Archive for October, 2010

Deeper into India — Day 8

Sunday, October 24th, 2010

I wore out the driver-guide today, and  I enjoyed every minute.

Straightaway to Bangalore Palace, known locally as the summer palace.  It looks a lot like England’s Windsor Castle at first approach with its Tudor-style architecture, granite turrets and battlements, built in the 1890s by the Wodeyar rajas of Mysore 90 miles away.   Hundreds of roses fill a formal garden opposite the main entrance.

Generally I avoid audio-guides, but the earphone explanations in British English were welcome and well done.  Some descendants still live in the palace, and their recorded voices tell stories of tiger hunts, roaming the castle and grounds as children, and extravagant parties for visiting family and heads of state.  I loved hearing their voices and stories, almost as much as the dozens of black and white framed photos in the corridors, taken from the mid-1800s through 1959.   Today the palace needs restoration, but it’s still opulent…not one, but six chandeliers along each side of inner courtyards with gardens…hand-carved furniture, doors and archways…and spectacular stained glass windows on opposite sides of the throne room.  No photos allowed inside or out, but my wonderful driver, Immanuel again, knew just the place in the parking lot where I could snap a quick photo of the main palace, unseen by the guards.

Oh yes, a little side note that says a lot about the people of India.  I told Immanuel I would need to go to an ATM that morning.   I had a small amount of rupees, which he said would be enough for palace admission, but the price for foreigners recently doubled and I was the equivalent of $1.50 short.  No worries.  He borrowed what I needed from another driver!

Off we went to Cubbon Park, 300 acres of gorgeous parkland where the British built their government buildings.  The former British palace serves today as Parliament.  Two bright red buildings, the High Court and Major Library, are instantly recognizable landmarks.  The “red buildings” were ordered by one particular British VIP (no one could remember his name, so I’ll do some Google research once home).

Temples abundantly dot the city.  I chose three of the biggies.  The colossal Hindu temple, Vidhana Souda, stands on the northwest side of the park. Built mid-20th century by convicts, it’s famous for its neo-Dravidian style granite architecture and vast interior of 300 rooms.  On Sunday evenings when it’s floodlit, its presence seems to triple.   Next: the massive Jumma Masjid Muslim mosque in the bustling city center market area, on Poor House Road.  Visitors can only enter a porch-like area of inlaid wood and colonnades, but photos are allowed.  Clearly white, blonde and probably not Muslim, I felt welcome.  Last and my favorite, the Bull Temple’s imposing 16-foot black bull, Nandi who helps Lord Shiva.  This temple was simple and humble, but striking.

It was a full day, a circle around the city, which finished with a glimpse of the elegant city concert hall, shaped like a violin.   I admit I was tired, so I retreated to the hotel’s quiet patio surrounded by plumeria trees and colorful bougainvillea to relax with a delicious glass of fresh mango juice mixed with mint and basil.

The day ended with a superb dinner at Tandoor.  Lovely restaurant, charming waiters, fabulous food.  We started with baby corn dusted in slightly kicky spices, deep fried and rolled in sesame seeds–one of the best dishes ever.  Steve had lamb in a spicy curry.  I chose chicken with tomatoes and eggplant in ground cashew gravy.  We went nuts over the bread—which we watched being rolled, tossed, stretched, then dropped onto a grill.  Now to bed with happy tummies and great photos from today’s fascinating stops.

With dreams of India, still confounding but also beautiful and sweet,

Globetrotting Donna

Jumping into India — Day 7

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

When you walk out the hotel front door in India, you are accosted instantly by its beauty, misery and noise in one full gulp, especially the noise.

I remember Bangkok’s gridlock, and just days out of Taipei’s crazy-fast traffic, I take it all back.  Bangalore is the worst traffic I’ve seen–ever.  Cars, trucks, motorbike trucks, mopeds, tuk tuks or auto-rickshas, ox-drawn carts, bicycles, pedestrians, peddlers, beggars, it’s like a roadway checkerboard with every piece jockeying for space.

My car and driver arrived 10 minutes early.  My driver introduced himself:  “I am Immanuel de Ortiz, I am Christian, a Catholic and I drive Toyota.”   Immanuel is about my height, 5 ft. 4in., beanpole thin, wears a white uniform and a very big smile that is one centimeter short of a grin.  He has been driving for 33 years.  Within 5 minutes, I knew I was in good hands.  And his English was mostly understandable.  The official language of Bangalore, being in the Indian state of Karnataka in the far south, is Kannada.  Most Indians speak their own state’s official language and English, perhaps Hindi or another of the 100 plus dialects.  When asked how many languages he speaks, Immanuel humbly said 8, but proudly pointed out that his son and daughter in college both speak 10.

I swear the neighborhoods changed every other block.  Extreme poverty with people sleeping on the sidewalk, then a wealthy mansion behind locked gates, and endless blocks of small shops and men outside the doors hoping someone, anyone, would enter and buy.    Earlier that morning, I read a sentence about India that seemed to say it all, the India I was seeing as we streamed by in that small Toyota:  understanding India is like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon.

Where to start?  Let me give you the snips as I saw them.  Sign reading “kind attention roadusers”.  A 24K gold mahajarah statue in a traffic circle, his back symbolically to a McDonalds.  Flower or tinsel offerings on the dash or door of vehicles, above a storefront, at the entry of homes.  A young beggar girl in sari turning cartwheels for cars stopped at a red light, then knocking on  car windows for money.  Groups of school children, all wearing the same uniform, primary boys in white Bermuda shorts and pale aqua polos the cutest of all.  Trash everywhere, often swept into piles…along the sidewalks, roadside, giant piles at the edge of a park, small streams with so much debris it looked as though you could walk across the water.

Bangalore used to be called the Garden City because of its temperate climate and dependable monsoons that bring rain to keep bowers of trees green year-round and a seemingly endless variety of flowers in bloom.  Seems like a California/Florida/Hawaii climate to me, sub-tropical.  I saw bougainvillea, plumeria, bottlebrush, roses, hibiscus, Rose of Sharon, morning glory, orchids, bamboo, elephant ear, lantana, poinsettias, shrimp plant—and a host of mystery trees and flowers.  Hope to learn the names of a sky blue flower and tall, dense trees with flaming orange or lemon yellow blossoms.  Immanuel didn’t know the name of either, but began to point them out as we approached:  blue flower!  orange tree!  yellow tree!  Sometimes I beat him to the punch, which made him laugh.

More recently, Bangalore has become India’s Silicon Valley.  In the eighties, General Electric started the parade of foreign technology companies that set up shop here.  Engineers from all over India come to Bangalore for good jobs and benefits—not to mention the temperate weather.  The city is building a metro, due to open February 2011 and encircle the city of 6.5 million by 2013.  And boy is there building—and more building—and MORE building.  It’s impossible to drive more than a half mile without seeing construction for the Metro, a new luxury hotel, or the latest foreign investor joining the prosperity party.

But alongside all this prosperity is an overwhelming amount of poverty…over half the population without running water, living in shanties or crumbling buildings…endless shops and tradespeople competing for a precious few rupees, the starving, the homeless.  For this side of India, one night at our luxury hotel would be a year’s earnings, a fortune.   On the west side of Bangalore, we drove through a mile of dark and black grim-ness…every shop dedicated to fixing cars, trucks, mopeds, machines and tools…black pools of grease…grimy, black machines…dark, nearly black-skinned, barefooted men on their backs in the dirt wrestling broken parts…clusters of dark men in dark clothes struggling to make a living.   Oppressive.

Immanuel joyfully announced “Christian area” as we drove through one section.  Surprising, since 80% of India is Hindu, 18% is Muslim, and the remaining 2% is everything else.  I saw Assembly of God, Church of Christ, Pentecostal and Catholic churches, a huge Indian Christian Cemetery, and a block-square complex named Little Sisters of Poor Home for the Aged.  And of course I saw sacred cows everywhere: on sidewalks, lying wherever they want, in the streets, in parks.  No elephants yet, but I did see two wild, shy monkeys at the Bull Temple.  This temple is one of Bangalore’s most elaborate landmarks, 16th century, and features a black 16-foot high bull of Lord Shiva.  The bull is pale granite, but the monks oil it daily with coconut oil to make it black.  An attendant asked me to remove my shoes before entering the temple and walk around the bull.  Leaving, I was blessed by a saffron-robed monk who put the red bindi mark on my forehead and gave me a handful of fragrant flowers.  Nice experience.

It was a full day.  I feel full.  This first day in India turned out to be a big gulp.

Blessings,

Globetrotting Donna

Hello, India! Day 6

Wednesday, October 20th, 2010

Our first few minutes in India may have been a hint of what the rest of our stay will be like…exciting, confusing, difficult communication, noisy, overwhelming.

We arrived in Bangalore, at the bottom of India, at 1:40am.  At the Immigration desk, they sent me to a separate lane instead of looking at our documents as a couple.  My Immigration guy barked something.   Sign! as he threw my immigration form and a pen across the counter at me.  I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to sign.  He kept barking “sign”.   Thankfully, the person behind me pointed out a tiny box that needed my signature.   So much for a gracious Indian welcome.

Steve was expecting a driver to meet us.  Zip.  The taxi sharks were circling, but we found the hotel’s transportation rep and he got us into a car pronto.  I took a deep breath as we passed through the door to India outside.  Very relieved there weren’t beggars and hawkers grabbing at us.  The ride into Bangalore City was 45 minutes, mostly expressway.  Amazing how many people were on the road at 2:30am.

Our hotel looked like an impenetrable fortress at first.  There was no clear entry, just a tall wall that was doorless.  Suddenly the wall moved. It was really a big gate being pushed by a thin, old man.  But the hotel’s inner courtyard welcomed with backlit bamboo and a cutting-edge contemporary glass lobby.  The night manager, dressed in a black suit and jacket with Nehru collar, personally walked us to our room.  Check-in took five minutes tops.   Beautiful room, but at 3:00am, too tired to explore.  At 3:30am, we laid our heads on soft pillows and very high thread count sheets.  I said a goodnight thank you to the Gods of Linen, happy for my ultra-sensitive skin.

At 9:00am we raised the blinds to see India in daylight.  Big (6.5 million in Bangalore), hazy sky, leftover colonial buildings, modern high rises, dead-end construction, active construction, the din of traffic, and yes, slums mixed with all that.  I think my heart stopped for a second when I took that first look.   Beauty and poverty hand in hand.

Generally I am good with languages and accents, but I’m having trouble here.  It’s British English, spoken fast, and it hits my ears with a whoosh of word bites.  I have to ask people to repeat several times.   Steve said he had the same problem today during his meetings.

This afternoon I left the safe confines of the hotel.  As soon as that big wall gate closed behind me, I was in the thick of it.  Mopeds whizzing like bees, small trucks atop motorbikes, cars, streams of people, the construction roar of a new rapid transit system.  A 3-story market beckoned.  I spent a great hour browsing, comparing prices, people watching.  The produce section was my favorite: lots of intriguing vegetables.  I bought a few snacks and the clerk closed the bag with a locking plastic tie.  As I left, a guard asked for my receipt and punched some holes in it.  No clue.

I walked a while, very conscious that I was one of the few white-skinned people on the street, let alone a blonde.  I’d like to think they were staring because of my exceptional gorgeousness, but I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m a stranger.  Several touts fell in as I walked, wheedling me to take a look, take a look, more persistent than I’d expected, but they finally gave up and fell away.  Sidewalks were hard to navigate…potholes, broken pavement, sometimes it disappeared altogether.  After a few hours, I felt like I’d run a gauntlet.   The hotel beckoned with air-conditioned refuge and chilled bottled water.

Because Steve had an online meeting, we ate in the hotel and ordered from the Indian cuisine section:  mushrooms and corn cooked in spinach, lentils and mixed vegetables cooked in coconut milk and coriander, and mutton in spicy red sauce.  The two “mild” vegetable dishes both kicked, but all were delicious, especially sopping them up with multi-grained  fresh bread baked on a grill across the room.

We decided to attend the Manager’s Reception in the bar.  A dozen men were milling around a small buffet of appetizers, but we were politely told those were snacks for a private meeting and were ushered to a table set aside for Manager’s Reception guests.  No manager.  We had a drink, were asked several times did we want another, and with two swallows left, the bar waiter appeared with three heaping plates of appetizers.  We tasted all three dishes, good stuff, but we were stuffed.  Complimentary but confusing.

Look forward to tomorrow:  car with driver guide who will whisk me around Bangalore City’s attractions.

About to be sleeping in Bangalore as jetlag kicks in,

Globetrotting Donna

Exploring Taipei & Serendipity — Days 4 & 5

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

Monday in Taipei was a great travel day.

I started the day with few expectations, hoping the museums would be open on a Monday unlike most large cities. But yes, they were open. As Steve left for his meetings, the hotel staff walked me through the steps to get there:  taxi to high-speed train station, fast train to Taipei Main Station, change to subway, finally bus or taxi to museum.

At the train station, I was waiting at the Information Desk to buy a ticket. I couldn’t read a single sign, so it seemed like the logical thing to do. A young woman approached me and asked if she could help. “It’s a long time, you wait too long, let me help you.”

She took me in hand to a computerized screen, punched a pile of buttons, showed me where to put my money ($10), guided me to the correct waiting room, and suggested we sit together since she was going to Main Station herself, and she could point me to the subway transfer.

So I met Miko, a smiling, friendly Taiwanese with good English. The high-speed train turned out to be a bullet train, ultra-modern, sparkling clean, flying along at 210 kilometers. By the time we reached the main station, Miko volunteered to accompany me to the museum and show me her Taipei. OK then! We zoomed through the station to the MRT subway’s dazzling technology and efficiency, out into street drizzle, then taxi-ed to the museum.

The Palace National Museum was as splendid as its name, packed with busloads of Asian tourists. We browsed four floors of the museum’s treasures and the current Hong Dynasty Exhibition. Tea time, so we headed to the museum cafe. She ignored the hostess who wanted to seat us at an ordinary table, no we would sit in a traditional tea house setting, enjoying the view, aged wood and the comfort of cushions.

I ordered an herbal tea of pine nut, citron and delicate mushrooms. The tea arrived in a clear glass pot engraved with flowers, and eventually steeped into the palest shade of yellow in the universe. It tasted…like hot water with a hint of mushroom…more appealing to the eye than the tongue. The brown sugar and taro cakes were another story, quite yummy.

As we ate and drank, Miko asked about America and how did I like President Obama. She admired his bravery but feared he would not fulfill his social change dreams because of politics. We talked about our families, Taiwan, her medical studies, my writing, our hopes and dreams.

At 3:45 we hopped up and out; Miko needed to go to work. She advised me to skip the subway due to rush hour. We hailed a taxi back to Main Station. “Hello, pretty professor! Ahh, not professor. Hmm, you artist yes?” Our driver was “Crazy Taxi Guy.” He kept up a running spiel about his 10 years with a taxi, his wife wanted for nothing, Taipei’s 21 million population and 10 million scooters. As I paid him, I complimented his efficient, smooth driving but “you are crazy man!” He laughed. “But I am crazy lady, so it’s OK.” He laughed harder. As we entered the station, I turned to wave goodbye and he was still laughing.

Miko helped me buy my return ticket, guided me to the waiting room, and we clasped hands, smiling big and promising to stay in touch by email, Facebook and blog. I gave her a standing invitation to visit us in Tucson.

I sat happily. I didn’t see all of the museum and didn’t care. Serendipity is the perfect word for the day. I made a friend in Taipei today.

The day ended just as nicely. We had dinner in a landmark building, full of history and custom-carved furniture. Private dining rooms were arranged around a pond full of colorful fish, landscaped to the n’th degree, red lanterns casting a magical glow.  After dinner, we wandered our hotel neighborhood. All those shops closed Sunday were buzzing with action and lights. One of Steve’s colleagues told him over lunch that day that this area was grasslands only 20 years ago, the growth had come because of the Science Park/Silicon Valley of Taiwan, and the shops would serve night shift workers until 2:00am.

Today, Day 5 and Tuesday here:

We walked through the 18 Peaks Mountain Park, wonderfully quiet and beautiful. I picked up a perfect maroon and pink orchid after it floated to the path. Later we paused to see the East Gate and Moat, the last standing vestige of Taiwan’s royal castle.

Now, late afternoon, we’re headed to the airport through the beginning of rush hour to catch our plane to Hong Kong, then connect to our flight for Bangalore, India. The airline is Dragon Air, and I can’t wait to see if it fits its name.

Life is good, this travel oh so wonderfully good.

Bye, aloha, ciao, so long,
Globetrotting Donna

Taipei! Day 2/3

Sunday, October 17th, 2010

 I’m looking at my alarm clock with time set to Tucson, Arizona, USA time where it is 6:30am Sunday morning, but it is 9:30pm Sunday night here in Taiwan.

Just flipped through the TV channels: game shows galore, giggling teen heartthrob singers, soaps, and tiresome stuff in any language.  It does have Reuters & CNN news in English, plus HBO showing “Harvey Milk” with Sean Penn in English and Cantonese sub-titles.

The 45-minute taxi ride from Taiwan’s modern airport–humming with construction for more indoor people movers–was a slightly elevated expressway, elevated just enough that we could glimpse bits of worn-out homes and apartment buildings.  All the newer buildings soar into the sky, each with its own architectural tower that disguises lightning rods or water storage tanks.  The highway scenery was very green and lush, even palm trees.  Loved the mile-long hedge trimmed to look like a dragon.

Our hotel is on the outskirts of downtown Taipei, in the Science Park area, chosen because it’s close to Texas Instruments so Steve can hop a shuttle for a  15-minute ride. When we exited the expressway, we entered “ordinary” streets–which look like one of the biggest Chinatowns ever.  The first thing that came to mind:  it’s all Greek to me.   Wrong language but right feeling.

All the signs are in kanji, an English word here and there.  Loads of mopeds, driven by young, old, girls and guys, often as many as a dozen in one lane ahead of the cars.  Every rider wears a helmet.  The moped density is actually a little scary.

Our hotel is part of the worldwide Royal Chain, very nice, feng shui clearly used in the design.  The lobby holds a boulder-sized vase filled with hundreds of deep purple orchid stems.  Our 12th-floor room is larger than I expected, a nice view of the city, and I find myself drawn to two older, wooden side-by-side homes with rooftop gardens.

Our room is well designed, great attention to detail.  The work desk has open shelves above it and a small box containing a mini-stapler, eraser, ruler and paper clips.  “Green” signs abound; clearly conservation is important here.  The usual hotel bathrobes are nice, but I’m especially impressed by the disposable recycled paper/fiber slippers which are super white and super soft.  We have a table and two chairs in front of the large ceiling-to-floor window.  A tall, narrow cupboard contains an electric tea kettle, cups,  fixings for tea or coffee, a mini-safe, bar stuff.  The ultra-modern bathroom has a marble tub, separate walk-in marble shower, and a sophisticated toilet with buttons for heat, bidet, dry, something mysterious…fortunately the flush handle is simple.  Tomorrow when I’m less tired, maybe I’ll push all the buttons and see what happens.

Most of the shops on the streets around our hotel are closed Sundays, reminiscent of Japan and Europe.  We had our first adventure at lunch, eating at a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop.  No one spoke English, so we did the time-honored point and gesture.  We had a wonderful bowl of noodles in a bit of soy broth with a few green vegetables, not all that different from ramen packets, but these noodles were handmade and fresh.  We watched as they dropped them into boiling liquid.  Delicious, $1.05 per bowl.

Dinner was equally adventurous, but higher rent.  We did a dim sum Chinese buffet in the hotel.  The buffet had an assortment of cold salads, two soups, a generous dozen or so types of dim sum/dumpling/spring roll foods.  I couldn’t bring myself to try the chicken feet & veg roll, but a deep-fried radish cake was quite nice.  Steve tried the Peking Duck.  I liked the soup of day with mild chicken broth, carrot slivers, radish slices and tiny chicken cubes.   The dessert selection was surprisingly large: small chocolate cake squares, petite fours, panna cotta with mango sauce, fresh papaya and Asian pear slices,  almond tofu mini-cubes in almond syrup, and a self-serve freezer with tubs of ice cream.  The ice cream flavors included vanilla, chocolate, green tea, red bean and sweet corn.  The green tea and red bean tasted stronger than Japan’s version, and the sweet corn was just that, vanilla with corn kernels and sugar.  So-so.

Our waitress brought us each a drawing entry form, asking us to write down 5 numbers from 1-35.  Steve won a prize, and whatever it was, it was scheduled for one week away.  Since we’re staying just a few days, they gave us a consolation dessert instead–a plate of four chilled mango chiffon squares.  Nice, but we’re still wondering what the “real” prize was.

So Day 2 smooshed into Day 3 comes to a pleasantly tired close.  We can’t read nor understand the language, but we feel at home.  Those five years in Tokyo have surfaced from our past to the present.

Goodnight from Taiwan,

Globetrotting Donna

And now some words from Steve…

Day 2 & 3 merged, that is when you get 14 hours in the air and a 15-hour time change.  So we left Saturday morning and arrive Sunday morning.  25 hours for this leg, from door to door.  We slept more than I thought, Donna slept quite a bit.  We both do not feel too bad, Donna has a few aches from that 14-hour leg and long corridor treks.

Cathay Pacific is a nice airline.  Seats are a little crowded, the lumbar in the back seemed like it would make a miserable flight.  But the chair does not lean back, the seat slides forward and it made it comfortable.  Individual TVs, 100 movies in English.  These you can select at any time, fast forward, pause or reverse.  Also each seat has an outlet for the computer power cord.  Pretty cool.

Taipei is warm, about 85 and humid, but did not feel bad.  Today was downright windy, I think a front is moving through with slightly cooler temps.

Donna is yelling at me for spamming up her blog.  That is the price she pays for technical support.

Steve the Husband.

Day 1 ends at LAX

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Hello from Steve the Husband:

Easy flight on Southwest Airlines to LAX.  Baggage came out in 5 minutes.  Love Southwest.  Very nice people at Cathay Pacific check-in, good sign.  Next to us: China Air was mobbed, line after line,  glad we’re not flying with them.  Next time we can post a blog, it will be Sunday, at least our time.

And now words from Donna:

First day on my blog and I’ve already been bumped.   A small price to pay for my personal computer expert, plus he’s cute and sweet.  We are in LAX’s international terminal food court, hanging, surrounded by hundreds of Asian-looking folks waiting to fly wherever.  The board says Bangkok, Melbourne, Seoul, Shanghai, Guangzhou and more.  But the food court shops started closing at 10:00pm, odd since most of the flights don’t leave until after 1:00 am.  We’re off, crossed fingers, at 1:40am.  We had a rice bowl and a sushi cone, people nearby slurping their soup and noodles in contented pleasure–like old times in Japan and roaming Asia.

Seems perfect to close with a sayonara bye,  Donna

Day 1 of a travelholic’s blog

Saturday, October 16th, 2010

Hello world!

Today I inaugurate my blog just as I tear off to my hometown airport in Tucson, Arizona–bound for Taiwan and India.

I’m a freelance journalist with over 30 years experience in newspapers and magazines.  My travel lust started with high school Latin and French and never stopped.  My first major travel experience was 18 months in Europe in 1972-73, doing the Europe-on-$5-a-day thing.  My travels have taken me to 46 of our American states, most of Europe, most of Asia, fair amount of Canada, and a medium-sized taste of Mexico.

India has been a dream for a long time.  Join me on my journey through this blog.

And see my web site:  http://www.aroundtheglobepress.com for info about me and my book: THOUGHTS FROM JAPAN:  life lessons from Tokyo’s fast lane and other Asian Places.  It’s a great travel memoir with over 100 color photos, even a glossary of Japanese places and terms.

Adios, cheerio, bye, ja matte, au revoir, yada yada!

Donna Copen McKinnis