Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai - One year before the terrorist strikes

The terrorist attacks in Mumbai (Bombay) Nov. 25 were terrible, and hit home with me, as I was in many of the same spots almost exactly a year ago.

The current evidence points to the gunmen as having come by boat and landing at the Gateway of India.

My first nights in India were spent in the Hotel Suba Palace, which is a two-minute walk from the Gateway. When I took a day trip to Elephanta Island, home of a complex of caves dating back to the 600s, I embarked from the Gateway, which was built to commemorate the British Royal Family’s visit to India in 1924.
The next target for the terrorists was the Taj Mahal Hotel. Close to the Gateway of India, the hotel is one of Mumbai’s icons. Resplendent in fancy decorations and excellent restaurants, it was out of my price range, but the story behind it was fascinating.

An Indian man wanted to stay in one of the nicer hotels. The British operators of the hotel said it was only for whites, so he built the Taj Mahal Hotel next door and eventually put them out of business, then bought their building and made it the “cheap” rooms of his.

On my second night in India, my friends and I ate at what is probably one of the nicest restaurants in India – the Golden Dragon inside the Taj Mahal Hotel.

With excellent Indian wine, a round of cocktails, an appetizer plate of prawns and main dishes of Beijing duck, lemon chicken and lamb, we certainly left satisfied, albeit lighter in the wallet.

Another target for the terrorists was the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, also called the Victoria Terminus, or VT Station. The building’s exterior is one of the nicest in Mumbai, and combines several styles of architecture. While I didn’t go inside the station, I did spend a fair amount of time walking around it.

On my visit to India, I was struck by how peacefully the major religions lived among each other, without overt tension. In Goa, one of my friends, a Christian, was shopping for his father, a Hindu, at a woodcarver’s shop. The Muslim woodcarver suggested an idol of a Hindu god, explaining the god’s significance and why he should choose that one over any others for his father.

I watched Christians from an orphanage caroling through Goa’s streets, and everyone was making plans to celebrate the Muslim holiday that was fast approaching. My overriding thought was that I wished the religious sects could get along so well everywhere.

Though India has been home to much religious infighting, I get the impression that most of it is due to the extremists on both sides, as well as the tension between India and Pakistan.

When I saw the attacks on TV, I was shocked. Terrorist attacks, by their nature, are always shocking, but the fight in Mumbai took place somewhere I have actually been. The bombings of the London metro system came with a similar feeling, but even though I had used the metro many times while I was there, it didn’t come as close as seeing the attacks in Mumbai.

After all, I had eaten in the hotel, stood at the Gateway of India and walked along the grounds of the Chhatrapati Shivaji station. It was only a year ago that I was there, and seeing all those places I can still remember vividly now being a war zone just makes me angry and sad. Had they attacked a military target, I would have disagreed with it, but at least I would have had some respect for their courage. As it is, they’re just a bunch of cowards, and in using those sorts of tactics, I can’t imagine they will ever win.

Monday, November 24, 2008

England's Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace

The changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace in London is one of those things you simply have to see, or so I was told.

A fine English tradition, I looked forward to seeing the Redcoats march in unison, their smart movements showcasing the discipline that helped Great Britain rule an Emprire spanning the globe.

At the tail end of my first trip to Europe, I was in London on an overcast day, and the changing of the guard was the only thing on my list until jumping on the Tube to Heathrow for the flight home.

Approaching Buckingham Palace, I joined the crowd massing in front of the black wrought-iron fence.

I smiled as I saw the sea of red flooding the courtyard, with mounted police and soldiers milling around the outside. Squeezing into a spot between two Brits, I could barely hear the voice of the officer shouting commands.Soldiers milled around, and a pair walked along the edge of the group, chatting with each other out of the corners of their mouths.

At one point, as I waited for the show to start, a short, elderly woman clad in black strode through the crowd.

“I do believe that was the Queen,” said a guy to my right.

Unable to resist, I asked him, in my best English accent, “What makes ya say that?”

“Well, she was short,” he replied.

It was all I could do not to laugh, but I carried on. “Sure, she’s short, but that doesn’t mean she’s the bloody Queen,” I said.

“Yeah, that’s true,” he said.

I figured that if she had been the Queen of England, she wouldn’t have been walking alone through the changing of the guard ceremony. Then again, I can’t think of too many women who could just wantonly stroll through it, either.

It seemed that the ceremony was over before it started. I don’t know if I blinked or missed it while I was pretending to be a local, but I never saw anything overly formal. The same pair of soldiers still strolled along the outskirts continuing their conversation, and the mounted Bobby blew his whistle at someone trying to climb up the fence for a better look.

The mass of Redcoats marched away, leaving only the guards in their shacks, who would stand in that position until they couldn’t handle it anymore, then go through the comical exercise routine that they’re supposed to do.For me, the changing of the guard came as something of a letdown. I wanted to see a huge production, but then again, they have to do it every day. Seeing that many soldiers wearing the classic uniforms was cool, and it was a notch in my belt, so to speak, but it wasn’t what it was hyped up to be.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Misadventures - When Monkeys Attack

Going to India, I really looked forward to seeing monkeys. I don’t know what it is about them that fascinates me, but I’d always wanted to see one.

Reading up on what, before the trip, loomed as an exotic, wild land draped in stereotypes, I was amazed at some of the stories I encountered, especially those regarding monkeys.

The most ominous of those stories was about a pack of monkeys murdering New Delhi’s deputy mayor. OK, maybe murder is the wrong word, but they pushed him off of his balcony, and he fell to his death.
In other news, I read about the problems New Delhi was experiencing with monkey break-ins. There were several reports of monkeys rummaging through refrigerators, then slapping women who tried to stop them. I couldn’t help but laugh at that one.

Possibly the most intriguing story I read regarding the furry little bipeds was the effect they had on New Delhi’s transit system. Apparently, small, mean monkeys frequently rode in the passenger cars on the trains, forcing passengers to ride on the roof by chucking…stuff…at them.

While many countries would find a way to eradicate the problem with varying degrees of damage to the monkeys, Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god, is sacred, making monkeys protected.

What, then, to do?

The answer authorities came up with was rather creative. A larger breed of monkey was drafted into city service. These larger monkeys, Langurs, are friendly to people, but scare the little tyrants out of the train cars.

I did not see this firsthand, but read on a reputable news site that passengers and Langurs ride the cars in harmony.

With so much monkey mayhem evident in the place I was about to spend two weeks, I read up on how to get them to leave me alone.

Don’t make eye contact, and don’t show your teeth, as these are seen as challenges, and the monkeys simply aren’t afraid of people. If you’re holding food, and the monkey asks, then the monkey should get. The “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” phenomenon apparently doesn’t apply.

Being the conscientious travel companion I try to be, I sent off an e-mail to my friends so they, too, would know how to avoid confrontation.

It was on Elephanta Island, in Mumbai’s harbor, when I learned that my friend, Peter, hadn’t bothered to read.

Home to a handful of villages, a cave complex dating back to the 600s and a colony of small monkeys, Elephanta Island is a must-see for tourists. Its caves are one of India’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Walking through the bazaar on the way to the caves, we saw monkey after monkey. Some sat, some played with each other, one stole a vendor’s water bottle and one attacked Peter.

I tried to warn him. About the time I said, “Don’t—” he was dodging the surprisingly agile little beast.
He managed to dodge the attack and retreat in time, but the monkey then stood in the path like the Black Knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Peter stomped his foot, and the monkey held his ground.

None shall pass, indeed.

After a few seconds, the monkey found something more exciting than the standoff and swung through a tree.

We had no more trouble with monkeys for the rest of the trip. In Ranthambore National Park, famed for its tigers and 10th-Century fortress, we saw several. These ones had apparently “gone green” as they drank from the taps and conscientiously shut them off when they were finished.

Down south, in Goa’s capital city of Panaji (Panjim), I was excited to see the bright orange temple to Hanuman. While the sight was certainly impressive, it was oddly devoid of monkeys.

I got my fill of the little creatures on that trip. I still think their antics are hilarious, like watching a semi-human society acting outside all the laws of civility, but I have a new respect for them. They’re noble in their own way, and, being so genetically close to humans, I can see why so many people choose to study them.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Siena - the Embodiment of "Bella Toscana"

Siena is one of those towns where, just by speaking the name, you can capture the imagination of just about anyone. For those who have never been there, it’s a mystical paradise, a small town nestled in the sun-soaked Tuscan hills. For those who have been fortunate enough to walk its cobbled streets, it has the same basic effect.

Due to the vagaries of the Italian daylight savings time, I arrived in the idyllic town with my family after dark, when the shops were closed and everyone was in bed for the night. We took a cab from the deserted train station to our hotel, catching shadowy glimpses of the town’s hidden beauty.

When my alarm went off the next morning, I rubbed my eyes, dragged myself out of bed and opened the shutters of my second-floor room. Looking out the window, Siena, and Tuscany for that matter, was everything I’d anticipated.

Narrow streets were bordered by multistory buildings topped with mossy tile roofs. The view over the town was of rolling hills vaguely reminiscent of California’s Napa Valley in the spring. The hillsides were peppered with villas and other buildings that could have been 20 years old or 200 years old.

Breakfast in the hotel turned out to be one of those moments many travelers experience when outside their own national borders. The family-style meal was shared by us, the Italian owners and an Italian family. None of them could speak English, so a lot of finger-pointing and smiles from everyone made sure we each got our share of the food.

Once outside, we let my sister lead, as she’d been living in Florence for a month and a half and had already visited Siena.

Our first stop was the most magnificent – the Duomo. Built in the late 1300s, the cathedral embodies the Italian Romanesque architecture. It’s smaller than the builders originally intended, since money ran out before its epic proportions could be realized.

What is there, however, doesn’t disappoint. The façade is a medley of colored marble and carvings. The winged statue at the peak looks down on all who enter. Such elegance was built to inspire people’s faith, and standing at the base of the wall, it’s easy to see how that was achieved.

With such a beautiful exterior, I wasn’t expecting the interior to match its splendor, but my assumptions were unfounded. The interior was fantastic, and words really can’t do it justice. Unfortunately, my photos are mostly terrible, but the walls were covered in religious paintings and statues. The black marble floor had white inlaid images of saints and religious figures, and the inside of the dome was painted a deep blue and detailed with golden stars.

Leaving the Duomo, I didn’t believe my sister when she said Florence’s Duomo had a more beautiful façade. I marveled at the power the Catholic Church had in the middle ages, to be able to build so many cathedrals across so many lands that survive to this day.

Our next stop was the Piazza del Campo, where, twice each year, horse races are run, and Siena’s 17 neighborhoods renew their rivalries. When we were there, however, the piazza was full of people, most sitting in the sunlit open center and admiring the architecture surrounding them. We decided it was a good idea, so we bought gelato from a nearby vendor and joined them.

Siena’s old town is small, and we decided to see if we could lose ourselves within it. That proved to be difficult, but we were happy to wander the many small streets and alleyways, seeing how new buildings were built right on top of the old.

During our wandering, we came across many ceramics shops. The friendly proprietors of one invited us in, and explained that they make all of their wares by hand. The pieces are extremely good, and the prices tended to reflect that.

For lunch, we ate pizza, which always seems better in Italy. The thin crust and varied toppings complemented each other perfectly, and the Peroni beer had the effect of confirming that I was, in fact, in Italy.

With limited time in the town, we made our last stop before leaving for Florence – the Basilica of San Domenico. In stark contrast to the Duomo’s elegance and beauty, the basilica, which was built a little more than a hundred years earlier, is a mostly ugly, symmetrical brown building with a fairly boring exterior.

Despite its unimpressive exterior, it houses something I have yet to see anywhere else – the head of a Catholic saint. The head belonged to Saint Catherine, who lived during the building of the Duomo. I wasn’t at all spiritually moved by seeing the woman’s head (complete with skin I seem to recall was added after a hundred years or so), but it was definitely a memorable sight, as it sat there looking back at me.

Leaving Siena, I was left with the impression that it was everything it was cracked up to be – which should speak volumes for the town. Though I doubt I could live there for too long before feeling the need to be in a bustling city, it joins Rothenburg and Bruges as one of my favorite small towns in the world.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Travel Tips: Foreign Airlines Provide Good Alternatives

Air travel is expensive, and options often seem limited for that flight to, say, Prague. One thing I discovered in flying with United Airlines was that money can be saved by flying with their Star Alliance partners, including Air Canada and Lufthansa (of Germany).

The benefit to programs like the Star Alliance is that travelers can make use of different routes and, often, cheaper fares. Furthermore, with a partnership program, you can book different legs of your flight on different carriers, but since they work together, you're not out of luck if you miss a flight. From my experience, the amenities on foreign-flag carriers exceed those of American carriers.

Lufthansa, for example, offers free beer and wine, and you need not be 21. Oh, and the beer is good German beer. You can actually have anything you want, said one male flight attendant to my sister, adding, "even me."

I don't mean to bash on American carriers, but I just felt more pampered when I flew on Air Canada, Lufthansa and British Airways (Even economy carriers in India, like SpiceJet and Kingfisher, took great care of the flyers).

There are, however, boundaries. Unlike the United States, where we have a tradition centered around the ideal of the customer is always right and really have good service ingrained in our culture, some other cultures are more willing to give it to you bluntly.

When I was aboard a Lufthansa 777, soaring somewhere over Ireland as we dropped toward Frankfurt, a German flight attendant carrying a pitcher strolled down one aisle, offering, "tea, tea, tea."

Though it was obvious to me what she had, a woman in the row in front of me wasn't so perceptive. "I'll have coffee," she said, excitedly.

The flight attendant leaned toward the lady and said, "I have tea. That's why I'm saying, 'Tea, tea, tea.' " With each "tea," she moved a few inches closer to the woman.

Perhaps the customer is usually right, but sometimes stupid.

Waiting to take off from Brussels on a British Airways flight, the chief flight attendant, in her English accent that just somehow added to her authority, told everyone to turn off the cell phones, electronic devices, etc.

Several seconds later, her voice addressed the entire cabin again. This time, she was clearly annoyed. "One of my cabin attendants has informed me that someone is using a mobile telephone. Turn it off immediately. You may think you're being clever, but you're not."

Of course, everyone in the plane looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of the sufficiently chastened passenger.

To me, those episodes were comical and well-deserved. Having served a few thousand people in the restaurants I worked at, I also understand that many Americans simply can't take that kind of criticism. If that's you, perhaps you should stick with Delta or something.

Foreign-flagged carriers are a great alternative for flights to distant parts. They often allow a better option for arrival and departure times, and are sometimes government-subsidized, allowing for cheaper airfare. I would do a quick Internet search on their safety records before booking a flight, but it's always in their best interest not to crash multimillion dollar aircraft, so they all typically make safety a chief concern.