Traveling as a Couple – by Patrick

July 25, 2009

I’ve noticed some differences between traveling as a couple and traveling as single, as I did in 1991.

  • We are more likely to meet and socialize with other couples who are traveling, rather than singles. We’ve spent time with other male/female couples (either married or dating), but also other pairs of travelers (male or female friends).
  • Everything costs more, because we are two people, rather than one. However, most accommodations and some transport are cheaper on a per person basis based on double occupancy.
  • Like we do at home, we often share our meals, allowing us to try additional foods. In India, most meals are served ‘family style’, where we eat out of shared serving bowls. The risk of sharing meals is that if one of us gets food poisoning, we’ll both get it.
  • I think we’re less likely to be homesick, because we have a companion from home with us.
  • We can share the workload of planning, arranging, packing, washing, etc.
  • We need to reach consensus on where we go and what we do. This requires communication and compromise. We don’t always agree initially, but we always agree eventually.
  • One person can watch the bags, while the other person investigates something, negotiates, etc.
  • In certain situations where it is warranted, like on buses or trains where our bags aren’t secure, one person can stay awake and alert, while the other sleeps.
  • We are more accepted by single women, whether locals or other travelers. They’re more comfortable to talk with a couple than a single man.
  • We are less accepted in situations that are considered appropriate for men only (e.g. mosques, bars).
  • In some rare cases, we need to split up, for example — airport security in Jordan where they physically search women in a separate room; at the entrance to the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in Delhi, where they have different lines for the security checks of men and women; optionally on subways in Cairo and major Indian cities, where women have the option of riding in separate women-only cars; on some boats in Egypt, where women ride at the front and men at the back.
    • We look after one another. I’m constantly looking out for Diane — making sure she’s with me and making sure she’s OK. She makes sure that I take my malaria medication, and that I don’t do anything too risky.
  • The biggest difference is having a partner to share the experience with, both the rewards and the challenges. Someone to talk to about what we’re seeing, feeling, and learning along the way.

Traveling Then and Now – by Patrick

July 25, 2009

After completing university, I traveled in South East Asia for nine months from Sept 1990 to June 1991. Traveling almost twenty years later, there are some notable differences.

Internet – We are able to stay connected with friends, family, and vendors (like banks, utilities, travel agent, etc.) through email, online banking, and our travel blog. We can use the Internet to book flights and trains, to reserve accommodations, and to research things. Internet cafes exist in most cities, though Internet speed and reliability varies greatly.

Laptop – Carrying a small laptop has many advantages. It provides a secure platform for online banking, rather than a computer at an Internet café where our passwords could be compromised. We have with us electronic copies of our financial and tax records, our address book, our calendar (for important dates), and even the owners manuals for our electronics. We can work offline, composing email and blog entries in our hotel or during transport, and sending them later when we connect to the Internet. This allows us to do a much better job, and also saves on connection time charges. We can view and make backup copies of our digital photos. An unanticipated benefit is the ability to also take copies of the digital photos of people we’ve met, which are often more likely to contain images of us that our own. Where there is fast Internet access, we can use Skype for instant messaging, voice, or video communications without any additional cost. We even have some movies on the laptop that we can watch when we’re desperate for some Western entertainment.

Digital photography – In addition to the many general advantages of digital photography (instant preview, selective deletion, etc.), there are some that are specific to travel. My camera is smaller, lighter, and with a more flexible and powerful zoom lens than the SLR and three lenses I carried in 1991. I don’t need to carry film, or worry about it being fogged by x-ray scanners. The pictures can be emailed, published on our blog, and backed up to computer, other memory cards, or CD/DVD.

Digital music – Our iPods are invaluable for drowning out the noise on bumpy roads, and for beating the boredom on long bus or train trips. We carry our entire digital music library with us on the laptop, allowing us to change the music on the iPods. We can also listen to music in our hotel room through the laptop speakers.

Bank machines – Bank machines were rare in South East Asia in 1991, and weren’t connected to international networks. Today, we don’t need to carry travelers’ cheques, do expensive and time consuming money transfers, or carry as much cash. Travelers’ cheques generally aren’t accepted anywhere (except some banks), and where they are, they are usually accompanied by a non-trivial service charge. We can get local currency from a bank machines in almost all cities (except in Zimbabwe). This also virtually eliminates the need to use currency exchanges.

Cell phone – People can contact us and we can phone them. In India, where people speak English, we can also use it to conveniently book accommodations. Our phone operates on the GSM standard which is used almost everywhere. It is easy to get a new phone number and a pre-paid cell phone account by purchasing a SIM card for a couple of dollars in each new country. A slight exception was India where, after cell phones were used in the 26/11 terrorist attacks last November in Mumbai, people now have to provide identification and a local address to get a phone.

Smaller pack – I’m carrying a much smaller backpack than last time. This makes it practical to keep it with me on planes and buses, and to carry it more.

Trekking towel – We have microfiber towers will us, which are much smaller and dry quicker than cotton towels.

Reading glasses – The print in the guidebook is much smaller than it used to be, especially at night, which must be the reason why I need reading glasses now.


July 24, 2009

This morning there was a major eclipse in India. In parts of India it was a total eclipse, but in Delhi it was about 80%. We woke early and headed out onto the roof to watch. This eclipse was apparently special because at 6 minutes it was one of the longest, a duration that will not be matched until 2132.

In the morning we visited the famous Red Fort (Lal Qila) in Delhi. Completed by the great Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in 1648, the same guy who built the Taj Mahal, it has been the site of many important political speeches and each year on Indian Independence Day (August 15), the Prime Minister addresses the nation from the ramparts of the fort. In preparation for that, there was a crew scrubbing the front walls of the fort. Notice the bamboo scaffolding tied with twine, and the men climbing it without any safety leashes.

After the fort, we walked around Old Delhi for a couple of hours. Old Delhi is a maze of small streets filled with shops. We had lunch at a hole-in-the-wall selling ‘paratha’, traditional fried bread served with ‘chutneys’, a variety of savory, spicy, and sweet accompaniments.

We wandered down the street into an Indian bakery and ordered something that looked like a bird’s nest, about six inches across. While Patrick was ordering, there was someone with a video camera behind the counter. Upon exiting, Diane was in discussion with a group of Indian media students, who wanted to interview us on the subject of street food. We consented to a brief interview. They asked a) what we’d eaten, b) whether we enjoyed it, and c) were we concerned about cleanliness. Our answers were a) just about everything we could find, b)) absolutely, and c) we haven’t been sick so far. However, it’s sometimes easier to enjoy our meal without seeing the kitchen or even the restaurant. Dim lighting helps. Perhaps that’s why Indians don’t eat dinner until late.

After lunch, we headed for Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India (also built by Shah Jahan). The skies in the east were very dark, and the wind started to pick up, so we knew that rain was imminent. We had to put our sunglasses on to protect our eyes from the dust whipped up by the wind. We almost made it. The skies opened just before we reached the mosque, and we took cover under a tin shanty at the entrance. The rain was blowing sideways under our cover, and we were concerned that the roof might rip off. So we made a break up the steps in the torrent to the mosque. The water was cascading down the steps like a water fall. We arrived soaking wet, and took cover under the huge entrance archway with over 100 other people. Diane was wearing a pink tank top that she’d bought the day before, and which was by now totally soaking wet — a bit like a wet T-shirt contest, but at a mosque. We were immediately chastised for wearing our shoes, which should have been removed prior to this point, but there was no one outside to tell us that. It was probably swept away by the rain and wind. Diane put on an additional shirt that she had, one with sleeves, as quickly as possible. When the rain subsided, we toured the mosque, which was really just a vast open compound, with very little covered space. It faces West, because when you’re India, Islam’s holy city Mecca is in the West, not the East (as it is in Canada). The ground was tiled with red sandstone, which heated the rain water, creating warm puddles like bath water. Children were playing in a huge puddle, which was like a kiddy pool at an amusement park.

We’d heard that scams abound in India. Especially in the larger tourist cities, that everyone wants to take our money. This shows up in many ways. Taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers that flatly refuse to turn on their meters, and that insist on fixed fares much higher than Indian people pay. Touts that tell you the official tourist bureau or the train ticket window for foreigners is closed, so they can direct you to a private travel agency. So far, we’ve avoid all of the obvious rip-offs. The only scam we’ve experienced so far is purchasing a pair of reading glasses for 400 Rp (about $10 Canadian) that were only worth 100 Rp. Oh, and we purchased a long distance calling card for about $50 that we found out only works in Mumbai, a city that we probably won’t be going back to, but we’re not sure whether the salesman knew this or not.

India is a handkerchief haven. At home, Patrick sometimes gets grief from friends because he carries a hankie, which is seen as an old-fashioned and even slightly disgusting. With the advent of Kleenex, hankies have fallen out of favour, but they’re much softer and avoid a raw nose during hay fever season. However, in India, handkerchiefs are everywhere. Most people carry one to wipe the sweat from their brow. Due to their waning popularity in Canada, it’s difficult to purchase a quality hanky – anything softer and more absorbent than sandpaper. But in India, people on the street offer to sell us hankies several times a day. It’s just that easy. Hanky heaven. A billion people can’t be wrong.

Observations about India

July 22, 2009
  • Men where pants here, regardless of the temperature. Usually only boys (and tourists) wear shorts. Indian women typically wear a sari (a single piece of cloth that is wrapped without pins or buttons) or a salwar kameez (a long shirt and trouser combination). Younger people prefer jeans, despite the fact they must be baking in the heat.
  • India is a very religious/holy place. 82% of the people are Hindu and 12% Muslim. Christians and Sikhs are about 2% each. Like most of the world, religious has been a major source of conflict in India for over 1000 years.
  • Family is extremely important in India. Marriage and children are almost essential. Most marriages are arranged, but love marriages are becoming more common in urban areas. Divorce is rare, but its incidence is growing in urban areas.
  • Like in Africa, Diet Coke costs more here than regular Coke. Why would someone pay more for less?
  • It is common for men to show their friendship by holding hands. The other day on the train one man was sleeping with his head on his friend’s lap (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
  • About three weeks ago, the Supreme Court of India struck down the law (inherited from the British) making homosexuality between men illegal. Homosexuality between women was never illegal.
  • Cows are considered holy to Hindus, and so they are allowed to wander the streets aimlessly, causing a major hazard to navigation. Needless to say, it is impossible to get a steak here. The cows tend to hang out near Hindu temples where they get fed. At night, they rummage through garbage piles looking for food. Not a very graceful existence for a holy animal.
  • The caste system, though weakening, still has a major influence in India, especially in rural areas. In Hindu society, the caste you are born into (dictated by your parents’ caste), largely determines both your career and who you can marry. There are four main castes – Brahmin (priests and teachers), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (labourers), with thousands of sub-casts. Beneath all of these castes are the Dalits (former known as ‘The Untouchables’) who perform undesirable tasks such as street sweeping and toilet cleaning.
  • Showing affection (e.g. kissing) in public is not acceptable. Men hold hands more commonly than men and women.
  • It is rude to touch a person on the head, or face the soles of one’s feet towards them.
  • The right hand is used for eating, and the left for unclean tasks such as removing one’s shoes, using the toilet, etc. This is a challenge for Diane who is left-handed. It is considered polite to wash ones hands both before and after a meal. Almost all restaurants have sinks outside the restrooms for this purpose.
  • The official currency of India is the Rupee (Rp). There are approximately 40 Rp to one Canadian dollar.
  • Things are generally inexpensive here. Our hotel rooms typically cost $10 – $17 a night. Breakfast is typically $3 and dinner $10 – $12 (including beer), and that’s for both of us. A bus trip of 5-7 hours typically costs $4. This is very welcome given that Africa was more expensive than planned.
  • Our hotel rooms almost always have an attached bathroom. Usually one of the toilet or shower doesn’t work properly. Sometimes the rooms have a TV, which almost certainly has bad reception. If we ask, they will usually include a top sheet and towels (sometimes only one). They’ll only include toilet paper about half of the time. Imagine bargaining for toilet paper!
  • There are about eight different classes on the trains here. Second Class, the cheapest, seems to be a free-for-all, with as many people sitting and standing in the available space as possible. In Sleeper Class we receive a reserved bunk with six bunks to a ‘compartment’ and two more across the passageway (compartment is in parentheses because it’s misleading to call it that given that it has no wall or door separating it from the passageway). For considerably more money, one can travel in an air-conditioned car, with AC1, AC2, and AC3 Classes having two, four, and six bunks per compartment (these ones have doors, but they don’t lock).
  • Child labour, AIDS, and poverty are all major issues here. An estimated 350 million Indians (the population of the United States) live below the poverty line, a division which is so low that it is similar to the Canadian poverty line in name only.
  • Indians love the game of cricket. It seems to be the only sport on television, other than American wrestling (which isn’t really a sport at all). Male cricket players are worshipped, and make big money in advertisements.
  • Environmental issues are very serious in India. Most of the cities and much of the countryside are polluted. Air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, and disposable waste are big problems. India’s most famous river, the Ganges, which is holy to Hindus, is toxic, which fecal colliform counts thousands of times the safe limit.
  • Indians do seem to care about environmental issues when it affects their pocketbook. Motorcycle and auto-rickshaw drivers often coast down hill to save fuel. Hotel rooms with air conditioners installed have two different prices – one if you use the AC, and the other without. Most hotel rooms have switches outside the door that allow the staff to turn off all power to the room when you exit it.
  • Indian food is delicious. It can be spicy, but we have found that this has been pretty rare. We’re going to start asking for them to make it hotter.
  • Indian tea (called ‘chai’) is drunk with milk, sugar, and sometimes other spices (cinnamon, cardamom, etc.) It often costs a bit more to get just black tea. Coffee, like in Africa, is normally instant. There are no Starbucks, but there is a chain called ‘Café Coffee Day’ in the larger cities.
  • Key sources of national pride are: India’s cricket team, the fact that India has atomic weapons, the fact that India is on track to become the world’s most populous nation by 2035, India’s outsourcing and IT industries, India’s size, and India’s rich history (probably in that order).
  • Most people in Indian cities have a mobile phone. In addition to the nice feature of a small light (handy when unlocking hotel room doors at night), a new annoying innovation seems to be the inclusion of a speaker, so that people can play their music out loud rather than using earplugs.
  • People (mainly women and children) ask to have their pictures taken with us, sometimes using their camera or mobile phone, but with ours if they don’t have one.
  • In cities with more tourists (like Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi), we are constantly being bombarded with calls and requests like “Hello, where are you going”, “Hello, rickshaw”, “Hello, come look my shop”. It can become frustrating and draining.
  • Young boys sell food and drinks on the buses. When we stop in smaller towns they seem fascinated by us, and appear confident that we’ll buy their stuff if they just stare at us for another 5 minutes, ask one more time, or rest the bottle on Patrick’s shoulder.
  • It is common to see people begging here. In addition to those with obvious physical challenges (the blind, amputees, etc.), there are also old women and young children. Some are quite insistent. A man got down on his knees and touched both of Patrick’s feet. Another boy was crawling through the train cars wiping the floor with his shirt and then requested that we give him money. Usually the people who are begging target tourists; we have only seen them request money from local people occasionally.
  • People seem to adhere to the concept of a line up (a queue) only loosely. Although they do line up, it is common for people to cut in front, especially at train stations (or anywhere there are a lot of people gathering). Many Indians seem to tolerate this. In a country with over a billion people, the various strategies to get to the head of the line are numerous (e.g. sending one’s wife in, or ‘I just have a question’ or ‘I just need a form’). We’re sure there are many techniques that we don’t realize because we don’t speak Hindi.
  • People seem concerned about cleanliness, but only in the very near vicinity of their home or shop. It is common to sweep one’s stoop, and even the dirt immediately beyond it, but only sufficiently to push the garbage into the street where it falls into line with everyone else’s. There are lovely tourist shops and hotels surrounded by piles of garbage. A common solution to this seems to be to build a wall around the property so the garbage isn’t visible from inside.
  • Most Indians carry a cloth to wipe the sweat off their faces.
  • The streets are filled with all manner of vehicles – trucks and buses, motorcycles and scooters (everywhere you look), auto-rickshaws (three-wheeled vehicles with a one-cylinder engine and room for two passengers, or eight if you want to squeeze in), ox and horse carts, camel carts (in Rajasthan), and wheeled carts and trolleys pulled or pushed by hand. It is treacherous for pedestrians (in our experience, second only to Cairo).
  • Indians love their sweets. There are sweet shops containing all manner of delicious looking sweets, most of which are not that delicious. Like Chinese sweets, they are an acquired taste.
  • There are advertisements everywhere for higher education. Indians place a high value on education for cultural and practical reasons. Our auto-rickshaw driver was proud to tell us the other day that his nineteen year old daughter was studying science.
  • Men often wear bandanas to protect them from the pollution while riding their motorcycles. They fold them into a triangle and wear them in the style of outlaws from the old west. Sometimes they wear them walking the streets, and it seems like they’re gonna to rob the stage.
  • In most places (except Delhi) only the motorcycle driver needs to wear a helmet. Why is the driver’s head more valuable than the passenger’s?
  • Women ride scooters, never motorcycles, because it isn’t possible to wear a dress on a motorcycle. They often wear long gloves, like in the 1950’s. We’re not sure why, but perhaps to protect their skin from the pollution or the sun.
  • Light skin is preferred over dark skin. Most of the Bollywood movie stars look almost white. Many moisturizers contain skin whiteners like citrus, Vitamin C, etc.
  • The alcoholic drink of choice here is scotch (they call it whiskey). Other than in the fancy hotels, you can choose from cheap local varieties or cheap imported brands.
  • People seem quite superstitious here. Part of this is likely due to the many complicated rituals of the Hindu religion, but it shows up in other ways. Astrology is very popular here. A horoscope is done at all major occasions like the birth of the child. An astrologer is consulted before weddings are arranged.
  • Indians frequently exhibit a head wobble. Although it may seem to the untrained eye to be a ‘no’, it often means ‘perhaps’, ‘okay’, or even ‘yes’.
  • India has had difficult relations with Pakistan since they both received independence from the British in 1947. The two countries were partitioned (by the British) along religious lines to create the primarily Muslim Pakistan and the primarily Hindu India. Of course, many people ended up on the side of the border they didn’t want, and even the boundary itself was disputed by the parties. This resulted in years of ethnic violence and mass migrations of people, and set the stage for the ongoing strained relationship and ongoing violence between the countries, both of which are now nuclear powers.

Karni Mata Temple

July 17, 2009

Today we visited one of the most bizarre temples in India. It is located in the village of Deshnok, 30 kilometers outside of the city of Bikaner in Rajasthan.

According to Hindu legend (as retold in the Lonely Planet guidebook), Karni Mata, a 14th-century reincarnation of Durga, asked the god of death, Yama, to restore the life of the son of a grieving storyteller. When Yama refused, Karni Mata reincarnated all dead storytellers as rodents, depriving Yama of human souls. Perhaps this is the fate that awaits your humble bloggers?

The temple is swarming with holy rodents, in other words, rats! We went during the heat of the afternoon, and were informed when we arrived that many of the rats return to their dens at this time, much to Diane’s relief. There were still hundreds for us to see – drinking from large platters of water and milk,

eating in a room full of grain, climbing all over the shrine, and hanging from anything they could find to escape the heat at floor level.

Like at all Hindu temples, one must remove his or her shoes. Unfortunately we didn’t bring socks, so we had to contend with the rat feces underfoot, the many ants, the bird droppings, and the hot marble floors.

We tried to avoid stepping on any rats, for fear of what we might catch from a bite, and to avoid leaning on anything (as rats were hanging everywhere). It is considered auspicious if a rat runs across your foot, but fortunately none did. We also did not see a rare white rat, which is also considered lucky.

This temple is a holy pilgrimage site for Hindus, so it is important not to show any distaste. Diane did very well.

It was not what Diane expected. Afterwards she said that she had anticipated a clean white temple with rats like pet rats at home — clean, dry, and sleeping in little nests of wood shavings. Instead, we found rats that were dirty, sweating, living in pipes, and sleeping in piles covered by their own feces. One Hindu woman, who obviously hadn’t been there before, wasn’t handling things as well, and started to cry at the entrance to the temple.

As we walked out of the temple, Diane said, ‘That was the most amazing and disgusting thing I’ve ever seen’.

Rajasthan – by Patrick

July 17, 2009

I’m sitting on bunk number 41, coach S1, on the train from Jaisalmer to Bikaner. It is very hot. And very dusty. The train windows are all open as there is no air conditioning in sleeper class. Dust filters in, too fine to be seen during daylight hours, but it covers everything in a light brown coating as it accumulates. I took a short nap, and when I woke, you could see an outline of my body on the blue vinyl of my bunk. I should probably be wearing something over my mouth. As I type, the sweat drips off my legs, creating small craters in the dust on the floor. We aren’t wearing shoes. It’s too hot for sandals.

Outside the window, the great Thar Desert slides by, stretching flat to the horizon in all directions. Underneath the dust that coats everything are small rocks and some desert scrub. Occasionally a camel is visible in the distance, or some emaciated cows or goats.

In Jaisalmer it was over 40 degrees yesterday. We toured the Maharaja’s palace in the afternoon. After slowly climbing to the desert fort that towers above the small city that circles it, we barely had the energy to complete the self-guided tour. Diane felt faint and had to sit for awhile.

Afterwards, we retreated to our air-conditioned room in a small hotel and waited for nightfall. Air conditioning just makes things bearable. When we turn it off, the heat quickly forces its way through the walls, and within ten minutes it’s unbearable.

We left our room again at 8 PM and were wet with sweat within a minute. We walked through the dark narrow streets that surround the hill on which the fort sits, dodging scooters, motorcycles, carts, and cows. We went to the nicest place in town for dinner, sitting on the rooftop, where the warm night winds took the edge off the heat. Dinner was delicious, with chicken, vegetables, rice, bread, beer, and tea costing about $10 Canadian. This may sound cheap, but it’s actually expensive for Rajasthan. We typically eat a vegetarian ‘thali’ once a day, which is all you can eat rice, bread, dahl (lentils), raita (yoghurt and buttermilk), several vegetables, and pickles. A thali costs about $1.15 to $2 Canadian per person and is ‘all you can eat’. After this large meal, we typically only eat one other time during the day, with perhaps a few snacks from the street vendors in between.

We’ve been in Rajasthan for about a week now, visiting the towns of Udaipur, Mt. Abu, Jodhpur, and Jaisalmer. Mt. Abu is a hill station rising above the desert at an elevation of 3000 meters. The rest are desert towns built around ancient forts (like castles) constructed by maharajas, from where they ruled their desert kingdoms.

The Rajasthanis are a hearty people, with a rich history and culture. Rajput warriors had a reputation for being particularly brave and chivalrous. They lived by the code “death before dishonour”.
Their fort in Jaisalmer was under siege for twelve years, but still they would not give in. When faced with certain defeat, they would burst forth from their gates in a final, condemned charge, after their wives, mothers, and daughters had committed ritual suicide by immolation (fire). Rajasthan has resisted invasion by many superior forces, and has tended to form loose alliances with their enemies (as with the Mughals and the British). It’s hard to be believe that people would go to such extremes fighting over sand and rock.

Welcome to India

July 5, 2009

We arrived in Mumbai a few days ago at 4AM local time. We had previously decided to wait in the airport until sunrise. After wandering around the airport to find an ATM that didn’t work, we needed to change some US dollars into Rupees in order to get a taxi. Unfortunately, once you leave the Arrivals area, where the money changers are located, they won’t let you back in (for security reasons). So after being turned away once, we found a security guard that would let Patrick in only if Diane stayed outside with our backpacks.

Mumbai is a huge city of over 16 million people, with a good mix of Indian culture, colonial history, and modern development. It is also the home of the Indian film industry known as ‘Bollywood’. We had heard that India was overwhelming, an invasion of the senses, and that it would be difficult. Many people had said that if you can survive the first couple of weeks that you’ll grow to love it, but it can be hard at first. Our experience has been exactly the opposite. Mumbai has been easy by comparison to a lot of other places we’ve already been. We’re really enjoying it and it feels safe here (which may surprise you after you read on below).

Here are some of the interesting things that we’ve experienced…

There are international stores here, probably because Mumbai is the wealthiest city in India. Nearby to where we are staying there are Adidas, Nike, Reebok, and Benetton stores. There are also coffee shops, much to Diane’s delight. And McDonald’s! All these things were virtually nonexistent in most of Africa. Because most Indians are Hindus for whom the cow is sacred, there is no beef sold at McDonald’s here. They do have chicken and veggie burgers, and Patrick had a ‘McAloo Tikka’, which is a spiced potato patty burger. We suspect that many of these things won’t be widely available beyond the large cities and tourist areas.

There are a lot of beggars here. They follow us on the street. Late at night there are people sleeping in doorways. Unlike in Vancouver, the beggars and homeless people are not just adults – there are a whole families begging and sleeping on the streets are night. When our taxi stops at a light, children come out to beg. They press their little faces up against the glass and shield their eyes with their hands so they can see in. If the window is open, they reach in to try to touch us. Patrick tried to close the window, but they hung on the glass, and he didn’t have the heart to pry their little fingers off the window.

We’ve spent a lot of time at a restaurant and bar called Leopold’s. It is one of the few nearby that serves alcohol. The beer comes in large towers with a spout at the bottom, and we’ve shared more than a few with some nice young guys we met from Holland.

Leopold’s is one of the places where a lot of foreigners go, and it was targeted in the 2008 terrorist attacks here. In addition to bombings at two large hotels, which are currently being repaired, gunmen fired many bullets into Leopold’s from the street. Eight people were killed, including six tourists and two staff. Many of the staff who work there now were working on the night of the attack. Whether to maintain the history of the event or perhaps due to lack of funds, Leopold’s hasn’t repaired some of the damage. There are still many bullet holes in the glass, wood, and cement, some of which have been covered by pictures on the walls.

Our hotel room has television, something which was rare in Africa. There are three English channels, two for news and one playing mostly old movies. The Indian channels seem to be a lot like we have at home – news, music videos, and a shopping channel.

We went to see a Hindi movie the other night called ‘New York’. It was not your typical Bollywood movie, as there was no singing and dancing, and it was actually filmed in America. It was a thriller about some Indian people living in America who got involved in a terrorist plot. There was a sprinkling of English words throughout, just enough that we could follow the plot, and the production quality was actually very good. Unlike in Canada, people stood to sing the national anthem before the movie, there was an intermission half way through, and the concession served sandwiches, ice cream, caramel corn, and tea. Also unlike Canada, there were metal detectors upon entering the theatre, and messages on the screen that said you could not leave the theatre once the movie started (not even at intermission), and in the event of an explosion, that you should try to help your fellow theatre goers.

July 3rd was a Hindu festival day here, and it was also a ‘dry day’, which means that shops, restaurants, and bars cannot serve alcohol. Leopold’s was still serving, but only upstairs (which is not visible from the street), and only to foreigners who provided their passport. It felt discriminatory that only foreigners and not local people could enter, but is also seemed a bit like an elite club from colonial times.

India is currently experiencing the monsoon, the rains which just began and will continue for the next three months, coinciding perfectly with our time here. It has rained at bit every day that we’ve been here. Yesterday it rained so hard that we got wet to the skin on a ten minute walk, while we were using our umbrellas! The weather is likely to have some impact on our travel plans, but we’ll have to see.

So far, India has been great. The Indian food is terrific and cheap. We can both eat a good dinner for under $4 Canadian. Taxis are also cheap enough, usually under a dollar, that we can use them more frequently. We’ve started to figure out the train system, and are taking our first trains later today. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Doha First Class

July 5, 2009

On our flight from London to Mumbai on Qatar Airways, we had a short stopover in Doha, the capital city of Qatar. The airport is basically a transfer station for those flying elsewhere, but it had an amazing duty free shop selling both the full suite of luxury goods, and curiously, large bags of powdered milk which were a hot seller.

On the second leg of our journey, after some delays in check-in, we were given a complementary upgrade to first class, much to our surprise. Many others in line with us didn’t receive this. We wondered whether it was because we were only white people in economy. After an eternity spent in a bus waiting to board the plane in the evening heat, and being delivered to the rear entrance of the plane (when we were sitting in the very first row), we finally made it to our seats. Neither of us had flown first class before, and we were pleasantly surprised.

After selecting our before dinner cocktails (a bloody mary and a martini), we reviewed the menu to select our appetizers and entrées. We both had the trout pate, which was presented with a variety of accoutrements. Patrick had the fish and Diane the chicken. The meals were served by course on hot white china plates, with real metal cutlery (can’t first class passengers be hijackers too?), with a fine selection of mid-2000 vintage French wines.

After his second martini, Patrick was really enjoying himself. Especially the large screen individual audio visual system with a remote control and active headphones (which counteract any ambient noise by playing compensating frequencies). Unfortunately Diane’s screen wouldn’t work, but we both enjoyed the adjustable powered seats that had at least fifteen separate adjustments on a separate remote control.

Regrettably, this was only a three hour flight, the shorter portion of our journey from London, but it was a great way to get to India.


July 5, 2009

Here’s a quick summary of our last few weeks in Africa.

After four flights over two days, we made it back to Arusha, a town in Northern Tanzania, which was the base for our next two weeks. We met our friends from Canada who came to join us on vacation (Werner, Henny, Kevin, Dave, Cliff, Adam, and James) at the Kilimanjaro International Airport, with a sign reading Black Chicken Climbing Team (derived from the name of our cycling club) in a safari vehicle complete with a cooler full of beer. We spent the next six days on an amazing safari to Lake Manyara, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. Some of you may know one of our friends, who by now are back in Canada, in which case you’ve already heard more than we can write here.

Some highlights were:

  • the first morning when we were awoken by a lion roaring inside our campsite
  • the annual wildebeest and zebra migration (did you know that the wildebeest and the gnu are the same animal?)
  • watching two female lions stalking a herd of zebra
  • an early morning safari where the roads were so slippery and flooded that keeping the vehicles upright was a challenge
  • seeing a pride of lions sitting on a raised outcropping of rocks looking out over the savannah (just like in the movie ‘The Lion King’)
  • amazing sunsets
  • the Masai people, with their traditional villages, livestock, and clothing
  • watching a dust tornado on the savannah
  • experiencing the amazing wildlife, including ‘the big five’
  • our group’s lion and wildebeest vocal impressions
  • the night that we almost ran into an elephant on the way to the toilet!

After a day of rest in Arusha, our group started a seven day climb of Mt. Kilimanjaro. At over 19,000 feet, Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa. We attempted the Machame route and were fortunate to have very good weather.

At midnight on the fifth day we left our high camp to head for the summit. We climbed for six hours through the night, arriving at the top just before sunrise on June 11th, which was Patrick’s Mom Doreen’s birthday.

Everyone made it to the top successfully, experiencing only the usual symptoms of high altitude (headache, nausea, and in Patrick’s case vomiting near the summit – tales of which have no doubt been exaggerated by those who’ve already returned to Canada). Highlights included:

  • the amazing views from Shira campsite
  • climbing the Baranko wall, called ‘your cold breakfast’ by our guide Dismas (not sure about the spelling)
  • toasted sandwiches for lunch on the day of our summit attempt, and french fries the day before
  • seeing the porters carry huge loads
  • special treatment for married couples (our gear was always placed in our tents, but the single guys had to get their own)
  • our head guide Brendan singing as we climbed through the night
  • the ‘queen cakes’ in our packed lunches, which should only be eaten with butter and a gallon of water
  • warm soup with every dinner!

We spent then next few days relaxing on the island of Zanzibar, the famous ‘spice islands’ off the coast of Tanzania in the Indian Ocean. Despite some rain, we had a good time. We went on a terrific snorkeling trip, even though the number of people on the boat and the weather at the start initially indicated that it might be otherwise. Cliff couldn’t get over the fact that huge beers were under $3 Canadian. The seafood was terrific, as were daily happy hours (2-for-1) at Che’s. We spent our last two nights on Zanzibar in Stone Town, an amazing historical city. Here we saw our friends off to the airport and then flew back to Nairobi where we spent our last two days in Africa with Diane’s Aunt Norma and her family, and Diane’s other Aunt Beulah who was also visiting from Canada.

Our last four months in Africa have been incredible. We visited nine countries, if you don’t count Egypt (which felt more like the Middle East). The sights and activities were amazing, but it is the people that we met along the way that we’ll remember the most. We also want to say a special word of thanks to our Canadian friends that came to join us for a few weeks in Tanzania and to Norma and Wayne (Diane’s Aunt and Uncle in Nairobi) for hosting us during our time in Kenya.

Observations about East and Southern Africa

July 5, 2009
  • People have a vague understanding of Canada, and a generally positive impression. Some think it is part of the US. Many know that it is cold there, and can quote the city names of ‘Toronto’ and ‘Vancouver’, even though they have no idea where these are.
  • The majority of the people are Christians, the result of a century of successful missionary activity that continues to this day.
  • Many of the businesses are controlled by South Asians, primary East Indians. They drive much of the economic activity, including import/export and retail. They often employ African people, and there appears to be a love-hate relationship between the two groups.
  • Women are generally not empowered. They do the majority of household and farming work, all while carrying a child on their back and with toddlers scrambling around their feet.
  • Education is highly prized. In most countries, elementary school education is free, but you usually must be able to afford the uniforms and school supplies, so many children do not attend.
  • HIV/AIDS is widespread. Funerals are common, and many children are raising their siblings.
  • Life expectancy is generally low. The combination of high infant mortality rates, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, unclean water, and malaria mean that the average life expectancy in these countries is between 38 and 48 years.
  • African politics generally follows the approach of the British parliamentary system. However, in most countries corruption , partisanship, and patronage are widespread. The newspapers constantly report it, but there is rarely any information about perpetrators being punished. Governments and politicians will often go to extreme lengths to remain in office (e.g. by removing or extending term limits, or rigging elections). By the time an individual or party loses an election, or is otherwise thrown out or overthrown, they need to have feathered their nests enough that they don’t need to work again, and can leave the country if necessary, because the new government will likely not be fair to them.
  • The quest for money seems to dominate the lives of most African people. This is really no different than in Canada, but because the amounts of money are relatively much smaller, it is often surprising the extent to which they go to earn just a little bit of money. e.g. a woman with a small child will sit out in the hot sun all day selling peanuts, to earn a total of a dollar (or less). Sellers will wander around a bus depot all day trying to sell a single item like a pair of shoes or a flashlight (not one type of product, but one specific item).
  • Lack of capital is an issue. Many people have the work ethic and ingenuity, but lack the money to initiate an activity that would allow them to support themselves (e.g. buying hand tools or a pump to farm, a bicycle/motorcycle/car to operate as a taxi, or chickens to sell eggs). A variety of groups are working to filling this void by offering micro-financing.
  • Almost all the men love soccer, which they call ‘football’. Most boys and young men play football. In addition to their national team, they follow the English Premiership very closely. Many men wear the jersey of their favourite team and decorate their vehicle with stickers, etc. Most buses and mini-buses display the name or logo of a Premiership team. Manchester United and Arsenal are the most popular teams, and Patrick is often asked which team he supports.
  • The people of East and Southern Africa are generally friendly and pleasant. They appear to like foreigners and are usually willing to help out in any way they can. Sometimes they want so badly to be helpful and to not be rude, that they’ll give you information about things they’re not sure about.