Monday, February 27, 2012

Around the World: Liberation Day

February 27, 1992

Awoke from yet another dream in French.  What the dream was about, I don't remember.  I was apparently talking in my sleep and found myself awake and in mid conversation with Sabina, who, unlike me, speaks French fluently.  It takes me a few minutes to figure out why I don't understand everything she is saying.

Yesterday was spent visiting nearby markets and searching for souvenirs.  The encounter with Mr. Touchy-Feelie seems to be an unfortunate and isolated incident.  For the most part, Egyptians are a decent, respectful people.

Today, begins the journey back to the realm of the familiar, as I make my way to London, England.  Sabina and I said our farewells at the hotel and she gave me her address in Switzerland, with an invitation to visit when I'm in the neighbourhood. 

I expected a direct flight, but this is not the case.  The flight will to backtrack to Bahrain, through Doha, Qatar on the way to London.  When the plane arrives in Doha, all the passengers are led down a portable staircase to collect our baggage, lined up at the bottom of the stairs.  We are then led to a tent where all baggage will be carefully inspected before boarding the plane to Bahrain.  I was not expecting this detour and dressed for optimum comfort on the plane by carefully selecting the only clean items of clothing in my possession.  A pair of shorts and a T-shirt.

Arriving at the front of the line, I am greeted by a stern looking customs official and two security guards carrying very large automatic weapons.  The official asks me to open my bag and step back behind a line about three feet from the table.  As he digs through the unlaundered contents of my knapsack with his gloved hand, I hope the odor emitting from my bag isn't a criminal offense.  Satisfied, the official motions me to step forward and close up my knapsack.  A request that is easier said than done.

He tells me to take a seat on a wooden bench, away from the other passengers who are invited to sit under the shelter of the tent on padded chairs.  The other passengers, mostly men, are dressed in standard regional attire, long, white, flowing robes.  Their heads are covered by a large, red and white checkered cloth secured with a black ring.  I try to remind myself that this is likely the standard attire for the region, although it strikes me as odd that everybody is wearing the same outfit.  I guess that makes choosing what to wear on any given day an easy task.  The checkered bandanas remind me of the tea towels my grandmother always had hung on the handle of her stove. I should call her when I get settled in London.

Qatari men
Photo by An Englishman Abroad

While I sit all by myself in my shorts and T-shirt in the sun, a very tidy man with a white head covering held on with a black ring, and decorated with gold jewelry, struts proudly past me.  He is followed by an entourage of ghost-like beings draped in different pastel colours of long, flowing sheets.  What have these people done that they are forbidden from being seen in public?  From behind a woven mesh screen, their eyes indicate that they are women.  They follow him obediently, almost with militaristic precision, careful to keep a specific distance between him and each other.

Is there anybody in there?  Just nod if you can hear me...

I cannot comprehend how anyone would feel justified treating another human being in this manner solely because of their gender.  I cannot understand how anyone could tolerate it.  And then I see the armed guards, and the size of their weapons.  I notice everyone is completely covered, which I could understand if we were all riding camels through the desert.  I also realize I'm the only one dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, exposing quite a bit of leg, knee, arm and face.  My unruly, curly, sun-bleached hair is blown about freely by the wind.  The armed guards and their very large guns make me very nervous.  The announcement to board the flight is a welcome relief.

When the plane lands in Bahrain, the passengers are led to the departure lounge until the flight to London is ready for boarding.  Bahrain's airport is a mixture of Middle East meets conservative West.  I realize I'm still dressed like a slob, but not the only one displaying a little bit of flesh. 

In London's Gatwick Airport, I am greeted by the immigration officer who conducts a very polite and matter-of-fact inquisition.  He wants to see my ticket, and know how much money I have with me, how long I plan to stay, where I plan to go, and exactly when I will be leaving.  It strikes me as a strange way to greet a guest.  "Hi, welcome to London.  When are you leaving?"  Um... dunno.  Can I come in first?

Welcome to London.  Were you planning on visiting? 

Once I was given the official welcome, howdy do stamp of approval in my passport, I phoned Pauline, who I met in Indonesia.  She was much friendlier than than customs official and glad to know I had arrived safely in London.  She gave me directions to her bed and breakfast in a little town called Bournemouth.  Two hours later, I am settled in a quaint little inn just steps from the beach and next door to a small, but fully functional pub.

Civilization.  How I've missed you so. 

• ¤ •
"Any power must be an enemy of mankind which enslaves the individual by power and by force.  All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded to the individual."
~Albert Einstein

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Around the World: Survival Instinct

February 25, 1992

This post is dedicated to the all the women who are survivors of violence.

The Tower of Cairo has stunning views of the city and the Nile. Sabina and I are off in search of this popular city landmark.

It's easy enough to find the Nile, but finding a bridge to get to the other side, where the tower is located, is another matter. I ask a young man walking the opposite way if we are headed the right way to the nearest bridge.

Photo courtesy of PlanetWare

"You are going to the Tower of Cairo? They will charge you more because you are tourist. Let me buy your entry ticket. I am Egyptian, I will get it for much less than you pay."

We both decline, after all, he was going the opposite way. "Please," he insists, "I am a student. I would love to show you something in Cairo."

Along the way, he tells us the Tower of Cairo is a popular spot for marriage proposals, with it's romantic view of the city. He pays for our tickets and will not accept our money to repay him. He accompanies us to the viewing area at the top where there is a restaurant. We offer to buy him a drink to repay his generosity.

Sabina and I sit opposite each other in a booth, and the man sits beside me. He wants to know where we are from and what of Cairo we have seen. He reaches past me for the salt on the table. As he pulls it back, his arm brushes over my chest.

I give him a disapproving look. "Sorry, so sorry," he says. He is still saying sorry as he tries to put the salt back. I put one arm between my chest and his arm, and take the salt from him with the other, successfully blocking his second attempt.

The view from the Tower of Cairo.

Sabina is looking at the map. "Oh, you have to see this place," he says pretending to point to the map. He reaches too far, and brushes his hand over her chest. "Sorry, so sorry." She gives him a forgiving smile. She looks at me concerned and understands my 'what-the-hell' expression. This guy wants something he's just not going to get.

"Well, it has been a pleasure meeting you," Sabina says, packing up the map.

I stand and encourage him to move so I can get out of the booth. "Thanks for getting us Egyptian prices, but we really have to be going."

He rides the elevator down with us. At the entrance, we say goodbye and abruptly walk away.

Walking at a brisk pace, we discuss what a creep he was and give him a few choice nicknames. I check behind us and discover we are being followed. I tell Sabina, suggesting we stop and pretend to look distracted.  Perhaps he is just going the same direction we are, but we agree it would be best to give him the chance to get ahead of us.

That plan backfires.  He walks right up to us, greeting us with, "Sorry, so sorry."  We make it quite clear that he is not welcome and should leave. He approaches Sabina, still apologizing, and puts both hands on each of her breasts. Sabina pushes him off and turns her back to him.  She is visibly shaken, so I position myself between the creep and Sabina and brace myself to push him away hard. I'm telling him to get the f#ck lost when, suddenly, his hand is between my legs.

If I had time to make a fist, I fear I would have seriously hurt him. What happened next was completely automatic. My arm forced my cupped hand into the side of his head with such force, it knocked him to the ground several feet away from me. When the vision enclosing rage cleared, I see he is trying to get back up on his feet.

I am, by no means, a fighter. I have been described as a toothpick in over sized clothing, hardly a sight that would put fear in anyone. Here I am the one standing over this despicable low-life. My reaction is fueled by fear, anger and disgust. If he gets up on his feet, anything can happen, none of it good for me.

"Sorry, so sorry," he pleads, still trying to get up. Instinctively, I keep stepping toward him, knowing that with every step I take, he scrambles to crawl backward. At least it keeps him off balance and I can only hope it's making him nervous.

I don't think I said anything to him while he struggled on the ground. I do remember picturing myself on the 50 yard line, quite prepared to punt his testicles for a field goal. Because I prefer he just goes away rather than engage him in a physical contest, I give him the opportunity to avoid the three-point-pain he's due. "If you get up," I hear my voice warn him sternly, "you better run."

And, fortunately for everyone, that's exactly what he did.

After calming down and making sure the idiot is gone, Sabina and I continue toward our hotel. After a beer, we plot a sufficiently miserable and torturous demise for the creep. Half way through the second, we are able to find some of the situation almost humorous, especially how he will explain the bruises my fingertips have embedded on the side of his face.

Regardless of the methods we use to comfort ourselves, we cannot deny that we are incredibly fortunate to have fared as well as we did.  That sobering thought is reason enough to order another round.

• ¤ •

"I think you have to know who you are, get to know the monster that lives in your soul, dive deep into your soul and explore it."
~Tori Amos

In 1994, the DC Rape Crisis Center awarded Tori Amos a Visionary award for the song, "Me and a Gun" and the co-creation of RAINN. Click here for an international directory of rape crisis support resources.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Around the World: Pyramids of Giza

February 23, 1992

The taxi ride from the hotel to the edge of the Sahara desert is short.  A road is all that separates the pyramids of Giza and the ancient tombs of the Pharaohs from the modern (by comparison) city of Cairo.

Arial view of Cairo and the The Pyramids of Giza.

The entrance fee is tripled for tourists, but students get a discount which makes the price just slightly more than the Egyptian fee.  I show my Ontario driver's licence to the cashier and tell her it's my student identification.  She doesn't ask any questions and charges me the student amount.

The big black shawl I bought yesterday is very handy.  The temperature rapidly fluctuates between cool and hot, depending on the direction and intensity of the wind.  Anything stronger than a gentle breeze kicks up the fine desert sand and whips it at my eyes.  It feels like stinging needles on my skin.  Wrapping myself up in the shawl is my only shelter.

It's difficult to imagine the sheer grandeur and size of these pyramids until you find yourself standing next to one.  Each square stone is almost the height of me, all laid without the aid of heavy machinery and with meticulous precision.  It's only then that one can even attempt to appreciate the effort and ingenuity required to build this enormous structure .

Pyramid vs. Man (on a camel)
Photo by Tinou Bao

There are three main pyramids at Giza.  The Great Pyramid is the tomb of the great Egyptian king, Khufu, and the tallest pyramid ever constructed.  Built on a base that covers 13 acres, Khufu once stood 488 ft tall. The erosion of the limestone covering has shrunk Khufu to a height just over 455 ft.  Built around 2560 BC, Khufu held the distinction as the tallest building on Earth until the French built the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

The middle pyramid is the tomb of Khufu's son, Khafre.  Standing 446 ft tall, it is the only one of the three that still bears some of the polished limestone outer casing at it's top that once covered all the pyramids.  There is a steep, narrow passage, about one meter in height and width, that allows visitors to crawl into the chamber under the pyramid.  The small space did nothing to help my claustrophobia, especially knowing that once inside, I was committed to completing the trip to the bottom.  The end of the tunnel opens into a larger passageway and into several empty chambers.

Passage into Khafre's tomb.
Photo by Ashish Agarwal

Khafre's son, Menkaure, built the smallest pyramid, standing only 215 ft tall.  In front of Mehkaure are three smaller pyramids, called the Pyramids of the Queens. 

From the right: Khufu, Khafra and Menkaure with the
Pyramids of the Queens in front.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia, Creative Commons.

The Great Sphinx of Giza is a massive monolith depicting a mythical creature with a lion's body and a human head. Situated on the west side of Khafre, it seems to guard the tombs of the Pharaohs, although the purpose of its construction remains a subject of controversy.  Made of soft sandstone, the Sphinx likely would not have survived the harsh desert climate had it not been buried in sand for most of its existence.  Restoration work is constant and despite careful efforts, often results in further damage.

The Sphinx and Khafre
Photo by Mrs Logic

After taking in the incredible experience of the Giza Pyramids, another taxi returns us back to the hotel. Along the way, I made note of the Arabic numbers as they scrolled by on the meter. Perhaps I can improve my bartering skills, or at the very least know what things cost if I can recognize some basic numbers.

Sabina and I end the day at the Excelsior, the bar I discovered yesterday.  Dinner is made up of donair, meat sliced from a vertical rotisserie and served wrapped in a pita.  We talk and laugh over a couple Stellas before returning to the hotel for the evening. I don't think I'll ever lose the feeling of awe I felt today, being able to touch and experience one of the few remaining true wonders of the world.

• ¤ •

"The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed."
~Albert Einstein

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Around the World: Cairo et Ale

February 22, 1992

"Le gateau, mettre le glaçage blanc sur le gâteau."  I'm having a dream, telling someone to put white icing on a cake.  I don't know why I'm speaking French in my sleep.

After a leisurely start to the morning, and of course, another shower, I head down to the hotel lobby for breakfast.  The waiter is a jolly man who greets me in a different language every time he passes my table.  The front desk returns my passport, complete with the required registration.  I stop by the Ministry of Tourism / Police for a map and to verify that this registration process was required and complete.  An officer takes my passport to check and when he sees all the stamps, he calls over his co-workers, who find it very interesting. All is on the up and up.

With much assistance, I find my way to the Cairo Museum.  All the street signs are in Arabic, although the name of some streets are in the alphabet I am familiar with.  As I don't know any Arabic, I find speaking French is the best way to get directions.  Unfortunately, the French I speak when I'm awake is not as good as it is while I'm sleeping.

Photo by Ronald Homer.

The Museum is packed with an amazing amount of excavated items.  The King Tut exhibit only had 300 pieces of the 5,000 piece collection on display.  The rest of it, ironically, is currently in Toronto.  Tut's tomb is one of the least decorated because he was so young when he became king and reigned for such a short time.

There is so much more to I want to see, but admiring the exhibits is difficult in the crowded museum.  It's frustrating to find something intriguing, worth spending the time to appreciate, only to be practically carried away from it in the mob that wants to move on to the next display.

Exploring Cairo, I find a shoe store and trade in my grime-of-India-ridden converse, for a pair of tartan runners for $3.  On the way back to the hotel, I find a restaurant bearing the Wimpy's logo, but in different colours.  This is the strangest fast-food place I've ever been in.  There's no queuing at the counter.  Here you sit at a table and someone brings a menu.  A "burger" is served on two plates.  One contains a small beef patty, a wiener, potato chips and an egg done over easy.  The second plate has a hamburger bun.  I'm not quite sure how this all fits together. I decide to order two, in case I get it wrong the first time.  With a soft drink, the entire meal costs $3.  Apparently it's a three dollar kind of day.

In a large cul de sac of little shops, I bought an ankh charm for my necklace, a small statue of Nefertiti and some silver rings.  One shop had beautiful fabrics.  The owner of the shop invited me in for mint tea.  We talked about all sorts of topics, none of which involved the sale of goods, and I decided on a large, black, finely crocheted shawl.

It didn't take long to figure out that there are two prices for almost everything, one for Egyptians and one for tourists.  It's no secret, either, as it's posted quite clearly for everyone to see.  As a tourist, almost everything costs twice as much as the locals pay.  I suppose it's true the saying, membership has it's privileges.

Egyptian market.
Photo courtesy of TrekEarth.

Just down the street from the hotel is a restaurant with a bar.  People watching with a pint of Stella is both relaxing and refreshing.  Just a few doors from the bar is a pastry shop, well stocked with delicious treats.  I've been out on the streets of Cairo all day, and no one has pinched my butt.  Best of all, when I return to the hotel, I'm still clean! 

Sabina found the hotel and is desperate for a shower.  I recognize the sighs and sounds of relief coming from the bathroom.  I imagine it will be a while before I see her again.

• ¤ •

"We tend to forget that happiness doesn't come as a result of getting something we don't have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have."
~Frederick Keonig

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Around the World: Welcome to Cairo

February 21, 1992

I discovered the airport coach to Delhi International Airport.  While I am waiting for the bus to arrive, I hear the same familiar voice that has become a stay of comic relief through my last days in India.

"Can you spare 5 rupees?"  I don't know what this guy's purpose in India is, but he always seems to appear when my last bit of patience is teetering on the edge of the shredder.  In a few hours, I'll have no use for Indian rupees and to be honest, I kind of admire his persistence.

"Here," I say, handing him a 20 rupee bill, "It's all I have left."  He thanks me with a blessing of peace and safe travels before leaving.  In a way, he is India anthropomorphized.  Brightly coloured, distracting, respectful, unrelenting, sincere, annoying, introspective, unpredictable, benevolent, bizarre, and for the most part, harmless.

Shortly after the bus was loaded and driving toward the airport, I look out the window to see Delhi and India for the last time and find the bus is being followed by naked man riding a large white horse.  What strikes me as odd is the fact that I don't find this spectacle at all strange.  This is India.  Strange is what she does best, and she does it very well.

The public area of the airport has the typical covering of perma-grime on everything.  It doesn't matter how often surfaces are treated with soapy water, they remain permanently dirty.  Much like the state I am in currently.  I wonder if I'll ever be clean again.  Nothing to do but try to stay awake until 3:30 am, when I can check in.

Once through security, the condition of the airport changes dramatically.  Surfaces are sparkling and reflective.  After scrubbing my hands to a tolerable state of sanitary, I bought a samosa and the largest coffee I could find.  I sat down on a very comfortable padded bench to eat my snack, and promptly fell asleep.

I am stirred into a disoriented state of consciousness by a sari-clad airport employee shaking my shoulder, calling me by name.  When I acknowledge that she has indeed found who she was looking for, she says in a panicked tone, "You're flight is leaving!"

Now I remember what I was doing!  I grab my bag and run after the woman.  She hurries me through security and to the plane.  Despite my late arrival, the stewardesses are exceptionally kind to me.  In Muscat, Oman, the passengers are led down a portable staircase, across the taxiway and up another staircase to another plane bound for Bahrain.  I got to see the inside of the airport in Bahrain before boarding the flight to Cairo.


While in the queue for immigration, I am told I need a Visa to enter Egypt by a plain clothed man approaching various people in line.  He asks for $15USD and hands me a red postage-type stamp to put in my passport.  The immigration official stamps it and welcomes me to Egypt.  Outside the airport, I find a taxi and ask the driver if he knows where the New Moon Hotel is.

"Oh yes, I know it well." I said a little prayer, and got in the car. 

The driving is very civilized, and true to his word, the driver knew exactly where he was going.  On arrival, the driver opens the door for me and helps me with my backpack to the lobby of the hotel.  When I complete the check in process, the hotel clerk asks me for my passport.  It is law, he explains, to register all tourists with the police.  It will be returned to me tomorrow morning.  Skeptical, I hand the clerk my passport.  I already have a photocopy in my money belt and the address of the Canadian Embassy, should it not be back in my hands tomorrow morning.

The hotel clerk leads me to the elevator, the kind where you have to shut the door yourself and hold the button until you arrive.  Deja-vu.  This elevator is very familiar.

On the second floor, he shoves the elevator door open, revealing a dark hallway.  Only one light in the distance flickers with the intermittent buzz of flowing current.  This isn't going to end well.

He guides me down the hallway to my room.  Oh, no... oh good lord, no.  He opens the door.  I close my eyes, expecting the disappointing sight of a concrete slab, covered by a thin white mattress.  Bravely, I peek out of one eye.  Inside, it's dark.

The urge to turn and run is overwhelming, but I muster up enough bravery to actually see the room before I panic. This is so much like Bombay.  Too much like Bombay.  Please don't let anything scatter, wriggle or move when...

... the light turns on.

I gasp so loudly, it startles the clerk.  "Is everything okay?"  He doesn't realize that this room is the equivalent of paradise.

The room is huge!  Tastefully decorated like grandmother's bedroom.  The queen-size beds require a running leap to get into!  The clerk pulls back the curtain to reveal french doors that lead to a balcony, overlooking a sun drenched, city view of Cairo.

The room is absolutely perfect, but what I want most of all is in the bathroom.  The massive shower is well stocked with towels.  The second the hotel clerk leaves the room, I turn on the shower and step into the stall, fully clothed.  Wonderful, blistering hot water falls from the over-sized shower head.  The water going down the drain is black.

Happiness consumes me and I cannot control the overwhelming urge to sing.

• ¤ •

"I'm singin' in the rain, 
Just singin' in the rain,
What a glorious feeling, 
I'm happy again....
...I have a smile on my face.
I'll walk down the lane, 
With a happy refrain
Just singin', singin' in the rain."
~Singing In The Rain, lyrics by Arthur Freed

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Around the World: Hangin' in Delhi

February 19, 1992

It's late in the morning and I am quite lost in the maze of Connaught Place searching for the Emirates Air office to pick up my ticket to Cairo.  Along the way, several men greet me with one word. "Change?"

"Change" is an invitation to visit a nearby shop where one can exchange traveler cheques or foreign cash into rupees for a better rate than the bank offers.  I was able to get 36 rupees for each $1USD in a shop that sold bags.  Last night, while gathered on the balcony back at Sunny's, my fellow backpackers held a contest.  The winner had the guidebook to India with the oldest publishing date.  Comparing information on places to stay, we remarked that this must be an easy book to republish, as only the prices differ from edition to edition.  We agree that although there is no shortage of people in Delhi talking about change, nothing in India actually changes.  It just gets more expensive.

Lost in the maze of Connaught Place, I hear a familiar voice.  "Can you spare 5 rupees?"  It's the same drug-dazed Westerner again.  Who is this guy and why is he following me?

Connaught Place is disorienting enough, without being on constant alert for the unwanted groping on my backside.  It quickly gets irritating, chasing and chastising ignorant men who sample what they have no business touching.  I finally find Emirates Air and pick up my ticket.  My flight departs at 6:45 am on the 21st for Cairo!

New Delhi

Delhi is almost pleasant and very modern.  New Delhi is full of skyscrapers and noticeably absent of cows.  There's a sense of order to some degree.  Snake charmers wait for curious tourists approach them, for example, and I've grown somewhat accustomed to the sensory assault of colour, smell, noise and dust.  I am working up the courage to have a cold shower in a dark stall on a chilly day.

Some of my hotel mates have invited me out for pizza.  On the way back to Sunny's, Marcus, from Germany brings us all to a place he discovered that sells ice cream.  Ice cream!  Along the way, several offers are declined to shine my converse and put soles on Marcus' sandals.

Old Delhi, is very much like the India I have come to expect.  Crowded, chaotic, cows.   After our ice cream treat, we head into the old part of Delhi for dinner.  I'm not really sure what I'm eating.  It includes rice, vegetables and some mysterious substance that might be meat.  The meal is served on a large leaf and eaten in traditional Indian form, scooping what I can hold between the digits of my right hand.  It is considered very rude and unclean to touch food with your left hand, as this appendage is used for post digestive activities.  The meal is followed by a cup of chai from a nearby street vendor.

Delhi's old city

Back at Sunny's, the grade on the balcony is gradually increasing.  Jorn, from Denmark and Sabina, from Switzerland have discovered a shop that sells chocolate and share a selection of small blocks of fudge with everyone.  Sabina mentions that she will be leaving for Cairo, arriving the day after I do and we are making plans to meet at a place called the New Moon Hotel.

The conversation turns to this morning's shower experience.  Icy cold water in a small dark closet.  Hopefully, either tomorrow's temperature or the water will be warmer.  Seems an awfully unpleasant experience, only to be covered in grimy dust immediately after.

• ¤ •

"Travel and change of place impart new vigor to the mind."

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Around the World: Making Plans

February 18, 1992

When I finally emerged from my cardboard box this morning, it was after 8am. Most cities in India have their own unique night time sounds and Delhi is no different. Last night's noises included gun shots and general localized unrest. Sounds that aren't particularly comforting knowing that the thickness of about 50 sheets of paper are all that stands between me and the goings-on outside.

Connaught Place looks very organized on a map and appears quite orderly on arrival, but it's a veritable maze of office buildings and businesses. It's very easy to get disoriented, something the locals are well aware of. Tempting as it was to be charged a small fee to be willingly led astray, I declined several offers and managed to find Singapore Air's airline office.

Don't let the straight lines fool you. 

The clerk I spoke to gave me a quote of $1900 to reroute my ticket, all the reason I needed to look for an alternative. Next door is the office for Gulf Air. The clerk bobbled his head and refused to help me without proof of my non-existent husband's approval. Yet another reason why I feel the need to change my ticket.

By accident, I found myself across the street from Cathay Pacific's office. The very nice female clerk explained that she could change my flight, but if I went to Emirates Air, I would get a better price. She was right.

A departure from Delhi International Airport spares me the long and arduous journey by train back to Bombay.  My new travel plans include two brief airport transfers, one in Muscat, Oman and another in Bahrain... 

New travel arrangements.

...until I am greeted by the ancient Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt!

I am a whirled up bundle of bliss and joy.  Just when I think this day can't possibly get any better, across the street, tucked behind another building, is the sign for "Wimpy's".  Hell ya, I'm getting me a  B U R G E R!

In India, the cow is a sacred animal so I'm not completely discouraged when I see the menu is reworked to accommodate the absence of beef.  The order queue is kept orderly by metal rails so the masses cannot crowd the counter.  Employees are dressed in garish orange uniforms.  My burger is made from 100% lamb, on a white, squishy bun with all the trimmings, even wrapped in that plastic feeling paper.  Michael Jackson is blaring through the speaker system.  It's west as best as India can recreate it, in much the same way someone from China would appreciate the ambiance of Manchu-Wok.  With nothing but a window separating me and my lamburger from India, all of this is so very much like home and every bite is a little nibble of something wonderfully familiar.

Sniff!  Can I have fries with that?

• ¤ •

One's home is like a delicious piece of pie you order in a restaurant on a country road one cozy evening - the best piece of pie you have ever eaten in your life - and can never find again.
~Lemony Snicket

Friday, February 17, 2012

Around the World: Arriving in New Delhi

February 17, 1992

Arrived at the station in plenty of time for the late night train from Jaipur to Delhi.  Attempts to reserve a seat only produced a wild goose chase to locate someone willing and/or capable to complete such a task.  I did get a thorough tour of Jaipur's railway station, as I was sent upstairs and downstairs and to this window and that one, where I met every single station employee that was not authorized to reserve anything for anyone.

When the train did pull into the station, it was clear that the only way to get a reservation on this train was to just get on. Claire and I ran the length of the train along the platform looking for a car with any available space without luck.  At the last car, the engine's whistle blows, indicating the train is ready to leave the station, but trying to get into the packed car is impossible. There just isn't any space that allows both of us to get into the car wearing backpacks.  Out of time, I quickly suggest a plan.  I'll get on, Claire will pass me both packs and then Claire will board.

As Claire tosses me the second pack, the train begins pulling out of the station.  She runs to keep up the with the train while I extend my arm to help her get on.  Two other passengers take hold of me as Claire grabs onto my arm and leaps for the door.  She lands in the car a bit off balance, but is steadied by three more passengers.  Once she is safely aboard, I survey the car for somewhere to settle for the trip.  Our hasty selection of this particular car comes with both bad and good news.  Respectively, the car we have chosen is beyond capacity full, and entirely by women.

Somehow, the five women who assisted us in boarding rearrange themselves to make a small area for Claire and I to sit.  Many of the passengers are sleeping on and against others who are curled up together under shared shawls, feeding infants or sitting quietly.  I soon find my shoulder is someone's support and my thigh is another woman's pillow.  Claire and I use our stacked packs to share a place to rest our heads for the journey.  There's a respectable sense of sisterhood among this group of women; we are all in this together.

I wake up from an unplanned nap just after sunrise to find the train about half an hour away from arriving in New Delhi.  The parallel rails are covered with people claiming whatever treasures they can find along the tracks.  A line of women are perched along one of the rails, bathing in a murky puddle.  Memory flashes back to the impoverished slums of Bombay and I wonder what other cruel fates of human existence reside in a metropolis the size of Delhi.

Railway slum between Jaipur and Delhi
Photo by Navid Baraty

Outside the train station, Claire and I are surrounded by a small mob of rickshaw drivers and beggars.  The crowd is screaming to us, demanding our money for either an offered service or just because and still coming closer.  Claire leans her head closer to my ear and says, "Wonder Woman!"  I know exactly what she means.  Both of us, wearing backpacks, start spinning on the spot and manage to knock most of the unwelcome crowd away.  Of the few brave enough to remain or wise enough to back up, is a rickshaw wallah offering a good price.

Shortly into the trip, I am convinced that one of us may have bumped him a little too hard.

This rickshaw driver appears to be aiming for road worthy targets. After he crunched over a parked bicycle, he started aiming for random pedestrians.  He even tried to hit a cow!  With his mouth full of betel nut, he tries repeatedly to convince us to go to another hotel.  Since neither of us can understand him, we just keep hollering in response, "Sunny's Guest House!"

Sunny's Guest House is relatively clean, pleasant and convenient, even though it has that self renovated look about it.  I'm pretty sure the walls of my windowless room are some form of cardboard.  The only source of daylight is from a tiny hole cut in a corner to let a small fan circulate air.  It has a bed and a door I can lock.  The common area is the top side of the roof that shelters the ground floor office and patio.  This overhanging part of the second floor has a bit more grade on it that there probably should be.  It's full of travelers that are either just arriving or soon leaving.

Outside Sunny's Guest House
Photo by Trip Advisor

The next flight on my itinerary is from Bombay to Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  I am less than thrilled about taking the train back to Bombay.  The reviews of Dubai vary, depending on the gender of the person I speak to.  Several female travelers report a negative experience, usually involving unwanted attention from the local men for displaying benign body parts (ankle, knee, arm).

From Dubai, I would then have to make my way overland to Bahrain.  This means crossing the border into Saudi Arabia, a place I will have difficulty traveling through without a male escort.  There's a lot about this trip that isn't sitting well with me, a foreboding feeling I have learned is wise to pay attention to.  

The original RTW route.

There is a plentiful selection of alternative destinations between here and London.  I'm just not comfortable moving over land through this part of the world.  I'm learning that I don't tolerate men who disrespect women terribly well, and my limited knowledge of the Middle East suggests that there are parts where women are barely tolerated at all.  I refuse to accept being treated like property, or at the very least inferior, simply because I am female.  I have a feeling this attitude could become a serious problem.

New Delhi's Connaught Place is a cornucopia of airline offices that I hope will be able to get me from here to London, and hopefully, without getting me into serious trouble along the way.

• ¤ •

A woman is like a tea bag.  It's only when she's in hot water that you realize how strong she is.
~Eleanor Roosevelt

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Around the World: Jaipur

February 16, 1992

Claire and I set out after breakfast to explore the interesting sights around Jaipur, also known as the "pink city".  Many of the buildings within the old walled city of Jaipur are constructed from sandstone, giving the structure a distinctive pink hue. One of the most famous buildings is the Hawa Mahal, or "Palace of the Winds".

It was originally built so that ladies of the royal house could watch the day to day events of the city without being seen from the street. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the city in 1876, the city was given a refreshing coat of pink to welcome the royal couple.

Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds)

Not far from the Palace of the Winds is the enormous City Palace.  Construction started in the early 1700's and additions continue to be added.  Currently, the grounds of City Palace include several palaces, pavilions, gardens and temples.  The pavilion on top of the Peacock Gate entrance offers magnificent views of the city and the surrounding hills.

City Palace

Next to the entrance to the City Palace is the Jantar Mantar Observatory.  The observatory contains fourteen astronomical instruments built by Jai Singh, the founder of Jaipur for which the city is named.  Inspired by his passion for astronomy, Jai Singh started construction on the observatory after sending scholars abroad to study at foreign observatories.  Each structure has a specific purpose, whether it's measuring the position of the stars, the declination of planets or calculating eclipses.  The sundial's enormous gnomon casts a shadow that moves 1mm per second and is accurate within 2 seconds in calculating Jaipur local time. That's amazing in itself, and especially in a country where the majority of people speak a language that has the same word for tomorrow and yesterday.

 Jantar Mantar translates literally as "calculating instrument"

Jai Singh used his knowledge of and fascination with astronomy in his plan to lay out the city of Jaipur, combined with the principles of "Shilpa-Shastra", an ancient Hindu guide to art and architecture.  The result is a geometric marvel of city planning, where wide avenues running East-West are regularly intersected by streets that travel North-South. 

Broad, straight streets are great for strolling along while browsing the shop windows, however, Claire and I quickly discovered that some Indian men find it appropriate to sample what they shouldn't be touching.  My rear is certainly getting well inspected.

The first "touch and go" came from a crafty individual who was wise enough not to stick around.  The second guy, however, left his hand unattended long enough for me to grab it.  Bending his wrist back, I shoved him into an empty space among the mob of people traveling the opposite way.  The third guy was just a victim of bad order and he discovered what a full body hip check feels like as he toppled over the metal rail that separates the sidewalk from the road. 

Typical Jaipur traffic.
Photo by Georgia Popplewell

The traffic in Jaipur is the most interesting I've seen in India yet.  Buses, rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and elephants are all perfectly acceptable modes of transportation.  My favourite was the camel-drawn carriage moving along the street at a leisurely pace.  The driver, who really is more of an unwilling passenger, is trying what he can to speed the camel up and having absolutely no success.  Using this sort of vehicle, it is important to understand that the camel goes where it wants, when it wants to and it knows there ain't a dang thing anybody gonna do about it.

Photo by Lee Harrison

A shop in the market had a display of gorgeous marble boxes.  I would have bought one, but the shopkeeper wouldn't budge from his asking price of 900 Rs.  That's $36 and a lot of money to spend on a trinket in India. When I walked out of the store, I came face to face with a bull with very large horns.  It took a step towards me and I backed up into a narrow alley.  It took another step toward me and when I saw an opportunity, I leaped past its head and out of the alley.  Once I found myself behind the bull, Claire and I just kept going. 

Stray cows out for a stroll.
Photo by Manfred Leiter
On the way back to the hostel, we stumble upon a "beer store", which is three guys sitting behind a large cooler under a sort of carport-like shanty.  Claire and I ask if they have beer.  The three men bobble their heads and say a few humorous things to each other in Hindi.  One of them opens the freezer and pulls out a large bottle of what we think could quite possibly be beer.  On the label is a drawing of a man's face that bears a striking resemblance to John Lennon.  We ask for one bottle each and head back to the hotel to sample our liquid treasure.

For the record, I won't be buying any more beer while I'm in India.

• ¤ •

"The more I see the less I know for sure."
~John Lennon

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Around the World: Bar Hoping in Jaipur

February 15, 1992

The early afternoon train journey from Agra to Jaipur is expected to be around four hours.  As I am walking through the station toward the platform, I hear a familiar voice.

"Can you spare 5 rupees?"  It's the same drug-dazed Westerner I saw in Varanasi, clad in the same bright green, yellow and red clothing.  Is he following me?

On the train, I meet three British guys, one of whom entertains everyone with tales of trying to cause the demise of Bluey, his sister's prized budgie. Except for the sister, the bird and members of the household share a mutual detest of each other.  His father had read that a sudden shock would stop the bird's heart.  Ever since, father and son take every opportunity to covertly frighten the bird into death, so far unsuccessfully.

The Evergreen hotel is 120 Rs for a room with unlimited cold water.  Hot water is available for 10 Rs per bucket.  The war between soapy water and the constant cloud of airborne dust makes showering a pointless activity.  I seem to always be the same shade of grime, whether I'm fresh from the bathroom or returning from a day spent outside.

The hotel has a large covered outdoor area to enjoy a breeze while eating something from the hotel's restaurant.  It's now early evening and as I'm looking up local sights in my guidebook, I meet Claire, from South Africa and also new in town.  The British guys from the train plan to investigate the bar up the road and invite us to join them for a drink.

A drink?  In India?  This, I have to see.

Sure enough, just up the road from the Evergreen is a sign that says, "Bar and Restaurant."  A little further down a winding path is another sign, this one with the same words and an arrow.  The signs remind of the Road Runner cartoons and I half expect Wile. E Coyote to greet us when we get to the entrance. We follow the "Way to Bar ->" signs into a room with bench seating.  A casually dressed employee tells us the bar is closed.  Thinking some may enjoy a drink with a meal, we follow the "Way to Restaurant ->" signs upstairs to a room that looks like it was imported from a trendy area of New York.  Waiters dressed in tuxedos, perfectly pressed white napkins and tablecloths under spotless glass and silverware. 

We order 5 beers and are told, "The bar is closed, but this can be arranged for 32 Rs."  We sit at a table and wait for our drinks, but all we eventually get is a head bobbling apology.  I think the head bobble is a sign of confusion; the more difficult the question is to answer, the more intense the head bobbling is.  Two waiters come to our table, their heads bobbling dangerously close to toppling off their shoulders.  One waiter says, "No beer," while the other communicates through charades, something about a bicycle and a kingfisher.

Hoping for a beer in India proves to be the activity of the dreamer.  Claire wants to check out the Palace of the Winds, while I would like to see the Jantar Mantar Observatory tomorrow so we have agreed to do a little sight seeing together.

• ¤ •

"Without question, the greatest invention in the history of mankind is beer. Oh, I grant you that the wheel was also a fine invention, but the wheel does not go nearly as well with pizza."
~Dave Barry

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Around the World: Agra

February 14, 1992

The rickshaw wallah was knocking on my hotel door before sunrise, prompt as promised. He takes me to the city's most popular tourist destination before the inevitable crowds arrive.

During the time of the Moghuls in the 16th and 17th centuries, Agra was the capitol of India. Emperor Shah Jahan built the Red Fort and Jami Masjid in Delhi, and many of the palace buildings inside the Agra Fort.  He is most famous for building India's most recognizable landmark, the Taj Mahal.

The white marble changes colour depending on the time of day.

Built as a tomb for the Emperor's wife, Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj Mahal has been described as the most extravagant monument built for love.  Construction began in 1631, two years after Mumtaz died in childbirth, having produced 14 children during their 17 years of marriage.  The project took 22 years to complete, requiring 20,000 workers recruited from around India and Southeast Asia. Austin of Bordeaux from France and Italian Veroneo of Venice are credited with the Taj's ornate decorations.  The main architect, Isa Khan came from Iran.

Inside the Taj Mahal

As the grounds of the Taj Mahal fill with tourists, my rickshaw driver shares some information about another famous Agra landmark.

The Agra Fort

Construction on the Agra Fort began in 1565 with the intent to be a military structure, but by Shah Jahan's time, the fort had become a partial palace.  Inside the 2½km stretch of 20m thick walls are several structures:  towers, mosques, palaces that once served as the private residence of the current Emperor, and two halls of "public audience" where the Emperor would meet foreign dignitaries or listen to the people.  As I explore the elaborate details of the Musamman Burj, I notice I am being watched by four large vultures perched atop one of the walls.  They appear to get a little restless when I'm not moving.

Staring:  The popular pastime of India

Shah Jahan intended to build a black Taj as his tomb, but before he could begin, the Emperor was imprisoned in the Agra Fort by his son, Aurangzeb, where he remained until his death in 1666.

Shah Jahan spent the last 7 years of his life
imprisoned in the Musamman Burj...

...overlooking the final resting place of his beloved wife.

After several hours of exploring Agra's main attractions, my rickshaw wallah suggests we take a break.  He stops at a small stand in the market and offers me a traditional Indian drink, a milky, spiced tea called chai.  Milk, water, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves are boiled into an aromatic blend and infused with loose black tea.  The mixture is poured through a fine strainer and served. 

Tea wallah straining chai ready to be served.  Yum!

The driver brings me to the market where I have a chance to browse the shops selling clothing, jewelry, household items, perfume and spices.  It's a colourful display, presented in an organized form of chaos that only seems to work in India.  Every shop displays their wares in a rainbow of enticing colours and exotic smells that beg to be purchased.

Spice vendor.
Photo by Tobias Leeger

The last stop of the day includes a carpet manufacturer that wants me to import his products into North America.  The manager's hospitality ends abruptly when I refuse to invest in his scam business opportunity.  Suddenly, it's time to go. Tomorrow includes a short train journey to Jaipur, also known as the "pink city".

• ¤ •

"When love is not madness, it is not love."
~Pedro Calderon de la Barca

Monday, February 13, 2012

Around the World: Welcome to Agra

February 13, 1992

The train arrived in Agra a little after 4am, almost two and a half hours early.  I wasn't able to get much sleep on the train, and when I did finally doze away, it was time to get off.  A rickshaw driver, waiting at the station, takes me to my choice of hotels, the Tourist Guest House, which is full.  Tired and possibly delirious, I ask the rickshaw wallah to choose another one and he brings me to the Hotel Akbar.  

The hotel is also full, but a room will be available in two hours.  I fight with the urge to sleep, frequently losing the battle in the lobby, wishing the ticking seconds would tick on a little faster.  Finally, I am led to my room where I meet the previous occupant.  The young woman is gathering up her things in anger and disgust.  "I can't stand this country," she wails, "I'm so happy I'm leaving!"

Just go.  I want the bed.

Getting around in Agra.

The next time I am conscious, it's late afternoon.  I find a rickshaw and take a quick tour of Agra, just to get familiar with my new surroundings.  The driver is very courteous and seems knowledgeable about the city.  "There is so much to see.  I wish I could find a guide to take me around Agra." I say, joking.

"I know Agra very well.  I will take you!"  We haggle and finally agree on 40 Rs for the day.  He promises to show up at 6am.

• ¤ •

"Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds."
~JoJo Jensen

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Around the World: Strangers In The Night

February 12, 1992

Very early in the morning I wake up to the sounds of something primal and tribal occurring in the nearby streets.  There is constant chanting and drum beating that continues for hours.  It's not an irritating noise, like a neighbour with a loud stereo.  This is more unsettling, like the natives are restless.

Outside my frosted window, the rhythmic beating of drums is getting louder, the chanting is growing more intense.  Three hard, deliberate knocks bang at my door. I'm searching for something to beat off an intruder with when I hear knocking at the door next to mine and fade off down the breezeway.

Varanasi is it's own reason for celebration.
Photo courtesy of The Longest Way Home.

It's morning and daylight appears to have ended last night's festivities.  I open my door to a rendition of, Strangers In the Night"Zoomie zoomie-zoom..." sings a man as he polishes a car parked at the end of hotel rooms, "...zoom zoomie-zoom-zoom... zoomie zoomie-zoom." 

In the morning, every one enters the garden with the same question.  "Was someone knocking on your door last night?"  Some remark on the disturbing night time sounds of  tribal cannibals dancing around a large caldron and waking up to Frank Sinatra.  Just when you think India is starting to make sense, she throws you a new kind of strangeness.

I must investigate the possibility of reserving a seat on this afternoon's train to Agra, the first stop on my Golden Triangle tour that also includes Jaipur and India's capitol city of New Delhi.  At the train station's reservation office, I am told I cannot make a reservation because this is where they prepare the train schedules.  I should go to booth #8.

The clerk at booth #8 sends me to the deserted post of booth #16.  I return to #8 to report this and am redirected to booth #18, which is closed. Back to booth #8 for the third time, where I suggest he can stop playing 'hide the tourist' and just book me a reservation.  "Then I promise I'll to go away for good."  His head starts the side to side bobble and moments later, I have my reservation.  I also have several hours to spend taking one last look at eternal Varanasi.

Train departing Varanasi.
Photo courtesy of National Geographic

I'm on the train bound for Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, although the section of the train I am currently in is headed to New Delhi.  The trip so far is relatively pleasant.  Seating is plentiful, and I have brought with me a plentiful spread of snacks. The only real nuisance is the staring.  Who knew watching me eat crackers was so riveting?

There was no time to find my reserved seat because the train was pulling out of the station at the same time I found it.  Jumping on a moving train with a backpack takes some Indiana Jones-like agility, which I was pleased to learn I have.  In the meantime, I'm in unreserved 3rd class, just like the trip to Varanasi but with more leg room.

Five hours into the journey, the train pulls into Lucknow and it seems that the entire population of Uddar Pradesh is boarding the train.  The comfortable single seat I had all to myself is now being shared with me by three other women.  One of them is sitting on half of my leg and the muscle aches and cramps.  When I try to move it, two of the women fall off into the aisle.  The third turns and glares at me.  An elderly man on the floor starts shouting out to the packed car in Hindi.  The Indian passengers are responding with affirmative grunts and cheers.  The only words he shouts out in English are, "Break bones.  Break bones hard!"

Reserved sleeper class seating.

I stand to work out the pain in my leg and the three women pile into what used to be my seat.  The train stops and I use the opportunity to get away from the lynching that is, fortunately for me, still in the planning stages.  Dashing up the platform, I find my car and the seat I reserved.  The coach is clean and full of sleeping backpackers. My only regret is not moving up here earlier.

• ¤ •

"We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements in life, when all that we really need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about."
~Charles Kingsley

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Around the World: Karma in Varanasi

February 11, 1992

Feeling refreshed from a day insulated from the sensory overload of India, I decided to brave the streets of Varanasi.  Located on the west bank of the Ganges, Varanasi is the city of Shiva and a pilgrimage center for Hindus.  The river is lined with over 100 ghats, or steps leading down to the water where pilgrims take soul-cleansing soaks at the bathing ghats.  The eternal city of Varanasi is a center of learning and considered an auspicious place to die, ensuring an instant route to heaven.  It's not uncommon to see a body wrapped in white cloth being carried by stretcher to one of the two burning ghats for cremation.

Varanasi, formerly known as Benares and Kashi.

Wandering around the city, I found one of the ghats completely by accident, after trying to avoid the pestering of a drug-dazed Westerner begging for 5 rupees.  I strolled along a waterfront pathway watching men and women bathing discreetly in the river.  The pathway ended and I found myself in the old city of narrow, cobblestone streets lined by tall walls.  Lost and turned around, I eventually found my way out of the maze of alleyways, but not before dodging a few stretchers being rushed to the burning ghats and several encounters with cows that blocked my way.

Bathing ghat along the Ganges

Back out in the open of the main city, I found a shop that sold silk items.  The owner served me tea while his assistant brought out anything I showed the slightest interest in.  Eventually, I settled on a long, burgundy table runner and two white and purple pillow case covers.

Happy with my souvenirs, I head back to the hotel, and join the group enjoying tea in the garden.  Jane has met up with Fiona and the two of them will head to Nepal tomorrow and are gathering tips from Daniel and two English guys that have just returned.

The elder of the two Nepalese restaurant staff comes over and asks for our orders for dinner.  Everyone prepares to head into the restaurant when he offers to bring our meals out to us.  After some insisting, we learn that both men have left their families in Nepal.  They came to India to find work, hoping to make enough money to get settled and pay the fees required to immigrate their wives and children.  The story sounds genuine, but there are so many hard-luck tales here, it's impossible to distinguish an honest one from the countless scams.  Regardless if this is a genuine story or not, we unanimously agree that they make this sheltered garden sanctuary the haven that it is.  These two men from Nepal have been relentless in their efforts to make each of us as comfortable as possible.  While we wait for the food to arrive, we add our generosity and gratitude to a growing pile of currency on the table.

When they return with our food, one of the British guys presents each man with an envelope containing close to $80 in US cash and Indian rupee bills.  This is a little bit more than their salary for the month.  When they see the contents, both of them are shocked.  "I cannot accept this," says the older one and they both try to hand it back.

Good service deserves a good tip!

The British guy eloquently explains, "We took a poll and agreed that both of you have treated us so much better than just a hotel guest.  You have treated us like family while we are so far away from ours.  We hope this helps bring your family closer to you."

The elder man wipes his eyes and collects himself.  He explains in his language what has happened to the younger one.  They each bring their envelope held between pressed hands up to their chin and slightly bow in appreciation.  After the restaurant closes for the evening, the younger man arrives with cups of fresh tea, followed by the older man carrying a plate piled full of desserts.  We invite them to join us, but the elder man explains they are not allowed to socialize with the hotel guests.

The rest of the evening is spent enjoying the peaceful serenity of the garden.  As we are all heading in different directions tomorrow, we exchange coping strategies for traveling in India.  It is agreed that India is a fascinating place, with sights and experiences like no other, but she takes time to adjust to.  It didn't occur to me until it was mentioned that we will all go through a similar form of culture shock again, once we return home.

• ¤ •

"It is only when we silence the blaring sounds of our daily existence that we can finally hear the whispers of truth that life reveals to us, as it stands knocking on the doorsteps of our hearts."
~K.T. Jong