Friday, April 6, 2012

Turkey days 4-6

Our first day out of Istanbul, we headed down the coast and took a short ferry ride to Canakkale. The archaeological site of Troy is about 22km below Canakkale. We drive to the site first, then back up to our hotel in Canakkale.

Troy is breathtaking. There is a huge replica wooden Trojan horse on site that we went up into, while Milan took our pictures from below. Then we walked arounf the site and marveled at its ancient feel. Its not the best preserved, but the stories behind it make up for all of that.

Canakkale is beautiful. We were very glad we stopped. We stayed in a little Ottoman period hotel called Kervansaray hotel. Their sultan suite was cute, and four small levels. The stairs were quite steep to the third level and the little guy needed some help traversing them. While I liked this hotel , I had two complaints. The first was the mains electricity box was right outside our door and kept clicking on and off all night. I'm a light sleeper to start with, so this woke me up a number of times. The second was the temperature of the water was either frigid or scalding, so it was a pain to shower the kids at night and myself in the morning.

Canakkale was a picturesque town, with a lovely walking shopping district and good food. We ate at a traditionsl turkish restaurant for dinner and the food was fabulous.

The next day we drove down to Selcuk where we stayed at the Richmond Ephesus resort hotel. The kids were happy because it had a swimming pool and a playground. It also was on the beach. Our drive from Canakkale to Selcuk took us through Pergamon (Bergama) one of the many, many ancient cities that lie on this land.

Pergamon housed the second largest library in ancient times, second only to Alexandria. The city is accesible by driving or by sky lift. We drove up, and the kids and I raced Milan down the mountain by sky lift. We all arrived at about the same time.

When we drove the rest of the way to Selcuk, the kids were eager to stretch their legs and play, so into their swim suits they went for a splash in the outdoor pool, followed by a turn in the indoor pool. Then we ate dinner, which was included in our stay. They had a huge buffet, with chefs making fresh food as well on the outside terrace. The food was superb, and we ate well!

The next morning, we were up early and the kids played on the playground and beach for a while after breakfast. Then we drove the short distance to Ephesus, where we took a horse drawn carriage to the upper side, and hired a guide to walk us through the site down to the bottom. This coty is amazingly well preserved, and housed the third largest library of ancient times. We even saw public latrines, (ancient ones) which was interesting to say the least! The amphitheater was intruiging, to know that St. Paul had given speaches there, and I finally put two and two together and realized that in the Bible when they talk of the Ephesians, THESE were the people rhey were talking about! Whst history there was here; if only the grounf could talk!

From here we drove the 7 km up the mountains to the serenly peaceful Virgin Mary's house. Here I lit candles for all my deceased relatives and said a prayer for God to watch over their souls. I'm not superbly religious, but I get overcome in places like this, and I think this was the first time my children had seen me pray.

In the afternoon we drove to Pumukkale. We expected this to be thermal springs only. The guidebook told us that there was a necropolis nearby, but oh my! This place was amazing! The necropolis was insanely extensive. Sadly it had all been pillaged, but many tombs remained intact, if devoid of occupants. There is a large amphitheatre there, and huge gates. Our daughter and I walked down into the travertines to the warm blue waters, and we got some fabulous pictures from that angle to. At the gates, there was a mommy stray dog and three adorable puppies. The kids stopped to play with them for a while, and had a blast.

We stayed the night in town at Hotel Apswana. The hotel was a little difficult to find, but worth it. Not for the room, but for the amazingly warm hospitality showed by the owner and his wife. She made us home made Turkish food that was delicious, and he kept bringing us blankets and such to help make our stay as comfortable as possible. The hotel was clean and comfortable, and the room had an attached bath with a cute little seated bathtub in it. It wad the first shower in two days where the water didnt fluctuate wildly on me! Thumbs up!

Day six had us up for breakfast and out of our hotel fairly early. We were trying to make to back to Istanbul for saturday night and figured we woul half the trip each of two days, as it was an 8 or 9 hour drive. We tried to stop in the Kaklik caves that are supposed to be like little pumukkale and have stalagtotes and stalagmites, but it was closed for renovation. We did stop several times along the way to checkout the ceramic and porcelain shops and to eat lunch. In the end we drove all the way to Iznik where we are staying at the Camlik hotel. The room is nice, and is similar to the Richmond hoyel in Ephesus in that there are bunkbeds for the children.

Turkey days 3 and 4

Yesterday we started the day by touring the Grand Bazaar. Its 4000 shops all inside, and boy is it a madhouse! While we enjoyed spending some time in there, the overwhelming number of people and the fear of losing our children amongst the throng, got to much for us and, without buying anything, we headed out a gate toward the Spice Bazaar. I figured from the guide books that the spice bazaar would be nearer to the Grand Bazaar, but it was a bit of a hike, all without signs. In hindsight, it was pretty much a straight shot, but we didnt know that at the time.

The spice bazaar was large, but smaller than I'd imagined. We managed to haggle our way into some fabulous pistachio and pomegranate turkish delight, and we even picked up some bowls and pottery.

From the bazaar, we went to a restaurant called Hamdi. The guidebook led us there, but we think there must've been two because the one we were in was a bit upscale and didn't have doner kebap's on the menu.

After we ate, we decided on a tour of the Bosphorous. It was a nice relaxing thing to do, and we really got a good look at the city. We met seversl other American tourists, and exchanged itineraries with them. The kids had a blast playing some imaginary porcupine game and a bunch of people smiled at them and took their photos.

We had realized the night before that my sd card to ipad connector wasnt working, so we needed to pickup a an adapter for sd to the computer. We stopped at several shops, but eventually had to get into a taksi ( taxi) to have him take us there.

Many, or most, of the people do not speak english here, so there is a lot of gesturing and pointing going on!

Once our misdion was accomplished, we headed back to the hotel to download pictures and bed down for the night.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Turkey -day 2

This morning we woke at our customary 7am, and promptly realized that it was 2 hours ahead here, and it was 9! After showering and dressing, we made our way down to the hotel's restaurant, where a nice buffet breakfast was taking place. We had made to order omlettes, and freshly squeezed orange juice.

Today we saw the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern. We were able to walk right into the Blue Mosque; which I thought was interesting, because to me, it was as beautiful as the Aya Sofia!   They provide head scarves for ladies, although I didnt find that out until we exited. What a beautiful mosque!

From there we tried Aya Sofia, but the line to get in was insane, so we went to the Basilica Cistern next. I would have never imagined the vastness of such an underground cavern! Oh my! Our daughter and I found a booth taking replica photos, and had ours taken. The cistern was an awesome thing to tour. We walked down and enjoyed looking at the fish in the water, as well as the inverted Medusa head.

Aya Sofia came next. Hubby found a way to skip the 2-3 hour line for tickets by purchasing the tickets through one of the street vendors selling guide books. We had to purchase a book that we didn't need, but we were able to get right through, and the tickets were valid!

We tried the line skipping thing again at Topkapi palace, but had to hire a guide for an hour. I would not recommend this if you at all are ok with line waiting. However, we did skip all the lines, and that was very nice! We found out that there are separate entry tickets to get into the harem part of the palace, and although children are free, they still require a ticket to get in. Our 8 year old had to purchase a ticket, so I think kids are free up to a certain age, we just dont know what that age is yet.

We tried to take the kids on a boat ride for the evening, but they weren't having any of it. So we settled on dinner only instead.  We went to a restaurant called Betyi's that is supposedly world famous, and is supposed to have the best kebab's around.  They had parking onsite and the attendant followed us to the door with an umbrella over our heads.  The restaurant was all decked out, fancy looking with waiters that stay on hand through your whole meal.  Talk about attentive!  The food was fabulous, and certainly lived up to its name.  I would recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a great Turkish meal.


Ottoman candy from a street vendor.  It was as colourful as it was sweet and yummy!
After Topkapi palace, we walked around a bazaar.  Not the main one, but a nice one off to the left of the Blue Mosque.

In an effort to save space, I tried packing only the iPad, the new laptop and my camera.  However, the iPad's not reading the sd cards from my camera, and the new laptop doesn't have a way to connect to the camera (no sd card reader), so we are unable to pull the pictures off of my card.  The pictures on this blog I took with my phone, so that the blog wouldn't be blank!  We will upload photos when we get home and will update these pages with the photos.  On a sad note, one of my sd cards filled up and the one that I tried to switch it to in Topkapi palace created card issues on my camera; so the only pics we have from the second half of the palace are with our phones.  Oh well, at least we have those!  

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Turkey-day 1.

We left London via Stanstead airport. It was very easy to get to from our place, and although its a small airport, it was very easy to navigate and I was happy because there was a Starbucks inside the security area!

We flew into a small airport on the outskirts of Istanbul and rented a car from Hertz. We flew on Pegasus airlines, which amused our daughter to no end. The flight was fine, with only a few incidents of turbulance. Our son had a blast with a little girl in the seat next to me.

Renting with Hertz was reasonably simple, and they asked for only the standard documentation, so that was fine. The toll roads work differently, though, and we had to purchase a special card to go through them. The tolls work on contactless payment methods through prepaid cards. Hertz charged us 40 turkish lira to buy one and put 20 lira on it!

We did not have our tom tom updated with Turkish maps ( this has since been rectified) and had to use our phone's google maps to find our way from the airport to our hotel. Luckily, this worked with only tiny kinks and we arrived to our hotel in Old City Istanbul in one piece.

We are renting a family suite in a hotel called the Garden House Hotel. The rooms are clean and well kept. Its not 5 star, but a solid 3, and its in a fabulous location! From here we are next door to the Topkapi palace and Aya Sofia.

We took the time to walk out and get dinner out of the hotel, which was nice. I think we all enjoyed the night air after being in the plane for a few hours. We had a good dinner at a little turkish kebap place where our daughter and I had meatballs on tomato lentils and the boys split some steak and aubergine dish. Yum!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

So long since we've posted....

Oh my!  It's been SO long since we've posted anything, but not since we've taken a vacation!  I owe you all our European drive trip at the very least!  Hubby and I will get on that very soon...

Saturday, August 25, 2007

UK / North UK, Ireland, UK / June 2007

I think the american way of seeing a country still rules i.e. driving. The stuff you see driving around cannot be found in a pre-packaged vacation. A caution, free driving is NOT at all my recommendation for any peak holiday season .. you will have a horrible time.

My wife and I love doing this. Just taking the car out without a plan. A week's worth of stuff packed in the trunk. We have been doing this since both the kids were 4 months old so they are very very used to it. I don't think they have learnt yet that being cooped up in a car seat for 4-6 hrs is a no-no in the baby manual.

Did approx 2000 miles over 10 days. My friends thought I was insane. My kids have still not forgiven me ... just joking, the kids were great through and through, however, were glad to see their toys and beds.

Started from London, went to Lake district (had best steaks of our lives), drove to Edinborough, then to Inverness, Loch Ness, Skye (totalled our car here), back to Inverness, then to Trune, Ferry over to Larne, Northern Ireland, Coastal Causeway, crossed over to Ireland at Balley Shannon (stayed on the beach .. awesome !), headed back to Dublin, caught ferry to Liverpool and then back to London.

Other travels

DONE BUT NOT WRITTEN UP :
Belgium / Brussels / March 2006
Paris / France / October 2004
Etreat / France / June 2007
Vatican City / Vatican City / Aug 2007
UK / Lake district, Edinborough, Inverness, Loch Ness, Skye, ... UK / June 2007
US / Grand Canyon, Nevada /
US / Hoover Dam, Arizona /
US / Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming /
US / Moab, Utah /
US / Bryce Canyon, Utah /
US / Taos, New Mexico /
US / Mesa Verde, Colorado /
US / US50, Colorado /
US / Mt. Saint Helens, Washington /
US / Oregon Coast, Oregon /
US / White Mountains, Saco River, Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire /
US / Florida Keys, Florida /
US / Miami Beach, Orlando, Allegator Alley, Florida /
US / Florida Panhandle, Florida /
US / Caldesi Island, Florida /
US / Cambridge, Boston, Massachusetts /
US / Denver, Vail ..., Colorado /
US / San Francisco, Napa Valley .., California /
US / Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts /
US / Provincetown, Massachusetts /
US / Manhattan, New York /
US / Washington DC, District of Columbia /
US / Niagara Falls, New York /
US / Skydiving in Plant City, Florida /
Luxemburg / Luxemburg City, Luxemburg /
Austria /
Germany / Rhine River, Neuchswanstein Castle, Berlin, Germany /
Switzerland /

TO DO:
US / Oahu, Maui, .. Hawaii /
US / Yosemeti National Forest, California /
Kenya / Masai Mara, Kenya /
Peru / Macchu Picchu, Peru /
Jordan / Petra, Jordan /
Mexico / Chichen Itsa, Mexico /
China / Shanghai, Great Wall .., China /
Netherlands / Tulip Festival, .../
Norway /

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Italy / Rome & Florence / August 2007

Flying with two small children is always so much fun, but airlines really make it difficult now-adays. What is with the international flying rules with children? Are we, or are we not allowed to bring car seats on the airplane? Well, it aparently depends on which airline you fly. Yes on British Airways, but you only have a slim chance of being able to have your stroller anywhere other than in baggage claim when you land; and absolutely not on Alitalia. We had issues flying with British Airways and carry on luggage, even though we bought our son a seat, and were within the hand luggage requirements for each of us, they still wouldn't let us bring the stroller (a lightweight mcclaren) onto the airplane. Why? "Flight is full and there isn't enough room" they told us. Well... the 10 or more open seats, and the empty baggage compartment above us would speak otherwise but.... So of course, our flight was delayed, and when we finally reached home, we had to force our 3 year old to walk the extremely long distance to through immigration to baggage claim, while carrying our hand luggage and our 15 month old son.
Please, Please, Please, give me somewhere else to fly so that I can do that all over again! I never thought I'd say this, but I really miss domestic flights in the states where we can at least expect to have our strollers meet us when we get off the airplane. Ok, enough of my tirade against international airlines and onto our trip.....

We left friday morning for Rome, Italy. Our hotel; the Internazionale Domus, arranged for our pickup from the airport. The hotel is located right in the center of the city a stone's throw away from the Spanish steps (or scalinata di Spagna as the locals call it). I found the website on the Ciao Bambino website listed as one of the best hotels for families with small children. I have to say that I was happy with the accomodation -- A bit pricey; but that's what you have to pay for any sort of space in Europe. The hotel gave us a baby cot, had a bed plenty big enough for my husband and I, and had a pull out couch bed for our daughter. The bathrooms were large (no bathtub though), and it came complete with a cute little kitchenette. The t.v. was sort of on the blink, but they had free internet service (a rarity) and free snacks/drinks in the room to start us off with.

The day we arrived we walked down to the Colosseum and joined a tour. Tours are nice sometimes, as you find out a lot of information that you didn't know before. Like: "they" estimate close to 1 million people have been killed in the colosseum for the sake of entertainment. After the tour we strolled around the area, bargained for a high priced carriage ride (did not take it) and went back to our hotel to sleep.

Saturday we woke up early and took a tour of the Vatican museum and wouldn't you know it, my camera battery died and I left the other one in the hotel. Well, I guess it doesn't matter much, 'cause you can't take pictures of the sistine chappel anyway. After the Vatican, we got some lunch and (after charging a battery for the camera) we then walked around to the Trevi fountain, which we found to be amazing; see the twelve thousand pictures we took of it!

Walking around Rome is easy to do despite the sheer number of tourists in the area. There are plenty of spaces for strollers (even doubles, although we didn't bring ours). The city is relatively small, and distances are fairly short, a couple of miles at best from one end to the other. If you stay central, and like to walk, you can simply take walking tours of the entire city. They have a hop on/ hop off bus tour, taxis are readily available, as are horse drawn carriages. Be prepared however to haggle for the last one, as they spot tourists and charge a premium price for these.

On Sunday, we took a bus (coach) tour to Florence. The drive is pretty long, but the city is well worth the trip. In the center of the city is one of the worlds largest (4th) cathedrals "Duomo of Florence". The architecture is amazing, so rich in color and detail. We visited the museum (museum Galleria dell'Accademia) where the statue of David resides, and then to the square where the original used to stand (Piazza Signoria) . It's amazing to note that the original statue resides in a museum and the copy stands in the square, but the majority of the other statues in the square are the original with the copies in the museum. We had lunch with our tour group after visiting the square, and experienced a shock when a young boy ran into the restaurant and made off with a man's wallet (not in our tour group.) Poor guy, we felt really badly for him. At least he had kept his passport safely away.

One note on our tour group.. Green Line Tours... they told us they would drop us off as close to our hotels as they could go... in our case this was a mile walk, with poor instructions on how to get there. Thankfully we had walked the area for the previous two days and after a turn here and there, were able to find our way back. Considering that we were the only family on board, and were laden with baby things and souvenirs, they could have been better to us.

Sadly we had to go home on Monday, but thankfully our flight was in the evening, so we took the hop on/ hop off bus for a last tour around the city. Here I picked up some pictures of St. Peters Bassilica that I had missed from saturday, and a few of Sant'Angelo Castle. Again, our hotel arranged for an airport dropoff and we braved the short plane trip home with our two angels; both of whom refused to sleep until we were 3/4 of the way home in the taxi on the home end of the trip!

All in all, we had a good trip, and it was nice to be able to get away as a family for a few days. The kids were pretty well behaved, the camera worked when it had batteries, and we all arrived home safe and sound. In general I love Rome. It's an amazing city, and you can do a whirlwind tour in four days like we did, but there was SO much we didn't see, or didn't get a chance to explore. I think we'll have to come back when the kids are a bit older and can appreciate this wonderful city. Unti then... Ciao!

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Russia / Moscow / Feb 2007

The fam and I just got back from Moscow, and I must admit to being pleasantly surprised with the trip. We experienced a few hickups, but altogether it was an amazing experience!

To start with our flight into Domodedevo airport was uneventful; the children were angels and everything went very well. That is, until we actually departed the airplane! Instead of directing the passengers toward customs and immigration, we were all let out into the departure terminal! No one spoke a word of english, and everyone of us spent an hour or so searching for a way out. Finally we ran into a passenger who spoke English and Russian and figured out what had happened and directed us back through the gate and down to customs and immigration. The Russian police had to then round up everyone else and bring them through as well. I can only imagine the work it must have been for them to compare the flight manifest to passport control and figure out if they had not signed anyone into the country!!!

Our hotel (Marriot Tverskaya) was in the center of the city, and it took us about 1.5 hours to reach it from the airport. We had previously arranged for pickup and dropoff to the airport, so we didn't have to worry about catching a taxi or barganing for prices, etc once we got there. The hotel was ok....pretty typical Marriott, although be aware that the gift shop in the hotel is insanely expensive even compared to the tourist market. If you can book your tour guides beforehand, DO IT! The internet prices for moscow tour guides, although not including transportation or entrance fees, were $15.00. The hotel charged us $50.00 (not including the above stated fares). It was rediculous! Every time we got into a taxi cost us R1000 (R meaning Rubles; the Russian currency). The exchange rate was about to 25R to $1 or 55R to 1 British Pound. Everywhere on the web i read before said to be aware of this, and HAGGLE your pants off, but in the end, we couldn't find a way around it, even by using the non-official taxi's. So good luck to you if you try it! If your a tourist only, I would suggest a hotel much closer to the Kremlin, so that you can avoid the taxi's as much as possible.

We did a very short trip, only 2 days for tourist things, but we saw quite a bit. Our first day out we hit Arbat walking tourist street, and then went to Izmalovsky tourist market. Arbat is famous, but it's just a street with souvenir shops on both sides and a few kiosks in the middle. There is a McDonalds (which we did not try) and the Moscow Hard Rock Cafe there as well. Izmalovsky market though, was amazing! The entire market is outdoor stalls, the architecture of the whole building was breathtaking. It was worth going there even if you didn't want to buy anything at all! Some stalls even sold food. If it wasn't for the -10C temp and the cold noses of the children, I could have stayed there all day! I found it very interesting that Moscow still has a very 'military' feel to it. Right next to the matryoshka dolls you can buy a gas mask, hand painted gun shells, or other military regalia. The police in the streets (and definately in the Kremlin) appear more military than American or British police personnel. They reminded me of the German Politzei.
I had planned to try to make it to Novodevichy Convent and Monastery -but due to the cold and the children's schedules, we didn't make it there.... maybe next time.

Our second day we packed in quite a lot. We started with a guided tour of the Kremlin, the armory and the Diamond Fund. Inside the Kremlin, we saw all the cathedrals, the worlds largest bell and the worlds largest cannon. We were dissapointed to learn that under no circumstances could you take pictures inside any buildings in the Kremlin. So we have no pictures of anything but the outside of these buildings, which are quite amazing in themselves.
We bought a book that shows a bunch of pictures of the insides of the Cathedrals, Armory, Diamond Fund, etc, and I will scan those pictures in and post them to the moscow set of my Flickr account. Check it out if you want to see some great photos.
Aparently, the worlds largest canon and the worlds largest bell, have never actually worked. They were built by Tzar's who wanted to be remembered by something. Most others built Cathedrals, these two built huge objects! Be careful of the Moscow 'police'. They blow their whistles if you step off of the sidewalk onto the street inside the kremlin.



We left the Kremlin and walked along it's outer walls, past the tomb of the unknown soldier and the huge underground shopping center, in search of G.U.M department store. It was cold, and we decided to stop in the cafe and get a hot chocolate. Our guide told us that the building was built in 1893 and except for a brief stint as an office building, has always been a shopping mall. Today it is filled with high end shops for the rich and famous. It was impressive to say the least. Our hot chocolate was exactly that.... it came in a glass, but should have come in a bowl with a spoon, as it was like thick warm chocolate pudding. It was delicious though!


G.U.M. forms nearly 1 part of the entire Red Square . Other sightseeing interests in Red square, include Lenin's mausoleum, Kazan cathedral, The State historical museum, Resurrection gate, Lobnoye Mesto, and my favorite, St. Basil's cathedral.


St. Basil's.............I could have taken 1000 photos of you, and stayed by your side for days at a time. It's obvious that I revel in your colors, spirals and domes. In my opinion,you pale the Taj Mahal. (gulp...to admit that and be married to an Indian... I'd better sleep with one eye open!) And Kazan Cathedral! You just look like a giant gingerbread house. I wanted to touch you just to see if you were made of candy and icing!

As we drove around Moscow on our way to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior; we passed hundreds of amazing architechtural wonders. Every where you look in Moscow, there are amazing domed buildings, immense statues and arctitectural feats. We took as many pictures as we could through the taxi window; but there are so many that we couldn't get. Someday, maybe we will be able to go back (during the warm season!) and spend more than two days in this magnificent city!
Moscow I loved you! I'll practice my Russian for the next time I can step foot in your beautiful city.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Egypt / Luxor, Valleys of Kings and Queens & more/ Dec 2002

The 2nd half of our Egypt trip was magical. We took an overnight train from Cairo to Luxor, whre we stayed at the Luxor Hilton.

The hotel was nice, they had a neat jewelry shop, and the ability to take a Falluca boat ride; which we did. Our Captain (Captain Hook we called him) had a faithful companion, whom we nicknamed Mohammad Ali. He was very interested in all things American, and he coined the phrase "Share me" which we still joke about today. They took us to Banana Island, where we were able to have tea with the locals and eat sugar cane from the fields. Watching the sun set over the Nile from the boat was amazing. It was such a wonderful day.
The next morning, we got up oh so early to take a Hot Air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings and Queens. The sun rise was phenomenal! We went over a few villages, some buildings with thatched roofs of sorts, some with no roofs at all. The village children running and waving at us; all with big smiles on their faces. It was amazing to see the Nile from above. I thought it was interesting to see the stark difference between the greenery on one side of the Nile and the desert on the other. We learned the word "Baksheesh" very well. All those village children ran to the balloon when we landed and expected gifts and tips for smiling and waving at us! :) They want your ballooning gifts(t-shirts,etc), money, and anything else they can part you with. Careful though, some will attempt to reach into your purse/wallet and help themselves!


If touching a pyramid, or riding a camel to get to one, didn't satisfy all my girlhood dreams about Egypt, stepping foot into Tutankaman's tomb in the Valley of the Kings sure did. We were told that for as many tombs as have been found in the valleys, there are many more still hidden beneath the sand and in the mountains. It's so very easy to believe. I wanted to drop everthing and go digging in the dirt! We ventured from tomb to tomb in both valleys...awestruck at the magnificence and splendor that used to be. Each tomb had lots of rooms, each with specific purposes and were decked out in "lootables"! I was so amazed at the hieroglyphics that when we got home, I bought a book, went through all our photos and tried to decipher them! (I didn't get very far...it's harder than it looks!) Some of the more fragile pictures or carvings are behind glass, which is understandable, but most of the tombs had walls that were not protected by glass. They did however have walkways in them that you had to stay on, and I remember seeing guards about in a few of them.

For a few $$ , you could bribe the local workers to show you 'something special'. We were taken to a recently unearthed, but not yet open to tourists, tomb. We were told that it contained the mummies of the workers who had built one/some? of the tombs. This is one of the pictures of mummies we took. The experience was very cool, but a little creepy. We beat it out of there fairly quickly.



After we left the Valley of the Kings and Queens, we visited what we called the "Ketchup place". It was our pet name as none of us could properly pronouce Queen Hatshepsut, which sounded a little like ketchup to us! It's real name is The Temple of Deir el Bahari. It's an amazing place, nestles in the foothills of the mountains. I remember that we able to see it from the balloon. From the main road, you had to walk through souvenir alley to get to the temple. On both sides of the long walkway, people shouting at you constantly were souvenirs of every shape, size and color. This type of thing was everywhere we went, and there was just no getting away from it.


Next we visited the step pyramid at Sakkara. It's an amazing pyramid that is surrounding by very interesting walls. It is still unclear to me as to what they were built for, but if anyone knows, please feel free to fill me in. We stood by the pyramid and if your facing away from it, you can see nothing but sand. It was here that we finally earned a healthy respect for the desert. The pyramid is the oldest of all the pyramids in Egypt, and was built for a pharoh in the 3rd dynasty by Imhotep (yes, Imhotep, like in the mummy movies!)
Before heading back to our hotel, we took a brief stop at a factory. We were shown how rugs are made, you know all those beautiful silk, or wool rugs that one sees everywhere. We sometimes kick ourselves for not buying one, but all we saw were children doing the work, and that disturbed us. We were told that the children were there learning how to make rugs, as a skill for later use in life and that none of the rugs that we saw for sale were made by a child's hands. We didn't believe any of it. Later we found out that some of the more complicated designs are to difficult for an adults big hands to make, and children are regularly used to make these, and paid very little, in the guise of "schools".


We stopped by the Ramessuem and took a few photos, but it was the Temple of Amun at Karnak that I was enthralled with. The pillars were amazing, and my jaw was dropped to my knees through the entire tour. The temple is filled with statues, pillars, obelisks, and ruins still in their places. It's an outdoor temple,open to the elements; but is still amazingly intact. You cannot miss seeing this temple if you make it to Luxor.
Our trip to Egypt was amazingly memorable. I would not necessarily suggest doing it with very small children, as there is a ton of walking involved, and most of it's not stroller accessible in any way. If you want to bring the kids, my suggestion is to wait until they are quite a bit older, say at least 6 or 7.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

India / North - Rajasthan / Nov 2004

Our itenarary was packed into 4 days. I don't think this can be accomplished if you do not have an inside view to India and some help. Our secret was my brother who is based in Delhi. He organized an amazing journey for us.

We started from Delhi by taking the late night train to Ranthambore National Forest. Now, we also in parallel, dispatched our driver and car from Delhi to meet us at Ranthambore (this is because you don't want to burn out in the drive trip right from the start .. the train is a lot more comfortable and quicker).

Ranthambore is known for its tiger sanctuary. Unfortunately, didn't get to see any. We did see a variety of wildlife including a fox who had made a fresh kill (unfortunate baby deer). You will be out in jeeps .. this is the real wild !! You can sense the tension in the air when there is a tiger in the area. BTW> Was just reviewing older pics and noticed that I had a hat on .. this could only have happened if I had underestimated how cold it would have been. At 4.00 am in Nov, it appears I was freezing .. so learn from my mistake.

I normally don't chance anything buy the 'lap of luxury' when staying in India. This time, however, we stayed in a hotel that was a palace that was converted into a hotel / government resort. This is the only hotel within the national forest itself. There is a group of hotels called Neemrana hotels that operate a set of heritage hotels. Check them out. This will for sure, give you a very unique experience of india. Even being Indian, I thought this was unique. These hotels are not 5 star hotels. The palaces have been preserved as much as possible so that you get an authentic experience of our culture. Imagine staying in the 'kings room ..'. These hotels won't break the bank either.

We stayed at the Hill Fort Hotel in Kesroli. I will tell you an amazing experience here. This hotel overlooks a village .. wake up before dawn and watch from the top the entire population around you slowly come alive. First the cocks, then a few people getting started farming activities, then the sunrise .... just truly amazing.

From Kesroli, we drove to Jaipur. Enjoyed a couple of amazing palaces there as well as some ethnic food / shows. Drive from there, back to Delhi .. again, the things you see ... ;-)




Left : Inter village bus. People learn to survive .. dont they ? And what's bizarre, this was not the worst loaded one that we saw.
Right: Fill 'er up !! I did a double take when I walked into this sight. From the angle I first saw this, I could not see the tank, rather, the guy was fueling the camel's back-side.

The things some kings do for love .. of course, the Taj Mahal is cliche.. but take a look at this. This is a place near Jaipur. This is the ceiling of one of the Queen's rooms. It is a set of mirrors that are all angled so that a candle lit in a specific corner (the reflections of which) would make the ceiling appear like the night sky.


Marble inlay (were gemstones embedded).
These dudes invented air-conditioning through natural methods.

UK / Canal Boating / May 2006

I believe I have found the equivalent of the US RV culture here in the UK. Its called canal boating.

You see, the UK has a intricate network of over 2000 miles of artificial canals that were used for transportation / commerce. These have been restored / converted for recreational use.
The point / experience of this is as follows :
- You coast down these canalways at 5 miles per hour
- The canal network is through the country side, often through areas that don't have roads / rails. Sights are pristine.
- You dock / stop whenever you want. All through the canal network, there are annotations on where you can pull up and tie up your boat. If you find a pretty sight, hop out anytime .. you ain't going to miss your boat as you can walk faster than these things

- Locks, locks and more locks - never operated a lock ? Well here is your chance to get your fill of an amazing piece of engineering. When you start out, I guarantee you all of you will jump out and run to operate the lock and then realize, everybody did .. so, nobody is left steering the boat (no worry .. it cant go very far). By the end of your journey, you will be pushing each other out to do the deed.



Now the best part :

- each evening, after you moor, you should venture out into the countryside and perhaps into the local village (may be a mile or two walk). There, you will find a PUB which will have local beer and in some cases, you will find a local chef (who really belongs in a world class restaurant), however, has retired here due to the peace and beauty. Now you are in for a treat !!! Each village / town, has its own beauty / story. This is really the best part.

A good site is http://www.canalboat-holidays.com/boats.htm . The place we rented from was Chas Hardern Boats. Tel # (+44) 1829732595. Experience was great. Highly recommended
These boats are quite interesting. Also called narrow boats. Top speed is 5 miles per hour. Driving them is a no brainer, however, do understand that these beasts are sloooow and loooooong. You only have to be 11 yrs old to drive them legally. If you miss a turning point, you may have to go 4 hrs to the next turning point. Reversing is impossible as these boats are not designed to do this. The boats are longer than the canal is wide, so, doing a 180 turn is impossible except at a designated turning point (don't try it !). People get very very upset if you do not operate the lock properly. Also, watch your speed at all times as these things do not stop quickly and there are always people moored around the corner or boats on the other side of the narrow underpass that you cannot see.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Alaska / Skagway / 2004

A worthwhile trip that was better than expected. You have likely already formed an opinion on 'cruise ship' experience. We had too, however, the actual experience surprised us pleasantly. This is an environment where you are 'forced' to relax and enjoy yourself. No option here. Good for workaholics like me who are lost and panicked the moment our cellphone/pager loses coverage. This cruise trip was a round trip from Seattle, WA. Ports of calling were Ketchikan, Juneau, Skagway and others (will remember and list).

Alaska is pristine. This is an experience if you want to get unadultrated pristine beauty.
This picture is in Skagway. Took a helicopter (excursion) to the top of the glacier. Yep, landed right on it. Still feel bad about it as we should not be doing so. This is destroying the place however careful we are. Glacier is the white stuff.

We were not lucky enough to see any calving. I was surprised to see icebergs. Never quite expected the vibrance and the deep blue. See pic - no filters or tricks here. This is the real stuff. The explanation is that the ice is so heavily compressed that it forces out all micro-air-bubbles etc. and causes the ice to start reflecting the blue spectrum.

Plenty to talk about on this one. Will post more information on Alaska.

India / Kerala / Nov 2004

All right, I am Indian, but I am NOT going back to india in the summer. Better still, avoid India except for what is considered to be peak winter in India (Jan/Feb, Mar you are pushing it .. it reverts back to summer temperatures in March magically skipping spring altogether).

You get two choices on the weather in India .. getting 'boiled' or getting 'baked'. If you are used to Tampa / FL, you will do fine in the boiling weather (humidity) .. you should survive Nov, Dec, Jan. If you are from Dallas, try Feb, Mar, Apr. Avoid all other months at all costs and if you value your life (I am assuming I am speaking to snowbirds, which, I unfortunately now have become given 15 years in the US).

Back to the good stuff .. our trip to south india - Kerala !!. I had heard amazing things about this place, however, it was better than all reviews / expectations. It was the small stuff that fascinated me.

This was our itinerary.
- Cochin (2 days)
- Munnar (2 days) We stayed at the Tea County Resort
- Coconut Lagoon (2 days)
- House boat from Allepey to Cochin (2 days).
- Cochin (1 day, back to Bombay).

Cochin was more or less the least interesting. We stayed at Brunton Boatyard (decent hotel .. although smelt constantly of mosquito repellent). This is more a traditional hotel than a 5 star type luxury hotel. You will see this in the decor and atmosphere right away. One interesting thing are the fishing nets. Saw these in operation .. quite efficient.

Getting around Kerala requires renting a tourist vehicle. This is easy enough from any of the larger hotels. A full time driver comes with the vehicle. Ours was 'Bopi', someone who was awesome !! He took very good care of us and was a great safe driver (did not drink or show a hint of any of the scary driving behaviors I would have expected). Remember, you get what you pay for and this is one area you want the safest and most reliable service. Also, your driver will be on a fixed allowance through your journey (which is quite miserable), so do ensure he is eating and sleeping well. The hotels you will stay at will also have some form of accommodation for the drivers. This is usually sub-par and so most will spend the night in the car. You may want to get your driver to rent a room at a smaller hotel for himself as well as give him some money to get a square meal. Remember, a well slept and fed driver will make a safer journey for you.

Munnar is a good 6-8 hrs drive from Cochin. You can stop along the way as you pass through villages etc. Make sure you do as this is the best fun. Along the way, we saw cashew trees, almond trees and several other exotic tropical trees (Bopi turned out to be a horticulturalist) and so stopped to show us some amazing sights such as the protected sandal wood forests.

But, the best thing was .. Rs 20 ($0.40) for 2 pineapples and 2 coconuts. Man .. oh man. Just that makes me want to go right back. Those pineapples cut fresh were to die for. Also, you will be stunned at the color of fresh vegetables that people sell along the roadside. You think carrots are orange ? Wait and see, you will not have seen an orange like that before. It will make you understand what tropical beauty is and the miracles & vibrance of tropical growth. I stopped for roasted peanuts .. these thingys were tiny, microscopic .. not much peanut within each shell. I am used to the American peanuts where the peanut itself was bigger than the entire shell here. Still, when, you eat these Indian peanuts, you will realize that one peanut has got more flavor than an entire bag of American peanuts. Yeah, finally .. size doesn't matter !!

Munar is a tea sanctuary. It is a therapeutic green. You have got to see it to believe it. About 80% of the Indian tea plantations are now owned by Tata. If you know someone at Tata, it may be worthwhile to get permission to visit a plantation. You can however, get your fill by just driving around. The tea plantations are like vineyards in California. Strewn about everywhere. It is however, a much more beautiful sight without the pungent smell of grapes. If you go in the right season, you will be overwhelmed by the smell of tea blossoms.

Do load up on tea when you go to Munnar. The fresh stuff is really better. This is easily bought from the local store in Munnar. There are a number of specialist dealers there, however, you will know which one is the best by just picking the busiest.

Another thing to load up on in Kerala is 'massages'. The place we stayed at was a spa/sanctuary of sorts. This is an ancient art form in kerala and is considered perfectly natural. For me (being a guy), it isnt natural or normal for me at all. Not my sort of thing, however, Jennifer, was in 7th heaven after each session. It was other women giving women a massage ... and other men giving men a massage !

Munnar also has a wild life sanctuary. It is a ride/hike combo. Nothing strenuous at all by American standards. The Indian elephant is a famous sight .. kinda cool, however, the herds are quite a ways away. The bird sanctuary is supposedly amazing, however, we skipped and headed off to Coconut Lagoon.

1/2 day ride and we were there. There was a short ferry ride to take us from the pick-up point to the actual hotel area. This is a very interesting setup. It is basically a set of huts that have water all around them (little islands) trying to emulate the typical kerala backwaters living. It is however, an artificial creation (sound of the pumps). The thing that is amazing here are the sunsets. You can sit in a hammock, drink a beer and watch the sunset. It is peaceful. The food at this place is amazing. All you can do is relax. There is a good bird sanctuary opposite this hotel. Some of the hotel staff also double up as the local ornithologist. I really thought this guy was making it all up.

The house-boat. Aaah. Now this is something worth the entire trip. Includes your own Captain, Chief engineer (who also steers the 50cc engine from behind) and, most importantly, your personal chef !! And what a chef !! This is the guy who can make or break your entire trip. These houseboats are an amazing piece of engineering. 2 bedroom with A/C (make sure this is working else, the mosquitoes will kill you).

This will show you a unique side of India. One that I had never seen either. Kerala backwaters are basically a delicate eco-system of rice paddies separated from the brackish sea water by a system of levees. This has been made into a form of complex canal system. Its weird in that the rice paddies are at a lower level than the water in the canal. I take it that is for irrigation. There is an entire population living in this environment. Accessible only by boat, barely any communication (although, now everyone has a cell-phone), electricity or TV.

The local mode of transportation are 'ferries'. There are no buses or trains here. During your journey, you will find these high-speed boats (no .. not fancy stuff .. just a junk boat travelling at high speed) that will literally come to a screeching halt for exactly 2 seconds, people jump on and off (two classes here - ones that just don't care for their lives and the others that are mortally afraid, however, given up), and the driver then hits the gas almost seamlessly. These are the ferries. It is just amazing that there weren't collisions or people falling off these things.

In the mornings, you will see more of day-to-day life. For example, the headmaster of the school picking up all the little ones from their huts in his row boat.

Back to the food. There is a system here .. these chefs all know each other and know exactly who the good, great and best ones are. You will find yourself an amazing experience if you manage to 'procure' yourself the services of the 'best' cook/chef.

The boats themselves are repetitive although, given nothing much else to do, you will find yourself comparing your own boat in shape / size / complexity with the one just passing you. There are boats and then there are boats. Some of these things are amazing in their engineering.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Mexico / Copper Canyon / Dec 1999

Copper Canyon

This is an amazing journey that should not be done with kids. Mexico is a great introduction to the third world .. almost a good transition ground for the 'uneducated'. Countries like Africa or India can prove to be too much of a shock.

If you are flexible, this is a rewarding journey with some of the most beautiful sights you will have seen. Its best not to plan this but rather, go with the flow. Things are unpredictable so, trying to plan things will only bring disappointment. If you have that attitude, you will be fine. The only place I was a little uncomfortable with not having reservations was Divisadero, however, given the cost of the hotel, I wouldn’t have liked wasting our reservations as we wouldn’t have made it there on the day we had planned (see train derailed, bus broke down note).

Some general tips :
- In December, its cold in Creel, Divisadero (10000 ft) so bring some sweaters / jackets.
- Knowing some Spanish helps as the moment you get to Juarez, no one speaks english even though you are 50 feet from El Paso where everyone speaks English. You can generally get by, but it certainly helps.
- Food is nothing like mexican food in the US. Sorry, no taco bells. You will see similarities, however, expect a lot of pork. There seemed to be a lot of pork (I am a preferential vegetarian) and even beans was usually mixed with pork pieces. Things got a little tough at times.

Here is a 10-12 day itinerary that I developed on the fly.

1> Drive/Fly to El Paso, Texas. You don't need visas to Mexico if you are a US Citizen. You do need to have your passports else, you may become a permanent Mexican citizen against your will.

2> Cross over to Juarez (Mexico) - Take a taxi over the border .. Easiest part of the journey .. the port of entry guards may try to get some money out of you by taking you into their office .. they will stamp your passport anyway .. just say “don’t speak Spanish ..”. Ask the taxi driver to take you to the bus station .. I think buses leave on the hour .. no big issue. Useful words at the bus station .. agua=water .. pan = bread (fresh baked available at the station). Only two words I learnt there. Smell of hot fresh baked bread will make you remember this .. trust me !

3> Take bus to Chihuahua (start of copper canyon train). Once in Chihuahua, find a hotel for the night if necessary .. you can buy train tickets at the station before you leave. Nothing really interesting in the city .. we walked around for an afternoon .. visited the govt offices (Chihuahua is the capital of the province). Watch your belongings in the city. For us, the train had derailed the previous day and so we had to take another bus to Creel. Our bus broke down midway so we had to hitch a ride .. most of the locals started hitching right after the bus broke down because they knew better .. we waited like fools for a couple of hrs in the hopes that the bus driver (who kept promising) would fix the bus. Folks giving rides are used to this .. they will accept money. Try to arrive in Creel before sunset as you will need to find a room asap.

The copper canyon train runs daily from Chihuahua all the way to Los Mochis. This journey involves getting off intermediate stops along the way and picking the train back up a day or two later.

I bet you have travelled by train before .. I bet however, nothing like this. One point of caution, you will go through some religious moments on this train. There are plenty of times when you will be unable to see the edge of the cliff even if you flatten your face against the guard rails of the window. At that point, you will be wondering what exactly is holding the train up .. questions of what happens if the train falls over will be followed by sights of crumpled train cabins approx 1000 ft. below. Dont worry, its not happened recently (I think ..).

4> Stay in Creel. The station is pictured .. i.e. the train tracks in front of the museum. Find a place to stay ASAP. There may be more options now than when we went. There are low end and high end places (max $70/night). In the low end places, they have rooms (decent - $20/night) as well as “designated spaces” for people to put their sleeping bags on $1/night (mostly for college students .. it’s a party and you likely won’t get much sleep). Stay a couple of nights here .. there are some great hikes here .. the one we did was approx 4000 feet downhill (legs WILL go jello on you) ending up in hotsprings which we all promptly jumped into and quickly forgot the hike back up would be worse. I was blowing bubbles out of my mouth on the way back up .. I had to rest every 10 feet for the final leg .. even the smokers were passing me .. it was embarrassing. They also offer horse rides etc. but don’t bother.

5> Stay in Divisadero. Train only stops there for 15 min .. when you get off the station .. you see nothing .. only wilderness .. don’t PANIC, however do get here in the daytime. There is one great hotel (Divisadero Barrancas) right near the train station .. people running it appeared French !! A French couple in the middle of Mexico .. interesting life. Pricey hotel, but worth a night’s stay (may be up to $200/night). The views are absolutely breathtaking. Your room porch will look directly over/into the canyon. In fact, my room porch hung right over the canyon edge looking straight down 10K feet. Pineapples at the bottom, snow at the top !

Some good hikes/trips here .. I think one was to visit the Tarahumara Indians .. they had a kid as our guide who didn’t have much to wear .. he was shivering through the hike so I gave my jacket to him .. I still remember his bright smile ! The braver make the trek down the canyon and go camping for a couple of days. Recommend this be a guided tour as this didnt look easy.

6> End in Los Mochis .. it is a city with all the typical evils. You have to find what you like / interests you. I had the best fresh coconuts spiced with lemon / tamarind etc here. I didnt find anything significantly interesting here .. stay 1 night max. We walked into the town and visited the marketplace .. it had some great cheeses. Also, we found a travel agent and spontaneously made a change to our itenarary .. we decided we had roughed it enough. We bought a flight to LaPaz and then from LaPaz back to ElPaso. Cost us $80/person. We were not in any mood to go back via the train (too long).

La Paz is a beach town like Cancun etc. .. there is also a ferry from Los Mochis to La Paz, however, strangely, it said it wasn’t recommended for children under age 2 and pregnant mothers .. we concluded that the fumes from the engine were toxic and so decided to skip it (whats not good for babies and pregnant women is likely not good for us either). You can also take a taxi or hike around a couple of places here .. everyone says this city has a very high crime rate, however, we didn’t really have any trouble.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Egypt / Cairo / Dec 2002


Cairo

Stayed at the Marriott in Cairo - lap of luxury to ensure we didn't miss good ol' USA.

Do not miss the Egyptian Museum. No matter how much you have read about the splendors of King Tutankhamun, this will take your breath away. This is an amazing, truly amazing museum. Remember, it is either the fourth or fifth collection of artifacts, the prior collections being lost to either looting or floods.

All through this trip, I was dumbstruck. All I was looking for was signs of aliens in all the carvings / hieroglyphics. This is because I was convinced that no-one could have accomplished what these people have done 5000 years ago without some alien help. It is sad that a lot of people still make their living off what this ancient civilization accomplished. I can only explain this as what this civilization accomplished is just to awesome to surpass. As a result it overshadows everything and everyone lives in its shadow.

Call me an idiot, however, I thought Pharoahs etc. were buried in the Pyramids. I had visions of walking into a pyramid through complex mazes (ala The Mummy series). Not quite true .. you dont go to the Pyramids for anything other than look at the exterior or see what a real desert is .. all the pyramids were completely sealed off. For tomb raiding, Its the Valley of the Kings / Queens near Luxor that you really want to check out. Will post on that separately.

All roads lead to the highly avoidable Papyrus Museum (although I confess, I did buy a couple of pieces). This is because the locals get a cut of the sale made to tourists. As a result, you will find everyone 'selling' you certain shops as they are the ones who give a more generous cut. So, that's the spoiler .. this is infused everywhere. It is quite standard and very accepted. You will not get a straight recommendation from taxi drivers, bystanders, or anyone that we met.

Be careful about prices. I had bought a pair of onyx masks for something like a 100 Egyptian pounds. Having bargained the price down by half, I was feeling quite good about my Indian upbringing. Well .. not so. We were waiting at a bus terminal that of course had a number of kids that were selling souvenirs. Sure enough, I realized my masks were not as unique as I was made to believe. Still regret it, but curiosity (or some madness) overcame me and I had to ask. The can of worms was opened. That was it .. what I thought would be a simple validating question turned out to be something that still haunts me.

The asking price started at 200 pounds. I was overjoyed and looked to close the chapter. My lack of interest and absolute refusal to engage in a 'bargaining' conversation somehow became personal to the folks trying to sell me these onyx masks (I already had two of them).

200 Pounds ! Twice the price I had paid .. OK .. I had gotten a good deal. I could sleep.

Just when I thought I was done came this little voice behind my back .. "Wait .. OK .. 150 pounds". There was still hope. I tried valiantly to explain that I had only asked the price to validate my prior purchase, however, this bugger was not budging until he had made his sale. Believe it or not, he took his price down to 2 pounds.

TWO POUNDS !!

I was in tears, I have not slept since that day. Well .. OK, the no sleep thingy was because of two kids that came into my life ..

eg. Islamic art in mosque