Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

And Finally - India.

I had a relatively easy flight from Bangkok, but discovered a major problem when trying to check in. I had been told of a time change for my flight, but not of the airline change by my travel agents. This was quite confusing, as it turned out I was actually booked on a different airline, and had to go standby. Fortunately, I got on the plane at the last minute, so all was OK. There was one interesting event on the plane: one male Indian passenger was a loudmouth jerk and yelled at the Stews. When the plane landed and the doors opened, in came the soldiers and frog-marched him off. Last heard, he was screaming at the troops, which is not a good idea to do to men who carry loaded weapons.

I was picked up by the driver for my India Tour right on time. We drove into Delhi through horrible traffic. My driver, Veyd the Weaver, was wonderful. He weaved and dodged through the horde of other cars and motorbikes/scooters and tuk-tuks like a real Indianapolis 500 Pro. I got to the hotel and immediately went up to the rooftop restaurant/bar for a badly-needed beer. The weather had turned and the resulting breeze was cool and almost cold. It got down to about 60 (15 C) at night, and even the daytime temp was better at the mid-high 70s.

I sat and enjoyed the coolness after the enervating heat of Bangkok. I met up with a couple from Bath (He was Welsh, she from Cumbria) and enjoyed the night and the beer. He was a wild-haired ex-hippie type, with a great accent, and the evening went by nicely. We were also joined by a young French person - I think it was a girl, but short hair and high voice don't always qualify. S/he was ressed in Amy fatigues and very Butch, so excuse me if I'm not certain.

My first full day in Delhi was spent touring all the major tourist sights of the city. The long day began with a cruise through a Delhi park which was the habitation of several herds (tribes? Schools? Prides?) of wild monkeys. A good start. The Lakshmi temple: marble floors, no shoes allowed. There were swastikas all over the temple, which are seen as a lucky sign in India. We drove by Parliament, the President's house and India Gate. Streets in Delhi do have some broken-white-line lane markers, but drivers generally ignore them. As a result, two-lane streets often have three or even four lanes. We did the National Museum and the Tomb of Humanyun. At a local department store I found a really nice cashmere/silk sweater for about 1/3 of the price I would have paid in the USA. Lunch was at an Indian restaurant in strip mall sort of place. Good, but not spicy. We did the Bahai temple, which obviously owes a lot of its design to the Sydney Opera House! The Qutub Minar tower and grounds were also neat. We then finished up with a set of three temples to: Krishna, Vishnu and Hanuman, the monkey god. Beautiful.

The traffic in Delhi and, as a matter of fact, everywhere we went, was truly amazing. But Veyd had obviously adapted to his milieu and was able to handle his driving tasks with aplomb. This consisted of straddling the center line in order to be able to take advantage of any possible opening on either side of the road. He also tailgated shamelessly and used his horn like a Rome taxi driver. Actually, I think it is required to sound your horn here (they're more like Road Runner "Beeps") whenever you approach another car, want to pass, ask another driver to move out of the way, or just for kicks. Anyway, Indian traffic is extremely noisy and raucous with all the beeping. But never dull.

I finished the day at my hotel with a cooling beer on the rooftop and a light dinner. The next day, it was off to Mandawa in the mountains, about 5-6 hours southwest of Delhi. My driver, Veyd the Weaver, proved his name by using his Grand Prix weaving skills to get us deftly through all sorts of traffic, in and out of cities. And the traffic was terrible at times. Everything is allowed on the roads of India, and everything has the same right of way as everything else: cars, motor cycles/scooter/bikes, donkeys, goats, tuk-tuks, buses, camel carts, cattle, old men in wheelchairs, tourist cars coming your way on a one-way street - everything. But we got through them all, mainly by not driving faster than about 45 mph. I saw Veyd hit 80 kph a couple of times, but not often. A really special sight along ther way was the 7-foot-high mounds of drying cow patties, to be used as materials for fires. A sign leaving one small burg said, "Thanks." That was it. Interesting drive. Of course, you must remember Veyd and I spent about 5-6 hours each day on the road between cities. Luckily he wasn't a demanding conversationalist, so I had plenty of time to observe the scenery and wildlife.

The roads were fair to poor, like back-country, unmaintained asphalt roads in rural Alabama. After a major winter snowfall. Dirt and gravel through the villages. But I stayed in an old converted fortress/castle in Mandawa, reminiscent of the Raj. Great place. Had a city tour of old houses (haveli) which was a trek through trashy back streets and was not great, and then the guide then took me to his shop to try and sell me stuff. Boooo. But I did have a nice massage at the hotel, followed by a really nice buffet dinner in the garden.

After breakfast the next morning, we drove to Jaipur. I was hot and tired, so just took the respite to find an ATM, get some cash, and then hit the pool for a refreshing afternoon. After a nice nap, Veyd steered me to a favorite tourist restaurant of his, Indiana. The place was filled with only tourists, and I had what I thought was a good dinner with Richard from Edinburgh. The dancing show was good too. About 45 minutes after dinner, the stomach rumblings started, and within an hour they had progressed to a ful-blown case of Gandhi's Revenge, known locally as Delhi Belly.The snake was writhing and contracting and making his presence known in my guts, and was insistent upon hearing me cheer its efforts with loud gasps and explosions of my own. It was really nasty stuff, and I was up all night evacuating liquids from both ends. I spent most of the next day in bed, missed a full day of my Jaipur tour and my elephant ride. Bummer.

I was better enough the next day to drive to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, my major purpose for taking this particular tour of The Golden Triangle. We drove right to the hotel through the west part of town, which revealed Agra is really just a huge trash dump. The worst I had seen so far in India, and that's going some. Anyway, after a bland dinner at hotel (my stomach was still not back to normal) I was off to sleep for an early rising the next morning.

Most of the time, a person's high expectations are not reached when coming face to face with the object of those expectations. In this case, my high expectations were hugely exceeded. Everyone should see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. I'll be writing more about this intense experience in a longer version of this Blog when I include it in my next book, a collection of all my Newsletters since 1985. For now, the words would be just too much. Let's just say that if you truly want to see what human beings are capable of achieving, you should see the Taj Mahal at sunrise.

After almost literally tearing myself away, we toured the Red Fort at Agra, also a magnificent structure. Shah Jehan, builder of the Taj Mahal, died there. Lots of white marble. Then it was back to Delhi, still feeling the ill effects of the snake in my stomach. That evening I got some new medicines and hoped they would help.

They did, and the next day I was almost back to normal. I had two days left in Delhi, and spent them riding around with Veyd the Weaver, checking out the few places I hadn't seen during my first tour of the city. The Delhi Red Fort, Akshradayam temple (built on 100 acres of land, a really huge thing), Gandhi's cremation site and a great Gandhi museum, which included the exact site on which Gandhi was assassinated. Also did a few other minor sites and sights and a market or two, just to be sure I had left all of my rupees in India. Bought a few more gifts, but generally just lazed around, nursing my sore and tender guts. No more beer for this soldier on this trip.

Anyway, my flight home leaves Delhi at 7 AM Saturday, so tonight I will prepare myself to arrive at the airport around 4:30 Saturday morning, to be sure and check in on time. And, if all goes well and my plane leaves on time, and I am still booked on it, that will mark the last leg of my 2007 around-the-world tour. It's been great fun and has included some outstanding sights, adventures and food, not to mention all of my wonderful family and friends who made the trip even better. Thanks to everyone for everything - can't get more general than that. Not sure where the next trip will lead me, but will let everyone know as soon as I find out. If you recall, Dublin for the summer was a possibility! Y'all take care and keep smiling --- and NEVER eat at the Indiana restaurant in Jaipur, India!!!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

On to Asia...

I must admit I approached the Perth airport at 5:30 in the morning with some trepidation. I was to catch a Garuda Indonesia Airlines flight to Bali, before getting to Singapore that afternoon. It seems Garuda Indonesia Airlines had lost a plane the previous day. It had taxied off the runway upon landing and exploded, killing 23 people. Hmmm... Ah, well, when it's time, it's time. Anyway, I made it okay and, while waiting in Bali for my connecting flight to Singapore, I struck up a conversation with a fellow passenger, an Englishman, who just happened to teach English in Bali. Amazing. I had a three-hour layover in Bali, which I spent at the airport. The Balinese hucksters kept trying to interest me in food and massages, but I stayed steadfast and held out for Thailand.

Got into Singapore around 4:30 PM. Their airport was organization personified. I managed to retrieve my suitcase, find the Bag Storage area, check in my bags, catch a taxi and get to the Singapore Zoo for the Nightime Safari by 5:30 PM. A new personal best! Of course, the first Safari tram didn't leave until 7:15, so I had some time to kill. The weather was so hot and humid, I quickly downed 5 beers in 2 1/2 minutes. The sweat just wouldn't stop, as the humidity had to be 97%. Anyway, I grabbed some dinner at one of the zoo's restaurants and sweatily waited my turn on the tour.

Finally got on the tram, and it was sort of an anticlimax. Oh, it was okay, but nothing special. not like I had been led to believe. The animals were cool, but it was dusk and getting darker, so we really couldn't see too well. Anyway, not too much to be said. I finished up and caught another taxi back to town and to the Long Bar of the Hotel Raffles. Now THAT was cool! Check it out on the Internet. Raffles was THE place to be way back when, and the Long Bar was where everyone who was anyone in the Far East met to exchange information, swap lies and tell stories. The ceiling was still full of those old rattan fans (although the air conditioner did more these days to keep the customers cool), the bar and chairs were all in dark wood, and the floor was marble tiles. Surprise - for such a classy place, customers are encouraged to throw their peanut shells on the floor! I had my Singapore Sling, then switched to beer. It appeared every first-time visitor to the Long Bar ordered the obligatory Singapore Sling, but it seemed no one ever ordered a second. I passed the time talking with a traveling Canadian, then decided I needed some rest. I taxied back to the airport, and spent the rest of the night snoozing in one of the hard-backed chairs.

Morning came slowly, but I managed to wake up and wander over to the Departures Board to check on my flight's status to Bangkok. Hmmm, my flight wasn't on the board. Double Hmmm. When the Garuda Indonesia desk finally opened, I checked in with them. It seems I had been switched to Cathay Pacific airlines, for reasons unknown to me. Whatever, as long as I got to Bangkok I was happy. So I finally arrived in Bangkok, Thailand, around 4:30 in the afternoon. Treated myself to a "limo' ride to my hotel, through some horrendous traffic. I thought it was bad just because it was Friday afternoon, but found out later it was always this bad. Motor bikes, scooters, cycles, and mopeds abound in Bangkok, and keep the cars always on the alert for their weaving and dodging tactics. Anyway, I finally got to take a shower and clean up, then hit one of the most well-known streets in Bangkok, a place called soi (pronounced "sawy") Cowboy. Lots of bars and clubs and entertaining young Thai ladies. And, if you're not careful, lots of young Thai ladyboys! I sucked down my Tiger beers and wandered around, soaking up the atmosphere. Grabbed a bite to eat and caught a couple of the shows in the clubs. It's truly amazing what those girls can do wiuth a ping-pong ball!

My room was OKAY in the Royal Hotel Bangkok, a three-star establishment located near the Royal Palace. My only window looked into an empty courtyard, but the air conditioning worked just fine. I walked around my general area for a few hours, catching the Royal Palace (I couldn't go in since I was wearing shorts). I decided to try and beat the heat somewhat (it was 98 degrees (37 degrees for my British friends) with 123% humidity - and while the temperature got hotter during my stay, the humidity never lessened. Reminded me of one of the many reasons I left St Louis, Missouri.

Next morning I found out my hotel served up a great breakfast buffet, including American pancakes, eggs, sausage, toast, croissants, etc. There was also a separate buffet for the early Asian riser, consisting of rice and other Asian goodies. It was all really good. Still brutally hot and humid (March is apparently the lowest of the Thai seasons, which are: Hot, Very Hot and Very Very Hot. Luckily I was there only in the Hot season!). Anyway I decided a river cruise was in order. It was cool and interesting. Saw many of the side canals off the main river, the Chao Phraya. Lots of rundown ramshackle houses, with some nicer ones thrown in. Kids were swimming in the river, which astonished me. Those kids must be immune to every disease known to man. I saw the Wat Arun temple, then found Khaosan Road, one of the main tourist areas in the city. Had a good lunch at Buddy Beer: stir-fry ostrich with garlic and black pepper. More Tiger beer. Then I walked slowly back to the hotel (running would have laid me out) and spent the next two hours in the hotel pool. Not lying on a lounge by the saide of the pool, but actually IN the pool. Damn, but it was hot! Next day was more shopping at Khaosan and more Tiger beer and another lunch at Buddy Beer. Love that place. The afternoon was spent in the pool again. Too hot to do anything else. But the evening crowd on Khaosan Road was something to be seen and enjoyed. I sucked down my Tiger beers at a streetside cafe and watched the entertainment. For the men, it was the Coolest Shirt contest. I saw shirts from Barbados, Trondheim, and Carlos & Charlie's in Puerto Vallarta. I thought my Tribunal Bar in St Petersburg (in Russian, of course!) shirt was in the running for the main prize, until I caught a shirt from Sheep-Shifter's Bar in Tierra del Fuego. Had to give him the main prize.

For girls it was the International Rear End Cleavage Bakeoff. All of the tourists and local girls wear their pants so low-slung that when they bend over to inspect some item of tourist junk, their rear cleavage (we always called it The Vertical Smile) is clearly visible for all to admire. Underwear styles included black, white, cotton, silk, thongs, American, German, French, etc. Never did get a winner, but got to judge a lot of contestants.

Dinner was shrimp, rice and more beer. While in Bangkok I was continually approached by taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, wanting to take me somewhere - anywhere - but especially to a favorite Thai Bathhouse of their acquaintance. My first encounter with a tuk-tuk driver (these are little motorcycle-like vehicles, with a sort of carrier cage built on to them, capable of transporting 2-3 people in much less than comfort; but they are a Bangkok experience, so one must do it sometime) was surprising and fun. As I was walking down the street in the evening, one of the drivers came up to me and said, "Tuk-tuk?" I answered "Mai Chai" (no) politely. Then he said, "Boom boom?" Caught me off guard and I laughed for the next 2 minutes. At least they're honest about what they have to offer.

Monday was a full 12-hour day. Picked up too early by the mini-bus for all-day trip around Thailand. Our driver, Fireball Kwok, proved his worth by breaking every speed record to get us to our first destination: one of the WWII cemeteries for prisoners of war who died making the Bridge on the River Kwai. Next on the list was the Death War Museum (odd name), which included a portion of the actual wooden Bridge constructed by the prisoners. Just down the road was the completed metal bridge, which I walked across. It was an experience. I then had to visit the Gift Shop on the River Kwai, and finally had to find the Toilet on the River Kwai. Fireball then drove us madly to an isolated train station, literally in the middle of nowhere, where we caught a train for another isolated station. (Ed Note: Fireball had the disconcerting habits of passing on curves, tailgating and playing chicken with oncoming cars when he tried to pass another car. Gave us some moments, but, for all that, he was actually a pretty safe, smooth driver. No worries, Mate!) Anyway, the train was great; all the carriages were made of wood, including the hard-backed seats. Windows were pulled down to admit the hot rushing air. We bounced down the tracks for about an hour, met our minibus at the last station, and broke more speed records to get to our floating restaurant on the River Kwai for lunch of rice and chicken.

Next stop was "one of Thailands best and most beautiful waterfalls." I gave it a C minus. It was okay, nestled in a sylvan setting, but their were kids swimming in the pools and it was bare dirt all around and the waterfall was just fair. No big deal. I guess you have to go with what you've got. But our final stop of the day was the best: the Tiger Temple Sanctuary and Conservation Project. Pictures are available for interested parties of me petting a tiger and holding a tiger's head in my lap. I wasn't as nervous as I looked. The facility also had hordes of wild pigs, bullocks, horses, peacocks and a couple of really cute baby tigers. Cool place. We got back to the hotel around 6:30 and I raced to the shower (I was getting better at racing the humidity by now). Aaaahhh. Had another good dinner near Khaosan road, of lobster bisque and stir-fried shrimp with pepper and garlic. Yummy.

Tuesday I did a couple of more tourist sights: the Jim Thompson house and the Sampeng market. The Thompson house was interesting. Jim Thompson was an American who, after WWII, moved to Thailand and was almost single-handedly responsible for promoting the international Thai silk industry. When he was 61 years old in 1967, we went on a trip into the Malaysian mountains and was never heard from again. But his house is truly beautiful. I picked up a six-place setting of amazing Thai silk dinner napkins for Morgan - ask to see them if you visit her. The Sampeng Chinese market area was also fun, and I found a really nice Chinese jacket and some soft, cool shirts for myself. The rest of the day was spent at the pool. Dinner was once again in Khaosan, as it was easy to get to and the food and ambience were great.

Since I had pretty much done all I wanted to do in Bangkok, I decided to immerse myself fully in the Thailand experience and go to one of the "Thai Baths." This is where you can choose one (or more!) young Thai women who will attend to your every need for a couple of hours: bathing, massages, etc. What the hell, when will I be back this way? And, of course, when in Rome...Needless to say - but I'll say it anyway - it was a fun and relaxing and interesting experience, one I won't forget soon. Just what the doctor ordered for poor, tired old travelers.

Finally, all I wanted to do was relax around the pool for my last day in Bangkok. It was still too damn hot and humid to walk around outside, so I lazed and read and sunned and generally took it easy my final day in town. An early dinner and a stroll around the area near my hotel, and I was finished with Bangkok. Next stop: India.

A few final observations. The general ambience in the tourist areas was grubby, dreadlocked, young men in flip-flops and their sweaty female counterparts. Lots of backpackers. Got caught in the smoky haze near Kanchanaburi (River Kwai Bridge site) due to the Thai farmers' burnoff of their excess vegetation. Everyone was smiling and friendly, some of them probably even honestly so.

Okay, Readers, that's it for Thailand. Hope y'all have been keeping up with my adventures and are continuing to live vicariously through me. It's still a gas. Take care, more to come as the adventures continue to pile up.