A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: kgula

Lisbon

rain 56 °F

Lisbon is an interesting city. The capital of Portugal, it has Moorish and Roman ruins, cathedrals and the streets are lined with the types of cafes you daydream about when imagining an escape to Europe. It is also a great place to spend a day if you need to fly from Casablanca to Panama City, since TAP (a Portuguese airline) flies direct to Central America. That is a very specific travel need, but who knows, maybe it will be helpful to someone else someday.

We stayed in the Lisboa Carmo hotel, which was in the Carmo district and ended up being a great central location to explore the city. It was near some tourist spots, had great views of the city from our room. It was also walking distance to almost every restaurant (which were all recommended and not picked because of their proximity to the hotel). It also right across the street from a beautiful Cathedral that is now a museum. For breakfast, we stopped at a cafe by the name of Cafe Benard (like the dog Saint Bernard but instead of Saint it is Cafe and drop the second r from Bernard... so not really like Saint Bernard at all...) and had a traditional breakfast custard tart and a queso e jarmo croissant (ham and cheese croissant - because almost every culture has independently verified that meat + cheese + bread = awesome).

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Lisbon has a system of electric trams that navigate the windy, hilly streets and the Tram 28 is the perfect one for tourists, as it winds across and through the city stopping at the major tourist attractions. One tip is to stop by a local convenience store and try to buy a 24-hour pass for 6 euro, otherwise you will need to pay every time you get on the Tram 28 (which could be several times if you take multiple stops to explore). We made a couple stops, a few for photo ops, one at the medieval castle that looks down on Lisbon and another in what looked like an interesting part of the city with small shops and cafes. We also tried to recreate a classic photo from a trip we took to San Fran where Karly looks excited and I look like a spaz. Mission accomplished.

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It was raining a lot, so towards the end of the afternoon we stopped in randomly selected bar/restaurant called A Maria Nao Deixa. As it turns out, they had just opened as a restaurant only a week or two prior. Being in a tourist area, they were trying out a new sampler menu for 25 euro, that included several courses of small bites of traditional food and wine pairings. The food was great, Karly really enjoyed the wine pairings. We were generally impressed with the wine in Portugal and wished we had had more time to explore some tastings and varietals while there. We also learned from our sampler dish (and host) that cod plays a prominent role in many traditional Portugeuse dishes, which is interesting because there is not much (if any) cod caught in Portugal.

Lastly, we had dinner accompanied by Fado music at O Faia on our last night in Lisbon. Fado is traditional Portugeuse type of music, almost like folk opera with one singer and while we don't speak Portugeuse, most songs seem to have an air of melancholy. It was a great experience, there were four individual Fado singers that performed, two men followed by two women. Most folks at the restaurant seemed to know the songs and were singing along. You should not leave Lisbon without at least watching some Fado youtubes.

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Posted by kgula 17:38 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Panama's World Wonder

The Panama Canal is Simply Amazing

sunny 95 °F

Many people were confused and asked why we would stop off in Panama as our final stop on the trip. I had been wanting to see the Panama canal for quite some time both because it's an amazing engineering feat as well as it's economic impact to global trade. Kurt was wiling to indulge my interest. A colleague at work had suggested I read David McCullough's book. The Path Between the Seas, about the financing, politics, and construction of the Panama canal. I bought the book on my kindle thinking it would be easy reading on the flights..not knowing it was nearly 700 pages of detailed history! So needless to say I didn't get through the entire history before reaching Panama.

I learned that the French attempted building and controlling a Panama Canal, but failed in both design and financing ultimately going bankrupt and liquidating all assets. It turns out the Americans bought all the assets (machines, railroad, building materials that the French left in Panama) and continued with a revised engineering design that would ultimately work. However, it took a lot of lobbying and politics to get the Americans to think a canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would be best in Panama rather than other narrow strips of land in central America. At the time the Americans got involved, Panama was actually under Colombian rule. The Americans - particularly U.S. President Teddy R - decided they didn't care for the extortion of the United States and French liquidation being carried by the Colombian leader and flipped the script. The Americans provided military and financial support to a group of Panamanian separatists who guaranteed control of the canal zone to the U.S. in exchange for money and continued military support. This event has probably contributed to the international sentiment that the Americans will gladly get involved in other countries' business when it's in the U.S.'s favor. That's all of the history I can share currently, because I'm only 400 pages into the dense literary. In fact, Kurt and I were joking that going to the Panama Canal museum and the canal itself was sort of a spoiler alert for the book.

Panama isn't just about the canal, although that is the main reason people initially visit Panama. As a result of the successful completion of the canal around the turn of the century, a huge financial, trade and business center developed. Driving into Panama city from the airport you see many sky scrapers and a developed metropolitan city. The taxi situation is a little sketchy, but not bad. You exit the airport and get approached by lots of drivers who clearly offer different prices to different people. We got put in a clean van quoted $30 to the city with another rider who was quoted $25. All taxi rides are negotiated before getting into the taxi and generally negotiated in Spanish as the taxi drivers tend not to speak much English. My broken Spanish sufficed for that sort of stuff. Panama's currency is called the Balboa and is pegged to the US dollar, and they accept the US dollar everywhere as well.

We spent our first day in Casco Viejo, the old town Panama area. Super cool and worth seeing. You can walk the whole thing in a morning quickly or spend an day sauntering around stopping in stores and at local vendors, having coffee or drinks, and enjoying being at the water. We stopped at bar and restaurant Paula Nani on the water (San Felipe, Casco Viejo, Ave A, Calle 3ra, Edificio 2-47) and enjoyed it. Our tables was on the water where we had an early afternoon showing of a guy bathing - possibly also sun bathing? - on in shore water at high tide. We also stopped at Tantamount. They have a great rooftop area that opens at 4, but we asked if we could buy a drink and take it up there, which they were totally cool about it. The view was amazing.

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Other things to do around old town are pick up any of the usual tourist souvenirs such as Panam hats, linen pants, cotton dresses, stone and shell jewelry, woven baskets, or other art. If you have time there is a Panama canal museum for US $2 in Casco Viejo. You can pay extra for the English audio guide, which we didn't do. There are interesting objects from both the French and American era of building as well as information on the new, larger canal portion being built currently.

Onto THE CANAL!

It's really quite cool. Kurt even said he didn't know it was going to be so cool in person to watch live. He said I was like a kid at Disneyland waiting my turn to get to the front of the crowd to see the locks in action. The canal has three sets of locks that facilitate moving the ships up and over the mountain portions of the isthmus. The Miraflores locks are closest to Panama city (about a 30 minute drive depending on traffic - we paid $25 each way with a car service through our hotel) and the entry locks for ships arriving from the Pacific Ocean. Then there's the Pedro Miguel locks headed to the narrow and dangerous culebra cut through to teh man made Gatun lake. With the creation of lake, many hilltops became islands one of which is the Barro Colorado Island of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). We didn't have time to see this, but definitely will on our next trip to the area. The last locks are the Gaton locks in the city of Colon on the Atlantic Ocean. We read that you can take an antique train car from Panama City to Colon along the canal, however there are some drawbacks. It only leaves Panama once a day around 7am, and only returns from Colon once a day around 5pm. We also read that Colon is relatively unwelcoming to tourists and some perceive it as dangerous, so not a great town to spend 9 hours hanging out. A cooler option is also to take a ride in a ship through the canal, which we also didn't get a chance to do this time around. Tickets at the Miraflores locks to the museum and locks and ship passage viewing is US $15, and well worth it! You can also look up the maritime schedule online before you go to see the ETA of the different ships and know what types of ships you'll see when you're there, whether cargo ships, oil carriers, cruise ships, etc...

The locks are the feature that brought the French down. The French insisted for too long that a sea level canal was a better approach than a canal with locks that facilitated the boats rising above sea level to navigate through different elevations. Excavating the Culebra cut along with other areas down to sea level was virtually impossible and exhausted the French's resources. The McCullough book said that the French got about 10 percent of the necessary excavation completed before the Americans took control. The locks create a chamber holding the ship and changing the water level, thereby lifting or dripping the ship to the next chamber's level. We were told that if the difference in the water between the two chambers if different by even a meter vertically, serious damage and accidents can occur. Once the water level between two chambers separated by a closed lock is even, then the lock slowly opens and these little locomotives, called mules pull the ships through to the net chamber. It so utterly amazing to watch such gigantic man-made ships being easily moved across and through planet Earth through human ingenuity. Seriously cool!

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We would highly recommend Panama. Checking out the old town, Casco Viejo, the canal, and some of the other canal features (the Smithsonian museum, riding through the canal, possibly the trans-country train ride, etc...). Our last night there was a Panama versus Cuba football game (soccer) in which Panama crushed it. So that was fun because pretty much ALL Panamanians were in high spirits for the rest of the night.

Posted by kgula 20:36 Archived in Panama Tagged boats old_town canal_locks world_wonder Comments (0)

Marrakech

sunny 63 °F

Marrakech is a cool city. It is probably the main tourist hub of Morocco. Winston Churchill once said that, "Marrakesh is simply the nicest place on Earth to spend an afternoon." We stayed in the old part of town called the Medina, which still sits behind an old wall that was used to protect the city. This part of town is very old, with narrow streets filled with marketplaces and vendors, these areas are called souks. There's also a main open square where you can find snake charmers during the day and storytellers and other types of performers at night. As a fair warning to anyone thinking about visiting, French is the dominant language for visitors (luckily, Karly speaks French) and it seems like it would be hard to get by only speaking English. Most tourists seemed to be European and we only ran into a few other Americans over the course of a few days in a city full of tourists.

It is very easy to spend a full day wandering around the old medina, stopping at various vendor stalls, avoiding the snake charmers that offer to put (supposedly) non-venomous snakes around your neck for a tourist picture. There are also lots of solid, clean restaurants and hotels tucked away around the old medina that look unassuming from the street but once you walk in the open up into beautifully decorated courtyards. After visiting India the week before, we appreciated the cleanliness of Marrakech. It had the charm of the old buildings and multi-generational vendors that we had encountered in other countries, but the streets were cleaned and trash was picked up every night. There were lots of cats darting through streets, but not really any other animals clogging up walking lanes and leaving behind souvenirs for the bottom of your shoes. There is also a Marrakech Museum and a museum of photography in the old medina that we visited and are worth stopping by if you have time in this area. While the entire old medina is walkable, we would suggest a pickup from your hotel when you first arrive as the streets can be very confusing to navigate at first. Also, at night they can be hard to navigate even with GPS assistance because there are gates that close at night and cut off certain routes and no one has informed the satellites yet.

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On our first morning/early afternoon in Marrakech we took a cooking class offered by one of the nice hotels/restaurants in Marrakech, La Maison Arabe. They drove us out to their "country club" property, which seemed like a small private compound slightly outside of the city. It was a fun class, that involved a rundown on how to make Moroccan tea (we were surprised to learn that the base is imported Chinese green tea) and a hands on cooking class where we each made own our tangine entrée (Kurt with lemon/olive chicken and Karly with mixed veggies) and a few traditional sides.

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We also went to Jardin Majorelle (Majorelle Garden), which is slightly outside of the old medina and was a private 12-acre garden built by an artist in the 1920s and 1930s and has been open to the public since 1947. Yves St Laurent and Pierre Berge have owned the property since 1980 and Yves ashes were spread on the property when he passed away in 2008. The gardens are beautiful and are known for the vivid shade of blue that has been named Majorelle Blue.

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We stayed in a renovated bed and breakfast called Riad Alnadine, which is owned by a very warm and welcoming French couple. The riad is beautiful and the hosts offer to walk you to nearby locations (whether its for dinner or trying to find the main market). They also make an amazing breakfast that can be taken either on the rooftop or in the main courtyard area. We would definitely recommend this as an option to anyone visiting.

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One final note is that someone called me Bruce Willis one morning (unsolicited). They were likely trying to get me into some sort of shop, but this type of hospitality gets you to the top of my recommended cities to visit very quickly.

Posted by kgula 18:30 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Casablanca

New Year's at Rick's Cafe

sunny 75 °F

Our Moroccan travels started in Casablanca. Our tickets had all North African flights routing first through Casablanca, so we figured we would check it out for a couple of days and spend New Year's eve there. Kurt found a great hotel of art deco design and wonderful service. They out us in their Hemingway suite named after the author. It had wood paneling and a beautiful wood art deco bureau as well as hunting paraphernalia and photos of Hemingway hunting. We arrived at 6pm, and they were quite concerned about us having an expensive dinner having reserved a table for us at their hotel. Kurt and I were confused why they were so adamant about us having a nice dinner until we realized it was New Year's eve. We had made reservations for a famous Casablanca restaurant for New Year's eve, but we thought that New Year's was the following day and had planned a low key evening...whoops!

So we rushed to get ready for our New Year's celebration. We had reserved a table at Rick's Cafe paying homage to the Humphrey Bogart World War II film, Casablanca. Many years after the movie, an American expat decided to renovate a waterfront building in the style of the cafe featured inn the film as a welcoming Moroccan respite for tourists and locals alike. In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays a character named Rick who owns a restaurant that is the epicenter for debauchery, corruption, and good ole fashioned fun. The actual Rick's cafe isn't quite as eccentric, but is quite charming and exotic. We had all sorts of different Moroccan tastes and bites. The food was alright, and likely better when not cooking for such a large event. They had a roulette table as well as live music all throughout the evening. At midnight they had African drummers in local costumes signing a lively chant in Arabic. It was quite fun.

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Everywhere we went we were offered Moroccan mint tea and almond cookies. Kurt especially liked the ones shaped like crescents. For breakfast many Moroccans have these almost savory doughnuts. It's not really sweet and closer to a deep fried bagel. They also take smoked salmon, quiche, and/or croissants for breakfast as well.

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Casablanca is really a financial and trade center for Morocco and has a much more commercial vibe than other Moroccan cities. The call to prayer rings through the town throughout the day. In fact, the biggest mosque in Morocco and seventh biggest in the world, Hassan II Mosque, sits along the coast in Casablanca. It's expansive and stunning with modern touches. It was completed in the 1990s and has features such as a retracting ceiling and prayer room with a glass floor over the sea, so one can pray looking over and physically on top of the water. We did not schedule or take the tour, but imagine it would be pretty cool. Note that the mosque is only open to Muslims for general admission not during the scheduled tours. Women do not shoe their bare legs or really much bare skin. Muslim women are often seen wearing these light-weight and often colorful robes with hoods having tassels at the apex. They generally didn't have the hoods up covering their hair and head with a simple head scarf instead.

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We read online that a small museum near our hotel, Musee Abderrahman Slaoui, was pretty good. It's the private collection of a Moroccan art collector that is now open to the public for less than US $ 5. There are painted glass boxes, jeweled tiaras and pieces with Moroccan stones, small steel fish sculptures and other eclectic pieces, and a large collection of original art deco posters mostly depicting North Africa. We bought a print of one of his collection for a reasonable price to hang on our travel wall.

Casablanca was a nice introduction to Morocco. There probably isn't enough to do in the city for many days. One full day is probably good. The Hassan II Mosque is a must. Rick's cafe is fun and the museum is cool if you can squeeze it in. We decided to take the train to Marrakesh from Casablanca. You cannot buy train tickets outside of Morocco, but it was very easy to get a train ticket once there. There are train between Casablanca and Marrakesh about every two hours, and for first class it costs about US $ 15. You may share a cabin with up to five other people, and the train ride is about three hours. It's a quite ride mostly of rough desert like terrain with dots of a few buildings here and there. We probably passed fifty mosques on the way which are easy to spot with their defining architecture and towers for the call to prayer. Highly recommend Morocco and Casablanca if you can fit it in. Marrakesh is a must, and we didn't have a chance to get to Fez this trip. We would probably go back to Morocco many years down the road to explore more if it works out.

Posted by kgula 17:03 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

Cold Turkey

It's snowing in Turkey

snow 30 °F

We flew into Turkey from India. When we had researched the weather in Turkey this time of the year, it looked like it would be 50 to 60 degrees and cloudy. When we arrived it was hailing and snowing....surprise! When we planned the trip we purposefully selected locations close to the equator such that the December whether would be mild. That way we wouldn't need to bring in our luggage clothes for both snowy and warm weather.

Excited with being in a new country, we rolled with what we had and started putting on all the layers in our bags. We had only planned one day in Istanbul. Through our star alliance around the world ticket, routing with Turkish Airlines was the best way to get direct flights to Northern Africa. Our plan was to get just a taste of Turkey and to come back again on a different trip. We had planned to see at least the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya, the Basilica Systern, and the Grand Bazaar. Due to the snow, we got to the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, or Aya Sofya. Both are stunning and must see locations. Because we stayed in the old city, we could walk easily and quickly to the historic sites.

The Blue Mosque is a Islamic mosque adorned inside with many blue-colored tiles. There are very high ceilings with low hanging chandeliers suspended by cables. It was beautiful and peaceful inside. As for all mosques that we visited, women had to cover their heads and wear conservative clothing (no shorts or short skirts), everyone had to take off their shoes, men can't wear shorts either. This is a must see in Turkey, and is free to view. Note that non-Muslims have a special entrance on the side.

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The Hagia Sophia, now referred to as the Aya sofya, was built and functioned as a christian church. Then Constantinople was conquered by the Muslim Ottoman Turks who decided while they pillaged the city to take it and convert it into a mosque. Now one can see murals of the Virgin Mary and Jesus next to scripture from the koran. If you go, make sure to make your way up the spiral ramp where you can get a view from the higher floor. It's quite beautiful.

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We stayed at the rose garden suites in Istabul. Our hotel was super cozy and had a fun view during the snow storm. They put us in the top floor quarters that had low ceilings and a small balcony, similar to the maids' quarters at the top floor of historic Parisian homes and buildings. By the end of the night we could see all the snow capped homes and the sea beyond.

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In terms getting around, we walked everywhere because we spent our one day in the old city where we stayed. Getting a cab from. The airport was easy and costs around 50 Lyra (US $ 16). Getting to the airport from our hotel in the snow was a little different. The guy didn't even run the meter and gauged us for twice the price because he knew we didn't have any options.

We really enjoyed turkey and wished we had had more time to explore and check out the new city. We will very likely go back as part of a different Europe trip.

Easy to get cab from airport - costs about 50 lyra (16 usd).

One last note is that the Turkish Airlines business class lounge in Istanbul is ridiculous. Someone had mentioned it to us, but I don't think we appreciated it until we got there and we only had a short time to enjoy it before our flight. We almost wish we had come earlier to get more time to explore. There are two floors with multiple kitchens, buffets, coffee/tea/drink islands, etc. There is a full golf simulator setup for anyone to use, multiple Xbox and PlayStation areas, masseuses, and there's probably more we're leaving out. A stark contrast to move from that lounge to taking a bus through a snowstorm to our plane and slowly moving up icy stairs to board just a few minutes after leaving. We wanted to look cool so we didn't take too many pics here.

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Posted by kgula 06:20 Archived in Turkey Comments (1)

Varanasi

semi-overcast 54 °F

Varanasi (aka Banaras aka Benares aka Kashi) is old. It is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Mark Twain said, "Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together." (SOURCE: Wikipedia, so it has to be true). It is considered the holiest city in Hinduism and Hindus believe that you receive salvation if you die in Varanasi. I asked Karly to try and get me there if it's ever obvious that I'm on my last days just to make sure that I've got my bases covered. The Ganges river (aka the Ganga, not to be confused with Ganja which turns out to be a Sanskrit word) is the focus of the city. There are large family houses, temples (note: there are reportedly over 10,000 Hindu temples of various sizes throughout the narrow, winding streets of Varanasi), forts, enclaves, and other various old buildings all along the river and steps that lead down directly into river where pilgrims come to the city to bathe in the holy Ganges. These areas are called Ghats and there are 87 individually named ones in Varanasi. Outside of folks using them as their access to bathe in the Ganga, some host morning and evening Hindu ceremonies and some serve as open cremation sites, which is another tradition and ashes are then spread into the Ganges river. Quick sidenote - George Harrison (the Hindu Beatle) had his ashes spread in the Ganges river, near Varanasi. His homie Ravi Shankar is also from Varanasi.

There is a certain beauty to Varanasi, especially on the riverbank. The buildings twist and wind along the river and vary in architecture from different centuries and influences and religions. The oldest still in use buildings in the US (say they were built in the mid 18th-century or so) would be considered relatively new in Varanasi compared to most of the structures.

Also - there are animals and animal crap everywhere. Mostly cows, which are considered holy, wander the streets and poop all over like cows are known to do. In some places, people will put the cow poop up on walls to dry so it can be used for cooking fires. There are lots of stray dogs (apparently it was puppy season, so lots of litters of puppies chasing each other around), goats and monkeys. The monkeys are living large, swinging around the city and snagging whatever they can off of rooftops and terraces when people aren't looking.

We had two full days our tours with a group we found through Varanasi. It turned out to be two young local guys that take pride in showing their city to visitors. I would definitely suggest a tour guide of some sort on a trip to Varanasi. You can avoid getting too lost in the city since you can always walk down to a river ghat to get your bearings, but I don't see anyway that a tourist could navigate the streets with context and purpose. There is a morning ceremony at the Assi ghat every morning at 5am, which we attended on our first full day in Varanasi. The ceremony is very old and performed by young Brahmin (not to be confused with Brahman, which is a Hindu metaphysical concept of the highest principle that ties the universe together) males. Our understanding is that these are guys studying and training to be Hindu priests. The ceremony is pretty beautiful and not very crowded due to the early start time. After the ceremony, we hopped on a boat to travel up the river while enjoying the sunrise and Karly was attacked by birds.

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We toured the northern half of the city along the river, which included several Hindu temples with a mosque thrown in every now and then. There were also several large, at one point grand homes that are now mostly occupied by squatters. We also swung by the residence and business place of an guy studying to be an Aryveta who gave us a rundown on common oils used for different common ailments and issues. Him and his family also were considered ballers due to the healthy cows kept in the center courtyard of their home.

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That afternoon we took a trip out to Sarnath, which is covered in its own blog post.

The next day, we took a walking tour of the southern part of the city and took an evening sunset boat tour. This tour included going by the open cremation sites along the river. It's a bit surreal to see this is person, but there is something beautiful about the ancient practice as it seems to really give the family a chance to reflect and give their family member back to the river. The sunset boat tour included the evening ceremony as well. It was similar to the morning ceremony, but a little further up the river and much more crowded (mostly due to the fact that its right after sunset and not at 5am). There are lots of boats (a mix of tourists and pilgrims to the city) that tie up together to watch the evening ceremony.

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A couple other random notes on Varanasi. We stayed at the Ganpati Guesthouse, which had a good rating on TripAdvisor and while it probably is good for Varanasi, it is a bit behind compared to normal western standards. Once in college, I was returning from spring break and had a connection in Miami. My flight was cancelled so I had to find an immediate housing solution for the night and being a broke college student I found the cheapest possible hotel in the area of the airport. It was gross, there was a note on the window in my room that warned against unlocking or opening the window due to burglaries. That hotel room in Miami was slightly worse than the room in Varanasi, although I wasn't afraid to swallow any tap water. The hotel was on the river and had a rooftop restaurant, where we ate most of our meals. We had a little tour of the Hotel Ganges View, which we would suggest to any future visitors. It is very clean and has maintained a lot of furniture and charm from an earlier time. It's also on the Assi Ghat, so the easiest possible spot to watch the morning ceremony (which is a nice at 5am).

It is pretty hard to stay clean and healthy in Varanasi. I came down with a pretty nasty cough (maybe a cold? Who knows, I did feel awful) by the time we left and Karly developed an small eye stye (that cleared up quickly after leaving). Without too many details, the city is dirty and it's generally pretty tough to get a good shower. The tap water is not clean, so you have to be careful not to get it in your mouth or on your face. It's a great place to go if you happen to love ice old showers though. Here are pics from our last morning that pretty much sum up how we felt about Varanasi at the time they were taken:

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There are some beautiful parts and aspects of Varanasi. It is Hindu philosophy in practice, and it is admirable that the city has been able to maintain its traditions and convictions in a modern world bearing down on the area. At the same time, you do wonder how sustainable the city will be in its current state. What were once the prestigious homes of the monarchs and business elite are now dilapidated reminders of a more prosperous time occupied by squatters that may have legal rights to the property due to convoluted property ownership rules. Varanasi has existed and made it through more difficult obstacles, so I'm sure it will find a way to adapt once again.

Posted by kgula 12:45 Archived in India Comments (0)

Sarnath

Home of Buddha's First Sutta

sunny 71 °F

We had our guides drive us 13 kilometers north eat of Varanasi to the town of Sarnath. It is thought that Sarnath is where the Buddha came to give his first Sutta after he attained enlightenment. This Sutta discourse was on the topic of the four noble truths, which form the cornerstone of Buddhist belief. The city is also referred to as Isapatana in some Buddhist scriptures.

Visiting Sarnath was really wonderful. Because it is such a meaningful location for Buddhists, it is a place for pilgrimage as well as a place where many Buddhist countries chose to construct a Buddhist temple in their style for pilgrims to visit. In Sarnath we visited Buddhist temples from Thailand, Japan, Tibet, and Sri Lanka. Each has different architecture and slightly different representations of the Buddha. Some construct Buddha out of gold and others stone or sandalwood. The Sri Lankan temple was built on the spot where Buddha gave his first discourse, so it was overrun with tourists. The other monasteries and temples were much calmer likely because tourists did not know about the other temples to visit.

The Tibetan monastery and temple was the most peaceful. It seemed like tourists didn't know about it, so it was calmer. It has the biggest gold Buddha tucked in the back and photos of HHDL (His Holiness the Dalai Lama) there. There were at least 50 rooms for lodging monks and others coming to Sarnath to study at the Tibetan monastery.

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The Japanese temple houses a reclining Buddha made of sandalwood. You could smell the sandalwood just walking up to the Buddha.

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The Sri Lankan temple also has a park with children running around and flying kites. Inside the temple the walls are all filled with murals telling different stories of the Buddha from his birth to death.

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This is a representation of Buddha giving his first sutta near where he actually did it. It was said he gave the sutta underneath a people's tree, or peepal tree. Lord Buddha is also believed to have attained enlightenment under this type of tree, which is often also referred to as the Bodhi tree or the ‘Tree of Enlightenment.’ The tree can live and grow for hundreds of years. An interesting property of these trees is that they release a compound that assists in slowing depletion of the ozone layer. It is considered a sin to cut down a people's tree. you can see the peepal tree hanging over the spot where the statues are gathered.

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The Thai government built the largest and newest Buddha statue currently in Sarnath out of stone.

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In the 12th century Sarnath was sacked by Turkish Muslims and the city was plundered, as a result some non-Muslim artifacts were destroyed. The current temples were built well after that.

We really enjoyed Sarnath and found that it enriched our understanding of the different religions that India has cultivated and nurtured. In many ways it's a very open, accepting, and spiritual country.

Posted by kgula 23:12 Archived in India Tagged buddha sarnath tibetan_monastery Comments (0)

New Delhi

Smelly Shoe, smelly shoe, what are they feeding you?

sunny 65 °F

New Delhi, more like Shoe Smelly. Our time in New Delhi can be summed up in one interaction when we were walking through the modern, high end area of New Delhi called Connaught Place. As we walked through a local market, someone tapped me on the shoulder to point out that I supposedly had stepped in some dog poo (which is not ridiculous since the city is littered with stray dogs everywhere). This gentleman offered to show me where there was some running water to wash off my shoe and when we turned the corner there was a shoe shiner/cleaner that he brought me to. Without thinking too much about it, I offered up my soiled shoe and the shoe cleaner cleaned it up for me. As he was cleaning I noticed two things, there was only poo on top of shoe (so I obviously did not step IN it) and the gentleman who pointed out the mess was hovering around the shoe cleaner. After he was done cleaning the shoe cleaner claimed that the charge was 1,200 rupees, which is probably 15x what the cost should be in India. At this point I was convinced that this was all a long, smelly con on the Westerner and gave the shoe cleaner 100 rupees and walked away (which he didn't object to). In retrospect, I do wonder how the original gentleman got the dog poo onto my shoe. Was he carrying it in his hand or in a bag waiting for some sucker to walk by? If so, how long was he holding it? Is there an expiration period where you need to retire the pile you're holding and reload with something more fresh? Did he see me approaching and this stroke of brilliance hit him so he grabbed the nearest pile of dog feces for a quick relocation to the top of my shoe? What if he missed my shoe and was just someone throwing dog poo around the market? Would anyone care? Did no one else in the crowded market wonder why this man at some point had in his possession a handful of dog crap? These are questions that may never be answered and still not the most confusing local habits we encountered in New Delhi.

When we first arrived at the airport (Indira Ghandi International), we got stuck for almost 90 minutes in the e-visa line. This is the line for foreign tourists that have already filled out the invasive visa application (they ask for your religion, profession, info on your parents, etc.) and received their tourist visa. We couldn't find this e-visa line at first and we ended up the last people in line from several arriving flights. There were only a few people with open windows to process visas and passports and even those few people did not seem to have any sense of efficiency despite the growing line of incoming and increasingly impatient visitors. They also apparently needed to scan the print from every finger of every entering visitor from fingerprint scanners developed for one of the Sean Connery James Bond films (i.e. they didn't work). If anyone ever flies into Delhi, our advice is to go directly to the end of the customs desks, do not pass Go, do not collect $200, do not use the bathroom, go and get in the e-visa line as fast as Americanly possible.

Our first day (and early evening) in New Delhi we decided to take the short 15 minute walk from our hotel to the aforementioned glamorous Connaught Place. On the walk there, we were approached several times by concerned residents that there was a protest slightly ahead of us and it was not safe for Westerners to try and walk directly through. We were consistently given friendly detour routes that would help us avoid any international incidents. After a tumultuous 2015 and signing up for news alerts from the State Department for our trip, it didn't seem unreasonable that parts of the world would be carrying out protests that wouldn't take too kindly to a couple of crackers stumbling through on their way to try and find the New Delhi Adidas store. So....... eventually we acquiesced (a slight detour seemed like a decent compromise for safety) and took one of the tuktuks promising us safe voyage but as it turned out, it was just a scam and our tuktuk drive took us to several "bazarres" (basically tourist trap shops with cheesy stereotypical Indian souvenirs - pashminas, kurtas, sarees, etc.) that were off the beaten track. On our Old Delhi tour we confirmed with our guides that the warnings of protests were nonsense and a common scam and the tuktuk drivers get a commission for bringing customers to the bizarre bazarres. A nice warm welcome to India on our first night.

Eventually, two days later and after having our shoes pelted with excrement, we made it to Connaught Place. It is a large circle with shops around the perimeter and typical street market vendors in the center. It was pretty underwhelming. The athletic apparel stores are covered - Reebok, Nike, Puma, Adidas, but otherwise most other shops are Indian department stores. We were there right around Christmas and they were beyond packed, but it may have been due to the holiday season (I know Christmas is not a big religious holiday in India but it is a national holiday that most people have off work, so lots of people head to this area). Otherwise, there are some local restaurants and a couple of the American fast food joints that you can seemingly find in any corner of the globe - KFC, Dominoes's, Dunkin Doughnuts, etc.

We took a walk to India Gate, which is a big memorial for British and Indian soldiers that died in WWI and other battles where the two sides fought together (more often, it seemed that Indians fought on behalf of the British). It was a nice memorial and worth seeing if you are in New Delhi, but not particularly more compelling than comparable memorials you would likely find in most capital cities.

We took a train from New Delhi to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. In India, you have to show your airplane ticket (or boarding info) to get into the airport, so it seemed reasonable that you may have to do the same at the train station. There were several gentlemen checking tickets at the gate and they informed us that our train was delayed (and/or cancelled according to a second person tertiary to our ticket checker) and they would help us out and take us to a place where we could buy/exchange for new train tickets or book a car to Agra. As we got this grand speech, we quickly realized this was another scheme, they seemed a little too desperate to not let us enter the train station and by taking a step back we realized that they did not look like they were associated with the train station in any official capacity. We had to argue to get our boarding information back and physically push through to get into the train station. Eventually we made it onto our train, which was not delayed at all and we confirmed with someone in our cabin that this was another common scheme to tell people that their train was cancelled and try to convince them to take a private car service instead once their train departs. This was another scheme that just mad us sad, that people had no problem having us miss our legitimate train and derailing a whole trip for the off chance of booking an angry car passenger.

Overall, New Delhi is a grind. It is exhausting for a Westerner and we became so guarded against schemes, liars and cheats that I'm sure we dismissed some actual friendly advice in our few days there. We went back and realized that we actually didn't take any pictures around New Delhi, likely because we felt the need to be on guard most of time. It is possible that having a local tour guide like we had for Old Delhi may have helped us in our efficiency to navigate this part of the city, but there's not quite the same amount of things to see and do for your average tourist.

If we sound too salty about New Delhi, please let us know what we may have missed!

Posted by kgula 10:43 Archived in India Comments (1)

Agra

Christmas in India's Romantic City

sunny 63 °F

For anyone travelling to Uttar Pradesh (a Northern State in India) or any part of Northen India, Agra has got to be a necessary stop. Agra is home to many historic cites, the most notable being the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is a tomb built by a Mughal emperor in honor of his favorite wife (of multiple wives...). This guy, Shah Mahan, had quite the story. It's also the same guy who built the walled city that is now Old Delhi.

In the early seventeenth century, Shah Mahan rose to power. He had fallen in love with a Muslim woman of high social status, but wasn't permitted to marry her for many years until astrologically set dates permitted. In the mean time he married two other women at different times, maintaining each marriage. He eventually was able to marry his love who became known as Mumtaz Mahal. Mumtaz Mahal had fourteen children with Shah Jahan, but died while giving birth to the fourteenth child. Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal as a Muslim Mausoleum to his beloved sparing no resource, expertise, or expense.

He brought the world's best engineers, inlay tile workers, and marble sculptors to Agra to construct this unprecedented dedication to his, or any, wife. We'll show you pictures and talk more about the Taj Mahal, but before we do, things got real in Shah Jahan's life during and after construction. Years after his wife died, he fell ill. His eldest son took over. The other sons got mad smuckers (jealous), and decided to storm the palace at Agora Fort (across the way from the Taj Mahal) to get what they thought was due to them. They won their battle while the father, Shah Jahan, got better and pulled it together. BUT by that time the third eldest son decided that Dad's time was up, and put Shah Jahan on house arrest in his palace a few miles away from the Taj Mahal, in a room with a view of his beloved's tomb. The eldest daughter decided to share the house arrest with her father and help take care of his health. He died at age 72 still under house arrest by his son, who refused a large ceremony and production for his father's death. The eldest daughter instead had him buried during a modest ceremony inside the Taj Mahal that was dedicated to his love...Crazy story.

The Taj Majal is absolutely stunning. Carved out of white marble, which is rare to the area, with uncountable semi-precious-stone/jewel inlays. It is difficult to describe the amount of time, blood, sweat, and precision that clearly went into to crafting this mausoleum. The entire building is symmetric by construction. Each side looks exactly like the other with balanced minarets and identical façades. The only thing not symmetric about the building is that the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal was placed in the center of the dome, because Shah Jahan intended for her body to be the only one buried in the building. When his daughter buried him there, his body was placed next to his wife's centered tomb, offsetting the symmetry. The tombs we see when we enter are replicas of the actual tombs located below the site. The red entrance gates to the Taj made out of sandstone are also symmetric.

It's overwhelming to know how dedicated Shah Mahan's love was for his wife that he would go to such great lengths for her. While leaving Kurt told me that he would build me a Taj Mahal... it was a very romantic, and silly, moment for our honeymoon.

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We took two pics from a prime spot in front of the Taj and we managed to each close our eyes in one of the pictures. If anyone wants to PhotoShop these into one normal picture, please have at it.

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From the Taj Mahal we went to the Agra Fort. We think this Fort is a must see equal to the Taj Mahal, but for different reasons. Inside the expansive fort is palaces, former temples, mosques, as well as an active bunker for the Indian army reserves. We saw the palace that Shah Jahan lived in while on house arrest and the haunting view of the Tajh Mahal from across the river. The fort is mostly constructed of red sandstone. The palace is in white marble. It's quite small, but you can see the view of the Taj from the Agra Fort palace below. A couple palaces are shown below. One palace also has a vineyard, because the emperor liked wine.

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Shah Jahan, was Persian and a devout Muslim. His father, also a Mughal emperor was more open to religion and had taken a Muslim wife, a Hindu wife, as well as a Christian wife (covering his bases for afterlife I guess??). Shah Jahan in 1633 imposed Shari law and basically ordered the demolition of all Hindu temples and artifacts as well as any other religious constructions that were not Muslim. As a result, much of India's history, temples, and artifacts of the time were destroyed and never repaired or reconstructed. Agra Fort has former Hindu temples that were converted to Muslim mosques having defaced any Hindu sculptures or references. This event is a recurring theme through different Northern Indian cities we visited.

We woke up at sunrise to see the Taj Mahal before it was too busy and at beautiful light. It took about 5 hours to get from the hotel to the Taj to the fort to a few shops and then to Agra airport (we were flying to Varanasi next). Note that to get into any Indian airports you have to have a print out of your pre-purchased airplane ticket to show them.

It is easy to get to Agra from Delhi by either train or hiring a car.

The car ride is a few hours depending on traffic. From what we could tell it's about 2,000 to 3,000 rupees (US $ 30-45) for a private car service and tour guide from Delhi to Agra and back (depending on the car and guide). The train was two hours but timing can depend on how fast and how many stops your train is/has. We decided we would enjoy a train ride and seeing the countryside. The train was 2,500 rupees (US $ 38) for 2 adult first class AC tickets. The train situation in India isn't too difficult to navigate. The only caveat is that we decided to buy our tickets ahead of time while in the U.S. which was much more difficult and involved extra fees, but ensured we had a seat on the time and day we wanted one. To book in advance, you need to register with India's train authority, the IRCTC, which requires detailed information, passport photos, and a series of clearances. The other option is to wait until you're in India and either book train tickets through your hotel if they can do that or walk up to a train booking office (in most major train stations and airports) and buy your tickets there. India sets aside a fixed amount of seats for tourists, so the odds of those filling up a less likely, but certainly possible during high travel season. You may also get stuck with a standby ticket that isn't confirmed useless others cancel. Depending on how flexible you are and how far you want to travel in India, hiring a car can be indifferent to buying a train ticket. Although purchasing the ticket was slightly difficult, finding our train platform, getting on the train, and finding our designated AC 1 seat was super easy. We met a German couple who missed their train in India once by getting on the wrong train, so you just have to be careful to know your train's number and lookup the correct platform for that train number at your station.

When you arrive at Agra, we suggest having your hotel send a car to pick you up. If you look Western you will especially be harassed coming off the train for rides to your hotel at unreasonable prices and have difficulty getting a fair and safe taxi. For a small premium you will have the peace of mind and know you are being taken to the correct hotel. We paid 800 rupees (US $ 12) for our hotel to pick us up from Agfa Cantt train station. Eight hundred rupees seems to be the going rate in Northern India for a airport or train station pickup, no matter the distance or traffic. Not sure how the industry worked that one out, but generally in India it's always worth it.

Ticket to see the Taj Mahal for foreigners is 750 rupees (US $ 12), but only 20 rupees for Indian citizens. We were told that in 2016 the tourist ticket would rise above 1,000 rupees. Ticket to see the Agra Fort was 250 rupees per person. We hired a driver and tour guide for 2,000 rupees (US $30) to pick us up from the hotel, hold our luggage all day in the car, ensure we were getting tickets quickly without harassment, explain the sites, then drop us off at the airport. Pretty good deal, but note that we had to negotiate them down from $3,800 rupees, which was their initial offer. Negotiate everything in India!

Posted by kgula 00:20 Archived in India Tagged india taj_mahal mughal_romance Comments (0)

Old Delhi's Walled Cty

A Whirlwind of Culture, Joy, and History

sunny 60 °F

In the mid-17th century during the Mughal dynasty, Emperor Shah Jahan built the walled city of Shahjahanabad, the capital of the Mogul empire and later to be known as Old Delhi. Shah Mahan was the fifth Mughal emperor of India, and he also built the Taj Mahal. At it's height, Old Delhi was a beautiful and lush city of the wealthy. It protected palaces, mosques, and gardens. It now is a glorious expression of day-to-day living though utterly dilapidated. The best way to describe it is organized chaos.

There are so many people and their livestock bustling through the streets, one can barely get through. There are markets and street food vendors. Old Delhi is famous for its street food. In fact, there are rarely sit-down restaurants, because people seem to just stop in the middle of the street at a preferred vendor whenever their stomach calls, to share a small bite with any other unknown locals who've stopped at the same vendor to stand and eat the delicatessen. We ate street food all day in Old Delhi and never got sick. Although each vendor was pre-selected by our tour guide, Anju.

It would seem impossible to truly understand Old Delhi or even navigate it safely without a tour guide. We found ours on trip advisor. It's a group of friends born and raised in Old Delhi who've worked and lived abroad and returned to the town that they love. They are clearly passionate about sharing Old Delhi's history and ensuring that visitors see the truly beautiful side of India to balance out the impression many tourists get of the trickery, selfishness, and rudeness related to the experiences we shared in New Delhi. Having a local tour guide made life so much easier and gave us enough peace of mind to really listen, eat, and learn without constant harassment. Anju, our guide, would ensure that we were left alone.

One of the first things we learned about Old Delhi is that it truly is a chosen way of life. Some street vendors make more money than the middle class in New Delhi in addition to not paying taxes, and still choose to live in the small, dilapidated apartment they grew up in with another family. Anju showed us a street vendor that was making approximately 6,000 rupees per day (about US $ 100). That's more than the median income in America, but he lives in a place where a metro ticket can cost 10 rupees (about 16 US cents) and lunch might be 50 rupees (a little less than US $ 1) - so the cost of living is quite low. The man we saw works his food cart every day in the same coveted location, rain or shine, and doesn't appear to spend his money. He wears dirty and tattered clothes and lives in the same small apartment he grew up in. He clearly is comfortable, in fact joyful, where he is and is content to maintain the same life he knows.

Many people in Old Delhi do not pay rent. They are essentially squatters in abandoned Havelis. Havelis are mansions traditionally of the merchant class. They have a central courtyard, usually open to the sky, surrounded by 10 to 30 rooms housing extended family. They are multiple stories high and gated. Over time, parts of the extended families would move away from Old Delhi, not contribute financially to the upkeep, and demand a portion of payment when the dilapidated mansion was forced into sale. In between dilapidation and being able to sell the Haveli, many locals will move into the abandoned location and then become very difficult legally to evict. The Haveli owner we joined for dinner as part of our tour explained that it took over 15 years to legally clear his family's Haveli for full ownership. He restored his Haveli, and it's stunning. He also modernized parts of such as the bathroom and other areas.

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A common past time in India is training and racing pigeons. Basically one acquires, breeds, and trains pigeons to fly in groups in the sky and trick/confuse/entice pigeons from other groups to fly into and with their group back to their owner. That owner has now essentially captured the pigeon, usually belonging to someone else who was training that pigeon. Then the pigeons owner has to retrieve his captured pigeon for rupees or wounded pride for having lost a pigeon. We stood on a rooftop and watched pigeons training in the morning. You could see at least five different groups of pigeons flying together and gathering at different locations upon loud calls from their owner/trainer. Kurt said it reminded him of the television show The Wire where drug dealers use pigeon training for communication. The kid version of pigeon training is called kiting, were kids will lace their kite string with small pieces of glass. Two or more kids will get on their roofs and fly their kites 20 to 400 feet in the sky. They will try to ensnare the other kid's kite string with theirs in order to cut the string and force the kite to the ground. They may try to retrieve the kite for themselves, or simply bask in the victory of being the remaining flying kite. We saw kids kiting on rooftops all over India, and they get so much joy from it.

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Some of the street food we tried throughout the day was a leavened, sort of whipped egg, Samosas with chili sauce, pure (bread fried in ghee/butter) and dal (lentils in stew/sauce), a sweet cashew and carrot paste, sweet rice porridge served by a lovely woman who invited us into her home, pan leaves with herbal/aromatic sauce (rose, menthol, sometime tobacco), bread with egg (I think it's called piranha), indian nachos (no idea what they are called but they are so flavorful with a tamarind sauce, spicy mint sauce, and yogurt sauce), and an ice cream bar tasting sort of like butter. We ended the day with a vegetarian dinner at Druhv's house who manages the tours. Druhv restored his families Haveli and many years and much work and has collected many artifacts and history in his Haveli to share with visitors.

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The newest experience for us was being invited into both a Hindu temple as well as a Sikh temple. Our tour guide wanted to make sure we understood the role of Hinduism in many Indian lives. She took us to an old HIndu temple while people were coming in and out to pray and make offerings. She explained the different mythological deities and walked us through a traditional encounter at the temple. We took off our shoes to enter, of course, received a tikal and blessing from the spiritual leader at the temple. It is our understanding that this is support focus of the sixth Chaka, or third eye. We rang the large bell before leaving.

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Later in the day we visited the historic Sikh temple Gurdwara Sis Ganj Sahib. Many Indians say that Sikhism derives from Hinduism, however Sikhs do not believe that they are Hindus. Sikhism is a monotheistic belief and follows more conservative/strict lifestyle than most Hindus. Sikh men wear a cover over their head to cover their hair, which they never cut. They also carry a dagger on them at all times as part of the 5 main symbols of Sikh values and beliefs. For this reason Sikhs can be confused for Muslims, but they are not. It is a relatively new religion of a little over 300 years. The people of the temple were welcoming. Before entering we needed to cover our heads (men and women), remove our shoes, and then wash our feet in the small pool at the entrance of the temple. While we entered a few men were giving a sermon on a small platform while listeners were sitting on the carpeted floor. Behind the sermon room, was a full scale kitchen. We walked through with our tour guide who explained that Sikhs prepare food every day for anyone of the public who would like it. They use the purest and simplest of ingredients, and through donations and Sikh acts of service hundreds of people are fed each day for free. There were SIkhs cooking food, serving food, and washing all of the dishes. The people eating the food ranged from destitute to well off traveling Sikhs to locals with children. It was an extremely generous and compassionate vibe throughout the temple spaces.

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A couple of other highlights from our tour of Old Delhi included a brief and unplanned cow and carriage ride, walking through the fragrant spice bazaar, and Kurt getting to know an Indian Baby.

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Posted by kgula 09:33 Archived in India Tagged temples history indian_street_food organized_chaos Comments (2)

Hanging in Hua Hin

sunny 91 °F

Now, this is living! What a relaxing beach-town experience in Huang Hin, Thailand. Hua Hin is a small resort town about 2.5 hours south of Bangkok (by train or car). In the 1920's a railway station was built, and tourism to the area increased. The beach town was chosen by the current sitting monarch as the location of his private residence for two years. It has a small-town vibe, but clearly a community supporting tourism.

We arrived in Hua Hin from Bangkok by train (450 Thai Baht per person for the best train ticket - about US $13). The train ended up being delayed 30 minutes with us arriving at 11:30am after departing 8:30am. We bought the tickets directly at the train station in person the night before we left. We were not able to purchase Thai train tickets from outside the country, although it might be possible through a third party travel agency. The train ride wasn't as picturesque as originally described and takes a bit longer than a car, so we opted for a personal car to drive us back to Bangkok at the end of our stay. We booked the car back to Bangkok through our hotel for 3000 Baht (about US $83), which gave us the flexibility to leave at the time we preferred. Everyone in Bangkok claims Hua Hin is only two hours away but after making the trip in a train and by car, we don't really see a reasonable way to get there in under three hours.

The whole town is relatively walkable. The train station is quaint and tuk tuks are plentiful. Basically all tuk tuk rides in Hue Hin are 100 Baht (UD $3) no matter the distance. When you get into town they will try to charge you 200 Baht for a ride to your hotel from the train station. We just said we expected to pay 100 Baht and then settled on 120 Baht. Our hotel had its own tuk tuk that would drop us off around town for free.

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We stayed at Putharasca hotel in the Oceanside villas. Well worth the splurge. We used our Amex points, but I think the cost at high season isn't too crazy for what you get. The hotel selected their best ocean view villa for our honeymoon stay and surprised us with a special cake, flowers, and a lovely card (which also came with a free lizard that we found later in the evening). We received such a warm welcome. Our hotel backed up right against the ocean, so you could hear the waves and walk right down to the outdoor loungers to hang out right at the water. The beach at Huan Hin is rocky and has Jelly fish, so it's not the picturesque crystal clear water experience that one might think of. The city's charm and pace as well as weather and beach vibe is what drew us in.

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We went to a night market here and found that the Thai night markets had much more interesting features and products than those in China and Hong Kong. In Hue Hin the markets there are touristy items like elephant pants (loose flowy pants with elephant prints on them), little Thai purses and pouches, and street patsy. The markets also have some local products and experiences such as modern clothes that locals shop for, lingerie at the "ladies markets", and places to stop for drinks. We negotiated everything at the markets, and almost never paid the asking baht price.

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At the night market they also have fish foot spas, where you place your feet in a tank of small fish (toothless Garra rufa fish) that nibble at your feet and eat off the dead skin cells. It was a crazy feeling. We did more research later and found that there care be hygiene concerns with these spas, if they do not clean them appropriately, so you may want to pass or make sure to find a higher end spa.

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Speaking of spa treatments, we got a Thai massage at our hotel with a salt scrub that was amazing. I totally different type of massage than the usual European deep tissue. They use their elbows and full arms and stand on the table including stretching with the massage. It looked like many people were enjoying the street massages as well for very little price. So another option is to stop here and there for 15 minutes massages around town.

The last little tidbit on Hua Hin is a deep cut seafood restaurant on the water at the north part of town. We got the recommendation from our concierge in Bangkok, and it was great. It was sort of hidden down an ally that opens to strings of lights in the trees, and what seemed like mostly Thai and Chinese tourists rather than Westerners. The food was good. We had the deep friend garlic fish as well as some seafood with yellow curry. Also be sure to ask for rice whenever you order, it doesn't come standard with the dishes.

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That's it for Hua Hin. If you're looking for a Thai beach town that is lower key and charming, Huang Hin is great. A place like Phuket has much more of a night life and the beaches are more exotic looking. Phuket is far enough from Bangkok that you need to take a plane.

We leave you with this pic of Kurt trying to look cool:

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Posted by kgula 22:45 Archived in Thailand Tagged relaxation thai_beaches Comments (1)

Bangkok

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We arrived in Bangkok at about 5pm and did not get to our hotel until 8pm. The taxi line wraps around the ground transportation section as every group has to filter through one person printing a ticket and assigning a stall number to catch their taxi. By the time we finally got to our car, we were in the heart of Bangkok rush hour, which maybe deep down made us long for Los Angeles traffic (never thought that day would come). By the time we finally got to the hotel, we were ready to crash after a quick dinner.

The next morning, we got up bright and early for a Thai cooking class. Karly is pictured here enjoying the morning breeze on our little balcony overlooking the Chaom Phraya river and wearing her new pants with elephants on them (she probably won't be happy about this picture's inclusion):

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Our cooking class with Chef LeeZ was hosted in the more historic part of Bangkok, Banglamphu (Bang-lam-poo). We took a tour of a small farmer's market and got the rundown on some local produce that you won't find outside of Thailand and also which produce was safe to try for visitors.

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About halfway through the cooking class, Karly began to feel really ill. Chef LeeZ didn't mess around, she quickly sprung into action by spreading out a mat for Karly to lay on, with periodic massages and other nausea remedies. We believe this was caused by the malaria prescription (more on this later). Apparently Karly was not the first visitor to Thailand to feel sick during the class, the chef told us that she once had someone pass out in the middle of the farmer's market. Karly did miss some amazing food and cooking techniques. Chef LeeZ was great about having us making all ingredients from scratch and tasting them against their packaged/process counterpart - the most striking different came from fresh squeezed coconut milk versus the coconut milk available in stores. We'd definitely recommend this class to anyone visiting Bangkok for a fun experience and a taste of the building blocks for Thai cuisine. One last note is that Chef LeeZ introduced us to the phrase "same same but different" to describe the transgender folks that have a strong presence in Thailand (and Bangkok specifically).

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After the cooking class the priority was getting Karly back to the hotel. Unfortunately, the fastest and most efficient way back to the hotel was via boat, which is really great when you feel sick to your stomach. We did take a few pics of the riverbank along the way.

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That night we met up with one of Karly's former colleagues, Arm, who is originally from Thailand and is back in Bangkok now. She gave us some great advice and suggestions for our overall time in Thailand and had some time to meet up for dinner. It was great to have a quiet dinner with a local and have some time to ask stupid questions that we were too embarrassed to ask anyone else. For instance, everyone bows as a greeting and we weren't sure if it would be offensive (or lame) for us as tourists to bow back. After Arm's advice that it would be much appreciated by Thai folks, I went on a bowing spree for anyone willing to engage for the next few days.

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The next morning we headed out to Hua Hin - this will have its own separate blog post.

After Karly felt sick in the cooking class, she stopped taking the malaria medicine and got better within a day or so. I kept taking the prescription and managed to get sick at the second most perfect time (after a riverboat ride) which is a two to three hour car ride through Thai countryside. By the time we arrived back in Bangkok, I was feeling very ill. Our second hotel in Bangkok (Hotel Muse) was very cool, it had an exotic outpost circa American-prohibition-era vibe and was in the center of the city near the main shopping centers, whereas our first hotel was tucked away a bit more on the river.

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After a nap, I thought I was feeling well enough to do some sightseeing, so we ventured out to Jim Thompson's house. Jim Thompson was an American architect that spent some time in Thailand while he was in the service and decided to move back and revitalized the Thai silk trade in the 1950s and 60s. He provided the silk garments used in the King and I movie and has a compound of several traditional Thai houses that he connected in Bangkok to house himself and his art and antiquity collections. Even more intriguing is that he mysteriously disappeared in 1967 on a trip in Malaysia, which is still unsolved despite vast land searches prompting lots of intriguing conspiracy theories. Despite this awesome story, I only made it halfway through the tour before the malarone maven came roaring back (I felt sick again from the malaria pills) and had a to duck out of Mr. Thompson's second story (right when the tour got good apparently).

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Karly got me back to the hotel via the longest tuktuk ride anyone has ever taken (apparently I may be biased by being sick and it only took ~20 mins). Tuktuks in Bangkok are known for being decorated with flashing lights and music, which usually are not on during the day but you can see party tuktuks zipping around Bangkok all night. We started our tuktuk ride right around the time the sun set, so each progressive block our driver would flip on a new decoration - first the perimeter lights, the some flashing lights (which illuminated the (joking?) warning labels depicting stick figures in a variety of vulgar sutra positions not to be attempted within the confines of a tuktuk), and I think we hopped out right before the Thai party music switch was flipped.

Overall, we both really enjoyed Bangkok but were each separately sick on the two full days we had intended to tour the city, so we didn't visit everything that we wanted to see. We do believe it would be a great trip to come back and visit this corner of the world (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) more thoroughly on its own dedicated trip and maybe we can take another crack at Bangkok.

Posted by kgula 21:07 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Hong Kong: Planes, Ding Dings (trams), and Junks (boats)

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Just when we thought that our hotel rooms couldn't get smaller compared to our Taiwan "pizzzacutfive"-themed room (pizzacutfive is the name of a clothing and lifestyle company in Taiwan that was marketed and wallpapered all over our room), we checked into a matchbox of a room in Kowloon, Hong Kong. The room was less than 100 square feet and the bathroom was a part of the room. The closet was a glass box in the corner with 4 hangers. HOWEVER, they gave us a "handy" mobile phone when we checked in that had free WiFi and calling. We could use it to navigate the city on Google maps and also for making local calls to restaurants and other vendors. It was a such a great idea to provide that to hotel guests at no cost for presumably the tradeoff of free targeted marketing. It also came with a bright orange case that efficiently identified us as tourists for any vendors or locals that were wondering.

We read about how over-inhabited Hong Kong was and figured it would be the same as NYC.... it's not. It is incredible how many giant, sometimes dilapidated sky scraper apartments there are one after another. This picture is of a very small cluster of apartments in Lantau island which is considered a suburb. Imagine a hundred more clusters of apartment buildings like this and constant construction of new buildings. Land is clearly at a premium here.

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Hong Kong is 1,100 square kilometers of land including Hong Kong island, Kowloon Province, and a ton of small, mostly uninhabited islands. Hong Kong and China have a "one country, two systems" policy with the People's Republic of China. HK has it's own government and internal affairs but relies on China for defense and foreign policy. Hong Kong is noticeably distinct from mainland china.

We ended up staying in Kowloon across Victoria Harbor from Hong Kong Island. It's sort of like the Brooklyn to Hong Kong's Manhattan. Hong Kong island is ultra-opulent, and Kowloon is a little more up and coming while housing nearly twice as many people as Hong Kong island. It was very easy to take the metro to and from Kowloon, Hong Kong island, and a few other nearby islands, so staying in Kowloon versus Hong Kong island wasn't really a issue for us. Getting a safe and nice hotel was much more reasonable on the Kowloon side as well for obvious reasons. If we ever went back though we would probably stay on the Hong Kong side for the traditional HK experience.

Kurt had started booking in-person, guided tours for some of our destinations and couldn't settle on getting a tour for Hong Kong or not, so I told him that I would be our official tour guide of Hong Kong. Risky move, I know, so I reached out to friends and read up on my Hong Kong history and current attractions. We basically did a whirlwind, day-long tour. We first went to Po Lin Buddhist Monastery on Landau island. It is home to the 250-ton "Big Buddha Statue." To get there from our hotel we took the orange line metro to it's last stop (about US$ 2), and then took the "360" gondola up to the monastery in the hills (US$ 30 per person, round trip - you can also take public transportation bus or walk/hike at lower or zero fees). The statue was amazing as was the view of the South China Sea from the hills. The monastery opens at 10am with an increasingly longer line as the day goes on. It took about four hours to get there enjoy the sights and get to Hong Kong island.

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Next we went to Maxim's Palace (inside the City Hall building) for dim sum per Elinor's great suggestion (holler!). They close at 3pm and open back up for dinner at 5pm. Usually there is a long line to eat, but we got there at 2:30pm, so we had no line, but had to eat quickly. It was very good and had plenty of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. There is also a fun view of the harbor and a colonial British vibe inside. Note that there is both a Maxim's café and Maxim's Palace. Be sure to go to Maxim's Palace on the higher floor to get the full experience.

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After a small bite to eat we took an informal ding ding tour. The ding dings are double decker trams. They are very small and used every day by locals to get around small distances. They share the roads with all other transportation. You hop on and pay as you get off. You need perfect change at HK $2.50 (about 30 US cents). There are different tram lines. They don't go very far, so you're not at too much risk of getting lost. We unexpectedly ended up at Western market, so we got off and walked around.

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We then took a sunset tour on the Dukling Junk boat. Junk boats were fishing boats of the 19th century. Ours had sunk to the bottom of the harbor and was restored in 2014 and used for various Jackie Chan movies. It was really beautiful to ride around the harbor at sunset with views of the metropolitan lights and green luscious hills in the background. Because the harbor is small, the wakes of other boats can have a big impact or nearby boats. Each time we were coming into a wake, the tour guide would shout "hold on, tidal wave!" It was pretty fun. The boats are so rare these days that as we pulled into the harbor tourists all rushed over to take pictures. In true Kurt fashion, Kurt started waving to everyone like he was the mayor of Hong Kong...and of course, people waved back.

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We ended the night with a shabu shabu Japanese hot pot on the Kowloon side. We wanted a traditional Chinese hot pot, but because the weather was unusually cold, we couldn't get a reservation at any of the spots. Dinner was ok, definitely cozy. It took us thirty minutes to catch a cab back to our hotel. We flagged down at least a dozen cabs that all refused to take us. We're not sure why. Some said they didn't speak English and other said they were Hong Kong island drivers. It seemed like it was because we looked like tourists and likely wanted to drive far from the happening spot we were trying to get picked up from. We eventually got into a cab without saying anything, Then told the driver where we wanted to go. He tried to kick us out, and we just wouldn't have it. We asked how much more we needed to pay him to take us back, and after a whole five minutes of arguing, he took us the 15 minute drive to our hotel.

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Before heading out to the airport the next day we woke up early for more dim sum (Kurt can't get enough steamed buns :-O). We ended up sharing a table with Stella and Sandy, a lovely couple born and raised in Hong Kong. Apparently there is an early morning special designed for seniors where each dim sum is less than US$ 1. Stella helped us order, because nothing was in English. She shared stories of Hong Kong and asked us questions about work and our travels. It was nice getting to know some locals briefly, and learn more about what living in Hong Kong is like.

Hong Kong was a new experience different from our prior mainland experiences. We probably wouldn't go back another time purely for pleasure (since it's so far from LA), but have found it the closest proxy to NYC that we've ever experienced.

Posted by kgula 18:05 Archived in Hong Kong Tagged hong_kong ding_dings Comments (2)

Yippee Ki-yay in Taipei

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I am writing you from a Taiwanese customs prison....

Just kidding.

Customs at Taipei's airport was actually really easier, probably even easier than getting back into the US most of the time. It's about an hour drive from the international airport into Taipei and since we arrived super early (sometime between 7 and 8am local time) there were no rooms available, so after freshening up and trying a machine served mile tea at the hotel, we headed out to explore the city for a bit.

The first stop was the National Palace Museum - which involved a nice little metro to bus transfer combo that was relatively easy to pull off for two jetlagged Americans. As we exited the bus, and bus driver dressed in a traditional American Santa costume said merry Christmas and handed out small candies to everyone. Whenever that bus line came by we called it the Christmas bus, although other drivers did not appear to share the same zeal for the Western holiday. The National Palace Museum holds antiques from Taiwan and mainland China and sits on top of small hill, surrounded by mountains in the distance. It seemed like it was national field trip day with hundreds of well behaved uniformed elementary school-aged kids shuffling along in single file while giggling at the two tall white people trying to blend in. I assume they thought Bruce Willis was in town to film a new Die Hard - Yippee-Ki Yay in Taipei.

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Feeling a mix of hunger and jetlag we decided to stop in an inviting little restaurant under a bridge and outside of the main metro stop. This was our first of many hot bowls of liquid in which we placed a variety of meat and vegetables to cook and look around nervously until someone at the restaurant hurriedly rushes over to inform us that we're about to overcook our cabbage and bean sprouts.

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From there, we were off to see the Taipei Confucius Temple and the Paean Temple. They were both stunning and it is always striking to find these types of temples in the center of a modern urban city.

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Lots of small statues and cartoon characters across the city, as seen below

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Important time to note that people in Taiwan (really) love motorbike/scooters

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After we checked in, we had some time to relax before figuring out our way to one of Taipei's night markets, Raohe (it was recommended by Karly's friend Fiona). The best part of this night market is the beef pepper bun, which is served out of a stall at the very beginning of the market and hard to miss due to the long line and delicious smells.

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Due to all the travel and late check-in, we weren't up to stay out very late and headed back to try and get some sleep. We were up early in the morning and used the ancient travelers guide called Yelp to find a walkable breakfast place. On the way, I found a few friends that agreed to take a selfie with me, very nice folks in Taiwan!

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Apparently the ole Yelp is also American biased abroad because the breakfast spot serves a weird interpretation of an American-style breakfast along with some milk tea. Pretty, pretty good...

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Unfortunately, the dong cake place was closed. Still not sure what these are and this is not the only place we saw these cakes advertised for sale. Very weird considering the rest of the country and advertisements feel very censored and conservative.

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Before heading out to the airport, we made one more stop at a beautiful temple inside one of the busier parts of the city, Longshun Temple. There was a full ceremony of some sort happening, so unfortunately no pics from inside the temple but it was quite the experience.

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Before heading out, I took a Facebook-appropriate pic with my homie, also known as Horse in the Lobby.

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Posted by kgula 05:35 Archived in Taiwan Tagged taipei americans_in_taipei beef_pepper_bun taipei_temples Comments (2)

On the way to Taipei

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So... we're on hour 12 of our 14 hour flight to Taipei.

Travels started out pretty solid with a toast of champagne at LAX and stretching out in my discrete low key travel apparel (note: not my LV luggage, just my crazy shoes and Bieber-like tapered sweatpants - which is probably worse):

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For the long flight across the Pacific, over Hawaii, over and past Japan we had a nice little setup that allowed for us to stretch out and get some sleep.

Karly was excited.... about the champagne...

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...and the slippers...

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And... the movies?

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Ok, let's just say Karly is very excited to start our trip.

We've been busy planning our longer stays on this trip. But for Taipei, we actually land at 6am local time with not much on the agenda outside of night market recommendations in the evening. Thank goodness for Google... you can hop on a plane to Asia and figure out your itinerary on the way.

One slight concern is that on our customs forms for entry in Taiwan it asks for a visa # and info. Aaaaaaaaaand we don't have visas for Taiwan. So let's hope that America's generous diplomacy grants us access (otherwise I retract my earlier praise for Google answering procrastinated questions).

Posted by kgula 15:48 Archived in Taiwan Comments (2)

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