Amazon.com Widgets A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care

(Click here for background on the Supreme Court Project)

Supreme Court of Peru, Palacio de Justicia, Lima, Peru
Address: Miguel Aljovin, Lima, Peru, by Estacion Central subway (Map)

Unlike our Ecuadorian adventure, our visit to the Supreme Court of Peru didn't feature any impromptu meetings with publicity officers. Our cab driver didn't know the way to the Supreme Court--and wondered why two foreigners wanted to go there--but he did know the Sheraton Lima, which faces right across the park from the fantastic Palacio de Justicia, and we could guide him from there.

Thus, we emerged into a sunny afternoon in front of a grand neoclassical structure that takes up most of a city block and houses the upper levels of the Peruvian judiciary. According to Wikipedia, the Peruvians modeled the building off of the law courts of Brussels, and the building does have a very heavy, European feel. Foolishly, I tried to walk up the steps to the front entrance, only to be rebuffed by a uniformed clerk who insisted that if we wanted to enter, we needed to go in the side door.

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The Palacio de Justicia, at night

There are no signs advising where to go as a "visitor," although there is a public entrance on the north side of the building. Unlike the grand facade, these doors are more pedestrian steel affairs, and a small crowd of litigants, attorneys and document carriers milled around waiting for admission to begin at two o'clock. We were in no hurry, and so wandered in a complete circuit around the building. To the northwest, a dirty park sat forlornly across the street from a few cantinas. Surrounding the Palacio on the west and south are the offices of government and private attorneys, both of whom were privileged to use entrances limited only to officialdom. The private offices to the south are a particularly interesting mix. Some bore clean, polished bronze plaques announcing the name of the lawyers within, while the windows of other offices were festooned with dot-matrix banners annoucing "ABOGADO" in faded grey letters.

The public doors still hadn't opened when we made it back to the public entrance, so we made our way northeast up Azangaro street. Here the shops are most definitely lawyer-focused: I have not seen so many places to buy highlighters, binders, binder clips, printing services or other paper-based products in my life. Mixed amidst these are a number of cheap coffee and sandwich shops, where it would be hard to pay more than five dollars for lunch.

Feeling well fed on ham sandwiches, we returned to find that the public doors had opened in our absence. The crowd was now slightly larger, but also slowly making its way past security. A few attorneys (or perhaps employees of attorneys), sweating in the sun outside the door in navy blue wool suits, approached us to ask if we needed counsel. They were skeptical that the guards would let us in as tourists, but we actually didn't have much trouble. This may be because the guard asked if we were attorneys, we said "yes," and he let us by without inquiring further as to our business.

(Click here for background on the Supreme Court Project)

Ecuador provided us with one of our most pleasant and unexpected encounters at the Tribunal Constitutional. We hadn't had much time to plan a visit to the Ecuadorian courts, as the idea to visit various supreme courts popped into my head a few days before we were leaving for Peru. In what would become my standard operating procedure for this project, we looked up some online background information on Ecuador's court system, found the addresses of the courts, and--in the absence of any tourist information--dressed fairly nicely and headed out to see what reception we would get. In places like Ecuador, this worked out better than expected. In other countries, I ended up being menaced by men with guns or indirectly bothering an attorney general. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Ecuador set my parameters for this project, both in where I would go and what I'd try to achieve. Like many countries, Ecuador has separated the court that functions as the highest appellate body (the Corte Suprema or Corte Nacional) and the body charged with interpreting the Ecuadorian constitution (the Corte Constitucional del Ecuador para el Periodo de Transicion). In every country, I tried to visit both the constitutional court and the highest appellate court.

Yet merely finding the Ecuadorian courts, let alone trying to understand them, proved difficult. We didn't always have internet access, and when we did, the Ecuadorian court websites seemed to be frequently offline. Pallavi's Spanish is better than my "donde esta el bano?" level, but neither of us is up to doing legal research in the native tongue. I quickly figured out that there was little way to conduct in-depth research for the Supreme Court Project, especially once we entered Asia or Africa and I had even less grasp of the language. So while I hope that these entries will be entertaining, and I'll do my best to provide links to useful sources of information, the Supreme Court Project is more a short excursion into gonzo journalism than a legal project. In other words, This Is Not Legal Advice (and for goodness sake, don't cite to it).

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The Corte Nacional de Justicia, Quito, Ecuador

With that in mind, here's my tale of the high courts of Ecuador.

Wonder if this is worth a room upgrade?

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TripAdvisor offered to send us a free "Top Contributor" tote bag. I don't normally use tote bags, but it might be funny to see the reaction of hotel staff if we walked in carrying one.

In response to a New York Times Practical Traveler article on How to Beat the High Costs of Dialing Abroad, I wrote the author an email agreeing with her suggestions of a prepaid local SIM card and Skype. She'd mentioned that her next column would address data roaming charges, and I recommended that she note the Amazon Kindle 3G as a device for avoiding all data charges while abroad. My advice didn't make it into How to Beat Roaming Fees While Traveling Abroad, but did get edited into a brief letter published in today's Times.

I thought I'd expand on that a bit here, as I've already been singing the Kindle's praises all over the rest of the internet for the last few months but only Tony has blogged about it here. The $189 Kindle 3G was a generous Christmas gift from my parents, who were somewhat befuddled as to what they should give a daughter who was going to be living out of a suitcase for another seven months, and my older sister arranged for me to get it upon arriving in Hong Kong. It was almost immediately useful, but not as one might expect.

On the Amazon page selling this product, one of the features on which I'm focused is trumpeted loudly and repeatedly: "Kindle 3G, Free 3G + Wi-Fi, 3G Works Globally." As a result, most people who have considered buying a Kindle 3G are well-aware that "Built-in Free 3G connectivity uses the same wireless signals that cell phones use, but there are no monthly fees or commitments--Amazon pays for Kindle's 3G wireless connectivity. The added convenience of 3G enables you to download books anytime, anywhere, while on the go--without having to find a Wi-Fi hotspot connection. With wireless coverage in over 100 countries and territories, Kindle 3G is a great option for travelers."

The other feature, however, is easily missed, leaving the impression that the 3G can be used only for book downloads. But if you look closely, there it is: "WebKit-Based Browser - Free 3G web browsing (experimental)." The reason to underplay it is right there in the parenthetical; the browser feature is still in beta and thus far Amazon hasn't made it a major selling point. But it's what made the Kindle seriously helpful on this trip, beyond its capacity as travel guide storage. With free 3G web browsing available in most countries we visited, I could finally check email, Tripadvisor reviews, the news and a great deal more even when we didn't have Wifi.

My first realization of just how fantastic this was came on the Hong Kong subway, as I was running late to meet an old classmate for lunch. How to let him know that I'd gotten lost but now was found and would be there a few minutes after the appointed time? I knew he had a work-issued Blackberry, but I didn't have his cell number and in any case was trying to avoid using our emergency international cellphone, with its high rates, for anything other than an actual emergency. I clicked on the Experimental Features, opened the browser and went to Gmail. It was slow, especially if I didn't click the "HTML only" option, but it let me log on to my email and successfully send a message. Social disaster averted!

Using the browser, we could look up a hotel's phone number so a New Delhi taxi driver could be given directions; check on the best-rated restaurants in Granada just after exiting the Alhambra; and email my sister when we weren't sure if we had Egypt-India flights booked yet. If the internet made our type of loosely-structured, plan-as-you-go-along kind of round-the-world journey possible, the free international 3G browsing on the Kindle added that extra touch of "No need to worry about making all our decisions while we're getting Wifi -- I can look it up on the road."

I don't want to mislead anyone with my evangelism for the Kindle. The browser is much slower using the 3G network than it is on Wifi, and it can handle only one window at a time, which means you can't click on anything that pops up as a new window. The Kindle screen, built to handle text, does not show images from the web very well. The navigation, built for moving amongst text in a single size and type, sometimes gets confused by the variety of Web HTML. And all Kindles are subject to occasionally freezing up and requiring a hard re-start, though this doesn't seem to cause them to lose any data, not even the last page one was reading in a book.

Still, I can't think of anything better at a similarly reasonable price. Its sheer physical anonymity -- easily mistaken for an actual paper notebook when you have it in a protective cover -- makes it a much smarter travel accessory than flashier and more famous devices like an iPad. In Vietnam, the only country we visited that wasn't among Amazon's 100 with wireless service, an employee at a Hoi An tailor shop asked about my Kindle but quickly lost interest when she realized it wasn't from Apple but some unknown "Amazon." Capitalist brand obsession takes another victim. Speaking of which, you can also get the Kindle 3G $50 cheaper, at $139, if you don't mind having advertising running on it.

Today is the last 'official' day of our trip. We're flying to India to visit family, but that isn't really part of the "round the world" excursion. Pallavi heads out at insane o'clock early tomorrow morning, and my flight is the next day. A few days later we'll be back in Texas, ready to get on with the rest of our lives.

The blog, of course, will keep going for a while. We haven't told a lot of stories yet: how Tony bloodied his feet walking up to the temples at Tirupati and almost got run over by a big monkey, or Pallavi's guide to all the best Mexican restaurants in southeast Asia, or why you should never take a reed hat under a waterfall....

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Ronald waves at the Luxor Temple and mosque

Pallavi decided to sleep in upon our return from an early-morning trip to Kom Ombo temple, leading to a certain amount of consternation from the cleaning staff, who wanted to come in and fix the place up. We came back to the room after lunch to find this little fellow hanging in the entryway.

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I'll admit to the possibility that this was meant to be a jovial and welcoming figure, but with its vaguely threatening aspect it felt more like the janitorial equivalent of a horse's head left in the bed. We resolved to be up and out of their way the next morning, and sure enough, waiting for us was a much more cheering towel swan.

"Let me show you around, friend." The desperately cheerful Luxor shop owner is the fourth in as many minutes to insist that he holds only my best interests at heart, and that he has absolutely no intention of taking me to his shop. Both of us understand, take as read, the insincerity of these promises.

I would never have thought to see touts with more hustle than in the maze-like medinas of Marrakech and Fez, but the Egyptians take second place to no one in the "separate tourists from their liquid assets" category of the capitalist Olympics. Even among Egyptians, Luxor merchants are considered particularly aggressive. Or, to spin it more kindly: Luxor may be the easiest place in the world to find a new "friend."

The land of the Nile lies quiet these days. Whatever the democratic vices or virtues of the Arab Spring, the January 25 uprising has driven a stake through the heart of the tourist industry. Archaeological sites accustomed to thousands of daily visitors now host a handful. Hotels are almost empty: during a dinner cruise of the Nile in Cairo, I was amazed by how few rooms were lit up in the grand downtown hotels. The Four Seasons, the Sofitel, or the Sheraton now seem similar to the quiet, eternal sentinels of Abu Simbel, darkly guarding a river that does not really need them anymore.

To a tourist, the signs of the limited violence that followed the revolution are few, if significant. Sadly, one of the most obvious is the National Democratic Party building, put to the torch by protestors during the demonstrations. The political implications of this act of patriotic arson are obvious, but economically unfortunate: the burnt-out hulk overshadows the Egyptian Museum, reminding Cairo visitors of present dangers.

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It feels like the nation is holding its breath until the September elections, hopeful that they will bring a renewed sense of normalcy, and fearful that they will not. Our guides have ranged in fervency from slightly to fanatically anti-Mubarak, but most have also expressed a wish for the protests to die down. They know how demonstrations are covered internationally. One Friday, while we were diving in Sharm el Sheikh, our divemaster took every spare above-water moment to check Facebook on his Blackberry, hoping that he'd see no traces of violence from the protests at Tahrir Square.

On a purely mercenary basis, I understand why some Egyptians wish that Mubarak had simply left the country, despite the fact that he would have walked off with quite a few assets. Instead, he's holed up in a hospital in Sharm el Sheikh due to "poor health." Sharm, perhaps more than any other area of Egypt, relies upon divers, beach lovers and other devotees of the Red Sea for tourism income. Mubarak's presence there has scared off much of the tourist dollar, on the not-entirely-ludicrous theory that someone attacking Mubarak might not be too concerned about collateral damage. Be that as it may, while we were there disruption was limited to two protests: a demonstration outside the hospital much-covered by local and international news, and a smaller demonstration of laid-off workers outside the Marriott, seeking government assistance with the rent. We dubbed this The Rent is Too Damn High protest.

The hot summer is always slow, but this very low season makes it an interesting time to be a tourist. With business down, hotels and tour operators are willing to cut some pretty fantastic deals, with four and five star hotels suddenly springing within range of the budget traveler. Some chains are offering free room upgrades, others complimentary breakfast. While government-run tourist sites have not come down in price, tours guides and restaurants will readily negotiate. Given that we saw more violence in Morocco than we've encountered thus far in Egypt, there's a lot to recommend the Nile to a cost-conscious traveler right now.

That said, it's not all wine and roses, although most of the negative aspects of Egyptian tourism are vastly outweighed by the positives. Hotels operating with skeleton crews may not charge first-class prices, but they also can't offer first-class service. (That said, they offer hot water and working plumbing, which immediately sets them apart from some of our budget hostels.) We had our first theft from a hotel room at the Sheraton Dreamland in Cairo. A year without incident in our accommodations had left us complacent, so we didn't use the hotel safe for everything. That this was unwise is a blinding flash of the obvious.

Our taxi driver from Luxor to Aswan implied that the revolution has left certain areas with a great deal of autonomous power. This came up in the context of speed bumps, which have proliferated on the Luxor-Aswan highway as locals used them as a substitute for absent policemen. The driver blamed these for the increase in travel time from two and a half to over three hours. Frankly, given the insane disregard for life and limb shown by Cairo drivers, I was actually happy for the hinderance.

But while the revolution has engendered a certain degree of disorganization, the chaos often has happy endings. We had hired our driver because we had to make our Luxor-Aswan trip at the last minute. We'd initially booked a Nile cruise upriver, with Travco, only to have them send us an email at 4:57 pm the day before we were to travel to Aswan, telling us that the Jaz Jubilee had been cancelled. There followed an anxious day of phone calls and emails, in which it was unclear whether we'd go Luxor-Aswan, Aswan-Luxor, or simply not take a cruise at all.

It turns out that most of the Nile fleet is not operating due to the lack of tourists. But in the end we were transferred to the M/S Princess Sarah , an even nicer boat with an excellent staff and better facilities. Thus, I write this from a wood-panelled bar, floating off the bank of the Nile in Aswan, surrounded by a handful of German and Russian families making the trip with us.

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Sunset from the sundeck of the M/S Princess Sarah

So while there's a bit of sharp practice from touts, and you need to be careful with your wallet, there's much to recommend traveling to Egypt this year. Keep a bit of a thick skin: every person that you're likely to encounter will be both happy to have a job, but obviously hurting from a downturn in business. That being said, this may be the best time in living memory to have an Egyptian holiday.

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Abercrombie & Kent, the Nile Cruise Boat

We found this in a hardware store in Marrakech while we were looking for a juicer. I don't know what you would cleave with this thing. It was all one piece of metal, and looked more like something out of a low-budget Tolkein ripoff than a kitchen implement.

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UPDATE [July 15]: According to one of my friends on Facebook, this implement is used to cleave meat with bones. Given the weight, I can see that.

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A camel-mounted policeman outside the Red Pyramid

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