Widgets A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care: April 2011 Archives

April 2011 Archives

My family moved around a lot when I was young, so the concept of "home" is sort of hazy to me: wherever my stuff and my loved ones are at any given time, or have been for any period of time, qualifies. But if home is a variable, Alabama has always been a constant for me. It's the place where I "grew up."

I spent my high school years wandering around Huntsville, yearning to become an adult and get out into the great wide world. And small as I thought it was back then, Huntsville is where I gained skills and learned life lessons that helped me once I did leave. Beginning journalism consisted of editing interviews with local greasy-spoon legend Eunice or chatting with the political cartoonist from the Huntsville Times for the school magazine. Exploration meant hitching a ride with the older daughter of a family friend and making our way to far-off Vanderbilt, where we could catch a screening of Howards End and dream of exotic locales like London. My views on guns and gun control? They were largely influenced by the (now probably defunct) tradition in which some of the history teachers would bring in their extensive collection of historical firearms, which covered much of America's martial history.  As for character, well, the cast of characters made Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil look like Sense and Sensibility.

True, it wasn't all fantastic. My high school, a foxhole in the war on energy inefficiency, had no windows to stare out from during less than thrilling lectures. But I did learn to type on an IBM Selectric (which gave me some perspective a few years later), and today when I walked down into the souk and haggled with a cobbler who repaired my shoes with fire, I gave thanks for four years of French. There may be better places to become a young man, but allow me my doubts as to their existence.

Huntsville is hurting now, as is much of the rest of Alabama, after a series of tornadoes ripped through the state this week. We've been obsessively glancing through Facebook status updates and Twitter hashtags, learning what is still there and what has been lost. Every story is a little bit of horror, or a moment of relief when I learn that something I treasured remains unscathed.

If you have some to spare, a donation to the Red Cross or other charity working in the area would go a long way.

Our travel strategies have differed radically among countries. In Ecuador, Peru, England and most of southeast Asia, we hopped from hotel to hotel, never staying more than a week in any given place. In Argentina, Thailand and Morocco, on the other hand, we've rented apartments. (In New Zealand, we lived in the back of a van for a week.) There are advantages and drawbacks to both modes of travel, and a few things we've learned along the way that help with both.

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Another unanticipated advantage of apartments: sometimes you get unexpected co-tenants in the windowsills

If your camel is annoyed with you, it will let you know.

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For those concerned: we were not in the Jamaa el-Fna square when the explosion occurred, although I walked by there just last night with one of our friends. Current reports indicate that this was an accident involving a gas tank.

UPDATE: Our apartment is just outside the square. I'm kind of surprised that we didn't hear the explosions, although we heard the sirens afterwards. We actually learned about the accident when #Marrakech became a trending topic on Twitter.

[UPDATE 2, 4:20 pm: News sources are now reporting that this was a bomb attack, not an accident.]

Here's the scene as of an hour ago.

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As I'd mentioned, I was walking by the Argana last night with a friend. You can see a little bit of the building in the bottom left of the first picture, and its facade in the photo below that.

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With certain exceptions, our travel style involves cheap and cheerful hostels, cozy apartments and hotels at the inexpensive end of the scale. (Our Tripadvisor reviews tend to be biased toward our more expensive experiences, as I haven't reviewed many of the cheaper places.) Yet we've wandered through a few fairly nice hotels, either because they were attractions in themselves or out of pure curiousity. In the unlikely event that I one day try to re-experience this trip with a budget two orders of magnitude greater, these are the places that I'd love to book.

I should note that these are not necessarily the nicest hotels that we know of in any given city, but the best that we've seen on this trip. For example, if I could stay for free at any hotel in London, I'd rather see what the Savoy is like than the Metropolitan. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been amazed by any hotel so much as I was by the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, where you can quite literally sleep like a prince. For reference, I've included some prices of the nicer, lottery-winner level rooms.

La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco (Churchill Suite, ~$2,200/night): Located near the medina (and only a few blocks away from our current apartment), La Mamounia looks less Moroccan and more European than its website suggests. Wandering through its halls, the colonial influence is easy to discern, but this is classic colonial, not a cookie-cutter continenal hotel. In the evening, when the hurrying throngs have whipped up enough dust in the market to inspire previously unknown allergies, La Mamounia is a clear, quiet and clean oasis. We dropped by to try a drink at the Churchill Bar, which was both overpriced and somewhat disappointing: despite displaying several nicer brands of alcohol, a Manhattan with a price tag over $20 was mixed with Four Roses. Setting aside the mediocre drinks, the Churchill and Italian bars are both elegant and comfortable, and I was impressed by the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff. If you're looking for a "low-cost" way to enjoy this location, the Sunday brunch is only about $150. If you try it, tell me how it goes. (That said, we encountered a first for a high-class hotel on this trip: free wifi in public areas.)

The Metropolitan, London, England (Park Suite, ~$1,000): We stopped for a drink at the sister of the Bangkok Metropolitan after picking up our Tanzanian visas from the nearby embassy. Far from the most extravagant hotel in Mayfair, let alone London, it nonetheless has a top-class bar which continues the Metropolitan tradition of knowledgeable and skilled bartenders. Worth it just for a tipple.

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Grand Presidential Suite, price on request, upwards of $4,350): Pity Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, who had this palace built in the shape of a scorpion (for astrological reasons), only to realize that he had gone over budget. He ended up giving the palace to Nizam VI, the then-ruler of Hyderabad. The Nizam thoughtfully gave Vikar-ul-Umra the entire amount spent on its construction, saving him from financial catastrophe.

Taj Hotels have leased the palace and converted it into an extravagant fantasy. When we dined here one evening at a family gathering, we were able to watch as one of the guests arrived. A horse-drawn carriage drove him from the gates to the front courtyard. At this point an employee--although courtier seems more accurate--hoisted a gold mace and escorted the new tenant as if he were royalty up the marble steps to reception, as another attendant dropped rose petals before him from an upper balcony. Kitschy, yes, and perhaps they only do this for certain guests, but it fits with the setting. The Grand Presidential Suite, "once the sanctum sanctorum of the Nizam himself," is the most opulent option in a hotel filled with extravagant choices, and features a private pool.


Photo by friends J & J

The Oberoi, Agra, India (Kohinoor Suite, ~$5500): The bar at the Oberoi possesses a unique alchemical secret: it can transform the most staid and ordinary cocktail into one of the best of your life. The Manhattan recipe? Take a standard combination of rye, vermouth and bitters, and serve suffused with scarlet light filtered through tall, ornate windows that frame the sunset-pinked marble of the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi's view of Agra's unquestioned wonder of the world must be seen to be believed, and only hotel guests are allowed to have their drinks served on the balcony.

Unlike La Mamounia, the Oberoi's style speaks more to Agra's mughal heritage than colonial refinement, lightly reminding the visitor that he is elsewhere rather than giving hints of the comforts of home. We didn't get much further than the bar and the opulent lobby, itself an orgy of marble and stone, but supposedly each room has its own view of the Taj Mahal.

I found these at a shoe shop in Hoi An, but they didn't have them in my size and they couldn't make me a custom pair in time. If they're replicas of some existing brand, I can't find them on Amazon, either.IMG 0377

Hoi An's old town, a UNESCO world heritage site, is famous for its custom clothiers, and justifiably so: a ten minute walk through the narrow streets will take one past the wooden entryways of innumerable custom shops, offering everything from suits to casual clothing, silks to shoes. We visited for Tet, the lunar new year, and figured that we could hit two birds with one stone: see the cultural events and cheaply restock on journey clothes, as half a year of travel and varying laundry conditions had left much of our wardrobe ragged. Hoi An's reputation among travelers in Vietnam is simple: a cheap place for custom work.

It worked, for a certain value of working. Quite a few new outfits were made for us for only a couple of hundred dollars, including two suits and a pair of custom leather shoes for me. But "hit or miss" proposition does not begin to describe shopping for custom clothing in Hoi An, and several of our purchases, while cheap, have ended up being not so much of a bargain. Hoi An clothiers range from the utterly unscrupulous to the pleasant but corner-cutting, and care is required to make sure that you get what you want. Having been on the bad end of a few "bargains," I'll leave the following advice, as well as a few reviews of good and bad vendors.

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Chilling out at a lakeside bar in Hanoi, in a Kimmy's suit

One Stop Shop Bangkok

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Much like that of Jakarta, the upper-class and expat life of Bangkok seems to revolve around massive, icily air-conditioned malls offering both foreign brands and high-end native goods. During our month in Bangkok, Tony and I visited Siam Square at least once a week on average, whether to see "Megamind" and "TRON Legacy" on its IMAX screen or to replace some outworn item of clothing. But aside from the extraordinary queues at Krispy Kreme (I was the only person who bought a single doughnut, and the standard order appeared to be the maximum two dozen), and the comfy loveseats that were the most expensive option at the movie theaters, there's nothing very interesting about Bangkok's malls. Their near-identicality to the malls of North America is an argument for the plausibility of Let's Go to the Mall! as an international hit.

While the ratio of tourists to Thais is probably higher at Chatuchak than at the malls, I still recommend the sprawling weekend market for only-in-Thailand entertainment value. I first heard of it in a JetStar inflight magazine that offered recommendations from various cities' locals who were in the tourist business. While I never got as fond of larb moo (minced pork salad) as the PR coordinator did, she was on target about Chatuchak: "you can easily buy several items of clothing, lunch and an hour-long massage for [$50]. Massages are around 350 baht ($12) an hour -- you can't say no to such prices."

That description might make Chatuchak sound like it's just a cheaper version of a mall, but it's vastly more interesting. Set on 30 acres conveniently located near a SkyTrain station, it's divided into 29 sections where thousands of vendors sell not just clothes, food and massages, but also Buddha statues, dining tables, books and CDs, flowering plants and fruit trees... everything you'd think of wanting to take home. If I had a permanent place to live in Bangkok, I'd be furnishing my home and garden entirely from Chatuchak. Plus there's the unforeseeable items you can't find even in a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, like smoking pipes and live scorpions (for pets or for dinner). The animal section of the market must be seen to be believed: puppies, bunnies, parrots, reptiles, rodents -- any living creature that can be fit into a carryable cage or aquarium, including baby crocodiles.

The only aspect of Chatuchak that isn't 100% awesome is intrinsic to its being an open-air market in Bangkok, i.e. that walking around it can get extremely hot and dehydrating. Visiting in the early morning (around 7am) helps you avoid both the crowds and the worst heat of the day; late afternoon ought to be good as well, but some vendors already close up shop by 4pm. I have heard from other travelers to Thailand that there are cool times of the year, but late January-early March evidently is not one of those seasons, so any outdoor activity should be planned accordingly.

When we started this blog, I thought it would be a good place for restaurant, hotel and other travel reviews. Over time, I've come to realize that this blog is a good place to describe our experiences, but our reviews best serve other travelers if they're aggregated with others. So I've added a link in the left navigation to our TripAdvisor profile. That's not to say that we won't post the occasional review here when the occasion warrants, but the bulk of our reviews will probably go up on TripAdvisor.

Besides, I like the travel map. As we add more reviews, it will become a more accurate reflection of the trip.

When Tony and I were driving into the Lakes District, on our way to the Ambleside YHA we passed a school that had a large roadside sign advertising their upcoming production of the musical "Rent." I immediately wanted to see it, because I'd never seen an amateur production of "Rent" and was especially curious to see how it would be done by a secondary school. The idea reminded me of a Sue Sylvester line from Glee: "That was the most offensive thing I've seen in 20 years of teaching -- and that includes an elementary school production of Hair." (Though "Rent" thankfully lacks the infamous nudity of "Hair").

I first saw "Rent" during its Washington DC run, when I was in my last year of high school and in town with my father to tour colleges. Having seen a stream of rave reviews from the New York press about this groundbreaking show, I'd reserved tickets far in advance and was full of anticipatory excitement to see it. I knew that the show had updated "La Boheme" by using AIDS in place of TB, and that several characters were gay. What the New York press hadn't mentioned, however, was that the dialogue and lyrics frequently make explicit references -- to S&M, masturbation, ED (remember this predates ubiquitous Viagra ads) -- culminating in the song "Contact." Watching the show with Dad, I'd winced at each sexual remark, but by the end of that song, which depicts the characters having sex complete with all the noises, I was ready to sink through the floor with teenage embarrassment.

Nonetheless, I loved the musical, bought and memorized the soundtrack, and even saw the traveling show in Houston a few years later with my parents, when I was older and less horrified to have them in the same room as a joke about an "inability to maintain an erection on the High Holy Days." Still, the minor trauma of that first viewing sticks with me and made me want to see The Lakes School's production. How would teenagers cope with not just watching such a show with their parents, but performing it in front of them?


While this hostel has turned out to be unworkable for us due to minor problems like the total failure of the radiator on the second and third floors of the building, I was inclined to like it our first night here just because we could peep out the little dormer window and see Lake Windermere.


Alas, unlike the Lake Poets, I'm more fond of bodily comfort than of beautiful scenery. Therefore we've abandoned this view for a bed & breakfast that doesn't look out on the lake, but does have working radiators and ceilings high enough that Tony doesn't have to remain in a permanent stoop.

Things We've Seen

Things We Like