Sunday, 11 May 2014

India Ink

If I had a single word to sum up our experience in India, I thought I would use ‘intense’, but that doesn’t really sum it up. I think ‘bipolar’ would be more accurate. Our tour included accommodation best described as palatial, and each night was spent more or less in the lap of luxury. However, the minute we stepped out into Delhi, or Agra, or Jaipur, all illusions of comfort, or even reality, seemed to evaporate. India is different. Vive le difference!

I thought I’d skip the classic travelogue format for this blog: then we went there, and then we saw that and took some pictures. Trust me when I say we saw the usual sites and smelled the usual smells one would expect on a trip like this. There were lots of forts, funky buildings like the Taj Mahal, and variations on the house of worship theme, although the Christians were woefully under-represented on this outing (Hindu and sikh temples, and mosques got top billing).  I’ll give you a few shots just to convince the conspiracy theorists my photo-shopping skills are unrivalled, or that we were actually there. You decide.

Sunset at the Taj Mahal

Someplace I can't remember exactly.

Jaipur - the pink city

Instead, you can try to follow my scattered thoughts on those components of Indian life which startled, baffled, confused, or amazed me.  I'll start with the first thing that I saw and heard: the traffic. Stepping out of the airport, I was pleasantly surprised to find the sense that was first assaulted was not my sense of smell, which I would have expected, but instead my sense of hearing. India is loud, and nobody puts their horns to good use better than the Indians.

One of our guides told us you need three things to drive in India: Good brakes, a good horn and good luck. He also said that, as a driver, to stop is to admit defeat. After many hours of riding in the shotgun seat on our travel days, I began to realize how true his comments were. Our driver, Sumer, curiously, managed to appear half asleep and completely attentive at the same time. I also noticed he had a strong aversion for taking the vehicle out of third gear, although he was perfectly adept at doing so if necessary (clearly my definition of necessary clearly differs from his). So ingrained was the generous use of a horn into his driving psyche, that I noticed he would give a few toots even when there was no vehicles anywhere near us (Perri confirmed my observations later, so it wasn’t a curry-induced hallucination). Simply put, the traffic rules are just suggestions, and unexpected driving behavior is … well, expected. I didn’t think I’d have to worry about any weirdness out of our driver. Until early one afternoon, as we were on our way from Ranthambore to Jaipur, and I had finished a large Kingfisher Strong with my lunch, thus I was less attentive than I might have been, something suddenly felt …wrong.  Part of my confusion stemmed from the ‘drive-on-the-left-side-of-the-road, driver-sits-on-the-right-side-of-the-car’ English roadway system the Indians use, and part of it stemmed from the fact that we were driving the wrong way up a highway off-ramp, into oncoming traffic on a divided highway. The beer helped me understand this was normal driving behavior. Without blinking, Sumer took us about a kilometer along the shoulder of a two lane highway, against fairly heavy traffic, until we reached a clearly unnatural break in the divided highway barrier, where we cut across oncoming traffic to the right (that is, left) side of the road. Just a regular day on the road. You'll see overloaded trucks, elephants, camels, modern combine harvesters going the wrong way, and tuk-tuks loaded with 16 people where 5 people would seem like a reasonable capacity. After a week, I stopped saying to Ann and Perri “Holy Crap! Did you see that?!” because something just as interesting would be along in a minute if they didn’t. My favorite item was something called a farm cart, which was an old truck chassis with the engine replaced by a modified water pump. Apparently no license or insurance is required for them because they are legally required to stay on the farm. We only saw about 1000 of them on the roads and highways, usually overloaded and going dangerously slow. Still, you must give them some credit for ingenuity.

A classic farm cart.
Always room for one more. Really?

A fine looking camel, sir.

Careful on those right turns.

Nice elephants, but no signal lights.
We learned to love our driver, as he kept us alive each and every day, a non-trivial task in that place. He did his best to be helpful in spite of his suspect English.

Typical discourse with the Sumer :

1st attempt by Ann: “Sumer, is there some significance to the garlands of marigolds?” Answer: “Yes, marigolds and roses.” 2nd attempt by Ann: “Sumer, I know they are garlands of marigolds and roses. But, do they have some special significance? You know, do the garlands have some special meaning?” Answer: “Yes… Marigolds and roses.” No third attempt.

Question:“Sumer, is that tall smokestack over there,  with all the red clay and piles of bricks, is it a brickworks?” Answer:” No, no, no. That is where they make the bricks.”

From then on, we pretty much relied on our own guesswork.
Overloaded truck called a baby elephant.
Real elephant (rear view).
Outside the national park, the wildlife was consistent: dogs, cows, pigs. I won’t bore you with stories of cows being in unlikely and potentially fatal places. After a while, you start expecting them to be asleep in the middle of the highway, or obliviously straddling the highway divider as trucks roar by with inches to spare.  Dogs were everywhere. I now think I completely understand the term ‘mangy cur’ when referring to dogs of suspect pedigree. Pigs were mostly in the smaller towns, and were pretty much exclusively ‘free range’. In the national park, we were lucky to see a few tigers, one of which was a mama with four very small cubs. These tigers looked just like the ones at the zoo. Also, there were a bunch of deer-like things, some monkeys, and a few crocodile. The tigers really made the day a success.

Time to get back in the jeep, I think.
The people in India appear to work really, really hard, out of necessity. The rural women especially were working every second, and not just a little bit. In the fields, the people we saw doing ridiculously non-ergonomic manual labor were inevitably women. When not in the fields they were often seen carrying impossibly large loads on their heads. Groups of men, on the other hand, were often seen hanging around together in the middle of the day, in the shade, doing what appeared to be nothing. You can draw your own conclusions. I want to be clear: the men in India work pretty hard as well, it’s just that I never saw any women lounging. Ever.

Harvest time. Where are the men?

Typically, a tourist can never really get a firm grip on a culture by hitting the tourist hotspots and staying in nice hotels. Twelve days hardly qualifies anyone for expert status on this complex hodge-podge of religious and ethnic diversity. The election takes almost two months because there are 800 million voters and countless political parties. They started the Indian cricket season in Abu Dhabi (a different country than India, for those of you unfamiliar with geography) because they, the cricket league officials, were worried about election violence at the cricket matches. I have no idea how one has anything to do with the other, but safety first, I guess. Ann kept mentioning her personal disconnect between the India presented in tv ads in our hotel rooms, a very modern, very western, middle-class India of air conditioners and hair-care products, and the India we experienced between tourist sites, where the items on the tv ads, and perhaps the tvs themselves, were utterly out of reach for most people. Where were these air-conditioned masses, purchasers of high-end hair gels and whitening, breath-freshening toothpastes? Somewhere in India there must be a few hundred million middle-class nine-to-fivers we never saw.

The entrepreneurial spirit lives.
Bike repair, on the fly.
Keepin' it clean for the tourists.
Aspiring Bollywood stars?
Also, I had heard about and read many examples of the bribery culture in India. With the exception of having to tip for everything, and the minor shakedown of our driver by a low-level Delhi traffic cop, I didn’t see much evidence of it. However, everyone in the tourist trade seems to get a cut of the action. If we bought something at a shop while on a day tour, the guide would get a small kickback, which makes sense, I suppose. He steered us there, after all. Our driver stressed the importance of not buying anything on the tours, so he could take us back to the same shops later, in theory for a better deal, but more likely so he could get the kickback instead of the guide. In the end, we wound up buying stuff when we felt like it.  Although we did get our driver to take us to non-touristy tailoring shop in Jaipur so Perri and Ann could get fitted up for some pajamas. I was impressed with their efficiency. I think the finished goods were delivered to our hotel about four or five hours later. 

Fitting out the princess.
The last, but not least, aspect of our trip was the cuisine. If you don’t like spicy food, you might give this subcontinent a pass. Personally, I pretty much subsisted on a diet of rice, naan bread and a variety of spicy lamb, chicken, or vegetable dishes, for twelve days. Some days we found ourselves eating with tourists, and other days we were chowing down with the locals. Other than the rare lame hotel breakfast, I can't say we ever had a bad meal. After a few days, we upped the ante and started asking for medium spicing, and the food came with a good spicy edge, but well within eating parameters (the possible cause of a negative reaction on Ann's part).  It only now occurs to me that the golden triangle region is not even considered very spicy by Indian standards. Perhaps next time we’ll include Mombai as a true test of our spice tolerance. Also, we only drank bottled water or beer, and tea. We even brushed our teeth with bottled water, in spite of the high standards of our hotels. Sadly, this strategy did not prevent both Ann and Perri from getting a minor bout of Delhi-Belly (the Indian equivalent of Montazuma’s revenge). It appears that the intestinal parasites I picked up in Tanzania and Morocco were compatible with Indian chow, so I was fine. There were times when I saw pasty white tourists (like us) helping themselves to very tasty-looking street food. Vendors sold all sorts of finger foods like veggie samosas, and they looked and smelled great. I expect giving in to such temptations is a simple crap shoot (no pun intended, or maybe a little) in terms of potential medical disasters. I didn’t want to risk another Moroccan experience. Live and learn.

Point of interest unrelated to all other discussion points: Canada is known as 'Little Punjab' in certain parts of India because of the steady stream of people emigrating from the Punjab region.

All told, India scores very high on the “culture, food, and stuff to see” index. Pretty good considering I threw it together a mere month before we arrived (I won't talk about the anxiety I experienced wiring a few thousand euros to what I hoped was a legitimate tour company in Jaipur). We only scratched the surface of this magnificent country. I can't wait to go back and explore more.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Greece is the Word

Last August we foolishly attempted to enjoy ourselves during the hottest part of the year in a country dominated by the western Saharan desert. Bad idea in retrospect (bad idea any way you look at it). This year, we thought we’d spend the hottest part of the year somewhere with lots of water, and the Ionian Sea on the west coast of Greece was just the ticket.  The main part of the vacation was on a sailboat, but not before a few days on the island of Corfu, adjusting to the culture, food, and rhythm of country.

Part of Corfu town harbour.
Not much happened for the first few days, barring a few trips to the local beaches and a hot day spent checking out the old fortifications in Corfu town. To be completely up-front about the weather: some days were hot and sunny and some days were very hot and sunny. But I now know why the Brits go to Greece for their vacation: summer is guaranteed.

One afternoon at the beach, we were told the power was out in all the restaurants and had been all day. Our server told us there would be no hot food. However, you could order omelettes (hot), and fries (hot). Sandwiches (cold), on the menu, but sadly also not available that day. You could order salad (cold), containing everything you could ever want on a sandwich including chicken, ham, tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumber. Bread (cold) came with each meal. Apparently assembling the sandwich was not possible without power. Welcome to Greece.

Typical Beach
Later in the day, we were asked if it would be a problem for us to move rooms at our condo complex… to rooms at another condo complex down the road (double booking problem). We’re Canadian so, you know, “no problem”. The proprietor of our complex took me down to meet the proprietor of the other complex (“we are good friends thirty years”) where it appeared to me, with my limited Greek, no previous discussion about us staying the night had been had. Still, I meet the proprietor, nice guy no English, who eventually called three or four younger women, relatives I assume, to escort me to a pair of rooms that may have not been completely safe from an structural standpoint. Again, being a good Canadian and having seen air conditioning units attached to the rooms, because it was stinking hot, I shrugged and smiled accordingly. Then I figured I best go collect the girls and the bags, and bring them back to our new home. But first, the proprietor of the first place told me that the proprietor of the second place insisted on sharing a glass of grappa with me, in a way that suggested I should accept if I knew what was good for me. Best grappa in the world, apparently. Made in Crete. And curiously, available only in old 2 litre plastic water bottles with the labels scraped off. Grappa, grappa.  What can I say about grappa? I was immediately reminded of cheap tequila as the second glass seemed much less harsh than the first.  My first lesson in Greek hospitality was almost fatal, being a bit of a lightweight drinker. Apparently it is acceptable to have a lengthy conversation in Greek in front of a non-Greek-speaking guest, provided your guest’s glass of grappa is continuously filled during said conversation.  I believe I only narrowly avoided possible hospitalization for alcohol poisoning only because my first guy needed to get back after only ½ hour. Still, I’m pretty sure the two old guys were able to express their opinions on the entire Greek political scene in the short time they had. My contribution was nodding occasionally while diplomatically avoiding expressions of obvious revulsion after each sip of grappa. Good times.

The next day, after a short flight from Corfu to the mainland (don’t delay booking Greek ferry space on-line in August because there won’t be any after April – we learned that lesson for everyone), we arrived in Preveza, where our sailing adventure would begin. We had booked a boat with what is known as a flotilla holiday. A flotilla holiday is really just glorified house-boating, where the houseboat is a bit trickier to handle, and the lake is a bit bigger and much saltier. You get the picture. Essentially, you spend the day mucking about on your own, and in the evening you park your boat at the same place as the rest of the group.
Our Flotilla
These next two boats were definitely not part of our flotilla, but they seemed to hang around...

We called this one the BatBoat

No dinner invitations were forthcoming.

We had a big group (14 boats), so a big part of our day was waiting to park, or waiting to leave, which I found a bit tiring. On the bright side, we had an opportunity to try a new little tavern or restaurant almost every night, with generally good results. There were complaints toward the end of the vacation related to excessive portion sizes, but that is a risk every vacationer takes.

As it turns out, Ann and her sister really do know how to make a sailboat do that sailing thing. My job, as cabin boy, was making sure we had adequate gin and tonic source material, or failing that, coconut rum and fruit juice for the skipper and the first mate (Ann). I’d say I met expectations.

The skipper and her crew.
Perri working hard while Ann does ... something related to sailing.
The crew at ease.
The only downside to the sailing component was the wind, which was a bit unreliable. Some days we spent much more time lounging in some quiet bay, playing in the water or reading, rather than actually sailing. The water in the Ionian Sea is remarkably clear and a shade of blue which makes a cynic like me think someone sneaks out each night to dump a bunch of blue dye in the water (I kept an eye out, but saw no indication this was happening). Also, not much wind and lots of sun turn your average sailboat into the hotbox in ‘Cool Hand Luke’, which is arguably the sweatiest movie ever made. Perri and Samantha were able to lie on the tiny seats in the cockpit and get a proper night’s sleep while the rest of us were not so lucky.

Sleeping beauties?


Cliff jumping.

Each day blended into the next with only slight variations on the "eat, sail, eat, swim, eat" schedule. One day we looked at a cave with some bats, and another we went cliff jumping, and another we had a big group barbacue. Good fun all around. However, after seven days on the boat, I will freely admit I was longing for some space. People taller than about 5’8”, or anyone who is clumsy, should perhaps take a pass on a sailing vacation. I incurred more dents in my skull than I can count, plus a small collection of cuts, scrapes, and bruises, whose origins were difficult to establish. Sailboats are dangerous things, as it turns out. I won’t even mention the tiny toilet, which defies explanation in terms of geometry, odor, and function (there’s a hand pump thingy which I don’t believe I ever mastered).

One interesting side-effect of spending a bunch of time on a boat is the gentle sway the rest of the planet takes on for at least a day or two afterwards. You are convinced everything from the hotel bar to your own bed is ever-so-slightly leaning left and then right. It’s kind of a low-level, drug-free buzz (granted, I had been drinking).

On our first night back on dry land, we visited a classic family-run restaurant where the menu is ‘whatever mama’s cookin’ up that night” and the wine list is a three liter tankard of local plonk, for each table. I’ll admit I was a bit concerned about what version of candied tripe or sheep’s eyeballs might get dropped in front of me until I saw reasonably happy non-Greek people at the other tables. That, plus I’d never before been to a restaurant where the guest book had favorable comments from both Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. It only got better when the mama-mia found out we were from Canada, where, as it turns out, she had lived for ten years and had had a few kids. From then on, we were practically family, with the head chef regaling us with her tales of boxing-day shopping and eating at the CN tower. Leaving was a drawn-out affair involving more hugs than I’ve ever received from my own family.

Not enough for everyone.

The last day we spent driving around looking at Roman ruins advertised in the hotel brochure, which were all locked up, except for the one with no gate, which clearly stated it would be closed on Mondays. We're not sure how that might be enforced, since there was obviously no one looking after the place. Fortunately, there was a beach nearby and we were able to overcome our disappointment at not being able to look at old stuff by playing in the water one last time.

Skipper and first mate on shore leave.
In total, going to Greece was an extraordinary experience. I even began to like some of the wine (brought two bottles home even). I regret to admit I was unable to learn even the simplest Greek phrases while I was there, which makes it at least as hard as French . I think when I realized the Greek word for 'Yes' sounded a lot like "Nay" and the word for "No"  sounded a lot like "OK", it was probably best that I left the whole thing alone. Still, all went well right up to the last day when Ann’s checked bag blew a zipper somewhere between Rome and home, and much of her packed clothes were lost to the luggage management universe. For those of you travelling abroad in the next few weeks, please keep your eyes open for any of Ann’s underwear appearing on baggage carousels. Really, that stuff could turn up anywhere.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venice

Another school vacation and another whirlwind tour of… somewhere, with the added bonus of a third generation of the family (Ann's mama, Brook, had joined us as part of a larger European experience). We were targeting the trifecta: culture, good weather, and most importantly, food. In May, all three of these can be easily satisfied in Italy. So, off we went. 

Driven by flight and hotel availability, preferably inexpensive, but not necessarily so, Ann put together an interesting itinerary which started in Nice, and finished in Venice. I was called upon to act as chauffeur, poo-pooer of spontaneous travel plan changes, and general stick-in-the-mud. I like to think I excel at all three. 

Nice is aptly named.

The weather in Arcachon had been unseasonably cool and wet, so landing in Nice to sunshine and 25c was a good start. We spent the first day driving to Genoa, with a quick look at Nice and a tasty lunch in Monte Carlo. Food may become the dominant theme in this blog as I'm pretty sure we all returned somewhat more … complete, than we did when we started (to slightly mis-quote the film Jerry Maguire: "food completes me"). 

Focaccia bread hot out of the oven.
Breakfast hot chocolate should always support the spoon.
We stayed a single night in Genoa (dinner was great) on our way to Cinque Terre, a hiker's paradise of five separate towns along the rugged Mediterranean coast, linked by walking trails and rail. The towns are quaint and quiet since most are inaccessible by road. Unfortunately, many of the trails were closed due to some nasty mudslides a few years ago. 

Ann's mama was still game to get some trail miles in, so we decided to walk to the next town, Levanto, from where we were staying in Monterosso. We were assured the hike would be about an hour and a half, in the same way the SS Minnow was going on a three-hour tour. Who needs water or food for a lousy hour and a half stroll through the trees? No one does, of course. But for a four-hour grind up and down some serious inclines, I retrospectively recommend all sorts of provisions. That being said, the only person who didn't complain about the lack of sustenance and the surprisingly long and difficult trek was the most experienced member of the group, who consistently remarked about how nice it was to be out and about.

Three hours in. Are we there yet? I'm pooped.

Obviously, we took the train back (after a nice lunch and a glass or two of wine at an outdoor cafe).

The next day provided ideal conditions for another hike. Based on the previous day's experience, we took the boat tour down the coast to enjoy some of the other towns. From the water, each of the little towns we passed looked like someone had randomly glued some houses along the steep hillsides rising up from the water's edge. Porto Venere offered a nice castle, so we stopped and enjoyed pasta and wine for lunch. On the way home, Brook (Ann's mom) elected to continue back to Monterosso by boat while Ann, Perri and I hiked back from Vernazza. This time, it was about and hour and a half, and quite pleasant, relatively speaking. Dinners in Cinque Terre were fabulous. No exceptions.

Contemplating the Mediterranean.

Just another seaside town.
The next day was a travel day to Florence, or Firenze, as the locals call it. We were lucky to have spent the previous two days outside as it poured rain most of the way. On our way we stopped in Pisa, for the required look at 'the tower'. 

Leaning? Perhaps.
Big church in Pisa. Every town has one.
Look everyone is holding up the tower!
It seemed everyone wanted a shot of themselves pretending to prop up the tower. I refused to participate (see previous reference to stick-in-the-mud). Lunch was less interesting in Lucca, but we were in a bit of a hurry to get to Florence, so no surprizes there.

Florence was a place the chauffeur had to earn his stripes as Italian drivers work hard to prove two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. Fortunately I was able to get us to our destination with a minimum of swearing, rude gesturing, or uttered threats from the other drivers, pedestrians, or occupants of my vehicle (anything I said doesn't count). Florence was a distinct change in pace from the previous three days. It was a big city with huge gobs of tourists. If May is the shoulder season, I don't recommend visiting in summer. As an added bonus, Perri had been nurturing a nasty cold virus which chose me as it's new host just about the time we arrived in Florence, so perhaps my perception of the place was distorted. I was most surprised by the number of Russian tourists we encountered. They were everywhere. Perhaps it's easier to spend the money than launder it in Cypriot banks. Who knows? Even so, Florence does have some nice features: serious renaissance architecture and art, street musicians, and food. Just around the corner from our apartment, a talented clarinetist spent each evening serenading passers-by (although it might have just been the Dristan). Also, those renaissance guys didn't shy away from full frontal nudity. Where were the censors?

Perri with a naked Greek guy (Poseidon?)
One night Ann and Perri took a pizza and gelato course, where the last half hour is spent consuming their efforts. I laid in bed moaning and blowing my nose. 

It is as easy as it looks, apparently.

A recipe for disaster.

Each day, there were plenty of museums chock-full of arty stuff and a big central market, which offered plenty of tasters for prospective customers. We took a day trip to Sienna, which gave us some nice views of the Tuscan countryside. Lunch was ok, but not great.

Plenty of fresh veggies.

Try some of this...

We got cheese.

As we approached Venice, we had become a bit twitchy about eating our body weight in in food each night for dinner. The Italians give generous portions and multiple courses and tasty desserts. Also, the wine is pretty good. Even though we spent the better part of each day walking around, we were pretty sure nothing short of a daily ultra-marathon was going to off-set our caloric intake. This was never resolved. I wait patiently for the comments related to the next two images:

A typical lunchtime pose (for me).

Hard to believe I didn't get it all.

Venice was everything I had imagined with perhaps 100 times more tourists than I thought possible. Again, it is shoulder season, so I can't begin to imagine July at twenty degrees hotter with even more tourists and more persistent street vendors. Still, a gondola ride, some more nice meals, and wandering through the narrow streets with a few thousand of your closest brand-new friends makes for a pretty interesting time. 

Lots of gondoliers. No waiting.

Hello? Tourists? Anyone?
When in Rome...

How many people can fit on one bridge?

The Rialto Bridge as seen from the Grand Canal.
We stayed at a great hotel on Murano Island that had opened only days before, which offered a free shuttle to Venice (perhaps a 15 minute ride). Murano island is famous for world-class blown glass products and giant glass sculptures, and pretty much nothing else. We didn't spend much time there.

Words don't do it justice.
Ann was able to catch the same cold I had (of course, mine, as a man-cold, was much worse), so 3/4 of us spent at least part of the time with a nasty head cold. Even so, the trip was still a great success in spite of Ann's failure to purloin a brand new fake Prada handbag although they were available just about every place we stopped.

On the boat to the airport, no one wanted to leave...

Extra note about travel in Italy. Try not to rely too heavily on a GPS tool.
1. The highways have lots of tunnels. Lots. I think between Nice and Genoa we were inside more than out.
2. Medieval towns and cities are well fortified against invaders and GPS tools.