Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Photo of the Week: Sea Turtle

Napili Bay on Maui, Hawaii, has two reefs, making it a great place to spot sea turtles. This one was eating off some rocks near the point.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Travel Tips: Know Where You're Staying

I know it sounds obvious, but I had to learn it the hard way.

A day that started with waking up in the middle of the night to end up getting conned, surviving the most dangerous car ride of my life and seeing the Taj Mahal ended with my learning the hard way to always take a business card or at least write down the address of the place you left your luggage.
(The swastika, by the way, is very common in India and has nothing to do with Nazis.)

At four-something in the morning, when our cabbie tol
d us he would be available to pick us up at the train station at the end of the day to take us back to our hotel, we got his cell number and thought we were good. We knew we were staying at the Hotel Solitaire Plaza in the Lajpat Nagar area of New Delhi. We thought this information was more than enough to get us back home.

We were wrong.

About 20 hours later, after being on the road for most of the day, we were pulling into the traffic mess that is New Delhi, the driver who had taken us to the Taj Mahal (who wasn't our cabbie from earlier in thed day) having assured us he knew where our hotel was.

Except he didn't.

"Hotel Solitaire Plaza, in Lajpat Nagar," I said in response to his question. I expected him to say somehting like, "Oh, yeah. That one."

He didn't. I still wasn't worried. It's not like the hotel had gone anywhere. I pulled out my cell phone and dialed our cabbie's number. It was late, and he didn't answer.

I suggested we stop at a tourism office. We finally found one that was open after about 30 minutes of driving, and the man behind the counter wanted money to let me look at his poster. I told him I would pay for Internet access instead, but, for the life of me, I could not find the hotel online. I talked the guy into checking for the address, but he didn't have it.

Still not overly concerned, we got back in the car, and I dialed our cabbie again. No luck.

"Just drive to Lajpat Nagar, and we'll ask someone," I said. Believe it or not, this is the best way to get directions in India. My first hotel in Mumbai had the address listed as "Near Gateway of India, Apollo Bunder." I don't like the words "near," "sort of," "close to," or "maybe" in an address, but that's just how it is.

My plan would have worked, I'm sure, except our driver didn't know where Lajpat Nagar was.

I couldn't believe it and tried calling the cabbie again. By this time, we'd been looking for our hotel for two hours. Yes, two hours. All four of us - the driver and my two friends - just wanted it to be done.

The cabbie answered, so I handed the phone to the driver, who pulled over to talk.

In a country where running a red light is 400 rupees ($10) and speeding is 200 rupees, talking on the phone while driving is a 1,600 rupee fine.

The driver hung up, and it was like a lightbulb had come on.

"Laj Putnugger," he said. I frowned, handed him a paper, and asked him to write it. He wrote it as "Lajpat Nagar." I was too tired to argue the intricacies of pronunciation with him.

As it turned out, we were just a few minutes from our hotel.

When we stopped, our driver jumped out and gave us all big hugs, thanking one of the estimated 3,000 gods in the Hindu religion repeatedly. We tipped him and staggered up to our room which, despite its lacking in some areas (like lightbulbs, as Deon proves in the picture below), was the only place I wanted to be.

For the rest of my life, no matter how obvious the place I'm staying is, I will make sure I have the address and phone number of my hotel.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Photo of the Week: Rafting the Truckee River

Rafters heading down the Truckee River last year. I took it on the way to Lake Tahoe, and rafting on the river is usually pretty tame, since we never seem to get enough rain these days to make it run quickly. I remember going several years ago and having to drag the raft over a couple of high spots. Spring and early summer is probably the best time to go.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Misadventures: Getting Conned

At only one point in my life have I overtly threatened someone with physical harm and meant it. Unfortunately for the two Indians sitting across the counter from me, they were the target of my anger.

What brought me to that point started the night before, when my two friends and I purchased train tickets to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. In a country where most people we'd spoken to had a basic command of English, we thought buying train tickets would be fairly simple.

It wasn't. Everyone had forgotten to speak English, and we couldn't even guess at the destinations, since the train schedules all looked like the picture below. Add to that the fact that once we got to the ticket window, after cleverly avoiding a pair of pickpockets and pointing them out to everyone in the station, it turned out that only Indian citizens could buy from it.

The window we had to go to was in a separate building half a mile away. Even when we'd paid for our tickets and gotten the receipt, I had no idea if we were actually going to end up in Agra. For all I knew, our ticket was for Srinagar.

About eight hours after purchasing our ticket, my alarm was buzzing and I rolled out of bed. I don't mind being awake at 4 a.m. if I haven't gone to bed yet, but to actually wake up that early really gets to me.

We were at the train station by 5:15 to catch our 6 a.m. train to Agra, having been amazed that, yes, there is a time of the day when New Delhi's streets aren't gridlocked.

Squinting to read the ticket, I saw we were supposed to go to platform one. All I saw were platforms 6-12. I asked a local, and he started to point me in the right direction, but then another guy showed up and took over after a few seconds of rapid-fire Hindi whizzed past my uncomprehending face.

The second guy, pointed at the tickets and told us we didn't have the tourist stamp. Had my brain been working even a little bit, I would have seen through this obvious and time-tested scam, but I, along with my friends, followed the guy we thought was helping us to a tourism office where he said we could get our tickets stamped.

Two elderly Indians pretended to look at a computer screen and told us all the tourist seats were full, and we were out of luck. I argued with them for about half an hour, telling them there was no reason we couldn't ride second class with all the locals, but he made up some lies about laws to protect local passenger seating or something.

Playing the ever-helpful TI staffer, he was able to get us a car to take us to Agra - for the princely sum of $135 each (our train ticket for three people had been $50).

By this point, we'd missed our train, but I remembered reading something in the Lonely Planet guide six months earlier.

"Let me see your credentials," I said.

"We don't have to show them to you," the man said with an air of superiority.

"Lonely Planet says you do. It's a law."

"Let me see this Lonely Planet."

"No. Show me your credentials."

At this, the man turned to his cohort, who was maybe old enough to have met some British colonists when they first came to India, and produced a book full of blank pages with the India Tourism Office seal on them.

"Here you are, sir. You see? We like Americans. We are authorized."

"No. You're a scam artist," I said, mad at myself as much as at him. "Since we can't use the train ticket, you will refund us the money for it."

"I cannot do this," he replied.

"Yes, you can." I sat back and folded my arms, knowing I wasn't all that much of a threat, but the two guys with me, who had jest returned from 15 months in Iraq, might give him pause.

"I can give you half."

"You will give me all of it."

"This I cannot do."

I leaned forward. "You will give me all of it, or I will step over this counter, take every last rupee in your cash register, and if you stand in my way, you're going to get hurt."

The man's eyes flitted between me and my friends before he said something in Hindi and the amount of our train fare magically appeared on the counter.

It was a small victory, but at least it was something.

Back in the hotel room 20 hours later, one of my friends picked up the Lonely Planet guide.

"If you are told you need a tourist stamp on your ticket," he said, paraphrasing a paragraph in the book, "it is a popular scam. There are no tourist stamps. You will be taken to a nonofficial tourism office and pay exorbitant fees for transportation. The good thing to remember is that there is very little threat of physical harm."

"For tourists," I thought.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Photo of the Week: Florence's Duomo

This is Florence's Duomo - Brunneleschi's masterpiece. Each year at Easter, the Florentines roll a cart full of fireworks to go off in the square in front of the church. Interior decorations in Siena's duomo are more detailed, but Florence's is bigger and better-detailed on the outside.

Travel Tips: Packing Light

The photo below includes everything I took with me to Europe for 16 days over Christmas in 2008, minus what I was wearing.

I can't stress enough how important it is to take as little as possible if you are going to be traveling to more than a couple of cities.

I almost never stay in the same place for more than three days, and lugging around a cartload of stuff I don't need makes it very hard to get on and o
ff trains, subways, taxis and airplanes.

Taking only a carry-on suitcase and a backpack also means I don't need to check any luggage on the airlines, so there's really no chance of my bags being lost before the trip even starts.

And yes, women can travel just as light. My mom and sister each carried everything they needed for the trip in equally small packages.

In the picture above, I have my digital SLR camera with a flash and an extra lens, an iPod, a GPS unit, a pair of shoes, a camera tripod, three novels and a guide book, 12 shirts, four pairs of pants, my snowboarding jacket, a beanie, boxers and socks for 16 days, my soap, toothbrush, shampoo, razor, shaving cream and a bottle of water I forgot I would have to chuck before boarding the plane.

Thats obviously not enough clothes to sustain me for the whole trip, but that's what laundromats are for. Knowing you're going to be buying souvenirs, thus adding to what you're carrying, it's best to bring as little as possible.

One guidebook author recommends setting out everything you're going to take on a trip, getting rid of half of it, then doubling the money. I think tha
t's great advice.

Look at the two pictures below. The first is Paris' Metro. The second is Rome's. When you're worried about pickpockets and keeping all of your luggage with you, along with that bag of sandwiches you just bought at the corner market, the last thing you want to do is try to negotiate the crush of people getting on and off at each stop with more bags than you can carry.

Traveling in winter meant I was taking some bulky clothing. I had a full-length coat and a pair of bulky waterproof shoes for hiking around muddy trails up to castles and through vineyards. The best solution for transporting the bulky clothing is to wear it.

Since my bags are always full when I go, I either bring a collapsible duffel bag or buy one wherever I'm headed to make room for souvenirs. It invariable becomes the place for dirty laundry that I end up checking for the flight home. I won't shed any tears if my dirty laundry gets stuck in Chicago for a couple of days anyway.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Taste of Travel: French Cuisine

I stared at the menu, trying to decide if I should go for it.

It was dinnertime on what will probably remain the odd
est Christmas of my life.

The morning had started in Paris with a breakfast of croissants, baguette and comte Noel cheese in my hotel room on Rue Cler with my family. Following that was a trip to the Arc de Triomphe and a walk down the Champs ElyseƩs, with stops at the only stores open that day - Peugeot and Mercedes dealerships (which were oddly crowded). A trip to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery followed that, and I had just come from the Sacre Coeur church in Montmartre.

I laughed as I thought about how going to the red light district - our next stop for the evening - would somehow fit in with the mix of things we'd done that day.

I wasn't sure, however, what I should do about dinner. I was holding the tourist menu - a set price for a selection of food that isn't always a deal - and deciding what I would have. The main course was easy. I was going to savor a steak au poivre with French fries. I thought ice cream sounded good for dessert, and a carafe of red wine would accompany the meat well.

It was the starter t
hat was holding me up. I didn't really want a crepe, and French onion soup I thought the salad would be good, but it seemed like something I would get at home, and therefore had no appeal to me (something had to make the meal memorable).

I was vaguely aware of the server taking my family's orders, and when he came to me, I ordered the steak, the ice cream and...the escargot.

"Ah, he is the French one!" the server said.

My sister curled her lip, my dad laughed and my mom looked at me with disbelief.

At home, I can be somewhat picky
. I really do hate tomatoes if they aren't mashed into oblivion as part of a pizza sauce or diluted by the broth of minestrone soup, I'm mildly allergic to cantaloupe and I typically stay away from bell peppers, ketchup and mustard.

Part of travel, as far as I'm c
oncerned, is trying the foods of other cultures. When I went to India, I had almost no idea what I was eating most of the time, but I ate it all. On a trip to Italy, I tried tripe (before I saw a rather disgusting video on how cow intestines are processed to make that particular dish). Most recently, in Reims, I'd eaten homemade foie gras - despite that I'd sworn I'd never eat a liver, since it's inherently stupid to eat something that filters out all the bad stuff we ingest.

By the time I was starting to have second thoughts, it was too late. Our server set down a pan full of six snails - sans shells - in a garlic, olive oil and pesto sauce.

"Aren't they usually served in their shells?" I asked.

"Oui, but we have a lot of tourists,
and they don't always know how to use the fork to get the snail out, and it's bad when they get thrown across the room," the server replied.

It seemed sensible, albeit much less fun.

The server left, I picked up my fork and stared at the slimy little things I'd stepped on so many times in my life. I wondered if I could really bring myself to eat them, but knowing my whole family was watching me, I speared one of them on my fork. The skin gave a little resistance, then the fork slid in easily, the same way it feels when stabbing a sausage.

I rolled the little blob around in the sauce, hoping this would be one of those foods that has no real taste except for what it's dipped in, and brought it to my mouth.

Initially, I wanted to gag, but as I pulled it off the fork, I forced myself not to think about what I was eating. It almost worked. The taste was fine - it was the texture that induced the choking sensation I felt as I swallowed.

I looked over at my mom, told her it didn't taste bad and suggested she try one. The rapid head shaking told me that wasn't going to happen, and my sister looked like she wanted to be somewhere else, so I popped another one in my mouth.

When I swallowed my third snail, I offered one of the three remaining to my dad, who decided he'd give it a go. That made one less that I had to eat, and I secretly wished he'd ask for another, but he didn't, so I ate the last two.

I was left with a pot of olive oil, pesto and garlic, which is perfect for dipping bread in, but when I offered my mom a piece of bread with the sauce on it - something she would never turn down at home - she refused because snails had been in the same pot. My sister was in the same boat, so I ended up eating it all.

The steak au poivre was fantastic, the French fries were what you'd expect, and the ice cream was also delicious. In sticking with the odd theme for the day, the power in the restaurant went out three times during our dinner, and the server told us it was a warning because they hadn't paid their bill. I'm not really inclined to believe him, but he said it so seriously that I thought it just might be true.

In any case, he wasn't the stereotypical rude Parisian waiter (I actually haven't found one). His English was excellent, and he enjoyed poking fun at us in a friendly way. When my mom asked if something on the menu was good, he replied, "No, that one we have had on the shelf for three months, and we're hoping someone buys it."

Having worked in restaurants for seven years, I thought that was a fair answer.

The restaurant, Au Pichet du Tertre, was very good, and is just off the main artists' square in Montmartre. Despite its location, prices were decent, with the tourist menu including a starter, main course and dessert for 12 euros. (The address is 10 Rue Norvins).

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Photo of the Week: Fortress

This is part of a French fortress on the island of Saint Martin, in the French Antilles (Sint Maarten in the Dutch Antilles). The island is divided between French and Dutch sides, and really wasn't what I was expecting. Though it's in the Caribbean, it feels more desert than tropical, but it's still worth a visit, and the guavaberry liqueur - and all its associated beverages - is awesome.

This photo is about as close as I got to the fort since time was limited (a drawback of going on cruises), but I could just imagine how imposing it must have looked to a Royal Navy or pirate vessel when the Caribbean, with its crops of tobacco and sugar, was one of the economic trade centers of the world and was the scene of intense battles at times.