you have is its own exercise in patience?

Even booking the travel requires the flight has room (usually only 1-2 spots) , is not during a weather embargo (so your dog does not roast or freeze), has a short total itinerary (since you won't get to see them again until the final destination), and each layover destination does not have its own restriction (dogs need a minimum of 6 hours for transfer at London Heathrow). Each airline has its own documentation as well.

Then there was the final check-up. Eight to ten days in advance Pepper went for her final exam with the vet in Indiana to get 2 forms filled out - one for the USDA (required by the airline) and one for the EU (with directions in Spanish and English). After the quick exam, I was suspicious at how long the vet's office was taking to fill out the only 3 pages of forms. I nearly ran out screaming when the vet tech said, "Oh, is Spain in Europe? I thought it was somewhere in South America." ... Really should I have been surprised to hear from the USDA that the examining vet's office mucked up the entire thing? The USDA blasted them for not even being able to consistently write the dates in the same format (dd-mm-yyyy vs. mm-dd-yyyy) on the same page! Another trip to the examining vet to pick up the "corrected" forms revealed glaring discrepancies even I could see, like an error in Pepper's microchip number. The full extent of the their complete incompetence was exhibited when it took three (!) revisions of the corrected forms - each one printed and stamped - to finally catch all the mistakes.

The appointment to hand deliver the forms to the USDA had its own hiccup. A quick call to our vet in North Carolina and fax back were all that were needed to get the precious embossed certificates.

The actual trip, by comparison, was uneventful. Pepper got to walk around with me until 2 hours before the flight out of Chicago. She learned how to drink out of her new guinea pig-style water bottle. I was nervous because I was not able to see her crate loaded on the flight out, but someone in Zurich checked on her for me. In Barcelona, an airline employee assisted me in wheeling her out, straight past customs in the "Nothing to Declare" line, and no one stopped us. After all the drama of getting her paper work, this did not seem right to me. However, despite repeated attempts to ask at Information and Security, they assured me that it was okay and they probably checked her paper work in Zurich. I find this fishy since the airline only took the USDA certificate, and no one saw or asked for the EU form - but I'll take it!

Our darling girl was none the worse for her 15 hour journey, other than being a little ashamed at wetting the crate. Later on Richard and I found that Pepper also was jet-lagged, excitedly wanting a walk at 4 am, which we thought was hilarious! I keep telling her she needs to not sleep so much if she wants to adjust.

One final note for detractors: We did make a conscious effort to include Pepper's welfare and well-being in our decision to move to Barcelona. Richard and I felt the relatively short-term difficulties of getting her into Spain will be far outweighed by our next 3 years here. Dumping her back in the shelter (unthinkable) or even with our parents would have been irresponsible ownership, and we are a family. She goes for long walks everyday and has already been to a couple of dog parks.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Final Thoughts on our Asian Trip

Our trip through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and India was a great experience. With taking a "Gap Year" common in the UK, Richard felt like he had passed up every opportunity, and with American vacation standards, I never thought longer term travel would be possible. It is such a backpacker cliche to say any amount of time is not long enough, but it's true. Even in 10 weeks (5x what most Americans get per year), we still only caught glimpses. But they were beautiful and humbling and amazing and interesting and...

Here are the flotsam and jetsam thoughts:

Everyday Exotic Creatures

- In Siem Reap, it was great to glance out of your tuk-tuk and see a troop of monkeys in the forest bordering the road. A family also hung out around the roof of our hotel in Agra, and Rich only just missed getting the perfect shot of a monkey framed by the Taj Mahal.

- Even after a week at Elephant Nature Park, one never got tired of the occasional realization of "hey, that's an elephant standing right there" as you go about the more banal activities of life, say, waiting in line for breakfast.

- Throughout our trip, Pepper-like dogs hounded us - sorry, cheap pun. It would not be an exaggeration to say we saw at least one of her twins everyday in India! We decided either a) our girl was sending out her doppelgangers to check up on us or b) the more mongrel the population, the more common are brown dogs with white markings.

The Obligatory Toilet Commentary

I was surprised and very grateful for the prevalence of Western-style commodes in the places we visited. With proper prior planning, squatter use was kept to a minimum. Sometimes, you could even find the perfect trifecta of toilets: Western-style, toilet paper, and soap! If not, arming yourself with a bathroom bag (basic model: toilet paper + hand sanitizer, or the deluxe model: + immodium + cipro) is essential for peace of mind.

Rugrats, i.e. Traveling with Young Children in Developing Countries

Yes, it is true that most Asians, with our love of family, may enjoy meeting and playing with your child. This aspect of the cultures does not grant you freedom to indulge your flaky parenting style and get some free babysitting out of unsuspecting, probably underpaid and overworked hotel employees. A particularly heinous example of this we observed in an Aussie couple with their 4-year-old daughter in our homestay in Vietnam. While Mum was off on a trek, Dad decided to wander off to do some photography, calling over his shoulder, "Dakota, just hang out with them for a while. I'll be back later!" We looked around and to our horror, "them" was the four of us backpackers who were just finishing breakfast. Now, being decent human beings instead of, say, the secret axe-murderers and child molesters we could have been, we had just been thrust into babysitting a tot we only met the night before... instead of also being allowed to enjoy our own vacations. Dakota's precocious Shirley Temple charm already was wearing thin with her habits of sucking on a dirty comb and sticking her snotty fingers in the communal serving dishes. With parents like those, I suppose consideration of others was pretty low on her list of lessons to learn.

Photography (Other People's)

Sometimes photography can be an antisocial behavior like smoking. At the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, we were jostled constantly by amateurs who felt a giant lens attachment on their SLR camera entitled them to front and center seating. Nevermind that we all had arrived 4 hours before the event to get those seats! One woman even had the gall to cast dirty looks at anyone who jostled her tripod in the crammed standing room only section.

Expenses for Curious Minds Who Want to Know

The whole thing cost us about 12000 USD. Almost half of that were flights, many bought not far in advance of the departure. Hopefully, some of you can see this number and be inspired to go on your own great adventure.


Thanks to our families for being supportive and not freaking out too much. May I suggest less Andrew Zimmerman for next time? Special thanks to Mom and Dad for watching Pepper and my sister for watching - and not touching- the bank (just kidding, Ate!). Special thanks to Mum and Michael for the great shower, sleep, and steak and kidney pie (!) layover and Dad for bringing us back to Heathrow by dawn.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Final Thoughts on India

Ah, India! We knew going into the country that most people seem to love it or hate it. Despite having already been on the road for weeks by the time we arrived, Delhi was so frickin' hard. The way we remembered where our roach motel (with good reviews - thanks for nothing, tripadvisor) was located was because the alley always had a line of men waiting for the open urinal. Continuing around the Golden Triangle was not much better with the viciousness of touts and autorickshaw drivers. In all honesty, in that first week, we both separately considered getting a flight out to somewhere - anywhere else! - and just coming back to India in time to catch the one home. Grimly we stuck it out, and in our optimism, we could say it was, at least, always interesting. Things got better and better the further we got away from the tourist trail and the giant cities, and we really got to love our time in southern India. It was so redeeming that we half-started a list of places we would like to visit if we come back to India someday... even if we are washing our hands of Delhi, Agra, and Rajasthan (still, the Taj Mahal is worth visiting).

Below are some of other odds and ends on India.

The ubiquitous Indian head wobble is contagious. In practice, the gesture can range from slight to brain-shakingly vigorous, and its meaning seems to also vary from "yes," "no," "maybe," and "you must be crazy." Despite our diligent studying, we never managed to master the movement itself or, for that matter, the exact meaning in each situation.

Granite seems to be common in India. Slabs that your average homeowner would dream of putting in for kitchen counters casually rest in big piles by the side of the road in the Delhi construction. A greasy spoon restaurant in Munnar sported granite tables paired incongruously with their plastic chairs.

Moustaches are alive and celebrated in India! In Rajasthan in particular, we saw some magnificent specimens of the luxurious, bushy handlebar-style reddened by henna. We suspect it is an unwritten requirement for doormen of posh hotels.

India was the fattest country we have been to in this trip. Individuals with more to love were a frequent sight, probably in relation to their relative affluence [For instance, we saw no one in Vietnam with an extra ounce]. We also concluded that Muk is still skinny, even by Indian standards.

These were some of our favorite drinks in India:
- Masala chai (spiced tea with milk): Richard was frequently distracted by the cry of the chai-wallahs, "chai chai garam [hot] chai garam chai." Ten cents at the train station can buy you a tiny dixie cup.
- Lassi (yogurt drink) comes in sweet, salty, and fruit flavors. At times, it could be essential for calming the fire of chillies in your mouth.
- Smokey masala chas was prepared tableside at the Rajasthani thali place. A waiter dropped spices on a burning coal, covered it for a moment with a stainless steel cup, and finally poured a buttermilk concoction into the cup. The result was a sour drink with surprisingly intense smokey flavor.
- Limca soda is like Sprite but heavier on the lime and lighter on sugar. There is also a variation where it is prepared with fresh lime juice at streetside stalls.
-Pepsi gets an honorable mention just because India was the only country we visited where it made significant inroads into Coca-Cola's world dominance. Later I learned this was possibly due to some pro-Indian business policies 20 or so years ago, which weakened Coke's strangle hold in the region.

Chennamkary and Ernakulam (India)

Our final day in the Chennamkary homestay we rented a canoe to explore the backwaters on our own steam. The water is quite flat, and the current strong, so any passing ferry or houseboat creates a ferocious wake. We paddled over to where they were shooting a movie. If you ever see a Bollywood flick with a couple of foreigners zig-zagging in a canoe in the background, it could be us!

We arrived in Ernakulam on our last day in India with just enough time to catch a performance of Kathakali, one of the traditional dances of Kerala. Dancers train for over 10 years in order to develop the supreme muscle control required (tiny movements in the corner of one eye!) and learn how to perform stories from the two great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. If you come early to the show, you can watch the artist apply the elaborate makeup and hear them describe the significance of the designs. In our play, a prince (green face = good guy) searches for and does battle with a demon who has been harassing the townsfolk. Along the way, he encounters a fight between an elephant and a cobra. All the parts were played precisely by a single dancer accompanied by drums and a singer. The whole experience was interesting... but even with their painstaking pre-show explanations, I am afraid many of the subtleties were still lost on us. To someone walking in off the street, unfortunately, the performance could have easily appeared to be an angry cross-dressing clown prone to seizures! [Apologies for the cultural insensitivity.]

We thought we had just enough time left for a quick nap and shower before heading back to the States, but it turned out that our adventures were not quite over yet. On the way to the airport, an autorickshaw-van-conversion suddenly decided to turn right from the left lane, cutting us off on the highway. Our taxi driver had to brake hard, sliding past the concrete-walled median, and drive into the oncoming traffic for a while to avoid him. Traveling in Asia, near misses become an almost daily occurrence, but this was by far our closest call. We were probably going about 60 miles per hour. Richard reckons the impact would have killed the other driver, but I am not entirely convinced that we also would not have died or been seriously injured. We thanked our taxi driver (who was also shaken up) for his excellent reflexes, and, thankfully, the rest of the way to the airport was uneventful.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Alleppey and Chennamkary (India)

Further south lies the town of Alleppey, aka Alappuzha. Luckily, our visit coincided with the 58th Annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Boat clubs from all over the state of Kerala compete on a 1.5 km course in snake boats (long, narrow canoes) with crews from 20 to over 100 men! Transport to the mini-island with our section was via a ferry so packed it threatened to tip when the eager spectators were disembarking. Though we were slightly farther from the finish line than the more expensive Tourist Silver and Gold stands, sitting in the mid-priced Rose Corner meant being right in the thick of the most ardent Indian fans. At times, the raucous chanting and shouting surrounding us could rival those of English football hooligans. The other unanticipated advantage was our location alongside the VVIP (very, very important persons) section, which included such dignitaries as the Governor of Kerala and, the guest of honor, the President of India! This guaranteed some prime photography as the 100-men snake boats lined up to salute Her Excellency during the opening ceremony. Many of the actual races were highly competitive, and it was thrilling to see the athleticism of the rowers (even if some of them have pot-bellies!) as they sped by, casting up sheets of water. In the lull between heats, we amused ourselves making fun of the English announcer, a woman who, speaking over the play-by-play commentator, sounded as if she had just been handed the microphone and knew about as much about boats as we did. Her inane comments included such gems as, "The heat has begun, and definitely, the heat is on" and "Next is a boat presenting the various art forms of Kerala, and you know, Kerala has various forms of art." The finals had the spectators standing on their chairs and cheering themselves hoarse as all four boats were racing neck and neck at the finish. Immediately, another mad rush to the ferry resulted in mosh pit-like crowds and several foreigners losing their tempers in the stampede. All in all, the Nehru Trophy Boat Race was a fantastic outing!

The rest of the year the other reason most come to Alleppey is because it is also the gateway to the backwaters of Kerala. There are two ways for seeing the lakes, rivers, and canals that make up the backwaters - by houseboat or by homestay. We chose both.

Our private houseboat was one of many thatched barges available with its own crew for an overnight trip. As the houseboat drifts slowly along, you catch glimpses of daily life in the tiny communities that line the waterways... Women slapping laundry on stone steps, and men in dhotis (a sort of wrap-around skirt, which seems to be more common in the southern India) bathing and fishing. In the background, coconut palms and banana trees line large rice paddies growing the giant, fluffy rice of Kerala.

For the more up close and personal backwaters experience, our homestay was exceptional. In the small village of Chennamkary, the homestay really is a family affair: staying in Maria's house with her older brother Thomas handling the bookings, her younger brother Matthew guiding walks, and their mother doing the cooking in the joint compound. We took a couple of walks by ourselves around the island, but one of the highlights was an evening guided walk. We learned more about how the families of the different trades/former castes (toddy tappers, mud diggers, fishermen, carpenters, etc) and different religions (Hindu, Muslim, and various Christian denominations) have worked and played peaceably in the community for generations. At dusk, we boarded a canoe to float the rest of the way back with Matthew and the canoeman sharing a few traditional folk songs. It was easy to imagine the call-and-response over the Keralan backwaters, especially when some of the guys on land joined impulsively in on the rendition of the boatmen's chant that had rung continuously in our ears during the Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Richard also took advantage of the opportunity to do some fishing off the pier, catching 3 fish with only a set up of a stick-and-fishing-line with dough as bait! He decided to stop after catching a catfish with spikes that Matthew ran out to tell us were "deadly painful" (clarifying later that they would only sting... but very painfully... for at least a week). But we have to say, the fish were delicious when they arrived fried for lunch the following day!

Our homestay also allowed us to taste an array of Keralan dishes. The homecooking differed from the Indian food we had been eating in the prevalence of its local giant rice (grains the size of your fingernail!), abundance of fresh and saltwater fish, and frequent use of coconut meat and its oil (Kerala can be roughly translated as "land of coconuts"). Some of our favorites were: steamed rice flour cakes with egg curry for breakfast, finely chopped beet salad, a spicy tomato and onion sort of pico de gallo that we took seconds of everyday, water buffalo curry with the stretchier Keralan version of parathas, the parade of vegetable-and-fresh-grated-coconut dishes, and iddlyappam (rice noodles with coconut formed into nests).

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Ernakulam and Munnar (India)

Catching the overnight train from Goa to Kerala, a state even further south, was pleasant. Richard booked us into first class sleeper, which meant our two berths were in an air-conditioned cabin with its own sink and wardrobe. Turn down service converted the cushiony bench seat for daytime into a less comfortable bed for night time (go figure). The private cabin was appreciated though since the journey to Ernakulam station was over 14 hours long.

When arranging for a transfer from Ernakulam to our hotel near Munnar, we thought the cost was extortionate. However, we realized it was fair enough when we finally arrived at our destination over 4 hours later. Reminiscent of the Blue Ridge Parkway, most of the drive up towards Munnar winds through beautiful hills (mountains, really) with scenic viewpoints and the occasional waterfall. Also like the Parkway, the person who is driving should actually not be taking in the gorgeous landscape, lest the car end up tumbling down the mountain... with the added bonus of local buses seeming determined to make that so.

The real draw of the Munnar hills (and Richard's first true love) is tea. Tea plantations blanket the steep hillsides interspersed with native trees and cultivated eucalyptus. The tea museum, besides also sharing the history of the region, housed working tea processing machinery. Richard, of course, was delighted with the free sample of masala chai with entry.

Outside the town proper, our hotel overlooked lush forest and cardamom plantings. The location made a relaxed and peaceful setting, but the isolation sometimes could also be a burden. We were at the mercy of taxi drivers and the hotel's restaurant, whose small (and mediocre) menu appeared to shrink even more the longer we stayed. On a positive note, the monsoon rains were very picturesque, especially when viewed from the coziness of our private, covered veranda with a pot of - you guessed it - masala chai!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Benaulim, Panjim, Old Goa, Candolim, and Calangute (India)

A taxi from the airport took us out to Benaulim, a quiet beach town in Goa. Quiet, we discovered, meant absolutely deserted in the off-season of the monsoon. Watching enormous waves crash into the shore in a dismal downpour, we abandoned the idea of a seaside holiday.

Instead, we adjusted and used Panjim (aka Panaji) as a base. Although it is the capital of Goa, the city is easy to walk around and the atmosphere relaxed. With plenty of local options for dining in Panjim, we consistently found reasonably priced and delicious meals. Goan cuisine is very different from the Indian food we have had so far, partly because the state was a Portuguese colony for over 400 years. It features many seafood dishes due to its location on the coast and even pork! The notorious vindaloo seems to also have its origins here, probably related to the proximity of spice plantations. Richard was really pleased with Panjim's central bus station, which was easy to navigate and allowed us to make hassle-free day trips to other towns in Goa for about 0.40 USD round trip.

Before the Portuguese moved it to Panjim, Old Goa (aka Goa Velha) was the capital. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can visit several restored churches. The most popular for the pilgrimage circuit is the Basilica Bom Jesus, which has a blingin' gold altar and a dead guy. The corpse is St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit missionary famous for converting hundreds of thousands of us Asians... and also for bringing the Inquisition to the East. Ok, so maybe the two are related, but it was good enough get universities named after him! [Mom, you can be glad now that I finally made it into a church on this trip... since I am guessing the Buddhist or Hindu temples didn't count]

Old Goa's archaeological museum houses sculpture (both ancient Hindu and Christian), a gallery of old Portuguese viceroys (including one listed as 'Luis de Miranda' - any relation?), and - most amusingly - a children's activity centre with a sign bluntly admitting that parents drag their uninterested children into dull museums and then wonder why they are not engaged or enthusiastic... so here, we are going to give them some crayons and paper!

When another break in the weather presented itself, we crossed off another item on Richard's list, renting a scooter to explore the towns of Candolim and Calangute. Candolim is the less developed of the two, but it has a couple of forts built in the 1600s that are nice to wander around for views of Aguada Bay and the Arabian Sea. Candolim Beach was strewn with debris, the remains of an erosion control project, and most disturbingly, a giant tanker that had run aground and has been rusting on the sand since the 1990s! Even if it was not a red-flagged day, Rich still would have refused to put a toe in the water.

Calangute Beach was popular despite the no swimming conditions, and several lifeguards were still scanning the waves though only a few men were playing even at the knee-deep waters. Most of the crowd was staying dry, hanging out and taking pictures on the sand. Richard got asked to be in someone's picture, but declined, suspecting a scam although we could not figure out what it could be. A couple of ice creams - cashew/sultana and chickoo (sapodilla fruit?) - marked a pleasant end to our seaside visit (is this an English tradition?).

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Udaipur, Ahmedabad, and Mumbai (India)

Arriving at the Udaipur train station over an hour early, we saw and heard no notice that our overnight train to Ahmedabad had been cancelled despite having checked the status a couple of hours previously. We only found out by asking the station manager a few minutes before it was supposed to leave. Our schedule was already tight traveling through Ahmedabad and Mumbai/Bombay to get to the southern state of Goa so this delay threw our carefully made plans for a serious loop.

We hailed another autorickshaw back to the city proper and headed straight for the nearest travel agent with power (Udaipur was in the middle of another cut). Our plans to actually stop and look around Ahmedabad and Mumbai were soon abandoned, and both cities have been hit pretty badly with the monsoon season anyway. However, we still had to get south somehow.

The plan involved taking an overnight bus from Udaipur to Ahmedabad and flying the rest of the way to Goa via a Mumbai stopover. Honestly, the overnight bus was pretty sketchy. Our double sleeper was a mat inside of a cubby hole with sliding glass doors the size of windows, which you reach by climbing a short ladder. The poor folks who only paid for sitting seats were underneath us, and the purported single sleepers were actually doubled up. Our backpacks had to go in the back trunk, supervised by a guy who demanded payment for both depositing and retrieving them. There was no air conditioning so the only airflow was through a tiny window in our cubby. Thankfully, someone on board must have been eating so I was grateful for the wafts of mint and cilantro... the alternative was a packed house of body odor. Sometime around 4 a.m., someone pounded on our "door" and told us our stop was next. We barely had time to grab our stuff before getting rushed off the bus. Deposited in the middle of the night in the middle of the road somewhere in Gujarat, we had no choice but to pay the only autorickshaw driver there his asking price for the Ahmedabad airport. Our hurried exit made Richard paranoid he had left our passports in the bus so we had a few exciting moments of "Follow that bus!" until he found them in our packs.

By comparison, our flights were uneventful. Mumbai airport was a blur through security and grabbing a couple of awful sandwiches. We eventually made it to Goa, where the monsoon rains met us so intensely that the plane actually had to make a second attempt for the landing.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Udaipur (India)

Udaipur has been called the "most romantic city in India" because of a beautiful palace sitting in the middle of Lake Pichola (also seen in the James Bond film, Octopussy). Unfortunately, the lake in question is currently so low that donkeys play on the grass underneath the walking bridge, and the debris is pretty noticeable along the ghats. On the plus side, it still looks charming in the rain of the monsoon, and Udaipur is by far the most relaxing Indian city we have visited yet with the least aggressive touts.

The City Palace is the residence of the Mewars of Udaipur, the longest serving dynasty in the world at 76 generations, and houses a museum. Besides exhibits on weaponry and the days of the British Raj, the palace contains many rooms lined with intricate murals in the Rajasthani miniature painting style or covered in elaborate glass tile mosaics. Apparently, if a fairytale wedding is what you really desire, you can even book the courtyards with beautiful fountains for the big event!

We also visited Jagdish Temple, which is supposed to be one of the largest temples to the Hindu god Vishnu. The structures are elaborately carved, and at night, our dinner restaurant gave us a great view of the multicolored lights illuminating the temple... and the poor man in charge of ringing the bell continuously throughout the long service (he had to keep switching arms).

For my ongoing "anthropological studies," I had a fantastic ayurvedic massage from an Indian matron in a red sari and apron. The head massage portion involved a substantial quantity of fragrant oil poured in my hair and her scratching my head for about 15 minutes, which I could see would be great for anyone with dry scalp issues. This is also the first time someone else has wiped out my belly button, which was a little on the awkward side!

Finally, a note on Indian food... we noticed we have been paying handsomely for lackluster and sometimes downright disappointing meals in India, and we have several theories: 1) we were extraordinarily spoiled with the abundance and quality of Indian cuisine in Cary and surrounding areas; 2) we are too much on the Tourist Trail, and these places are accustomed to catering to Westerners who only ask for butter chicken and other non-spicy dishes; or 3) perhaps, as in Morocco, the best food is at home (cooked by the ladies) and not in restaurants (cooked by the men), which would explain why the best restaurants we ate in were in Delhi, where, presumably, urbanites do not cook as much. It is probably a combination of all of them, but our cooking course instructor seemed to favor theory #3.

Shashi is an admirable Brahmin woman who started teaching cooking classes after struggling to raise her two sons when her husband died. The class took place in her 2-room apartment with another couple of students. Over the 6 hours, we made masala chai (Indian spiced tea with milk); 4 kinds of pakora (fried snacks... cheese, onion, potato, and mixed veg), 2 kinds of chutney (mango and cilantro); vegetable pulao (rice dish); aloo mutter (potato and pea curry); and 5 kinds of bread (chapati; plain, potato, and sweet parathas; and my personal favorite - garlic cheese and tomato naan). Shashi was full of suggestions for variations on the recipes and also explained how to go about making curd (yogurt) and paneer (fresh cheese) at home. Unfortunately, we lost our heads a little with the fried goodness that were the pakoras with chutneys so we could not each much of the rest of the dishes. However, Shashi insisted we at least take the breads for breakfast the next morning, and they went well - even cold! - with a nice pot of masala chai.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jaipur (India)

Along with Delhi and Agra, the pink city of Jaipur in Rajasthan makes up India's Golden Triangle. We both lost our tempers a little by being accosted immediately off the train by a particularly persistent autorickshaw driver who followed us for a good 20 minutes despite our repeated attempts to discourage him. I would like to blame our initial disorientation on him. Eventually we reached our heritage hotel, which proved to be a perfect haven. I especially appreciated the softer bed (for Asia) in a beautiful room, working air conditioning, and quiet little courtyard when my head cold made me take the day off.

For sightseeing, we headed to Jantar Mantar, which looks like a cool arty sculpture garden (Julie) or the most awesome skate park ever (Richard)! It is actually an astronomical observatory built by the maharajah of Jaipur in the 1700's and includes the world's largest sundial. It was worthwhile to spring for the official tour guide, who besides being able to tell us how each structure worked, also related the importance of astrology in Indian culture.

The City Palace is where the current maharajah resides (in a closed section). Different exhibits included the royal hall for public audiences, elaborate textiles, and really nasty-looking weapons... with a back scratcher in the same case! Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed in the rooms with the really beautiful decor.

The cheapest way to get into the city from our hotel was taking the local stop and go bus. Staring is common and unabashed in India, and our fellow passengers were no exception. No one wanted to sit next to the foreigners. Eventually, as the bus continued to get more and more packed, they decided that we were at least better than the guy with the bag that emanated flies (also very abundant in India) who kept falling asleep on people. As a result, a couple of men were practically sitting on my lap!

We also took the opportunity to take in the latest Bollywood film at the Raj Mandir Cinema, which with its pink and white architecture, makes it look like a 6-year-old girl's birthday cake. Richard did not know that the 3+ hour long film would not be in English and was under the misconception that I told him otherwise. The audience rushes into the theatre as soon as the doors open, and you soon find out why - the film starts showing immediately, no 10 minutes of trailers for cushion. Khatta Meetha (as far as we could tell) revolved around a goofy engineer trying to expand his construction business. His attempts to fulfill a contract to build a road were severely hampered by an employee with a slapstick inability to do his job (i.e. the comic relief). The government official monitoring the lack of progress is an ex-love interest. The complex side stories also involved his more successful thug-like brothers involved in shady political dealings who marry off their sister to the biggest monster of them all. For a film with children in attendance, the mafia-like scenes were surprisingly violent. The requisite song-and-dance numbers were hilarious and extravagant, including a random pirate ship! [Sorry, folks, I did not see Nigel in this one!] Everything works out in the end - the engineer and official get married, the bad brothers go to jail ... except for the sister, whose husband passes her around his friends, and then she gets beaten to death for trying to escape (!).

In Jaipur, we also caught a ride with the cheekiest autorickshaw driver. Crossing the road during traffic, we were able to negotiate a decent price. However, he still outwitted his buddies on the other side of the road (who we were heading to) and flaunted it. Over the course of our 15 minute trip, he managed to stop 1 time for the toilet, 1 time to buy something, and 4 times to ask other buddies for directions! For the last few meters, Rich actually had to direct him. Occasionally, he would just glance back with this giant "yeah, I have no idea what I'm doing" grin and continue on with his erratic driving. We found it pretty amusing... and maybe that is just us settling into a good attitude for India.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Agra and Fatephur Sikri (India)

Our usual commentator is currently out of commission with a cold (don't worry, Mom!) brought on by wildly fluctuating environmental temperatures and general exhaustion (according to our guidebook, this happens to 25% of visitors to India) so Richard is making a guest writing appearance for today. I apologize in advance for the obvious lack of quality.

Following our rude awakening in Delhi (I met someone today that was also shocked by how hard that city was), we were glad to finally catch the slow train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Most tourists catch the early train that takes about an hour and a half to get there, but it was fully booked so we caught the evening train the night before and opted for an extra night in Agra. The train ended up arriving in Agra three hours late, which is pretty impressive given that it was scheduled to take only four. It seemed like the Delhi construction had followed us there because we were put up in a room that still smelled of paint on the first night. For the second night, we moved into an older room with "Indian air-conditioning" - a fan that blows air over trickling water - personally, I think I preferred having no AC at all. Power glitches (not uncommon in Asia, but a daily occurrence in India) through the night kept us awake with the fan fluctuating between jet engine speeds and nothing at all.

On our first day in Agra, we decided that we were too good for the Taj Mahal, and took some local transport out to Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient Mughal fortified city about 40 km outside Agra. It sounded interesting, but we weren't prepared for the incredible beauty of the huge red sandstone structures. I think I was expecting "a series of small walls" (as Eddie Izzard claims Time Team always composes), not full structures around well-manicured gardens. Most of what we saw was the palace buildings, including the homes of the dude's (Emperor Akbar) three favourite wives - Muslim, Hindu, and Christian. He was apparently very religiously tolerant. The fort was well-preserved and big enough that you could have some peace from the tour guide touts. The way back to Agra was a bit of an adventure. When the bus finally turned up, the driver got out and (I assume from the shouting and gestures) announced that he couldn't be bothered to drive back for the scheduled return! A pretty big shouting match erupted between him and the trailing Indian passengers, and we (the foreigners) were used as leverage to get him to run his assigned route. He got his revenge by beeping his horn for 80% of the hour-long journey, so trying to have a conversation sounded like a Quentin Tarantino script playing on daytime TV.

The second day in Agra was spent chilling out before our train. No, sillies, we got up at 5:30am to watch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal! Monsoon season is probably not the best time to see sunrises, and we were actually a little late, so we watched the early morning rain at the Taj Mahal instead. Most tourists don't show up until 9 am or so, so it was relatively quiet. Again, we managed to find a few quiet spots to sit and take in the Taj without being bugged by touts. It's funny that it actually looks fake from a distance. Part of that was probably the flat morning light, but one sees so many pictures of the "reflection pool" view that it's a little surreal to see it in person. Once you get up close though, no pictures can do it justice. You have to be there to appreciate its majesty (and consummate vees, for you Homestar Runner fans). The Taj Mahal, commissioned by Shah Jahan at the death of his beloved wife, is built out of semi-transparent white marble and is famous for changing colour with the lighting conditions. We were treated to a short example of this when the sun peaked out for a few seconds to light the building up beautifully. There is a lot of hype around the Taj Mahal, and it's worth every bit of it. I have a question, though: why is everyone obsessed with taking pictures of themselves jumping in front of it?

It looks like no blog post is complete without some mention of food, so here's my take. The food in Agra is god awful! We tried several Lonely Planet-recommended places and thought you could get better Indian food out of a jar. The place with a "great thali for 90 Rs" has the worst thali we've tried so far. Let this be a lesson to guide book readers: don't believe everything you read in that book! We mostly have been finding our own eateries by going to the crowded places. Maybe most travellers don't want Indian food? I have to admit that most people I've seen are eating omelettes and cheese sandwiches. To get around the poor tourist food, we finished off Agra by taking an auto-rickshaw out to one of the bazaars and getting food on the street. Julie got a fairly unimpressive mutton biryani (rice dish with a two pieces of actual lamb), and I had a delicious tandoori paratha (bread) with spicy kebabs and spicier minty dipping sauce. Surprisingly enough, eating meat off the street didn't appear to cause stomach problems... yet.

[Submitted with only minor editting and interjections by Julie. Thanks and good job, Richard!]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Delhi (India)

Delhi was very hot and very dusty. This is because it is one big construction site, as the city prepares for hosting the Commonwealth Games (like the Olympics, but only for countries with the Queen still on their money) in October. For example, picture one of those World War II movies like Saving Private Ryan where they run through the rubble of the town dodging snipers, except change the snipers to touts, and throw in a placid cow chewing rubbish, and you have the road just outside of our hotel and the New Delhi Railway Station. According to a newspaper snippet, we are not alone in thinking it would be a miracle for all the construction to get finished in time for the Games.

Shaking us out of the easy cocoon of Thai travel, India asserts itself immediately whenever one tries to negotiate for an autorickshaw. With the abundant scams and ever present touts, I am counting us lucky if we only get screwed once a day. Our first adventure was getting to the National Museum (filled with artifacts, sculpture, miniature paintings, and other works of art) where we agreed to a price that we later understood to be 2-3x the fare. Our autorickshaw driver talked non-stop the entire way trying to get us to go to other places, finally settling on parking a little away from the museum and pointing at the scaffolding, saying "oh, it is closed on Sunday." We had heard of this possible scam and insisted, and when we walked around the corner we found, of course, the museum was open as scheduled. Let's call this Autorickshaw driver - 1, Rich and Julie - 1.

After our first sour experience, we opted to walk to Connaught Place (a giant 3 circled roundabout with shops all along the way). This time we did not fall for the autorickshaw driver who tried to get us into his vehicle with a new one, "There are protests that way!" It took us forever to find the restaurant in the maze of construction, but we were rewarded with excellent unlimited thalis (trays with a set menu in tiny dishes). The set up was a bit like a Brazilian churrascaria with servers refilling your portions except without the necessary stop/go cards. As a result, you have the same guy asking if you want more parathas about 3 minutes after the last time he asked you. It was delicious though with these thalis having about 5 vegetable dishes, 3 kinds of dal (lentils), 3 kinds of bread, and various sweet things.

We also visited Lal Qila (Red Fort) in Old Delhi, one of the other impressive building ventures of the Mughal emperors. It was refreshing to walk around the different sandstone-edificed buildings without constant pressure from touts. Rich was very happy to have his first proper cup of tea in Asia (i.e. without condensed milk or ice). For lunch, we stopped along Chandri Chowk where Julie had yet another thali (this time, not unlimited) and Rich indulged in some chaat (Indian snacks). The raj kachori (a giant crispy shell filled with yogurt, lentils, and other nice things) and bhel puri (spicy crispy bits, the variation with pomengranate seeds) were awesome. [Special thanks to Muk for introducing us to such things!]

The Delhi Metro - clean, fast, and high tech- was a pleasant surprise. You get an electronic token that scans to let you in, and presumably, will alert the authorities if you try to exit at a place other than your stated destination. The only hiccup was the long lines to exit since there were technical difficulties at the gates, where the agents had to scan each person's token by hand.

Ko Samui (Thailand) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia)

Just a few notes on passing through airports:

- Ko Samui airport was like a tropical version of an American shopping mall. The terminal was open-air with shops and a spa lining the walkway and a small park with wood sculpture picnic tables. The gate looked like the lobby for a boutique hotel with rattan couches and low tables. The bathroom had automatic sliding glass doors, air conditioning, and a freakin' huge aquarium, which would have been more suited as the centerpiece in a fine upscale restaurant. Unfortunately, this beautiful example of an airport was marred by the overwhelming sewage smell emanating from the drains, which seems to curse most open water in Thailand.

- Kuala Lumpur airport is very business class stylish with your Mont Blanc, Hermes, and Harrods outposts. There is a jungle boardwalk in the middle of the terminal with tropical plants and a fake waterfall. It cost about 9 USD to print out 3 pages in a you-don't-have-enough-miles-to-get-into-one-of-the-airline-lounges-so-you-can-just-shell-out-the-cash-to-pretend lounge.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Final Thoughts on Thailand

It is time to move on again so here are some final thoughts on Thailand, mostly related to food and drink...

- Despite being probably two of the most easily recognizable Thai dishes except for pad thai, we never did get any sticky rice with mango or chicken satay. By the time I felt like ordering sticky rice with mango, I couldn't find any place selling it!

- Also surprising, it can be really difficult finding a Thai iced tea! Even if a place has it on the menu, there is a 75% chance they don't have any.

- Best street food: sweet rotee, a crepe-like concoction fried with butter and topped with sugar and sweetened condensed milk selling for about 30 cents.

- Having tried probably over 40 Thai dishes from the buffets at ENP and the cookery courses, we overindulged in Thai cuisine so we had a brief flirtation with overpriced Western fare. The biggest head-scratcher still remains the mushroom dish served at ENP lunches, which confounded vegetarians and omnivores alike in its truly remarkable similarity to beef.

- Bangkok Airways gets our approval. If you have a tight connection, an agent meets you at the gate, takes you to the correct baggage claim, and expedites your security check. As a bonus, they still feed you on the flight at no additional charge! ...although we noticed this seemed to be true of all the Southeast Asia carriers we have been on, and even if the flight is only an hour long.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ko Tao and Ko Samui (Thailand)

Ko Tao is an island in Southern Thailand famous for its diving. We are not divers, but we headed down for some beach time and snorkeling. A basic bungalow with cold shower and a manual flush toilet (i.e. bucket and tap) was a little above the average cost of a room on our trip, but it was also 20 feet from the beach, Hat Sai Ri. A bricked path with backpacker hostels and resorts alike winds along the backside of the beach. It would be a nice stroll most of the time except for the odd motorbike that decides to plow down it, forcing pedestrians to scamper out of the way. Many of the bars are just a few low tables and cushions with sunset views. On our snorkeling day trip, our rust bucket of a boat (the captain told us not to lean on the rails because they would break off) stopped at 5 sites around Ko Tao, several of which were quite beautiful. Richard got to see one of the black-tipped reef sharks, and I was content to not see one. The last site was near a tiny island off the coast where the resort on it charged for stepping foot on land. I opted not to go and just enjoyed some people-watching and close calls as dive boats jettisoned their instructor-led groups amid busy boat traffic. We also ran into a fellow ENP volunteer on the beach and again while we were snorkeling.

One item I got to tick off my list of things to do was the seafood blowout. We found our perfect restaurant - if you could call a dozen plastic picnic tables on the beach a restaurant - where you pick out your choices from the fresh caught seafood by weight. They throw it on a grill, and you get it back with a salad and a baked potato. We ordered 1 crab, 1 squid, 2 tiger prawns, and a lobster. The German couple in front of us was amazed and kept turning around every time a new plate was delivered - how were we supposed to know we would get the sides with each order? ...but it was delicious! My mom and dad should be proud that we even picked through all the heads. We arrived around 6:30 pm, when there was already a wait for a table, and by 9 pm, like Keyser Soze, it was gone! No trace. We spent the rest of the evening sitting on bean bags overlooking the sea at a bar with surprisingly good music, almost as if the mixes were tailored to people our age.

After beach bumming in Ko Tao, we decided to break the bank and spend a couple of days in luxury on Ko Samui, a larger island further south. A vacation from our vacation, if you will. The simple things were magnified just from our last few weeks of roughing it, like being able to leave the shower without immediately getting soaked in sweat or covered in sand, having a refrigerator, and best of the best, the softest bed in Southeast Asia! In retrospect, Richard and I have to come to the conclusion that it was probably not much softer than our bed at home, we just have not slept on anything with springs that actually gives in a long time. Chaweng Beach was also a level above Hat Sai Ri with truly powder sands although both beaches had calm, crystal clear water with bath-like temperatures. While I was getting pampered with a tamarind scrub and aromatherapy massage, Richard took a spin out on a 1500 cc jet ski. He thought it was both terrifying and awesome! Our Ko Samui interlude was well-appreciated as we try to psych ourselves up to take on India.

Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Surat Thani, and Ko Tao (Thailand)

41 hours. That is how long the adventure to get from Chiang Mai to Ko Tao took us. Having some time to kill, we decided to take the scenic route through Thailand by catching trains. In Chiang Mai, we were excited to try out the first-class sleeper with our own private cabin with washbasin and complimentary drinking water. Alas, we realized when we boarded the train that our tickets were for second-class sleeper with only a curtain between you and the other twenty or so people in the carriage. The beds were surprisingly comfortable, probably the softest we have had so far in Southeast Asia (where on the average mattress, sleeping on your side means your arm dying and waking up with a massively swollen hand in the middle of the night). Really, other than the bruised egos and the ridiculously expensive dinner we bought on board, it was actually quite pleasant.

The overnight train only took us to Bangkok, and our only experience in the capital (besides the previous airport layover) was getting breakfast at a street stall and popping into the 7-Eleven across from the train station. Thailand is absolutely riddled with 7-Elevens with one on nearly every block, yet another testament to the Westernization of the country (as well as Starbucks... and Tesco... and Boots).

Bangkok to Surat Thani was a seemingly endless day train with seats like a coach bus and air con cold enough to require my hoodie. If we had done some forward planning, we should have gotten off the train a couple of hours earlier than Surat Thani and caught a ferry to Ko Tao to be there in time for bed... But since we had not even decided we were going to Ko Tao until about a half hour previous to this stop, we did not have our wits about us.

We caught a local stop-and-go bus from the Surat Thani station to the pier in town, which was an adventure itself. We were surprised to watch the attendant at the gas station fill the tank from the opening under the front seat (and the car battery was under the seat across from it). The bus driver and the lady who collected fares were engaged in a heated conversation that involved frequent gesturing to us. We were worried it was something along the lines of, "why did you let these foreigners on who are too stupid to even know exactly where their stop is?" ... so I was relieved to catch the word "Philippine" in their conversation, realizing they were playing the game of "What Asian is she?", which has happened rather commonly on our trip. When I confirmed, "Philippine," the fare lady was triumphant that she had guessed correctly.

We had four hours to kill in Surat Thani, which we spent visiting a couple of night markets. Finally, we found someone in Southeast Asia selling insects to eat! Richard bought a mixed bag with fish sauce, but honestly, as an entomologist, I have to admit that eating grasshoppers is a little passe for me.

The night boat was wall-to-wall sleeping mats with each person occupying half of a mat and backpacks and shoes piled in every other bare inch available. Aside from the general poor hygiene of the rest of our fellow travelers (typical backpacker hippies), I tried to ignore the cockroach (Oriental) I saw, and the stink already emanating from the toilet before. Unfortunately, I also got to sleep next to the group of English latecomers, who decided that in the interest of staying together, really they could just squeeze in tight. What it actually means is that the six people, who are trying to fit into the space that would fit a cozy four, just make it miserable for those around them. I spent the evening fighting for territory and not hesitating to leave the occasional elbow sticking out. Amazingly, Richard slept like a rock... it must have been the dramamine.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chiang Mai (Thailand)

Most of our time in Chiang Mai was devoted to cooking or in markets. We did 3 days of cooking courses at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. In our opinion, these were the best cooking classes we have ever been to. Each dish was first demonstrated by the staff, and each student then cooked their own version at their own prep station and gas burner after sampling the pro's. They also provided suggestions for altering the taste of a dish as well as how to select and store ingredients. The best morning activity was preparing curry paste, which involved enough mortar and pestle time to make our arms sore, but the results were already better than anything we have ever made at home. The cookery school is an efficient machine, considering we got through 6 dishes in as many hours. Towards the end, we were getting cocky with our technique so then we played around with our garnishes and plating. Richard's best effort was making a smiley face in his soup using straw mushroom and coriander/cilantro stalks, and mine was a palm tree in my red curry out of fresh bamboo shoot and the top of a basil. Some of our favorite dishes included:
- penang curry with pork
- hot and sour prawn soup
- fried fish cakes with a chili-cucumber sauce
- spicy papaya salad eaten with a "scoop" made from a ball of sticky rice
- banana coconut cake steamed in a banana leaf

Chiang Mai also has fantastic markets. The Sunday Walking Market, which we went to twice, was a major thoroughfare with anything for sale, buskers, and amazing street food that tops any street festival in the States (even the one in Chicago before we left). One of the best things about the street food in Thailand is that it comes in snack sizes... even tiny omelets, each made out of a single quail egg. Our interesting finds included:
- Black gelatin shaved from a giant block and topped with ice and heaps of brown sugar, which tasted like sweet tea jello
- A crepe-like thing with coconut cream, shaved coconut, sugar, and cheese
- A giant deep-fried ball of rice, which we thought would be safe, until the seller broke it up, mixed it with vegetables and spices and almost (until we stopped her) what looked like uncooked ground pork... she dropped it, but still used the same hand to mix
- Finally, a decent sausage in Asia! Pork with chilli and lemongrass... so good we went for seconds

My other interesting experience in Chiang Mai was yet another massage (is there such a career as a massage anthropologist? Because if so, sign me up!). It was given by a cute girl with a smile and a bow in her hair... and knuckle tatoos! The women's prison in Chiang Mai has a program for the inmates to learn massage skills, and the money goes into an account for them to use when they get released. She seemed like such a nice girl, and I was dying to know what her crime was... but "so, what are you in for?" is not exactly the sort of conversation you want to have while in a vulnerable position like having your elbows pinned down with her knees. In Thailand, a full body massage seems to also mean their full body as well, since most of the time, it looks like the two of you are wrestling (case in point, sitting cross-legged with her grabbing under your armpits as she swings your upper body to crack your back). Rehabilitation for her and for me.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bangkok and Chiang Mai (Thailand)

We flew out of Cambodia and into the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai via Bangkok. It was immediately evident from the Bangkok airport that Thailand is the most Westernized of the countries we have been in yet. Some people have criticized Thailand as being too open to foreigners, and it is a little surreal at times... Bangkok airport looked like it could have been Heathrow, and we had to resist stopping in the Dunkin' Donuts!

After this brief glimpse into the industrialized world, we headed in the opposite direction while we volunteered under more rustic conditions for a week at Elephant Nature Park (or ENP,, a sanctuary for Asiatic elephants about 60 km outside of Chiang Mai. The elephants at ENP were rescued from a variety of abusive situations.

It was a fantastic experience even though the day-to-day life initially may not sound so exciting. The morning chores mostly revolved around elephant upkeep like preparing their food, and of course, picking up poo! Afternoon chores and other jobs involved taking care of the park itself like weeding and planting... hmmm, that sounds an awful lot like what I would be doing anyway this time of the year. In the process, we managed to pick up mad machete skills cutting grass (looked exactly like maize, just as tall, but without the ears... and very satisfying to take down) as well as learn more about tropical agriculture with jobs like preparing and planting sugarcane cuttings. We also spent one morning at the local school, doing a horrible job trying to get Thai kids to practice their English.

Of course, our favorite part of the whole ENP experience was getting up close and personal with the elephants. Every day it was a whole lot of fun getting into the river and bathing the elephants in the morning and afternoon! Feeding was also twice daily, and we "got" an elephant to present to the day visitors during these times. Our elephant was Lilly, who was rescued from a family who worked her day and night by feeding her speed. It took Lek (the founder) almost 2 years to wean her off the amphetamines. Lek was just as amazing as her reputation, too... we saw her sing lullabies to the baby elephant while sitting underneath it, care for orphaned birds that needed feeding every fifteen minutes, and even cook lunch for over 50 people!

The real stars were the baby elephants... every time. Faa Mai (the girl) and Chang Yim (the boy) are about a year old and painfully cute. Despite most of the elephants being unrelated, they have re-formed family groups. Volunteer contact with the families with the little ones was limited (since the herd gets very protective, and even the babies weigh over 300 kg). However, we did get to feed the babies a couple of times and helped prepare their mud bath with a citronella and lemongrass solution (night time bug spray).

Our last afternoon we spent trekking to Elephant Haven, where Lek originally started rescuing elephants is more jungle than the open plain of ENP. The way was very steep, but the elephant family we were taking up there (Jungle Boy's) stopped to eat every 10 feet or so, making it a pretty easy stroll. Most of the way there the last elephant in the line had a flatulence problem, and we all found it challenging to not erupt into giggles every time it let one rip! The human overnight accommodation at Elephant Haven itself was stripped down with termites doing their fair share on the meager platforms. At night, the mahouts treated us to their version of STOMP!, playing songs using PVC pipe flutes, a trash can drum, and the best - a tambourine of kitchen utensils in a plastic laundry basket. Their odd repertoire included a couple of Christmas Carols and Auld Lang Syne, which funnily enough, we also heard randomly at a concert in Vietnam. In the morning, we had to look for the elephants, who were allowed to roam in the night, and Rich and I learned a mahout trick to call to them by making a firecracker sound with your hand and a leaf. We also were given monk robes to tie onto trees, which would protect them from being cut down by illegal loggers since most Thais would respect the Buddhist blessing.

The stay at ENP was educational and fun, and doing manual labor for a good cause was refreshing. It really gave us food for thought, making us consider the use of elephants in industries, including elephant trekking, use in entertainment shows, and logging operations. This was especially poignant knowing the elephants we helped take care of came from these situations.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Final Thoughts on Cambodia

We spent a scant 5 days in Cambodia, and almost all of it in Siem Reap. Here are some mostly non-temple-related observations:

- Siem Reap is big tourism. The least aggressive tout is the adult male drivers ("Tuk-tuk, sir?") on the street corners. This is minor compared to the children ("Sir, you buy postcard necklace I give you good price 10 for 1 dollar") who descend upon your table inside the restaurant in mass. However, the most annoying has got to be the adult females of the species, who cry in a sort of nasal sing-song pitch, "SIIIIIRRRR, you buy cold DRIINNNKK? I remember you, you buy from MEEEEEEEE," continuously from the moment your tuk-tuk slows down, throughout the walk around the site, and as you are driving away from the temple. In all fairness, the majority of the big ticket price for the Temples pass goes to some big corporation so buying from the touts is one way to add some money into the actual local economy.

- Khmer cuisine is pretty good. We were big fans of the Cambodian dish amok (fish, shredded cabbage, onions in a creamy coconut sauce, sometimes with egg, and always in a bowl made from a banana leaf)... not so much into the lok lak (lukewarm tomato-y beef on a bed of onion, tomato, and cucumber slices with a black pepper sauce). Because of the huge tourist influx, eating options (and many other hospitality services) vary wildly from cheap, fantastic plates at the street stalls to Western prices (ridiculously expensive by Southeast Asian standards) for what seems like mediocre Western food. The dollar menu at the street stalls - a heaping pile of fried rice or noodles with recognizable vegetables AND shrimp! - puts McDonald's to shame.

- Sure, it's a gimmick, but we could not resist trying out the fish massage. You put your feet into what is essentially a blow-up kiddie pool on the sidewalk with tiny little fish that are supposed to nibble the dead skin off your toes. It is really more akin to that scraper they use in a pedicure for your calluses than an actual massage. The sensation tickles at first, which is why people getting the massage are laughing their heads off, and later, if there are a lot of fish nibbling, feels like one of those vibrating Brookstone or Sharper Image massagers or, as Richard more succinctly puts it, like getting pins and needles. For good measure, I also tried out the traditional Khmer full body massage, which was the best one yet.

- Getting back in touch with entomology, we also visited a silk worm farm as part of a visit to the Artisans of Angkor workshop. Cambodian silk is naturally yellow in color, and they do the dyeing, weaving, and embroidery there as well. Silk is one of the traditional crafts they teach (also wood and soapstone carving, lacquering, and silver-plating), and their pieces are really beautiful (although pricey because it is fair trade).

- Small world moment: In a bakery/cafe with awesome ice cream (we tried four-spice, caramel and cashew, Khmer fruits, and jackfruit flavors) and an even more awesome white-on-white minimalist lounge, Richard randomly ran into one of his college floormates who he has not seen in 10 years. Crazy!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Siem Reap (Cambodia)

A 12-hour bus ride from HCMC through the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh brought us to Siem Reap. We were concerned about hearing stories of greasing palms along the way at the border crossing of Moc Bai-Bavet, but our e-visas made it pretty smooth. The bus was a "video bus," which showed a marathon of Rambo films (or it could have all been the same one - who can really tell?), Cambodian pop videos, and Michael Jackson's History.

Siem Reap is THE stop for anyone coming to Cambodia since it is the base for exploring the magnificent Temples of Angkor. Most of the structures were built around 9th-11th centuries by Hindu god-kings in the heydey of the Khmer Empire, which used to cover most of SE Asia. Rich thought many were more intact than Machu Picchu. Most of them are now Buddhist. We opted for hiring a tuk-tuk (motorcycle with a carriage on the back) and driver. Our favorite visits included:
- Angkor Wat, the most famous - the largest religous monument in the world, which we viewed with the multitudes at sunrise. The sunrise was so-so because it was cloudy, but it was pretty cool to be wandering around a ruin in the moonlight beforehand.
- Ta Prohm, aka the temple from the Tomb Raider movie, which has been kept in a semi-suspended decline where giant trees (one looking strikingly like the White Tree of Gondor, for all you LoTR nerds) have overtaken the structures. It is a striking dichotomy, to see kings assert their dominance by building these massive structures and then to also see how nature can still overcome and turn them to ruin.
- The Bayon (temple) in Angkor Thom (a huge fortified city) where giant stone faces are staring out at you from every angle.

One of the greatest unexpected pleasures in visiting the Temples of Angkor is that you can just climb all over ruins, and very few sections are cordoned off limits, and even fewer sections are supervised by the guards/park rangers. Of course, this has encouraged some pretty devastating looting. However, for everyone not looking for a career in grave-robbing (or dare I say, tomb-raiding), you can wander down mazes of corridors and courtyards, and given the scale, find yourself alone and free to pretend you are Indiana Jones. I swear some of those doorways look like they could be Stargates. A busy schedule can be an excellent workout, too, since many of the structures are meant to evoke mountains, and going up the "stairs," many times is more like plotting your hand holds in rock climbing. We both finished in one piece, but there were easily some vertigo moments.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Final Thoughts on Vietnam

Wish we could have spent more time in Vietnam, but as the blog says, we need to get a move on, so here are some final thoughts...

- Not visiting Dalat, a mountain town where many Vietnamese go for their honeymoon
- Not finding Rich's soup made from rice paddy crabs (bun rieu cua) on any menu
- On the night train, buying what we thought were chips, but actually was a bun with possibly strips of cheese or butter and a filling that can only be described as fur! We found out later the "fur" is actually "pork floss," and I am sorry, call us close-minded, but pork should not be unrefrigerated and above all, should NOT BE FLOSSED!

Previously unmentioned highlights:
- Pho, the breakfast - or really any meal - of champions!
- A pretty decent steak and chips (steak frites, heavy on the garlic, from the French influence), which we never would have ordered except it was a popular choice at the street stall
- Walking through someone's living room with grandma and kids watching cartoons to get to the restaurant's "upstairs outdoor seating" on the balcony
- Hoi An crispy country pancakes (banh xeo)
- Being able to watch World Cup matches anywhere - from being with the family at the homestay in a mountain village to with hundreds of Vietnamese fans at a giant outdoor screen in Hoi An

Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

Most people seemed to still refer to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) as Saigon, and I was a little concerned that, as the musical claims "the heat is on in Saigon," but actually, the weather seemed fractionally cooler than Hanoi. We were forced to buy a flight from Danang to HCMC because even the black market could not help us out on that leg of our journey. We arrived late because our flight was delayed, but it was interesting that it was so obvious we were traveling the discount airline even from the departure lounge (no A/C and limited snack options) and how you get on the plane (by bus and walking, no jet bridge). You were able to make purchases on the plane, and I got a cup o'noodles, (or pot noodle), which worked out to be about 75 cents, a ridiculous mark-up for what is essentially ramen.

From the brief time we were in HCMC, I got the impression it was much more flash than Hanoi and cleaner with wider sidewalks that were not filled with parked motorbikes. The pho, however, was not as good, but maybe that it is an unfair comparison since we got it from a pho chain with bad service instead of a proper street stall.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Danang, Hoi An, and Cua Dai (Vietnam)

Hanoi to Danang wins hands down as the sketchiest train ride we have been on so far. Starting off with having to buy black market tickets due to availability, the only bit of luck we had was they were soft sleeper (4-person berth) instead of the expected hard sleeper (6-person berth), and we did not have to change berths in the middle of the night as suggested. However, this time there were visible cockroaches (German cockroaches - even though I tried hard not to notice them), which I suspect were encouraged by the waste basket under the table and probably not helped by the hygiene of our cabin mates, a backpacker couple of the hard-partying hippie stereotype (greasy clothes, dirty feet, and drinking grain alcohol chased with valium). The train also would periodically jolt to a brief stop, and we suspected at least one of these times, it must have hit something or someone.

Danang is a big city in central Vietnam, but we were really only there to catch a taxi to Hoi An, which Rich did for a respectable price with A/C.

Hoi An is a picturesque river town, and we happened to catch it on one of the Full Moon Nights. The streets of the Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are closed to motorized traffic, and all the restaurants and shops are lit with candles and Chinese-style lanterns. Everyone is out walking around, and the street vendors are selling candles in paper lanterns that you can buy and send floating down the river. It looks very pretty, but I did not want to buy partly because it is such a tourist trap and partly because it was essentially littering (and Vietnam, although not as bad as some places, already has its fair share). We did buy a patty that ladies were grilling over charcoal on the sidewalk (sweet potato, coconut, and ginger - a little on the dry side).

Rich got into the real business of Hoi An: tailoring. That's right, he's "Mr. Couture" now. Shop after shop in Hoi An is filled with custom tailors where you choose your fabrics, pick your designs, and new clothes can be ready in as little as 24 hours. Rich got a suit and three shirts made. The shirts were a good deal since, even at the first fitting, you could tell they already fit better than anything he has ever gotten in the store without also paying for alterations. The suit was probably because we were getting a little carried away, but a man needs more than one suit, especially if he expects to get a real job some day. With additional fittings, the entire process took about 48 hours. He looks pretty sharp!

The Old Town in Hoi An also has several ancient buildings you can visit with the same pass. A couple included a guide who gave a brief tour (nice) but who then made it a point to try to sell you some specific trinket (not so nice). The handicrafts museum had artisans demonstrating how they make the Chinese lanterns, wood carvings, and embroidery. We also managed to catch an exhibition of traditional Vietnamese songs and dances. One of which involved ladies passing out what looked liked fans in the audience. We were not going to be tricked into buying that one, that's for sure! Unfortunately, the joke was on us, since, during the following piece, the singers were calling out the written characters on the "fans," and the fans were actually more like tickets for a free door prize. One of the winners even received a Chinese lantern, which we had been hoping to buy anyway!

One day we rented a pair of cheap but rickety bikes from a lady who made me hold her baby while she unlocked them. Cua Dai beach is about 5 km down the road in the gauntlet that is Vietnam traffic (although in all fairness, traffic in Hoi An is laughable compared to the death-defying trek it is in Hanoi). Seafood restaurants line the beach and will rent out chairs under umbrellas to you. Our section of the beach was pretty quiet, and the water was very calm if not quite as warm as it had been in Halong Bay. Unfortunately, we were not able to have the big seafood blowout we were hoping to for lunch since the prices were extortionate. I made the mistake of ordering what I thought would be fish spring rolls. Instead, a whole fish (very fishy-tasting and boney) and the rice paper to wrap it came to our table. We are fairly at ease now with wrapping our own rolls, but it is challenging when you are taking apart a whole fish with only chopsticks and also trying not to let the rice paper blow away in the wind!

Other regional specialties we have sampled included white rose (shrimp steamed in rice paper), cau lau (fried noodles with pork, bean sprouts, and cracklin' croutons over salad greens), and crab fried with tamarind (which I have to admit was pretty good despite my usually strict standards of not ruining crab by mixing it with anything else). Bonus: the crab had eggs in it - Yummy!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Plan, Part II

After much deliberation and hearing good reports, Thailand is back on the list because who wouldn't want to see elephants?!

The new plan is:
-Vietnam for 2.5 weeks
-Cambodia for 1 week
-Thailand for 2.5 weeks
-India for 4 weeks

Hanoi (Vietnam)

Finally, we said our goodbyes to Hanoi. Forces seemed to be conspiring to keep us in the city, including lost luggage and our inability to book the trains or tours we wanted. All told we were there about 7 days and 4 nights. Our last night we ate on the street, at a place that was doing brisk business with probably seventy customers at any one time crouching at line after line of little plastic tables. Thanks to the kindness of the young Vietnamese couple sitting opposite us, we managed to get a copy of the English menu and our order actually delivered. I ordered what looked like one of the most popular dishes, roast pigeon (tasted like chicken, but greasy and not much meat on the bones). Rich went for the frog legs in a sweet and sour sauce (tasted like fishy chicken, but sticky and again, a lot of bones for the meat).

We had such a pleasant experience that Rich wanted to push our luck more so we stopped at the corner bia hoi (local fresh beer) place. There seems to be one on almost every corner in Hanoi. It tasted like Miller Light. Then we got charged the stupid foreigner price, which we thought was high but did not realize until later, it was 10x more. The guy even had the audacity to ask for an additional big tip, which we did not give. Rich is still fuming about it on principle. I would like to think that, of all the possible ways one can get ripped off in Asia, I am ok with a loss of what amounts to 2.50 USD, or the price of the odd PBR in the States.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island (Vietnam)

Halong Bay, with thousands of beautiful limestone karsts, is the most visited destination in Northern Vietnam. We splashed out on a three day, two night tour. The first day we spent mostly cruising around the bay in a Chinese-style junk. Amazingly, the entire tour group consisted of us and only one other couple... who also happened to be of the same age... backpacking in Asia for 3 months... after quitting their jobs... and before they had to move across the country. Rich was a little disappointed we were not the only ones with this brilliant idea, but it was nice to share stories, e.g. your weird selling-everything-you-own craigslist experiences.

We went to a floating village of people who live entirely on the bay and store their freshwater on concrete boats. Who knew you could make boats out of concrete? They also supplement their income culturing pearls. Even in the middle of the bay, with nothing but saltwater and limestone outcroppings surrounding you for miles, people try to sell you things - Rich bought some tasty seaweed-flavored Pringles from a old lady in a sampan (traditional rowboat). We also spent some time swimming (or for Rich, jumping) off the boat. The water was shockingly not-at-all-cold and, more disturbingly, warmer than many baths I have taken.

The memories of our Belize kayaking nightmare trip must have faded significantly, and been replaced by humorous nostalgia, since a big part of why we booked this trip was that it included kayaking in Halong Bay. We were pleased to find our skills had not been entirely lost, and we did not tip the kayak getting in from the support boat (which happened to the other couple). Kayaking was pretty leisurely, and the karsts are even more impressive when viewed from water level. I even saw a huge jellyfish while we were paddling around a small lagoon. More swimming and then a short boat ride later we arrived at Cat Ba Island.

Smelly and with the fine lacquer of multiple applications of sunscreen, we arrived at the Sunrise Resort, the fanciest digs we have stayed in or will ever stay in during our trip. A welcome cocktail, fantastic view of the bay, terry robes in the closet, a shower with excellent water pressure, and a plate of fresh lychees waited for us. I booked another massage before we even finished checking in... Rich was worried I could get used to this. Another morning was spent relaxing in this luxury, and then a series of buses and boats brought us back to Hanoi.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lao Cai, Sapa, and Ban Den (Vietnam)

The overnight train from Hanoi to Lao Cai was an adventure. About 10 minutes after we left the station, the train lost power, and we got to sit in the blistering heat and humidity for almost 2 hours until they tried to fix it and then finally just replaced the whole engine car. We kept ourselves amused by trying to figure out what was going on in the train parked next to us, which looked like it could have been a train robbing or just a casual pick-out-your-cargo-from-the-freight-car-free-for-all with smoke breaks.

Lao Cai is the last station before the Chinese border filled with neon lights and coach buses as well as the drop-off point to catch a mini-bus to the real destination, Sapa.

Sapa is a bustling mountain town with a big backpacker (and therefore, tout) presence. We made a newbie mistake in our choice of hotel by being distracted by the beautiful view and cheap price and not catching the moldy ceilings and damp bedding until later. I got a massage from a girl who was more of the slap, pummel, and poke style than to my liking, but really, for 70 minutes at 8.50 USD, can you really complain? We also took a cooking class at a hotel restaurant, which was more demonstration than the billed as "hands-on," which really was fine, until the owner/manager lady came over and berated the nice pair instructing us. I think we would have preferred it to remain demo rather than having an angry woman standing over you yelling, "YOU! YOU COOK THE PORK NOW!" We were hoping she was just having a bad day and not normally such a jerk to be around.

The real draw for coming up to the mountains is for hiking and visiting the villages of the various minority tribes in the area. Sho, a Black Hmong girl who can be quite chatty at times, was our guide for a slightly less touristy trek and homestay in the area with Hmong, Red Zao, and Zay people. The first day was a 15 km trek up and down steep mountain sides - the longest, most technical, and hottest hike I have ever been on. At times we were walking along ridges of rice paddies and doing more of a controlled falling than actual walking. The first third we were followed by three Hmong women trying to sell us their jewelry and pillow cases. Although it was annoying they would not accept we were not going to buy, when we got to the rough areas (sinking mud, steep inclines, and more often than not, both at the same time), there were times that two of them were forcibly holding me up or catching my fall. It is pretty humbling to have some 4 ft tall grandma in wellies and a young mother in sandals with a freakin' baby strapped to her back (!) be the people who are actively keeping you from pitching head first down a mountain or into a huge pile of water buffalo cow pie. Anyway, it worked out to their favor since we ended up giving them a little something anyway for saving my life a couple of times. Rich, carrying our pack, was much more graceful and nimble on his feet. Of course! The rest of the day was also challenging but with less of a mud factor. We finally made it to the homestay in Ban Den with nothing wrong with us except for some shaky-tired legs and mud-covered shoes. Dinner made by the family was a fair spread and capped with shots of the local rice wine moonshine. We also managed to catch a good amount of the Germany vs. Serbia match before dinner, too!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hanoi (Vietnam)

Flirting with heat stroke... Rich claims even his eyeballs are hot, and I swear every drink of water I take leaks straight out of the pores on my face. We were so delusional that we thought we saw English footballer Wayne Rooney on the back of the Tiger Beer bottle [update: It really was! He's a "brand ambassador"]. The combined effects of heat, jet lag, and the airlines losing our bags did not make for an encouraging initial outlook for Hanoi. There is a lot of great shopping in the Old Quarter - housewares, fabric, and art - that we could take a fancy to if we did not want to lug it around, and we do not want to get started on that slippery slope less than a week into our trip. Also, walking everywhere in Hanoi means nearly getting run over at every intersection.

Interesting odds and ends:
-Old ladies still wear the woven triangular hat while gardening and hauling buckets on a yoke on their shoulders.
-Young ladies dressed to the nines speed by on their mopeds wearing Burberry knock-off helmets, pumps, and that all-too-overlooked-accessory... face masks.
-A German guy at the local fried fish place told me proudly he had lived in America... in Indiana... and played varsity basketball for his high school outside of Fort Wayne.
-The lady who tried to hawk fans to us by Hoan Kiem Lake got the smackdown from a group of local policemen, and the bystanders were unabashedly staring.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Step 1: Store stuff with the folks

Julie's parents have been kind enough to let us store stuff at their house... even our dog Pepper for 3 months. Thanks, Mom and Dad!

The Plan

The current plan is:
-Vietnam for 2 weeks
-Cambodia for 1 week
-India for 7 weeks
-Barcelona for 3 years

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Welcome Aboard!

Follow us as we get a move on...

You can also listen to the sweet tune with some pretty cute and happy cartoons that inspires this blog: