Thursday, December 30, 2010

Country #85: My night with a demonic kangaroo.

It was not my intent to sleep in a room with a Hades-sent marsupial, but when I wrote to Dalat's Hang Nga hotel and requested the Termite Room, I was told it was unavailable. Instead, they offered to put me in the Kangaroo Room. Desperate as I was to stay in this hotel, I accepted. The truth is they could have offered to put me in the Rabid Dingo room and my reply would have been the same.

The hotel, named after its architect, Dang Viet Nha, is more commonly known by a perfectly understandable moniker, The Crazy House. I had seen it on a number of Weirdest Hotels lists and now that I was spending 24 days touring Vietnam, I knew that at least one of those nights would have to be spend in this hallucinogenic fun house.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

An Afternoon with the Queen

No, not Elizabeth and her corgis.  And not the new shiny-haired forerunner, Catherine, either.  This particular Queen may be far under the radar but she is way hipper, keeps funner company and is infinitely more likely to have hallucinogenic fungi within her possession.  She is Queen Califia, a mythical Amazon warrior queen, whose legend is tied to that of an island replete with gold and other riches.  One version of the story has the Spaniard, Hernan Cortes going in search of this island and instead finding himself in the land that would eventually bear her name: California

Today, this lady bad-ass has been immortalized in the center of a befittingly trippy sculptural garden which was financed and created by Niki de Saint Phalle, a woman whose work I've featured here before (in Switzerland and Nice).  For reasons that no amount of googling has revealed, the French-born Ms. de Saint Phalle chose to tuck this dreamscape in the middle of a municipal park in the aptly named city of Escondido, California.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Laissez les bon temps roulez.

Way back in my college days, my friend Francisco was legendary for his parties. He was (and still is) a witty conversationalist, a talented artist, a kind and giving person and much more. However, this was all of little concern. When Francisco’s name came up, none of his finer qualities were discussed; one’s thoughts immediately turned to the inspired debauchery that surely lay ahead.

There is a reason he came to mind last week. Thanks to the gods of good parties (and to be fair, my company’s scheduling dept.), I recently wound up in New Orleans on a Friday night. With me, were some colleagues who had never been to this fine city. I was excited for them and wanted to share my enthusiasm. I should have crowed about Nawlins' immediately recognizable architecture, the rich and varied history (they have as a local heroine a deceased voodoo priestess!!), the (very decidedly non-veggie) Cajun cuisine that people rave about and on and on. There were so many things that come to mind, but instead I prepared them by promising the big 3: blues, booze and beads. In other words, I Francisco’ed the city of New Orleans.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

When in Birmingham...

...some creativity may be required.  There is no automatic "Oh, I'm going to Paris? I can't wait to see the Louvre" kind of reaction that takes place when one is informed that they will have a full day to kill in Alabama.  There is only a quiet dread and visions of wandering aimlessly through a Cracker Barrel.  Perhaps this is only me, but the problem is I hate Cracker Barrel and am much too restless to sit in a hotel room watching reality tv, so obviously something had to give.

That something was a fortuitous combination of an article on one of my favorite websites, Roadside America, and some suggestions from my uber-cool friend, Julie.  They both pointed me in the direction of Vulcan, the largest cast iron sculpture in the world, which is perfect as the promise of the largest anything is usually enough to get my attention.  His story is also pretty great.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cappadocia- as seen from a more earthly perspective.

As enjoyable as it was to soar over Cappadocia in a hot air balloon, the limited amount of fuel (not to mention the lack of a bathroom, kitchen or bar on board) dictated that we had to return to terra firma, sooner or later. This left me with nearly four days to explore the tiny town of Goreme and its surroundings. I was on my own and the daytime temperatures hovered in the 105 degree range, so I was not very motivated to do the public bus shuffle all over this very scenic desert. Instead, I opted to join the two ubiquitous tours offered by every hotel, hostel, tour agency and/ or street-side carnival barker.

I set mine up at what has to be one of the coolest hostels I have ever stayed in. As with most of the accommodations in the area, Yasin's Backpackers Cave Hotel is located inside one of the rock formations. This means that some of the rooms, mine included, are actually natural caves. Uh huh, that's right, I spent my vacation sleeping in a cave. That alone would have this trip a success.  And before anyone has visions of prehistoric-era deprivations, I should point out that my cave had free wifi, something that the four star hotel I am writing this from currently lacks, and managed to remain cool and comfortable when everyplace else was roughly the temperature of the sun itself.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Flying high over Cappadocia

I'd watched videos, I'd scrolled through a bazillion photos, I'd made half a dozen attempts to get here, but finally on August 15th, 2010, I was on my way to board a hot air balloon and soar over the surrealist landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey.  It was something I had been wanting to do for so long, and it was so disturbingly early (5am!), that I remained in a perpetual haze as a Spanish couple and I made our way to the Voyager Balloons office.

I assumed I had an idea as to what would take place next. We would be served coffee and hopefully pastries (the presence of pastries was, for me, to be the determining factor into whether the hostel had steered me towards a legitimate or a Mickey Mouse balloon company), asked to sign some releases and be given a safety briefing that most of us would snooze through. I was joyfully right on  the one count that mattered.  There were pastries, some kind of cheese rolls, Turkish breads...Yasin's Backpackers Cave had done me right.  It soon became clear that there was some concern on the part of the staff, but it had nothing to do with releases or safety briefings, neither of which materialized.  They were agitated to the point of fixation on the unlikely topic of penmanship.  We had been asked to write our names, and this was stressed, neatly on a sign-in sheet.  The Spaniards had not complied to the staff's satisfaction and were now being asked to re-write their names. It was suggested that the female half of the duo give it a shot this time. The reason for such consternation was that there were to be certificates handed out at the end of the flight. They did not want to take any chances on having typos on said certificates.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Hup Holland Hup: The week I became a Sports Fan...

It's another summer in Amsterdam, another opportunity to drink good beer, eat excellent cheese and hop/skip around Europe visiting places yet unseen and/or possibly revisit old favorites. Yet, here I am 3 weeks into the summer and I have only partaken of 2 out of 3. I have yet to leave Holland.  The reason for this unimaginable lapse: La Copa Mundial aka the World Cup aka that big ass game that took place in South Africa and permanently embedded Waka Waka into my brain.

By the time we arrived in the Netherlands, the men in orange had already qualified for the Quarter Finals against Brazil. My Dutch friends and acquaintances were justly proud and were near universal in their resigned acceptance that they was going to get crushed by Brazil. No other outcomes were seriously entertained. As a result, I got my first lesson in football. Apparently, Brazil ees berry, berry good.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Kayaking with(out) Orcas

Like every other sentient being on this planet, I have a long list of things I want to do/ places I want to see that I never seem to get around to. It is only when I find myself with a lot of time on my hands and feeling restless (the two do generally go hand in hand) that I started mentally reviewing this list, eager to go into planning mode. This is what happened to me last month, when crap weather had me stuck in a hotel room in Leipzig (or soggy and looking for Hefeweisens, but that's another story). While surfing the internet, I stumbled upon a saved link about kayaking with Orcas in the San Juan Islands, something that has always been high on the afore-mentioned list. I sent said link to my friend, Diana. Diana was enthused. I was enthused. We were going kayaking.

I called and set up the tour with the helpful people at SeaQuest. They responded by e-mailing me a comprehensive list of what to bring, what to expect, even a helpful suggestion that I might want to consider working out some (under the "physical condition" portion of their paperwork, I replied "somewhere between couch potato and semi-active couch potato"). They also seemed to be very intent on us bringing the proper footwear, I would go as far as saying they were a bit fixated. So, expert shopper that I am, I went online and ordered, sight unseen, a pair of green water shoes. What awaited when I returned from Leipzig was a pair of the brightest neon green monstrosities I'd ever seen. I have no photos of the offending fashion faux pas, but if any of my Floridian friends noticed a bright green glow in the night time sky, off in the Northwestern distance during Memorial Day weekend, I say 'You're welcome.'

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Luck o' the Irish meets the Cliffs of Moher

Last Friday, I got on a plane bound for Leipzig. But since I was still on a month-long journey of the unexpected, of course, I ended up in Shannon, Ireland instead. At this point, there were only two viable options: lament the cancelled plans in Leipzig or get busy making news plans in Shannon. OK, scratch that. There was only one viable option.

With the help of the hotel staff, we quickly lined up a driver and guide to take us to the ever elusive Cliffs of Moher. I should stop here to acknowledge that it is a bit odd to describe Ireland’s most visited attraction, which has existed for 300 million years or so as ‘elusive’, but I have been trying to get to this place for ages and something (usually a combination of not enough time and/ or Guinness on tap) has always intervened. These Cliffs have eluded the hell out of me.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Good, the Bad, the Mongolia

Ulaanbaatar is an ugly city.  I say this with full awareness of the subjectivity of beauty.  I appreciate the cultural norms and probably biased expectations that I possess.  I take into account the effect that my mood, at any given moment,  can have on my perceptions. Yet, even factoring all of this together, I return to the same conclusion ‘Tis an ugly city Or as my niece would say “U-G-L-Y! You ain’t got no alibi! You’re ugly!..”, but she is a bit of a bully like that.

The prevailing architectural trend is standard Communist-era block buildings.  The main road, Peace Avenue, is beset with the Asian equivalent of strip malls. The use of bright colors appears to be frowned upon.  And this may have been specific to the time I was there, but a persistent dust storm had everyone and everything finely coated in a layer of gritty sand.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Country #84: Georgia on my Mind

This latest adventure that began with the Killer Volcano of 2010 gifting me with surprise visits to Abu Dhabi and Kuwait continues. I was slated to hang out in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan for a few days, where there was no ash plume anywhere on the horizon. Instead, they went one better and had an all-out Presidential coup, which continues to flare up into violent street protests a mere couple of blocks from our hotel.

Instead of risking ending up as CNN's resident tourist on the scene, we were thus re-routed to Tbilisi, Georgia. My first reaction was delight with this chance to add to my Country Count (#84, Baby!). The rampant tales I'd heard about the exceptional quality of Georgian wines factored into my excitement, as well. But based on noting more than misguided speculation, I expected the capital city to possess the same dour grayness that inhabits most of Bishkek.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Yabba Dabba Abu Dhabi. Or what to do when you are Ku-waiting on a flight.

Early last week, I had simple plans. I was going to take a job-related flight to Athens, spend the night, eat some olives, drink some raki and continue on the next morning to Heraklion to do more of the same. These were plans I was perfectly content with and which I entertained up until the moment I arrived, bags packed, boarding passes in hand at the starting point for this journey, Miami International Airport.

It was here that I was claimed as yet one more victim of the ash cloud of 2010. Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport was one of the few European airports still receiving and dispatching flights, but Delta Airlines, in what appeared to be a fit of frustration, threw up their hands and declared "Fuck it! No flights to anywhere in Europe. Period."

Thus began my unexpected detour through the Middle East, in an ultimately successful attempt to eventually reach European shores.

We were quickly routed to New York's JFK, where we boarded a direct flight to that lesser known Emirate, Abu Dhabi. It happened so quickly, I wasn't even able to try and contact my UAE friends (sorry Sans and MAI east folks, this is what happens when you are woefully unprepared for schedule changes).

Monday, March 29, 2010

I wouldn't say it's better in the Bahamas, but it could be worse...

The day before last, I had a day off in Nassau, a criminally over-developed island habitually besieged by sun-burned cruise ship passengers and bored Miamians fresh off of gambling junkets. Not surprisingly, it is not my top pick for a vacation destination, but when in Rome, or some such cliché… In other words, I had no choice but to make the best of it.

My generic chain hotel had hand written signs at the activity desks offering a snorkeling/ lunch/ booze cruise for $60.  I like snorkeling, have a habit of eating lunch when time permits and am loathe to turn down an open bar, so this was among the easier decisions I had made this week.

The passengers on board were a mixture of spring breakers, Midwestern cruise folks and assorted singles, such as myself, Ekaterina, the Brazilian girl on a beach destination tour of the Caribbean and Alex, the Kenyan banking whiz on a last lost weekend before taking a new job in New York.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Country #83: Ten reasons you should stop what you are doing and visit Cartagena right now.

1. The walled city is a UNESCO world heritage site and justifiably so. It is one of those places that has, in an odd twist of fate, benefited from years of poverty. The historic fortifications and colonial architecture were never subjected to the whims of modernization and thus remain in much the same state as they were in 16th and 17th century.

It is still possible to walk along the walls and ramparts admiring, to one side, the Caribbean and to the other, the colorful historic town. When that gets old, one can visit museums dedicated to the gold or emerald trade, or less romantically, to the practices of the Inquisition. Or if museums are not to your liking, it is possible to simply stroll through the charming little lanes, knowing that in a town this small, the probability of getting lost (even for the directionally challenged, such as myself) is slim.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Amritsar: the final chapter

At this point, it has now taken me longer to blog about India than it did to actually plan and go on the trip itself. It would be nice to wax poetic about how this is due to the indescribable beauty and mystery we witnessed throughout our travels, but the truth lies closer to the facts that twelve cities= twelve blog posts and I am a procrastinator. Those immutable impediments aside, I have finally reached the end of the Indian adventure.

On the same day that Laura and Lena were boarding flights home, I was hopping a train up to Amritsar, the holiest Sikh city in the northern region of Punjab. It was now late December and the temperature was dropping sharply, which combined with exhaustion from a pretty hectic schedule, had me sick and coughing like tuberculosic chain smoker. This was justifiably stressing the mother of the sweet, quiet boy who was seated next to me on the train for a five hour ride. I felt bad for them both every time she came over to the boy with a new batch of vitamins for him to take.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Delhi Dilemma

There is the old refrain “Leave the best for last” and then there is our approach to the city of Delhi which went more along the lines of “Put it off until you can’t put it off no more.” We heard and read so many discouraging things about this major city, from tourists and Indians alike, that we would have been perfectly content to skip it altogether.

The problem was that when determining a route through India, we had to account for the fact that three travelers were coming from three different parts of the world (in our case, the US, Romania and the Ukraine) and had no choice but to meet there. This did not mean, however, that we had to stay there. I flew into Delhi direct from Chicago and after a brief eight hour stay in a hostel whose décor could best be described as “prison chic”, I met the girls at the domestic terminal where we immediately boarded a flight for Varanasi.

Three weeks later, we had reached the point where we had been to nine cities in Northern India and our time was running out. Based on logistic necessity, we were to end back where we started, in dreaded Delhi. We gave ourselves three days of sightseeing and last minute errands before my friends headed home and I took a train to my last stop, Amritsar.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Dresden Escape

I interrupt the India travelogue, which I regret is taking way too long to write, to post February's adventure of the month, lest anyone think I have spent the last two months doing nothing but dreaming of India.  Well, there has been some of the that, but there has also been some of this....

The scenario: Stuck in Halle, Germany, a town seriously challenging my belief that it is impossible to get bored in Europe with no work on the horizon for the next 24 hours and limited access to the internet. My only foreseeable options were to find a way out of Halle (pronounced “Hell”…I am certain of it) and save my sanity or to stay and perhaps take up knitting. Considering I hear carrying knitting needles through airport security is a bit of a bitch, I opted for a rental car.

Monday, February 15, 2010

I Heart Udaipur

This is the 10th post, so far, about our travels through India and frankly, I feel like I have run out of ways to describe forts, temples and cenotaphs.

It is a short-coming on my part,to be sure, because for all their similarities, each one has something new and unique to offer, but my vocabulary for stone carvings, towering forts and vast views only goes so far. In search of inspiration, I went back and re-read my journal entries for our next destination, Udaipur. On day one, I wrote no fewer than four variations of "I think I am going to like this place".

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ranakpur: Let's just call it the "Wow Temple".

What do you do when India's 2nd largest Jain temple stands between you and your next scheduled stop? Easy, you hire a car and break up your drive with the coolest rest stop ever. The massive temple located in Ranakpur, midway between Jodhpur and Udaipur, is built entirely of marble and boasts 1444 carved columns with no two alike (well, maybe a couple are alike but no two are identical).

We were there when the doors opened to visitors and stayed for what felt like minutes, but was probably closer to hours. I walked around completely awestruck, marvelling at the workmanship and artistry of each column, trying in vain to absorb each and every detail.

As with the temples at Khajuraho, it was incomprehensible to me that prior to my research on India, I was not familiar with this site. And it is wonder-of-the-world level amazing! Were the temple anywhere else, it would be a major star attraction, but my theory is that India possesses such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to architectural beauty that some things are unjustly left by the wayside.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Singing the happy Jodhpur blues

A sleeper train with bunks stacked three high brought us to our eighth stop, Jodhpur. Known as the blue city, not for its love of emotion-filled guitar-heavy music or the residents' inordinate sadness, but for the indigo blue tint used to paint many of its buildings, it is one of those places where you just know you can not take a bad photograph. The tiny cow-clogged lanes look so artfully distressed that you could swear that a team of decorators had recently come through with the latest shabby chic manual in hand.

Our hotel lay smack in the middle of all that blueness at the foot of the Mehrangarh Fort, so even our pre-dawn arrival was not enough to keep me still for more than an hour or two. As soon as the sun peaked over the horizon, Laura and I were making our steep ascent up the hill, trying to keep an accurate count of how many ancient gates we had passed through, lest we bypass the entrance to the fort itself. Apparently, we were approaching from the back side, leading everyone to caution us about not missing a turn after the fourth (or was it fifth?) gate.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Desert Dwelling in Jaisalmer

It had been awhile since a new location usurped the title of "favorite Indian city... so far". Orchha was still hanging on strong but tragically for them, our 7th stop was Jaisalmer. Set in the thick of the Thar desert, Jaisalmer is something out of an arid fairy tale or as Lonely Planet puts it, a sand castle with a city attached.

From the moment that we stepped off our over-crowded dusty bus and found a man with a bright Shahi Palace sign to the welcome drink that awaited us on the rooftop of the hotel, it was clear that this was the perfect place to kick back and relax.

The hotel sits in the shadow of the aforementioned sand castle, or as it is better known, the Jaisalmer Fort, offering spectacular views from its rooftop lounge. Naturally, it is common to find backpackers hanging out on the multi-hued pillows at all hours enjoying the vista and kicking back on some spiced coffees. And to be clear, by spiced coffees, I mean Kingfisher beer. By this point, I had caught on to the fact that no one actually has a liquor license in India. At first I was concerned to see that most menus did not list adult beverages. Turns out this is not a problem.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Bikaner: Rats, rats, rats

I know I am not a normal tourist. The more offbeat and unusual an attraction is, the more I am drawn to it. In Paris, I made the obligatory trip to the Eiffel Tower, but it was the Sewer Museum that excited me most. My friend, AJ, still complains about a day sightseeing in LA that ended up in Watts (aka 'the hood') to see towers made of rebar and broken tile that had been erected by a local eccentric. I have dragged a carload of co-workers to the Funeral Museum in Houston. I live for this kind of stuff.

Knowing this, it is no surprise how excited I was at the chance to visit the Karni Mata temple in Deshnoke. It is better known as the "rat temple", for its 20,000 or so furry rodents hanging out waiting to be fed and/ or venerated.

Jaipur: The Pink Shopping Mall

I am of two minds when it comes to Jaipur, the fifth stop on our journey throughout Northern India. On one hand, while I was there, I was extremely frustrated at the absurd amount of time wasted shopping, or to put it more accurately, sitting listlessly in stores. Our driver, Amar, had the unenviable task of making one avid shopper, one complete non-shopper and Laura, who could go either way, happy. Jaipur being a city well versed in shoving commerce down a visitor's throat, he usually opted for the path of least resistance and took us to a textile factory or a jewelry wholesaler or an antiques market or some other ring of Hell that I wanted no part of. I loathed it and by association, I loathed Jaipur and any moment not spent in a temple, fort or palace.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

...but you have to see the Taj Mahal

Our fourth stop was in Agra, the 'but' city. I call it that because everyone, Indian and traveller alike, will tell you what an unpleasant place it is, only to add "but you have to see the Taj Mahal". Following the spirit of the earlier India posts, this would be where I discredit this unfair myth and talk about how Agra is not really so bad. Let me tell you right now, that is not going to happen. The warnings and disclaimers are there for a reason.

To begin with, Agra has to be one of the smoggiest cities I have ever seen. It's so bad that when we got off the train, we were sure there was a fire raging nearby. Our driver assured us there was no fire, this is just what the air in Agra looks like, air with the consistency of pea soup. Later, we went to a rooftop cafe that promised a Taj view and had to ask where, exactly, the Taj was. When someone pointed, all we saw was haze, no Taj. It didn't help that, even though it is the one building that everyone thinks of when you mention India, it is not lit up at night.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Better to be lucky than to be good: the Orchha Story

There are some decisions that are inspired and then there are those that are just plain dumb luck. Going to Orchha falls squarely into the latter category. None of the early versions of our itinerary had any mention of a stop in Orchha. The plan was to board a bus in Khajuraho and some twelve hours later, disembark in Agra. Laura and I had agreed to this and finalized the plans but as the date got closer, the prospect of such a long travel day was making me prematurely cranky. In hopes of changing this, I hit the guidebooks and the blogs searching for a suitable point inbetween that I could somehow pitch at this late date.

Orchha immediately jumped to the forefront. The town has the standard combo of a fort, a palace and some Hindu temples, but where it gets a big gold star is in the fact that the palace doubles as a hotel and an affordable one, at that. A night living the life of a Maharani was something I could sell, even it meant we would have to cut short our stay in Khajuraho. With that as my weapon, I tossed the monkey wrench squarely into our carefully thought-out plans and Laura, to her credit, didn't flinch (I think the palace helped) and Plan 2.0 was born.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Khajuraho: The Land of Kinky Temples

My second stop, Khajuraho, led to the emergence of a pattern that would continue throughout the rest of our India travels. Of course, since it was the first occurence, at this point, it was not yet a recognizable pattern. I honestly believed that Khajuraho was and would remain my very favorite city in India.

I loved the tranquility and accessibility of this small town and the temples we had come to see were remarkable beyond all expectations. It was unfathomable to me that any place on our itinerary could surpass this one. That is, until I got to the next city and felt the need to proclaim that one my all-time favorite, bestest place ever. I did this a total of four times.