Friday, January 26, 2007

Keep on Keepin on

The last few days have been busy ones. Successful and insightful interviews one day after the other. First, I had the opportunity to sit down with the ACS Chief (American Citizens Services). He's the guy that gets to deal with US citizens who get themselves into jams while they are in India. This can mean criminal issues, natural disasters, indingent citizens or severe health issues. He had all sorts of far out stories to illustrate just how poorly prepared some visitors are. Just last week they actually got a call about some American arrested in a northern province for running stark naked down the villages mainstreet.

The following day was the big catch though. Reed was able to arrange what was originally scheduled to be about a 10 minute private interview with just me, Alex and the US Ambassador to India. Needless to say, a big deal. The Ambassador was a gratious, thoughtful, and incredibly intelligent person.

A native of Rockford, he showcased his sharp memory from the start when he recalled specific details of his visit to Lasalle/Peru back when he was QB for his highschool football team, "I remember looking at their (LP's) defensive frontline and noticing...most of them were missing teeth. They were a tough bunch of boys."

That got my attention early on. He is one of those men who carries himself with a firm, enchanting charisma, looking through you with a rare set of steely eyes. It was an amazing conversation that turned out to go over 30 minutes in length, a compliment to Alex and I, as he turned away his anxious secretary multiple times.

As for today, I'm sitting here (11 pm) still stuffed from dinner. Reed took us out to eat at a trendy restobar not far from the house, called Punjab by Nature.

I'm stuffed because we gorged on a delicious mix of garlic and butter naan along with a giant leg of lamb. Between the three of us, I'm ashamed to admit we were still unable to pick the bones completely clean. It was just so much!

More as it comes...

Monday, January 22, 2007

A Southern Indian Lunch

Yesterday afternoon, my brother Reed took us for a drive downtown to an area of Delhi called Connaught Place. Its a very busy area of the city where a lot of hotels, markets, and nightlife reside.
We went in search of a restaurant recomended in the Foder's Travel Guide. We found it on the first floor of the Janpur Hotel, a restaurant specializing in Southern Indian cuisine. Much like the US, foods vary dramatically from region to region. This was my first taste of India's South, and it was pretty good!
The large order you see on Reed's plate is called a "Paper Dosa." Alex's plate has a coconut Dosa as well. The meal on my plate is called a uttapam, which in my case was a mix of vegetable, coconut, and onion. We splite the three different orders equally and gave them all tries.

Upon Reed's making clear, all three orders came with plenty of spice and were all pretty good. I think we all agreed that the Coconut Dosa reigned king though. With some extra coconut spice to spread on everything in sight, we were able to pillage the place and leave the plates empty in probably no less than 10 minutes. Ahhhh a true Southern Indian meal!

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Chillin at the Taj

January 16 Alex and I got up at 5am. Not even the crack of dawn, as the sun wouldn't rise for atleast another hour and a half. Our destination was Agra, a city 2 hours away by train. Agra is the home of the Taj Mahal. The entire day was great, we saw a lot of city sites in addition to the Taj including the old Indian capital fortress.

At the end of the day our driver took us off the tourist's beaten path. Behind the Taj Mahal is a large, currently dried up river basin where excess waters from the monsoon season surge by. We were fortunate enough to be taken there, where it was only us and a handful of locals who walked the river basin and were able to get a completely unique view of the Taj Mahal for sunset. It was the perfect ending to a day in which we not only got to see the Taj Mahal's marble appearance in the morning light, but also its changed hue at sunset. No doubt, it was a very busy, very satisfying day.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Delhi Downtime

The past 48 hours have been fever ridden accompanied by it's good friend, Mr. Upset Stomach. Its been a bummer, as I intended to have hailed a Tuk Tuk (A three wheeled scooter that seats two with a tent pitched over it) and visited some famous memorials and tombs. Namely, Hamiyans Tomb, which shares much in common with the artchitecture of the Taj Mahal. No worries, delays should be expected on such a trip I suppose.

I'm feeling much better today though. I'm in the process of securing a train ticket to the city of Agra, about a four hour train ride south of Delhi. Agra is the site of the Taj Mahal as well as some other landmarks of equal interest including a massive fortress built by a past Moghul emperor. If all goes well, my next post should be an update from Agra. More as it comes.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Heart of Delhi

Today was our first day completely on our own. Reed was at the embassy, Christian went from school to a friends house, leaving Angie the opportunity to relax and have some of her girlfriends over to share some wine. With that in mind, Alex and I took advantage and got up early to go explore the city.

Namely, Old Delhi, a district in the northwest portion of the city featuring very few things that have changed over the past few hundred years. It took about 40 minutes for our driver to get us across town.

During the ride, we finally came across our first heavy traffic that decided to share the road with some cows. One decided to leave a cow-pie between a pair of cars in front of us. I later learned that there isnt much worry about the roads being overrun with dung thanks to a little kown fact: the dung is a popular commodity. Children and beggars who already walk the traffic lanes looking for aid often make cleaning up the cow or camel's mess a priority.

Once enough of the excrement is gathered, it is dried and then sold cheaply as a substitute for firewood to India's poor. It is a sad truth, but much of the population here survives within very harsh conditions. The dried dung is often the only means to produce heat for these people.

Once I arrived at Old Delhi, I was able to witness many of the very citizens who probably must make use of such measures. The easiest way to enter and get out of Old Delhi is to make use of the one of the two serious landmarks that rest at the perimeter of the area. There is the amazingly huge, 17th Century imperial capital known as the Red Fort and across the street rests Jama Masjid, India's (and one of the world's) largest and most breathtaking mosques. Realizing that the sprawling Red Fort could take up and afternoon all by itself, Alex and I decided to save that tour for a future date.

Our driver dropped us off literally at the foot of the mosque's entryway. This being my first experience with a Islamic house of worship, I'll be forever spoiled. I doubt I will ever again visit a mosque on par with this landmark. Completed in 1656, the mosque took 6 years to build with the use of 5,000 builders. The mosque is made of beautiful red sandstone and marble with towers stretching over 200 feet into the air. Resting between the climbing towers is the massive, onion shaped dome which is the anchor to the entire site.

Upon our arrival, we climbed the stone steps leading up to the mosque. At the top, it became clear that before we entered the mosque's sprawling courtyard we would need to remove our shoes. Carrying them with us, we entered. We didn't actually go into the main building under the dome, nor climb any of the towers. I only later learned that this would have been perfectly acceptable after a short purification ceremony.

When I return to visit the Red Fort, I'll probably go back and make the climb as I was made to understand that the view from the towers is the only way to truly appreciate the architecture. Instead, Alex and I stayed in the main central courtyard. Don't think courtyard like a park with grass, this was all still very much a part of the mosque, completely made of carved sandstone and marble. The courtyard is probably about 3 football fields in size and provides the space needed for the masses to come during prayer hours. When we first walked through one could see maybe a few dozen people near the front of the mosque with their prayer rugs, but on our first attempt to cross back through we were quickly informed that the mosque was closed for about 45 minutes for afternoon prayer.

While the mosque and Red Fort are amazing structures filled with a richness of history and reverence, the rest of Old Delhi lies in complete contrast. The city streets were the craziest I have ever seen, moreso than any wild west film. The streets are packed with people, rick-shaws, bicycles, mopeds, the occasional large animal such as a horse or donkey, all crammed into these thin streets. The sides of the streets are crammed with all sorts of market fronts selling everything from local foods to handmade tin (not just a claim, as I would watch a young boy heating a piece over a small fire while perfecting his families' age old craft), to burkas and jewelry.

I really had to be on my toes while getting through the market, lest I get my foot ran over by a biker or get knocked down. My first monkey siting was today as well. A pair of the little chimps were spotted making there way across some really sad looking telephone wires crossing the rooftops.

For those who arrive at New Delhi seeking something exotic and are perhaps let down compared to the tales they may have heard, Old Delhi is the place that fulfills the word foreign in every sense of the word.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

New Adventures in New Delhi

January 8, 2007

Its official, I’m now on the ground in India. It’s been a long time coming, as I’ve always seen myself someday visiting this part of the world.

Staying at my brother Reed’s place is going to be great. The house is much larger than anticipated and is beautiful besides. There is a lot of history and character that resides at this home. When we first pulled up, Reed was explaining to me that it was his understanding that the house was designed years ago by a renowned British architect from the Raj period. I’m going to try to dig up some more information.

The hours after our arrival consisted of lots of relaxation and downtime. The jet had landed by 7:06 am and Alex and I were passed out in our beds by 9:30. Up until that point, I hadn’t slept more than 2 of the past 48 hours. I really hadn’t slept since our last night in Amsterdam.
Naps, time changes, and travel have thrown my body completely out of whack. I crashed for bed my first night here looking forward to sleeping in, instead, I’m sitting here at 7am writing this blog! I’m not worried though, as I do have 3 solid weeks to catch my breath before having to get on another airline. That fact alone should help me sleep better.

My sister-in-law, Angie, is going to take us out this afternoon and start to acquaint us with the area. We might hit up a market as well as visit the embassy (Reed’s home is actually off base).

I have a feeling India has a lot to show me, and today is the day I begin to discover just what those things are.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

An Interesting Detour

We got our morning call at 7:45 bright and early. I'm probably running on 2 or 3 hours of sleep thanks to an over extended nap I allowed myself when we first arrived in Frankfurt. After a quick shower I was good to go though.

After a much needed full buffett breakfeast, we pointed ourselves towards the Frankfurt Airport. It was a little nerve racking what with the slow moving security line and the realization we were embarking on our first Arabic flight carrier.

Gulf Air treated us well and made for a hassle-free landing. Here are some interesting notes I jotted down during the flight:
  • Large, Airbus 340 featuring tv's in each seat.

  • Remote controls are attached by wire to the armrests.

  • Over 20 channels to choose from

  • I wathed a Rolling Stones documentary as well as Johnny Cash's Walk the Line

  • Last channel displays alternating maps with flight status while Muslim prayer songs play

  • First music station (not on tv) is also prayers

  • Temperature of cabin during flight went from chilly to uncomfortably warm

  • Temp. Control is not a priority here or in Germany for that matter

  • Germans have no A/C in the summer, considered unneccessary

I'm now sitting in the airport at Bahrain. We have a 5 hour layover here and its been interesting. The few hours already spent here have been some of the most interesting on this trip yet. If for no other reason, my curiousity.

The overwhelming majority of people are Muslim. Most dress in traditional garb, some have very specific outfits and I suspect that they are religious clerics of some sort. The exchange rate was a big surprise. I was expecting favorable rates for the US dollar, but was surprised to discover that that 1 Bahrainian Dinar is the equivalent of 2.65 US dollars. Here are Alex and I thinking we'll kill five hours eating like kings, instead we're still holding off until our stomachs can growl no more.

The gift shop is full of assorted locally made items that are quite unique to the area. Everything from handmade prayer rugs to high-quality metal oil lamps (yes, many resemble Alladins') abound in the gift shop. I haven't purchased anything yet, but am considering a few neat little items.

So we sit, observe and...wait. And then we go to New Delhi!

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Take the A-Train

Well today was no messing around. Alex and I have found time for fun and adventure, but come travel day, we go into our serious mode. We spent the evening of the 4th briskly walking up and down the side streets peeking in coffee shop doors looking for internet access. Before the evening was over we were at a small snack bar ordering "Kip Corn" which I think is some sort of breaded chicken sausage. For 2 Euros, I've quickly found that they make a good cheap snack, as well as a cheap entry fee into a wifi enabled diner.

One kip corn and ice cream bar later, and we had sketched out our rough plan for arriving in Germany. Extremely budgeted, tired, and lacking time to get some key information, Alex and I decided we'd have to visit Heidleburg on the next lap.

We purchased our train tickets a day in advance (the 4th) and were packed and ready to get up early our final morning in Amsterdam. Everything went off without a hitch. While our STA didn't appear to do us much good, (all discounted 2nd class tickets were sold through at the train station) we were able to catch a good special on the 1st class seats. Instead of paying a whopping 112Euro per 2nd class ticket, I purchased a 90Euro ticket for 1st class. The deal had something to do with a second purchased ticket being at half off. I'm fairly sure STA had absolutely no dealing in this, as I was never asked to show my card. STA hasn't done anything for us outside of purchasing our original tickets.

Regardless, today's arrival in Frankfurt has gone much smoother than our initial entry into Europe. We arrived at the train station a healthy 45minutes before departure, and enjoyed our discounted 1st class, 4 hour ride to Frankfurt. Instead of riding the train all the way to Central Station, we instead got off at the Airport station and, after a few questions to the locals, found our way to the hotel information desk.

From there, its been pie. We have ourselves a full sized, Courtyard Marriot room for our final European evening. As full of character as my Amsterdam cell was, a large bed full of clean sheets accompanying a hot shower is just what I needed. The internet isn't free, but hey, nothings perfect.

After a quick detour in Bahrain, its off to New Delhi tomorrow.

Friday, January 5, 2007

The only right way to experience Amsterdam

Forget about the canal tours that supposedly show you everything Amsterdam has to offer. If one wants to get intimate with the city, without literally walking the entire limits, than renting a bicycle is the only way to go.

For 12.75 Euros Mac Bikes will rent out a quality bicycle for a 24 hour period.
The bikes are designed by a local who builds them each himself. A top notch design, I complimented them on prior to being told the story behind who makes them.

The manager, sweeping his arm towards a cluster of a clearly different, no longer used model, said, "we used to buy, you know, big name bikes," than he nodded towards ours, "but a guy that lives here in town came to us with his own design and people have loved them." How much have they loved them? The local bike smith has contracted over 200 bikes from that one single Mac Bikes store.

While they all are the same in design and share red as the dominant color, each bicycle has its own name painted in white along the frame. Alex road a bike by the name of Hey Billie while I was fortunate enough to receive Elle.

Elle and Hey Billie would be the only accompaniments to most of me and Alex’s adventures. We originally rented the bikes with the main purpose of finding our way across town to reach our Student Travel Administration’s local office. After getting lost several times and asking many a polite local for directions, we finally found the STA office…only to find it closed.
Never to be discouraged, we took our newly prized bikes and began to focus more on enjoying the ride than reaching a particular end goal. The canals that lace themselves throughout the central city are aligned in such a way that one can use them to quickly orient oneself with a general point in the city. With the canals as our aid, Alex and I traced them down through all sorts of thin cobble stone streets, teaming with people on foot, bike, and car, all sharing the road at the same time.

It really is a hoot but it’s important to be attentive. The rules are simple enough and after some careful observation one can easily jump in and get along well. We made our way further out, leaving the canals behind. We were heading to the outskirts of our centrally themed tourist map, looking for a cluster of top tier museums.

Before we reached the Van Gogh museum though, we came across Vondel Park. Overdue for a breather from the traffic, we made what turned out to be a shortcut as we detoured through a large gate and into the park. Vondel Park is much larger than one expects. After biking down the entry trail a ways, the park opens up and suddenly there is a large pond filled with ducks, lots of men and women walking their neatly trimmed dogs. The park, in and of itself, was a great part of the city that we had not originally planned to visit. Renting the bikes not only got us to the Van Gogh museum, but many an unexpected adventure as well.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Less is more in Amsterdam

For people in Amsterdam, they have seemingly turned their back on the assumed necessity that a modern society must also be fast-paced.

Houses are like gingerbread homes. The overwhelming majority of people appear healthy and subscribe to a unique, picturesque winter image. Scarves, wool coats, boots, and that "only-in-the-Netherlands" froline face dominates the scene. They ride their bicycles from one gingerbread home to another. The city has aged beautifully, with huge cathedrals and castles along the lines of a modern Madison Square Garden.

I feel under dressed at all times with my Nike sneakers, discount jeans, and Aerpostale sweater.
Everyone rides bikes. Bycycling, something most societies consider something to be left for children and professionals, are ridden hear by everyone. Bikers get their own lane in the all brick and cobblestone roads. Cars are basically smaller, sometimes to extreme portions, and will literally roll up and have small parking spaces on the sidewalks.

It is understood that bikers basically stop for no one. The bike ride we took today was reminiscent of our rides through Yangshuo. It was fast-paced and by far the best way to get around. Some bikes were specially designed to hold groceries and the like, while tricycles could sometimes be seen with a father pulling his wife and daughter along in the backseat.

The city has a lot more going for it than the typically discussed "Red Light District." Next up, Germany.