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

May 2011 Archives

We've been fairly happy with our OneWorld Explorer ticket, especially with its flexibility on date changes. When we purchased the ticket, I'd read horror stories, mostly involving lack of availability. Yet until now, every date change that we've made has gone off without a hitch: OneWorld had flights available either on the day we wanted, or within twenty-four hours. The process is pretty seamless: make a Skype call with LAN, change the flight, and receive a confirmatory email in a few days.

Last Friday, the process broke down badly.

Probably the cheesiest excursion in which we've participated so far was a daytrip from Quito to visit "the center of the world." Ecuador lies on the equator, and has been drumming up tourist revenue for decades by memorializing this fact at an exhibit called Mitad del Mundo. The revelation that this exhibit is erroneously placed did nothing to dampen the showman's spirit; instead, now there are two sites to visit as part of the standard tour if one wishes to see the equator: the original, traditional one and what claims to be the scientifically-accurate one.

The latter is the much goofier of the pair. Privately-run, it features various phenomena that the guides initially tell you are peculiar to being on the equator: eggs balancing on end; water flowing both clockwise and counter-clockwise; humans becoming suddenly weaker.

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Tony and Pallavi stand in supposedly different hemispheres at the Intinan Museum.

Of course, these aren't truly things that can happen only at the equator -- something we know both because you can do these tricks elsewhere, and because this site isn't the "real" equator either. Still, it can make for an amusing excursion, complete with a Totemic Forest and exhibits of pre-Columbian Ecuadorean communities.

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs are inevitable anywhere that purports to depict Andean Native life.

Our last weekend in Cuzco we took a bus to Pisac, a town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas famed for its Sunday market. We had seen the town a week earlier from a very different vantage point, looking down across the river while trekking on the way to Huchuy Cusquo. The plan was simple: bus the hour or so from Cuzco to Pisac, drop our bags at a hotel, and take a taxi to the top of the ruins for a leisurely walk down.

It didn't quite work out that way. Even though we'd been in the highlands for weeks, the rickety-swerving bus managed to make us motion sick, and by the time we'd rested, eaten and managed to find Hospidaje Kinsa Ccocha, it was getting towards late afternoon. Negotiations with a taxi took a bit more time, as did buying our ticket, and we reached the summit with only a few hours of light left.

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A few hours later, we were making our way down in the dark.

We haven't blogged much about our various visits to Incan ruins. Built primarily with corv�e labour, these enormous constructions of stone are all that remain of the great Incan cities after centuries of Spanish conquest, extensive robbery of antiquities and the unrelenting passage of time. While neither as spectacular in architecture as Huchuy Cusquo, nor as famous as Macchu Pichu, the ruins of the Incan citadel are well worth the hike downhill.

Pisac: a walk through dark places

The cemetery at Recoleta is one of three famous resting places that we've visited on this trip, along with the San Francisco's Columbarium and the Mia�ra of Marrakech. We blogged a bit about Recoleta, and I made a banner from one of our pictures, but I realized after posting the Mia�ra photo set that I never put up our photos.

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We visited Recoleta on a rainy day. While the damp made for a chilly walk, it's the perfect environment for a visit. In Recoleta rest the great and the good of Argentina, including most famously Eva Peron. Judges, doctors, politicians and others invite you to look upon their works and despair, striving to outdo each other in baroque and extravagant edifices of marble and granite, observed by petrified angels or looking out upon their competition through unaging eyes of stone. The combination of somber silence with the active, frenetic statuary creates an almost uncomfortable atmosphere. The word necropolis has never been so appropriate: if the Columbarium captures San Francisco's optimistic attitude even in death, Recoleta is a city caught in an undying bourgeois attempt to keep up with the Joneses.

Recoleta Cemetery

Looking back on these, I really regret that we hadn't purchased a good camera before setting out on the trip. These were taken with our old Canon Powershot, and the difference does show.

Everywhere that we stayed in India had a television, which allowed us to watch the cricket and keep up with the news. And almost every television station, whether showing Indian dramas or American movies, had the occasional ad in English. I wish I could find some of the body spray advertisements online, because they give Axe  commercials a run for their money in the lack-of-taste department. [1]

On the other hand, I applaud the marketing department that attempted to make a low center of gravity moped sexy:

This Tata commercial seems symptomatic of a corporate inferiority complex: it's not like these "advanced" features are novel on Japanese cars. More to the point, we rode in a Tata Manza on the way from New Delhi to Agra. It's a competent little vehicle, but I don't think the feature set or build quality is keeping Japanese engineers anxiously awake at night.

Then again: there's a reason Tata isn't bragging that its cars outclass GM!

[1] Lynx, for my friends in the UK.

On the Variety of Muggings

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During my first week at law school, I heard the story about a classmate who'd been mugged. I always think of this anecdote as The Most Polite Mugging Ever. The story went that he'd been out late and was walking home while talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone. Two guys came up to him and showed him a gun. He handed over his wallet, but asked if he could have the student ID back. The muggers did even better than that: they emptied the wallet of cash and gave it back to him.

I later related this tale to a conservative judge who was a lifelong New Yorker, and he was disgusted by my label for it. "That's not a real mugging. That's more like an involuntary transfer of property. Like a tax on living in New York."

For my own part, I lived for almost six years in Manhattan without encountering any crime at all. Eventually I even stopped wearing my handbag slung crosswise (strap on the right shoulder, going diagonally across my body with the bag itself on my left hip) because it made me look like a paranoid tourist.

I have become similarly more self-assured in traveling. Though we purchased money-belts at Wal-Mart before we left -- the kind you wear under the waistband of your pants -- and I used mine initially in Quito, the lack of threats offered to us made me feel this was unnecessary. The bag I was using on this trip was a dark red canvas sack on a nylon strap, borrowed from a male friend of K's who had picked it up in San Francisco's Chinatown, and it did not at all suggest that it held anything of value whatsoever.

Last week, on what was to have been our last night in Marrakesh, the bag was stolen in what I consider The Least Useful Mugging Ever.

We arrived in Oomaru, part of our as-yet-mostly-unblogged ten day road trip through New Zealand's south island, in order to watch as the famous blue penguins made their way back to their nests. I wish we'd had more time to spend, because the city is as quirky, cute and fascinating as its flightless waterfowl.

Penguins' Progress

Let's get this out of the way: the blue penguin may be the cutest creature ever, or at least cutest thing created by God as opposed to Hayao Miyazaki.

Actually, there's more than a little influence of Miyazaki in the blue penguin, as well as traces of Disney and Charlie Chaplin. The smallest breed of penguin in the world, they stand about twelve inches high, and are apparently as graceful in the water as they are clumsy on land. Their short stature makes it difficult for them to climb the steep hillsides rising out of their oceans to their nests. Intensely communal, they twist and turn their heads while looking at each other in a manner that begs for a voice over from a British comedian. To top it all off, they can't see yellow light.

This last disability is what allows them to be a major tourist draw. Every year they return to their nesting area to raise their new chicks. Proud penguin parents journey out into the ocean by day to scoop up small fish, and return each night under what they think is the cover of darkness to feed their young. The locals of Oomaru have cunningly constructed a giant stone ampitheater right next to the nesting area, allowing spectators to observe the progress of these penguins back to their nests under intense yellow spotlights.

It's comedy gold.

I mentioned before how much I loved our Marrakech apartment. It was really too much space for us, with three bedrooms surrounding a kitchen. But we got such a deal that it was irresistible, and the extra space did allow us to have a friend visit without feeling cramped.

I probably enjoyed the patio most. I tend to wake up a little earlier than Pallavi, so I could start my mornings with a cup of coffee out on the patio, checking my mail and getting a little bit of writing done. Coffee time ended once the sun had risen high enough to shine directly onto the table and, more importantly, my head. Two more months of this and I could have finished entire novels.

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Likewise, the combination of a simple kitchen and fresh, fragrant vegetables made for easy culinary experimentation. In truth, I know very little about cooking with spices. But Pallavi would come back from the market with a little bit of this and some of that, and one or the two of us would whip up lunch or dinner by spicing some meat or legume and heating it up in a huge wok. And given the quality of the ingredients, it was really hard to screw anything up too badly.

The fruit and the mint were best of all. Oranges the size of softballs made a mess of my hands when I tried to peel them, and I picked up the Moroccan habit of glazing them with a bit of cinnamon and sugar. One morning I broiled grapefruit in the toaster oven, covering the half-globes with the same cinnamon sugar mix, and the sweet/tart taste turned out surprisingly well.

Then there's the mint. Moroccan mint has more flavor than any I've tasted. Combine with juice from the tart, fragrant limes, and you have the makings of a wonderful mojito. And if you happen to be in the country for Cinco de Excuse To Drink Margaritas, they make this too.

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Our apartment's only downside: no freezer, and thus no ice

Here are a few photos of a Moroccan labor day demonstration that passed outside the window of our apartment. Despite the depressing rain, the crowd chanted boisterously. According to some of the local news, the normal May Day pro-labor messages were mixed with a chorus of protest against terrorist attacks.

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A few blocks away from the Bahia Palace lies the Mia�ra, or Jewish cemetery. As you wander in, a caretaker will offer to guide you, and a tip of about 10 dirham apiece (less than $2) is expected. We passed on the guide, which was probably a mistake, as he could have added some context. On the other hand, the cemetery offered plentiful opportunities for photographs.

Jewish Cemetery

We've just finished a stay of a little over a month in Marrakech. I am writing this on the morning of May 12, on a train rolling its gentle way north towards Fez. It's a seven hour journey that should provide some catch-up time for blogging for as long as the laptop's battery holds out.

Despite a few small problems here and there (more on which later), Marrakech has become one of my favorite cities on this trip. Our beloved apartment sat only a few minutes walk from Jamaa el-Fna, the boisterous central square that leads into the marketplace. Yet our street, Rue Fatime Zohra, was itself relatively wide, brightly lit, and not so close to Koutoubia Mosque to make sleeping through a call to prayer absolutely impossible.

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The front door of our apartment

Finding a grocery store was one of our first tasks upon arriving in Marrakech. Living in the center of fruit stalls, corner markets, and little shops selling eclectic hodge-podges of household goods, it might seem odd to seek out the local equivalent of a Kroger. Yet supermarkets have one thing that a souk does not: fixed prices. Shops in the medina expect haggling, and a quick exploratory jaunt to a grocery store serves to set baseline expectations for later negotiations.

(As an aside: I've heard various visitors discuss--okay, complain about--the "foreigner tax" that stall owners will apply when negotiating with an out-of-town customer. While getting a bit ripped off is annoying, I don't think that the description is entirely fair. The salesmen in the Marrakech medina tend to be in cutthroat competition with one another and have developed trading instincts to match. Were a local to show up without experience in bargaining or the ability to speak one of the local languages fluently, I'm sure that they'd also be "taxed." Similarly, I'd love to visit Marrakech with some of my relatives who have earned reputations as... well, let's say hard bargainers, although their counterparties might use more colorful terms.)

No two walks in the medina are alike. Some areas specialize in certain goods: there are alleyways full of goldsmiths, squares that sell the latest Converse or Nike sneakers (or knock-offs thereof), and passageways full of leather handbags stacked three men high. The pathway north from our apartment to the grocery store remained my favorite throughout our month in Marrakech, however. Reflecting its residential character, the path had less in the way of souvenir sellers and tour operators, and more butchers, fruit vendors, bakeries, spice merchants, tailors and dry cleaners. A few days before we left, I chronicled the walk in this photoset.

From Our Apartment to the Market

Much as I prefer this domesticity, the charms of the more tourist-driven Marrakechi markets are undeniable. In Chicago I learned that everything you ever wanted was bought, bartered or stolen in my lifetime, and it's easy to conclude that all of that has been sold in Marrakech at some time or another. 

The passages that lead off from the Jamaa el-Fna are as much linguistically as geographically confusing until you nail down a few terms. A medina is the old part of a Moroccan city, generally surround by a wall. A darb is a road or alleyway. A souk is the name for a market. But most of the alleyways, squares, roads or pathways that spring up in the marketplace tend to call themselves souks. Meanwhile, many mere darbs are full of enough commerce that you would think they were markets in their own right. And if you walk at a brisk pace, you can probably make your way through a majority of those terms in less time than it takes to define them.

We were lucky to have the luxury of time in Marrakech, because some of the most fun can be had setting aside the guidebook, wandering down an alleyway and intentionally getting oneself lost. The medina has an allergy to right angles, and once the high brick walls block your view of the sun and local landmarks, it is easy to wander westward for half an hour, firmly convinced that you are heading east. [1] Once, when I was trying to meet Pallavi and her friend on an afternoon, three Brits rolling suitcases asked me the quickest way to the Koutoubia Mosque, as they were trying to catch a plane back home and needed a taxi. Luckily I had my iPhone with me: the combination of a map and compass sent them on their way.  The medina is not the place to be if you actually need to get anywhere else in a hurry.

But it abounds in sights like this:

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A cobbler fixes my shoes... with fire

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Tourists "fish" for soda bottles in the Jamaa el-Fna. The prize for winning is a bottle of soda. I never saw anyone win.

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Food stalls

A word of warning about street food: while we never had any problem in restaurants, proprietors of market stalls will quite cheerfully set out unasked-for plates of bread, olives, and other seemingly complimentary snacks. They will later appear on the bill, especially if the proprietors do not think you ate enough.

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Dates, figs, and dried fruits on the left. Fresh orange juice on the right.

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The markets hold a few dangers and annoyances. Most of the traders are polite and professional, but I did have some worrying encounters. I don't know if it was because of my shaved head, but my journeys through the medina were punctuated by offers of hashish from shady men. A few others would call me "footballer." (Is there some shaved-headed football star in the spotlight at the moment?). Indeed, the touts seemed to enjoy giving nicknames to passers-by.

Likewise, I can see why women would be annoyed by the leering, hissing and "kiss kiss" noises from some of the men in the market. It's a constant, and something that young female visitors should be prepared for, because they're not likely to avoid it: these sounds follow in the wake of even accompanied women. What puzzled me was the sheer indiscriminacy of it. It's true that the average tourist dresses less modestly than many a Moroccan woman, and by the end of a month the sight of bare shoulders had become a bit shocking even for me. But what possesses a man to hiss lasciviously at a girl dressed perfectly appropriatedly in cargo pants and a bulky GAP top? Not that a woman dressed like that can't be pretty, but she's certainly not trying to be noticed.

Of course, sometimes men have the odd bad encounter as well. While I was looking for limes one day in the Jamaa el-Fna, an orange juice seller decided that it was critical for me to sample his wares. His cries of "Hey, friend!" turned to profanity after I had ignored his first few attempts to draw me over. I'd never before had a problem with ignoring a tout, nor did anyone else seem to understand why he was so upset. The date-seller next door, distressed by my reaction (and those of tourists around me) began loudly admonishing the orange juice vendor. Things only really ended when I went back to the distraught salesman and explained, in my broken French, that I was looking for citron verte, could see that he had only oranges and grapefruit, and didn't want to bother him with my poor language skills if I wasn't going to buy anything. Following my "apology," they guy's neck retreated two inches into his shoulder blades, and after he slunk back the date-seller really gave him an earful. A better linguist than I could probably have picked up some really choice Arabic words.

Unpleasant at the time, sure, but it's a story. Hang around these markets for a month, and you'll have plenty of them to tell.

Markets of Marrakech

[1] If desperate, an iPhone's local map can generally get you back to a landmark: Google really is that good. But it's cheating.

Cairns teems with backpackers, hostels, cheap hotels, dive centers, more backpackers, tourist shops, spas, coffee shops, yet more backpackers, faux-Irish pubs, nightclubs and the occasional additional backpacker. Pallavi sits just about at the top of the average age range for visitors to Cairns, and I felt very much like the creepy old man at the club. This didn't matter, of course, because we were there to dive the Great Barrier Reef, we stayed at a cheap tourist hotel instead of a party hostel, and we only incidentally took in the other attractions (and oddities) of Cairns. Nonetheless, we still managed to find Sydney-class drinks at Society, which I consider Cairns' finest bar.

The first thing you need to know about Society is that it is set up for youngish people looking to drink, dance and hook up. Decorated in a modern metal-and-plastic style, with only a bit of hard wood, the bar and the menu are ridiculously woo-girl friendly. The drinks veer heavily towards the sugar bomb: even their negronis are, as standard, mixed with a sweet syrup. Society is a product of its society.

That said, the bartenders can mix the classics, and enjoy showing off their skills when asked. They're also very friendly: one had spent a few years in Detroit, and he and I traded Michigan stories. Another wanted very much to try his hand in bars in the States, and we talked about what we thought might be the best markets for him. It's a shame that he probably won't be able to get a work permit: some fine bar in the States is currently missing a great employee.

As for the drinks, Society is quite creative with concoctions for the sweet-tooth set. Their absinthe-based signature drink manages to be sugary and yet not smother the strong anise flavors of its principal ingredient. On the other hand, Pallavi tried a yellowish concoction which captured the essence of a Starburst fruit chew in a glass. This drink almost doesn't taste alcoholic, which makes for one of those potions that every young girl's mother warned her about. These aren't normally my thing, but Society has elevated cocktail-as-sugar-delivery-mechanism to an art form. Don't drink too much, have plenty of water to ward off the almost inevitable hangover, and brush your teeth afterwards.

Following the welcome news (today must be a great day to be in New York), the U.S. State Department has issued an alert for Americans traveling until August 1, 2011... all over the world. While I suppose it's always useful to reiterate common sense advice (avoid demonstrations, especially if you don't know what they're about; pay attention to local news), this kind of generalized worry doesn't seem particularly helpful.

That said, the alert does link to the Department of State's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), one of those amazingly useful government services probably known to too few people. Not only does the system email you the latest news and alerts for the country you're in (we avoided some massive Bangkok demonstrations after the service alerted us), but if something does happen, the U.S. embassy knows you're around. If you're leaving the United States any time soon, it's worth registering.

Things We've Seen

Things We Like