Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Next Stop... Belgium.

Mountain View, California - Well, we made it through Christmas intact. Although, we still have quite a few dinner parties to attend before the New Year rolls around. It can be tiring, but it really has been very nice touching base with so many friends before we finally...actually...really...we're serious this time... take off to Colorado. In the meantime, I'm still trying to catch up on this blog. Today, I'm writing about Belgium.

New Delhi is just about as far from California as one can get on the globe. Therefore, price-wise, it didn't really matter which way around I traveled. So, I decide to continue traveling west and to visit some old friends in Europe. My first stop was Belgium to visit Vinciane and Reinout.

I met Vinciane way, way back during my senior year of college in 1992. I was going to UC Irvine at the time and living in Newport Beach, just a few houses away from the sand. Francis, one of my roommates that year, was from Belgium. Francis' sister, Cecile and two of her friends ended up coming to the states for a visit and we took them all on a tour of Los Angeles. Vinciane was one of those two friends.

When I graduated, my buddy, Derek and I decided to do a post college European tour. After seeing Stonehenge and wandering across Wales we decided to make a b-line to Ghent to meet up with Cecile and to have dinner with Francis's parents. There at dinner we saw Vinciane again. She mentioned that a friend of hers was driving to Italy for business in the morning and asked if we would like to join him. "It's all on expense account." So, 5am the next morning all 4 of us were crammed into an Opal speeding towards Italy. There is a lot more to this story including an elderly town historian, a mad hunter, an eaten ATM card, and a murdered judge, but I'm not going into that here. Derek and I ended up using Vinciane's apartment in Brussels as our European hub and we became very good friends with Vinciane.

A lot has happened since that summer. I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Malawi, Africa. Vinciane met and married Rienout. After a stop in Zimbabwe on their around the world honeymoon, they fell in love with Africa and started working out a plan to build a lodge in Zambia. On the way back home from Malawi, I made another stop in Belgium and ended up staying with V&R for almost a month. After that, we found many excuses to cross paths. They built the lodge in Zambia and made it extremely successful. It's a beautiful place. Check out the link to their website here:

Anyways, about a year and a half ago Vinciane and Reinout had their first child, Mathieu. Reinout was able to make it to our going away beach party, but it had been a few years since I saw Vinciane (Amsterdam?). It was time to make another visit to Belgium.

Vinciane and Reinout are now living about 30 minutes outside of Brussels in a small country town named Huldenberg. They have found a beautiful place with a great view. It needs a little work and Vinciane is using her skills as an architect to plan some modifications to it. While I was there Reinout was having the heating system replaced with a much more modern, efficient and environment-friendly system. They only problem I had was that it wasn't done yet. When I left New Delhi on October 16th the temps were hovering around 35C (95F). Arriving in Belgium it was hard to get used to an unheated house while the outside temps were staying around 9C (48F). Brrrr. I took many a hot bath to warm up...until they shut off the hot water to replace the boiler.

Vinciane, Reinout and Mathieu at home in Huldenberg


Besides just catching up with V&R, my main reason for being there was to meat Mathieu, their new little one. They wasted no time in introducing us and quickly I became the live-in babysitter. With the house repairs, an upcoming trip to the Zambia lodge for Vinciane and a business trip to the states for Reinout, plus chiropractic appointments and family visits, they were plenty busy and kept me moving. Somewhere in between the errand running and baby sitting I did manage to get out and see a bit of Ghent, Antwerp, Brussels and of course Huldenberg (plenty of photos in the slideshow).




Here are a few highlights:
  • College kids playing guitar (La Bamba) along the Graslei in Ghent.
  • Noses. Weird purple candies that I had a hard time deciding if I liked or not.
  • Shopping for apple trees. Who knew there were so many varieties to taste test? Who know how often you would have to retest to get the right tree?
  • Frites...and frite sauce.
  • Cooking Chinese food for Vinciane's sister's three kids who had never had Chinese food. We made due with some chopped veggies and soy sauce and made our own chop sticks. They really liked it.
  • Showing the kids how to make s'mores. Although we used nice Belgium chocolate and biscuits, the kids didn't take to well to the artificialness of the marshmallows. They did like the coat hanger cooking process in the living room fireplace.
  • Learning why there is a pile of dirt with a lion on it in Waterloo.
  • Turning 39.
  • Waffles. Nothing like our version of the "Belgium Waffle." Much more addictive.
  • Discussing the merits of a lifetime in insurance with Vinciane's father.
  • Fall. The color of the trees were incredible.
  • Watching a country run without a government for 100+ days.
  • Hot water, a thick comforter and the wool sweater Vinciane lent me.
  • Hanging with Mathieu!

Check out the slide show here:


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Long Lost Third Color City - Jiapur - The Pink City

Mountain View, California - So... it's been a while since I've blogged. A long while. I thought I could get caught up in Belgium, but I was too far behind. I thought I could get caught up in Ireland, but the Celtic Tiger charges 1 Euro for every 20 minutes, which works out to be about $5 bucks an hour, plus... Gary and Kay kept me moving so fast I was barely able to find time to check email. I thought I could get caught up when I got back to California, but Suwei quickly whisked me off to Monterey to watch her run a half marathon. When we got back I barely had enough time to pack up our gear for a week of climbing in Joshua Tree. After that, I knew I would have no time once we arrived in Colorado as we only had one week to get our stuff into the house before my mom came for a week's visit. Then...we decided to renovate the floors and things got even busier. it is almost two months since my last post...I'm now back in California for the holidays with no skis, no climbing gear, & no bike. I plan on spending the next few days visiting friends, reading, and catching up on the blog. Nice. So, stay tuned. I will finish up the trip posts.

Backing way up...I arrived in Jaipur on October 11th. Jaipur, the third city in my tri-color cities tour, is know as The Pink City. Supposedly pink because in 1876 the Maharajah had the whole place painted pink as a symbol of welcoming for a visit by the Prince of Wales.

Busy Streets in Jaipur

Again, I'm going to refer to the slide show for the details of the touristy things I did and saw there. It is full of good information like that. However, I would like to write down a few random thoughts or rather describe a few random experiences or things I saw that had an effect on me in my last week in India.


I spent my last few days in Jaipur wandering about aimlessly, shopping a bit, and napping a lot. I was tired after six months of traveling and although I was still fascinated by India, it also wore me out. I spent more time chatting with touts than I did in other places. Not because there were more of them, it was just that I was too tired to run away. I ended up sitting down with a couple of them and asking them about how other people cope with their constant badgering, asking them how they themselves coped with always being blown off, and asking them the meaning of truth. I was not surprised by the lack of depth in their responses, but it was nice to be able to ask. It was hard to get upset with them as they were only trying to get by in a place where millions are also just trying to scrape by. Each one was using every trick he could think of to get one step ahead of the competition...and these were the smart ones. Others were two and three steps behind, using scams that the Lonely Planet has been warning about for the last 10 years.

Sales Technique:

My last night in Jaipur, I had dinner at the roof top restaurant of my hotel. The food was just so-so, but it was still quite crowded up there. I figured most of the people eating up there were there for the same reason I was, they were just too lazy to go out and deal with the hassles of getting a meal elsewhere. Anyway, also up there with all of us hungry tourists was a local puppet salesman. He had a lovely stage set up for a puppet show and had many puppets laid out for sale to the tourists. I thought this was an excellent way to do business, much better than the constant harassment that caused most of the tourists to flee to the roof top in the first place.

However, by the time I got my food I realized that this poor puppet salesman had no chance in hell of selling any puppets that evening. Not because they weren't nice puppets, it was just that he had no idea how to sell to westerners. Instead of putting on a nice, pleasant puppet show, catching people's attention and letting them peruse his selection of puppets, he decided instead to walk from table to table interrupting peoples meals and conversations to ask if they were interested in buying a puppet. No one was. The guy spent the whole evening pacing back and forth through the tables like a hungry wolf. He would wait 5 to 10 minutes and then would ask everyone again if they were now interested in buying a puppet. New arrivals were polite, others less so. I really felt like pulling the guy aside and explaining why he was going to go home empty-handed this evening. But I was too tired.

The Division Between Rich and Poor:

While wandering from site to site I did a lot of walking. On one of these outings I took two photos within a block or so of each other. One was of a young boy and his baby brother sitting amongst a few dirty pots below a street sign pointing the way to the airport. Their parents were nowhere to be seen and by all accounts it looked like they were living there. The more time I spent in India, the easier it got to ignore much of the poverty. I would see poverty...everywhere really, but after awhile it just failed to shock me. Well...I took this photo because I was shocked.

Right around the corner from these children, I took the second photo. This one of a store called "Status Symbol" selling televisions. I was thinking at the time, that the Indians must be so used to seeing such desperate poverty that maybe they completely fail to recognize it. A few weeks earlier I was on a train to Delhi from Agra talking to a well-educated Indian gentleman who insisted that 80% of India was literate. Is that the 80% of India that he recognizes?

How Bad India Can Get:

Many of the thoughts provoked by the images above were still fresh in my mind as I was waiting at the Jaipur train station for the final leg of my Indian journey. The station was quite crowded as usual, but I noticed that people were avoiding a spot on the platform where an old man was laying. He didn't look well. In fact he looked like he could be dead. The only thing making him look even slightly alive was the movement of the swarm of flies picking at the open sores that covered his body and at the pile of shit he was laying in. In all my travels I don't think I have ever seen anything more pitiful. No one turned to look at him. If he wasn't dead, he wasn't going to be around for much longer.

Random Jaipur

And How Good:

The last image of India I have floating around in my mind is that of the many families that came out to the India Gate in New Delhi to watch the sun set. There were lots of people selling snacks and drinks and toys and flowers and balloons. Kids running around, couples holding hands, paddle boats in the canal, the smell of cotton candy. It was like a day at the fair.

The India Gate, New Delhi

That's it. No point. No conclusion. I was fascinated, disgusted, irritated, intrigued and worn out by India, but I liked it and I would go back in an instant.

Here is the slide show:

Jaipur, The Pink City, India

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Jodhpur - The Blue City

Huldenberg, Belgium: The next stop on my Rajasthani, tri-colored tour was blue. Jodhpur is known as The Blue City. Traditionally blue signified the home of a Brahmin, a member of the priest or scholar caste. But it seems to have caught on. It is thought that the blue keeps the home cool and helps repel insects.

I'm not going to go into too much detail this time. Partly because there is not much to tell and partly because I only have two hours before I'm supposed to go to the airport. And I still need to pack and to heat up a bucket of water to wash my face and shave. Here in the wilds of Huldenberg, I haven't showered in two days because the hot water and heating system are being worked on. Anyway...that's a story for when I get caught up. For now we are just going to stick to the highlights.
  • The color blue. The people here really take it to heart. Blue houses (inside and out), blue scarves, blue shirts, blue uniforms for the kids. Blue everywhere. Very cool.
  • The alleyways. Like Jaisalmer there is an amazing maze of alleyways in the old city. Crazier, dirtier, busier, bluer, and much, much larger that Jaisalmer.
  • The Meherangarth. The Citadel of the Sun, according to the tourist brochure. Hard to miss. In quite good shape due to the efforts of the last Maharajah to live in the palace, who now manages a trust to protect his former home. The audio tour is very informative, but it's the views that win the prize.
  • The Haveli Guest House rooftop restaurant. Great Rajasthani thalis to make you wish you hadn't eaten so much. The best fort views in town.
  • The Clock Tower. The center of the Old City and a crowded, dirty swirl of animals and people selling, buying, and riding or driving in every direction.
  • Less Touts. More Children. "Give me pen." "Take Picture." "One Rupee." are a few of my favorite pictures. There are a lot more in the slide show so check them out.

Jodhpur, The Blue City

The Meherangarh

A Few Random Shots of Jodhpur

Here is the slide show:

Jodhpur - The Blue City, India

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jaisalmer, The Golden City

Huldenberg, Belgium: So, as usual, I'm far behind on my posts. I'm already in Belgium and I still haven't got my first Rajasthan post done yet. I blame the computers of course. It may be just that Suwei is not here to help me out with the technical stuff. In any case, I'm something like two or three weeks behind and I'm not going to get caught up anytime soon.

Suwei left for home on the 2nd of October. On the 3rd I caught a train twenty hours west into Rajasthan to the Golden City of Jaisalmer where I stayed until Oct. 7th. Our friend Guru suggested I use my last two weeks in India to see the deserts of Rajasthan. I picked three destinations to visit basing my decision solely on each cities color scheme, or rather the fact that each city actually had a color scheme. I started with gold.

Jaisalmer is called the Golden City because everything there is constructed from the same golden colored sandstone. It's not a large place, easily crossed in 15 minutes or so by foot, if by chance you manage to find your way though the maze of skinny alleyways. Built in 1156, Jaisalmer first found success as a strategic stopping point for the camel trains traveling between India and Central Asia. Now due to the preservation of its impressive fort and its many havelis (exquisitely sculpted stone mansions) Jaisalmer thrives on the tourist trade. A little too touristy for my tastes, but still extremely interesting. Get to the fort early to avoid the crowds.

Most interesting to me was the fact that the town's biggest draw, Jaisalmer Fort, is one of the world's most endangered monuments. About 25% of the city's inhabitants live within the walls of the fort and most of those folks run the many hotels and restaurants that cater to the tourist trade. All of these people are overtaxing a centuries old drainage system that is now trying to cope with 12 times the amount of waste water for which it was originally designed. Since 1993 three of the 12th century bastions have collapsed. There are NGOs working on the problem including the Jaisalmer Conservation Initiative and Jaisalmer in Jeopardy - even Lonely Planet has gotten into the act by encouraging travelers to stay outside the walls of the fort. However, the people living there and relying on the tourists' rupees are not having it. There are signs up all over town reading "Thank you Lonely Planet for destroying our lives". I guess in a way you can't really blame them. The fort has lasted this long. But still, if they loose the fort they will loose everything. I think I'd be looking to diversify.

View of Jaisalmer Fort from Sunset Point

Jaisalmer Fort

Then again, as I was quickly learning, Indians approach business (or at least sales) differently than we do. "What is your name?" "Where are you from?" "Where are you going?" "What do you need?" These are things that are shouted at you constantly. "Burn CD, camera battery, phone home?" One guy followed me for one hour trying to convince me that he was not a tout, he just wanted me to stay at his hotel and eat at his restaurant. The whole time I was telling him that even if he was offering his place for free, I would rather sleep in the street than go with him because he was irritating. "Just look see." I'm guessing that they have enough tourists with over-stuffed wallets waddling by that it never occurs to them that there may be better ways to lure tourists than constant pestering.

My third full day in Jaisalmer was extremely quiet. It turns out, the day before, three Muslim men with a tanker truck killed about 20 to 30 cows in a nearby village. How many cows depends on who was telling the story. I'm also not sure how they were killed...whether they were run over by the tanker truck or if the said Muslims doused the cows in gasoline and had a bit of a roast. This was not clear. What was clear was the fact that the local Hindus were pissed off, and since 80% of Jaisalmer's population are Hindi, they decided to shut down the town in protest. Almost nothing was open except for a few upscale restaurants and some small shops. Although I couldn't check email or buy any snacks, what was very, very nice was that no one was yelling at me for my name or urgently requesting my nationality. I was able to explore the somewhat abandoned fort in relative peace.


Other highlights of Jaisalmer included:
  • A visit to the Gadi Sagar, a man-made lake that was once the water supply of the city. I rented a paddle boat to paddle out to some of the temples for photographs.
  • Climbing up to Sunset Point. Great views of the city complete with magic tricks by dirty street children.
  • Getting lost in the golden alleyways watching pot-makers banging metal, neatly dressed school kids heading home, camel trains dodging rickshaws, 1/2 naked kids with scabby knees playing in the gutters, old women sitting in doorways, men pissing everywhere, children herding goats, and of course, cows everywhere doing whatever they want.
  • Eating great Indian food, especially the Rajasthani specialties with lots of capsicum.

Gadi Sagar

Next stop the Blue City of Jodhpur.

For more pictures of Jaisalmer, check out the slide show here:

Jaisalmer -The Golden City, India

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Dawdling in Delhi

Johdpur, India - New Delhi is actually the 8th Delhi built in the greater Delhi area. It was the British who built this most recent one. They started construction in 1911 when the decision was made to move the capital from Calcutta. In 1947 the year of India's independence it became the capitol of modern India. In 2007 we showed up because New Delhi is the cheapest place to fly out of South Asia.

Our faith in the ineptness of the Indian railway system was cemented when the Taj Express from Agra to Delhi (which is supposed to take 2 1/2 hours) was close to 3 hours late. Arriving at 12:30am we made our way by auto-rickshaw to the backpackers area of Paharganj and told the driver he was full of shit when he tried for a 50% up-charge on trips after 11:00 pm (it's 20% max). These guys make it really easy to eliminate the need to tip.

One night in Paharganj was enough. After 6 months on the road Suwei and I have grown a bit weary of the backpacker scene and Paharganj is far from one of backpacking's nicer spots. Crowded, noisy, dirty, polluted. It's nice that the cows are there to eat the garbage. It's just a shame that the cows have no place to shit but back onto the road for all to trod in.

We ended up ponying up for a nice hotel in the more central shopping district of Connaught Place. Suwei said we should do it because I was still feeling a bit under the weather. I said we should do it because it was Suwei's last few nights in India. Either way we cover each other's guilt for going upscale. It was one of our better decisions.

Much of New Delhi is actually quite nice and Connaught Place is one of the most pleasant. Connaught is a series of concentric circles lined with shops surrounding a central park under which lies a major hub for Delhi's very new and very clean metro. No cows allowed. Perfect.

The Red Fort

We had 4 days in Delhi (Sept. 28th to Oct 2nd). We did one full day of tourist sites, two days attempting to shop, one day of pure dawdling due to it being Suwei's last day of the trip and Mahatma Gandhi's birthday.

The Qutb Minar (In my head it will always be The Q-tip Minar)

Notes on New Delhi:
  • The Red Fort, Delhi's most popular attraction, is dull as hell. The only good thing I could say about it is that its quieter inside than out.
  • Mc Donald's India does not serve hamburgers. They do make a damn tasty veggie burger, however
  • Coffee is popular. It took us close to 45 minutes to get one... and that did not include the time it took to get and pay the bill afterwards.
  • The Qutb Minar is where it's at. About 8 km south of city center, it's a much more interesting and pleasant place than the Red Fort. For more details check out the slide show.
  • Nothing is open on Mahatma Gandhi's birthday... well... almost nothing.
  • You need a ticket or proof of purchase to get into New Delhi's international air terminal. Suwei didn't have one and had a hard time convincing security that she was not there to blow the place up.

Suwei acting like she is upset to head home... This after security wasted 30 mintutes running us around to every locked Thai Airway office, in order to prove that she indeed had an e-ticket and was therefore allowed to inter the terminal.

That's right... Suwei has left me. She's gone home because our six months are up and it's time to go back to work. She wanted to spend about a month working out of the Oakland offices before we head off to Colorado. By stretching logic to it's outermost limits, I somehow convinced myself that it may be cheaper to continue traveling for a bit until she is ready to head east. I know it doesn't work that way, but it does give me a chance to see a bit more of India and to see some friends on the way home. So while she took off for the Bay Area, I prepped for my train trip east into the desert.

Next time ...Jaislamer.

Here is the Slideshow:

New Delhi, India