A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Friday, October 30, 2009

Back to Delhi

On the last leg of what they call the Golden Triangle (traveling from Delhi-Jaipur-Agra back to Delhi), the train ride was a total fiasco. We had a hard time reading the ticket and asked for help determining the track number. A nice fellow with heavily accented English and a leathery face, told us the train would be leaving in 15 minutes on track 4. Moments later, we arrived at the track and saw a train for New Delhi about to depart. Asking a boy in uniform if this was indeed our train and car, which said HL1 instead of H1. He directed us inside and to a compartment that, again, didn’t quite match up to our ticket. The train took off and I thought the worse thing that could happen was we would have to move to our correct car. Instead, we were on the wrong train altogether!

The conductor was very unhappy with us. Basically saying we had to get off the next stop or pay a fortune to cover a penalty charge and then buy a new ticket for this train. But it’s the same class car going to the same destination, surely we shouldn’t have to buy a new ticket?! The next “stop”, if you can even call it that seeing as it didn’t have a platform or corresponding town built up around it, came and went. The conductor came back and lectured us about an additional fine now because we couldn‘t follow instructions. I felt about 8 years old. How were we to know that our express train would even stop at that stop, it looked like a ghost town. Finally, he begrudgingly relented into letting us stay until Mathura (birthplace of Lord Krishna), a large train hub.

We were booted off the train to wait for our train that was supposedly 20 minutes behind us. I watched the shoddy electronic overhead board, it’s lite n brite bulbs flickering on and off, struggling to illuminate the train schedule, and was informed it would be late by 45 minutes. An hour and half later, I went back and our train no longer was displayed on the board! What happened?! The train apparently came and went and we didn’t get on it. We watched the incoming trains like a hawk, and even had two extra pairs of eyes as two British girls also mistakenly boarded the wrong train (see, we’re not the only losers!). We may have been a little distracted by the sheer madness of the crowds boarding the 3rd class cars. How enteriaining it was to see if someone else could, in fact, muscle their way onto vastly overcrowded cars.

We went from office to office in the train station trying to plead our case and explain our predicament. Some told us to go buy a new ticket. Others just stared mouth slightly agape with no reply at all (my favorite). We found one kind soul that explained the train probably came on the track behind us. Apparently track 2 means track 2 or track 3. A hard lesson learned in the nuances of the Indian train system. After some serious wheeling and dealing with the many official looking officials, he helped us get the all-important stamp on our ticket that allowed us to board any train heading to Delhi. So in the end, we just needed a stupid stamp.

We boarded the next train and shared a car with a nice older couple originally from India not living in the UK, that were quite the pair. We munched on samosas, sipped chai tea, and watched their well rehearsed joint story-telling in awe, as they finished each others sentences and snorted in playful contempt at each others idiosyncrasies that they must have been enduring for half a century. The train was running late (of course) and kept getting further and further behind. Another 9 hour train ride that should have been only 5. I’m beginning to realize that doubling our expected travel time is the rule, and arriving on time is the rare (and unexperienced) exception. The black swan of extended world travel.

Finally to Delhi, we holed up at Welcome Palace Hotel where we rented a shabby but wonderful suite with wireless internet connection and separate living room decorated in garish gold and aqua polyester fabric. We ordered room service, worked on the blog, and uploaded photos for two days. Trying desperately to get (and feel) a little organized before heading off to Nepal.

The hotel was in the Karol Bagh area of Delhi which is much easier to handle than the main bazaar. Although, we ventured out once to find the McDonalds (yes, I know, its cheating) and promptly got lost and turned around. We must have had the map upside down because when we finally asked for directions we were so far away we caved in and took a rickshaw. Through the soot and chaos, I saw the welcoming beacon of the golden arches, like a giant neon yellow dove in flight, heralding good chow ahead. Being in a Hindu nation, they didn’t serve any beef or pork products. That is no Big Macs or McRibs or slightly unHappy Meals.

I have to say that fries without the secret ingredient of beef extract was not as satisfying alongside my McChicken. I really think it adds to the intoxicating smell and ensuing full-body craving for a supersize portion. Like the “natural flavoring” is really a little bit of Detroit crack. It was good nonetheless, especially to have something different. We always thought we would never get tired of Indian food because we love it so much, but 3 meals a day for 3 weeks and I could eat a bucket full of chicken nuggets, no problem. Pass the honey mustard, please. I’ll make a bib from my napkin.

Me and my "other" Ron....shhhhhhhhhhhh.


Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Taj Mahal

We finally left Jaipur after 8 nights on another early morning train bound for Agra, the city of the magnificent Taj Mahal. And was it magnificent! The first night we opted to see it at sunset from across the Yamuna River. Instead of paying to view it from the park at Mehtab Bagh, we followed a dirt path down by the riverbed to take in the view. Because of the far distance from the Taj Mahal, the actual sunset stole the show.

The river was quite a bit lower than expected, but we saw some religious ceremonies taking place but weren’t allowed to get very close to the action. It did involve more fireworks and a mélange of colorful dresses reflecting off the river.

The rickshaw ride back to our hotel in the dusk and traffic was nail biting, as usual. Check out this cool guy we almost sideswiped.

We stayed at Maya Hotel, which wins our unofficial travel award for best room upkeep, best value and best food in India. With a friendly owner to boot! For 900 rupees ($19) a night, it may have tottered past the shoestring budget category but it was so clean and well cared for. Ron was in heaven with the nice lacquered paint jobs and finish details. I loved the big marble bed and overall room design felt so peacefully calm. I wished we stay longer.

The next morning we rose early again. See, this travel business is not all sleeping, lounging around, and goofing off. We are on a mission to see the world, so we must get up early, with the cackling birds and the mooing cows (and don't forget, the scampering cockroaches when you flick on the light). You must be up well before the crowds and the tour buses arrive. Of course, then we can run back to the hotel and take long naps and sip spiced chai tea for the rest of the afternoon. Mmmmm, that sounds good right now! Be back in a minute.... Okay. We got to the Taj (we are on a first name basis now) by 6am but the line was already a football field in length. So much for being early birds!

There were separate entrance lines for men and women. For once, this segregation gave me a good deal, I got a much shorter line. But then I saw a sign telling us we had to put our electronics in a locker and ended up rushing off to lock up our illegal items - ipods, camera chargers, and even my solar calculator. God forbid, I calculate the square root of 43 in the shadow of the Taj - an unholy, forbidden act.

To get in the festive spirit, I wore the salwar kameez again from Diwali. It was so comfy, like wearing pajamas, I really could wear it everyday but it is a little tight and bursting at the seams in places. With some quick stitching, I may get two more wearings out of it.

The Taj Mahal was started in 1631 and took 2000 craftsmen 22 years to complete. It was built as the tomb for Mumtaj Mahal, the wife of Emperor Shahjahan, who died during the birth of their 14th child. They were very busy. The emperor was so heartbroken by her death, he built her the most beautiful resting place in the world (and arguably still is) as a tribute to his great love. How's that for romantic?! Ron may think Valentine's day is a pressure cooker now, but my standards have just tripled.

There are a number of fascinating architectural features - it is identical in every detail from each of the four sides. And optical illusions - the quaranic inscriptions on the façade of the entrances increase ever so slightly in height, so to the viewer at ground level it appears totally uniform.

It really is a dazzling vision in gleaming white marble, and one of the few wonders that isn’t the slightest disappointing once you finally see it. We gladly parted with the 750 rupee ($16) entrance fee. One thing though, I was surprised at how much smaller the inside feels in comparison to the grand visage of the exterior. Perhaps another crafty illusion from the architects. As is this picture (flipped upside down) off one of the reflection pools, that Ron is quite pleased with, and tells me so over and over convincing me of its “blog worthiness”. I have to admit it is a pretty darn visually interesting shot, but these are the little things we debate excitedly about over our nightly curry....


Friday, October 23, 2009

Passing Around a Bad Cold

After the high of Diwali, I awoke the next day feeling horrible with a bad sore throat. It was to be the worst cold I’ve had in years, knocking me out flat for nearly five days, leaving me with a lingering runny nose and cough for two more weeks.

We would watch a dozen movies on HBO (along with a thousand recurring commercials). Somehow they get away with playing commercials on movie channels here and unapologetically even play the same one multiple times in a row. I can now recite the entire Samsung Corby commercial by heart, “I’m with her…she’s with him…he’s with her…they’re all with me…” sung with a lame reverb. When the commercial came on, you could see Ron flying through the air in a double twisting tuck roll onto the bed, tumbling off with the remote in his right hand, thumb pressed firmly to the mute button before the second beat sounded. Apparently bad music can make musicians defy gravity in crazy feats of acrobatics when they are provoked.

We ordered tons of room service. And Mangu, the front desk guy we befriended, was so concerned he called us and then stopped by every day to see if I was okay. It was a sweet thought (starting to verge on stalkerish) but I felt like death warmed over so I would hide in the bathroom or feign sleep. This probably added to the mystery and extent of my illness. After the third day, Ron started to feel ill too. Though not as severe, we layed low for several more days and avoided the streets as best we could.

Once we were both a little better and certifiably stir crazy, we went to an indoor store, called Big Bazaar. Like an Indian Target, we spent hours wandering and browsing as you find yourself doing in places like that. Telling yourself you really need xyz even though it never crossed your mind once until just that second. We stocked up on some necessary supplies: underwear, sunscreen, deodorant and wholly unnecessary ones: pringles, lipstick (and when am I going to where this?), a 6 pack of handkerchiefs (y’know one for each of the six of us).

All the food in India is categorized and advertised as Veg or Non Veg. It’s a moral decision you are forced to make on a daily basis. Are you sure you can have a clear conscience eating meat with delicious, wholesome vegetarian food readily available on every street corner? Do you really want to be known as an evil Non Veg person? You betcha.

With an uninterrupted week of various veg curries from the hotel restaurant we took the walk of shame with our heads held high. We got a recommendation for a restaurant (or open flame on the roadside) called Talk of the Town which served the best tandoori we’ve ever had in our lives. Oh my god! So good and so spicy the red sauce burnt your fingers. Your lips smacking wildly, aflame in a fury of tender chicken goodness. Happily amongst the patrons spilling out on the street, screaming "Viva Non Veg!"

Rewinding the time one hour, we were walking on the side of a busy street on our way to the heavenly tandoori. I see a guy on a motorcycle approaching. He veers across three lanes of traffic and slows down right in front of me. Is he pulling over? I wonder, as he comes closer. I think he may run into me or fall over on me. Is he having a mechanical issue? And then it happens. He reaches out and grabs my left breast, smirks, and then speeds off. I was victim to my very first drive-by boobie grab. It happened so fast, and I was taken so off guard, I didn’t have time to react. But next time, I’ll be ready to deck the guy and steal his bike. I could break one of these skinny Indian guys in half. Go ahead, make my day,….punk.
Apparently grabbing is not all that uncommon here. Now I know why it was a such an important victory in the news recently - women jubilantly rejoicing to finally have a "female only" express train in Mumbai. If this could happen to me openly on a public street, I can't imagine what goes unchecked aboard the crowded trains.


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Happy Diwali!

Today is Diwali, the biggest Hindu festival of the year. Diwali is like our Christmas, New Years, and the 4th of July all rolled into one. In Hinduism, Diwali marks the return of Lord Raama to his kingdom after 14 years and defeat of the Demon King. Often called the festival of lights, the streets and homes are lit up with burning candles and lamps. It is the time to clean the house to welcome and worship Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. There is a generous spirit, affectionate visits between friends and family, and the exchanging of small gifts.

Amit picked us up and we went to Amber Fort, an impressive fortress with walls climbing the hills like the great wall of china (or so I think since I‘ve never been to china…yet). We hoped to ride an elephant but the handlers, smartly, took the day off to celebrate. Instead we walked around and took in the views. I saw a taxi driver yell at a monkey and throw water on him. Disgusted, I followed the monkey to see what all the fuss was about and found out they are cheeky little devils that will snatch anything they can get their paws on. There was a tree-full of them (better than a barrelful) leaping onto the walls, finding a victim to scare and steal their chiapati before making an acrobatic escape. Amit and I got a little too comfortable sitting on the wall, blocking their escape route that one nearly leapt off our backs.

On the way back we saw the Jal Mahal Palace. It was so beautiful reflecting off the water. I always wanted to live by a lake, but to live on a lake is a level of seclusion Ron and I would both love right about now, being two home-bodies forced out into the world for 5 months and counting. Ah, the nightly row back to our water palace. That sounds mighty good.

Now was time to get ready for the evening festivities. The moment I dreaded. After the dress disaster, I decided to buy some pink sequined shoes to wear with a dress I bought in Africa. Ron looked smashing in his white punjabi suit. Everyone complimented him, trying not to comment on what I was wearing, like they were disappointed I didn‘t even make an effort. I was dying inside.

I could see the same look in the eyes of Amit’s family when we arrived. They had surely all heard the story by now. Within minutes of arriving, I was led into the front room where auntie, mother, and sister dressed me in a burgundy salwar kameez. All my embarrassment dissolved in their knowing gazes as they transformed me silently into an Indian queen. You don’t need language to communicate what was happening, what they were so generously doing for me. Taking jewelry off themselves to place on me. Carefully applying makeup. The final touch was a dot on my third eye. It was a Cinderella moment, and infinitely superior than the best fitting tailor-made sari. Those horrible tailors did me an immense favor, I thought and smiled, surrounded by three angels. They smiled back, approvingly, at their job well done and showed me off to the rest of the house with pride.

Sister set up the altar to Ganesha and Lakshmi. and made a design in colored sand called rangoli. The ritual was fascinating with offerings of rice, perfume, and saffron paste. Then hand rolled cotten wicks were placed in terracotta bowls filled with ghee and lit up all around. We were included in the puja like any other member of the family. Circling the incense in front of the altar. Ringing a bell along with the chanting. Receiving vermillion on our foreheads and colored string on our wrists (left for women, right for men). It was a deeply touching ceremony to be so intimately allowed to see and experience.

Fireworks were lit every night for the days and weeks leading up to the crescendo of Diwali that echoed for hours with bursts of light in red, orange, and pink. At first, it was like living out a little kids fantasy - lighting giant rockets you can buy for twenty five cents that are twenty five times better than anything in Mexico. You can literally make your own KABOOM! in your backyard, and on this night a billion Indians do just that. The spent casings filling up the streets like overstuffed sofa stuffing. After a few hours of ear shattering explosions inches away from cherry bombs thrown by neighboring kids, I was ready to retreat to the sanctuary of the house. It was a wild and dangerous night to be out - near misses, close calls, cars driving too fast down streets over lit fuses exploding like hand grenades. I’m just not used to unregulated activities that can cause permanent damage, my ears still ringing the next day.

We ate dinner on the kitchen floor at half past midnight. A delicious thali made by Mom with lentils, spicy aloo, curd, soup, and piping hot chiapati. I was so hungry I only noticed after a few minutes that I was the only female eating with all the men. I guess as a guest this was the protocol but the rest of the women ate later. This left ample opportunity for Mom to lord over us and lavish as much food as possible onto our plates and into our bellies. I enjoyed sitting lotus style on the floor but Ron was cramped up and looked pained sitting on his knees.

The whole experience spending Diwali in the warmth of an Indian home was exceedingly special and tops the list as one of our best memories of the trip.


Friday, October 16, 2009

The Pink City

The three nights in Delhi went by in a blur and we were already off to the train station, headed to Jaipur. Up at 4:45am, as usual on travel days, we had mostly packed the night before, everything snug in its usual place, a well practiced ritual by now. We checked out and were on the dark, quiet streets. This is the time to see India, in the early morning its wonderfully quiet. We got to the New Delhi Railway Station thirty minutes before the train, or thirty minutes too early. It seems everyone arrives only moments before departure. Our “chair class” car, which is second class was air conditioned and they weren’t kidding. It was meat-locker-cold, us shivering in our boots trying to remember how deep in our bag we packed our fleeces.

It must have been the nicest travel day we’ve had in months. The train was clean, the chairs were roomy and comfortable and they served us a large breakfast with multiple cups of tea. How fabulous! This train certainly rivaled European trains, but it was an exception not the rule. There were plenty of the trains you’ve heard about with hundreds of people piled in a car.

We passed slum after slum producing more awful smells - hundreds squatting by the railroad tracks, with no modicum of secrecy. It was morning business as usual. It looked like a war-zone but there had been no war except man against man in an overpopulated and poverty stricken nation. I used to hear a lot about the contrasts of the rich and poor in India, but I have yet to see anyone I would consider well off.

Amit and his dad, Raju, bless their hearts, picked us up from the train station. It was the first time in months we felt like someone was waiting to see us - like family. Raju owns a small private car company. A driver for over twenty five years, he embodies the principle that you have to be a professional to drive here. Amateurs would cause a ten rickshaw pile-up in the blink of an eye. The ebb and flow of traffic reminded me of fish in the sea. One car moves and every other car adjusts minutely. Two lanes of traffic balloon into four and then recede back as oncoming traffic picks up and everyone interprets the nuances and meaning of the incessant honking. It’s pretty amazing to watch, even though you are grabbing onto your seat in a death grip and praying to your god(s). It was a wonder we never really saw any traffic accidents, but I guess you never see yellowfin tuna collide into one another either, that would be silly.

We visited Amit’s family home for some drinks and sweet snacks. They live in a small two story house on a quiet residential street. Living areas doubled as bedrooms, as all the family was visiting for Diwali. The sons and daughters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. We were offered to stay as well, but would probably have been given the parents bedroom, knowing how highly they treat guests. We didn’t want to impose too much, and stayed at the nearby Hotel Galaxy where we got a room for 900 rupee($18) a night.

With the luxury of a private car and driver compliments of Amit, we explored Jaipur, what they call the Pink City. The old town is surrounded by magnificent high walls - white squiggly designs on a salamander pink background. Later that day we also visited the City Palace, where the royal family or Maharaja of Jaipur once lived. It was free for Amit and his friend Sandeep because they are Indian nationals, and superb negotiators, but Ron and I paid 600 rupees each for a one hour whirlwind tour. We especially enjoyed the vast collection of ancient weaponry but weren‘t allowed to take photos. One looked like a knife, gun, cigarette lighter, and nail clipper, all rolled in to one handy dandy metal MacGyver tool. There were also some fantastic and intricately detailed architecture and doorways in Rajput style.

And, of course, the obligatory guys running around in turbans...

We wanted to get traditional dress to wear for Diwali so we stopped at a store recommended by Raju called Satguru’s. I was expecting to try on a number of pre-made salwar kameez but instead found myself in a tailor shop with bolts of fabric being pulled out right and left. Do you like this, madam? Or maybe this? Or maybe this? I found myself amidst a frenzy of technocolored silk and chiffon. I asked about a red sequined sari and cringed at the 15000 rupee price tag (and also a bit at the idea of a midriff baring crop top). It was all a little overwhelming and after some time, and some complimentary drinks, I was definitely in one of those awkward social situa tions. I didn’t want to spend $200 but I didn’t want to upset Amit, and I certainly didn’t want to offend his Dad who specially set up our shopping experience. What’s a girl to do?

Finally I settled on something I thought would suit my style and budget more appropriately - a punjabi suit with pink paisley brocade top and pea green pants. I had a hard time picturing if it would look good on me, and wished I could try on a few styles instead of pointing to Indian models in a magazine. Not the best representation when you are several inches taller and several times curvier. An ancient tailor measured me, too bashful to get the most accurate of measurements, but I still held out hope. Especially after forking over $130 which was $120 more than I wanted to spend.

They delivered it to the hotel, as promised, later that night. When I tried it on, it was a complete disaster from top to bottom, front to back. The fabric of the top was stiff and boxy, three times too large, like I was wearing a giant pink garbage sack. The pants were too loose and too short, adding to the overall frumpiness and unattractiveness of the vision before me in the mirror. I was so horrified, and in tears, that I would not even allow a photograph. Not even for prosperity. Not even for you, dear readers. I never want to see that outfit again as long as I live.

Now what will I wear for Diwali? How do I tell Amit? And what will Dad think when I show up in non-traditional dress on their biggest festival of the year?


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Smelly Delhi

It was ominous when I googled the weather in India before we arrived. The temperature was 91 degrees Fahrenheit, the forecast was for smoke. Smoke? Is that a legitimate category? Not partly cloudy or partly sunny (and whatever the difference there is between the two) but smoke. We would soon learn it was the best description available for what we were to experience. The sky, a post-apocalyptic haze, was perpetually tinged in a yellowish decay dimming the sun into bright unnatural orange hues like a sunset at midday. I couldn’t help but think if this was a glimpse at the worlds fate: a pollution beyond repair. The air tasted of soot mixed with gritty concrete leaving a sickening residue on your tongue.

India is everything they say - crowded, crazy, and smelly. Possibly even, the filthiest country on earth. Like you stretched the Moroccan medinas and the African markets from a few square blocks to a few thousand square miles in every direction. We were, at least, emotionally and mentally prepared for the onslaught from our travels the last two months. See, you cannot go from North America or Europe to India directly, it is like going from the Plaza Hotel to the insane asylum, the contrast just might kill you.

You can't imagine just how chaotic the streets are. There are no lanes or signs or rules - the rickshaws and tuk-tuks veer dangerously out of control in the path of oncoming traffic, around crowds of people and their revered cows. Everywhere you look is layer upon stinking layer of rotting trash and shit, the pigs rooting in it along with the poorest people and tear-jerking children. Just take a brief moment here to be thankful for your first-world born lives, opportunities, and palatial estates - you live like kings and queens!

Traveling is not just going from point A to B to see this and that. We may be traveling the world to realize the meaning of gratitude. For our country and our livelihoods and to strengthen the most powerfully comforting desire in the world…home.

Of course we had to pick the craziest place to stay in Delhi, the Pahar Ganj area, or Main Bazaar. We stayed at Star Paradise (a laughably ill suited name) that has a website reminiscent of African menus where the photos have no correspondence to the actual hotel. They did have cheap room service and our first tastes of real Indian food, a traditional Thali, was very good offering a full platter of food for less than $2.
We spent the first day hunkering down and recovering from jet lag before venturing out onto the disorienting streets. After thirty minutes I was exhausted and flustered and ready for a nap. Instead, we hopped on our first ricksaw and headed to a popular shopping area called Connaught Place to buy some Diwali gifts which was like heading to Union Square the day before Christmas. Lined around a circular road, restaurants in the outer circle, shops in the inner circle, and sellers of all goods and services circling us like flies. A lot of the shops were very small but most were western with the likes of Samsonite, Levi’s and Puma. We couldn’t find anything appropriate until we headed into Haldiram’s which was a new fast food Indian restaurant with surprisingly great food and yummy Diwali sweets for sale.

We headed back on foot, struggling to interpret street signs at night and in Hindi. Down a wide, heavily trafficked boulevard that must have been a major bus stop. The stench of the wall beside which was like a kilometer long open restroom. It was one of those moments when you tell yourself to breath through your mouth but you know that every breath you inhale smells so awful that it is still nauseating. So you smell just a little to reassure yourself just how bad it is, and it is indeed that horrible. And then you start doing it all over again. Finally we were back to our room, and didn’t know what was worse.

As I perched on the bed staring in a daze at the broken toilet seat on the bathroom floor with cockroaches scampering everywhere they pleased, and the smell of human shit wafting up from the bottom of my right sneaker, I thought, “ah yes, I’m definitely in India“.

I know this post seems a little negative but it‘s not totally my intent, just my initial and severe culture shock. I’ve wanted to come here forever and I’m finally here! I’ll take the good, the bad, and the ugly over never really seeing this for myself. I know there’s an India out there somewhere that I will fall in love with…


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Best Foods in the World

A list of the best food and drink in the world, compiled through the painstaking sampling of hundreds of horrible, sub-par, and weird local foods.

Guiness all over Ireland

Gyros at the beach in Agia Pelagia

Fried Olives Stuffed with Feta in Santorini

Gemista in Anafi Island, Greece

Turkish Pizza in Konya, Turkey

Lokma in Bodrom, Turkey

Borek in Istanbul

Fresh Mint Tea in Morocco

Kasekrainer Sausage from any Wurstelstand in Vienna

Fresh Squeezed Pineapple Juice at Kokrobite Beach, Ghana

Red-Red (Fried Plaintains and Spicy Beans) in Ghana

Shahi Paneer in Delhi

Chai Tea three times a day in India

Giant barbequed and buttery prawns in Thailand


Monday, October 12, 2009

The Long Interminable Flight to Delhi

Everything about our Ethiopian Airlines flight to Delhi was illustrative of the inner workings (or not workings, as it were) of Africa. Like a snow globe, fully encapsulating the scene in a perfect spherical microcosm, so we could clearly understand at a quick glance why everything goes so wrong.

Arriving way earlier than necessary for what was sure to be a delayed flight, Ron and I were flabbergasted to learn the flight was due to take off early. Early? But how can a flight take off early? And in a place where nothing, I mean nothing, occurs on schedule. I’ve never heard of any such nonsense before, but sure enough almost thirty minutes ahead of schedule we were airborne.

Prior to that, we had stopped at a café for some coffee, that was listed at the wrong price on the menu, next to mouth watering pictures of food surely not available to order. You’re telling me the airport café serves lobster thurmadore? Of course not, “it’s just a picture” probably filched from the internet to make the menu look good. Yes, there is often an appearance of order, of sanity, of organization but looks my friend, are flimsy and misleading, coming off as easily as the grey residue on a lucky 7’s scratcher ticket.

Once in flight, the air was suffocating with all 200 nipple-shaped overhead blowers blowing hot air in 200 random directions. None of which cooled the overheated passengers fiddling in vain, trying to tune in tokyo, with sweat dripping in their eyes.

I know I said I would never complain about a coach flight again. I think I even went so far as to say “never ever”. But if you can believe it, it wasn’t a coach flight at all but a giant flying “tro-tro” in the sky. Only worse because we couldn’t open the window to yack out the side.

We landed in Lome for a short stop-over to pick up more passengers and were told to stay on board. Soon after, the cabin started becoming hazy with smoke. Meeting the nervous eyes of fellow passengers with our own concern we grabbed our bags and headed for the door. Only to be stopped by the flight attendant. One minute, two minutes, five minutes later and they wouldn’t let us out of the plane as smoke continued to rise, blurring our view. Let us out! The captain finally comes on the intercom and asks us to go back to our seats, that everything is fine. What?! You’ve got to be kidding me. Where there is smoke, there is fire. The freakin plane is on fire and you want us to sit down and buckle up?!

Finally intelligence prevails and we are allowed to de-plane. Shuffling in to the two terminal airport we pass the sad ill-lit duty free shop and aftrican bric-a-brac stand to be led back through the security checkpoint. Because surely I found a 9 millimeter and dime bag of heroin on the runway, I need to be frisked again. The uncomfortable metal chairs in the waiting area would be our fate for the next 6 and half hours. What country are we even in? I asked, certainly unable to locate Lome on a map. I was told we were in Togo, and was no better informed. Is that a country?

At this point I was hungry, without breakfast, and parched - dumping our water before the x-ray in a potted plant. I staggered over to the bar for a cold drink only I had no local currency, and was told I could get a large bottle of water for the smallest Ghanaian bill on me which was 10 cedi or $7. As if.

The hours stretched on and, as typical, we were fed little to no information, left to gossip and stew in anger. We wondered what happened to the plane, if we would get another flight today or if we were to be forced to stay the night in Togo. Without an intercom, all information was relayed to a passenger or two at a time until a mob formed and people started yelling at each other, for questions and for, god sakes!, some leadership. It was going to be an hour, and then another hour, and then another... frustratingly the story kept changing.

Around 2pm a woman asked about lunch. There had been no food all day, our stomachs growling in unison. Another hour was the reply. She detonated and quite literally lost her mind, screaming “I need food! I’m gonna faint! I can’t wait another "blank blankety blank blank" hour! Gimme some food!” Swiftly, she was escorted into the first-class lounge for, I’m sure, some prime rib and a half bottle of chianti. So that’s how it’s done? (Taking down some notes.) At least we were finally given a cold drink to quench our thirst and we munched on some stale crackers from our food bag.

A few hours later we were told another plane brought a spare part for us. A hose from the engine that caused the smoke was currently being fixed and we would take off in (can you guess?) an hour. I don’t exactly get the impression that anyone around here can competently perform their job function, so imagine how reassured we felt at this news.

We boarded again and waited some more. In a miraculous turn of events we were served food. The flight attendant came by and asked, “Fish?” No, no fish, we chimed. “Chicken, then?” Sure. Later overhearing a passenger get beef. Why can’t we get the choices up front so we can make, I don’t know, an informed decision? It’s like pulling teeth to get the full story. In any case, I ate the squares of food arranged geometrically on the airplane tray with joy and abandon, like it was the best meal of my life.

After our all-in-one breakfast, lunch, and dinner meal at nearly 5pm, all the passengers are feeling the edginess slip away. Sated, docile even. Perhaps even a snooze is in order. Only then in this gap of peacefulness does the AC die again. A near riot ensues in the aisle as businessmen grab their briefcases from the overhead compartment demanding to be let off the plane and women furiously fanning themselves with the laminated passenger safety card located conveniently in their seat back pockets.

The flight attendants doing their best to calm down the taunting passengers escalating into a frenzy as the captain comes on the intercom to tell everyone to take their seats. No one listens as more people yell excitedly, demanding to be let off. No one listens, that is, until he inexplicably guns the plane down the runway with at least twenty passengers with bags and attendants still in the aisle. You get no warning shots around here. The message was clear, sit down and shut up, we are taking off.

The flight continued without incident, all five and half hours, We exited the plane and were told to go left for “Delhi” coming down an escalator to another line. They took our passports and we waited but we had no idea for what. Again, we had no clue what was going on. The man brought back our passports and told us to go to customs. “And then what?” I asked. He looked confused, you mean they didn’t tell you on the flight? Yea, right they tell us nothing about nothing. Apparently we were to spend the night in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and take the flight the next night at 11pm.

It was 3am local time when we arrived at the hotel, MN International, checked in and then proceeded directly to the bar. Of course, there was no food to be had, that one airplane meal would be all the food we would see for a 36 hour period. At least we could sip an iced whiskey and relax for the first time all day. The internet was down so I couldn’t look up the contact information of our hotel in Delhi to inform them of our delay. I tried to explain this to the front desk, asking to place a call to India, but it was like I was speaking Hindi. It was time to just give up. An hour later, climbing into the coldest hardest bed, doing its best to imitate the bare floor, to sweet sleep.

The hotel apparently charged $80 a night but that clearly didn’t translate into the amenities or service. Luckily Ethiopian Airlines was paying. They also covered meals at the hotel, but we weren’t allowed to place our own order, and we suffered with horrible buffet fare of cold eggs for breakfast and even colder spaghetti for dinner. Most incomprehensible was that we were given two drinks per day, either coffee, juice, soda or water. Not able to pass up coffee in the morning and subsist on only 12 ounces of water, we forked over outrageous prices for agua (okay, okay and the whiskey, but that‘s essential when you have been through a day like ours).

One bright spot on the dark continent was in us meeting several lively Indians, also in our predicament, headed for Delhi. We made fast friends and spent a good portion of the day chatting about India and getting more and more excited about our eventual arrival. No one was more excited than Amit, who was going for a visit with his family after several years of living in Ghana. He switched seats with another passenger to sit next to us on the flight (finally!). Quite the charmer with the flight crew, we soon had our tray tables filled with complimentary mini bottles of wine. We dozed off to sleep at about 4am in the morning, but not before being invited to his families home in Jaipur for Diwali. Rule #1 for adventure - never pass up a social invitation.

Of course the good times on Ethiopian Airlines were not to be over when our plane landed, I needed one last departing memory. When we got to baggage claim, our luggage was lined up beside the carousel, with the foreboding indication that its been sitting there forever, possibly all night. Each and every pocket and zipper on my bag were open with all my treasured possessions spilling out onto the yellowing linoleum floor of the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

I did a quick search and couldn’t figure out what was missing, struggling with 3 hours sleep and a brain pickled in cheap wine. Later I would piece together the tally of the theft: a camera charger, camera battery, camera card, headlamp, nail brush, and bottle of pink nail polish. Whoever did it had the time to peruse at length, lifting items from several places, clearly going for the hawkable electronics, but not passing up a small token for the wife.

To add insult to injury, when we got to the hotel we had to hand over the rupees for the night we didn’t show up and the ride from the airport we didn’t take. Unable to talk our way out of this one since we should have called, if only it was possible. Strike #97 for not having a phone, Ron is now moments away from caving and heading to the nearest Vodaphone.

Of course, I contacted the airline about all this, since I was severely inconvenienced and then ripped off, but its been two weeks and no word. They say they are “investigating” which in Ethiopian translates into “you're just shit outta luck, girl.“ Oh well, if only this was American Airlines, my video footage of the smoking plane and furious, unbuckled passengers scrambling as the plane took off down the runway would have made CNN.


Sunday, October 11, 2009

Last Days in Accra

It very well took me being a white American in Africa to fractionally understand what it may be like being an African American in our country. But in one sense as my views have broadened in another they have unexpectedly narrowed. Could it be that I dissolved some unconscious racism lurking just below the surface but picked up a nasty nationalist superiority? I can’t help but assume the person I’m dealing with lacks some necessary mental acuity to which I will suffer somehow in the form of misunderstanding, overpayment, or delay.

There is a concept here of “small small” or little by little, that I just love. In twi, you say “kra-kra kra-kra”. Maybe I can’t understand a continent of people in five weeks. That its necessary to love something, hate something, be confused by something, uplifted by it, then disappointed by it, to truly understand it. It’s a lot like a relationship, and however difficult it gets, it can’t be over as quick as it started. Salomey’s here. So there must be something good and pure in my heart for Ghana. Although I am very ready to leave.

I will remember songs like “if you’ll be my girl, I will be your man” playing so often Ron (who hates pop music) found himself singing along in a high, funny pitch.

Obama posters everywhere, and Ghanaians so proud of his visit.

Flicking the power switch and wondering if there is electricity, like it’s some kind-of-a daily lottery.

All the comforts of home, always broken - the remotes, the tvs, the hot water heaters, the lights, the doors, the windows, the beds….

The religious names on tro-tros, taxis, and shop fronts. My all-time favorite was “I Am Washed By The Blood of Jesus” hair salon.

The utter craziness of the markets - women with far-too-large cargoes atop their head and babies swaddled to their backs.

The dank taste of water sucked from the chewed off corner of a plastic sachet.

The great cellphone wars between MTN, Zain, and Vodaphone. You remember all those pretty yellow boats in Bortianor? MTN offered to paint all the fisherman’s boats bright yellow for free if they could add their logo. Now that’s some guerilla marketing.

One popular place we did not visit was Cape Coast where the famous slave forts are situated. Humanity has been so cruel and its too emotionally disturbing to visit dungeons, torture chambers, and prisons as I always find myself dwelling on what it would have felt like to be there. So much so that I get sick to my stomach and generally depressed and sullen. I did spend time in contemplation on the “Door of No Return” where the slaves were led to ships and their dismal fate, but the thought of walking through it was way too much for my little heart to bear.

We hold many more memories than pictures because it was rather intimidating to be snapping photos in most places we visited. Some places are rather poor to be flaunting a flashy camera, other places people are not so keen to be in your photo album, and we wished to respect that.

A final note on the Akan culture. They believe your soul is tied to the day of the week in which you’re born, so your first name is one of seven (different for girls and boys) whereas your middle name is given by the parents. It can certainly make some confusion when someone yells out Ama (Thursday born girl) in the market and 6 girls look over.

Ron and I enjoyed the ritual greetings and exchanging of these given names. Making quick friends when we found a match - a soul brother or sister. But now it’s time for Abena (Tuesday born girl) and Kwasi (Sunday born boy), to sign off from Ghana.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ron’s Birthday

Today is Ron’s 38th birthday and we are still in Ghana, a place halfway around the world he never imagined himself to be. With all of our recent sicknesses and struggles, I thought it would be nice to throw the budget out the window and have some fun American-style. The first luxury was two cups of coffee with breakfast, followed by a taxi instead of a tro-tro to the Accra Mall. Stepping inside was surreal, not only did it feel like stepping into a fully westernized shopping outlet, but seeing all the well-to-do Ghanaians in one place was shocking. We still felt massively out of place but in very comfortable surroundings.

We strolled the shops and stopped for a delicious pizza cooked amazingly well on a conveyor belt instead of a traditional oven. Next, we stopped in Rhapsody, the only ritzy bar we saw in Ghana for cocktails and some soccer. Interestingly enough for two unlikely sports fans, Ron and I have both been enjoying the World Cup, cheering loudly with the rest of the country as Ghana beat Korea.

Off to a movie in the cinema, Pelham 123 with Denzel Washington. The theater was new and modern, charging modern prices of 10 cedi ($7) a ticket. As everything else is late in Ghana, it should not have been surprising that on the scheduled start time of our movie the last movie had not yet finished. I couldn’t fathom how you couldn’t calculate the running times correctly with 10 minutes of clean-up in between. But I’ve learned not to ask questions, it just gets you bent out of shape.

For dinner, we went to a Chinese restaurant in the Osu area, called Dynasty. It was nicely decorated (a rarity) and well-staffed (even rarer) with polite waiters (the rarest of all). There actually may have been too many wait staff as six pairs of eyes waited for me to finish the last bit of spring roll before swooping the plate away. We were also seated next to the kitchen door, the constant swooshing of which distracted me from the tasty food and the birthday boy. Ron had his favorite lemon chicken and I had soft noodles with pork, that was such a big portion I tipped our taxi driver with the leftovers. We were too full for dessert but Ron blew out the votive candle on our table to make his secret birthday wish. (He won't tell but I'm fairly certain it's for Mexican food.)


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Lake Bosumtwi

We arrived at Lake Point which really was a lovely guest house, well constructed huts dotting the gardens, near a private beach on the lake. Our traditional hut was very cute with all the little details and finishing touches, but a bit more than we wanted to pay at 34 cedi ($25) a night. I loved all the bamboo furniture, especially the spacious bed and built-in hat rack, perfect for drying loads of laundry, that extended floor to ceiling. However, having AC for the last week and going back to a room with only a fan was a bit of a shocker. After having said all that, I DO NOT RECOMMEND this hotel and would direct anyone in the area to Rainbow Garden Village instead, more on that later.

The first night, I had some crackbrained thought that I needed some omega 3’s so I ordered the grilled barracuda and rice, and proceeded to spend several hours in the bathroom and then the next 24 hours in bed. It was bound to happen, my first food bourne illness, but I surely didn’t think it would be at a “nice” restaurant.

Since then, in an effort to save money, we’ve been eating omelettes and toast for breakfast (5 cedi/$3.50), some local snacks for lunch (like fried yam, sweet rolls, oranges) and sharing one dinner plate (10 cedi/$7) due to the generous proportions of pasta or rice served with the chicken marsala and beef goulash.

On our second night there were fabulous thunderstorms. Lighting up the sky every couple seconds like a disco strobe light. The rains were so torrential that they swept away two deep sections of the road to the hotel that took a dozen men two days to repair.

There are lots of little critters about: every kind of winged insect you can imagine, huge spiders to keep us company in our hut along with the quick and shifty orange headed lizards, snails slithering slowly along the walls, and birds sheltered from the rain in upside-down nests.

I couldn’t purchase our flight on Ethiopian Airlines to Delhi online so I had to borrow the hotel phone. It amazes me that some people here live in total squalor but they all seem to have cellphones. Everyone in the country it seems, yet Ron and I go around begging for a call, averting questioning eyes. Its even more confounding how much we overpay for minutes back home, do you know that they get 90 minutes for 2 cedi ($1.50)? Our phone bills should be $8 not $80! At any rate, I called the airline and was told that I couldn’t purchase the ticket over the phone either and had to come into the office in Accra. Strike one for technology. Luckily, she agreed to hold our ticket (another leap of faith) until the day before the flight when we could get to Accra to pick it up. We’ll see…

Our plan at the moment is to fly to Delhi for a week, staying in India for Diwali, then heading to Kashmir region for a week and off to Nepal for the remainder of the great trekking weather in November. With the thought of steep hills and alpine heights in our very near future, we’ve had to crank things up a notch. We have been doing a lot of walking, just by the very nature of traveling, but not really sustained cardiovascular exercise. I was still feeling week from the damn fish, but we did a slow 6km walk into the town Abono and back.

The next day we were more ambitious and walked about 14km to Rainbow Village for breakfast and back. Now if we can just do that everyday for 3 weeks, carrying our packs up the Himalayas we’ll be golden. Although the walk was relatively flat, I think the heat and humidity added an extra challenge, in addition to the constant onslaught of children yelling obruni and asking for pens, or worse money, every step of the way. At first what was cute and endearing is now old and annoying - you can tell I‘m getting a little jaded. Wishing I could wear a disguise so I’m left alone.

The day after we rented a pedal boat and went out on the lake for a few hours, navigating between all the bamboo fish traps and trying to make it to the other side of the 10.5k wide lake. The largest natural lake in West Aftrica, it was made by a meteorite smashing into the earth about a million years ago, and is holy to the Ashanti people. It was a most perfect overcast day for being on the cool glassy water, although we skipped the sunscreen and both got burnt. Pedaling around for so long is deceptively hard work and we leapt off the back for a break and a quick dip.

The last morning, as we settled the bill, the weirdest thing happened. Naturally, I asked for a refund on the bad fish that layed me up for two days. The owner Stephen wandered over, who was not there during the episode, and asked for an explanation. Then he proceeded to yell at me and call me a liar, that no one has ever got sick off his food, and that I had to pay. Now this is one big man towering angrily over me, it was a pretty intimidating situation, so I just paid it to make it (or more precisely him) go away.

He had offered us a ride to the bus station but now refused, storming off like a real professional business owner who cares about his customers. We were looking at an 8km hike uphill during midday with all of our luggage. On top of this the bastard passes us twice on the road, probably laughing at us. Luckily we hitched a taxi about halfway there and took it all the way back to Kumasi. At this point I was livid. I can’t believe I was made to feel bad, literally shaking, over a dinner that made me so sick, a stupid seven dollar fish.

You can join me in my campaign against this jerk. Please post hate mail and general unpleasantries at: http://www.ghana-hotel.com/index_en.php?page=email

Or here’s a form letter you can copy and send:

I heard about the bad barracuda. Shame on you.

(your name, your city, your state)
United Americans Against Lake Point


Friday, October 2, 2009

The Food Bag

Apart from our large backpacks and personal effect satchels, we have acquired another piece of luggage that is lovingly referred to as “the food bag”. Essentially it is a black nylon satchel that folds down into the size of a human kidney, I received one Christmas as a stocking stuffer, that I’m quite positive came not from Santa in the North Pole but from the REI in downtown Seattle. (thanks Mom)

In it we hold all the foodstuffs and snacks to tide us over to the next meal, including some staple items like coffee supplies (nescafe, powdered creamer, saccharin pellets), plastic utensils, napkins, ziplocs, salt and pepper. At times it is jam packed with bottles of water, fruit, nuts, crackers, etc and in other times, like now, it’s frighteningly empty holding only a couple stale cookies and hard candies that have melted to the packaging.

I’m usually stuck with the food bag as Ron carries the laptop, which can be a great trade-off or a miserable venture. I mention it here, only so I don’t forget how I lugged that bag all over the world and in a small way cherished it.


Thursday, October 1, 2009

Puking out a Tro-tro

We were up at the ungodly hour of 3:30am to board the 4am Metro Mass bus bound for Tamale. The road was bumpy as always, and Ron started feeling ill in what was to be a very long travel day ahead. Instead of riding all the way to Tamale we got off at the junction and hoped to catch the early southbound bus to Kumasi. Another couple from New Zealand had the same plan, but the STC bus passed 15 minutes later already full. Now what? We could wait 8 hours for the next one or take our chances on the tro-tro, it was a clear choice so we hopped on board the next one paying 20 cedi ($15) for seats and luggage.

Ron had what he would describe as “the worst day ever”, going from bad to worse, as he vomited out the window on the 8 hours of tro-tro travel ahead of us. Thankfully he had a window seat, but the sun was brutal, reddening his neck in a semicircle around his t-shirt. The radio blared so loudly the song distorted beyond recognition, the speakers clearly not able to handle the volume on the maximum setting. Ghanaians strangely relish the principal with music that if a little is good, a lot is better. But this lead me to a sudden epiphany (can there be a slow one?), as I finally realized why they all talk so loud - they have gone deaf from the loud music and have to scream to hear each other. Case closed, Mr. Holmes.

When we arrived at the lorry station, we were approached by multiple taxis all offering the “obruni” discount or three times the actual rate, but I was in no position to bargain as Ron seriously needed a room, and fast. The heat was overwhelming as we crawled in traffic, I fanned him desperately with my pink fan to the amusement of passerbys. Finally arriving and checking in to the nicest place I could find, Catering Guest House, figuring if you are going to be sick better not to do it on a dirty bathroom floor. Also, some AC would probably do Ron good after sweating it out all day long.

After half a Spanish omelette eaten halfway between 16 hours of sound sleep, Ron slowly rebounded. I fixed him vitamin c water with a dash of salt for rehydration and the next day he was well enough for some internet surfing and lunch. I call the backpacks worn on both the front and back, the "double bubble", ain't it sporty?

The first internet café was a sad, sad sight. Old computers collecting dust, brain-dead receptionist, and after every few minutes a complete electrical outage. Like everywhere else in Ghana, we experienced bouts of electricity and water outages on an almost daily basis at every place we stayed. But not at the holiest of holies - the internet café. Have a generator or be gone with you. We found a great place down the street and settled in for a couple hours despite the constant chatter, background television commentary, and 3 versions of itunes all playing simultaneously and on full blast.

We heard about a decent tourist recommended restaurant nearby but had to walk the gauntlet through dozens of scammers, beggars, shifty cab drivers, “art students”, “volunteers”, “teachers”, et cetera, etc all vying for our attention and our cedis. But who, to our astonishment, would we see when we entered Vic Baboo’s Café, but Barry, the catholic priest we met in Kokrobite and hoped to visit later in the week.

An immediately interesting and charismatic man dressed in a traditional gown, he was born in Britain but felt an irresistible pull to Africa. Living in Senegal and Zanzibar, he has settled in Ghana to build an octagonal house of his own design. My favorite feature being an African zen garden, where large carved heads would replace the usual rocks placed in the raked sand. He’s definitely a spiritual heavyweight, intensely devoted but not constricted by religion, someone in which you can just feel their inner calmness. I told him this once and he told me about the zen concept of a duck gliding serenely across the water, but underneath the smooth surface their little duck-legs are going a million miles a minute. What a great analogy to the human mind - we all struggle. It must have been divine intervention, because he was to be at a retreat when we were planning to come for the visit. How very fortunate to have met him again, and he was even kind enough to buy us lunch.

There have been visitors to this blog and you are one of them. Thanks and have a beautiful day!