Monday, September 29, 2008

Lodgings: The Villa Ludovici

One of the benefits of traveling in India is the fact that the value of the dollar hovers around 40 rupees. If you can avoid the tourist traps and indiscriminate extravagances, you can travel and stay for a bargain.

The Villa Ludovici in Goa is the perfect example of excellent service with low costs.

When I stayed there with a friend of mine in December of 2007, five nights - with omelets, papayas and toast for breakfast each morning included - the stay only set us back $100.

We arrived in Goa at the middle of a long day that started when the sun was rising and involved a four-hour taxi ride (where our driver got cited for speeding) and a flight, with the necessity of arriving at the airport two hours early so we could hop on a flight that lasted less than two hours.

Not having researched Goa very much – at all, to be honest – we didn’t really know where to stay. We asked a bunch of travelers in the airport, and settled on the Siquerim Beach area, since it was close enough to the entertainment at Baga Beach to the north and the capital, Panjim, to the south.

Cruising through the Lonely Planet guidebook, I selected Villa Ludovici for its economy listing. A quick phone call settled the rates and reserved a room, then it was a 45-minute taxi ride through beautiful tropical scenery juxtaposed with poverty-stricken villages to arrive at our home for the next five nights.

We were greeted by the friendly owner of what turned out to be not a hotel, but a house. It was actually the first house built on that section of the coast a few centuries earlier. The plaster walls, elegant wood doorways and interlocking clay tiles on the roof all attested to its age. The antiquated electrical work running through the interior struck me as having been original to the 1940s or so.

After dropping off our bags, Deon and I decided it was time to hit Goa’s legendary beaches. As “our” house was right across the street from the beach, it should have been a short walk.

Only it wasn’t.

Not sure about trespassing laws, we hunted and hunted for public beach access until we decided it didn’t exist, and we just walked through a neighborhood, past a construction site and alongside a trash heap to reach the strand.

Turning around, of course, we saw an easy access route we’d somehow missed, but would have allowed us to avoid the hassle we’d just gone through.

After filling up on 85-cent beers and a dinner of fried prawns for a few bucks at a beach shack run by British expats, we headed back to the room for bed.

The mattress was nice and firm, and the blankets were light enough to cover up with and not get too hot in the absence of air conditioning. That’s right, there was no air conditioning. I wasn’t worried about that, as I’ve stayed in condos in Hawaii without AC, and it never proved necessary. The same was true for Goa.

Breakfast the next morning was excellent. I’d slept like a rock, and with absolutely nothing planned for the day except gorging on prawns and tossing back several bottles of Kingfisher beer, I was in seventh heaven.

Deon, on the other hand, was suffering from a plethora of mosquito bites. I made fun of him, and incurred some bad karma that ended with my lily-white skin turning a distinctly reddish hue after the SPF 20 sunscreen utterly failed me during the day (Seriously, it’s all they seem to sell over there. If you need your extra protection, bring your own).

Not wanting to end up with an army of insects feasting on my already-abused body, we asked for, and got, mosquito netting. By the next morning, Deon’s bites were in recession and my sunburn was healing.

That night, it poured. I groaned, lamenting the fact that I’d remembered being able to see sunlight through the roof tiles during the day. Sitting on the patio reading a novel, I knew I was in for a rough night.

And I was completely wrong.

Somehow, the tiles from generations earlier kept the rain out entirely. The restaurant I worked in at home in California had been built seven years earlier, and leaked like a sieve. This house proved far better at withstanding the tropical rain it sees so often.

For the next few days, while eating breakfast, Bessie the holy cow stopped by the gate, always mooing to get in. Cows are sacred in the Hindu religion, and traffic will stop for them if they lie down in the road, but their sanctity doesn’t guarantee their admittance to breakfast. Each morning, after several minutes of gawking, Bessie left.

Paying the bill at the end of our stay, I still couldn’t believe it had cost us each a measly $10 per night. Part of me felt guilty at getting off so cheap, but my rational side won out, reminding me that if it wasn’t profitable, they wouldn’t be in business.

For great value, a decent location and friendly proprietors, I couldn’t have been happier with the Villa Ludovici.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Ponte Vecchio

Bridges always fascinated me. The fact that a road spanning water can be so iconic of a city, while being such an essentially utilitarian structure, is intriguing. Take, for example, the Golden Gate Bridge, London's Tower Bridge, Paris' Pont Neuf and Florence's Ponte Vecchio.

When I arrived in Florence, it was to visit my sister, who was living there at the time as part of a study abroad program through her college. She was lucky enough to get an apartment right in the center of the city, and the Ponte Vecchio was a short walk away.

Most bridges today serve solely as a means to transport people and vehicles across a body of water, beautiful though some of them may be. What I never realized before reading a few novels set in the middle ages was that, throughout history, bridges were often lined with houses, shops and other buildings.

The Ponte Vecchio (literally meaning 'old bridge') is one of the few examples of this practice left standing today.

Standing on the bridge, it was easy to forget that I was over the Arno river and not in an everyday street, since the buildings lining each side give that impression. Only in the center could I see the water below.

At first glance, I didn't like the bridge. It doesn't have the grace or style of others I've visited, and I wasn't exactly familiar with its history.

It wasn't until I saw it lit at night that I suddenly realized how beautiful it actually is. Standing under a clear sky, with my jacket pulled tight against the wind, I stood on the banks of the Arno and just gazed. The lights reflected in the water gave it a surreal feeling, and I suddenly felt a connection with the bridge.

Walking across the crowded structure, I passed shop after shop, mostly selling jewelry. At the time of construction in the mid-1300s, most of those shops belonged to butchers, but the fact that each opens like a treasure chest makes the current residents seem more appropriate.

Walking the bridge is an interesting experience. I was at once dazzled by the expensive jewelry and fine art in the shops, and annoyed with the beggars hawking cheap trinkets. It's the same junk you can find at the Trevi Fountain, Eiffel Tower and half the other attractions in Europe.

Legend has it that when the Germans pulled out of Florence in World War Two, the Ponte Vecchio was spared the fate of demolition Florence's other bridges were sentenced to because Hitler had a particular affinity for the Ponte Vecchio. True or not, it adds to the mystique.

Though I still don’t find the Ponte Vecchio to be the most beautiful bridge in Europe, I can say that it serves as an excellent example of a medieval bridge that retains some of its originality.

As always, whenever I’m in a historically significant or just plain old spot, I feel somehow connected with the people who laid the stones, using technology we would laugh at today for its simplicity. Despite the lack of heavy machines, concrete that set underwater, and modern materials, the men who layed the original roadbed on the Ponte Vecchio managed to get it right. The fact that it still stands is a testament to their craftsmanship, and I find myself wondering if I’m capable of creating something that will last for 700 years.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The National World War One Museum, a Reason to Remember

The Korean War is often referred to as “The Forgotten War,” but I think World War One is equally forgotten, at least in the United States. The National World War One Museum and Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, however, strives to ensure that what was once called “The War to end all Wars,” is remembered.

After paying the entrance fee, visitors walk across a glass bridge, under which lie 9,000 poppies, each one representing 1,000 combatant deaths. The poppies pay homage to the poem “In Flanders Fields” by the Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae.

A short introductory film does an excellent job of explaining the background of the conflict, and how powers that had no reason to go to war were thrust into the most brutal combat ever seen at that time by the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Even though I minored in history in college and knew a fair amount about the why and the how of World War One, it amazed me to watch the film of soldiers eagerly strutting off to war in uniforms that were still colorful, with officers having feathers in their caps and cavalry thinking they still had a role on the battlefield.

After the first few fights, where commanders thinking they were still fighting the Napoleonic Wars forced their men to walk forward into machine guns, the soldiers quickly realized what a folly it was, and the museum makes the progression of the war - from “We’ll be home for Christmas” into something entirely different - understandable.

The right side of the building covers the war from its beginning in August, 1914, through 1916. Weapons, artillery pieces and uniforms complement the timeline running the length of the hall, giving visitors both the broad picture and the best thing we can get to an idea of what the average infantryman went through almost 100 years ago.

Quotations by soldiers, taken from their correspondence, put an emotional picture on the faces depicted in grainy black-and-white photos. One I found particularly descriptive was written by a French infantryman about an artillery bombardment.

“Shells of all calibers kept raining down in our sector. The trenches had disappeared, filled with earth. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died splashing us with their blood. It was living hell,” he wrote.

A mock-up trench runs along the wall opposite the timeline, and depicts vignettes of life and death in what was home to millions of men for four years.

The figures depicting the cost of war are everywhere, but it is still hard for me to wrap my mind around them. Looking at a placard about the Battle of the Somme in 1916 told me that 20,000 British soldiers were killed on the first day of the offensive, their advance measured in yards, not miles. Roughly double that number were wounded, and that’s not counting the French and German losses.

Numbed by trying to imagine what that must have been like, and still failing to understand why it even happened, I went to the next room, which housed computerized interactive displays. Want to know about a particular tank or airplane? Use the laser pointer to select it and watch a short video on it. It’s great for kids, and also a good way to get more out of the museum if you have the time and the inclination.

At the far end of the museum is a second theater, showing another short film, but this one explaining the United States’ entrance into the war.

The entire left side of the museum (standing at the entrance door) is devoted to America’s experience in the war, from the first battles at Chateau Thierry and Bellau Wood in 1917, to the final offensives and the end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918.

As with the first portion of the museum, a timeline runs along the wall, complete with quotes from soldiers, civilians on the home front, nurses and civilians in the embattled areas. Again, uniforms and artifacts fill display cases, and there is even a French-built Renault FT-17 tank that was hit by an enemy shell during the war.

A few months before I was there, America’s last surviving World War One veteran, Frank Buckles, was photographed in front of the tank. It was sobering to think of what he must have felt when he visited the museum. Of the millions of Americans in uniform at that time, he is quite literally the last one alive, and one of only a handful worldwide.

Once he is gone, the only chance we will have to appreciate the American experience in that war will be in films, stories and archival documents, fortunately being preserved in places like the National World War One Museum.

The tower rising out of the center of the building visible in the photograph at the top of this post is the Liberty Memorial. A fixture on the Kansas City skyline, it has a simulated eternal flame at night.

I rode the elevator to the top on an absolutely gorgeous day, being served an unobstructed view of Kansas City, as close to being in the dead center of the United States as possible. I gazed off in the distance, seeing the towering skyscrapers of the modern metropolis and beyond, to the green flatland of the part of the country half my family comes from.

Surrounded by the peace and splendor I can enjoy today, I couldn’t help thinking about the museum below me, and the sacrifices made by my great grandfather’s generation. My father’s grandfather served in France in the First World War, suffering some of the horrible conditions I am fortunate enough to experience only through a museum. He lived in the trenches. He faced enemy fire. He was gassed. A quarter-century later, he volunteered to stand guard at a power station in Dutch Flat, Calif. against possible sabotage by our enemies in the Second World War. He did it armed with the Luger pistol he picked up in France.

I happened to look down on the well-kept back lawn of the museum and saw a group of Marines holding a change of command ceremony. It took no great leap of imagination to see them as exactly the same as the soldiers from World War One. I wasn’t sure what to think when I looked down on them. I felt pride and sadness, but more than anything else, I felt respect and thankfulness.

World War One ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Unfortunately, it didn’t end anything. All it did was set up World War Two. U.S. Gen. Tasker Bliss put it best when he said, “The wars are not over….There will be the devil to pay all around the world.”


Museum Web site

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Travel Tips: How to defeat pickpockets

You can hardly pick up a travel guide for a city like Rome without finding a warning about pickpockets. Are these warnings actually necessary? Well, yes. Is petty crime really a reason to be afraid to visit a location? Not at all.

I’m not going to lie. Both times I’ve been to Rome, I’ve had experience with pickpockets. The first time, I was riding on the metro with my parents and my sister, and someone reached into my dad’s pocket. Later on, on the same three-day trip, a group of preteen girls tried to separate our group as we stepped off the car. Neither attempt was successful, since we were prepared to deal with the small annoyance pickpockets really are.

Some places get a bad rap with pickpockets. Rome happens to be one of them. Granted, pickpockets seem to be more common in that city, but any metropolis will have them, especially around the touristy areas. The following tips will help you keep your cash out of their grasp.

● First, be aware. If you look like you’re alert and paying attention to your surroundings, you’ve just become a hard target. Any would-be pickpocket will choose the aloof traveler over the one who scans a crowd. On my second trip to Rome, I was on the lookout for them, and I had no problems. My mom, on the other hand, had a man stick his hand into her pocket on the metro, while her attention was elsewhere. When she felt him, she slapped his hand, called him a name, and that was it.

● Use a money belt. I know they can look dorky, but if you’re going to a place where pickpockets are known to frequent, a money belt will keep your money, ID, credit cards and passport safe. I wore mine in Rome and most of the time I was in India. In Paris, London, Munich and Salzburg, I was less worried about the petty crime, so I just kept my wallet in my pocket like I do at home.

● If you carry a purse, don’t hang it over one shoulder. Purse snatchers on Vespas aren’t uncommon, and if you wear it across your body, they won’t even bother. If you use a backpack, be it large or small, make sure you either wear it backwards or keep it pressed up against a wall when you’re in a metro car (Small carabiners or even safety pins through the zippers are a good extra security measure).

● Don’t get distracted. The best pickpockets work in teams. One will distract you somehow – be it bumping into you, asking you to take a photo or playing an instrument – while the other one makes off with your wallet. This ties in with being alert. If you’re carrying your wallet in your pocket, make sure no one is close enough to make off with it. If you do get bumped into, quickly check to make sure everything is where it should be.

● Know where they congregate. Pickpockets love crowded places where there is a lot of movement. Airports, train stations and metros (subways) are favorite hangouts, as are crowded city centers and tourist attractions. The chances of someone taking your wallet as you amble down one of Venice’s deserted back alleys are small. A crowd gives a pickpocket anonymity.

● Some clothing companies have added hidden pockets to their articles. I have a pair of pants with a zip-up pocket inside the front pocket. I feel safe keeping my money there, as no one could get to it without my knowledge (I say that now). I also have a jacket with a Velcroed and zipped breast pocket. I keep my wallet and everything in there whenever I wear it. The bottom line is to be smart about where you put your money.

Practically every traveler I’ve talked to has a pickpocket story. They range from the mundane (like mine) to the outlandish (a group of Australians who were partying in Rio de Janeiro when a pickpocket struck. They supposedly handed their beers to a couple of cops and chased the guy down, gave him a thrashing and got congratulations from the police).

It’s nothing to be overly concerned about.

I like to look at it as a game. I’m tempted to photocopy a 10-Euro note and stick it in my pocket, with a corner hanging out for them to see the next time I go overseas, then see if I can keep track of it – while the rest of my money is safely in my money belt or hard-to-reach pocket.

Some people will read the alarmist warnings in guide books and naturally be afraid of how bad the situation will be. Take it from someone who has been there – it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s something you should be aware of, but it’s not something you should let ruin your trip.