Friday, April 30, 2010

Central Europe - PART 1

Austria to Germany: The Hills are Alive… with the Sound of Music

Yes, here we are… in Van Trapp country… with Edelweiss and snow-covered mountains. We started the central Europe leg in Vienna and then Bill dumped us with $200 in cash and instructions to spend the next 3 days making our way - through an assortment of countries - on a varieties of routes – to Paris. We have to check in at the Paris hotel on Friday morning… and along the way.. hit as many countries and scavenges as possible. No rented cars or taxis allowed between cities. We have to use buses or trains or ferries all the way there. There were close to 120 possible scavenges in the book - throughout half a dozen countries - and it was all totally overwhelming to start. There are so many different ways to plot this leg and the winner will be the one who strategized the time best. For this leg, we can only be with Heidi and Lily for 3 scavenges per day (instead of 5) so we decided to mainly just travel with them on each leg and make plans for meeting for meals and trains. We try and plan the one big thing that we are going to do together for first thing each day and then split up. It has made this leg even that much harder as no matter how well you plan it out, one team always ends up waiting at the restaurant or train station for another team (who has mis-timed how long it will take to get something finished). And yes, so far it has been Rainey and I who have come running in LATE each time.

We got a late start in Vienna the first evening and we only lucked into a few things before everything we needed closed. It was a low points night but the city is beautiful, clean and soooooo modern compared to Southeast Asia. We even rode the ferris wheel which gave a great views of the entire city.
Our inability to finish up Vienna generated a tactical decision: should we stay and do all of the stuff in Vienna the next morning or head straight out early the next day on our journey across Europe? We opted to stay in Vienna. And at the Globe Museum, which was the right answer to the scavenge: “ In the National Library of Austria, locate a great collection of useful things that would help a budding circumnavigator like you.” In Munich (the next day) we also had to find the oldest globe in the world, which is so old that it does not even have America on it – because it had not yet been discovered by Columbus!!!!

Our first stop – traveling west- was Linz where we had to find the town square. Not a scavenge – but very cool – was this art piece that covers one whole side of the square. It is done by the art students of the university and the entire eye is made up of just different colored T-Shirts. So clever.

My favorite scavenge from Austria: the salt mine outside of Salzburg. Bill put a bonus for taking a boat from Austria to another country. We figured out that there is an old salt mine outside of the city that has this amazing tour. First, you have to dress up in the Ooompa Lumpa suit (to protect your clothes from getting stained by the salt). Then you take a train and walk deep into the mountain before you SLIDE (and by that I mean … slide… on your bottom.. screaming all the way down – well, if you are me and scared of heights and roller coasters and everything that involves fast movement downwards) over 150 feet down into the depths of the mine. The next step is a BOAT across a salt lake where you cross from Austria into Germany (see – that’s where the bonus scavenge comes in) and then more walking, sliding and trains until you cross back into Austria and out of the mine again. It is probably the best organized and put-together tourist attraction I have ever seen with 4 different movies (at different spots) that explain salt mining in great detail. It took more than 2 hours so it cost us some time but it was such fun.
Because of our salt mine escapades in Salzburg, we did not reach Munich until late so we just checked into the hotel and called it a night. The next morning - in honor of Ben and Jordan (and to educate Lily -we headed for the Dachau concentration camp with Heidi and Lily in tow. Even though the Holocaust museum in Washington DC is actually better …and a more comprehensive depiction… there is something profoundly sobering about walking through the actual place where it all happened. We ended up spending almost 3 hours there as we got caught up in the mood and decided to go all the way through every exhibit– slowly. It seemed almost disrespectful to rush through it. Lily asked hundreds of questions and learned a ton of stuff that she never knew before.

Once we got back from Dachau, we went to the largest German Beer Hall in Munich for some German music, a beer taste test (Rainey had to try three different beers and compare the flavors), to eat some sausage for lunch (a food scavenge) and … the hardest challenge in Germany … to get a group of fellow revilers to teach us a German drinking song, sing it with us AND sing our national anthem with us (on video…!!!!). With the language barrier, it took us several false starts before we got a bunch of people (who had obviously been taste-testing beer most of the morning) to agree.

That afternoon, we rented bicycles so we could move through the city quicker. Everyone here rides bikes and there are dedicated bike paths literally on every street. Even so, I am a terror on a bike and was in at least a dozen near-miss collisions. It was a beautiful day which made riding along on a bike even more fun. We had to stop in a market area, buy the fixings for a picnic and then go the English Garden park and take photos of something from the East (a Chinese tower) and something classical (a Greek temple) in the park. The park was FILLED with people sunbathing, lounging on the grass and generally having a great time. Yet … it is a mid-week day… In Houston, on an average Wednesday, there would be 3 homeless bums and one single mother with child in a city park. In Munich, there were 8,000 people playing hookey from work and hanging out in the park at 2 PM. Does anyone work in this city???? I’ve decided to move here … I love the attitude towards work.

And here is a cute one. We had to find “the black footprint” which turned out to be an odd footprint in the foyer of a church in Munich which – according to legend – is where the devil lost a bet with the architect and stomped out of the church leaving behind a scorched footprint. Rainey (the true skeptic) decided that the whole thing was completely unbelievable since he doubts sincerely that the devil wears a Size 9 sneaker (which is the imprint)…!!!

Monday, April 26, 2010


We arrived in Amman, Jordan in the afternoon and went straight out to scavenge. First stop was a mosque where I had to put on the full-garb to even get in the gate. Besides how awful a fashion statement, I have no idea how the women here do it – the black robe is stifling hot and sticks to every part of you.

Next up was Jerash: an unbelievable archeological site with a complete amphitheater, elaborate temple and even a column-lined cobbled road. Lily was mesmerized by this group of girls … most not much older than Lily herself .. already in the full black robe (including the face piece).

Then we had to “try some hubbly bubblies.” And yes, we coughed our way through an apple-infused set of coals.

The next day I had to drop out of the competition and work all day. So we threw this leg of the trip… which will sorely impact our overall score … but I had no choice. IT SUCKS!!!
Rainey went out with Heidi and Lily so he could see the country, but we got no points because we were not together. His highlights were going to a Bedouin tent, wear an Arab head-dress and ride a camel into the desert.

Rainey also got to see Petra in all its glory … a city literally carved from the pink rock mountains.

Next up…. Vienna, Austria. This is another difficult, “full-of-points” segment and I suspect that we will get dumped in Vienna and have to meet Bill back in some other country several days from now. So we will likely be out of touch - and off blog - for a few days as we plot, scheme and track our way across Europe. This is also the leg where every pound in your suitcase comes back to haunt you as we will have to drag your luggage with us (over hill and dale) for the next few days.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Slow Travels in Sri Lanka

We arrived in Sri Lanka to discover that this was one of the hardest legs of the trip because Bill wanted us to travel - by ourselves - throughout the island of Sri Lanka. Plus this leg brings with it a ton of points - and can make a real difference in team standings overall - so there is a lot riding on it. To say that travel within the island is difficult is a gross under-statement. Everything takes 5 times as long as you think it will. Every train is hours late, stops incessantly and travels at a pace just slightly faster than you could walk it. We have to switch taxis every two stops (that is one of the rules) so the logistics hurt your head to be sure that you do not end up stranded in some god-forsaken place with no way out of there . What is certain is that - in 3 days - we have seen, struggled with and conquered Sri Lanka. And what a beautiful and interesting country, that I would probably never buy a ticket and fly to see - yet have totally enjoyed.
The first day we went to a fishing village called Negombo where the fisherman use these very thin (like 8 inches wide) canoes - with an outrigger second canoe - and square sails - to fish. A very odd design and not a particularly efficient system. When we got to Negombo, the boats were all out on the water (which was very bad as we had to sail on one) so we drove around and had the taxi ask everyone we saw in town. Finally we met 4 men walking home - who had not caught any fish today and thus came in early. We persuaded them to turn around, go back to the harbor, rig up their boat and take us for a sail. Quite an ordeal but they were so nice and and thrilled to show us how everything worked.
We then took a LONG, SLOW, excrutiatingly hot train all the way up to Anuradhapura (a town in the North). It was crowded and did I already, hot, hot. I sweated and sweated and sweated. We stayed in a guest house up there that was squarely in the yucky category but by then we were so tired we just fell into a coma. The next day, we were up at 5AM (yes, that is the start of each day for us as we are under curfew from 10 AM to 5 AM - no travelling between cities during those hours). We started with temples.. and one in particular which claims to have a sacred tree that is 23 centuries old. It is supposed to from a sapling from the actual tree under which Buddha gained enlightenment (seems far-fetched to me - but most religions have stores that seem remarkably unbelievable). Both Rainey and I had to buy scarves to cover our shoulders as you are not allowed in the temple areas with any part of your shoulder showing.. so we have the great Batman and Robin looks going on. Plus you have to take your shoes off at every temple and the ground is 100 degrees.... we burned the bottom of our feet over and over again. We also had to find "moonstones" which are the ornate semi-circular intricately carved stones that are at the bottom of the stairs leading into every temple here. They are true works of art.
Another scavenge: Find this giant dagoda (or temple that looks like a cake dish cover) that is held up by hundreds of carved elephants. No idea how long it took to carve all of them (and in such detail) or why they felt the need to carve them - but they are quite a site.
Adventure #1 sprung up on us on our way from one town to another that first morning. Our taxi started to smell like burnt metal, overheated and shut down. We were hours from anywhere and stuck. The taxi man said that he could call and get another taxi to come and get us but it would take 1-2 hours. In this competition, that kind of down time can be the difference between winning and losing a leg so we started walking and flagging down every passing car. Heidi talked a man into letting us ride in the back of his (covered this time) truck to the next town over. There we were able to get the one and only taxi in that town to take us on to a bigger town and got back on track.
Much of the Sri Lanka scavenges involved us climbing up hundreds and thousands of stairs since Sri Lankans apparently firmly believe that the bigger pain-in-the-ass it is to get to the temple, the holier the prayers. We have photos of us on top of every imaginable hill, mountain and rock in the country. My favorite was King Kassapa’s Sky Palace in Sigiriya… where a King decided to build an entire palace on the top of “Lion’s Rock” (because what could be more impractical than trying to haul every brick up this mountain to build an entire palace compound). Interesting issues with this scavenger: (a) we arrived in the midday heat… BIG mistake; (b) You have to walk through the paws of the lion that was carved into the mountain to take the last hard push to the top (the rest of the lion is gone now… but the paws are very cool); (c) You have to walk on these narrow metal skypaths which – for someone who has a real dread of heights like I do – was panic attack provoking. Finally at the top, we look like dying, heat-stroked paralyzed exhausted travelers.

Another favorite scavenge – Dambulla Caves. Ten gazillion years ago – when America was not yet even a twinkle in someone’s eye – there were sculptors and painters in Sri Lanka creating 5 caves (yes, high in a mountain and with lots of stairs and climbing to reach them) that are filled with statues and frescos and artwork dedicated to Buddha. Every inch of each cave has statues and all of the walls and ceilings are covered with paintings. Stand back Michelangelo – the Sri Lankans are whupping your butt on painting upside down in the dark of a cave. I like this reclining Buddha’s feet (which are patterned with henna) because they remind me of my feet after days of having to walk barefoot in temples with poker-hot stones from the sun.
A highlight was visiting the Pinnewala Elephant Orphange where they care for more than 80 elephants. They do not allow rides or make the elephants do tricks – they just care for them and let them roam on a vast reserve. One elephant in particular captured my heart – an old elephant who lost the lower part of one leg to a land-mine during the recent civil unrest. And I got to bottle feed one of the babies – who touched my hand with his trunk (gently) when I was finished.
And here’s an odd one. In the middle of Sri Lanka, some crazy Englishman decided to build an entire English town dedicated to growing tea. Nuwara Eliya comes complete with double-decker buses, red mail boxes, English countryside manors and a climate similar to the British countryside (wet, damp and slightly rainy). We had to take a tour of a tea processing factory (where we learned everything you would ever want to know about tea including that the highest caliber tea can sell for as much as $1000 per kilos… which begs the question, who would drink such expensive tea?) And whoever they are, they obviously need to take a trip to Southeast Asia to learn about poverty and what good some of that money they are wasting on useless fineries would do to curb it. Then we had to climb (another) hill through a tea plantation and finally have a well-deserved cup of tea in the “members-only” Hill Club (a snobby and overly-fancy club that Heidi talked our way into).

Bill – in a moment of insanity – put in a scavenger that asked us to get invited to a Sri Lankans house for a meal. So yes, we set about asking everyone we met if we could barge into their home and eat their food. And can you believe it… multiple people immediately said YES. We ended having dinner at a former Tamil Tigers’ house – with his entire family. Very modest home – no running water, an open flame to cook by, little furniture besides beds and one table with a few chairs…but the people were so nice and gentle and genuinely excited to have us there. They even brought out their 3 china plates (from some storage box under a bed) to serve us on. Restores your faith in humanity.
And last - but not least – the climax of our Sri Lankans experience – we climbed Adam’s Peak. It is a GIGANTIC mountain with a temple on the top that takes so long to get up that we had to start at 2:30 AM (yes, that’s AM). It took us 3 ½ hours of heavy climbing to get to the top and then almost 2 hours to get back down. My knees may never be the same again. At 4AM, Lily, my niece, started crying and was convinced that she could not make the top. Heidi started counting out the stairs in blocks of 100 and we would sit and rest after every 100 stairs – while I shoved sports beans into her mouth for a quick sugar high. We all made it to the top – which is a hell of an accomplishment. . And I have to be at least 7 pounds lighter (I have gone down two belt loops since the trip started… YIPPEEE!!!!).

And now.. we are in Jordan .. with scavenges to see Petra and read a newspaper while floating in the Dead Sea.
I am proud to announce that the Littlepage teams took a clean sweep of 1st, 2nd and 3rd in the Sri Lankan leg putting us all in contention for the top spot. To date, Rainey and I are first in the competition, followed closely by Heidi and Lily and then Mom and Barbara. Not bad for the Bajan contingent.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Wat" overload in Chiang Mai

2 nights and 1 1/2 days in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I am in full "Wat" (or temple") burnout. This town is one temple after the other and there were scavenge points at virtually every one.. so from temple to temple to temple we went. They have all run together now for me... sitting buddhas, reclining buddhas, standing buddhas, jade buddhas, buddha as an old man, a naughty child buddha... each one different.
The absolute highlight of Thailand was the elephant art!!! And yes, this is one from Jordan’s bucket list ever since he and I watched the video on You Tube. Hard to believe but there actually are elephants here that paint pictures. And not just abstract blobs but real pictures of elephants and flowering bushes etc. Of course we had to take the trek out there to see and it turned out to be one of the most fascinating things I have ever seen. They give the elephant a paint brush and an empty canvas… and before your eyes, he paints you a picture. Of course – the American suckers - we bought the highly over-priced painting (although how exactly do you price an “the elephant painted me a picture” piece of art). Truly fascinating.

When we walked out of the elephant place we realized that we had made a MAJOR error. The rules of the competition only allow you to take the same taxi for 2 stops (it is to stop people from basically renting the same taxi for a whole day and using them as a personal guide). So we let our taxi go when we came into the elephant conservatory… not realizing that everyone there had made their taxi stay… and there were no extra taxis… and we were now in the middle of nowhere… with NO transportation. The information booth lady told us that there was a bus stop about half a mile away but that the bus only ran “occasionally” on a Sunday (with no real explanation of what occasionally meant). By then it was over 100 degrees out and we were melting. We began to panic. Then Heidi came up with the brilliant idea of stopping everyone who was driving out of the elephant conservatory and asking if someone would give us a lift to the nearest town. An older woman and her daughter let us jump into the back of her pick-up truck and hauled us the 45 minutes into the nearest town… Thank God, or we might still be by the side of the street in the Thai countryside waiting on a bus that never comes. The motto of this competition is “trusting strangers in strange lands” and today was the best example of that.

Another scavenger was to go to the Mae Sa Valley to watch a snake show – which was a fascinating display of the interaction of men and snakes. Another WOW. The whole show scared the crap out of me (and yes, I hate snakes) as the snake handlers first taunt the giant, huge, unbelievably dangerous cobras, whip them into a frenzy and then KISS them…. Yes – kiss them – full on the mouth. I was fully expecting a rush-to-the-hospital emergency with every performance but there were only dozens of near-misses. I have seen snake charming in India before but nothing like this.

This morning we did a cooking class where we learned to cook Thai food and then ate our efforts. After the last few days, it was heaven as it was cool and slow-paced and gave you a very different perspective on the food we’ve eaten the past few days. And yes, that is in fact Rainey in an apron… so man-ly!!!

And the weirdest experience of Thailand… a fish spa treatment. Where you sit and put your feet into a fish tank filled with fish that eat off all of the dead skin on your feet and basically cleanse your feet by EATING you… Talk about a creepy feeling. It is hard to keep your feet in there as visions of piranha swarms fill your head.

We are off to SRI LANKA. I had to ask where it was on the globe, so that will tell you how prepared I am for this new country. Apparently - because of the Tamil Tiger guerillas - there have not been tourists in this country in a long time, so it should be challenging….!!!!

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