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By this Author: jhongny

All Good Things Must Come To An End

Wrap Up and More Importantly, Our List of Favorite Food Places

View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

There must be a part of me that thinks, subconsciously, that if I don’t write the last post then the trip’s not over yet. Well, we’ve been back now for a few months so it’s time to come to terms with the fact that our year-long wandering lifestyle is O-V-E-R!

We did end with a bang by pampering ourselves with a week at the Marriott Resort in Aruba to "transition" back to the US lifestyle (the Marriott points came in handy one last time). I could get philosophical about how amazing this trip was (it was) and what an impact this trip has had on me (it has) and how much more understanding I have of the various cultures around the world (yes definitely), but FIRST let me talk about something a little more lighthearted (but no less important), our List of Favorite Food Places because after all, food is one of my favorite subjects, and has been an important part of this trip:

The Top 3 were picked because we liked almost everything we had in each country:

  1. 1: Vietnam - I think almost every meal we had in Vietnam was excellent (except maybe some of the bus stops on the open tour route). From the sandwiches and the stalls in the morning market in Ho Chi Minh City to the small eateries and fancy restaurants in Hanoi, oh, and the Crab in Tamarind Sauce in Hoi An.... We have to go back just to eat some more of that delicious food.

  1. 2: Turkey: kebabs, mezes, fresh fish sandwich, and Ciya Sofrasi.. what's not to love! Again, need to go back with an empty stomach and a couple of empty suitcases (to shop in between meals)

  1. 3: Thailand: the foodcourt in Bangkok's malls put the Thai restaurants in NY to shame. If you're ever in the region, definitely try the Soukhothai noodles!

We didn't have any favorite "countries" after the top 3, but we did have quite a few memorable dishes so I'm just going to list them in no particular order (I tried, but it's just too hard to rank):

Budapest - Goulash Stew (as the name implies it's thicker than the more popular Goulash Soup)

Vilnius - the fried rye break stick that is a popular beer snack

Poland - pork schnitzel (I know, I know, but Ashok had one of the best he's ever tasted and still talks about it)

China - for a country so big it's tough to love everything. On this trip our favorites were the poulou (a rice dish similar to biriyani) and lamb kebobs in Kashgar, the Spicy Lamb dish in Turpan, and food in general in Chengdu.

India - I developed a love for South Indian food (and spicier food in general), and renewed my love of Kati Rolls in Calcutta. It's not that we don't love North Indian, but North Indian is too rich to eat several days in a row.

Egypt - the stuffed pigeon we had in a tiny hole-in-the-wall place in Cairo

Senegal - anything with Yassa sauce

Argentina - the Bife Chorizo (or any steak) in Cordoba

Uruguay - pretty much any chorizo, but especially the Morcilla Dulce (sweet blood sausage)

Brazil - the sucos, or fresh fruit juice (especially the Acai for Ashok)

Of course, this is our list and is by no means meant to be an authoritative list. These are just some of our favorite memories from this trip.

Many people have asked us what our favorite places were on this trip so I'm going to list them here:

  1. 1 Mongolia - for the amazing landscape that's unspoilt by human activity

  2. 2 Jordan - I never realized a rocky landscape (and a desert) can be so colorful and beautiful

  3. 3 Glaciers in Patagonia region of Argentina - just majestic and magnificent and the bluest blue in the glacier will forever be etched in my mind.

Finally, I will get a little sentimental and just say that we are SO glad we took this trip because we got to experience traveling in a completely different way and not only got to see a lot of cool places, but got to meet some incredibly interesting people as well. Now that it's over, even some of the not so good experiences has become fond memories. It was all the more interesting because of the economy collapse that happened after we started our trip - if we hadn't left when we did I don't think it would've happened. We had traveled quite a bit before this trip so I can't say that I was shocked by the living conditions of many of the places we went to, but I do have to say that this trip has reinforced that the US is more different than it is similar to the rest of the world (I can go on, but suffice it to say some of it good, some of it not so good). On the other hand, whether it's a developing country or developed country, at some level everyone wants the same things - a good, secure life - for themselves and their family.

People have also asked if we were getting tired of traveling. In a way I guess a year of traveling does wear on you and it is good to be back home in my own comfortable bed (one of the things I missed on the road). However, instead of getting traveling out of my system as I thought I'd do prior to this trip, I think this past year has only reinforced how much I love to travel and has given me the "travel bug" instead. One month after we got back we were ready to hit the road again, and already we're making a list of the places we skipped/missed and thinking about where to go next. Until then, travel and enjoy!

Posted by jhongny 21:03 Tagged food Comments (1)

Highlights of South America, Part II: Uruguay, Brazil

Uruguay (April 21-28): Montevideo, Punta del Este, Punta del Diablo, Cabo Polonio; Brazil (May 5-13): Rio de Janeiro, Foz de Iguacu

sunny 80 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Since we couldn't go to Morocco because Ashok could not get a visa, we ended up spending the extra days in Uruguay. It turned out to be one of our favorite countries (once again proving everything happens for a reason)! The Uruguayan consulates were also the nicest, most service oriented of all the ones we dealt with - proving my other theory that a consulate/embassy provides a good insight for what that country is like. In summary, Ashok started his visa application in Istanbul (he's the first to apply for a visa in Turkey) with the help of a woman from the consulate in Hamburg, and ended up picking up his visa in Buenos Aires.

Uruguay is a small country of only 3 million people which probably explains its laid back culture. Even Montevideo felt more like a small city than a capital city. In addition, the beaches are nice, the people are extremely warm and friendly, and the asados are great... so what's not to love?! Everyone has a place they dream of moving to, and Uruguay is one of those places for us.

Punta del Este is the big beach resort town (reputedly THE place to be seen in South America after Rio), but it was a little too much like any other resort town. What we loved were the smaller beach towns further up the coast that have a lot more character, in particular Punta del Diablo, a former fishing village turned local up-and-coming resort/surfer town, and Cabo Palonio, a small establishment in a national park where there's no electricity or running water, and the only way to get there is in 4x4 trucks.

Cabo Palonio:

The coast of Punta Del Diablo:
We met some great people in Punta Del Diablo: Veronica, owner of Elida Elena hostel, was helpful even though we didn't end up staying there (they didn't have rooms with private bathrooms). We ended up stopping by the hostel several times for great food and even better conversation with her, her boyfriend and everyone who works there.

An impromptu photo session with the people that works at the Elida Elena:
One of the amazing BBQs at the Elida Elena, with Gabriel presiding over the grill:

All our friends that love grilling would be jealous to see the huge pit/grill that is built into EVERY house in Uruguay (and Argentina), and the amount of meat that's piled on top of the grill each time. If not for the NYC fire code, we would build one on our roofdeck. While Argentina is known for steak, Uruguay has the best chorizos (sausages). In particular, we loved the Morcilla Dulce, a sweet blood sausage available only in Uruguay (the orange zest tempers the taste of the blood, and it tastes way better than it sounds!). While we're on the subject of food, we were "meated out" by the time we got to Brazil so I can't speak for the churrascaria there. However, the sucos (fresh squeezed fruit juice) in Rio were amazing! The abundance of tropical fruits in Brazil meant that the sweetest, freshest juices are available at any random sucos stand for less than $2. Ashok's favorite was the acai, and I could never decide between that or mango juice.

Sorry I digressed (food has that effect on me). Bernardo, from whom we rented the cabin, is another interesting person we met in Punta del Diablo. Apparently he used the cabin to "get away" from his kids and wife when it's not rented out, so it was perfectly normal for him to come over each evening to sit around and chat with us about everything from surfing (he's a retired surfer) to real estate to local and world politics. For a guy living in a small village where there's no ATM (but has internet connection!), Bernardo is very well versed in what's going on in the world. Another lesson for us - never judge a book by its cover.

Bernardo with his family (courtesy of Ashok who took the family portrait one afternoon):
The cabin that we rented from Bernardo in Punta del Diablo:
View of the ocean, taken from the bedroom of the cabin:

From Uruguay we went back to Buenos Aires for a few days, then headed up to Iguazu Falls and on to Rio, Brazil. We had grand plans of going to Salvador, Ilha Grande, and several other places in Brazil (thanks David for all your reco's), but we crossed over to Brazil at the Iguazu Falls border, got down to Rio, and just settled in. Actually, what happened was that, for one reason or another, we spent more days in Argentina than we had planned so we only had 7 days by the time we got to Rio, and since we were almost at the end of our trip we didn't have the energy to cram 2-3 places into such a short amount of time. Instead, we spent the days exploring Rio at our leisure and left the other places for our next visit to Brazil.

Sun and beach immediately comes to mind whenever Rio is mentioned. However, I think what really sets Rio apart is its location - situated between the lush green tropical mountains and the beach, few cities can claim such a dramatic setting.
One of the best ways to appreciate the view is to watch the sunset from Sugarloaf Mountain. We lucked out and were there on a very clear day with just enough clouds to provide some dramatic color.

One cannot be in Rio without going to Copacabana beach, even if the water is quite polluted these days... so one afternoon we packed our stuff and worked our way there. The beach was pretty quiet and we were able to find a nice patch of dry sand not too close to the water. As I was getting settled on my towel and starting to enjoy the warm rays of the sun, I saw this look of surprise and horror on Ashok's face, and sat up just in time to see this white wave come rolling towards us. The next thing I knew, I, along with everything we had, were completely soaked. The only saving grace was that Ashok was standing with one of his cameras at the time, and was able to grab the other one off the towel before the water washed over it so the 2 most expensive pieces of equipment were saved. I'm sure the locals sitting around us had a good laugh at us, "the stupid tourists", as they watched us scramble to gather up our stuff and dragged all the wet stuff around looking for some place to rinse off the sand. It took about 3 days for everything to dry up, and even longer to get all the sand out of my backpack and Ashok's camera bag. While this was not one of our favorite moments, it was certainly one of the memorable ones!

Copacabana Beach, a short while before we got washed out:

In Rio we stayed in a comfy B&B called Casa 579 in the Santa Teresa neighborhood, an "artsy" area on top of the hill of the same name in the center of Rio (which served a great breakfast - fresh fruit juice and cake baked every morning... yummm). Maybe it's because we had a view of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue (the other iconic landmark) from our window, we didn't make it up to Corcovado mountain to see the statue until the last day.

View of Corcovado with Christ the Redeemer from our window (ok, our bathroom window):

Christ the Redeemer up close (we were the first ones there so no tourists!):
By the way, in case you're thinking of watching the sunrise from there, it's not possible. The park opens at 8am so it is way bright by then.

One other highlight for us was the tour of the Maracana stadium. After all, when one thinks of soccer, Brazil and Pele immediately comes to mind, so it was really cool to walk the grounds where so many famous players have competed:
We also learned an interesting fact: The stadium was built in 1950 for the fourth World Cup, between Brazil and Uruguay. Brazil was so confident they were going to win that they announced that the stadium would be painted with the colors of the winning team. Well, as we know now, Uruguay shocked the world by beating Brazil at the last minute, which is why the stadium is blue and not green.

The only places we had left after Rio were Cordoba and Mendoza (which I talked about in my last post), and thus ended our time in South America, and pretty much our trip. All we had left was a week in Aruba before going back to New York. More on that and some final thoughts next time.

Posted by jhongny 21:19 Archived in Uruguay Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

South America highlights: Argentina

Argentina: Buenos Aires, El Calafate, Ushuaia, Puerto Iguazu, Cordoba, Mendoza April 9 - May 21, 2009

all seasons in one day 80 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

At the start of our 1.5 month in South America, our feelings were bittersweet. On one hand, it's a whole new continent to explore. On the other hand, it also meant the beginning of the end (of our trip). Culturally, I also felt that we were closer to home. In many ways, Latin America is, well, a Latin version of North America. Don't get me wrong, there is a very distinct Latin culture (which we love, by the way). But it's definitely a western culture and very different from where we had been for the last 6 months. The fact that we started off in Buenos Aires probably had something to do with it since it reminded us a lot of New York City (I think the city was planned based on a combination of New York and Paris).

There was definitely a culture shock after being in Asia, Middle East and Africa for so long. To name a few: once again we saw couples hugging and making out in public whereas it was a big deal for couples to even hold hands; there's no longer any haggling (even street vendors will only give a 5% discount) - a good and a bad thing; and after months of no pork and hardly any beef, it is now all beef all the time (not that I'm complaining).

One of our first (second, third, fourth.... meals in Buenos Aires):

It's near impossible to write about everything that happened over 1.5 months (nor do I think anyone would have the patience to read it), so I will keep this post to only the highlights on Argentina and follow up shortly with another one on Uruguay and Rio, Brazil:

By far our favorite in South America, and one of the top 3 on this trip, is the Glaciers of Patagonia (Perito Moreno and Upsala Glaciers, El Calafate, Argentina). It's simply breathtaking to see the Perito Moreno Glacier - whether it's the view of the jagged top sloping down the mountain to stop abruptly at the edge of Lago Argentina, or the view from the lake which makes one appreciate the grand scale of the glacier. We were even lucky enough to see a part of the face of the glacier crash into the lake (just like in those Discovery shows)!
And some of the icebergs floating around the Upsala glaciers were the bluest blue I've ever seen. I think the blue is because the ice absorbs all the colors of the spectrum except blue.
IMG_2636.jpg IMG_2592.jpg

The people we met only added to our fond memories of El Calafate. Carolina, one of the owners of the Hotel Puerto San Julian where we stayed, is one of the nicest proprietors we've ever met. She made us feel like we were staying with friends instead of at a hotel, and one night we even went with her to watch her and her friends dance Tango, which Ashok loved for the photo opps.
Another afternoon we ran into Jim and Wendy, a couple from Canada whom we had met briefly in Buenos Aires a few days prior, and next thing you know we had chatted away the afternoon like we're old friends. I'm not sure how or why, but at some point in the afternoon, while we were still with Jim and Wendy, Ashok somehow decided to talk his way into this restaurant's smoking room to photograph the meat, at which point a random tourist stopped and took a picture. It's unexpected moments like these that make traveling so much fun.

Besides steak, El Calafate has another specialty - grilled lamb. Carolina sent us to a local restaurant nearby where we ordered one portion, and this is what we got!
We had to check twice with the waitress to make sure they didn't confuse our order (they didn't). Needless to say, we were very satisfied after this meal, and highly recommend the lamb!

After the overnight bus experience in Egypt I swore we were done with buses, so I was not happy when we realized we had to take buses in South America to stay within budget. My mom's friend tried to assuage our fears by telling us how great the buses were, that they were better than first class seats on planes, that they served food, etc. They were right! Argentinian buses are the BEST (so good that it is one of the highlights :) )! The seats are roomy and plush and recline 180 degrees to be completely flat. The bathroom is pretty much like airplane bathrooms (so much better than having to get off the bus in the middle of the night to use questionable toilets or the side of the road!). There's even someone on the bus to serve us dinner and wine, and champagne with breakfast. The best buses are the ones between Buenos Aires and Iguazu Falls, but other routes within Argentina are almost as good.

Iguazu Falls itself would be worthy of any type of bus rides. I love waterfalls in general, so I was very excited about going there. It is different from Niagra Falls in that it is made up of over 275 falls spread out over approximately 2 miles. Unfortunately, as it was late fall, the water level was at its lowest (about 1/3 of average daily water levels) so most of the 275+ falls were dry. On the other hand, there weren't too many tourists so it was nice to be able to wander around at our leisure. Even with the low water level, the biggest fall, Garganta del Diablo, was still impressive.
Normally, this whole side would have been covered with waterfalls

Another highlight was going to the Boca Juniors football (i.e., soccer) game in Buenos Aires. We had wanted to go on the day we got into Buenos Aires. However, the immediate neighborhood around La Boca, where the stadium is located, is pretty rough despite its increasing popularity with tourists. My mom's friend was so worried about our safety - even his friend who worked as a security guard at the stadium said it's too rough for foreigners - that we ended up not going. Later we were able to go via someone who organizes trips to Boca games for foreigners (apparently a thriving business - goes to show you that where there's an opportunity, someone will be there to take advantage of it). And of course once we got there, it was not nearly as scary as everyone makes it out to be (probably similar to going to an USC game in downtown LA, but not like going into South Central LA). It was Ashok's first football game outside of India and the energy and enthusiasm of the crowd was definitely different. We also got to witness Palermo, a well known player, kick his 200th career goal during the game, AND got these Boca jerseys for free!

Our last stops in South America were Cordoba and Mendoza. Mendoza is the Napa Valley of Argentina, so of course wine tasting was in order. We decided to join a slightly more expensive day tour (a sign of being on the road for too long as we were starting to get lazy about finding our own way). Then again, the spread we got at the end of the tour (lunch was included as was all-you-can-drink wine) made the tour completely worth it!
What you see were only the appetizers! Afterwards we went straight back to the hostel and took a 3 hour nap.

In Cordoba, though, was where we had the best steak! I don't know about the nicer restaurants in Buenos Aires (couldn't afford to go), but the Cordoban steak was superior to what I've had at some of the expensive steak joints in NY!

Throughout our trip, I was always joking with Ashok that he has some unexplained fascination with communism/ socialism that manifested itself in China, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe. When we realized that the Che Guevara House is in nearby Alta Gracia (in addition to the Jesuit Estancias), of course we had to make a stop. Ashok got very excited when he found out that he shares the same birthday as Che (hmmm... is that the connection?). Whether or not one agrees with Che, it was very inspiring to see the passion and dedication he had for his ideals. Of course it was all the more interesting to me because I loved the movie Motorcycle Diaries (and Gael Garcia Bernal).

Maybe because it was slow, or because Ashok and I were the most foreign looking of the tourists there, we got stopped by a TV crew from Buenos Aires there to do a piece on Che.... I think they wanted to interview us at first (difficult to tell with all that Spanish coming at us), but we ended up doing the promo for the station (you know, the "live from channel 4" type things), in Spanish. Except that we didn't know at first that the guy was telling us what to say (was he asking us a question that we were then supposed to answer? was he telling us to do something?), so I'm pretty sure we looked pretty stupid.... This was not the first time we got on foreign TV: in Istanbul we got interviewed because there was an upcoming election and they wanted to get the foreigners' perspective. I don't think I was all that brilliant either....
(Ashok with the TV producer guy in front of the Che Guevara House)

During our time in South America, we used Buenos Aires as our "base" and took trips from there. It was great since it allowed us to coordinate our "side trips" so that we could meet up with my mom & sister for a few days. It was also nice to be able to leave some of our stuff with my mom's friend and not have to lug everything everywhere. For one reason or another, we ended up spending most of our time in Argentina, leaving us only 1 week in Uruguay (turned out to be one of our favorite countries) and 1 week in Brazil. For more on that, stayed tuned for "South America Highlights, Part 2"!

Posted by jhongny 05:12 Archived in Argentina Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Dakar, Senegal

April 2 - 8, 2009

sunny 92 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Senegal - our first time in an African country. We didn't know what to expect, other than that French is spoken (it used to be a French colony), it's on the northwestern coast of the continent and it has good music. We arrived into Yoff, a fishing village between the airport and Dakar, late at night so we couldn't see much. All we experienced was a very strong salty smell as we got out in front of the hostel. The next morning we found the source of the smell – the hostel is literally right on the beach where the fish market is located.
It seemed that all activities happen on the beach – fish is unloaded and displayed right next to the pirogue (wooden fishing boats). They are also scaled and cleaned right there on the sand while other vendors walk around to sell coffee or tea. Horse-drawn carts act as taxis on the beach to take people who have finished their shopping or fish mongers that are done for the day. Without any trash cans, everything is left for the sand to absorb.
Next to the pirogues, boys run around the sand playing soccer barefooted. I'm surprised no one's hurt by the bottle caps and other sharp objects in the sand. Everyone is passionate about football (soccer) here. A nearby beach is crowded with men running or doing push-ups in the sand - all training for soccer. A local man started talking to us, and tried to invite us to eat with him and to watch him play soccer (which I was able to decline and hold a short conversation in my broken French). He told us his name was Diouf, which we later learned was the most popular football player in Senegal. Of course this guy that we met in the narrow alleyway of the village right off the beach could not possibly have been Diouf. We met a few other people, each with a different story (one guy tried to get us to watch a "Pelican Ceremony", and another just came right out and asked for money). I guess there are some similarities between the people of Senegal and Egypt. In fact, one tourist we met said the touts are like "flies - harmless but will not leave you alone", a very apt description.

Seeing the living conditions one can understand why people behave that way. Like Asia, there's a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. Unlike Asia where things were cheap as a result, everything was expensive in Senegal. As an example, for $45 a night, our room only had 2 twin beds and didn't even have hot water. I'm not sure how the locals manage since I'm sure their wages are not on par with the prices. Of course, Senegal also has a side with high end hotels & fancy restaurants for those with money. Makes me wonder if we weren't traveling on a budget whether or not we would see this side of Senegal. I'm glad we did.

As I mentioned before, Senegalese are known for their music and moves. So when one of the local guys at the hostel told us about his friend's concert that night we went along with him. His friend turned out to be one of the newest sensations of Senegal, Yoro - for real this time - and we even got to meet him. The concert was great and it was one of the highlights of our time in Senegal.

The next day, April 4th, was Senegal's Independence Day (Josh, it's the same birthday as you!) so we got up early and waited with the crowds for the parade. It was more of a military inspection by the President, who was almost 2 hours late (tells you something about how much they care about the people). We did get a glimpse of the famous dancing troupe although we didn't get to see the actual routine - that's reserved for the guests of honor sitting in the grand stand.

We finally got to see local dancing on Ile de Goree, a pretty, small island about 30 min from Dakar by ferry. It's such a small island that there are no cars and it takes less than an hour to walk around the whole island. It's a popular tourist destination and one can see why with the colorful, charming old colonial buildings, surrounded by the beautiful blue Atlantic Ocean.

The first afternoon as we explored the island we heard music being played and followed it to a local festival. It was great! Everyone was dressed in pure white, rich gold or sky blue outfits, and groups would take turns getting up and dancing spontaneously. And they sure can dance. One woman told me that dancing is in their blood, and even the little kids know the moves. Judging by what I saw, that is definitely true.

There's some controversy about the island's role as a major trading center for slavery during the 18th & 19th centuries. However, what is true is that huge numbers of slaves were shipped from the western coast of Africa to North and South America, and the Caribbeans. The history and the plight of the slaves are documented at the La Maison des Esclaves (Slave House). The exhibit is in French so I didn't understand most of it, but I did learn that more slaves were sent to the Caribbean Islands and Brazil (for the plantation work) than to North America, but most perished under the horrible working conditions since the plantation owners believed that it was cheaper to get new workers every 3-5 years than to keep the existing ones healthy.

This wouldn't be my blog if I didn't mention the food. Apparently Senegalese food is one of the best in Africa. There are a couple of popular dishes, but our two favorites are Tiebou dienne (herb stuffed fish steak with seasoned rice & vegetables) and Yassa (fish or chicken in lemon and onion sauce). We pretty much had one or both dishes every day during our week there, but never got sick of it.

Finally, just a picture of the local minivan bus - the Car Rapide - because I love how colorful it is:

The check-in process when we left Dakar was THE longest one I've ever experienced. It took a good two hours even though we were flying Delta. I think it's because they've never seen a RTW ticket, so the security guy asked us questions ranging from what we did and how we paid for the RTW ticket, to where we lived in Cairo and how we paid for the hotel (please tell me why that's relevant?!)! Not to mention the many forms of IDs he asked for! Even though we got to the airport way early, we were the last 2 people to board the plane.

We only had 6 days in Senegal due to scheduling limitations of our Delta RTW ticket, but we definitely want to see more of Africa in the future.

Posted by jhongny 16:55 Archived in Senegal Tagged round_the_world Comments (7)

Taking a Break: The Many Sheesha Moments of Ashok

View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

As I mentioned before, smoking sheesha (water pipe) became Ashok's favorite hobby, which he indulged in at least once a day. I thought it would be funny to show some of the more interesting places where he managed to get a sheesha in:

Where it all started - at El Fishawi Cafe in Cairo, Egypt:

At our hotel in Luxor, while working on his computer:

He even convinced the internet cafe owner to bring in the sheesha from next door while we used the internet:

Smoking after breakfast on the beach in Nuwiba before heading to the terminal for the ferry to Jordan... little did we know how much waiting we had ahead of us:

What better way to watch the sunset by the Dead Sea? (note he's sporting his new Jordanian shmagh mhadab (scarf)

Tea Garden in Istanbul, Turkey.... maybe we can make our living room look like this:

In Istanbul, smoking Nargile (Turkish name for water pipe) is always accompanied by backgammon playing. Too bad we never picked it up:

As all good things must come to an end, Ashok's sheesha days came to an end when we left Turkey. That is, until we get back to New York and he can set up his very own. Now he's got a new use for the charcoal at the end of our BBQs.

Posted by jhongny 16:03 Comments (1)

Turkey: Istanbul and Cappadocia

March 21 – April 2, 2009

overcast 50 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

After the hot days in Egypt and Jordan, it was a shock to land in Istanbul where the average temperature was about 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit). Just our luck – Spring was late this year. No matter, there's so much to do and see in Istanbul that it did not deter us. Actually, to Ashok's delight, it just meant more reason to stop in the colorful tea gardens for Turkish tea and sheesha. Istanbul is a blend of the Middle East and Europe – you get the hustle and bustle of the western world, but the buildings and decor have the intricate details of those in the Middle East but more colorful.

The prices reflect the shift as well. Whereas tea and sheesha would be about 5 EGP ($1), it's around $5 here... (didn't think I'd say it but we started to miss Egypt. ha!). Even with the relatively higher prices it's still a shopper's paradise. The intricate and colorful patterns are everywhere and on everything from lights to housewares to carpets. It's hard to resist... we ended up buying a lot of stuff: bowls, coffee and tea cups, and a sheesha! Only after we walked out with the bags did I start to wonder how we're going to haul all these breakable stuff around for the rest of our trip. There are still more things to buy, and next time I'm going to bring 2 empty suitcases.

Istanbul is also a foodie's paradise. The most popular are the kebabs (some of the best we've had), and the meze (same idea as tapas or dim sum – small dishes),

or one can have a simple grilled fish sandwich by the ferry dock and watch the guys grill the fish and make the sandwich on the small boats despite all the serious rocking caused by the passing ferry boats:

There's also this piping hot milk and honey drink that is sold on the street that is so good and just hits the spot on a cold day.

Our favorite though, has to be Ciya Sofrasi. It's actually been written up a lot, but unlike other places, the fame has not gone to the owner's head and the food is still delicious and the prices fair. The chef makes different dishes everyday based on recipes from other regions in Turkey. We liked it so much we trekked out to the Asia side several times just to eat there.

And then there's the sweets - Turkish Delights, Baklava - that's everywhere. Here's some colorful stalls at the Spice Market:
It's also at the Spice Market (fish stalls outside) that I saw the ugliest fish I've evr seen:

It may sound like all we did was eat and smoke sheesha, but we did do a good amount of sightseeing as well. Istanbul has a lot of waterfront and it would have been even nicer to just sit by the water if the weather was warmer.

Cappadocia was one place recommended by many of our friends so it was definitely a place we wanted to visit. The region is famous for the rock formations that to me seem very fairytale like, like some place where gnomes live:
This time the low season worked in our favor and we got a cheap flight & rental car, and a good rate at a really nice cave hotel (Kelebek Pension). The town of Goreme is set right in the midst of the rock formations so it looks a bit unreal:
It felt free to have our own transportation once again, and it gave us a chance to really explore the area. We saw a volcanic crater lake (Nar Lake) for the first time in a town nearby:

In one of the towns we walked into a very traditional coffee shop. At first I thought they were not going to allow me to go in because there were only men inside, but they didn't object (just got a lot of stares). By the time we left, Ashok was invited to sit at one of the tables to chat with them (probably to satisfy their curiosity):

The other must-do in Turkey is the Turkish bath, even though most modern Turks actually don't go to the bathhouses any more and the few that are in business are more for tourists. The two historical ones have such bad reviews on the web that we hesitated going, and opted to try it out at the Kelebek Pension. It was the best experience! Basically you lay on this big stone slab that's warmed up and then the masseuse douses you first with buckets of warm water, then with soap bubbles, and then he/she scrubs you down with a loofah (skipping the private areas) and shows you the dirt that's scrubbed off you. Follow that with more soap and warm water, and then when it's all done you get wrapped up in layers of towels and sent to lay down on a lounge chair to “recover”. All baths should be like this! Granted this was not the traditional bath – my masseuse was a Thai girl! - but with this type of pampering I really didn't care.

Apparently while we were in Cappadocia, Turkey switched to daylight savings time but we had no idea. Not until the hotel staff came to get us for the Turkish bath appointment on our last day did we realize that we had been doing everything an hour late for a couple of days. Imagine if we didn't get the baths then we would've missed our flight back to Istanbul. As it is we cut it really close. We were doing fine until we asked someone for directions and followed signs for what we thought was the word for “airport” but what turned out to be the name of a neighboring town. Oh well something like this was bound to happen at some point. In the end we got back to Istanbul safely and enjoyed one last sunny day in Istanbul (and meal at Ciya). Turkey is definitely one of the countries where I will be visiting again.

Posted by jhongny 08:55 Archived in Turkey Tagged food Comments (1)

Jordan: Petra, Wadi Rum, and the Dead Sea

March 16 – 21, 2009

sunny 90 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Like most people, we originally planned Petra, Jordan as a side trip from Egypt, but it turned out to be one of our favorite countries. It's got incredible landscape, very traveler-friendly infrastructure, and the people are genuinely nice.

View of Jordan landscape from side of the road, near Petra:

On the other hand, going from Egypt to Jordan was not such a great experience. Due to cost and visa reasons, our only alternative was to take the “fast” ferry between Nuwiba, Egypt, and Aquaba, Jordan. The entire ferry experience was one of the most mismanaged and inefficient processes I've ever seen. There was such a huge delay that what should have taken 4 hours took over 10 hours so instead of getting to Petra and the comforts of the Marriott by 5pm, we arrived into Petra haggard and hungry at midnight at a hostel. The only good thing I can say about the experience is that we met some cool people to commiserate with:

Nevertheless, we still got up at the crack of dawn to beat the crowds (definitely worth it to have the place to ourselves). Petra was even more incredible than in the pictures and movies – as in Egypt, it's hard to capture the scale of the place in a photo. For me, it's the combination of the natural landscape and man-made structures that makes it so memorable. The rock formations, the deep gorges and canyons themselves would've been a top attraction in itself, but add to that an ancient city cut into the rocks about 2000 years ago and no wonder it's one of the new 7 Wonders of the World.

Al Siq, the pathway which is the entrance to the city, and to the famous Treasury:

Here's the shot everyone has of the Treasury, made more famous by the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but of course I have to take one for myself:

The incredible rock-cut structures and the patterns of the rock formations:

We were so enthralled by Petra we walked through the site 3 times over 2 days (that's about 7 miles of walking each day!). On our last afternoon, we decided to ride mules up to the Monastery at the top of mountain (and with that, I think I'm done riding animals - horse, elephant, camel, mule....):

With all that walking and the ordeal to get to Jordan, it was a good thing we were staying at the Marriott (I cashed in some points). We've never been so happy to be in a Marriott... nice clean bathroom, and the oh so comfortable bed. There was even a theater where movies are shown every night. Not many people take advantage of it so Ashok and I had a private screening of Lawrence of Arabia (only the second half – part 1 was broken) to get us psyched for our day trip to Wadi Rum (the movie was shot there).

At first I thought Wadi Rum would be more of the same as Petra, but I was wrong. It was cool to ride through the open desert on the back of a "jeep" (Toyota Truck) and see the rock formations jutting out of nowhere:
The man on the camel in this picture gives a sense for how big they are:
It was while driving through Wadi Rum that it really hit me how glad I am we did this trip. If not I don't know when we'd ever get to see this.

We liked Jordan more because the people are so friendly and genuine. It was a refreshing change after Egypt, although initially we doubted everyone's sincerity. The Bedouins are known for their hospitality and we really experienced it. One guy offered for us to stay with them inside Petra for free (since the land belonged to the Bedouins, they are allowed to live inside the national park). Our driver at Wadi Rum stopped during the day to gather some sticks and we had a nice chat over tea at sunset:

Ashok was especially popular with the Bedouins. One girl actually stopped me as we were walking on a trail to tell me she “LOVED his coloring”. On the other hand, I was more popular in Egypt as Ashok was offered camels in exchange for me..... so I suppose he got the better end of this deal.

On our last day we drove past the Dead Sea on our way to Amman. Surprisingly, the Dead Sea is not that big – we drove from one end to the other in about 2 hours. It's weird to think that there's no aquatic life in all that water (due to the high saline content). One can, however, float on the water. On the northern end towards Amman, there are some nice resorts and public pools set up for people to enjoy a day on the beach. The idea of floating in the Dead Sea sounded good, but after putting my hands in and feeling the slimy water I decided it's one of those that sounds better in theory. Instead we just sat by the pool where Ashok enjoyed another sheesha and watched the sunset.
The surreal part is that the West Bank is right on the other side of the Dead Sea, basically the hills where the sun is setting in this picture.

Thus ended our 5 short days in Jordan, and on to Turkey.

Posted by jhongny 18:12 Archived in Jordan Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Getting “gypped” in Egypt

Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel; February 26 – March 15, 2009

sunny 88 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

As the plane prepared to land in Cairo, Egypt, I felt a tinge of excitement. After all, it's a new country, a new culture, and a new continent.

The culture of modern Egypt may be new to me, but its ancient sights are definitely not. It was really cool to actually see all the things I've seen/ heard about for so long. Our first stop was, of course, the pyramids at Giza. Some people say it's disappointing because it's not in the middle of an empty desert (you can, however, take a picture from a certain angle to make it look like it is).
For me, that didn't matter. It was still amazing. It's actually pretty cool to see the ancient pyramids tower over the modern apartment buildings (imagine saying “why yes, I have a view of the pyramids from my balcony”). What was more surprising and made the pyramids more difficult to appreciate were all the touts inside the entrance that won't leave you alone, especially since we didn't have a tour guide. At one point one of the camel drivers tried to pick up Ashok and put him on the camel (the trick is that once Ashok's on, the camel will take off and then the driver can demand payment even though we never wanted to ride it in the first place).

In fact, it seems like the modern Egyptians conspire to not let you enjoy the ancient sites. We've seen our share of touts – they can get pretty bad in Vietnam and India – but in Egypt it's a whole different league. Here it's more like a very friendly, long, and persistent sell. They think nothing of spending 15-20 minutes and walking several blocks with you to try to strike up a conversation (Ashok's new name is "Hey India!"). In fact, they get offended when you try to brush them off. It gets tiring after a while because they take up soooo much time, and it's the same conversation over and over again. It's the only country where we had our guard up everytime someone approached us because everyone's in on it - the cops, the security guards at the sites, the "friendly local" that's just practicing his English but somehow always has a friend who owns a shop or hotel or is a tour guide. I guess you can't really blame them since they've had several hundred years to hone their touting skills and perfect their scams.

Here's one where the baksheesh (tip) was worth it. At Sakkara there's a "peeping hole" where you can see the statue of the king inside the tomb which the security guard showed us (unsolicited) in exchange for some baksheesh. It's in the guidebook so it's not that secretive, but we wouldn't have found it without the guy:

Of all the places, we liked Aswan because it was relatively low key in terms of the touts, and is situated on a scenic part of the Nile. We enjoyed a relaxing afternoon sailing on the Nile on a felluca (traditional wooden sailing boat):

Here are some other highlights, even though pictures really can't capture the grandness of the structures and need to be seen in person to be appreciated:

The Sakkara pyramid - this one really is in the middle of an empty desert:

The Hypostyle Hall at the Karnak Temple in Luxor:

Ashok at the Medina Habu Temple in Luxor (mortuary temple for Ramses III), where the wall reliefs are still clearly visible after thousands of years:

Abu Simbel. Judging by the graffiti we saw on the statues (from several hundred years ago), they were not as strict about not letting visitors climb all over the statues as they are today.

Philae Temple (in Aswan) at night - we decided to do a Sound & Light Show, and realized that we're really not Sound & Light show people. At least the view of the temple was nice:

We also biked around the west bank of Luxor one day. Since the sun sets in the west, the ancient Egyptians associated the West Bank with death so all the tombs and mortuary temples are on that side. These Egyptians were seriously obsessed with life after death. Just think about the amount of time and energy and money that went into the building of the pyramids and the tombs, the collection of the treasures that are buried with the dead, and the detailed rituals of the mummification and funerary process! Ironically, after all that, none of the tombs survived intact.

Despite the touts, Cairo is a fascinating city to explore: mosques with their domes and minarets dot the skyline instead of church steeples, mannequins in shops showcasing the latest fashion in black formfitting long dresses (all of the outfits come with matching head cover), men in traditional dress sitting in local coffee shops smoking sheeshas (water pipes), and boys cruising down the street on bikes in the middle of traffic with a rack of Egyptian bread on their heads.

Taking taxis around town was another interesting experience. Anyone who's traveled knows to negotiate the price beforehand if the cab does not have a meter. In Cairo, however, one does not talk price at all before getting into the taxi. One is supposed to just know the market rate and give that amount to the taxi driver at the end (we figured out the rate by asking our hotel staff). Basically the idea is that you're supposed to pay whatever you think is right. The magic number for us was 7 EGP - when we pay that, the drivers just take the money and leave (and we feel like such locals). We think it's because the local price is really 5 or 6 pounds so the extra pound makes it worthwhile for the driver not to argue.

Due to some mix up with the Moroccan visa application process which is a long story in itself, we ended up spending an extra week in Cairo. A couple of things helped to make it easier to cope with the touts - our hotel, and sheeshas (for Ashok anyway). Our hotel, the Paris Hotel (parishotel_2006@hotmail.com), was our sanctuary during our stay in Cairo. It was quiet, cozy, relaxing (a premium when traveling on a budget in Cairo), and it was the one place where no one tried to sell us anything. At the same time, the owners and staff were always there to help, or at least offer tea or coffee.

The one Egyptian habit that we liked was the coffee house culture. EVERYONE in Egypt smokes sheeshas... at any time, morning or night... and the coffee houses are everywhere. These are not hip Starbucks looking cafes, although some can be really nice, like Cafe Fishawi at the Khan el Khalili square. Most are just tiny store fronts with a few tables and chairs that spill out into the sidewalk, and offer only Egyptian coffee (similar to Turkish coffee), Egyptian tea, and sheesha. It's a great way to relax and while away a few hours in the evening. I tried the sheesha but stuck to the tea (with fresh mint and sugar) since the smoking was not helping me recover from the bronchitis I had in India.

Ashok, on the other hand, really took to sheesha and, like the Egyptians, was smoking it several times a day. Luckily for him sheesha-smoking is a part of Muslim culture so he got to enjoy it all the way through to Turkey. I may have to do a post just on all the different places where he smoked sheesha.

Posted by jhongny 14:49 Archived in Egypt Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (2)

Family Fun, Visa Run, and getting Leh'd-up in the Himalayas

Delhi, Amritsar, Agra, and Leh (Ladakh) February 10 – 26, 2009

sunny 60 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

Ashok has to be the first Indian citizen to attempt a Round-the-World trip. I don't see how it's possible given all the idiosyncratic rules of all the countries. Ashok had to get visas for all 24 countries on our trip except for India and Aruba (only because he has a US green card). In comparison, I only needed to get 5. We got most of the visas in the US, and figured we'd get the rest in India since it's a midway stop for us. Luckily it worked out that way as most countries only take visa applications from country of citizenship or residency (something we found out later at the expense of not going to Morocco). Otherwise we would've been really screwed and would have had to end our trip a lot earlier.

The idea of spending a couple of weeks in New Delhi just for the visas was not very appealing (Ashok had no friends or family in Delhi, and there's only so much there to see), so we devised this plan to see sights that were within an easy train ride from Delhi. It also turned into a big family trip as both my mom & sister and Ashok's parents flew in to join us. It was nice to have this extra time with them, and made these side trips and our time in Delhi more fun.

The gang at Agra Fort (with Jean, mom & sis trying to look like locals):

Our first stop was Amritsar, north of Delhi, known for the Golden Temple. The style of northern Indian temples is different than that of the southern ones, but ornate nonetheless.

Amritsar is also less than 40 Km from the Pakistan border, and probably one of the friendliest borders between the 2 countries judging by the Border Closing ceremony we witnessed. This “Beating the Retreat” ceremony is by far the most entertaining military ceremony I've ever seen, involving traditional uniforms with high head dresses, over-the-head high kicks, and friendly screaming contest between the MCs and audiences of each country.
This is one instance where the video gives a much better taste for what it's like:

After a short trip back to Delhi to pick up and drop off another visa application, we went south to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Nowadays considered the greatest monument dedicated to love, it was a very appropriate way to spend Valentine's Day. The dinner with the whole family was very romantic too.

It's my second time there, but it's just as impressive to see the grand structure and the intricate patterns filled in with various precious and semi-precious stones. It's one of those places where you can't stop taking pictures so I had close to 100 before you know it. Here are just 2 of them:
early morning view from across the river:

We also had a “Slumdog” moment outside the Taj when this little boy came up to try to sweet talk us into going to his shop... oh and we did take our shoes off and they did not get stolen. Actually for the foreigners now they give you these shoe covers so it's not necessary to take them off.

It was good we had these breaks because getting the visas in India was a huge pain. There's a lot more paperwork involved than if we had applied in the US (seriously, why do they need the employment letter notarized for a 10 day trip, or a letter from the company to say you have their approval for going to that country for vacation? I can't imagine people putting up with that in the US!).

Here's the place in Delhi for notory services - it looks more like a farmer's market:

There are 8 stamps total on this document!
The funny thing is, no one actually checked any paperwork - no proof of identity, nothing - before notorizing the document.

In the US, the embassies gave you an idea for what the country is like. In India, the person that takes the application is Indian, so instead, we got to experience Indian bureaucracy and class-ism at its worst. As soon as an Indian person gets an uniform or sits behind a desk, he feels like he's better than others and starts to get an attitude and expects others to kiss his ass. It's wrong, but the common Indian citizen is usually treated like shit. You have to be a foreigner or an Indian with money or power to be treated with respect. At the Argentine embassy, we actually ended up calling the Consular General, who is Argentine (extremely friendly) to get Ashok's visa application processed.

Somehow we managed to get all except for Morocco in the 2 weeks there, then off we went to Leh in Kashmir state for the Tibetan New Year festival. Leh is in the Himalayas, at an altitude of 3500 meters (11483 ft). After my experience in Cuzco, we planned an extra day to rest and get acclimated. Even with that, I still got extremely sick, and spent most of the 4 days in bed with the oxygen machine running. The bronchitis I got while in Delhi (from all the open air auto rickshaws, I'm sure) probably didn't help.
The hotel staff was extremely nice and went out of their way to take care of me. The Omasila was one of the few hotels that stays open year round, and even Brad Pitt stayed there during a movie shoot, but only for one night... is it because he couldn't handle the altitude also?

I did manage to crawl out of bed long enough to witness the Dosmoche festival (ritual to ward off evil spirits and natural calamities), and to take a drive along the Indus River valley. There's a special significance because it's the 50 year anniversary of the Tibetan resistance.

People gathered at the base of the Leh Palace to watch the ceremony:
Masked dances performed by monks:

Himalayan peaks surrounding Leh:
Overlooking the Indus River outside of Leh:

It's too bad that, due to the altitude sickness, I will not be going back to Leh because it's so beautiful, and the people so warm and helpful. One of the organizers at the festival took Ashok to the back where they were getting ready so he could take pictures, and offered us soup afterwards. Even the manager at Kingfisher Airlines checked on me a couple of times to make sure I was doing ok and assured us that we would be on the first fight out (all flights had been canceled the prior 3 days - all flights since we arrived - due to weather). I've never been so happy to land at sea level. The pounding headache, however, stuck around for another week.

The next day, we picked up Ashok's final visa and flew to Egypt... and just like that we were done with Asia.

Some final funny signs in Delhi... one of things I love about India:

The left turn is free, but how much is a right turn?

Instructions on how to take the escalator:
The first one reads: "While climbing escalators put right leg on moving stairs and hold handrail and put other leg immediately on moving stairs while climbing down put right leg on stationary plate and leave the handrail put other leg on stationary plate"

Posted by jhongny 08:20 Archived in India Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

White Sand Beaches of Koh Lanta & Koh Ngai, Thailand

February 3 - 8, 2009

sunny 90 °F
View RTW Trip - Part II on jhongny's travel map.

We extended our stay in India by 2 wks so that we can catch the Tibetan New Year celebration in Leh, Ladakh, India (in the Himalayas). To take a break from India, we decided to backtrack and head to Koh Lanta, Thailand, to enjoy its white sand beaches and good food. Have I mentioned how much I LOVE the beach, especially a white sand beach? By the first afternoon, lounging in the bar on the beach with a nice cold beer, we had decided that somehow we have to own property on a beach somewhere.

6 days of lazing around on the beach and swimming in the calm cool waters of the Andaman Sea... oh and let's not forget the $8 per hour Thai massage everyday.... Pure bliss!

We did get our butts out of the lounge chairs to explore the island one day.... on a scooter.
It was Ashok's first time and talk about trial by fire - it looked easy enough except that the one road around the island was hilly and unpaved and filled with potholes. We saw one couple turn back half way through, but we fearlessly plowed on.

We also took an excursion to a nearby island, Koh Ngai (pronouced Hi), which is even prettier than Koh Lanta. It looks like it's straight out of a postcard. We only wish we had more time to spend a few days there.

The Thais has got tourism down. They make it so easy to go and relax there: information about accommodation/ transportation is easily available on line, people are friendly, and the price-value relationship is great. Our simple but clean beach front bungalow was only $23 a night, and I've already mentioned the $8 massage! In comparison, a similar room in India would cost around $50, with no wi-fi.

The first night at the hotel the beachfront bungalows were not available, so they put us in this RV-converted room parked next to the pool on the street side. This has to be one of the most unusual rooms we've ever stayed in:

Given what we had to go through the next couple of weeks, it was a good thing we got this week of rest.

Posted by jhongny 02:19 Archived in Thailand Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

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