The rooster crows each morning with the first light. He has a distinct sound that pierces the cold morning air and the stone walls of the barn we call home. He will not stop until we give up on our dreams and the warmth of our thick blankets and start our day.
The dogs come to the glass kitchen door when they see us turn on the light. We name them Scruffy and Old Tom and they don’t seem to care what we call them as long we give them treats. After a couple of days, we decide it is okay if they come into the house. The painted cement floors of the barn have permanently embedded dog prints so the owner must have been alright with them entering at one time. Scruffy knows where we keep the treats and jumps excitedly in anticipation. Old Tom sits patiently and relies on his sad eyes to inspire our compassion.
We hear the sheep in the small field next to the barn. The sheep’s wool is full this time of year and each has one or two new lambs in tow. On rainy days, they make mournful sounds. The air is cold, the winds blow hard and with the rain or snow, it can’t be comfortable for them.
The peacocks come to visit later in the morning. Our barn has a glass entry door that is mirrored and the colorful birds preen and pose to look attractive to their own reflections. Watching their odd antics from the other side of the glass is always entertaining. Sometimes the sheep from the adjacent field escape and lead their flock past the window. It can be a little unsettling to have a sheep staring at us while we drink our coffee on the couch.
There is a fish pond on the property that is stocked with trout. It makes for a good walk to circle the lake when the weather is clear. The view over the surrounding hills is beautiful. Hedgerows separate the fields that are filled with sheep and green grass. A river runs through the valley. The trees that grow in the furrows between the hills are beginning to sprout leaves. More of the famous 40 shades of green are about to make their appearance. Bright yellow daffodils trace the path of the road as it rises over the hill. Cottontail rabbits are abundant and have homes under the berry plants that grow wild everywhere. Scruffy and Old Tom generally follow along until they realize we have not brought them treats.
The weather is constantly changing and never predictable. It is always the first topic of conversation amongst the locals we meet. It is several miles from our farm to the tiny town of 1200 where we find our supplies. The single main street is lined with barbershops, pubs, markets, butcher shops, hardware stores and small shops where we find all our necessities. The townsfolk are all friendly and make easy conversation. They are curious about strangers and happy to share ideas of how we might get the most enjoyment from the surrounding area. As soon as we speak they know we are visitors and are always interested to find out what we think of their country. They are surprised we are spending a full month in the area. International tourism is still a bit new here after the area was avoided for many years by tourists who only knew of it from nightly news reports.
On the few relatively better weather days, we make our way out to the surrounding countryside. The nearby Antrim Coast is one of Ireland’s most majestic. This magnificent meeting of land and sea is raw, windswept and weather-beaten. It is a stunning land of white rock cliffs, green pastures, wide beaches and pounding seas.
Narrow country roads connect the small villages that line the coast. The roads are incredibly scenic but take constant attention to avoid oncoming cars. The added challenge of driving on the left, roundabout etiquette and stormy weather take much of the enjoyment out of our first few days of touring.
The popularity of Game of Thrones has brought many visitors here to find locations used during filming. Hoards of bus tourists from Belfast usually mark the most popular sites. The Dark Hedges are filled throughout the day by selfie-takers seeking to capture a little of the show for themselves. Ballintoy Harbor is also a popular stop along the coast for loyal fans.
Dunluce Castle displays the most complete of several ancient ruins to be found along the coast. Set on a jagged piece of rock that hangs precariously over the sea, the castles existing bones show the outline of what must have been spectacular in its time. Sunsets offer the most dramatic views and multiple visits are warranted.
The beaches are great for walks on tolerable weather days. These are not the beaches of suntans, umbrellas and beach games. The sands are wide and the waters are rough. Downhill Beach can be driven upon. Having a refuge in the car as storms passed proved helpful on some visits. The cliffs at Whiterocks are a good indication of how harsh the wind and sea can treat the land. Brisk walks on windy days here led through deep sand to hidden caves in the cliff face. Runkerry Beach offers windswept dunes of long grasses that somehow hang on to the sandy hills despite natures frequent fury.
We enjoyed strolls through several of the more popular towns. Bushmill is famous for its world-class whiskey distillery. Portrush is a typical summer beachside resort that is busily preparing to host a British Open on its famous Royal Portrush links. Castlerock is a quiet town of stunning seaside mansions. Nearby Downhill Demesne and Mussenden Temple offer another tour of National Trust protected ruins from days gone by. Ballycastle and Portstewart offer similar charm and both became favorites for day trips.
We spent a day walking the city wall of Derry, the largest town in the area. The area inside of the walls has history at every corner and several interesting museums. We especially enjoyed the local history museum inside of the beautifully restored Guildhall that told of the founding of the city. Outside of the walls, we walked in the Bogside neighborhood along Rossville Street where we saw the Memorial Murals and the Bloody Sunday Memorial. The Museum of Free Derry tells of the history of “The Troubles” that affected the area for such a long period. The Good Friday agreements that brought an end to the violence were 20 years ago, but in these days of Brexit and talk of closing border crossings, many of the old sentiments have unfortunately been brought back to the forefront of many conversations.
The most popular and famous attraction on the coast is perhaps the Giant’s Causeway. We finally found a nice day to visit. This unique geological formation is reachable after a long walk down a steep road from the parking lot. A small bus carries passengers during the day, but we decided to visit after the 5 o’clock closing time so we could view the area at sunset. We were glad that most of the crowds had gone home. We had most of the area to ourselves and enjoyed spending a couple of hours climbing on the strange rocks that sit next to the sea.
We had trepidations that a month living in a restored barn on a small farm amongst the green fields of Northern Ireland in the last days of winter might not be the best idea. We were afraid that there wouldn’t be enough things to see and do to fill an entire month.
We did struggle with weather that was so ferocious that it sometimes became an event in itself. Rain from every direction followed by snow, wind, hail, more wind with only a few sunny days in between. We did struggle with budget. A rental car that turned out far more expensive than we planned limited our already strained finances.
However, I think we saw everything we came here to see. The highlight of our time turned out to be our small barn located on a scenic farm just outside a tiny town in the middle of a tiny country filled with friendly people. We had fun with friendly dogs and experienced rural life up close. I guess that is what travel is really all about.
I can think of only a few things in life that we have absolutely no control over. I’m sure there must be many more but there are only three that come to mind immediately. No matter what we do we can’t control who our parents are, what sex we are or where we are born.
Our parents give us our genetic makeup, for better or worse, and have a lot to do with the development of our personalities. For most people, some of the strongest love we experience is from our parents and we return it wholeheartedly. Of course, that is not true for all but because we share so many common characteristics we probably find that our similarities will, at the minimum, allow us to accept our parents at some point.
For some, our sex is something much more complicated. There are great advantages to both genders and probably a couple of downfalls to each. Most people find that the advantages of their sex outweigh the negatives and they learn to accept themselves as they were born. Many others struggle with their gender, but thankfully the world is adapting and finally becoming more comfortable with allowing people to determine their own destiny.
Where we are born is completely random and based upon where our mother happens to reside when we make our first appearance. If you grow up in the area you are born, most will make friends, attend school and establish bonds that are intrinsically linked to their birthplace. They may learn to love the landscape, weather and local lifestyle. For others, it may not be so easy. As much as they try, they never become comfortable with their surroundings. The concept of home is never realized.
Of course one of humankind’s greatest motivators is the desire to fit into a group. These people who weren’t lucky enough to be born where they were meant to live will eventually begin the search to find a place where they fit. A place to call home. For some, the journey may be a short move to a nearby city. Others may have a long journey. Some may find it takes many moves and many years to find a place where they feel comfortable enough to call home.
We have spent the last 8 years traveling the world. While we have enjoyed nearly everywhere we have traveled only a few destinations have really given us a sense of home. These places have a special attraction and an undefinable quality that make us feel relaxed and comfortable enough to feel like we belong. Even if we possess minimal language skills and know no one who could qualify as a family, we still feel we fit in.
Italy is such a place for us. We have spent a total of six months in the country and continue to be amazed by each destination. Whether it was a tiny island in the Bay of Naples, a grand piazza in Rome, the history-filled canals of Venice, the beautiful hills of Tuscany or the tiny villages of the Cinque Terre region we immediately became enchanted by the magic qualities we found in each. Whether it was the landscape, architecture, style or just some unexplainable quality we never seem to be uncomfortable in this country.
One part of Italy we wanted to spend time in and had not is the Amalfi Coast. Thoughts of the tiny picturesque towns precariously perched over a crystal blue sea have invaded our travel dreams for many years. After a couple of months of aggressive travel in difficult places, the thought of a month in the uncrowded late winter/early spring days of southern Italy sounded wonderful.
After a one night stopover in Abu Dhabi, we arrived at the Rome airport the next afternoon. A beautiful and speedy train ride south through the shadows of Mt. Vesuvius brought us to Salerno, the southern gateway to the Amalfi Coast. Salerno lends its name to the bay along which the Amalfi Coast sits. The most famous part of the coast begins just north of town and is reached via a precarious road of a thousand turns. The road hugs the jagged cliffs that rise from the sea and snakes its way across bridges and through tunnels as it connects the tiny towns along the way.
The road is an engineering marvel of its time and its builders must have risked life and limb to construct it. It has freed the people of the coast from the island-like existence they lived prior to the road being built. It is narrow and slow and even in these cool winter months before the tourists arrive it can be occasionally treacherous. The driving here is best left to people who understand the nuances and unwritten rules of the road. Luckily buses run fairly frequently and these would provide us with the least expensive and most scenic way to travel the coast during our visit.
We found our home in the village of Maiori on the ground floor of an attractive apartment house across the road from the beach. The building had a design that said “swinging ’60s” and was probably constructed sometime not long after jet age intercontinental travel became the rage. Maiori has the biggest strand of beach on the coast and is packed with summer beachgoers during the season. However, we found the pebbly beach deserted. The boardwalk promenade sprung to life daily with strolling locals out to catch the afternoon sun. Both young and old made full use of the warmth to shake off the winter doldrums of the previous few months and enjoy the last few days before tourist season begins again.
High winds, pounding rains and rough seas occasionally reminded us that winter was still very much alive. One day we were even surprised to see snowflakes outside our window. However, while we rarely went out without plenty of layers, the weather generally allowed us to be outside daily.
We filled our days with journeys to the towns that dot the coast. Each town seemed to have a character of its own that might not be apparent to visitors on shorter stays. Many of the tourist-oriented businesses were not open or had limited hours. Ferries rarely ran. Restaurants had shorter hours and limited menus. Outdoor cafes only had a few chairs available. No umbrellas marked territory on the beach. While some might find this time of year less than ideal, we find that having the squares, narrow streets and scenic views to ourselves easily makes up for anything we may be missing.
High on a mountaintop with commanding views up and down the coast sits Ravello, a village we visited several times. Filled with 5-star hotels, tiny piazzas, beautiful churches, winding alleys, grand villas and tiny parks, Ravello might be the most exclusive village on the coast. Famed for its music festival and an impressive roster of resident musicians, writers and artists Ravello oozes class at every turn. We toured Villa Rufolo with its stunning views and 13th-century architecture. We found warmth and beauty inside the church on the main square on a windy afternoon. We found locations used by John Ford, Gina Lollabridgida and Humphrey Bogart when they filmed a movie here.
Everyone loves Positano, which enjoys perhaps the most beautiful setting of any of the coastal villages. The colorful houses of the town rise steeply from the church that sits next to the modest size beach. The hills are so steep that only a couple of roads have been carved for automobile traffic. People transit the town on the narrow alleyways and steep staircases that pass expensive restaurants, classy boutiques and fine hotels. Workers still use donkeys to carry heavy loads as they make preparations for the upcoming arrival of international visitors. From almost anywhere in town the views are stupendous especially as the sun is setting and the lights of the village come up.
Amalfi itself is the touristic hub of the coast. Ferries to the island of Capri run from here and it serves as the hub for all bus traffic on the coast. The church on the main square is the most ornate on the coast. The beach is beautiful and the piers give the best perspective to view the dramatic setting of the town. Classic beachside hotels and restaurants line the wide pedestrian walkway that separates the beach from the town. From the pier, you can see the terraced mountains that limit the size of the town. This time of year the terraces are covered with bright yellow lemon trees and two monasteries are visible perched high on the stunning mountains that frame the town.
One of the more photogenic spots is just through the tunnel from Amalfi. Atrani is tiny but looks gorgeous from nearly every angle and viewpoint. From the nice beach, you pass through the giant arches of the roadway to enter the towns main square. Smaller than the squares in other towns, it feels intimate and on quiet sunny days became one of our favorites.
Over our month we became familiar with each town and spent nice afternoons wandering many others. Cetara, Minori, Praiano and Vietri all offered scenic views of lemon filled rock terraces, perfectly positioned churches and stunning vistas of land and sea.
Towards the end of our trip, we ventured further north to Sorrento. The incredible scenery made the two-hour bus ride well worth the effort. North from Positano, the road passes over the towering mountains of the peninsula that separates the Gulf of Salerno from the Gulf of Naples where Sorrento is located. Views of Vesuvius and Pompeii are amazing and Naples is easily visible in the distance. Sorrento itself is a bustling city that seemed especially active after the relative quiet we had enjoyed on the Amalfi Coast. We loved walking through the Old Town area and touring the wonderful churches of the city. Viewpoints from the parks that overlook the marinas were especially grand.
If a person travels enough, they will no doubt find places that they repeatedly visit. In some cases, it may just be a coincidence. Perhaps the location is a common hub that must be passed through to reach other destinations in the area. Others are not a coincidence at all. They are places we feel connected to in some way, even if we have never been there before. They make us feel comfortable, entertained and in the best sense, home. Italy has been that for us. Not our actual home but for the short time we have had the privilege to spend there, we have always enjoyed pretending that it is.
I have to admit that sometimes I’m a little jealous of how other people make their travel plans. I envision them sitting in their living rooms, with a cup of coffee in their hands, pouring over glossy travel brochures with pretty pictures of all the places they have dreamt about. They have arranged dates with their boss, perhaps 6 or 8 months in advance, agreeing on the best time for themselves and their employer to take that much needed 2 weeks.
They are well over their previous holiday, having had enough time to reflect on and properly relive the magic moments of their preceding exotic experience. They are rested and ready to begin planning. Enough time has passed since the last excursion that the struggles, difficulties and regrets of travel have all faded and the desire to conquer new destinations overrule any trepidations they may have.
They have plenty of time to prepare a detailed itinerary of all the things they want to see and do. Time to pick the most comfortable flights, find the best entertainment and select the best accommodations their budget affords them. Time to prepare an appropriate wardrobe of fashionable accessories, book tickets and acquire the latest gadgets and guidebooks to make their future adventures as fulfilling as possible.
We were sitting in a relaxing chair on the spacious lawn of our hotel in Jaipur with checkout looming the next morning, briefly basking in our highly successful month-long stay in India when the feeling of impending doom overcame us. We literally had no ideas and no plans past the next 12 hours. The bliss of the sunny afternoon quickly faded and panic began to set in. The easiest option, of course, would have been to continue our trip in India. We didn’t want to ruin our wonderful month in India by overstaying our visit. We were too late to rent an apartment in Europe, especially for a month. The blinding heat of South East Asia sounded unpleasant, at best.
A quick search of flights brought our focus to Sri Lanka. We found an affordable flight from Jaipur to Colombo with a quick stop in Bengaluru and with no more thought, booked it. Neither one of us knew anything about Sri Lanka. We had heard of Kandy, with its Temple of the Tooth, but that was it. We found a hotel in Colombo near the Fort train and bus station and booked it for 2 nights, hoping that would give us enough time to conjure an itinerary from there. Being near the transportation hub, we thought would be convenient for onward travel. We literally took 45 minutes to plan our next country to visit. Not really the best decision, but hopefully it would work out for the best.
We had a bit of a panic when we read later in the day that a visa was needed for entry. Visa on arrival was possible but was not always granted. It was highly advised to apply ahead of time. Yikes. We found the paperwork online, filled it out, and hoped it would be approved by the time we arrived the next evening.
We arrived at the Jaipur airport the next day after checking out of the hotel and found out immediately that our Indigo Airlines flight was delayed by 3 hours. Irritating but not really that bad except that we only had a 4-hour layover in Bengaluru. When we were told we would have to change terminals in Bengaluru and get another boarding pass the tension increased. Indian airports have elaborate security and it is difficult to enter the terminal quickly. We didn’t see any way we could exit one terminal and pass through security of another in just one hour. Our poorly made plans were already falling apart and we hadn’t even left India yet.
After a mad dash and several jumped lines, we made our flight with minutes to spare and arrived an hour later in Colombo. Our visa had been approved and we caught a taxi to our hotel near the train station. The hotel was archaic and dilapidated and the internet was worse than dialup. At least it was clean and had a hot shower.
Without the internet, onward plans were impossible. The hotel was surrounded by auto parts stores and no place that had internet access. We decided to catch a tuk-tuk to the train station. The trains in Sri Lanka are famous for beautiful scenery and we thought that would be our best bet. We found that every train was booked for the next month. They have standing room only open cars for walk-ups, but with heavy bags, we thought it would be impossible to get a spot the next morning. Although Kandy, our chosen first destination, was only 120 kilometers away, the bus ride was over 4 hours in a no-AC bus. With no other options, we decided to hire a driver. Way over budget but at least we would be comfortable.
We found a nice guest house in a perfectly restored historic house built in 1912. The room was modern and comfortable and the family that ran the place were very pleasant. We had booked for 2 nights but ended up staying for 4, mostly just for planning and a little rest. Exhausted from India and 3 days of frustrating travel we needed time to make plans, do laundry and just rest.
I had visions of Kandy being a small town, high in the mountains with clean air and quiet streets. It turned out to be anything but what I imagined. While higher than Colombo and slightly cooler, the days were hot. Centered around a pretty central lake, the city has grown to fill the surrounding valleys with shoddily built houses and congested roads.
Sri Dalada Maligawa, more commonly called “The Temple of the Tooth” is a Buddhist Temple located adjacent to the lake. The tooth is a relic from Buddha and legend has it that whoever possesses the tooth controls the country. We toured the temple grounds but hoards of package tourists deterred us from entering. The tooth on display is apparently a copy which also made the admission cost prohibitive.
We enjoyed coffee in the Queen’s Hotel across the street. A classic, old school British Hotel, it offered whirring fans and a nice ambiance for relaxing in the afternoon heat. We walked around the lake area. Too many cars, tuk-tuks and smoke-belching buses deterred us from an exploration of the downtown area, which was mostly filled with small stores and rice and curry restaurants.
We made our way up the hill to the towering Buddha statue that is visible from everywhere in the center. At 88 feet tall the giant white temple/statue has good views of the city and surrounding area. Another day we visited the very nice botanical gardens. Massive palm trees and vast lawns are lined with tropical plants and flowers from all over the world. Of particular interest to us were the thousands of giant bats (flying foxes) that inhabited many of the trees in one corner of the garden. Part intriguing and part frightening they were interesting to observe for half an hour.
We caught an AC bus the next morning at the hectic Kandy bus station. We headed north to our next destination of Sigiriya, the fortress/city of the ancient Sri Lanka rulers. Located on a stark mountaintop in the middle of a vast jungle plain, the little that remains of the fortress is enough to indicate that it must have been amazing in its time.
The bus dropped us in the small town of Dambulla, where we caught a tuk-tuk to our hotel in the jungle at the foot of the fortress. The jungle lodge was located down some bumpy dirt roads and offered perfect views of both Sigiriya (Lion Rock) and the neighboring Pidurangala Rock. Our room was simple but comfortable and we enjoyed conversations with fellow travelers on the wraparound porch.
As we were only booked for 2 nights and it looked like a potentially good sunset, we made the decision to climb Pidurangala Rock and attempt to capture a nice picture of Lion Rock. Most visitors brave the steep stairs and massive crowds to climb to the Lion Rock itself, but we were told it was much better views and less crowded to ascend the neighboring mountain. The path to the hill passed through a small Buddhist temple and then up 400 steps to the finishing scramble across the large boulders close to the summit. It was breathtaking, both from exertion and the wonderful view from the top. The sunset wasn’t as good as we hoped but the views were memorable. The knee shattering walk down the hill made sleep in the quiet jungle lodge easy that night.
Sri Lanka is famous for its large population of wild Asian elephants. Located in several parts of the country, herds can be found in different parks at different times of the year. We found a very inexpensive nearby park and book a safari for the next afternoon.
Our driver, a friend of the lodge owner, was described as a bit of an “elephant whisperer” who had a unique ability to find the elephants when other drivers couldn’t. It sounded encouraging and he arrived on time in his slightly worn safari jeep. We made a stop at a roadside temple where he made a small donation and said a quick prayer to Ganesha, which seemed appropriate.
Upon arrival at the park, we found we were not alone on our safari. More than fifty other jeeps were in the parking lot, all loaded with camera ready, safari dressed tourists ready for their jungle experience. Our elephant whisperers main plan to find the hidden beasts seemed to be to get behind another vehicle and ride along the dusty roads until he came upon the large pack of vehicles who had already found elephants.
For the next 3 1/2 hours, we bounced around on the poorly maintained roads, never far from another jeep. While it was nice to see animals in the wild, I actually felt sorry for them as they would inevitably be found surrounded by long lens packing visitors excitedly attempting selfies with elephants in the picture. Our driver never seemed to park anywhere except behind other vehicles or bushes which made good photos difficult. As the day progressed, the heat and dust became overwhelming and the constant chatter of bored tourists made thoughts of any kind of pleasant nature experience impossible.
Exhausted from 2 days in Sigiriya, we got up early the next morning to catch our bus onward.
We passed back through Kandy bus station and quickly caught a connecting non-AC bus into the hills. The road wound endlessly up into the green hills. The temperature dropped noticeably. As the houses thinned, we passed many of the tea plantations Sri Lanka is famed for. The neatly spaced rows endlessly covered the hills and combined with the cooler temperatures made the windy trip somewhat enjoyable. The views of valleys and hills were beautiful and for the first time we relaxed and began to enjoy ourselves.
Nuwara Eliya itself is a nice enough town. It shows some of the British influence from colonial days with a cute Post Office and golf course in the center. Our guest house was located behind the Grand Hotel and, while slightly worn, was comfortable enough.
We wandered the center and found a few decent places to eat. Sri Lankan food was a bit of a disappointment after the feasts we enjoyed in India and we found a couple of western style places with just enough local ambiance to make them enjoyable for lunches and light dinners.
We decided that we should visit a tea plantation and asked a tuk-tuk driver if he knew where it was. He said yes and after 20 minutes of a 5-minute trip we realized he didn’t know where it was. He ended up taking us almost 30 minutes back toward Kandy, which while expensive, in a way gave us a chance to see some of the countryside.
We toured the tea factory and learned about how tea is processed. The tour was interesting enough and the views around the property were nice. Our 4 days in Nuwara Eliya seemed long and we were anxious to move on.
Ella was to be our last stop in the hills of Sri Lanka. This is the major destination of backpackers in the country. Most people ride the train from Colombo but since we had not ridden it we decided to take it backwards from everyone else since we could get tickets and the views were supposed to be amazing.
Hiking seems to be the main activity in Ella, along with walking the busy main street of the town. The air was cool and the countryside was pretty, with jungle-covered mountains and scenic valleys.
A popular hike is just out of town to view the 9 Arches Bridge, a stone bridge built in the early 20th century. Everyone times their visit to see one of the arriving trains cross the bridge. The hills are steep but the path was easy to follow. We found a nice thatched shack that served Nescafe and cold drinks and provided a good view of the train crossing the bridge. We laughed at the large population of aggressive selfie-taking narcissists who fought for position as the train crossed, each contorted into some strange pose that must look good on Instagram. Straw hats and polka dot dresses with their back turned to the camera seemed especially popular during our visit.
Another day I hike up Little Adam’s Peak A winding dirt road led through tea plantations to the steep hill that led to the promenade. Nice views were had from the top. The sunset faded at the last moment to the disappointment of the scores of Instagrammers that arrived during the last half hour.
A lot was made of Ella as a perfect Nirvana in the hills. While it was a nice enough place, it is well discovered and the single main street is built up with bars and restaurants to cater to the touristic crowds. We felt it wouldn’t be long before anything that might be nice about the town will be overrun by all the things that ruin these natural paradises once they are discovered.
We finally were able to get train tickets. We booked a reserved 3rd class train from Ella back to Kandy. We planned a quick overnight stay with an early (6 AM) train back to Colombo the next morning. We planned to take the AC Highway bus from Colombo to our next destination of Galle on the southern coast.
The train journey was indeed scenic. Our seats were comfortable but the car was really hot. Excitement filled the car for the first half hour but went noticeably quiet as the heat and slowness of the train took its toll. I looked around the car and most were sleeping before we passed the most scenic areas. The train moves at a glacial 20 km per hour and it gets hotter as it descends its way back to Kandy. A trip of a couple of hundred kilometers took more than 5 hours.
After a quick night in Kandy, we boarded a 1st class observation car for the conclusion of our train adventure. The car was comfortable and scenic but again most of the people slept for the majority of the ride.
We wanted to take the Highway bus from Colombo to Galle. The highway bus utilizes the toll road and takes one hour vs. 4 hours for the local bus. Again our poor planning cost us as we found out once we arrived that the highway bus does not leave from the bus station. After a 40-minute lung choking tuk-tuk ride through the Colombo morning commute we finally reached the bus. Perhaps it was worth it as the bus was comfortable, clean and fast-a first during our stay in Sri Lanka.
We liked Galle from the moment we saw it. The combination of seeing the Indian Ocean and the quaintness of the Dutch Fort where we would make our home for 3 nights combined to make us forget the long drive we had taken from Ella.
Galle is really hot and walking the narrow alleyways inside the fort in the heat of the afternoon is rough. We found that morning and evening were the best times to wander the walls and explore the shops. A bit of a crowd gathers to watch the sunset each night near the lighthouse and we joined them for the nightly excitement.
Our hosts had unfortunately lost a son 12 years ago and they invited many relatives for a memorial service one night. Rhythmic chanting filled the house for more than 3 hours. We were asked to join the ceremony but felt we might be invading on the families privacy.
Our 3 days passed quickly. We enjoyed good food, chats with other travelers and a few opportunities to hear what locals thought about their countries rapid development in the last few years. We never left the fort and although the heat was ominous, we enjoyed our short visit.
Although we stayed in Colombo for a total of 4 days, I know nothing about the city. No one seems to have a good opinion of the city and nearly everyone just uses it for transit. Before our departure, we elected a small jungle resort in the city of Negombo, closer to the airport and popular with transitting travelers. Our resort was located far from the beaches and restaurants and we enjoyed a few days of air conditioning and clean clothes. There was a nice pool outside of our room but we never visited, even opting to have some meals in the room.
Sri Lanka is a developing country that has become popular with European travelers to beat the colds of northern climates. It is a beautiful country, with wildlife, deserted sandy beaches, pretty mountains and a varied climate. The people are friendly and seem like they are anticipating better days ahead. They are happy to be out from under colonial powers but worry about corrupt government and the return of foreign powers. The infrastructure needs some work to handle more visitors and development is rapid and seems haphazardly planned.
We did a poor job of planning this part of our journey and it affected our time in Sri Lanka. There are many things to enjoy here but I felt we did not take proper advantage of them. 3 weeks is plenty of time to tour the country and our lack of preparation hurt us. Hopefully with some time to reflect the struggles will pass and only nice memories will remain.
Sometimes, when we close our eyes, we drift into a state of unconsciousness that is quite pleasant. A state of peace and harmony envelops us as our mind and body reach a truce and dreams begin. Troubles disappear as our muscles relax and serenity takes control of our mind. Physical exhaustion passes as our minds drift deeper into slumber and our subconscious begins to present itself in very realistic, although artificial, dreams. We take this journey each night, sometimes in a warm and comfortable place and sometimes huddled uncomfortably in locations we wish were different.
Unfortunately, when our minds are left to themselves to sort out the difficulties of life, without the input from our outward senses, we often pass from blissful rest to turbulent visions. If only we could recognize that our imagined turmoil is actually only our conscious self trying to make sense of the technicolor fears we have projected in the darkened movie theater we build each night. If we realized that this scary movie is just our darkest thoughts projected, couldn’t we begin to enjoy them as we do any frightening movie? The perceived danger or inconvenience might become entertaining if we could only control our reaction to it.
Our travels are not always pleasant either. Exposure to noise, confusion, delays and foreign tongues often cause insecurities that our minds have difficulty rationalizing. Our inability to control our senses often turn these disturbances into fear. This unnecessary fear can become overwhelming to the point we no longer enjoy the situation we find ourselves in. Simple inconveniences that could be easily overlooked compound themselves to the point that we can no longer see the beauty, magic and spirit that lie just beyond these challenges.
One’s inability to deal with these obstacles has ruined many an adventure. Many potentially great experiences never materialize because of our difficulty to properly manage these challenges. Simple nuisances become problems that can stop even the most intrepid travelers in their tracks. I often find the citizens in “difficult to travel in” countries people have adapted themselves to better deal with these issues. A smile when an obviously ridiculous situation arises, a shrug when frustrating predicaments occur or a laugh when times seem hopelessly confused goes a long way to minimizing difficulties. Many a seemingly impossible to overcome challenge becomes easily manageable with a sense of humor and an understanding that all will work out in the end.
Our experience in India has not been without challenge and inconvenience. But we have learned to always try to understand that, like the sometimes crazy dreams that come in the night, they are only temporary and in fact can become quite entertaining if managed properly. The magic and mystery that lies just beyond the chaos has revealed itself. We have hit our rhythm and the dreams we once had have become reality in this ancient land of India. “The Blue City”
We spent our 32nd wedding anniversary with a crazy cast of characters on a rickety bus traveling from Udaipur to Jodhpur. Stopping for anyone with a few rupees and a desire to get down the road, our dusty, smelly and potentially unsafe bus filled with ever more colorful voyagers. Turbans, saris, crying babies with eye shadow and a bus driver who only grunted joined us for our celebration.
Our ride felt longer than the scheduled 5 hours. We stopped once in a desolate rest area, filled with cows, stray dogs and a couple of vendor booths that offered nothing but the first unedible food we have seen in India. We were able to scrounge a few packets of cookies and a couple of packs of spicy potato chips that seemed to make up a good portion of the local diet.
As all good things must eventually end, we thanked our driver for the ride upon our arrival in the desperate looking station. He grunted farewell without making eye contact and we made our way to the line of rickshaws surely waiting for the only foreign visitors of the day.
We chose a hostel on the outskirts of the tourist area. It turned out to be a great choice, clean rooms, a rooftop restaurant, friendly staff and most important for us after our grimy ride, a steaming hot shower.
Dominated by a massive fort that towers over the city, Jodhpur is most famous for the winding lanes of its old town that are, for the most part, painted blue. We spent our days touring the fort, visiting the Brahmapuri area and touring the bustling market area that surrounds the ancient clock tower that rises in the middle of all the confusion. We enjoyed spending some time visiting the restored step well that provided water for citizens in days gone by.
We continued to find delicious food everywhere we ate. Sticking mostly to small restaurants, the richness and spiciness of each dish amazed us with each bite. Whether vegetarian or meat oriented, each bite challenged our tastebuds with amazing flavors and tickled our noses with flavorful aromas. We have sampled delicious cuisines all around the world but nothing compares to the complexity and flavor of Indian food.
We visited spice shops that offered rainbow colors and every scent imaginable. We visited textile shops, where talented pitchman showed us fabrics of every texture and color, most adorned with hand embroidery or luscious sparkly adornments. Whether made from camel hair, silk, cotton or bamboo the assortment seemed endless and unbelievably well priced. Multiple floors in both markets made for sensory overload by days end.
We found rooftop restaurants to watch the sunset over the fort before we returned each night to our home that we shared with interesting and friendly young travelers from all over the world. A multi-generational India family rented out most of our hostel on our last night and we enjoyed being included in their festivities.
“The Golden City”
Like an artistic child’s golden beach sandcastle come to life, the Jaisalmer Fort rises from the Thar Desert to command the entire area of this dusty desert city. This was the last stop of camel caravans before crossing the desert to Pakistan in days gone by. While very much a tourist town today, the area inside the fort is still a living city, rare for any of the magical forts of majestic Rajasthan.
We instantly fell in love with the fort as we rode in our rickshaw up the hill and through the massive gates as the sun began to set. After our earlier uncomfortable bus ride, we chose a private car to transport us across the desert to our new home for the next 4 days. The day tourists were heading home and the narrow streets and well-restored buildings quickly transported us to an ancient world of cobbled streets and carved limestone havelis. Cows wandered the alleyways. Harmonium music echoed through the stone streets always accompanied by the mournful lyrics of a lone singer. The desert night quickly turned chilly but the excitement of being transported back in time easily warmed us.
Our hotel was located in the walls of the fort and provided sunrise views over the city on one side and a framed view of the red sandstone Jain Temple on the other. The view from the rooftop restaurant provided the same 360-degree view Maharajahs must have enjoyed in ancient times. The perfect view of the long-lasting neon sunset across the endless desert provided the perfect postcard memory all travelers look for in Rajasthan.
Days were spent exploring the nooks and crannies inside the fort. Alleys lead to courtyards that lead to stairways into the ramparts that lead to secret viewpoints. We shared smiles with friendly old people in small courtyards enjoying the bright sunshine and clear skies that warmed stiff joints and tired muscles. We were invited to join badminton games and offered tea on rooftops by old women who spoke no English. Masala chai became a favorite, always accompanied by stunning views from small cafes we spent the afternoons in. With additions of cakes, sweets and even apple pie, it was easy to skip lunches.
We made sunset visits to mingle with locals enjoying boat rides in the nearby lake. The streets of the main town were bumpy and rough and we were always happy to return to our tower in the evenings for deliciously spicy curries and friendly conversations with the owner.
People come to Jaisalmer to enjoy the desert and the best way is on a camel safari. We organized a trip far into the Thar Desert’s sand dunes to have our experience with these interesting animals. We visited small villages where old people stared and children followed us. They showed us their goats with pride and loved posing for pictures filled with smiles that would make Hollywood jealous. We stopped for chai in a stick wall shack filled with turbaned men enjoying a smoke and good company. Women in bright saris carrying silver pots on their heads smiled and chatted as they made their way towards distant well.
We walked high in the endless dunes and were joined by two boys and their camels. The saddles were brightly colored and the camels were well cared for. As the sun set and the sky turned red the boys rode the camels gleefully over the shifting hills. We saw native deer and wild peacocks and hawks sailed overhead. A more magical sight could not be imagined. A long ride home on bumpy roads with the glowing fort in the distance stars brightly shining above was a highlight of our travels anywhere we have ever been and was a fitting way to end our visit to this most amazing place.
Jaisalmer is a long way from anywhere. As much as we were enjoying our trip, we knew we had to make a turn back to transportation hubs. Delhi and Jaipur were long train rides and a midpoint would have to be decided upon. We heard rumor of a camel festival in the town of Bikaner. Knowing nothing about the city, we took a chance and booked it as our halfway point.
The town centers around Junagarh Fort, a rust-red monolith combination of defensive walls and ornate palace. Abandoned in the early 20th century by the royal family for more the modern digs at the Lalgarh Palace, it towers over the congested market streets surrounding it. It became our first visit after a good nights rest at our small guest house. The long train ride through the desert was tiring but enjoyable. We shared our train car with a lovely young couple who were traveling with the cutest baby. We stayed well fed as the man seemed to know the best tiny stand delicacies at each of the many stops the train made. The food was hot, fresh and so much tastier than the packaged snacks we were traveling with.
Because it is holiday season in India many of the forts and palaces have been crowded with local tourists. We were happy to have the fort mostly to ourselves as we wandered the ornate corridors, inner patios and majestic rooms of the fort. A bored guard opened a secret balcony room filled with stained glass windows that lit the room in rainbow colors in the early sunlight. When reflected on the mirrored walls the room became a prism of romantic luminance.
We made a self-guided tour of the old town filled with majestic havelis and Jain temples. With a plug of the nose and a squint of the eyes, it was not difficult to imagine the walled city when it was the home of wealthy merchants trading with the camel caravans arriving from the west.
We felt lucky that our unplanned visit corresponded with the annual Camel Festival. More local oriented than Pushkar’s famous fair, the city spends two days celebrating everything camel related. A highly decorated procession of dashing men in traditional Rajasthani regalia and beautiful maidens dressed in the most luscious silk finery intermingle with hundreds of camels to parade through the streets from the castle to the fairgrounds. Bands play and crowds cheer as the lavish parade makes it way down the dusty boulevard.
We made a sunset visit to the lush Lalgarh Palace to briefly relive the Raj era grandness of the Maharajas home turned heritage hotel. Sipping a gin and tonic in the trophy room surrounded by the ruler’s many souvenirs of foreign hunting trips was the closest we ever came to the royal life during our travels.
Our guest house was a quiet refuge from the festivities. The family who ran the property and small adjoining restaurant were busy hosting family members for the celebrations but always took time to include us in their day. What we had planned as a brief stopover became 4 days of well spent relaxing fun in a place we had never heard of before our arrival.
“The Pink City”
An upgraded train ride brought us to our final stop of our India travels. We sprang for sleeper seats and quiet car for our six-hour trip to Jaipur. With crisp sheets on the bed and comfortable pillows and friendly attendants, we still spent less than 10 dollars on the 300-kilometer trip.
We visited Jaipur in 2006 on a previous trip to India and were thinking of our visit as a time to rest up and plan future travels. We well remember touring the City Palace, Palace of the Winds and Amber Fort and thought a relaxing visit might be a fitting end to our trip. The tourists in town were much different from the ones we were exposed to on the rest of our journey. Along with Delhi and Agra, Jaipur is part of the famous “golden triangle” itinerary that most package tourists take in India. All sweaters vests and Tilley hats and minivans, the sophisticated style of these visitors honestly left of longing for the magic of the dusty desert we had come from.
Our hotel was a fantastic early 20th-century hotel in a multilevel style. With hidden terraces and wide verandas, it’s classic style was a great throwback to the grand days of earlier Indian travels. A vast manicured lawn and fresh flower arrangements welcomed guests with a bit of old school luxury. Meals were in a common dining room of shared tables and multilingual guests. We felt slightly underdressed as western style and fine manners ruled the room.
The annual kite festival was in full swing by the time we awoke from comfortable beds and warm showers. Sitting on the rooftop terrace, the skies seemed full of tiny handmade kites fluttering aimlessly in the light wind and clear skies. Every rooftop was filled with laughing children, both the young and young at heart. We were transported to a time of childhood not filled with Snapchat, video games and iPhone addiction. As kite strings broke throughout the day, many wayward kites fell onto the terrace only to be reflown by the lucky finders. The fragile strings created a spider web obstacle course throughout the town.
By afternoon tens of thousands of kites flew from every rooftop. Music played from hidden speakers and families gathered on the high perches to enjoy the sunny afternoon. Smiles filled the jaded visitor’s faces as the wonder of childhood memories filled the skies. As night approached and the sun set over the palace-lined hills that surround the town, the kites multiplied and the magic intensified. Fireworks began with a few bursts in the distance. Within minutes the bright flashes filled every degree of the sky. For over an hour colorful bursts shot from every rooftop.
It seemed impossible to top the pyrotechnic display until tiny Chinese lanterns began to be launched nearby. First hundreds, then thousands of fire filled balloons made their way into the gentle breezes of the night. For the next hour, more balloons were launched until the entire sky seemed filled with firey projectiles that lit the dark skies like stars. We made our way to the highest rooftop of the hotel and were speechless as now hundreds of thousands of balloons filled the night skies with twinkling light. Cheers rang from each rooftop gathering as their individual missives made their way skyward. It was the single most amazing sight I have witnessed…ever! Mouths hung agape and contagious laughter filled the terrace and childish enthusiasm engulfed every observer. No photograph could ever match the spectacle of this magical display that would mark the end of our journey.
We were skeptical prior to our visit to India. Thoughts of grinding poverty, unhealthy atmosphere and squalid conditions caused us to delay this part of our worldwide journey many times. It is true India has all these things…in abundance. However, there is a spirit of kindness and magic that lies just beyond the obvious troubles. No place we have traveled has harder working people who always went out of their way to put their best face forward. Sitting in gridlock traffic in a backroad alley waiting for a train to pass with overwhelming noxious fumes somehow seemed overcomeable while sharing a laugh with a young wife and waving baby also stuck in the same predicament. Sharing food with people who have so much less than you in a slow-moving train that makes too many stops for comfort lifts any burden you think you have. Hopelessly lost in an endless maze, someone has always stopped their day, with a smile and laugh, to lead us back on the correct track.
This is a unique and special place that does not take its cues from anywhere else. Anyone who considers themselves a traveler has to make this pilgrimage. We have been rewarded many times over for any amount of challenge we have had to overcome. Whenever we gather with other voyagers during our journey, we are always asked to name the favorite place we have ever traveled. It is always a difficult choice and we find ourselves struggling to find the best answer. After our unbelievable experiences in India, we will never have to struggle with our answer again.
The smell of spring morning flowers floats fragrantly on the cool morning breeze drifting inland from the bay. Strands of marigolds adorn the children’s hair as they smile brightly in the soft morning light. An exotic bird sounds his melodic song from the softly bristling trees that line the golden beach. The early morning sunlight peaks through the wispy morning clouds and begins to color the day in softly shaded pastel colors.
Early morning visitors come to greet the quiet morning. They gather in small groups of quiet conversation. They move in a slow-motion ballet of animated action. A freshness fills the morning as the slight mist lifts and the day begins. This day offers a serene beginning which will lead to a leisurely day of relaxing warmth in this peaceful land of grace. This is my Indian dream.
Bang! The airplane touches down roughly and I awake from my slumber sharply. Consciousness returns and I find myself startled by reality. My tranquil thoughts fade as I realize the plane has landed in the real Mumbai an hour late. People are already getting out of their seats, even as the plane still shakes from its bumpy landing. They push aggressively forward in the aisles despite the flight attendants warnings. My dreams of my imagined India abruptly fade to realities as I gather my bags to make my way into the actualities of our late night arrival.
It’s three in the morning as we make our way to the immigration area. 5 officers attend to the nearly 1000 people in the winding line towards the “electronic visa” counters. The line moves frustratingly slow as each person seems to have problems entering. Fingerprint machines fail and children fuss, verbally expressing all the new arrivals exhausted thoughts. 3 hours later we finally get past the gates to the baggage claim area.
We need money to pay for a taxi but none of the seven ATM machines seem to be working. We see more machines outside the terminal and try each to no avail. We decide to take a chance on the currency exchange inside the terminal but cannot gain access back inside. Another hour passes as we try to find someone in authority who can help us with our plight. Finally, for a fee, we gain access and are able to get 100 dollars in rupees for a 35 dollar fee.
After a wild ride through the pitch black streets of this city of 22 million, we finally arrive at our Colaba hotel as the sun begins to rise. My pleasant dreams of India have been crushed by the reality of honking horns, pungent smells and the swarming masses already filling the streets of this teeming metropolis that never sleeps. We wearily climb the rickety stairs to the ancient elevator that brings us to our home for the next 5 days. Despite the cacophony of sounds outside, we exhaustedly fall into beds, thankful just to rest on our first day in India.
“Cohesion in Chaos”
So said the advertisement posted across from the hotel the next afternoon when we make our way out to the teeming street of the Colaba Causeway that splits this district of South Mumbai. The neurons in our brains couldn’t move quickly enough to decipher the rapidity of the pandemonium. The covered sidewalks are filled with shoppers aggressively bargaining with the vast array of tiny boutique owners for every sort of product imaginable. Clothing, jewelry, electronics and all types of gaudy goodness fill every inch of available space, none with listed prices and all open for aggressive negotiation. Within seconds we were offered marijuana, massage, tours and tailor services.
The impassable walkways force pedestrians to the street where rickshaws, taxis and cart pushers all fight for space. Expensive sedans and rickety jalopies complete the mix, all fighting for territory in the crowded boulevard. Horns sound endlessly creating a symphony of sound that seems to have no point or purpose. As if the devil had financed an orchestra that plays endlessly and only has a few notes, the sound repulses our tired brains and scares us towards the gutters for space. The smells we find there force us back into the madness, more reminiscent of the running of the bulls than a casual tourist stroll.
Our hunger keeps us motivated and luckily we are in the right spot. The Parsi cafes of Colaba are our destination and we are at ground zero for the best of them. These cafes have been in business since the days of the Raj and are always packed with hungry masses. It is said that Hindus thought the corners of the street to be bad luck so the Iranians moved in and brought rapid service and delicious food. Churchill Cafe, Cafe Mondegar and Olympia Coffee House all have their dedicated loyals, but for our first meal, we choose Cafe Leopold. Perhaps the most touristy of all the cafes, we choose it mostly for convenience as it is literally just downstairs from our tiny hotel.
Along with the Taj Palace Hotel, the Leopold was one of the targets for the Pakistani terrorists who brought terror during their attacks 10 years before. Bullet holes still mark the interior as silent reminders of the tragedy. The atmosphere we find today is much more pleasant. Classic wooden chairs and tables tightly packed on tile floors under cranking fans that keep the conversant and smiling customers refreshingly cool. The food is delivered quickly and is absolutely delicious. The flavors are rich and spicy and any difficulties we found outside are quickly and pleasantly replaced with the charming ambiance that fills the cafe.
We spent our days in Mumbai never far from the area of our hotel. We visited many of the Raj era buildings the British built in the vicinity. As the face of England in the western part of the country, they were constructed with a grandiosity that was designed to create a sense of awe as much as for functionality of purpose. Architecturally flamboyant and elaborately decorated, they are grand in an imposingly powerful way certainly meant to impress anyone who thought to question who actually was in control of the sub-continent.
The Prince of Wales Museum and General Post Office are grand buildings built in a fusion style that combined English, Indian and Muslim styles. Victoria Terminus, the UNESCO heritage train station now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, certainly must be one of the most elaborate railway stations ever constructed. Strolling past Watson’s Hotel, University of Mumbai and Rajabai Clock Tower made for a pleasant afternoon. Now all faded glory, they take a bit of imagination and a slight squint to picture what must have been amazing in their time.
A few short blocks away, we braved the throngs of Indian holidaymakers in town to visit the Gateway to India monument and the Taj Palace Hotel. The worn roughness of the Gate was a sharp contrast to the perfectly maintained hotel, easily one of the grand classics found anywhere in Asia. Security was tight everywhere and the lines were long but the beauty we found inside the hotel was worth any effort we put forth.
On our final day, we attempted to avoid the busyness of the city by boarding the colorful ferries that take passengers on the hour-long journey across the harbor to Gharapuri Island and Elephanta Caves. The pleasant coolness of the breezes were a welcome break from the noise and congestion of the city. Seabirds followed the boat, mostly attracted by the variety of snacks thrown from passengers. The city soon faded behind haze and we were greeted by the green lushness of the island.
We passed from the dock through the gauntlet of trinket stalls that line the path up the steep stairs that wind up the hill to the caves. The vibrant colors of women’s saris led the way past monkeys, cows and goats that mixed with the visitors on our way up the challenging stairs. The caves carved into the cliffs at the top of the mountain were impressive and crowded. Carved by Buddhist devotees in the 5th and 7th centuries, the caves have been partially restored from their dilapidated state. The views were beautiful from the top of the hill and made a nice place to collect our thoughts and reflect on the busy days of our first few days in India.
Mumbai proved to be the perfect entryway to our visit to India. What we first found overwhelming was now just exhilarating. What had been exhausting was now invigorating and what appeared chaos took on a sense of cohesion that we couldn’t wait to further explore.
“To the Frozen North”
We made no plans for our travels in India past the first two nights in Mumbai. As much as we enjoyed Mumbai, we knew we had to move on. With the choice of the beauty of the South or grandness of the North, we opted to move upwards on our map. We cowered from the thought of the long train ride from Mumbai to our determined destination of Udaipur. Jet Airways offered flights that compared in price to the long train ride north. We weren’t sure we wanted to miss the sites along the way, but in the end, the convenience air travel won the day.
Met by our taxi driver at the baggage claim, we made our way through the early evening to our hotel. It was difficult to find hotels during this holiday season. We were lucky to find a small hotel right on Lake Pichola, not too far from the towering City Palace that overlooks the lake. Everyone was bundled in jackets, scarves and gloves. We were surprised by the chill but welcomed it after the scalding summer temperatures we found when we visited India in 2004.
India does not have heaters in rooms. The pleasant chill became a frozen frost as the pleasant evening faded to shockingly cold night. The thin panes of glass that separated us from the cool breezes coming from the lake did nothing to insulate us from the 37-degree temperature. Given just a light blanket for warmth we ended up getting redressed in jackets that we luckily had with us.
We were happy when the sun’s warmth met us in the morning. Cold showers shocked us awake, no need for excessive coffee this morning. We enjoyed the convivial nature of the other guests as we gathered for breakfast on the scenic outdoor rooftop. Guests from Oman, Japan and England joined us for simple a simple breakfast of toast, omelettes, pancakes and chai. The nights chill gave way to wispy clouds and bright sunshine. A perfect day for exploring the old town area of this bustling city of 3 million.
The old town is set on a hill that rises above 3 lakes, the most prominent of which is Lake Pichola. The hill is topped by the splendid City Palace, home to the Mewar dynasty since the Princely State times. The lakes most prominent feature is the white marble Lake Palace, now reconfigured into a Taj Hotel, said to be the most romantic in the world.
The narrow streets of the town, more alley than boulevard, wind aimlessly upwards to the Jagdish Temple and City Palace. Days here are spent wandering through these streets, making frequent stops to peek inside the grand, if time worn, Havelis that line the streets. Meals are best in one of the rooftop restaurants that feature fresh air and gorgeous views of the lake and the hills beyond.
The City Palace was swarmed by holidaymakers to the point of gridlock. Fire codes and mass tramplings filled our thoughts as we shuffled our way through the former grandness of the Rajput rulers home. Multiple generations of Maharanas built their own palaces on top of former palaces until the entire complex took on a uniform appearance that is one of the most beautiful in all of Rajasthan.
Our experience was much better in the less restored, but still amazing, Haveli that is adjacent to Gangaur Ghat. We had the entire place to ourselves and found our imaginations easily transported to past times of royal extravagance. A dance show is featured nightly but we were happy to spend our time slowly winding our way through the narrow passageways and cool courtyards that made up the stately palace. The few employees seemed happy to show us the hidden corners and elevated viewpoints that featured rare quiet solitude to enjoy the scenery.
After another frozen night, we moved hotels into the very center of town. With views of the Jagdish Temple outside our window, we found ourselves in the perfect place to observe the non-stop craziness that is the center of town. We enjoyed long meals and short walks through the crowded streets filled with dogs, cows, rickshaws and preparations for New Years celebrations. Fireworks lit the skies nightly from weddings at the Lake Palace or nearby festivals that we heard but didn’t see.
Our room was still cold at night, but ample blankets and thick walls made sleeping comfortable. Our bodies felt rested and our minds had adjusted to the noise and confusion of India. Hot showers refreshed our muscles and clean laundry made our days more comfortable. With no plans set we pondered our further travels. What adventures lay ahead we did not know, but we were excited to see what the next day’s travels would bring.
Probably every traveler who has been outside their own country more than once has discovered that counting the countries they have visited is another way we humans have found to rank ourselves amongst our peers. Travel is not really a competitive sport but people will always have a necessity to compare themselves to others, no matter what the endeavor.
Eventually, most travelers will come across websites with a list of recognized countries and what they have determined actually constitutes an official visit to a country. Like rules to any game we have created, we must set requirements to actually keep score. Some sites suggest that you must spend at least one night or must spend money or must at least leave the airport, cruise ship terminal or transit facility to get credit. Some sites make an effort to give credence to the farthest regions of the world, or just attempt to balloon the possible total, by adding territories into the count. Perhaps they suppose people who are lucky or intrepid enough to visit Bora Bora, which is officially still France, want to get some extra credit over their friends who visited Paris on a pensioner bus tour of Europe.
While nothing may feel better when telling stories in some far off corner of the globe than to fit in your latest country count, it is not really considered polite to directly brag about how many pins you have put in your world map. I guess it’s similar to bragging about how much money you make. However, like people who wear designer shoes, make upscale fashion choices or drive an expensive car to subtly remind you how much money they have, travelers usually find obscure ways of displaying our country count without being overly blatant. Our Instagram or Facebook pages no doubt feature pictures of ourselves standing in front of several of the obvious iconic representations of places we have traveled. Surely we are hoping to cause a little jealousy amongst our fellow competitors, without outright bragging.
So that I don’t come across as hypocritical or a wiser-than-thou smug, we have our country count clearly posted on this blogs “about” page. We even have a handy map posted that shows graphically how much of the earth we’ve traversed. Because we wanted to get credit for countries we had visited prior to starting this blog, we even conveniently color-coded the map for your easy use. We are not better than those we write about.
Like any competitive game, fudging or cheating eventually comes into play. When we had just started this journey we were sitting in a tiny cafe in a tree-lined park in Guanajuato, Mexico. A couple set down next to us and we started up a conversation. They asked how long we had been in town. Although we had only been there for three weeks, we claimed 4. They were duly impressed, so I guess it worked. I don’t know why we did it. It just sounded better somehow. As we have continued to travel we have formed a better bond with the truth, but still find ourselves tempted to color our travel history with exaggerations occasionally.
In truth, ranking ourselves as travelers by country count is really counterproductive to the real goal of travel. One’s age, financial state, fitness and current life commitments probably have a more to do with our country count than the pugnacity, lion-heartedness or daring with which we pursue our travel dreams. If you really want to rank yourself as a traveler think more in terms of movement. That’s actually what travel is all about. If you are in any stage of the journey, whether it is dreaming, planning, actively traveling or just reflecting back on where you have been then you can consider yourself a successful traveler. The beauty of travel is all about stimulating your imagination. It’s probably beneficial to focus on how many places you haven’t been if you really want to be considered for elite status.
All that being said, the purpose of this blog is, in the simplest terms, to brag about visiting our latest country, Ethiopia. We stopped here on an overnight layover from one country to another. To be honest we thought it sounded cool to say we had been here and wanted it included in our list of places we have been. Also, it puts us over the milestone of 50 countries since we left on this trip. Like when you turned 20, nothing really changed, but it still felt good to not be a teenager anymore. Passing this milestone just separates us into a little more elite grouping.
What did we see? Not much. How much can you see in 16 hours?
Our first flight on Ethiopian Air was not as scary as it sounded to our western ears. The plane was new and even though it arrived 45 minutes late, the flight was pretty good. Our welcome to Ethiopia was not quite so enjoyable. Anyone who has a long layover in Addis Ababa qualifies for a transit visa, free hotel room and transfer to the hotel. Sounds great in practice but the lines for this perk were unbelievably long. We booked our own hotel and were only interested in the transit visa. We found out that was not possible. If you don’t take the free hotel and transfer, you don’t get the transit visa.
The airline ran out of hotels in town and the lines basically ceased to move. It took us several lines and a few hours to find someone who could authorize us to just obtain the transit visa. We estimated we would be in the hotel by 11 PM but didn’t arrive until 2 in the morning. Not a good start to our short stay.
We cut our sleeping time short so we could get the most out of our 7 hours of exposure to the Ethiopian culture. We grabbed a cab and attempted to make an express tour of the city on our own. First stop was the National Museum. A little rough around the edges the museum still did a good job of explaining the history of the country and explained some of Ethiopia’s contributions to the world.
Known human history begins in Ethiopia and thus the country has the elite status of having the oldest human ancestors remains ever found. Nicknamed “Lucy” by the archeologists who discovered the remains, this tiny set of bones is located in the museum. An interesting exhibit that made the price of admission worthwhile.
We also made a brief visit to the Trinity Church, an ornate structure whose claim to fame is the tomb of Haile Selassie’s tomb. We found that many of his family members, as well as other leaders of the countries, are buried in the adjoining courtyard.
We returned to our hotel for a break before our transfer back to the airport. We retreated to the shady veranda to watch the adjacent busy boulevard and all the interesting passersby. Ethiopia is the home of coffee and we couldn’t let the opportunity go without sampling our favorite drink in its homeland.
The coffee was strong and delicious and the entertainment on the street filled the rest of our afternoon visit to Ethiopia. We struck up a conversation with a couple of guys from Holland and after a few minutes of swapping travel stories we mentioned that this was our 50th country visited since the beginning of our trip. They quickly countered with their total of 110 countries visited. Very impressive indeed. A good reminder that even when you think you have accomplished something remarkable by passing a milestone, there are plenty of others who have surely bested anything you have done.
We enjoyed our brief visit to Ethiopia and regret we didn’t have longer to visit. Our journey continues. As everyone who travels knows, it is not where you have been, but rather where you are going.
We have basically changed our residence each month for the last seven-plus years. That has usually involved renting an apartment in some part of a city in a far away country that we have never been to before. We do our research, learn what we can and then hope for the best. We try to make sure we have access to groceries, money and public transit if we aren’t traveling in our own vehicle. The internet has made our reliance on third parties minimal. We have our favorite sites and use them to help us make the best decisions we can. Because we change venues so often there are time limitations to our research. Our budget sometimes forces us to make a few compromises that people with more money might be able to avoid but these have mostly involved inconvenience rather than safety.
I can’t say that we have ever done anything dangerous, daring or courageous during our travels. We have however travelled in many places that some might avoid due to a perceived vulnerability. We have navigated our way past political unrest in Turkey and Israel. We have managed to avoid violence in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras. We have found our way around the petty crimes and scams of Morocco and avoided issues caused by poverty in South East Asia and Eastern Europe. We are not brave and rely on dumb luck as much as travel savvy. We have become increasingly confident, not due to ability so much as the fact that we have been doing this for a while and, so far, have survived.
At times, we have even found ourselves entertained by the frightened look on less experienced travellers as they cross crazy streets in Vietnam or the white-knuckled way package trip visitors clutch their belongings while walking through the crowded bazaars of Egypt, Turkey or Morocco. The wide-eyed nervousness displayed by cruise ship passengers circled like wagons in the middle of an old town square seemingly waiting to be attacked by an unseen enemy has caused us to chuckle at times. We pat ourselves on the back and feel good that we have overcome their worries. Of course, they are experiencing the shock of new cultures and are having a normal, if slightly amusing reaction to it. While entertained by others, I don’t overlook the insecurity I show when shifting a hand to cover my wallet on a crowded subway or the quickened step I adopt when traversing a darkened alley on evening walks in unknown territory.
If we have any secrets to share they would be basically don’t be too flashy, stay away from drugs, excessive drinking, illegal activity and to just keep a general awareness about what is happening around you when you are out. Remember most people are good everywhere and if you don’t look for trouble it probably won’t find you.
An underrepresented continent during our travels is Africa. We made our way through Morocco recently and explored Egypt with guides during earlier days of our travel life. Brief stops in younger days in Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and Cape Verde Islands summed up our experience in this part of the world. As our journey gets closer to its end, we realize the need to get to a few of these unexplored areas before we lose the chance to go.
Cape Town seems to be the gateway city for most travellers who want to experience sub-Saharan Africa. It has physical beauty, an interesting history and has certainly been a city in the news for most of the past 30 years. It seemed to offer everything we look for in a travel destination. The cost of living was economical and we found affordable flights from Dubai. It was time to begin our research.
Escorted travel was not going to be a possibility. This meant getting to see animals in the wild was going to be most likely impossible. Also, we would have to rely on public transportation, not the best option in Africa. We were a little worried that nearly every internet search seemed to contain warnings on crime and safety in Cape Town specifically and South Africa as a whole in general. Even most of the official tourism websites urged caution. Personal websites ranged from “don’t go for any reason” warnings to a less threatening “if you get past the crime, it’s a pretty nice place” variety. It wasn’t encouraging and the more we read the worse our trepidation became. In the end, our confidence and excitement outweighed our insecurities and we booked flights and rented a really nice 15th-floor apartment in the center of Cape Town.
The sun was setting as we arrived. These first aerial views over the sea and land around Cape Town were stunning. The water was bright blue and the earth was a wonderful reddish brown with jagged mountains prominently dotting the landscape. Immigration was easy. Some areas we passed near the airports looked rough and extremely impoverished but as we neared the downtown area and Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Signal Hill came into view our excitement increased. Our taxi driver gave us an excellent description of the town and its history during the 25-minute drive. He wished us well for our visit, but he also made very clear that there were dangers to avoid and things we should and shouldn’t do. The warning was friendly but stern. We enjoyed the ride but our nervousness was peaked by the time we arrived at our new apartment.
The next day we made our way out for groceries. We found that the store was nice. Prices were low and selections were good. Vegetables were summer fresh and local, baked goods were cheap and meats seemed geared around South Africans love of grilling. We noticed lots of homeless people on our 4 block trip to the market. Around boarded buildings, on sidewalks and in fields between buildings people were encamped everywhere. While a few asked for money nothing was threatening, but it did build on our wariness from the night before.
After eating we decided to check out the local area. As the name describes, the Central Business District (CBD) is the economic, transportation and historical center of the city. Modern tall buildings are equally mixed with classic early 20th century buildings in a British style. The Dutch heritage is somewhat displayed in the architecture as well. A good mix of warehouse and industrial use buildings, some repurposed as apartments are mixed with newer high rise apartment buildings. It gives off a gritty, somewhat chic, urban vibe reminiscent of inner cities in the formerly industrial cities of America. During weekdays, hip cafes, coffee shops, boutiques and a few bars do brisk business as workers make their way through their days. On weekends and at night when businesses close the area is more deserted and the area takes on a more threatening atmosphere. The homeless become more prevalent, streets look less inviting and an ominous feeling overtakes the area.
We made our way to visit the District 6 museum near our house. The interesting display of life during Apartheid gave a good background on the formerly segregated country. We had coffee at one of the many cool cafes nearby. We found ourselves chuckling about some of the obviously nervous groups and independent travellers we came across. We thought the grittiness and racial makeup of the area probably were causing a bit of uneasiness for these obviously new visitors. We made our way towards the Castle of Good Hope, the original fort that defended the city during the times it was a colony of the Dutch or English. The fort is next to the Parade Ground, an area that is filled with homeless people and probably was the reason for the tourists’ nervousness. We wanted to see the gorgeous City Hall next door that displays a statue of Nelson Mandela waving to the crowd. This was where he made his first speech after being released from prison.
While the recently rebuilt City Hall was beautiful, the street crowd around it was anything but. The sidewalk was filled with lingering people who frankly seemed surly and a little predatory. We probably should have turned around but we felt confident. That’s when I felt a tug on my camera bag. I turned to see an obviously drugged homeless person with his hand on the camera. I don’t know if he was trying to unzip the bag or just take it. I yelled at him and he stopped. He stepped back and I looked around for help. No one seemed to care. Faces looked unfamiliar and unconcerned. There were police nearby who did not seem interested. This was not something we hadn’t experienced before. Similar incidents had happened in Marrakech, Sarajevo and Barcelona. While it really wasn’t that bad, it scared me. Suddenly all of the warnings that I had scoffed at while researching the city became real. The cab drivers warnings echoed loudly and I questioned why I had even come here. It was the first day (of 30) and I didn’t want to be here anymore.
Because we really didn’t have any other experiences to counteract our unpleasant first day, it was difficult to find the enthusiasm to get back to touring the city. In order to get around, we would have to ride the bus. Buses are regularly scheduled and nice but not punctual. We were hesitant to spend long times waiting for buses in our area. Nevertheless, it was necessary so we made our way. One of our first stops was the Victoria and Albert Waterfront. It is a gorgeous former shipyard and dockyard area that has now been transformed into a shopping, entertainment, hotel and museum area. One side fronts against the beautiful Table Bay and the other provides spectacular views of Table Mountain nearby. The buildings are architecturally interesting and there are always musicians, dancers or other entertainment on display. Our visit (one of several) left us with better feelings and restored our faith that our visit could be salvaged.
The first truly stunning look at the best of the Cape Town area was when we made our way to the other side of Table Mountain to Camp’s Bay. Tucked beneath a part of the mountain called the 12 Apostles it looked as breathtaking as anywhere we have ever travelled. The blue-green water was translucent and the giant rocks that surrounded the sandy cove set the perfect picture. The white buildings of the town shown like pearls against the abruptly rising monolith behind. We walked the main beach street lined with cafes and trendy shops and enjoyed strolling the walkways along the main beachfront.
Another day we rode another bus south through the trendy Seapoint and luxurious Clifton neighborhoods. Following the coastline along the Atlantic Ocean, we wound our way to the tiny town of Hout Bay. We were greeted by another gorgeous bay with a beautiful beach. We enjoyed exploring the working area of the port and watching seals cruise the area looking for easy meals from the fishing boats that call the bay home. The breeze was cool and coffee in one of the tiny restaurants was a welcome treat.
We were warned about the train station area of the town. Commuter trains here are said to be improved but still present an uncomfortable option for travel. While most trains transit no-go areas for tourists, one route called the Southern Route makes its way (slowly) toward its most southern terminus called Simon’s Town. Home to the South African Navy, Simon’s Town gives off the atmosphere of the perfect early 20th-century summer beach destination. The buildings lining the main street have wide verandas and Victorian architecture. Of most interest to the foreign visitor is the opportunity to view the penguin colony of nearby Boulder Beach. Although overcrowded with hordes of bus tour visitors, it still provided an up-close view of these odd birds. This was our first encounter with wild penguins on our travels and was a real highlight of our South African visit.
The train was virtually empty on our outbound journey but was filled with passengers returning from their work or school days towards town. Listening to the conversations of several uniformed college-age students that sat near us on the standing room only train provided us with a great opportunity to listen to South Africa’s future discussing their studies and plans for their future. It restored our sense of hope that what today may seem bleak will most assuredly be brighter in the future.
We also enjoyed another day trip to the Woodstock neighborhood. This industrial neighborhood has been discovered by young professionals, artists and hipsters and has many shops and cafes worth visiting. We visited on Saturday when a repurposed warehouse area called the Old Biscuit Mill comes alive with a farmers market and food stalls. The looks and smells of the delicious items for sale were mouth watering. Music was provided and the crowds of young urban dwellers enjoying a day off were reminiscent of our own home of San Francisco.
We made our way another day to the beach areas north of the city. The Sunset Beach, Bloubergstrand and Table View areas were each slightly rural areas of the city that featured modern designed beach houses with toney malls and restaurants. Again reminiscent of Southern California beaches we watched surfers, kiteboarders and sun seekers enjoying the spectacular weather and picture-perfect views of Table Mountain in the distance.
Of course, the highlight of our visit was the day we made our way to the top of Table Mountain. A cable car whisks visitors rapidly to the top of the 3400-foot peak. Descriptions of the views include any superlatives you could imagine. Jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, stunning, and otherworldly would not be exaggerations. A trail leads in a circular fashion and provides an incredible 360 view of the entire Cape area. As the mountain is often covered in a shrouded mist, we felt lucky that we were able to visit on a beautiful blue sky day.
I think we will always look back on South Africa as a bit of a missed opportunity. Perhaps limiting ourselves to one area of the country was not the best travel idea we have ever had. We saw such a small area of the country and even though it ranks as one of the most beautiful we have seen anywhere it really wasn’t enough to overcome our bad experiences. Because of limits we imposed on ourselves, we weren’t able to get out and experience all there is to offer. This country is attempting to overcome a troubled past that has been well covered. They are making a good effort. Unemployment and homelessness are still things that need to be overcome. If the young people we were exposed to get there way, I know they will be successful someday. I would love to come back in the future if I get a chance. Hopefully, we could get a chance to see everything this country has to show us.
What would a person do if they were walking in the desert and found a golden coin? Would they keep the new found wealth for themselves or share it with others? Would they purchase extravagant baubles and shiny trinkets to impress less fortunate friends and neighbors? Would they spend lavishly on short-term necessities or might they invest for the future in an attempt to prolong the benefits of their good fortune?
What if that person was a leader of men, who felt a responsibility for the welfare of others? What if instead of a single gold coin, they found a treasure trove of many coins? What if the citizens in their charge, while proud of their heritage, had never known the life of privilege and luxury that great wealth brings? Might that leader attempt to give the present generation everything they had ever desired or dream big and attempt to grow their tiny slice of sand into a grand scale futureland that could generate wealth for not just the present generation but all that might follow?
I imagine these questions occupied much of the thinking of the leaders of Dubai when oil was found in 1966. This dusty hamlet along the Dubai Creek known mostly for its small harbor and port and as a former pearl diving center was suddenly rich beyond their wildest dreams. Difficult questions needed to be answered. Complicated questions that not many countries have been lucky enough to be asked and even fewer have been successful in answering. The world often seems filled with wasted wealth and more people looking to take advantage than do the right thing.
Dubai certainly seems to have chosen to build for the future. Surprisingly Dubai does not have that much known oil. Perhaps only enough to produce for another 20 years. Diversification and investment in alternative sources of income seem to be their chosen solution for continued success. Massive building projects have already taken place and more are planned, seemingly announced daily. Perhaps no other place on earth has produced more “world class” projects in such a short amount of time. Airports, ports, entertainment venues and transportation infrastructure projects are easily visible everywhere. Trade, tourism, banking and real estate are all booming. The development accelerator has been pushed to the floor. Anyone seeing Dubai just 5 years ago may have trouble recognizing it today.
We were excited to get an opportunity to visit Dubai. So much has been written about the city and its gaudy development. The tallest building in the world, largest man-made port, worlds biggest mall and a massive airport have all been built. Towering skyscrapers that create a dizzying skyline and beach resort developments with wide beaches and endless sunshine are popular subjects of breathless travel writers. Desert dune bashing, camel racing, indoor ski resorts and skydivers soaring high over man-made palm-shaped islands have all been topics of glossy magazines and websites. While not the normal place that slow paced budget travellers such as ourselves are often found, it seemed impossible for us to pass up a chance to visit.
We found our apartment on the outskirts of town in a huge development called International City. Created for the workers who have been imported to fill many of the jobs created by the building boom, International City is not the glamorous world pictured in airline seatback magazines. It is filled with Indian, Pakistani, Filipino and other nationalities that have come to take advantage of the employment opportunities created by the building boom. Nine out of 10 people in Dubai were not born here. Probably not a neighborhood of the city seen by many visitors, this is definitely not an area of trendy dance clubs and glitzy Michelin starred restaurants.
We found it convenient for the necessities of life. Barbers, markets and even a mall were all nearby. What we found challenging was transportation. Dubai has generally good, if crowded, mass transit. Boats, trams, buses and subways connect most areas of the city. What we didn’t anticipate was the gigantic size of the entire city. The bus conveniently departed from just outside our apartment building but didn’t connect to the subway system until after a nearly 45-minute commute through the desert. The well organized and modern subway is then 48 kilometers long, so depending on our destination, some one-way commutes exceeded 2 hours long. A good way to see a lot of the city, but not the most conducive way to enjoy our daily explorations.
Nevertheless, we made our way out to see as much as we could. As common for most visitors, one of our first stops was the “Downtown Dubai” area of the city. Featuring the Dubai Mall, Dubai Fountains and the Burj Khalifa, it is probably the most written about area of the city. The Burj Khalifa, as the tallest man-made structure on earth, reaches the jaw-dropping height of 2717 feet. Although impressively visible from everywhere in the city, viewing it from the fountain area below is awe inspiring. Several buildings nearby are over 1000 feet and look positively dwarfed in comparison. Dubai Mall, also the biggest in the world, is uncomfortably huge also. Featuring an aquarium with a 3 story view window, full-sized ice rink, food court with more restaurants than most fair sized cities and every store you can possibly imagine (and more), it could possibly fill a week-long visit for any dedicated shopaholic. It actually has its own taxi service-inside the mall!
We spent another day touring the original downtown area of the city. Bur Dubai and Deira are areas on either side of the Dubai Creek that contain what is left of the original city. We enjoyed touring the Dubai Museum. Housed in (and below) the Al Fahidi Fort, the oldest building in the city, the museum recreates some of the history of the tiny desert port and tells the very interesting story of different eras of the development of the emirate. It was a smoking hot afternoon and we were grateful for the airconditioning inside. Afterward, we journeyed across the creek to the Deira side. We travelled via the traditional small ferries, called Abras, that ply the route. On the other side, we toured the many souks found there. Gold, textile and spice souks offer visitors and locals traditional items associated with the cities past. Ancient wooden dhows still line the creek where they are loaded with all manner of trade good destined for India or other Arabian Sea ports.
The best way to view the development of the city is to get high up in one of the many cloud touching buildings of the city. Of course, many visitors choose to visit the viewing deck of the Burj Khalifa, the highest in the world. The high cost deterred us and we decided to do some research to find decks we could visit for free. Several restaurants along Sheikh Zayed Road have outside seating and we timed our visits to coincide with sunset so the crowds were small and the lights of the city were at their best. A benefit of not going in the Burj is that you can get the massive tower in your photographs. Also, you can use the money saved to have a trendy cocktail while you enjoy the nightly light show as the city comes to life. Open air sunset views over the city from more than 40 floors up were truly breathtaking.
We made day trips to some of the more famous beach areas of Dubai. We enjoyed Jumeirah Beach and the area around the super exclusive Burj Al Arab Hotel. Most of the beach areas here were private but we managed to wander the grounds of some of the hotels. Like window shopping in designer stores, it was fun to imagine ourselves enjoying the 7-star luxury that these hotels offer. The harps in the atrium and smells of exotic scents in the lobbies made it easy for us to imagine the life of luxury the guests must be enjoying.
Another day we made the long commute to the Jumeirah Beach Residences beaches and the Dubai Marina. The JBR, as it is called, is the largest single residential project ever completed in a single stage. The towering residences line a spectacular beach and boardwalk where, of course, they are just finishing the worlds largest Ferris wheel. The nearby Dubai Marina is a massive man-made waterway with multiple 1000 feet plus towers surrounding 7 kilometers of walkways lined with restaurants, shopping and grandiose yachts. A modern tramway whisks visitors in air-conditioned comfort through the canyon-like streets.
Dubai is one of 7 emirates that make up the UAE. We made a long day trip to its most famous neighbor, Abu Dhabi. Equally as well off and almost as flashy, Abu Dhabi is about a 2-hour bus ride through the desert from Dubai. The highlight of the trip was our visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Easily one of the most spectacular religious buildings we have ever seen, the Grand Mosque features domes, minarets, courtyards and chandeliers that top any Arabian dreams you could ever have imagined. The mosque is said to hold 40,000 people and has the worlds largest carpet which weighs more than 35 tons. Witnessing the sunset over the majestic domes as the mosque magically illuminates in perfect soft light was a highlight we will not soon forget.
Dubai is an interesting place to visit. We were glad we had a chance to see more than just the tourist side of the emirate. It felt as if we were witnessing something that had never been attempted before. In one of the harshest climates in the world with almost no natural water, they are busily creating a mega city of over 3 million people in a very short period of time. The achievements are incredible but not without some noticeable problems. Workers living conditions and wages were not great. Much has been written about the environmental effects of so much building in such a fragile landscape. The energy requirements to make this harsh land livable is immense. The environmental hazards of construction of artificial islands and desalination plants have been reported. However, Dubai is at least addressing these issues.
Dubai has set huge goals. There is a true go big or go home spirit that is easily felt. Much has been done and much more is planned. Dubai has set the lofty goal of being the happiest place on earth in the near future. In the short amount of time we visited it seems that perhaps they still have a ways to go. But looking at how much they have achieved in a short period of time, I wouldn’t bet against them.
Let’s face it. On a world level, Americans are rich. Not all of them, but most of them. Sure we complain about the high cost of living, excessive taxes and the general lack of economic opportunity based on our perceived lack of material goods. But we are still rich. It’s not only the Americans though. It’s the Australians, English, Germans, Swiss and many more. We know who we are.
As we have travelled around the world through the last several years, it is these people we have seen enjoying themselves in the museums, art galleries and expensive cafes of the world. As for us, we have voluntarily sentenced ourselves to a minuscule budget that forces us to count all our pennies and doesn’t always allow us to do everything we might like to. But we still enjoy a standard of living that is at least middle class in almost every country we have travelled to. In fact, in many of these countries, despite our frugal budget, we would still be considered well-to-do.
Very seldom have we been shocked by the cost of living in many of the places we have visited. As long as we have kept ourselves to small apartments and eaten a majority of meals at home we do OK. I can’t say we have ever been hungry or uncomfortable. With the exception of a few cities (Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh, Tokyo) we really didn’t have to worry too much about how much we were spending. As long as we stayed realistic and lived more for experiences than souvenirs we have done just fine. But we may have finally met our match. We now know what it is like to be a poor person. For the last 30 days, we have found ourselves looking at the world from the other side of the fence. The tables have been turned. Norway is not a budget country. We are no longer rich.
For a long time, we have wanted to visit any of the Scandinavian countries. It was our last undiscovered area of Europe. We could never really find an apartment within our budget. Copenhagen was always out of reach and Stockholm was nearly as expensive. We finally found one in Oslo that was new on the Airbnb list and seemingly priced low to generate business. It was perfectly located near downtown and priced within our range. We took a shot and luckily enough, we had found our home for the next month.
After the blistering heat of Athens, the chill in Oslo’s morning air as we hurried to catch our airport bus shocked us. We paused briefly to dig into our suitcases for sweaters we were glad we had. The air felt wonderful and noticeably smelled clean. Not flowery sweet or sea breeze fresh. Just really clean.
We had a choice between well-organized bus, train or taxi transfers into town. For convenience, we might have chosen a taxi since it is usually easier to find our Airbnb that way. Not a good choice in Oslo. The 40-minute ride would have cost more than 100 dollars. Far too rich for us, so we opted for the bus. At 20 dollars US each, it was still too much for us but we had no choice. We hadn’t even left the airport and we already had our first taste of being poor.
We checked in to our tiny apartment. What it lacked in size, it totally made up for with lots of charm. Located in the middle of town near the university, it was convenient to grocery stores and had 3 tram lines just outside the door. After checking in we made our way to the market where we got our second sticker shock of the day. Food is nearly 1/3 more expensive as other cities we have visited. Some items were doubled. We would definitely have to check prices before purchasing. Perhaps this is why all the people we had seen looked so trim and fit.
We would need to make our way around the city if we were going to enjoy it fully. We found that 30-day transportation passes were available for around 90 dollars US. 180 dollars was a shock to our budget but the benefit of having “all you can eat” transport for our whole visit seemed like a luxury worth the price. Oslo has excellent public transport. Trams, buses and a wonderful subway are frequent, clean, on-time and go everywhere you would want to go. In addition, ferries are operated on the Oslofjord and they are included in the monthly pass.
The weather was cool but clear when we arrived. The citizens seemed to be enjoying the last of the sunny and warm days and the streets were always full of people. Walking in the beautiful downtown area we found throngs of people filling Karl Johan Gate, the pedestrian-friendly main boulevard of town that runs from the train station to the National Theatre. All the designer brands are located here along with classic cafes and ornate hotels. Norway’s fort-like Parliament building dominates one flower-filled square. The Grand Hotel, famous for traditionally housing all the Nobel Peace Prize winners, adds class nearby. The road continues onward up the hill until it reaches the Royal Palace and gardens.
The Aker Brygge area is popular with visitors and locals every day. This is the harbor area around which the city grew. On one side of the harbor, the Akershus Fortress towers above the various high masted sailboats moored to the piers. On the other side, we found the hypermodern design of apartments and businesses that surround the almost completed National Museum. In the middle, the Brutalist architecture of the City Hall completes the unique mixture of buildings that represent the past, present and future of Oslo.
We were disappointed that we would not be able to afford a visit to the National Gallery which features Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream”. Once free to visit, the prices are now high and no free days are available. However, public art can still be found everywhere. Vigeland Park is a huge park on the west side of town that features the life work of sculpturist Gustav Vigeland. More than 200 figures are on display amidst lakes, fountains and immense green areas.
Norwegians love their nature areas. Ekeberg Park is a hilly area on the east side of town. The heavily wooded area is intersected by well-maintained trails and provides grand sunset views over the fjord. Many sculptures and other artworks are uniquely displayed along the trails to add to the enjoyment of the area. The area is used by walkers and nature lovers at all times of the day and evening.
The Akerselva River splits the city. Walking trails follow the river and many of the old warehouses and factories have been repurposed into office buildings, food halls and apartments. The days grew shorter during our visit as Autumn turned the thick foliage along the river to incredibly bright colors. Oranges, yellows and reds reflected in the ponds and waterfalls roared with life each time we visited.
Oslo has some great neighborhoods to explore. We especially enjoyed the Grunerlokka district of town. This hipster area is filled with cafes and specialty shops. Flea markets fill the parks and art galleries and vintage stores line the street. Young families socialize in the coffee shops or over delicious brunches. Dog walkers and stroller-pushing moms and dads enjoy strolls under leafy tall trees. Picnic lunches on warm afternoons were delicious.
The snow had not arrived during our visit, but we found that was no reason to not visit the Holmenkollen ski area in the hills just north of town. The entire area caters to anything winter sport oriented. The most noticeable and incredible part of the facility is the massive ski jump. Just picturing the excitement of racing down the ramp at over 60 miles per hour before hurling yourself into the stadium that holds 70,000 screaming revelers made our hearts beat faster. We got a small taste of the excitement by watching the zipliners that were soaring from the top of the jump, most riders nervously laughing and whooping as they sped through the sky. Cross-country skiing is a major sport in Norway and many were already practicing their strides on small skis with rollers on them.
Perhaps the most enjoyable adventure was riding the ferries through the islands of the Oslofjord. A cruise through the islands on a tour boat would not have been affordable for us. By using our monthly transit pass, we used the ferries to create our own tour. We visited all the islands in the nearby area. We hiked to abandoned forts and walked through the tiny clusters of colorful summer houses that dot the islands. Ascending the hills and watching the harbor activity on a warm afternoon was a memorable treat.
Norway is a rich country. Wealth from oil has turned them from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. Judging by the number of cranes in the skies, massive building projects are underway everywhere in Oslo. They seem to be spending their new found wealth well. Universities are free. Health care is free. Everyone enjoys a living wage. Children are obviously well taken care of. Families are valued and well supported. The water from the tap tastes bottled and the air smells clean. The politicians seem honest and are accessible to the people. They are one of the few countries that do not have a National Debt. They have set up a fund to invest their wealth to provide for future generations.
We never ate a meal in a restaurant. A McDonald’s combo meal can be nearly 20 dollars here and the prices for a decent meal are astronomical. We never had a beer. They are heavily taxed and a draft beer is at least 10 dollars in a bar. Drinks can be 20 dollars. We never had a cup of coffee in a cafe. While Norwegian coffee is a specialty, a cup can be 5 dollars or more. Our hair grew long. Haircuts are at least 30 dollars. Our only shopping was done through a window.
But strangely enough, we had a very nice time. The people are friendly, polite and low key. Literally, everyone speaks English, many with a bit of a California accent from watching American media. We enjoyed our excursions into nature. Walks in the woods or along the river as the leaves magically became neon explosions of color will be remembered fondly. Harbor cruises and tram rides through the lovely streets filled with interesting architecture will stay with us. Everyone seems happy and content. It was odd to be poor people and I don’t know if I would want to stay this way forever. But for our month-long visit to Norway, it really wasn’t all that bad.
What is it that keeps us from falling in love? Is it just our initial judgment of looks? Maybe just a needed haircut or a couple fewer tattoos would have made a difference. Is it just a bad first impression? Perhaps it’s just a little too loud or the crowds of people that seem to always be hanging around. Was it just too soon after a previous affair that you weren’t quite over? Maybe you just couldn’t stop comparing to that recent favored love. Was it just the season? Were you so burnt by the summer heat that you just couldn’t motivate yourself to see beyond the obvious exterior characteristics?
Perhaps it is was just bad timing. You just weren’t ready to start a new relationship. Perhaps it is actually something within your own self. You find yourself in a bad mood and look for something to blame it on. Perhaps you are just being unfair. If you aren’t willing to put in the effort, how can love ever develop?
It’s difficult to understand why, but I never developed a love connection with Athens. Judging by the number of people in the full-to-the-brim cafes in the Plaka neighborhood or the excited crowds of people shopping in the famous flea market or the endless tour groups making their way up Acropolis Hill to see the wonders of the Parthenon, I am willing to accept that it had more to do with my sad mood after having just left Paris.
Judging from the way the people gather at the top of Mt. Lycabettus to watch the city light up as the sun sinks into the not too distant sea or the excitement showed by the tourists that gather to watch the changing of the guard in Syntagma Square or the happy faces of the young backpackers who gather every night on Areopagus Hill to watch the Parthenon brightly bathed in light until it appears to hover over the city, I am willing to accept that maybe my lack of love was due to my weariness that comes with traveling too much.
Judging from the way the music flows from the cafes and bars every evening in the Psyrri neighborhood or the smiles on the faces of the young people who gather in Monastiraki Square to watch the commotion or the enjoyment of the couples in the romantic cafes along the alleys just down the hill from Anafiotika, I’m willing to accept that it was probably just me.
We had a nice apartment, top floor of a 10 story building, with a balcony and great view over the northern part of the city. We only had a couple of block walk to the great metro system that takes you anywhere you want to go quickly and efficiently. We had the convenience, as seemingly everyone in Athens does, of great bakeries that sell all fashion of delectable goodness on every corner in the city. Prices of all manner of items were definitely fair and smiles were abundant everywhere we went.
We did have good days. We climbed the famous hills around the city, always looking for the best spot to enjoy the view of the green hills and bright white buildings below. We enjoyed ourselves touring the Olympic stadium area in the north of the city. We walked along the sea in the port city of Piraeus and loved the rooftop views from the beautiful National Library. The museums we went to were good and the remnants of great civilizations that are visible around every corner and under every step kept us interested daily.
Probably the heat was a major problem. Blazing late summer temperatures made walking unpleasant. Probably the end of season crowds diminished our enjoyment of areas that with a few less tourists would have been better. At times it seemed like all of Europe must be roaming the narrow streets of the historic downtown area. Probably our tiny budget made it impossible to escape the heat and commotion of the city. If we could have managed to board a ferry out to some of the beautiful islands Greece is so famous for, I’m certain our mood would have brightened.
Whatever the reason, Athens won’t be remembered as my favorite place I have visited. The Acropolis alone makes this a must-see destination for every serious traveler, so I doubt the city needs or cares about my opinion. As I observed, too many other people come here every year and have a great time. The city has 3 millennia of history waiting to be discovered and Athens will continue to draw crowds to see its wonders no matter what I thought for the relatively short time I visited.