Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Christmas Tree of Prague

When I landed in Prague, I stepped out of the plane onto the runway, which was being dusted with a fine coating of snow, then boarded the bus to the terminal.

As the taxi drove my family and I to our hotel, I got my first views of the city I had dreamed of coming to for so long. The headlights illuminated block after block of Baroque architecture.

It wasn’t what I had expected. I’d been told Prague was beautiful, and I’d seen pictures of course, but I had always assumed that I had seen the historic heart of the town. Little did I know that most of the city, aside from what the Soviets built, retains its historic architecture and facades.

We stopped at our hotel, the Pension Green Garland, dropped our luggage off, and walked a couple short blocks to the Old Town Square, dominated by its clock tower and the belfries of the Church of Our Lady of Týn.

The sight would have been magnificent in its own right, but it was made more so by the cluster of low-slung shacks that made up the Christmas market, selling decorations, trinkets, souvenirs and food. Towering over the Christmas market was the best Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.

It wasn’t ostentatious, but it was so well-done that it just looked right at place, and the ornaments weren’t even the focal point. Aside from the bluish lights that occasionally flashed, there were another type of light that I had never seen before, but would see all over France and Germany in the next couple of weeks. They were foot-long tubes of LED lights that scrolled downward. The effect made the tree appear to be dripping light.

At other places around the square, tall wire-framed angels bedecked in lights and playing trumpets added to the festive spirit. As I worked through the crowds under the light snow to scope out some of the food, ranging from sausages to Trdlo (a cinnamon-roll type food I will write about soon), a group of carolers on a nearby stage struck up Christmas songs…in English.

I gazed around and savored the moment. I stood under an overhang out of the snow, sharing the space with a group of Czechs sipping their hot mulled wine and eating sausages. To think that it has only been 20 years since the Communists were thrown out seemed absurd. The city was brightly painted and everyone seemed happy.

My overall impression of Prague on that first night was of a city basking in

its freedom. Though it saw better glory years when it was a commercial center and prospered under the rule of kings such as Charles IV, I think that to be so alive in such a relatively short time after the drab life under Communist rule, the heart of the city makes a statement for itself and the Czech Republic.

As I explored Prague over the next few days, there was always something more I wanted to see. While it doesn’t beat Paris for my favorite city in the world (that’s a pretty tall order), I loved my time there. Unlike much of Europe, it wasn’t ravaged in the wars of the past century, and remains one of the best-preserved capitals in the world.

As I went through Europe after visiting Prague, I traveled to medieval walled cities dusted with snow, larger cities famous for their Christmas markets such as Nuremberg in Germany and Strasbourg and Paris in France, but none of them eclipsed Prague for the feeling of festivity and beauty of the tree. Despite my affinity for Paris, the tree in front of Notre Dame on Christmas Eve didn’t come close to evoking the same sense of majesty as the one in Prague.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Travel Tips: Staying Healthy

Nothing ruins a trip faster than getting sick, and you’re more prone to getting sick when you travel than staying home, depending on where you go.

I never really worried about any health issues when I traveled before I went to India. Europe was (and remains) just like the U.S. where health is concerned. The same restrictions aren’t always in place (the French don’t Pasteurize their camembert cheese, for example), but most developed nations typically don’t pose a threat.
In traveling to India, I went under the impression that I would be sick at some point. That notion was reinforced when I arrived in Mumbai and read an article in one of the newspapers that said a study had proven 98 percent of Mumbai’s water is contaminated.

Call it what you want – Montezuma’s Revenge, Delhi Belly – but it’s not something you need to experience.

Knowing that Kaiser owed me something for the obscene amount of money I have to pay them each month, I went into the travel clinic and stocked up on what I would need before heading to an undeveloped nation.

It turned out that I needed five shots – hepatitis B, tetanus, a polio booster and two others. In addition to the sore upper arm, they gave me a prescription for malaria pills and extra-strength diarrhea medication and a helpful printout showing where malaria is present and what other types of things I should watch out for.

The malaria pills were annoying, needing to be taken daily from the day before I left until four weeks after I returned, but I gather they were much more pleasant than having the disease.

In addition to going to your doctor, there are several things you need to do to stay healthy, wherever you go. I’ll focus mostly on the places where tap water is assumed to be contaminated.

1. Don’t drink the water. Buy bottled water, and make sure the safety seal is intact and that some enterprising local hasn’t just picked up cast-off bottles and filled them anew with tap water (it happens).

2. When you shower, keep your eyes and mouth closed, and brush your teeth with bottled water as well.

3. Don’t eat anything that has been washed in the local water. Salads, fruits, vegetables and even produce on a sandwich can all carry the bacteria of the water in which they were "washed." Many restaurants, especially in the areas catering to tourists, actually have filtered water for that purpose. Ask the server, and hope you get the truth.

4. Food from street vendors is OK, but be judicious in what you order. Sometimes the meat will sit in the stall, unrefrigerated, until it is consumed. Don’t eat what isn’t cooked in front of you from a street vendor.

5. Get plenty of sleep. When I went to India, I traveled for 22 hours, leaving home at 5 a.m. and arriving in India at 10:30 p.m. and then going to my hotel. That takes a toll on your body, and if you’re already feeling ill, it will exacerbate the problem.

6. Bring a selection of over-the-counter medicines for the typical problems you have everywhere. Tylenol and Advil can work wonders, and Dramamine is good if you’re prone to motion sickness and might want to do something like a boat excursion on a cruise.

7. Use hand sanitizer. It's cheap, it comes in small-enough packages to bring in your carry-on, and it weighs next to nothing. A squirt of hand sanitizer before eating will kill most of the germs you picked up on railings, door handles, handholds in the metro and all sorts of places. It's not being germophobic, just cautious.

If you have medical needs, be they pills, syringes of insulin or anything like that, you should bring a note from your doctor on official letterhead explaining what they are and why you need them. Getting locked up on drug charges for something benign would also ruin a trip.

Reading the precautions made me think I would starve at the expense of not getting an upset stomach. The reality is that most restaurant food is probably safe, and even small amounts of questionable food probably won’t pose a problem.

There are also “safe drinks.” Anyhting that has been boiled is OK. The chai (tea) that street vendors carry around in thermoses is not only good, but perfectly fine, as the water is hot enough to kill the bacteria.

I managed to spend two weeks in India without even a hint of sickness. At one point, I wanted a chicken sandwich at an airport. It had quite a bit of lettuce on it, and I saw an American-looking pilot standing a short distance away, so I asked him if it was safe to eat there.

“I thought Americans were brave,” he said jokingly, in an accent I couldn’t quite place.

“Yes well, under the right circumstances, I suppose,” I replied.

“It’s perfectly safe to eat here,” he replied. "I eat here all the time, and I never get sick." He added that he was Polish and flew for one of India’s airlines. I talked with him for a while about India’s domestic air carriers, finding out that most of them have American and European pilots who have a tough time getting into the competitive industry back home.

When I went to get that sandwich I had been eying, the friendly Pole shouted after me, “Be brave, American!”

We both laughed, but I still prefer being a bit more cautious than brave. I ate all kinds of food in India, and I enjoyed it all.

The only worrisome part came when my friend and I ordered Jack and cokes, only to get them in glasses full of ice. We looked at each other and decided guzzling them was preferable to letting the ice melt.