paulathai

adventures in Thailand


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EGYPT: Traffic, Pyramids/Camel, Beach Bum #2, SNAFU

TRAFFIC:  Imagine Washington, DC with its many circles. Add thousands of taxis. Remove ALL traffic lights, yield signs and lane dividers. Result: Cairo traffic. It’s crazy here. There’s not a car without a scratch/dent on it. So far I’ve been in one car that was scraped while we were in traffic and a taxi bumped his car against a curb. Often the drivers create 5 lanes where there should be 4. There are highways with no dividing lines. No rules for entering/exiting. Sort of a driving free for all.

PYRAMIDS/CAMEL: The main reason for coming to Egypt was to see the pyramids which I did last Sunday. Definitely impressive though the Taj Mahal still ranks as the best site of this trip. Got a camel ride through the Giza pyramids and over to the sphinx. Once in a lifetime experience (once was a enough). The following day  my muscles could definitely tell that I’d been on a camel.

BEACH BUM #2: Since I didn’t like Cairo much and was warned against taking a bus to Luxor due to roadblocks and attacks, I flew south to Dahab on the Red Sea. Five relaxing days, snorkeling a couple of times and enjoying the easy life. Lots of wonderful seafood restaurants. Stayed in a lovely hotel that had an auxiliary dorm. Had to share the room but it had a big living room with kitchen and free internet. Plus the pool at the hotel was great and the breakfast terrific. All for $9 a night.

Dahab was recommended by my Cairo CS hosts as more laid back than Sharm El Sheik. Glad I went there. Spent my last afternoon in Sharm and it was too glitzy and overbuilt. The only problem with Dahab was the high percentage of Russian tourists.

I did two excursions. The first was to the BLUE HOLE, a famous diving site that’s 300 meters deep. Of course I snorkeled along the edge of the reef, not over the deep part since there weren’t fish there. It was interesting and saw lots of colorful coral and fish. The 2nd trip was nearly all day to St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert. Very interesting 2 hour drive there and historic monastery. Enjoyed it a lot.

SNAFU: I really screwed up my travel plans here. I bought a roundtrip airplane ticket from Cairo to Sharm El Sheik (then taxi to Dahab). Should have bought one way. Although the internet and LONELY PLANET listed bus service from Cairo to Israel it doesn’t exist. Thus tonight I’m taking an 8 hour overnight bus trip back to Dahab. Then I catch a bus to Taba (2 hours) and cross into Israel at Eliat. Next I have to go north to Jerusalem by bus. Pain in the you know where. Hope to reach Palestine by tomorrow night. But maybe will spend the night in Jerusalem. Looking forward to seeing my friends in Hares, the village where I stayed with IWPS.

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COUCHSURFING IN LUXURY

From an initial bad Couchsurfing experience in Kathmandu, I’ve gone up in the world. In New Delhi and Cairo, where I’m currently staying, my hosts have lived in lovely, large apartments complete with staffs.

Ranjana in New Delhi lived in the first floor of a four floor building that she inherited from her late parents. I guess the rents from the other 3 places supported her since she hadn’t worked in a year. There were 3 bedrooms: one for her, one for her CS guests and the third for her live in help of a married couple with children ages 3 and 7. The couple cooked and cleaned.

The neighborhood was decidedly upscale. Little traffic on her street and lots of three and four-story apartment buildings and occasional single homes. The housekeeper made wonderful fresh chipati (little flat breads) for every meal and cooked delicious dinners.

Now in Cairo, once again I’m in a lovely neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings. My hosts are a French/Brazilian couple who choose to live in Cairo, having moved here about 3 years ago. They have a sweet 13 month old girl. The woman teaches French in a private school and the man is an attorney. In addition to a housekeeper/nanny,  they have a driver (the nanny’s husband) who drives their new car. He picked me up at the  airport on Thursday and tomorrow will take me to the Giza pyramids. What a treat! I’ll pay for the gas and also tip him.

Tomorrow night I’ll probably fly to Sharm el Sheik to spend 4 days on the Red Sea. It seems to difficult, complicated and expensive to go to Luxor as planned. Though that might change. Today I’m going to the dentist with my friend’s parents for a quick consultation. Next Saturday I’ll probably have an appt. with him to remove a non cancerous tumor on my gum. The dentist comes highly recommended and his parents, who live in Fresno, have all their dental work done here.

This afternoon and again tomorrow after the pyramids, I’ll visit the National Museum which is supposed to be great. It’s on Tahir Square so guess I won’t be able to avoid that area. Supposedly safe enough. Let’s hope.

 


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RAJANASTAN: Jaipur and Pushkar

RAJANASTAN: JAIPUR AND PUSHKAR

JAIPUR, known as the Pink City, lives up to its reputation with beautiful colonial architecture and much of the city sporting reddish or pink exteriors. Our train from Agra was 4.5 hours late so we arrived at the hotel at 3:30 a.m. The owner, who was sleeping in the lobby on a mattress, couldn’t have been more gracious. Luckily, I had phoned him via skype to tell him the train was delayed.

The only good part of the long delay was meeting Max, a 23-year-old dentist from Chile who was traveling for 3 months. We shared a ride to  Agra to use wifi at my favorite restaurant and really hit it off. He got an adjacent room in the hotel in Jaipur for 2 nights and in Pushkar we turned a king size bed into two twins with the help of management. Saved money and was fun.

COSTS in India are ridiculous low, as expected. The hole in the wall in Agra was about $10 but not very nice. So I splurged in Jaipur and spent about $16 for the first night (online booking fee) and $14 for the second. In Pushkar our twin room cost just over $10 for the 2 of us. No doubt some of my friends (and definitely my brother who travels only first class) would turn down their noses as the accommodations. But they are clean, have AC, color TV with cable, and decent bathroom (although the shower doesn’t have a separate stall==the water just falls on the bathroom floor).

TRAINS lived up to their reputation of being excellent transport despite the delays on my first two journeys. The first two were 2nd class seats with berths. That meant that I got a fresh sheet, pillow and blanket so could lie down if I wanted. A couple of the men in my compartment seemed to sleep most of the way from New Delhi to Agra. My last two trains were 3rd class, AC, “chair coaches.,” similar to  trains in the USA. The cost for all four tickets (3 hours, 4 hour, 2 hour and 7 hour rides) was $24. Isn’t that incredible? Even though I’m not Indian, I qualified for a senior discount of half-price. The 7 hour ride back to Delhi cost $6.50 and included a snack plus dinner.

In JAIPUR we rented a tuk tuk and driver for the day from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., costing under $14. Great investment which had been suggested by the Polish Couchsurfers. We toured the beautiful City Palace, an amazing fort like building filled with huge astronomical instruments that resembled outdoor modern sculptures, and  one other venue in the city. After lunch, the driver took us about 20 or 25 minutes outside the city to the Amber Fort which was truly amazing. It was huge, dominating a hillside and surrounded by a moat. Perhaps the best feature was what Max called “The Great Wall” since it resembled the famous Chinese structure. It stretched for miles and must have provided very effective defense.

I was exhausted by the end of the day and just crashed in the room while Max went out to shop and buy some snacks for dinner. I had room service:

Plain white rice and coke. Exciting, huh?

PUSHKAR was a 2 hour train ride away to Ajmer, the adjacent city on the other side of a big lake and small mountain. We found a room at the Everest Hotel which was recommended on Trip Advisor, Agoda and Lonely Planet. Luckily they one room left. The manager converted it from a kingsize double to two twin beds.

The “holy city,” as it is known, sits on a small lake which looks manmade since it’s surrounded by cement steps going down to it. But locals assured us it’s natural. Over 500 temples dot the small city of 14,000 people. They range from magnificent structures such as the Sikh Temple or the two temples towering above the city on separate hilltops, to little shrines stuck into a wall.

Pushkar was the perfect place to relax and unwind which is exactly what I needed. My cough has gotten worse and I was on day 3 of the dreaded Indian diarrhea (but luckily no cramps). After a quick exploration down to the lake upon arrival and checking in, I rested and slept for an hour while Max took off to hike up the mountain to one of the temples. He didn’t return until 10 pm and I’d told myself not to worry until 11 so all was okay. I had soup for dinner on the hotel’s lovely, breezy rooftop restaurant.

By chance, Sunday was a big festival holiday in honor of Shiva. The town was bustling and filled with pilgrims, a handful of Westerners but mostly Indians. The streets were filled with women in colorful saris, many carrying packages on their heads, as they dodged the motorbikes and cows lounging in the streets.

COWS are sacred in India as you probably know and wander the streets at will. Takes some getting used to. Not just avoiding the cows but also their huge droppings. I enjoyed seeing the cows eating hundreds of flowers strewn out on the street for dinner after the temples disgorged their colorful offerings.

SHOP ‘TIL YOU DROP could describe out Sunday in Pushkar. Max bought a lot of stuff for his other who had informed him via skype that she deposited $500 in his account so he could shop on her behalf. He spent closer to $70 not  $500 and came away with several beautiful wall hangings, 4 or 5 skirts, a couple of pairs of sandals, bangles, a huge bed covering and a couple of small outfits for his little nephew. My “haul” included a bed covering for my new apartment, several small wall hangings for gifts, some bangles, a couple of childsize outfits (Juliette and my host family in Cairo who have a one year old girl), and two beautiful skirts, one for me and another as a gift. Today, Monday, my shopping concluded with a visit to a high quality jeweler where I spent $40 on a lovely ring and 2 silver and 1 brass pair of earrings for myself and another brass pair for a gift. It put me over my India budget but went on the debit card so didn’t count, right? Haha. Actually I’m still within budget if I don’t count the $60 I’ve put aside for shipping a package to the USA tomorrow from Delhi.

 

Returning to New Delhi tonight for 2 nights followed by Weds. Night at the airport as I await my 5:40 a.m. flight to Kuwait City  and Cairo. Staying in the lovely apartment of Ranjana again.

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INDIAN TRAINS, a disaster, CHANGE and SCAMS

 

TRAINS  Too bad India never had a Mussolini. The Fascist leader, supposedly, made the Italian trains run on time. Sure do wish that India had followed Italy’s example. The 7:35 pm train from Agra to Jaipur, which takes 5 hours, is now scheduled to depart at 11:20 p.m. RIDICULOUS. I am definitely fed up. Also, the train from Delhi to Agra was 2 hours late. Thank goodness I have a seat that includes a berth so I can sleep once the train arrives, assuming it ever does. (added later: it departed at 11:55 a.m.!)

The only upside of this travel chaos is Max, a Chilean traveler on the same train. We met at the station and shared a tuk tuk into town to my favorite restaurant to use the wifi on my computer.  He’s traveling for 3 months, having graduated from dental school in December. Very nice guy with excellent English. (addendum: he wound up coming to my hotel and got an adjacent room; the next day we split the cost of a tuk tuk driver and went sightseeing together)

Last time I counted, 13 people, mostly older, were laying on the floor asleep. Definitely not Grand Central or Penn Station. Most are traveling but a couple seem homeless. Whoops, just  noticed 7 more bodies stretched out in the adjacent alcove. If the train comes after midnight, who knows, maybe I’ll join them. Just kidding.

When the train arrival moved to after 11 pm I considered getting a refund (which one can do if the train is more than 3 hours late) and rebooking for the morning. But the ticket guy said he couldn’t get me a confirmed seat, recommending I just show up in the morning. Forget it.

It would be great if the hotel, which I booked on line this afternoon and called at 8 pm to tell them of my late arrival, allowed me to use tonight’s reservation tomorrow. (addendum: of course i had to pay for the night but two brothers who own it are exceptionally nice and helpful, despite having arrived at 3:30 a.m.)

Let’s see how accommodating they are. I’m not holding my breath.

In theory the train should be arriving in a couple of minutes. Then there’s a 25 minute wait here. Perhaps someone could explain why a late train still waits 25 minutes instead of departing in 5 minutes to gain some time. There are definitely some frustrating challenges traveling in India. Here are two more:

CHANGE, or more accurately, lack of change. For some reason Indians do not like to give change. When you pay with 100 rupees (about $2) for a 20 rupee item, the vendor rarely has change. The most outrageous example was yesterday morning at the Taj Mahal. I was the 3rd person in line at sunrise. Tickets cost 750 rupee and I handed the guy 1000 rupee. NO CHANGE! How can you open a ticket office with no money for change? Ridiculous. The ticket vendor allowed me to enter with the ticket and return later for my change, which, miraculously, he gave me at 10 a.m.

SCAMS are prevalent in India guidebooks warned. I’m fairly certain that the first Indian I interacted with upon arrival scammed me for 500 rupee (about $9.50). After using the ATM, I headed for the prepaid taxi stand as advised my CouchSurfing host. The ATM gave only 500 rupee notes. I handed the taxi guy a bill from the wad. A second later he showed me a 100 rupee note and said, “No it’s 310 rupees, this isn’t enough.” So I gave him another 500 rupee note. Afterwards I realized that he must have scammed me because I had no 100 rupee notes from the cash machine. At the time I was too confused to notice the discrepancy. Let’s hope that’s the only scam.

 


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POKHARA ACTIVITIES: Sunrise, Boating, Traditional Dance and Music

(I don’t think this posted on my first attempt. If it did, apologies for the repetition)

Sunrise over the Annapurna range was breathtaking, much better than the sunrise earlier in the week at Naragkot. Why?  Two main reasons: The viewpoint sat closer to the Himalayan peaks and we started out earlier, arriving at the mountaintop in the dark. Thus, we enjoyed the complete range of colors, from the earliest pale gray lightening of the sky to the deep purples and bright oranges that appeared later.

 

Two boys, ages 12 and 14 from the VisionNepal children’s home, joined me for the early morning adventure. They had been to the mountain viewpoint during the day with other volunteers, but never at sunrise. It warmed my heart to share the experience with them.

 

Driving up the mountain we witnessed dozens of people jogging up the side of the road. Our driver explained that many of them were retired soldiers or gurkas who liked to stay in shape. Overall, the Nepalese are among the most physically fit in the world. Until recently there were very few roads and people walked everywhere. The majority of rural residents still walk from village to village.

 

BOATING took place after breakfast. Pokhara sits next to Fewa Lake and that’s where we headed around 10 a.m. The “house mother” and the next three oldest kids (a 10 year old boy and 11 year old boy/girl twins) enjoyed the hour long rowboat ride with me. First the oarsmen rowed over to a Hindu temple on a small island about 200 meters from the shore. Many tourists and Nepalese had the same idea. In the temple I received tikka for the first time: the red dot on my forehead placed there by the resident monk.

 

For the remainder of the hour we enjoyed the sunshine and blue skies as the oarsmen took us along the shore and across the lake. The green foothills ringed the lake with the snow capped Himalayas jutting out above them in the distance. On the way back to the Children’s Home I bought big bakery cookies for the two five year olds who didn’t go on either excursion.

 

TRADITIONAL NEPALESE DANCE AND MUSIC filled the final evening in Pokhara. Several restaurants offered free entertainment so we headed to one of them in the early evening. The place we chose feature four musicians: harmonium, singer (who played tambourine), two drummers and a troupe of five dancers. The brightly colored costumes and swirling dancers enchanted us.

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NEPAL IMPRESSIONS

NEPAL IMPRESSIONS

 

TRAFFIC & POLLUTION

Kathmandu lived up to its reputation: cloaked in smog, death=defying traffic, dirty streets full of trash

 

CROWDED STREETS WITH LOTS OF DUST

People, pedicabs (rickshaws), motorbikes, taxis, cars, minivan vying for the fastest route down alleys and streets

 

AMAZING SNOW CAPPED MT. PEAKS TOWERING ABOVE GREEN FOOTHILLS

 

NARROW, ROADS WINDING UP AND DOWN THE MOUNTAINS

 

COLORFULLY DECORATED TRUCKS SPORTING FLAGS, POM POMS AND PAINTED WINDOWS AND SIDES

 

GREEN CROPS SPROUTING UP ON TERRACED HILLSIDES

 

LARGE CABBAGES, SUPERSIZE CAULIFLOWER AND DELICIOUS CRISPY APPLES

 

LIMITED ELECTRICITY, AVAILABLE ONLY 3 TO 5 HOURS A DAY

Many hotels and businesses supplemented the electric power with their own generators and heated water with solar panels

 

CUISINE FROM NEPAL, INDIA AND ALMOST EVERYWHERE ELSE

Ubiquitous dal with rice and cabbage/potatoes in every home at every meal

 

BEAUTIFUL HANDMADE SHAWLS, SCARVES AND SWEATERS MADE FROM YAK WOOL

Rainbow colors ranging from the subtle to the bright

 

SMILING, HAPPY CHILDREN

 

BREATHTAKING SUNRISES AND SUNSETS

 

WARM KNITTED WOOL HATS IN MANY COLORS AND PATTERNS

 

GORGEOUS JACKETS THAT WERE HARD TO RESIST BUYING

 

BUDDHIST TEMPLES AND HINDU SHRINES REFLECTING NEPAL’S SPIRITUAL SIDE

 

COMMUNAL SPIGOTS PROVIDING WATER TO VILLAGES AND CITY DWELLERS