Category Archives: Travel

Travel articles, India and abroad

The Yucatan Peninsula – rich and "cheesy"

By Rhishi Pethe

chichen itza“Amigos, it’s not chicken pizza.” That was the first thing our guide Vincent told us when we reached the ancient Mayan town of Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is about 30 minutes from Valladolid in the state of Yucatan and just a couple of hours drive from the tourist hotspots of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Valladolid was one of the first towns established by the “Conquistadores” and you can tell that they used a lot of stone from Mayan structures to construct their buildings and churches.

Chichen Itza is a testament to the scientifically advanced Mayan civilization. Mayan astronomy was very well advanced and they knew about the revolution of earth around the sun and did very accurate calculations about it. The pyramid is a living example of that fountain of knowledge. As can be seen from the picture, each side has 91 steps, which makes it 364 steps for all the four sides. There is an additional step on the north side corresponding to 365 (364 + 1) days of the year. Each side has 9 levels and the steps split each side into two parts giving 18 separate levels on each side. The Mayan calendar had 19 months, with 18 months of 20 days each and a 19th month of 5 days. The Mayan calendar is believed to have been created sometime between 16th and 6th century BC, compared to the Julian calendar which was introduced in 46 BC. The Mayan calendar is considered to be more accurate than the Gregorian or Julian calendars.

The central attraction of Chichen Itza is the massive pyramid which forms the center of a large city occupied by the upper classes that covered almost 25 square kilometers. The lower class lived outside the main town.
We were lucky to be at Chichen Itza on the day of the Spring Equinox. On the equinoxes, a shadow representing a serpent comes down the pyramid and meets the snake statue at the base of the north side of the pyramid. The serpent represents the Mayan feathered serpent deity of Kukulkan. It is amazing to know that this structure was built around 600 AD with such precise astronomical knowledge.

Towards the west of the pyramid is the ball court in the shape of an “I”. The Mayans believed that humans went to heaven in their after-life and so it was an honor to get sacrificed. Typically the captain of the ball team (either winning or losing team) was sacrificed at the end of the ball game. The way the stones have been laid on the walls of the ball court also allowed for excellent acoustics on and around the court. This was in sharp contrast to the announcements being made at Cancun airport.

cenoteAnother interesting feature of the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico is its geology. The ground of the Yucatan peninsula is like cheese. There are a lot of natural holes (called cenotes) in the ground and a lot of them are filled with fresh natural ground water. We had the chance to visit a very popular cenote in the town of Ik-kil, which is very close to the ruins of Chichen Itza and the town of Valladolid. You have to go down winding stairs to the get to the water level. A platform has been created for people to jump into the cenote and then swim around. Going up the platform (about 20 feet from the water level) and jumping into the water after so many years from such a height, caused me to skip a beat.

A lot of people start and end their tour of the Yucatan peninsula in Cancun and Playa del Carmen, but there are a lot of other side tours like Chichen Itza, Tulum, Mayapan, Uxmal etc which are also very interesting and are highly recommended. I would highly encourage everyone to look beyond the beaches to soak up the local culture and get acquainted to the rich history of the place as well.

Rhishi Pethe works in supply chain management consulting and is currently pursuing a part time MBA at the University of Chicago. His interests outside of work are spending time with his wife, travel, reading, economics, jazz, good food and blogging.

In Chennai

chennai-airportYou know you’re in Chennai when the pocket of the passenger in front of you starts blaring “Palaniappa, Swami Palaniappa.” The heavy set gentleman on the seat in front of me could have been straight out of central casting for the role of the villain in a Tamil movie (or hero, in Tollywood you can’t often tell the difference). His wards were a gaggle of elderly ladies, diamonds dripping from noses and ears, though if you had met the bunch on a Chennai street sans their jewelry, you might have compassionately pressed 20-rupee notes into their palms. Hey, I was pretty scruffy too, after 20-odd hours on the plane!

The airport looked very different from my visit a year ago. Apparently a major renovation had happened in the meantime, though already there were cracks in the off-white tiles (seriously, who picks off-white for a highly traveled concourse) and betel stains on the bottom of the steel columns hiding the wiring (at least, I hoped they were betel stains).

The gleaming conveyor belt had not started up when we arrived at the baggage claim and we took our positions right next to the tube which dropped the luggage on to the belt. “Dropped” is a mild word for what our poor suitcases had to go through; the design of the chute is closer to that of a ski slope and the bags came hurtling down to the guardrail. More than once we flinched and reflexively braced for a collision and pitied those poor suckers who had “Fragile” signs on their stuff. Even the address labels painstakingly duct-taped to the suitcases were not spared; many caught the lip of the sharp steel blades of the belt and ripped right off.

Outside, a sea of humanity bubbled and swelled. A bunch of flights with returning Hajj pilgrims had landed just a few minutes ago. Entire families had come to receive the lucky pilgrims, grandmas, kids, all waiting for a glimpse of the now-sanctified members of their brood.

As we maneuvered around the multitudes, I realized that it took very little to rip off the veneer of civilization that had taken me years to acquire in the orderly suburbs of San Francisco. It had taken years of conscious training to curb my tendency to jump in front of queues and jostle to the head of lines (I am a veteran of Mumbai locals) but within minutes of arriving in India I was ready to ignore pesky stop signs and run over troublesome two-wheelers.

For all that Chennai is still a bastion of culture; the last refuge of the bibliophile, theater aficionado, and classical music lover. Within hours of arrival we had attended a book launch; author Roopa Pai read from her fantasy book for kids, Taranauts and the Shyn Emeralds and conducted games for kids. We made tentative plans to see Little Theatre’s production of Shylock, Merchant or Menace and, of course, this is kutcheri (concert) season.

More later.

Picture courtesy Julian Limjl under a Creative Commons attribution license.

Mexico's Hidden Gem – Queretaro

Rhishi Pethe

a-square-in-quretaro-mexicoFantastic ads by Corona, constant in-your-face late night infomercials for Girls Gone Wild videos and the rising toll due to drug violence on the border, fuel a common perception in the United States that Mexico is either too crazy or too unsafe to travel. If you follow a few basic rules and little bit of Spanish, Mexico is one of the most wonderful places to explore, enjoy and experience. Late last year, my wife and I decided to take a slightly less traveled road and took a trip to some historic and colonial towns north of Mexico City. Our destination was going to be the historic and beautiful city of Queretaro, a UNESCO heritage city about 160 miles north-west of Mexico City.

We took a hop at Dallas from Chicago on our way to Mexico City. (You can get to Queretaro from the Leon, Guanajuato Airport as well). Mexico City airport can be confusing for newcomers but things have improved significantly over the last 7-8 years. We took a luxury bus from the Mexico City Airport for Queretaro on the ETN line. The high end buses in Mexico are not very expensive, are very safe and provide top notch service. We paid just $ 23 per head for a 4 hour journey from Mexico City to Queretaro. A sandwich, a bottle of water and a fruit drink, along with extremely comfortable seats was included in the fare.

la Casa De La Marquesa

la Casa De La Marquesa

We had booked our stay at one of the best hotels in Mexico, La Casa de la Marquesa. La Casa was an 18th century gift from a Marquis to his wife Dona Josefa. The hotel is divided into two sections with exceptional rooms, a very nice restaurant serving local Mexican specialties and just a few minutes’ walk from the impressive Plaza de la Armas and other interesting squares and sites in the city.

Queretaro is one of the earlier cities established by the Conquistadores during the Spanish Conquest. The architecture is colonial, grand, beautiful and tends towards the religious. Queretaro is a city made for walking around. You go there to relax, spend a couple of hours in a square, eat some local food, have a beer and then move on to the next square. The people of the city take great pride in their heritage status and history and the city spends a lot of effort in keeping the city clean. The city is spotlessly clean with cleaning crews visible even at 11:00 PM in the night.

Queretaro was definitely the cleanest tourist destination I have seen anywhere in my life. The people in the city are extremely friendly and helpful. Very few people speak English, but a little bit of Spanish on your part will open up doors, bring out smiles and take you a long way. Most of the tourists are Mexicans and people from other Latin American countries as well. We spent a lot of time in the Plaza de la Armas, which is a beautiful square surrounded by restaurants, cafes and bars on three sides. We really enjoyed eating at El Meson de Chucho El Roto and the Restaurant 1810. (1810 is the year of the beginning of the Mexican war of Independence). Both restaurants serve a large selection of Mexican specialties including cactus (nopales), sea food, corn dishes and a very large variety of tequilas and margaritas. One should definitely try a dish served in a molcajete, which is a stone mortar.

If you are vegetarian, both these restaurants will accommodate you. The magic words to say are “sin carne, sin pescado (without meat, without fish or sea food).” Both restaurants have really good artists playing live music and if you are lucky to be there on the weekend, you can get to see and hear some Mariachi music as well. If you are slightly more adventurous, definitely try some Gorditas, made from corn flour in any of the squares. If you want a vegetarian option, the Gordita places are more than willing to do potato and cheese gorditas as well, which are to die for. We made it a point to spend at least half a day in each square, while doing lot of people-watching and engaging in some relaxed conversation. The leisurely hours spent can be great for couples to reconnect and bond and for friends to have a great time.

Queretaro is not just about great squares, good food and drink. There is lot of history to the city, with its museums and beautiful churches. It was also one of the early centers of the Mexican War of Independence and the treaty between Mexico and United States which gave California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah to the United States was also signed in Queretaro.

Aqueduct - Queretaro

Aqueduct - Queretaro

One of the landmarks towards the outskirts of the city is the magnificent Aqueduct with 74 gates. It was commissioned to bring fresh water to the city. The walk from the city to the Aqueduct is hardly 2 miles, but it took us almost half a day to get there. We started around 11:00 AM and kept stopping at different places to check out churches, do some shopping for silver trinkets, have lunch and some cerveza. The walk also takes you through the non-touristy residential part of town and it gives you an opportunity to watch the locals up close and personal. We finally reached the viewpoint for the aqueduct after a couple of hours and it is not only an engineering marvel but also a spectacular sight.

Another interesting site to visit is Cerras de la Campana. (Hill of Bells) This is the hill on which the death sentence on Archduke Maximillian was carried out and there is a very austere memorial to the Archduke still there. The hike up the hill is pretty easy and you can also marvel at the huge statue of President Benito Juarez towering over and keeping an eye on this beautiful city.

Queretaro also provides a great experience for shopping for silver. There are literally hundreds of stalls selling different silver items like beautiful earrings, rings, bangles, chains and what not. You could get a lot of good quality stuff without emptying your wallet, provided you do some tough bargaining.

El Teatro De La Republica

El Teatro De La Republica

The city is clean, safe and tourist friendly. They even hand out blue sweaters with the city logos to beggars during winter months to keep them warm and looking clean. Queretaro is a great place to learn about Latin and Mexican culture, which is in many ways similar to Indian culture in terms of family values, importance of traditions, spirituality, and extremely friendly people who are fond of music, food and festivals and like to have a good time. We have been traveling to Mexico for almost 7-8 years now, but this was definitely one of the best trips to the country.

Rhishi Pethe works in supply chain management consulting and is currently pursuing a part time MBA at the University of Chicago. His interests outside of work are spending time with his wife, travel, reading, economics, jazz, good food and blogging.

Welcome to Thekkady

By Naren Pradhan

thekkady

I was so excited when the train started to come to a halt. I looked out the window, and what I saw was a vast wonderland thick with trees, bushes, and other greenery. When I  caught a glimpse of the land, I immediately knew that I was going to love my 3-day stay in Thekkady, Kerala.

I was on a holiday in India with my grandparents for my summer vacation, and on August 13, we took a train to Kottayam in the district of Thekkady, arriving the next day. My grandparents told me to expect a beautiful mountainous region in the clouds up in the Western Ghats range, a land full of sparkling turquoise waters, gigantic tropical trees, and plants bearing all sorts of spices, medicines, and fruits. And when I got there, I was surprised to see how right they were.

thekkady-waterfalls

At the Waterfall with Grandma

After our train arrived, we took a long (114 kms) car ride through the hills. It was a majestic sight, trees and greenery blanketing the hills with snow-white waterfalls streaming out like precious liquid pouring out of a mystical fountain of nature. A few times, we got out of the car to see some of the sights up close. Once we came to a small rubber plantation, where we saw the sap of the rubber tree slowly pouring out of long cuts into coconut containers, which would later be taken to a factory, where it would be refined. I even got to pull out some of the hardened rubber and stretch it in my hands!

After that, we stopped at one of the many waterfalls of the range. Around here, waterfalls come in all shapes and sizes, from small streams flowing down a smooth stone wall to raging rivers tumbling down a carefully but naturally carved hillside. This one was one of the latter. It was a wonderful pathway of sparkling white water flowing out of the forest above into a serene pool, looking as if god himself had taken time to clear a path for these falls. This car trip took four whole hours, but it was definitely worth it.

thekkady-elephants

A Bumpy Ride

Finally, we made it to our destination, the Aranya Nivas, a small but luxurious forest hotel. The special thing about this particular hotel is that Jawaharlal Nehru himself stayed here, so we were eager to come here. After we settled in our room we went downstairs and had a meal fit for a king. We were ready to go to our first activity.

My grandparents and I took a short car trip to the Elephant Junction, a farm and nature preserve containing lots of trees, spices, and over a score of elephants. The great thing about this particular trip is that we got to see all of it from the back of a massive elephant! After we mounted the magnificent grey beast, a man on the ground started to lead the elephant, and the ride began. It was a bumpy ride, but we got to see the forest from a high point while the elephant walked. I loved it of course, but I don’t think my grandparents will ever want to repeat the experience! After that, we got to feed the elephant and watch as it crunched up a small pumpkin and a whole cucumber.

thekkady-spices

Checking Out the Spices!

The next day, after a hearty breakfast, we got into the car again. This time we were going on a tour of the farmland in the hills. As we drove, I noticed the many bushes covering the hills we passed. It turns out those bushes contained tea leaves, one of the most valuable plants in the world. And that was just the beginning. Soon, the three of us came to a spice garden, where we got a complete tour of  spice, medicine, and fruit-bearing plants. There was tea, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, coffee, cacao, jackfruits, bananas, papayas and much more. There was even a plant that is made into a medicine that can improve memory. I bought that of course! The land is full of riches in the form of plants, and if it were up to me, I would call this range the Rupaiya (Money) Mountains.

That wasn’t the end of our tour. We headed over to a forest museum. There, we saw the preserved remains of all sorts of animals, including snakes, rats, flying squirrels, and deer, even an elephant!  But perhaps the best part of all was when we came to the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The border was a small unpaved path on a cliff bordering the Tamil Nadu Valley. There, the three of us climbed a tall watchtower, where we could see the entire valley while feeling the wind in our hair. It was a magical experience, one that I will treasure for a long time.

We were to leave in the evening the next day, so all of us had to savor our last excursion the most. This time, we were going on a boat ride from our hotel through the Periyar River to the Lake Palace Hotel. We boarded our boat in the early morning before we could have any breakfast, but it was worth it. As we drifted along the river, we saw that it wasn’t just a body of water, but a submerged forest, with the tops of gigantic dead trees poking out. Who knows what was below those turquoise waters! Throughout the trip, we saw several jungle animals, including turtles, cormorants, bison, and more elephants.

Naren with grandparents

Naren With Thatha and Patti

Finally, we came to the Lake Palace Hotel. This was a fitting name, for this hotel was once a forest palace of an Indian king who used to keep an eye on the forest and prevent over-hunting. And what a palace it was! There were high ceilings, expertly painted walls, ivory ornaments, and a balcony from which you can see a large part of the lake surrounding the island, and the forest beyond. I actually got to eat breakfast at the king’s table and sit on his bed! Some people were even staying here as guests. We didn’t, as there were only six rooms, and it was too far above our price range.

As we drifted back to our own hotel, I knew this would be the last part of our short vacation, so I savored every moment and took in all the beautiful landscape around me. When our boat got back, we ate a light lunch, packed up and said goodbye to our wonderful hotel and its marvelous employees. We got into our car, and as we drove along the hills once again, I took one last good look at those beautiful green hills. Finally, my grandparents and I boarded the train and headed back to their home in Chennai. We all were extremely sad to leave this undisturbed paradise. In my heart, I know that someday I will return.

Naren Pradhan is an 8th grader at Thornton Jr. High. His interests include piano, soccer and Runescape.

Prague FAQs – the city where beer is cheaper than water

Beautiful Prague

Beautiful Prague

What is the best time to visit Prague?

If you want to avoid the crowd of tourists and the cold, I recommend visiting Prague in May. The bonus is that the Prague Spring Music Festival starts on the 12th of May each year, though this makes accommodations slightly trickier and you might have to book well in advance. The imminence of the music festival gives an amazing ambience to the city, with makeshift stages being set up in the Old Town Marketplace and free concerts playing in the square, leading up to the days of the festival. Check out the dates of the Prague Marathon as well to make accommodations easier.

Where should I stay?

Prague is very neatly divided into the old town with its medieval buildings and the rich history and the modern downtown. When booking, make sure you are within walking distance of the Old Town Square. This should ensure that you are situated somewhere in the heart of the old city and can walk to all the attractions, including the castle on the hill.

How many days do I need?

cesky-krumlov

Cesky Krumlov

Ideally, you will need a minimum of 3 days; two to soak in the history of Prague’s old city and one to explore the countryside. We chose our out of town excursion to Castle Cesky Krumlov, where one of the families of Czech nobility had a winding castle and beautiful gardens. The trip was made special by an amazing tour guide, so if you plan on visiting this castle, make it in time for the English tour. If your tour guide’s name is Rose, trust me, you are in luck.
Plan to arrive on a Wednesday and leave on a Sunday, since the town’s nightlife is dead Sunday nights through Tuesday.

Are those historically dressed guys distributing concert pamphlets for real?

Church at Old Town Square

Church at Old Town Square

Prague is filled with churches (it is called the “City of a thousand spires) and the city has had the brilliant idea of turning each and every one of them into a concert venue. Each evening, the churches feature classical music concerts with pieces by the best known composers of the region. Walking about the old city, you are sure to end your day holding a fistful of pamphlets advertising concerts around the town. Be sure to attend one – the acoustics of a church make for a soaring musical experience.

Should I be concerned about a dress code?

Any American traveling to Europe will find that jeans and t-shirts will set them apart immediately. Even the city employees sweeping the street are dressed well, so pack some of your better things to blend in. Though the music festival attracts the young and hip crowd who a re a little more careless about what they wear, in general this is a sartorially
conscious town.

What should I shop for?

Prague is intensely touristy when it comes to shopping and the old city is dotted with shops selling the Czech specialties of garnet jewelry and handmade crystal. Beware, original and unique crystal ware can only be found at some ateliers..most of the stuff is for tourists. Check your guidebook for the couple of jewelry places certified by the government so you can be sure of the quality of the garnets. Don’t expect to bargain a lot; despite their recent freedom from communism, the Czech have not yet figured out the art of the deal.

What if I am a vegetarian?

Clock tower

Clock tower

Not to worry; every restaurant in Prague (even the holes in the wall) features some vegetarian food in addition to the local favorite, pork knees! Our party was mostly vegetarian and we never had a problem, dining on pasta, pizza and a variety of soups. Try really hard and you’ll even find the odd vegetarian restaurant, though the best known among them, an Indian restaurant named Govinda, is only open till 5 p.m.
We even found a pure vegetarian restaurant called Laibon in the small town of Cesky Krumlov, and dined on “Sabdzhi” and rice made by a Ukranian chef.

Should I take my kids along?

Not unless your kids have a real passion for history. Otherwise, I anticipate the young ones being heartily bored in half a day by the preponderance of churches and medieval relics and the necessity of walking everywhere. The presence of kids might also put a damper on your ability to enjoy the Prague nightlife, with its smoky restaurants featuring jazz bands and local singers.

And finally, is beer really cheaper than water?

Yes!

A tale of two cities: Singapore/Bangkok

Singapore: “Even the trees know to behave here,” said a friend only half-jokingly as she drove us to her apartment from the airport. Indeed, the pristine sidewalks and the immaculate topiary lining the road speak of a force of will that transformed a Malay fishing village into a model city-state that sets an example of modern urban planning.

We spent touristy time at the Jurong Bird Park, Sentosa Island and the Night Safari, but the highlight of our trip was a conversation we had with several expat Indian friends one evening. After 8 years of the Bush administration in the US, we really didn’t have much of a leg to stand on, but we still vigorously defended the institution of democracy, messy though it is in practice. Yes, Singapore is a democracy, with regular elections where the ruling party wins overwhelming support cycle after election cycle, but there’s more than meets the eye. Dissent is ruthlessly crushed by the simple expedient of bankrupting the odd brave soul who dares to stand in opposition. This is done (according to friends who whispered to us sotto voce) by analyzing every single pronouncement and speech made by the candidate during campaign season, finding the odd discrepancy or inaccuracy in their statements and then suing their pants off. The logic (and this applies to any criticism leveled against the State) is that since the State is doing such a great job for its citizenry (an unarguable point) any criticism must be false. The Supreme Court, of course, heartily concurs.

Our friends were completely on board with such actions, even though to us they smacked of dictatorship, benevolent though it may be. “Democracy is just oppression of the minority by the majority or of the majority by a minority,” said one. “The man on the street is just not capable of making an informed decision,” said another. To us, freshly emergent from an election where we saw the likes of Sarah Palin almost make it to commander-in-chief, that hit uncomfortably close to the bone.

It’s not hard to see their point of view, especially when things work so well in Singapore. The government of Lee Kuan Yew has made few missteps since it came to power over 4 decades ago. English has been adopted as one of the official languages and nearly every Singaporean is a polyglot as a result, well equipped to respond to international opportunities. When there was some clash between the various races that inhabited the island (Chinese, Malay, Tamil) public housing was structured with quotas for each race, so people wouldn’t ghettoize and would learn to get along with their neighbors. The education system, considered to be among the finest in the world, separates achievers from drones( my word) very early and fast tracks the former. Average students still have the potential to earn a decent living in jobs that are more suited to their capabilities (late bloomers – too bad!)

To an outsider, there is something awfully Big Brother about it all, but Singaporeans appear to revel in the safety and prosperity of their city. When I questioned whether such authoritarianism stifled creativity, it seems the government has realized that eventuality too, and encourages immigration as a way to get fresh blood and fresh ideas from the outside. Yes, free speech of the American sort is a casualty – friends would only hesitatingly mention the strictures and constraints they operated under, as if they were afraid it was being recorded somewhere. But if greatest good of the greatest number is the objective of any establishment, then one can unequivocally say that Singapore is a terrific example of governance.

Is it replicable? I doubt it. Experience has shown that dictatorships and authoritarian regimes are more likely to misuse their power than genuinely work for the public good. Witness Mugabe, Kim Jong Il..the list goes on.(Even China, which is often cited as an example of how a centralized, opposition-free government can make quick decisions, has shown a disturbing tendency towards disregard for human capital, corruption and environmental degredation). The rest of us will just have to muddle along in our flawed democracies. As Winston Churchill said, “… it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Bangkok: Krung Thep or City of Angels is its Thai name, but Bangkok lives up much more to the seedy connotations of its farang moniker. Steamy in every way, Bangkok is the yin to Singapore’s yang. It is colorful and gaudy, with streets full of cars in shades of neon pink, green, yellow and orange. All the wats( temples) are generously plastered with gilt and the many Buddha statues in a multitude of poses all gleam with gold and scraps of gold flakes pressed on them by devotees. The sidewalks are crowded with hawkers selling everything from fried meat( of nameless animals) to pirated DVDs( really high quality!) to cheap clothes and brand knockoffs.

We reached Bangkok a few weeks after the protests that had shut down the airport. Apparently this is one of the worst years for Thai tourism, but we were still cheek to jowl with other tourists in every excursion we took to explore the city and its environs. Buddhism with its message of stoicism is a perfect fit for these laid back, indolence-loving people who shrug off any disruption to their lives with admirable insouciance. (Also, you would need to be a Buddhist to put up with the traffic on Sukhumvit, an arterial road that cuts through the entire city and can jam up even during off-peak hours.)

Bangkok is also a city of hustlers with approximately 50 percent of the people out to cheat you and the other 50 percent warning you against those very same cheats. “Don’t let the taxi driver charge you more than 150 bahts from the palace to the hotel,” said our kind concierge and sure enough, on the way back a taxi driver nonchalantly asked for 500. When we asked for directions from the Grand Palace to Wat Po( the temple of the giant reclining Buddha) a helpful guide warned us, “No matter what anyone tells you, the temple is open.” Predictably, on our walk we were stopped and assured that the temple was closed for an afternoon siesta and we could see a “lucky Buddha” instead!

John Burdett’s thriller series is an invaluable read for tourists planning a visit to this garden of earthly delights. I read Bangkok 8 and gained a much better understanding of all the middle-aged white men with their nubile Thai companions, all of whom appear perfectly content with their respective bargains. I learn that somtam is a spicy papaya salad that has 12 varieties of chilies ground into it and can consequently blow the roof of your mouth. And most importantly, I had an insight into these beautiful people who have never been colonized and are so fiercely patriotic that not understanding English is almost a badge of honor.

Yes, it is an inexplicable fact, but very few Thais have even a working knowledge of English. Considering how much of the economy is dependent on tourism, they somehow get by with hand gestures and lovely smiles. Forget about making special arrangements or accommodating special needs in Thailand( unless they are needs of a certain kind, in which case nothing is impossible) and live as they do, enjoying life one day at a time, making up for their sins with acts of generosity and compassion( the karma all balances out) and philosophically accepting (what in the Western world would be termed apathy) of whatever life has to offer them.

Bangkok is not the first destination that comes to mind if you are family with little children, but there’s plenty of fun for them for a couple of days. I would recommend the canal tour to see the houses built on stilts( surprisingly unsmelly), a visit to the Tiger temple outside the city( a full day tour) and a tour of the Grand Palace and some of the more important wats. Of course there are the many gorgeous beaches which can be reached within a few hours from the capital where the kids can have a glorious time in the warm water while you get every part of your body massaged for incredibly low prices in USD.

The city is a complete contrast to the staid and successful Singapore. The government is constantly in a state of instability (though the king and queen are universally beloved), the police are famed for their corruption and the traffic is permanently snarled. People in the rural areas live in abject poverty, which is why so many young people show up in the city to participate in the flesh trade. It is still a joyous and vibrant place that welcomes the visitor with open arms. It is exciting, amoral, colorful and unpredictable.

Which city would you prefer to live in?

Egypt – a clash of civilizations

Enakshi Choudhuri

Sphinx and the Great Pyramid

“Ahlan wa sahlan! Welcome to Cairo,” intoned the flight steward as our Egypt Air flight touched down at Cairo International Airport. It was late evening and light smog shrouded the airport buildings.  We climbed down the unsteady staircase onto the hot tarmac and threaded our way to the waiting buses. Our representative from the travel agency, Mustafa, met us once we alighted at the terminal building. As we would find out during the course of the week, Mustafa was our main link to the agency; he practically worked 24 hours a day and would often catnap in the car or in various hotel lobbies to catch up on much needed sleep. His dedication to his job was commendable.

We moved through immigration and customs very smoothly, thanks to Mustafa, and were soon outside waiting for the agency van to come pick us up. Cairo, a sprawling metropolis of over 15 million people, is a city that never sleeps. The traffic and smog hit you right away and immediately transport you to India. For many Western travelers the chaotic traffic and beeping horns, patched up cars filled to capacity, buses that stop anywhere and everywhere and the run down buildings with large colorful billboards represent a strange, exotic and potentially alarming spectacle. But to travelers with roots in South Asia, Cairo is like home. Everything is familiar and yet strangely unfamiliar in an indescribable way.

Cairo Marriott

Cairo Marriott

We spent 7 incredible days in Egypt which, in retrospect, seemed too short. Egypt’s magnificent history and culture overwhelms the senses and yet leaves one begging for more. Since we were traveling with a child (our daughter is seven), we were notably concerned about how much she would be able to do on any given day. One of the best decisions we made, as first time visitors to Egypt, was to have one travel agency organize all our tours, hotel accommodations and travel arrangements within the country so we only had to contact one person in case of any problems.

The other decision we patted ourselves on the back for was our request for private tours. These are a little more expensive than group tours, but doing so helped us set up our own itinerary and allowed us the luxury of a having a private air-conditioned minivan with unlimited stops along our way to various tourist sites. A guided tour is very valuable as many of the guides have degrees in history and archeology, have actually been on digs and are a fount of knowledge you can depend upon.

Avenue of the Rams

Avenue of the Rams

Egypt recognizes that tourism is its biggest industry and most tourist sites and cities are very well prepared for tourists. There is a special Tourism and Antiquities police force who only deal with tourist concerns. Arabic is the main language, although most people have a working knowledge of English and French, a throwback to Egypt’s European colonial past.  ATM’s are plentiful and most good hotels will exchange dollars for Egyptian pounds (1 US dollar = approximately 5 Egyptian LE). What’s even more convenient is that at the end of your stay your hotel will exchange any left over pounds for dollars at a very reasonable rate. Credit cards, dollars and euros are acceptable at all tourist sites so one does not need to carry large quantities of local currency.

Most areas in and around Cairo seem to be quite safe at all times. We noticed women and children walking on the streets of Cairo at 2 a.m. in the morning and families socializing in the wee hours of the morning by the Nile.  As far as getting to bed at a reasonable hour, anarchy appeared to prevail for both kids and adults, and nobody appeared too worse for the wear in the morning.

Statue of Ramses at Memphis

Statue of Ramses at Memphis

Egypt is an amalgamation of old traditions and conservative values and modern westernized beliefs. Women wearing the traditional hijab or in some cases, the full length burkha, mingle freely with others in western attire.  Many Egyptian guidebooks and internet travel sites caution women travelers to cover up fully and be modest in their attire. Although I went fully prepared I found that I need not have adhered to such strict guidelines. Our guide, a modern Muslim woman, did not cover her hair, wore short-sleeved shirts and calf length pants and definitely believed I was ‘over dressed’ for many of our tours. At one point, she asked me incredulously, “Didn’t you bring any shorts?”  I shook my head, wishing for the umpteenth time that I had packed a pair of bermudas or even capri pants instead of baggy trousers or long ankle length skirts.

Luxor

Luxor

My wardrobe deficiencies notwithstanding, we did manage to see quite a bit of Cairo and its surrounding areas and make quick trips to Luxor and Alexandria. To give you a quick snapshot of our itinerary – we started with a trip to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and a dinner cruise on the Nile on Day 1 and followed that by a tour of the pyramids and ruins of Saqqara, Dahshur, Memphis and Giza on Day 2. On Day 3, we toured historic Jewish, Coptic Christian and Islamic sites in Cairo and on Day 4 we winged our way to Luxor, about 600 km south of Cairo and explored the temples on the east bank (Karnak and Luxor). The next day (Day 5), we visited the magnificent necropolis at the Valley of the Kings, Queen Hatshepsut’s temple and the Colossi of Memnon. We flew back to Cairo that night and spent the next day, Day 6, in Alexandria exploring Greco-Roman catacombs, a Roman amphitheater and a fort built on the site of the original Lighthouse of Alexandria. On Day 7 we relaxed, did some shopping and closed out our trip by heading to Cairo airport late in the night for our flight back to the US.

Egyptian Museum

Egyptian Museum

The Egyptian museum is definitely worth visiting early on in your trip as it gives you an excellent overview of the history and culture that you will encounter on your tours to actual sites. The Tutankhamen exhibit halls are magnificent as well as the Amarna collection of Akhenaten. My daughter found the animal mummies fascinating, although she was quickly restless with the endless statuary and displays that we found so interesting. The Mummy room, for which you pay extra, contains about 21 mummies of ancient royals including that of Ramses II.

Step Pyramid at Zosur

Step Pyramid at Zosur

The Saqqara pyramids are among the first pyramids in Egypt. The Step pyramid of Zoser at Saqqara and the Bent pyramid at Dahshur are the forerunners of the later pyramids of Giza. There is no shortage of pyramids in this area, discovered or undiscovered; in fact, during our meanderings, we wandered onto an archeological dig which, after we returned to the US, was announced to be the site of the latest pyramid discovery in Saqqara. Our 15 seconds of proximity to fame and we didn’t even know it!

Red Pyramid of Sonfru

Red Pyramid of Sonfru

If you want to go inside a pyramid, it may be better to see the Red pyramid at Dahshur rather than the Giza pyramid where the challenge of having to deal with hordes of fellow tourists is compounded by the chagrin of having to buy a separate ticket for entrance. To get inside most pyramids you climb half way up one of the faces (about a 100 feet up) and then climb down a steep narrow shaft (about a 150 feet down), hunched over almost double at some points, leading to one or more burial chambers. The pyramids themselves are empty and most are quite musty as there are very few air shafts. If you are unused to much climbing or generally out of shape, it is probably best to avoid the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal distress associated with entering a pyramid.

Hanging Church

Hanging Church

Coptic Cairo is a pilgrimage for many tourists as it contains not only the legendary site where Moses was found in the rushes but also some of the places that Joseph, Mary and Jesus visited in Egypt while in exile. The Hanging Church, so called because it has no real foundation and built over one of the towers of the Babylon fortress, is worth visiting. We were mesmerized by the carved wooden ceilings at the Coptic Museum, ceilings that had been salvaged from various crumbling monasteries around the country. In Islamic Cairo the Alabaster Mosque built inside the 12th century Citadel of Saladin is a landmark destination. Even those unfamiliar with early Christian or Islamic history will appreciate the significance of these sites. A unique area that we passed on our way to Islamic Cairo was the City of the Dead, an erstwhile cemetery that, untransformed, has been home to the poorest citizens of Cairo for countless decades. The Egyptian government is now trying to relocate these families living among the graves and inside the mausoleums, many of whom have been living there for generations and refuse to move.

Queen Hatshepsut's Temple

Queen Hatshepsut

In ancient Egypt, the domain of the living was on the east side of the Nile and the domain of the dead on the west. The temples at Karnak and Luxor on the East Bank were storehouses of wealth during the time of Ramses II. The six soaring statues of Ramses II guarding the temple of Luxor are a sight to behold.  The Valley of the Kings on the West Bank houses the tombs of over 65 pharaohs in deep caves carved into soft limestone rock, many of which still haven’t been found. The tombs here date back to the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC) when the pharaohs realized that the pyramids were beacons to grave robbers. The tourist sites around Luxor entail a fair amount of walking and the ground is quite uneven. Sturdy shoes and lots of drinking water are a good idea as the actual tombs are quite far away from the main ticket offices. No photography is allowed inside the caves which is a pity as the frescoes are amazing. This was one of the few places where our daughter decided to sit with the guide in the shade while we braved the scorching hot sun and armies of tourists to explore some the tombs. The heat and the crowds make it impossible to see more than four or five tombs in a morning but whatever you can see is highly worth it.

Mediterranean Sea

Mediterranean Sea

We found Alexandria to be a pleasant seaside town with a few Roman and Greek sites. The catacombs were worth visiting but paled in comparison to the other tombs that we had seen before we got to this city, Egypt’s second largest. The Mediterranean Sea was a breathtaking azure blue and the sail boats bobbing in the breeze were picturesque. For history buffs, Alexandria may be a bit of a letdown, given that much of the original wonders of the ancient world no longer remain and have been replaced with fairly recent structures as markers where these monuments once stood. In retrospect, we feel that we could have easily skipped this tour and chosen to go either to the temple of Abu Simbel or to one of the historic sites in the Sinai Peninsula.

Now no traveler’s tale is complete without a mention of the local cuisine and this is no exception. We enjoyed typical Egyptian dishes like kushari (a lentil, pasta and rice dish with red sauce), fuul (mashed refried beans), kebabs, hummus, grilled pigeon, chicken and fish tagines or stews, fetir (sweet or savory stuffed pancakes) and a delicious baladi bread similar to a tandoor roti. Being vegetarian would be very hard in Egypt if you had to subsist on traditional food but in most places American or European food is readily available.  Be careful of fresh cut vegetables and fruits unless you want to spend most of your time “resting”; although we were not affected, we found that it was a constant topic of discussion wherever there were tourists. Fresh fruit juices such as lime, mango, guava or strawberry were surprisingly good and very refreshing. Alcohol is served primarily in big touristy restaurants or hotels. Egypt Air, the national airline is totally ‘dry’ and no alcoholic beverages are sold even on trans-Atlantic journeys.

We found that many tourist sites do not allow photography inside the monuments or buildings and would recommend buying the postcards being sold by vendors so you can hold on to some memories. Tour guides will also stop for ‘refreshments’ at carpet factories, perfume factories, papyrus institutes and other handicraft industries. In a private tour it is much easier to avoid such places than on a large guided tour. Bargaining is a must if you plan to buy. We started with one third the quoted price and worked our way up to what we thought was an acceptable upper limit for us.

Bottled water is essential as is sunscreen for the sun can be brutal at midday. Weather- wise the best time to visit is probably October to March, when temperatures are manageable. Also, tipping or giving baksheesh is a way of life in Egypt. Keep plenty of one pound notes (notes are more acceptable than coins) as even when you go to a public restroom you need to tip the attendant before you can get a small strip of toilet paper to use. People will ask for tips to take photographs of you at most tourist sites.

If you are traveling with kids, the additional expenditure of staying in four or five star hotels is worth considering. Smoking is very common in all public places including hotel lobbies. A non-smoking room in a 5 star hotel is like paradise if you are not used to cigarette smoke.  When traveling with children take the usual precautions you would take when traveling to India or other countries in the subcontinent with respect to food, restrooms, over the counter medicines etc. Egyptians love children and will often take the time to interact with them or bring special treats.

As we boarded our flight back to the US, the words of P.B Shelley came to mind:

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things…
…Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

For us, Egypt is now a collage of pillars and pyramids, monasteries, churches, mosques and temples, some shattered by the march of Time and History, as Shelley describes, yet others still standing, proud and desolate and endlessly fascinating. It is a canvas of the clash of civilizations, the ancient and modern saga of humankind in all its grandeur, its hubris, its compassion and its frailty, and the enduring bonds that tie us all together. We can’t wait to find our way back.