Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jaisalmer: Forts and camel rides

Question #1: Where do you find 212 people crazy enough to sign up for a competition which asks them to drive the most unstable - and least road worthy vehicles - over 3,000 miles? From what we have seen so far...crazy is alive and well literally everywhere. The competitors span the globe (coming from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, California... you name it). They are young backpackers and elderly retirees and I'm sure they all feel the same sense of anticipation, excitement and downright fear as I do (except none of them probably also dragged along 5 more people that they are also responsible for). It is thus with some trepidation that I'm setting out on this trek.

(a) Everything here is new and VERY different to our group. Only a few of us have ever been to India before. As we passed a kid pooping right on the sidewalk yesterday, Bop's eyes were wide with amazement.
(b) The poverty here is best understood at night as you watch thousands of families (with little kids and grannies in tow) settling down for the night on a cracked piece of pavement, sleeping on only a thin colored piece of clothe.The sights make you eternally grateful that you are not the Indian prime minister with responsibility for figuring out a solution to the crippling poverty.
(c) And the colors - wow - the colors. Indians live with passion in every part of their lives. Even the poorest woman wears a sari of vibrant pinks and blues while carrying half a ton of vegetables on her head and the most beat up truck is painted and decorated with swirls of color.

(d) The cows are literally everywhere. Everywhere. On the side of the road, in the road, in the markets and roundabouts. As Gods, they are safe and protected and you often see people approaching a cow to
share their lunch or hand over some treat.
(e) Everything is flavored with curry - and that includes spaghetti bolognaise and pizza and even their ketchup. They can't help themselves. They assume that no dish will be quite as delicious without some curry spice added.
(f) India is a shining example of the theory that you can teach a nation to love the worst, most tinny, totally out-of-tune music (that sounds remarkably similar to cats wailing in a back alley) if you play it loud enough, all the time and put a beating drum as background. Indians love their music. The music  plays constantly and at top volume. It may well wear on me by the end of the trip but for now it still sounds awful. This man in the market was the worst sound... played on a homemade harp-like instrument.

Now onto our stay in Jaisalmer.  Yesterday we took the Tuk Tuks on an extended road test drive. Actually to be honest we just "kidnapped" our vehicles and used them to sightsee for a few hours so we did not have to hire taxis. We started on a very dodgy street of "car part stores" where we stocked up on some of the extra car repair supplies we needed (spark plugs, gear wires etc.). Then we drove up to the walled fort city - having a few learning-to-drive our Tuk Tuk adventures along the way including driving the wrong way down a section of the highway with cars coming straight at us on every lane, stalling on roundabouts and hitting a stone pillar on a sharp turn. But other than those few mishaps our Tuk Tuks performed beautifully and we got a good list of things for the mechanics to fix overnight (Chris and Chloe's Tuk Tuk is revving too high; ours is revving too low and stalls out; Bop and Savannah's horn does not work reliably and since all traffic rules here are based upon who is blowing their horn the loudest, that is a critical piece of equipment).
Anyway - back to the walled city. It's a WOW. Set on a steep hill, every building inside is made of sandstone that has been carved within an inch of its life. Ornate, intricate details carved from the stone
by hand.

 We toured two Jain temples and then wandered the back alleys which are lined with shops and homes. 4,000 people still live within the city - all divided according to their caste - and even within the
caste divided according to whether that group is vegetarian or non-vegetarian. For example, one section is vegetarian Brahmins (who are the trader caste) but they refuse to live next to carnivorous Brahmins who are segregated to another section because they claim the meat eaters "smell bad." (Who knew?).

We then had lunch at a rooftop restaurant that looked out at the fort before returning our Tuk Tuks from their lengthy "test drive." And it was on to the next adventure... riding camels in the sand dunes at sunset. A hired car took us out there (a skip and a jump from the Pakistan border and in the middle of nowhere) where we found thousands of other Indians from all over the country. Jaisalmer is so far north and west in India that it is almost on the border of Pakistan. In fact, it's so close to Pakistan the government shut down the airport here because of terrorist activity. That's why we had to fly into Jodhpur - a city 300 KM to the east - and drive over here. This is a long holiday weekend for Indians because of New Year's day and a fair number
of them decided to experience camel riding this evening. We were the only foreigners in sight and the Indians were having the time of their lives on the dunes.
First we had to load onto the camels... a terrifying experience as you get on while they are seated with their legs all crumbled up underneath them and they then have to uncurl their feet and rise.... a motion which pitches you forward and backwards at alarming angles and makes you feel sure you are going to fall head first into the sand. Camels have a looping - and incredibly uncomfortable - gait but the ride was worth a sore bum. Beautiful in the sunset.
After our ride we had chai (hot tea made with condensed milk) while sitting around a roaring fire with 900 of our closest Indian friends. (Quick note: it is very hard to mess anything up that is made with gops of condensed milk). There was bollywood dancing (lots of shaking hips and swirly hands and ... have I mentioned already... wailing cat music with a beating drum) and a fire eater. The mood was very festive
although the night was downright freezing. We were all wearing just about every layer of clothes we brought and we were still cold.

My sister Heidi got sick today. No explanation for it...she ate the same as everyone else, has been extremely careful about everything that went into her mouth... but the vomiting and diarrhea happened anyway. She was a real trooper about it all and fingers crossed she'll be better tomorrow. She left many a pile of sand in the sand dunes as she vomited her way through this part of the trip.
Tonight  is New Year's Eve.... we did a final test drive today, a cricket match with all of the other competitors (or at least the ones from British colonies) and went to a party with lots of Indian music, magicians and belldancers.
Tomorrow we start the race at 11 AM.  There will be a marching band and we're escorted out of the city by a police escort.  We have our costumes all ready.... stay tuned....

Here are all three our Tuk Tuks lined up... Irie racers on the left (in traditional rasta, green and yellow), Karma Chameleon in the middle (in tie dye with pretty goddess eyes), Bajan Invasion on the right (done in the colors of the Barbados flag).

Saturday, December 29, 2012

India Rickshaw Run Starts

We are off on a new adventure - and this one may well be the most crazy of them all.  We are spending the next 2 1/2 weeks driving Tuk Tuk rickshaws from Jaisalmer (a beautiful city on the border of Pakistan in the North of India) all the way down the west coast of India to Kochi in the very South.  Here is what has happened so far:
We spent the week before Christmas in Barbados with my family and all of the kids (what a gift to have all six of our kids with us for the holidays). It was great. This is a photo of me, my mom and sister on Christmas day.
Then - on December 26 - we headed off.  We are three different teams in three separate rickshaws:  Rainey, Zoe and Heidi (my sister) are the Karma Charmaleons, my niece Chloe and her boyfriend Chris are the Irie races and my niece Savannah and her boyfriend Bop are the Bajan Invasion.  Christmas presents were easy this year as I gave everyone matching suitcases and backpacks for the trip.  We can only take a small carry-on bag each as space on the rickshaws are very limited and had so many lay-overs we were afraid of bags getting lost in transit.  The travel to India was awful. From Barbados to Jaisalmer took us 3 1/2 days.We first went to Miami and had10 hour lay-over. We used the time to rent a car, run over to Target buy last minute things for the trip and eat at PF Changs (YUM). Then on to London for another 11 hour layover. We got hotel rooms at the airport hotel and got showers and a muli-hour nap.  Then on to Delhi with a 5 hour layover to Jodhpur. We were at our limit by then and ended up sleeping on the airport floor for much of that time.
Finally we arrived at our home stay for our first night in India.  We slept at a woman's home where she rents out rooms. It was not very luxurious but she cooked us a great dinner.
Today we rented a car to take us to Jaisalmer to meet our Tuk-Tuks. We arrived at the hotel with great pomp and circumstance and much bowing and greetings.
Our hotel is really quite nice (at least by India standards) and we'll be here for the next 3 nights (YEAH).
Then we walked about a mile to test drive our Tuk-Tuk (everything was working good so far). Fingers crossed it stays that way.
To read more about this adventure, get onto Chloe and Heidi's blog... they have been doing a much better job than me at keeping up and including lots of details:


Saturday, May 5, 2012

Our 2012 Swan Song….. Prague to Washington, DC

Yes, another fabulous year of adventures and scavenges is sadly over.  It is with great depression that I report on our final few days.
Last day of the Europe leg was spent in Prague in the Czech Republic (another first time country for me).  Prague is built on a river and has an astounding variety of architecture:  from Baroque to Gothic to Cubist to Art Nouveau.  Our list of scavenges for Prague included gathering two different photo montages of examples of 10 different architectural genres as well as ornamentation on buildings and statues. So we spent most of the day with our heads turned up assessing the variety of building styles and looking for gargoyles and statues of saints or gods.  

Favorite Prague scavenges included:
(a) Eat a special type of Czech schnitzel: a smazeny syr. Schitnzel is a battered and fried food, not dissimilar to a chicken fried steak and can be made with chicken, veal etc.  What a surprise when I cut this one open to find: a fried slab of cheese… like a giant Cheese Stick but with no marinara sauce for dipping. It's a heart attack steak.  

(b) We had to find the city clock which has been keeping official time for the city since 1410….It’s an astronomical clock and very beautiful. 

(c) We crossed the Charles Bridge which is lined with statues and shrines. My favorite is the “Love Locks Shrine” where couples attach padlocks to an ornate shrine to essentially “lock-in” their love.  There are so many padlocks that the city had to cut them off each week or there would be no more space. 

(d) We visited the John Lennon wall - an oddity on a tree-line side-street:

When John Lennon was murdered in 1980, graffiti about his music and his life started appearing on this particular wall in Prague.  It was a thinly veiled protest against the Communist regime that still ruled Czechoslovakia: a regime that did not allow music from suspicious singers such as Lennon because his songs promoted peace and freedom. The wall is a constantly changing art piece as new graffiti is put on top of old on a regular basis. 

There is a mini Eiffel tower on a hillside in Prague (approximately 1/5th the size of the real one). From the top there is a great view of Prague. Naturally we had to hoof it all the way to the top...  legs burning again.

We had to sing Cezch drinking songs in an authentic beer hall.  Since I have to eat the nasty food all over the world, Rainey gets to do the embarrassing perform-in-front-of-total-strangers-and-make-a-fool-out-of-yourself stuff...

And my favorite piece of architecture in Prague... the Dancing Building – a condo complex designed to visually depict the movement and fluidity of dance. Isn't it great?

Observations: Apparently if you are a totally healthy and able-bodied 19 year old, you find it appropriate in Prague to kneel down beside a dog and beg for money.  I wanted to give this kid a flea dip and send him to a labor pool. Get a job, buddy!!!

WASHINGTON, DC:  Our last leg was back to the US for a day in Washington, DC. We only had a few hours for scavenges so we rented bicycles to get as much done as possible. 

And we hit all of the expected sites: Washington Memorial

The Capitol  - with all of its glory

The brand new Martin Luther King memorial - which I liked a lot - except why couldn't they do the statue from an earlier and slimmer time in his life? It's like they picked the most unflattering depiction of him to carved into white marble for all of time. 

And then we found the names of potential ancestors at the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

David and Natasha at lunch...

THE END: And so ends our amazing trip.  We just finished the Awards Ceremony and the Farewell Party.  This year, Rainey and I came in third. "The Sidney Sisters" were in second place (a sister team from Australia - far right) and Andrew & Sasskia took first place (the couple in the middle from New Zealand).  Here’s the winner’s circle…..  

Home tomorrow and back to the real world.  I’m dreading it already. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Europe Leg

What an amazing few days since I last was in contact… Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic… and great adventures along the way.  Just arriving in Prague so I will have to write about this city later. 
We started on Monday in Rome. The city was already crowded with tourists and a real change from some of the remote places we’ve been in the last two weeks.  I prefer the country to big cities but it’s hard not to love Rome.  So full of beautiful architecture and sites. Of course, one of our first challenges was to visit the Coliseum because no trip to Rome is complete without a photo in front of there. 
Then we had to find some religion at the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica…. 

And re-enact the Audrey Hepburn scene where she throws a coin into the Trevi Fountain  because legend is that this will ensure that you come back to Rome again one day.

 Apparently more than $5,000 of coins end up in the fountain every day !!!!  A lot of people must want to return to Rome in their lifetime.
Day 2 of the Europe leg we set off for Bologna because (a) there were a lot of scavenger point there; (b) I’d never been there and (c) It is May Day in Italy and a lot of tourist attractions and museums are closed for the holiday so going to Florence seemed a waste of time as most the scavenges there would have been shut. On the other hand Bolognas had a lot of stuff to do that was outdoors and we gambled that we’d pick up more points there. We were right.  As soon as we got into town we stored our luggage at the train station (remember – for this leg – we are traveling with all of our baggage which is a true pain in the butt) and rented bikes. The bikes gave us an extra 100 points and made navigating the town quicker and easier. 

It was nice to be outside, on a sunny day, speeding along And Bologna is a pretty town with lots of archways and piazza (open plazas). 

We had to climb this VERY TALL tower in the center of town. All the way to the top. It was a tough, hard climb - which left my legs burning - but the view at the top was awesome. You could see the entire town and all the surrounding countryside.  

We also had to find this church with creepy marble-inlays on the floor of skulls laughing at you. Odd,  odd, odd. 

The hardest scavenge was to visit a church on the top of this hill right outside town … but the walk there is steeply uphill (for a few MILES) on a beautiful arched walkway.  Having climbed the tower just an hour earlier, I was dying by the time I reached the top.. sweating, cussing, hating that I am not in better shape. 

On the way down, there was a hole in the wall where you could write down your spiritual wish and “post” it into the wall.  Obviously I’m not religious at all but - under the theory that you should always cover your bases – I faithfully posted my #1 wish.  

That afternoon, we hopped on another train and arrived in Venice by late afternoon.  We got extra points that night if we stayed in a hotel for less than 100 Euros (quite a feat in Venice, one of the most expensive cities in Europe).  We managed to find a hostel type place with a room for 90 Euros  and – expecting the worst – went to discard our luggage.  As expected, the room was modest with a hard mattress, no air conditioning and limited hot water... but this was the view out of the window.    

And it was onto a quiet canal without a lot of boats or noise, a great find since we had to sleep with the windows wide open to try and  get some breeze. There apparently is no awful lodging in Venice – it’s too beautiful a city. We had dinner and then walked around … over bridges and along canals.. and got hopelessly lost.

Day3 of Europe saw us up early in Venice – taking the first Traghetto (a non-fancy kind of gondola) across the Grand Canal to a market. 

We had to buy bread and meats and cheese for a train picnic later that day as we moved on from Venice. A quick feeding of the pigeons in San Marco square and it was time to say goodbye to Venezia. 

We made a short lay-over stop in Austria to get some mandatory food scavenges and headed on to Ljubljana, Slovenia.  I’d never been to Slovenia before and I presumed that it would be a somewhat plain town with boring Soviet-block architecture and very little charm. Boy was I wrong. Ljubljana is a lovely Austrian-type town in the mountains. It’s built along a river with lots of pretty bridges crossing the river every short distance. 

We got 100 bonus points if one of us did a street performance and asked for donations.  Rainey paid  the drummer of a 2-person accordion/drum group to let him handle the drum for ½ hour while we waited for our dinner. I went around with a hat.  It was slim pickings. The accordion guy was good. Rainey... not so much. 

We were able to have a leisurely dinner in Ljubljana – at a restaurant right next to the river – and grabbed a few hours of sleep before heading out for Prague (our check-in destination).  

We have to change trains 4 times to get to Prague from here and some of the connections are right with only a few minutes spare between when we arrive at one platform and have to leave on another one all the way across the station.  We are going to be running like mad people with our luggage. It’s going to be rough - and on only a few hours of sleep – YUCK !!!


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