Archive | November, 2010
November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving on a Banana Leaf

Thanksgiving on a Banana Leaf

It’s hard remembering holidays on the road, especially when you aren’t immersed in the preparation, advertising, and all of the hullabaloo surrounding them. When traveling, American holidays become just another day. Sure, you’ll see a hint here or there, or share a knowing smile and wave with a fellow Yankee traveler, but other than that, it is business as usual.

On the 4th of July, we grabbed a couple of Whoppers in Seville. For Halloween in Jordan, Clark dressed up like a Bedouin. These holidays were after thoughts. Thanksgiving was a little different. All of our American friends on Facebook and Twitter were busy posting pumpkin pie recipes and swapping tips on how best to brine their turkeys. Even being 9,000 miles away, Thanksgiving couldn’t go unnoticed. We wished our FB friends an early Happy Thanksgiving and headed out for our own little feast.

Our celebration was definitely non-traditional. We could have tried to seek out fellow Americans and scrounge around Penang to find a quasi-traditional meal. Instead, we went the local route. We headed out for a traditional South Indian banana leaf meal that is very popular in Malaysia. We left with bellies just as full and even ordered some dishes that beared some resemblance to traditional Thanksgiving fare.

Indian - Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia

Steamed white rice and vegetarian side dishes were served on a big banana leaf. One was potato-based, another contained spiced green beans, the third was a sweet and spicy tofu, and the last was a small dahl (lentil) curry. The main dishes were a fish, chicken, and vegetarian curry. Papadum, a crispy cracker like appetizer, was also served on the side.

To add a little Thanksgivingness to our dinner, we ordered a spicy pumpkin masala and deep fried bitter squash. Both were quite good. The pumpkin especially added a festive element. We washed all of this down with a mango lasso and Tiger beer. Our South Indian Thanksgiving meal cost about $15. Not bad, and a lot cheaper than a 20 pound turkey.

Indian - Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia

We ventured into the food stalls for dessert and were lucky enough to find a place selling ais kacang. The literal translation for this dish is “ice beans”. This sounded too delicious to pass up. It consisted of shaved ice, red beans, sweet corn, grass jelly, gelatinous agar-agar, condensed milk, and some sort of red, fruity syrup. Luckily, this blob was topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Ais Kacang - Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia

We managed to overcome the appearance and take a few timid bites. It actually isn’t as bad as it sounds or looks, but I wouldn’t say it was good either. The red beans and corn were sweet and almost complimentary to the milk and ice cream. The gelatinous texture of the grass jelly and agar-agar left much to be desired. We ended up digging out the ice cream and leaving most of the beans and corn floating in the icy milk. Ben & Jerry’s definitely won’t be adding “King Kong Kacang” to their menu anytime soon.

Ais Kacang - Georgetown (Penang), Malaysia

We finished the evening relaxing at Starbucks (kind of lame) drinking cappuccinos and listening to Christmas music. The air conditioning was cold enough that I could almost believe I was back in Chicago after a day of Christmas shopping on State Street. That is until I stepped out into the 85 degree night and the wave of 90% humidity hit me.

For this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for one thing most of all– air conditioning.

November 25, 2010

High Tea in Malaysia

High Tea in Malaysia

The Cameron Highlands is 712 sq. kilometers of beautiful rolling hills and lush, green vegetation about 1,500 meters above sea level in the Titiwangsa Range. We spent a relaxing day visiting the many agricultural attractions of this peaceful hill station.

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

You can’t go far in the Highlands without seeing strawberries.  The climate and hydroponic growing method allow the strawberries to be harvested year-round. They grow the berries above ground, hanging from little packs of coconut shells and nutrients.  There are countless farms for you to explore, pick your own strawberries, and enjoy some fresh treats.  We particularly enjoyed the fresh strawberries with cream, strawberry shakes, and dried strawberries.

Fresh Strawberries - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Fresh Strawberries - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Butterflies and insects abound in the tropical climate and vegetation of the highlands. We visited a little butterfly farm that also boasted a collection of extremely large beetles, snakes, spiders, scorpions, and other huge, frightening insects that I wouldn’t want to come across in the jungle.  The butterflies were very nice though!

Butterflies - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Butterflies - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

The most striking sight in the highlands are the never-ending bright green rows of tea that grow up and down the hills.  We visited Malaysia’s leading tea grower, BOH Plantations.  The company produces 4 million kilograms of tea each year (that’s about 6 cups a day).  We watched the workers in the fields collect the leaves, toured the factory, and enjoyed a cup of tea and scone overlooking the expansive farmland from a great vantage point.

BOH Tea Plantation - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

BOH Tea Plantation - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

BOH Tea Plantation - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Our next stop found us wandering through rows and rows of roses, carnations, chrysanthemum, dalia, geranium, orchid, and other tropical flowers.  The nurseries in the Cameron Highlands are Malaysia’s largest fresh flower producers.

Roses - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Roses - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

We ended our day at the fifth largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, Sam Poh.  It was the perfect tranquil ending to a lazy, tea-tasting, food-eating day.

Sam Poh Buddhist Temple - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

Sam Poh Buddhist Temple - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

The Cameron Highlands has a lot to offer, especially if you are in need of relaxation.  There are some great local food stalls with friendly people, and loads of farms, plantations, jungle treks, produce markets, hostels, guesthouses, and hotels to make this a great backpacker destination!

BOH Tea Plantation - Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

November 22, 2010

India to Singapore in One Convenient Video

India to Singapore in One Convenient Video

Things to do in Singapore: Eat. Shop. Get fined.

That’s about it.

What, no fine for durians though? - Singapore

We knew Singapore was going to be the polar opposite of India. To be honest, it felt pretty nice, and it is a lot like home…except cleaner, shinier, hotter (outside), and much colder (inside). I don’t know what the deal is with these guys, but they keep the A/C on full blast at all times.

Skyline - Singapore

Everything in Singapore is modern and bright: huge skyscrapers, flashy casinos, colorful restaurants, and massive shopping malls. The brand new Marina Bay Sands Hotel & Casino is an amazing scam. Locals are charged S$100 just to walk in the door of this place! You don’t get that back in chips either. It costs 77USD just for the opportunity to play S$25 min., 5-deck blackjack and ultra-lame electronic craps. You don’t even get to roll the dice. Lucky for us, foreigners on tourist visas are admitted free of charge.

We discovered one major similarity, however. As we exited the Little India metro station, Kim joked that we would find a bovine paradise of crumbling buildings, trash clogged streets, and completely ignored queues. She was right all counts except the cows, but I think we could have even found a cow or two if we had tried harder. Little India is shockingly similar to Big India, except prices are quadrupled and we could drink the water here. We ate some great thali for dinner, and it made us wish our train problems hadn’t kept us from Mumbai. If you want all the perks of India without the inconvenience of actually being in India, you’ll love this neighborhood.

Many people find Singapore sterile and boring. I can’t argue with that assessment, but sometimes a little boredom and sterility is just what you need after six months of travel.

We threw together a video so you can share in our reverse culture shock:

Which do you prefer? Cast your vote by commenting below.

November 14, 2010

Ups and Downs in the Blue City

Ups and Downs in the Blue City

Of the handful of Indian cities we visited, Jodhpur was our favorite. It bears all the usual hallmarks of India– deafening rickshaws, cows roaming (and shitting) everywhere, garbage to your ankles, and dogs in varying stages of deadness.

However, the decaying architecture and friendly locals make the Blue City our new favorite vacation spot in Rajasthan.

Blue City - Jodhpur, India

As you walk around town, blue is definitely the predominate shade, but you’ll also see a variety of bright colors.

Doors - Jodhpur, India

The city is full of crumbling Havelis (Indian mansions).  These 19th century buildings have archways leading into open-air courtyards, thick stone walls that keep out the heat, intricate wooden doors, stained glass windows, and lots of carved, painted woodwork. Many of the hotels and guesthouses are converted Havelis.  Kim renewed her interest in doors during our three days in town.

The clock tower is in the center of the old town, and it is surrounded by the gritty bazaar. Spices, silk scarves, and jewelry were all very tempting, but I found myself too busy dodging scooters, cows, and tuk tuks to look at much merchandise.  I wasn’t too busy for great makhania lassis though. Hotel Shri Mishrilal on the far side of the square had the best lassi in town.

Clock Tower - Jodhpur, India

Jodhpurians are nothing if not colorful and friendly.  Every man, woman, and child were willing to pose for a photo, and many even approached me to ask for a picture. Children especially love talking to Westerners, and I found myself swarmed by screaming kids on several occasions. Kids and adults alike would often ask to shake my hand or get a photo with us.

One asked Kim if her eyes were real. She told him they were implants.

We couldn’t walk a few feet without kids shouting “Hello! Hello! Hello!” to us from doorways and windows.

Kids - Jodhpur, India

Kids - Jodhpur, India

Kids - Jodhpur, India

Musicians - Jodhpur, India

The Meherangarh Fort towers 125 meters above town, and it is quite a sight to see.  The imposing gates, beautifully decorated rooms, and intricate courtyards are very well preserved. There are tons of tourists, but the flow of traffic is well organized. The informative audio guide included interviews from the last Maharaja, his wife, mother, as well as several members of the court who actually lived in Meherangarh.

Blue City - Jodhpur, India

Meherangarh Fort - Jodhpur, India

Jodhpur wasn’t all cow shit and open sewers.  There were also a few downsides– one of which was the quality of food. Our neighborhood was filled with rooftop restaurants serving up a plates of Chef Boyardee-quality Indian food. Seriously, we’ve had better canned curry from Costco.

Also, Jodhpur brought our Indian adventure to a screeching halt. As we planned our next stop, we realized we were stranded. There were absolutely no train tickets available to Mumbai or any other intermediate stops for the next 10 days.

Okay, that leaves more of Rajasthan then.  There were no tickets available to the North or Delhi either.  What about buses, you ask?  Sure, we probably could have found something, and they are comfortable enough as long as the goat next to you keeps to himself.

However, if you take a long-haul bus in India, you are putting your life into the hands of a crazed maniac. On our two 6-hour bus trips in Rajasthan, we decided our driver must be suicidal and wanted to take us down with him in a blaze of glory.

We had to find a flight if we didn’t want to become permanent residents. No luck here either. A ticket from Jodhpur to Mumbai was an insane $350 each, but we found Jodhpur to Singapore was only $300.  With very few alternatives, we reluctantly agreed India had beaten us, and we booked the flight to Singapore.

Only slightly reluctantly.

We don’t dislike India, but this country is exhausting. It is a constant battle to get across town let alone from one city to another. Hotel reservations are impossible to secure ahead of time, so we resorted to finding lodging on arrival. This being the beginning of the high season, our strategy had mixed results. Plus, you have to find a tuk tuk to chauffeur you around, and the driver automatically gets commission whether the hotel was his idea or not.

Imagine all these frustrations plus not bathing for days, sleeping in dirty beds, rotting garbage all around you, intermittent electricity, haggling for everything, and always being covered in human and/or cow shit. If you can picture this, you’ve grasped the essence of travel in India.

So, now you see why we had mixed feeling about the train situation. We were sad to be missing out on so much, but at the same time, I want to flip out on the next schmohawk on a scooter that runs me down.

We enjoyed our weeks here, and I think we will come back.  We’ll just remember to pack our rain boots, rubber pants, earplugs, and nose plugs next time.

November 8, 2010

It’s Time to Celebrate Diwali in Delhi

It’s Time to Celebrate Diwali in Delhi

I’ll admit, I had many apprehensions about the India leg of our trip. I’ve seen the movies. I’ve read the blogs. I knew what to expect. It would be dirty, loud, polluted, and complete bedlam. Cows would be roaming the dusty streets as tuk-tuks and scooters whiz by the crowds of people. Cairo left such a bad taste in my mouth that I grew more nervous about how I would handle India as the day of our flight approached.

Did Delhi live up to my expectations? Yes.

Are there really cows strolling through the streets? Yes.

Do I hate it? Definitely not.

We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to India than arriving in Delhi on the first day of Diwali. This is India’s biggest holiday. Hindus celebrate the end of monsoon season, begin the new fiscal year, exchange presents, and eat lots of sweets all while lighting candles and shooting off fireworks to honor the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi. Think Christmas, New Year’s Eve, The 4th of July, and Thanksgiving all rolled into one.

We saw signs of Diwali everywhere on the bustling street outside our hotel (Main Bazaar Rd.). Women were dressed in their most colorful and sparkly saris. Shop owners were hanging decorations and lighting candles on their doorsteps. Women and children were selling strands of bright marigolds in the streets. Every once in a while we’d hear a loud firecracker in the distance.

It wasn’t until later that we realized just how wild Diwali gets in Delhi. (say that ten times fast While walking down a narrow ally right outside our hotel, Clark nearly had his leg blown off. I saw a little kid running away and covering his ears for some reason. I looked in the opposite direction and saw the firecracker just in timed to warn Clark before it exploded. This was the most powerful explosion I’ve ever felt. Yes, we could feel the explosion from this thing. My ears popped and they were ringing. I was sure that when I looked behind me, half of the building was going to be blown up.

This was just the beginning. As the evening wore on we heard more and more pops, crackles, and deafening bangs, and saw flashes from our window. We were even sitting in our room with earplugs. Our hotel had a rooftop terrace, so we decided to check things out. I don’t think I quite expected to see the chaos that ensured across the rooftops of Delhi.

People were on nearly every rooftop lighting everything from sparklers to big-ass fireworks. There were bursts of light as far as the eye could see. Needless to say, we ran down for the camera. We were soon joined by other hotel guests and we all marveled at the insanity of Diwali.

Several times we witnessed a few fireworks backfire and explode at roof level as people scattered for cover. Bottle rockets were whizzing around and we could see them landing right on other peoples’ roofs. Luckily, we never really had a close call. After hours and hours of explosions the sky was filled with smoke (and some leftover smog). American cities on the 4th of July ain’t got nothin’ on Delhi. The noise died down around 2 a.m., but we woke up occasionally to a loud pop all night long. They really know how to celebrate in Delhi. To hear the noise from our rooftop, click play below:

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I can safely say that I like Delhi. It is very dirty and sometimes stinky. You do almost get run over by scooters and tuk-tuks. The hotel rooms are kind of gross. There is no toilet paper in the bathrooms. But, the city is alive with activity. It has a great feel. It helps that I love the food. We’ve had some great palak paneer, masala dosa, naan, and lentil curry. We even tried our hand at bargaining and got a shirt (for Clark), silk dress, and scarf for 750 Rs (That’s about $15).

After just two days, nearly all my apprehensions are gone. Except maybe about the gross hotel rooms. We have a particularly nasty one here in Agra, but what do you expect for $8?

November 4, 2010

Salam Alaikum, Middle East!

Salam Alaikum, Middle East!

Taken right after his al-Qaida job interview.

Most don’t put the Mideast at the top of their travel to-do lists. Other than Gilbert, our enthusiastic Taliban-poser friend pictured here, many have a negative association with the area. He just came from Iraqi Kurdistan and had nothing but good things to say. I was sold, but Kim would not have it.

I guess we aren’t ready for Iraq after all, but we are sad to have missed Syria, Lebanon, and Israel.  We’ll just have to get them on the next world trip.

I had a much different draft of this post, but I decided to scrap my 3,000-word essay on Egyptian and Jordanian culture. Seriously, who was going to read that? Instead, let’s keep it simple.

Egypt

Cairo is awful.  It’s incredibly polluted, overcrowded, segregated (tourists from locals), and frustrating.  Not to mention the men look at women “like they want to ravage them”, as someone in our hostel put it. What begins as a friendly conversation with a local ends with being asked to come to his shop to see his papyrus or take his bogus tour. Very annoying. Before you write us off as wusses, know that we usually enjoy gritty cities. Naples, Mexico City, and Izmir aren’t exactly tourists’ paradises, and we had a great time in each of them.

Kim's fan club - Cairo, Egypt

They were starstruck to meet the writers of the 1,276,574th most popular website on Earth (according to Alexa.com).

In Cairo, I had no problem walking the streets alone.  However, it was a different story when Kim and I were together. Everyone stopped and stared…and not in a friendly or curious way.  We never felt unsafe, but Kim would certainly have been harassed if I had left her alone.  Except for a group of teenagers, we didn’t have many friendly interactions with the natives. We didn’t hate Cairo, but it easily tops our least favorite cities list.

This begs the question, are the pyramids really worth all this?

Great Pyramid of Giza (Khufu) - Cairo, Egypt

Some say Giza is overrated, but I disagree. If you can avoid the corrupt tourist police, t-shirt hawkers, and camel pushers, it is a pretty amazing site. The two other pyramid sites near Memphis are much less crowded and touristy and are well worth a visit.  There is very little transportation for independent travelers, so we had to hire a taxi for seven hours to see all the sites.

I’m sure India and Southeast Asia will make Cairo seem like a breeze, but those regions have a great deal of culture to balance the chaos. Besides the pyramids, the only other redeeming quality was the cost.  Egypt is damn cheap. We spent a grand total of $180 over four days which included $60 for lodging and $15 for food.  That’s right, we only spent $15 for four days of food. When falafel sandwiches are under $1 per person, you don’t need a big budget.  And that 7-hour cab ride?  Only $35.  For me, the prices almost made up for all of Cairo’s negative qualities.

But, not quite. Cairo sucked.

We had an ambitious two-week itinerary planned, but we scraped it due to the high cost, low reliability of the Egypt-Jordan ferry and our tight schedule.  We only had a few weeks scheduled for the Mideast and less of Egypt meant more of Jordan.

Jordan

“Welcome to Jordan!”

Jordanians are very friendly people, and we heard this greeting about ten times each day. The people seemed excited to show off their English skills and often wanted to chat without wanting anything from us.  Just like at home, this is election season for Jordanians.  We fell asleep most nights to campaign messages blaring, honking horns, and the sweet sound of AK-47s firing in the air. Don’t be alarmed though. Jordan is a  very safe country, and besides a bed bug incident in Amman, our visit was trouble free.

Kids of Jordan - Madaba, Jordan

Egypt still wins in one department– cost. Jordan is damn expensive. Public transportation is almost nonexistent, and we had to rely on private taxis more than we preferred.  Our three hour ride from Petra to Madaba set us back nearly $125. We were kicking ourselves later on when we found a minibus to Amman where we could have transferred to Madaba. The sights are also very pricey. Petra cost $50 per person while Jerash was much more reasonable $11 per ticket. We arrived two days before prices increased to an insane $77/person, so we were thankful for that at least.  The individuals themselves, however, aren’t out to scam you as they were in Cairo.

The Monastery - Petra, Jordan

I estimate we hiked about 20 kilometers including 2,000 stairs over our two-day visit. Petra and Jerash are among our favorite sights on this trip, but you should expect some degree of hassle just like at Giza.  Donkey taxi drivers, jewelry sellers, and postcard kids are the main offenders.  Unlike at Giza, the tourist police quickly boot out misbehaving entrepreneurs. Kim had a hard time with the poverty, animal cruelty, and very poor health of the street kids in both countries.  At Giza, we witnessed an Egyptian whipping a horse and its teenage rider equally mercilessly.

The Treasury - Petra, Jordan

Even with Petra’s ridiculous entrance fee, I feel we got our money’s worth.  I reserved my budget-fueled rage for the Dead Sea.  Apparently, there is only one public beach, and they charge accordingly.  On our ride to Madaba, our driver deposited us at the Amman Beach, and we had to decide between missing out on the second saltiest body of water on Earth or paying $50 for two hours of swimming floating.  We ended up forking over the 35 dinar fee, and we bobbed for about an hour.  I was pissed for the rest of the day, but you really do float effortlessly.  Kim could easily sit on my chest and be almost completely out of the water while I sank just a few inches.

In summary, we can’t recommend Cairo on its own merits, but I think the pyramids are worth the trouble.  Jordan, however, is great destination, but you better have a big budget.  Petra is one of those places you have to see.

Be sure to check out all our photos from Egypt and Jordan on Flickr and watch our hectic Middle East Montage for the highlights:

Tonight, we fly to New Delhi to start our subcontinent adventure. Friday is the first day of Diwali, so we should have a very energetic introduction to India. First priority = Mango lassi.


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