Jun 29, 2008

Living Under a Rock

Cappadocia is a modern day Bedrock. The main difference is that cars are not foot powered and I haven’t been able to find dinosaur vacuum cleaners or anything that resembles a bird can opener. But people do live inside rocks and mountains as they have for hundreds of years. There’s even a Flintstones cave hotel. I realize I have been quite liberal in the use of this word in past blog entries, but Cappadocia is the definition of surreal. Nothing has captured our bewilderment more than the hundreds of fairy chimneys carved into ancient homes and churches. Imagine a tall rock spire planted in the desert with a door, windows and stairs carved into its side. Walk inside to find multiple floors, carved tables, shelves, and even large, domed and frescoed churches. The volcanic rock is particularly soft in this region. For some reason, its inhabitants in the 11th-13th centuries decided to pick up a hammer and chisel and start digging. Nearly everywhere we turn, we see windows set hundreds of feet into the cliffs. The landscape alone is enough to deem this region stunning, the fact that thousands of people still live in the caves is the tipping point. This place is beyond anything we have ever seen. After 6 months of travel, we don’t feel this way very often.

Each home is supremely different. All resemble something from a Dr. Suess book. Some are built in groups such as apartments, other stand solo surrounded by grape vines. Each morning a barrage of 20 + hot air balloons make a quite assault on the sights below. But this only adds yet another element of madness as now the skies are filled with colorful jewelry.
We rented a scooter on our first day to do some exploring. We hiked and climbed and played in this ancient fun house of a place.

And if things just couldn’t get any stranger, it turns out that they lived underground too! Over 30 underground cities have so far been discovered. Using similar methods of carving and removing rock, the Cappadocians dug down as well. The largest underground city is 12 levels deep. Discovered in 1982, it is thought to have housed up to 30,000 people completely hidden beneath the desert’s surface. It is said that they lived here during periods of war and conflict (history has placed quite a few in this region of the world) to escape religious persecution. This was a very Christian community surrounded by Muslim armies. All entrances could be blocked by a 10-ft diameter stone that was rolled into place. The city we visited at Kaymakli was 8 levels deep and supremely strange. It is difficult to fathom an entire city living beneath the ground, yet here I was staring at their pantries, churches, air shafts, and toilets.

We’ve spent the last two days exploring the beautiful pigeon homes and rock formations in and around the city of Goreme, our home base for Cappadocia. Turkey just keeps getting better.

Turkish Delight

We boarded our air conditioned bus (we missed air con) headed for Safranbolu. This small town has managed to earn a World Heritage designation by preserving its old Ottoman homes. Indeed, we checked into our hotel, a 300 year old wooden home with a bathroom built into a closet. This may sound strange but imagine opening up a pantry door, stepping over a 1.5 ft ledge and into your shower. The hustle and bustle of Istanbul gave way to peaceful streets, and a more traditional Turkey.

It was not hard to spend two days meandering (a slower pace than walking, but faster than strolling) Through the streets of Safranbolu and eating free samples of Turkish Delight. Unlike many regions, here they sprinkle their chewy sweets with Saffron, the spice from which this town takes its name. Diabetics beware!! It is addicting.

We had no idea what to expect of Turkey. So far it has been comfortable, friendly, and full of surprises.

Istanbul was Constantinople

If India was our lobster-red sun burn, then Turkey has become our soothing and refreshing aloe. The storm has finally passed. Traveling is suddenly wonderful again. The roads are paved, the food is filled with meat, the cities are clean, and everyone is honest. Welcome to Turkey.

Our plane landed in Istanbul and to our absolute wonder and amazement not a single individual approached us to take their taxi or bus or stay at their hotel or buy their map or buy their daughter. We strolled onto the air-con metro and glided into beautiful Istanbul in absolute peace. Keep in mind we had just left a land of more than one billion people and even more headaches.

Istanbul is a world class city. It is also the only city that spans two continents: Europe and Asia. It has managed to blend old world beauty and heritage seamlessly together with a new sense of energy and excitement. We fell in love as soon as we stepped foot onto its rock paved streets and shaded parks. We spent four days exploring sights such as the Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia). Built as a church in 537 AD, It is without doubt the most incredible building we have ever witnessed. Its walls and frescoes have withstood many earthquakes. Considering that 97% of Turks call themselves Muslim, it now serves duty as a mosque. Highlighting the skyline among dozens of mosques is the famous Blue Mosque. We fought the crowds to catch a glimpse of the beautiful blue tile work inside that give this standout its name.

We walked for miles enjoying the Grand Bazaar district of leather, gold, rugs, and anything else a tourist might buy. We took a poor man’s cruise in the form a 30 minute ferry across the Bosphorous River at sunset (highly recommended). Mostly we just strolled and enjoyed all that this westernized metropolis had to offer. We sat in benches and spent Turkish Lire and loved everything about it, especially the absence of cows.

It was an incredible city that greeted us with open arms and a warm kebab; exactly what we needed.

Jun 19, 2008

Curse of the Rosewood Bracelet

The last 2 weeks have not been easy for your favorite travelers. India has done its best chew us up and spit us to the curb stained red from pan, a red chewing tobacco that is all the rage. Since Varanasi we have spent nearly 4 full days in transit, sleeping somewhere different every night. We have not seen nearly as much of India as 25 days should allow for. Instead we have been on the move, constantly attempting to find a place to sit back, relax, and enjoy India.

It all started with a rosewood bracelet. While on a 5 hour bus ride in the state of Bihar, India’s poorest. We sat next to an 18 yr old girl on her way to Patna to take an entrance exam for university. She was a joy to speak to. She offered me a wooden bracelet with silver roses as a gift to remember her. I happily and gracefully accepted her offer astounded by the generosity and kindness of every Indian not working in the tourist industry. I wore my bracelet with pride, it fit my girlish wrist perfectly and I didn’t have to barter for it.

Then we spent the night at the train station. After a 5 hour bus ride, we arrived to the station at 7 PM, 3 hours ahead of our 10 PM train which actually arrived at 3 AM. There was only one announcement in Hindi meaning we nearly missed it as we were both sound asleep by 3 AM. Our 10 hour train ride to Siliguri, a northern city in the State of West Bengal picked us up 5 hours behind schedule and arrived in Siliguri only 8 hours behind schedule. Next we caught a 3 hour taxi to Darjeeling, a beautiful hill station town where the temperatures are cool. Tibetan culture overruns this city which boasts 360 degree views of the three highest peaks in the world – Everest included. After 30 hours of traveling we checked into our hotel to discover that tomorrow is the beginning of a strike. It turns out, the mainly Nepali and Tibetan people of this hill region are demanding their own state, separate from West Bengal. It’s a 20 year old conflict that has waited until our arrival to culminate into a complete shut down for the region. This means no busses, no trains, no shops, no restaurants, nothing. Miraculously the taxi driver was able to find his way around all road blocks.

Our kind hotel owner kept his facilities open for us and the 6 other tourists who remained. We spent the day relaxing and strolling though the quietest streets India has to offer. Thick cloud cover obstructed our views of the Himalayas but we could feel their presence as the clouds swirled over our heads.

After a day of the strike the Hotel Owners Association organized an evacuation of all hotel guests. We were scurried into a jeep packed with 12 foreigners and part of a convoy of about 50 vehicles going down the hill. Our driver had to fight with every road block but the evacuation was a success, despite some vomiting children in the Jeep ahead of us.

Siliguri, the town we escaped to, was facing transportation strikes due to rising gas prices. Darjeeling and Sikkim, where we planned to spend 7 days where now shut from commerce. The Trains were all booked for 4 days solid as it is Summer vacation for India. Keeping all this in mind, we made the decision to get away from the craziness and move on to Nepal, only 1 hour away.
We walked across the border in the dark and found a guest house. Our 4 AM Kathmandu-bound bus left in the pouring rain on time. It was going to be a 15 hr journey. We stopped twice for food and dozens of times for more passengers. Then we stopped at a road block. No problem, it will be clearing in 30 minutes. This quickly turned into 2 hours, which turned to five, which turned to our entire bus load of Nepalise sleeping in the bus in front of a gas station. Miraculously, of the roughly 10,000 people stuck behind this road block, we were the only foreigners. The Canadians we crossed the border with must have been smart and flown to Kathmandu.

It was now 11 AM the day after our bus left. We had been stuck at the road block for 24 hours. The only good thing to come of the situation was the kind conductor who walked and talked with us and kept us feeling safe. The three of us decided to stroll to the front of the line of trucks, busses, and cars to find a group of villagers peacefully dismantling a cargo truck. Diesel fuel spilled though a punctured gas tank and pieces of the engine were scattered on the road next to bucket seats and deflated tires. A group of 5 young policemen stood and observed this calm yet destructive protest, riot gear in hand. It turns out a man was killed the night before by a bus, and a small child a few hours later nearby by this truck. This resulted in a block and now the entire country is inconvenienced. At least that’s the story we got. One has to wonder if the fact that Nepal changed from a Monarchy to a Republic only 2 weeks ago and is now in the process of building a new government has anything to do with the strikes. Wondering when our luck will change, we make the difficult decision to go back to the very country we ran away from to begin with. This meant boarding one bus and driving about 2 km until we reached a third accident. This one was getting violent. Amanda and I strapped our bags on and ran through the blockade to a bus on the other side heading to the Indian border. At the Nepal immigration office they wanted to know why we came to Nepal for only 2 days. They denied our accusations of problems on the highways and road blocks. We rolled our eyes and fled back to the country that we love to hate – India.

Another 5 hour bus ride through potholes that could swallow a Volkswagen brought us back to Patna. Somewhere along the way I chucked the bracelet out the window cursing its evil hold on our luck. We admitted defeat, checked into a nice hotel and booked a plane ticket to Delhi where we arrived, greeted by the earliest monsoon on record for 108 years. Its strange to find respite in such a huge polluted and dirty city but here we our, in the fifth day of Delhi and it’s not such a bad place. The rains have cooled things down a bit and we have been enjoying the shopping and dining that this city has to offer.

We are sad that India has rejected our advances of courtship. Yet, we are not surprised. In this vast country where most marriages are arranged, we now realize that when we return we must plan ahead and have a huge dowry to offer. The best matches in India cost a lot of money. Traveling here can cost as little as $8 per day and as much as $3000. Be prepared to get what you pay for. Next time we’re taking out an ad in the Sunday Hindustan Times: “Wanted, relaxing cultural excursion through the beautiful landscapes of India. Will pay as much as is necessary”.

Jun 15, 2008

Markets of Asia Slideshow

Please click here to view slideshow in a larger screen.

Jun 5, 2008

The Ghats Must Be Crazy

Our wooden boat slowly maneuvered through the masses of worshippers. There were those that floated, those that lathered, those that splashed, and those that prayed. It was 5:30 AM and the sun was slowly making its ascent over the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. It is considered one of the oldest cities in the world and certainly one of the holiest. Indians from across the country make their pilgrimage to the ghats that line 7km of the river. These ghats consist of stairs descending into the cleansing waters of the Ganges. They are a continuous carnival of tourists, touts and spiritual rituals. On these steps, at any given moment, you can find people washing their cows, washing their clothes, cutting their hair, selling flowers, cremating family members, playing cricket, meditating, roller skating, sleeping, eating, having a shave, dancing, or just sitting back and enjoying the sights, smells, and sounds. It is the absolute epitome of the chaotic Indian culture, all conveniently occurring simultaneously on the miles of steps, platforms, and temples that lines the shoreline in Varanasi.As our driver continued to row, narrowly avoiding the heads of those cleansing their souls, Amanda and I watched in awe. Of course, all of this activity gives the city a magical air. It is a place of life and death. It is a place where one can witness the entire cycle of life while floating in a boat rowed by a teenager. Parents wash their newborns. The elderly rinse their pains away. The mourning say their prayers. The truly religious ring their bells and wave their flames in a nightly service thanking the Ganges for its devine power. The crematory sits on the banks as well. We passed through it often. At any hour in the day and night you will find families ritualistically burning the bodies of those they love. As their ashes join the floating candles in the river, the Hindu cycle of life and death is broken, sending their souls to a final resting place. My fingers nervously flip through my phrase book as our boat approaches a group of men squatting on the rocks drinking down the holy water from their cup-shaped hands. I want to explain to them that this holiest of holy waters is also the dirtiest. Unfortunately I am unable to find the words I want. The phrase was conveniently excluded from the pages of my guide. The Ganges River here contains over 3000 times the safe amount of faecal coliform bacteria. It is literally septic, meaning it contains no dissolved oxygen. Over 30 sewage pipes deposit directly into this nearly still river. These facts only add (considerably) to the spectacle that occurs here daily. Over 60,000 people, whether ignoring these facts or ignorant to them, happily let the filthy water surround their bodies and cleanse their souls.
We spent our three days wandering through the mazes of streets and chaos. It is hardcore India culture to the max.

Jun 1, 2008

Eating India

As we sit down at the small Ram Raja Restaurant in the town of Orchha, a man herds his fifteen water buffalo over the adjacent bridge for a refreshing bath. The sign for the restaurant proudly reads: “Recommended by Lonely Planet”. The traveler’s bible is omnipresent. We glance at the small menu where nothing costs much more than $1. A family of about 10 noisily awakes themselves in the morning hours behind the curtain separating the street from the kitchen. We finally decide to order: Shak Shuka, an egg dish with cabbage and onions, toast and chai tea. Five minutes later a man emerges from the curtain, starts his Honda bike and motors off. After a few more moments a young boy runs towards the market, 20 rupees in hand. The tea arrives after only ten minutes. The Indians love their Masala Tea. Known as Chai to us westerners, it’s the perfect blend of spice, milk, and sugar, served in a tall glass. As we sip tea two SUV’s packed with one family arrives. They file out and head towards the restaurant. Their shotgun-armed bodyguard looking like a drunken frat boy who spent the night binge drinking follows them. They sit in a half circle of chairs in the street staring at Amanda and I center stage at our raised table.
They stare, talk about us in Hindi, and stare some more. Their tea comes out and they sip it and stare. Awkward. Finally the father convinces his son to talk to us.

“Hello, from what country?”
“USA” we reply, “Where are you from?”
“I am twelve, you my home like?”
“What?” this conversation isn’t going too far. “Is this your family?” We warily continue.
“Yes, my father, 4 sisters, uncle, two brothers, drunken, shotgun-wielding driver.” The conversation is back on track.

Just then the man on the motorcycle returns with a crate full of vegetables. We ordered 30 minutes ago and the ingredients have just arrived. At least we know they’re fresh.
The family returns to their stares and we return to our Lonely Planet. While traveling, meal times are always a great time to plan your next move. A few minutes later the other boy returns from the market with no cabbage. His father, not too pleased, sends him running back from where he came. Then a twelve year old boy emerges from the kitchen speaking perfect English to us. His brother went to buy cabbage for our meal he explains. We smile and order more tea. Then about 8 young kids run off the street through the curtain. Two minutes later, 4 different children emerge and run down the street.

The large family stands up, pays, and wanders up the road. Their body guard, who has been stroking his shotgun for the past half hour, puts it in the truck and sits back down. Families only need guarding while they’re eating.

There is a constant flow of tractors pulling water tanks. They return from the river full and cross the bridge empty. The electricity goes out, killing the Indian music and giving us a sudden silence. It is rare that electricity does not go out in most cities around here. After about 70 minutes I finally get antsy and ask the man who went to the market if the boy returned with the cabbage yet. He smiles, nods and slips behind the curtain. Twenty seconds later he returns with our meals. We devour it, taking note to avoid the butter with dead mosquitoes in it. It is delicious but there is no cabbage. We pay our bill: $2.38, and pray to the Ganesh poster on the wall that we won’t spend the next three hours in the bathroom. It’s now 8:30 AM and India is waking up. Nothing is ever as it seems in India. It truly rewards those with patience.

After breakfast we hired our guide (pictured left, photo by leighton) for the rest of India. He's not very good with the train schedules but he always leads us to the good restaurants.