Sunday, April 12, 2009

vEaster Sunday, April 12 from above the Atlantic, Nice to JFK

Ah, Athens. Ah, Greece. Especially in the foreign service, you can’t go home again; or, if you return to a place where you served happily before, none of the same people who made it home will be there. So it becomes a completely different experience to be enjoyed just for itself. And that’s what happened for six days in Athens. Only my friend from Erie, Dolly Di Marco, still lives there, as she has for thirty years since she married a Greek ship captain and had her lovely daughter Elena. My Greek diplomat friend, Xenia, is the consul general in San Francisco and wasn’t going home for Greek Easter. Nor were my friends Diane and Norman; she is an art professor at the U. Of Minnesota and they will be returning in the summer to their home overlooking the harbor of Rafina, access port to the Cyclades Islands.

I departed Cairo in the middle of the night and it was still the middle of the night when I arrived in Athens with only two hours of sleep at best. The metro which was only completed in 2004 all the way to the airport is closed so more lines can be added so I had to take a cab to Dolly and Elena’s. Dolly went to work and I to bed, miraculously. It felt great. Dolly and I wandered around the old city parts, known as the Plaka, drinking coffee and reminiscing. On Tuesday, we invited a friend of Elena’s to come to the house for a much needed pedicure and manicure. Then off to the hairdresser for and equally much needed color and cut.

Next, a quick trip to the American Embassy to see the new consulate building behind the existing building which was being built when I left. Spacious new headquarters for Americans in Greece to come to renew or replace passports and for Greeks to endure their interviews in order to get a visa to visit America. All the Greeks who I had worked with are still there and it was so lovely to see them and to be remembered by them. Two members of my A100 class are now assigned to Athens so they gave me the grand tour and then Elaine and I walked down to the local platea restaurant "Flower" where we had all enjoyed many a horiotaki salata, the traditional Greek salad.

On Wednesday morning, Dolly and I picked up a rental car and drove to beautiful Nafplio, a Venetian city on the coast of the Peloponnesian peninsula. April is too early to go to the islands and even Nafplio, a favorite Athenian weekend spot was pretty sleepy. While I lived in Athens, I always took visitors to Nafplio if their time was limited. There one gets a taste of the sea, a medieval castle, access to the Mycenaean bronze age archeological site, and the chance to eat lots of Greek food and sip cappuccinos or wine by the sea. Dolly and I did all of that and more, including visiting another lovely town near Corinth. Upon our return to Athens on Friday night, we headed out for some old Greek torch songs at a bar Dolly knows of. It was fun.

Saturday morning early, I was off to Corsica with Easy Jet. No assigned seats on Easy Jet, just a mad, pushing rush for the five hour flight to Paris Orly. Then a couple hour wait for a flight to Ajaccio, Corsica. Corsica is the fourth largest island in the Mediterranean (Crete, Cyprus and one other which escapes me are larger) and while it is an rather unwilling part of France, the Italian influence is very strong. Lovely old limestone farm houses, a spine of mountains down the middle that makes driving hair-raising and the views breath-taking. Kathryn (political officer at US Embassy Kabul) had taken three weeks R and R to meet her UCLA freshman daughter Joan in Spain for her spring vacation and now her sixteen year old son, Alex, in Corsica. I was lucky enough to be able to tag along. They were renting an old flat in a one horse/no internet town two hours from Ajaccio via twisting, turning roads. No superlatives can adequately describe it’s wildness, its savage beauty, or the hikes we enjoyed/endured.

On the third day, we embarked on a 8.6 mile hike (these are not ambles but real hikes over rocks and through creek beds with lots of ups and downs). Half way through we got lost, wound up somewhere else, and figure we managed more like ten miles by the time we regained the car. It took me three days to recover and then we decided that we just had to try it again and do it right. Wrong. We made it throught the first part where the previous error had been made but got lost again. This time we logged thirteen miles. Every inch between the tips of my tows to the back of my waist hurt. A lot. But I was ever so proud of myself! I can keep up with someone fifteen years younger than I am and a sixteen year old and still be here to talk about it.
Mostly, hiking was what we did. Imagine a young man who willingly spends a week of spring vacation with his mother and her old friend! It was great. We had lots of great Corsican food, heavily weighted toward very Italian, thin crust pizza and drank a bunch of Corsican wine.
Kathryn and I spent yesterday in Ajaccio again because Alex left in the morning. While still a small city, it had lots more life than the rest of the island. Shops, restaurants, and, of course, a nice walk up to the top of the ridge for another breath-taking view of the harbor.

So, here I am, sitting in the Jet Blue, wifi provided area in JFK after getting up at 5 am in Ajaccio, flying to Nice, waiting two hours, enjoying a nine hour flight to New York and finally on US soil. How long ago the flight to San Diego and then Hong Kong feel. And yet I have savored each and every moment. I know that I will look back on this last three months as one of the most amazing things I ever did. Memories of sights, scenes, conversations, old friends and new, relationships, understandings and observations of history and people, a vast display of natural and manmade wonders and problems.

Tonight I’ll spend two hours driving back from Buffalo with Scott. And while I’ve been gone, Marty, Kelly, Kelsey and Davey have moved back to Erie from Florida and I’ll see them tonight too. I’ve missed Coug’s, Scott’s, Mom’s, Heather’s, and Kelsey’s birthdays during my oddysey and it will be fun to give them all the gifts I’ve gathered from around the world.

I will conclude this travelogue by saying that above all what I realized on this trip, as I have during the last ten years or so of what Jane Fonda would call the late second act, early third act is that I am truly blessed. For lack of health, financial wherewithal, bravery, confidence, most people don’t have the gift to be able to do what I have done. My sense of gratitude is immense and I stand in awe at my own good fortune. I have seen a world where people with mangled limbs live without food or shelter; I have been in places where people are waiting and trying to kill each other in the names of religion and nationalism; I have heard of young lives being cut down by breast cancer and other scourges. I’ll never know why I have been so favored to have had such a charmed life. I only know that my gratitude is boundless.
Thanks for sharing my odyssey with me.

Friday, April 3, 2009

April 3 Entry, Post Elderhostel

Friday, March 20 - Sunday, March 29
For purposes of a travel blog, an account of these ten days is mostly one of sight-seeing and schlepping around on buses with the Elderhostel tour group. We always think that we have formed true friendships with people we’ve spent this much time with but there usually is no real follow up. Eight or ten of the people I would hope to stay in touch with, however. All are retired, intellectually active people. Most are thrilled with the election of Obama although there was more than a handful of people from Texas and we sensed that there were still some holdovers. Everywhere we were greeted as returning heroes to the world, though. It feels so much better to hold our heads up again. Which is not to say that the news on the financial front is good or that the US isn’t caught up with much ado about nothing in the form of the outrage over AIG bonuses (an outrage, yes, but it’s like worrying about a marshmallow burning on a campfire while the adjacent building is ablaze). I will never ceased to be amazed by our ability to be distracted or frothed up with much ado about nothing when the issues are so serious. I can only hope that the people at the top aren’t so overwhelmed with lack of support staff and the greatest challenges of our time to be able to function.

Tourists in Europe say they can’t look at one more cathedral; in Greece, they can’t look at one more rock. And in Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, one tires of Roman and Egyptian ruins, lectures on waves of marauding invaders and successive dynasties, power struggles, and theorizing on the engineering abilities (whether structural or political in the form of organizing slave labor). Highlights:

We visited Bethshean on the Israeli side and Jerash on the Jordan side of the Jordan River. Both are fantastically intact Roman cities reminiscent of but not quite equal to Ephases. Then it was back to Old Testament history with the visit to Mt. Nebo, where God gave Moses the view of the Jordan Valley and the land that he had spent forty years in the desert rallying the ancient Israelits to deserve only to be told that he would never enter it; Moses promptly died here.

My personal focal point for deciding on this trip was Petra, the ancient city of the Naboteans, mentioned in the Bible as the Edomites probably, and it did not disappoint. Most of my readers have probably seen filmed pieces on this incredible world heritage site so I won’t wax poetic about it but wow! In the middle of desert, there is a gorge through which spring floods have passed for eons. At least a half hour walk through this gorge yields a now ruined city. For centuries the Naboteans buried their dead in elaborately carved tombs in the sandstone walls of the gorge and near the entrance to the city. Eventually , they began to live here, however, and this was the scene of a thriving financial center at the crossroads of the east west caravan routes and the north south trade routes.

Summon up all the travel superlatives you can and apply them to seeing Petra. A once in a lifetime experience. We spent an entire day here and one of the first afternoons with truly free time. The hardiest of the group climbed the "1000 steps" (reminiscent of Machu Pichu or Nepal) up to the top of the city for the amazing view down the other side of the mountains which ring Petra and walked the two and a half miles back through the town for what was the first and last serious exercise of the trip!

We left Petra the next day, drove along the Dead Sea, visited another Crusader castle, and stopped to smear ourselves with Dead Sea mud, swim, have lunch and a beer for a few hours at a Dead Sea resort. Onward to the Amman airport and the evening flight to Cairo;
Tuesday was spent in Cairo visiting the Great Pyramids of Giza and the sphinx, Memphis and Sakkara. My sister and I had been to Egypt three years earlier and I had no intention of ever returning but, as it was included on this trip to Israel and Jordan which were my real interest, here I was again. You can see far better films on the subject on the Discovery Channel or History Channel that I can give. My impression then as now is that once you have seen these things that you have heard about all your life, you don’t need to see them again. It’s not that they are disappointing but besides the enormous size and the wonder you feel at how they could have been built, you are struck by the brownness, the sand, the desert. The Nile forms a green gash through the desert, an awesome phenomenon to behold but the desert, to me at least, is oppressive. At least this time, the temperature was perfect and the crowds were not so enormous.

The other thing I remember about Egypt is the chaos, the crowds, crowds mostly of men in the long Egyptian dress, men staring at me or whomever I am with. Yes, we’re white and Western. While I was an object of interest in India, I was far more so in Egypt. And while the Indians are also aggressive in hawking their wares or begging for Western money, the Egyptians feel far more sinister to me. I took a long walk one morning along the Nile while the rest of the group was visiting the Egyptian Museum and the Coptic and Jewish areas of Old Cairo and the bazarres which my sister and I had seen last time. I was wearing a turquoise sweat suit with a tank top underneath. It was warm enough to take the jacket off but even with it unzipped to let in a little air I was getting stares, an occasional whistle, and a few cat calls. In India, if your shoulders are appropriately covered, you’re simply an object of interest. Apparently in the Muslim world, the throat and neck and hair are the erotic zones. Interestingly though, the women may all be wearing headscarves and there is no skin showing, the jeans and knit tops are absolutely skin tight. Yes, some of the older women are in full abayas, some with only eye slits, but generally Cairo and Amman are secular cities with covering of the head accepted.

On Wednesday, March 25, we flew to Aswan to embark on the three day cruise of the Nile. The ship is one of probably fifty plying the exact same route and schedule. Picture six by eight ships tied up together and having to walk through the lobbies of five other ships to get to your own. The result, of course, is that even your state room is looking into the stateroom of the ship next door. And, of course, Egypt doesn’t have electrical hookups for the ships so all fifty have their generators running so opening the window will also bring you lots of diesel fumes - and the cigarette smoke from other ships or passengers. Ugh.

Most of these ships look a bit shabby; certainly ours was. The dining room is below water level so you are eating in a room that makes you feel like it’s the middle of the winter somewhere. There is a lovely bar and lounge on the fourth deck and on the fifth is the pool.
The one day we were sailing, Thursday, was magnificent. A line of ships rather than fifty tethered together. The Nile is wide and lovely. The shores are lined with pastoral settings of lovely green fields and crops. Immediately behind looms the desert and pure brown. An awesome contrast.

The long and the short of it is that I’m not sure whether the way to see the wonders of the Nile in Aswan and Luxor is by cruise or the way my sister and I did it - boarding a plane everyday to fly to a different city, check into a different hotel, pick up a different guide, etc.....

The sights of Aswan and Luxor are incomparable. The temple of Karnak is what had knocked my socks off before and did again. Fully intact, it is immense. Unlike most of the Roman ruins, though, like Ephesus particularly or Jersash etc, Karnak and Luxor are temples not cities. As on the grand tour of Europe one thinks that one couldn’t see one more cathedral, in Egypt one can’t see one more temple, one more rock. Karnak is the best of the best, though.

By the end of the Elderhostel trip, I have bonded with three couples and a number of the individual members of the group. Often real lasting friendships are made on trips like this and it will be interesting to see if we actually do stay in touch.

Would I do it again or take another Elderhostel tour? I will probably never go on another tour again in my life but if I did, it would be with Elderhostel. This was a grand way to see lots of things but not to experience the life in the places we went. I would love to have spent two weeks in any one of many cities in Israel or Jordan as I did in India. The daily or every-other-daily schlepping between hotels, the pace of group travel which slows to the speed of the worst knees or hips in the group, the buses, all of it gets very, very old. Group touring is only good for seeing sights and having the details taken care of for you....

A final note on one of our guides and the culture of Jordan. Zuahir is a forty year old father of three, son of a Bedouin sheikh whose position he is entitled to inherit but which he has ceded to his brother, fully fluent, and considered one of the best guides in Jordan. He was chosen to be one of the first translators into Iraq with the Brits and we were extremely fortunate to have him. I have encouraged him to apply to the Mid-Career MPA program at the Kennedy School at Harvard because he will undoubtedly be a leader in his country one day.

Zuhair gave us great insights into desert/Arab/Bedoin/Muslim culture. He emphasized the strength of tribal culture - and even shariah law. Tribes settle differences between people, command absolute loyalty because they deserve it, maintain the glue of social control and a sense of belonging. People stay in line because to stray would be to bring dishonor on the tribe. He admits that it is all very good except in the instance of the extreme of punishing women who "stray," even if the straying is rape. He defends the covering of women as a way to maintain modesty but doesn’t deal convincingly with the flip side of the coin which must be that men cannot be expected to the control themselves in the face of the female body so it is women’s obligation to stay covered.....

Zuhair makes a convincing case for tribal culture; surely the failures of democracy in taking care of our own people in America or in providing order or justice in most Muslim countries - Iraq or Afghanistan come to mind - are obvious. I really did come to understand that we focus on and judge Arab culture for the way it treats women but we often fail to see that our world of mass culture and the void in values that it has widely created may actually bring greater pain for more people. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. Similarly, Zuhair notes that our "successes" in Iraq have come only when we engaged tribal leaders; he also suggests that we give up on this "democracy" business and the whole "election as vehicle to nirvana" idea. Some cultures just aren’t ready for it. Or, perhaps, the best way of organizing and governing people has just not yet emerged.

Friday, March 20, 2009

March 20 Entry from the Sea of Galilee

My friend Jefi was kind enough to answer the question posed in the last entry concerning the origin and/or meaning of my emotional response to being in Israel. So succinct, so perfect that I will directly quote it here. "I think that anyone with a Judeo/Christian background or even a profound love of history is moved on visiting Israel. I have heard this so many times from so many people. It's where so much actually took place. Whether one is of the Christian persuasion, Jewish or Muslim...where your feet tread so did all...Roman soldiers, Jesus, John the Baptist, Persians, Egyptians, the first makes me tingle just thinking about it. It's where everything started...the beginnings. It's a place of love and hate, peace and war, desolation and lushness, growth and destruction. if quantum physics is right, the whole country is absolutely vibrating with the energy of the past! It is where your history lies and for that reason I think, it resonates within you much more deeply than the far east."

Let me say, in addition, that I have completely fallen in love with Tel Aviv. A lively but not huge, secular, ambitious but romantic city filled with people trying to fulfill a dream of Israel without an extremist edge. I would return here in a moment and suspect that I probably will.
My four days in Tel Aviv were truly wonderful. Five of ten of the Israeli contingent in my Kennedy School Mid-Career MPA program 2001-2002 made time to see me. I was wined, dined and entertained by each of these people of whom I had become so fond seven years ago. It is a testimony to the intensity and powerful emotional impact of that program that friendships this strong can be picked up where they left off that long ago.

Several of these people are very visible figures in the Israeli public and/or occupy extremely controversial and powerful positions so I will not name them. Each lives in Tel Aviv, however, and three of the five are right around forty and each is busy having babies while occupying important professional positions. I met one woman with her three month old daughter in a lovely urban neighborhood for dinner. The number of strollers passing by, children cavorting with their parents on the sidewalks, and obviously strong Israeli family entity was palpable. I loved it! The Israeli government is highly supportive of all things family. My friend was the beneficiary of help with artificial insemination along with maternity leave and excellent health care for herself and her baby who is named Rainbow in Hebrew.

I was so aware of the intensity with which the Israelis live. Three are having babies with great joy. The other two have nearly grown children, more than half of whom are in or have been in the Israeli Defense Force. Hovering in the background of all this family activity - at least in my mind as I observed it - is an awareness of the threat of danger and isolation that can never be very far from consciousness. My instantly recognizable newscaster friend took me to the nightclub his pregnant-with-twins wife owns and as I watched and participated in the every Wednesday night tradition of a packed house of people singing popular Israeli songs, dancing on the tables, laughing, smoking, drinking, and having a ball, I nevertheless couldn’t put out of my mind that these were the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the people whose stories I would see chronicled in the Yad Vashem holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

I spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in Tel Aviv at the City Hotel. Two blocks from the Mediterranean, it was great. Each morning I walked miles on the beach. One of my friends took me to brunch with his wife and two friends- also pregnant - along the sea to the north of Tel Aviv. Secular or religious, most families observe Shabbat and while he does not come from an observant family, he committed himself to uphold the traditions which she holds dear. All the preparations for Friday’s family dinner are completed before sundown. Each and every Friday night, families dine, celebrate, and commune together in one of their homes. Schools and work places let out at about noon. At my friends suggestion, I walked down along the bars and restaurants on the sea in downtown Tel Aviv in the late afternoon. There were throngs of people and families enjoying the sunshine, having a late lunch and a glass of wine or cappuccino. At five the crowds began to thin and by six, the scene was deserted. Literally, the city shuts down - although not as completely as in Jerusalem where many more ultra orthodox Jews live. There, the streets are literally chained off and anyone mistakenly attempting to operate a car or any other mechanical device might well be jeered if not stoned. I was able to get a coffee at about six near the hotel but interestingly, the automatic doors of the hotel were blocked and one gained entrance through a manual door. The elevators did operate; breakfast was served and some of the food was warm but all had been prepared the day beforeand kept warm. Apparently the food may be served warm on the Sabbath but the warmers may not be turned on that day..... Some elevators operate on automatic pilot, stopping automatically at each floor all day long so that no one has to push the actual button....

While some of this ritual activity verges on the absurd in terms of legalistic silliness, the dedication of twenty four hours to family meals, quiet, reflection, shutting out of the world of shopping and consumption and just plain busyness seems extremely appealing to me. I realized that only once a year in America do we have anything like this suspension of the real world and that is at Christmas. Wouldn’t it be lovely to bring that kind of peace and togetherness into our lives more often?

On Saturday morning, I hitched a ride with the military man, his wife and one son to Jerusalem where they go every other week to have lunch with their other son who is in the military there. The road from the sea shore of Tel Aviv through the foothills and mountains to Jerusalem about forty minutes away is magnificent - green, pine treed, rolling. Acres of olive trees, pines actually brought from America, and rocks line the way. It was a gorgeous ride, quiet and free of traffic because probably more than half of the population doesn’t drive on the Sabbath.

By the time I reached Jerusalem, grabbed a cab to my friend Beth’s house and started a load of wash, it was cold and gloomy. Beth is a management officer at the US Consulate in Jerusalem. While the US Embassy is in Tel Aviv and interacts with the government of Israel (which is located in Jerusalem but the Palestinians object to that since the 1967 takeover and the US insists on the pretense that the government of Israel lives in Tel Aviv), the US Consulate General in Jerusalem is the interlocutor with the Palestinians. It happens that my previous direct boss, the Deputy Chief of Mission in Athens, is and has been for four years the consul general in Jerusalem, not a job to be envied.

My childhood friend Diana’s friend Jane who now lives in London but was previously stationed with the British Council in Mexico City had connected me with her friend Candace whose husband is with a major US newspaper in Jerusalem now. I met her for lunch, a delightful meeting of a couple of minds trying to wrestle with the contradictions of Israel. From both Candace and Beth I immediately picked up the notion that one cannot ever get away from "the situation." It is never far from the surface in any conversation. Many insist that the state of Israel, haven to the oppressed Jews of the world has become the oppressor. Later in the trip one sees the wall running along the west side of the West Bank of the Jordan River. Everyone knows the religious identification of every neighborhood in Jerusalem and it is as divided a city as any can be without a concrete wall running down the middle. "The situation" colors everything and the power of the Orthodox sects which live completely on the dole of the state because they are dedicated to "study" only and who have at least ten children each is ubiquitous. The city is absolutely shut down from sundown on Friday till Saturday. Candace and I had lunch in one of the three restaurants open on a Saturday afternoon. As I said earlier, a car wandering into the Orthodox area truly risks being stoned. Everyone who is not on one side or the other simply tries to stay disengaged from anyone who IS on one side. Which makes for a difficult living situation. Foreign service officers and, I’m sure, journalists, want to engage with the people of the country in which they are guests and it isn’t much fun trying to NOT talk about the realities.

Beth and I "hung out" on Saturday evening and drove to the ancient mountaintop city of Masada built by Harod the Great overlooking the Dead Sea. On this mountain top, the entire Jewish population committed suicide rather than succumb to the seige of the Roman legions below. Don’t ask me the exact chronology but presumably they had taken over this Roman city during the rebellion of 70 AD and the Romans were trying to get the city back.... More of the same. God is always on everyone’s side.....

Soooo.... On Saturday night at 10:00 pm I checked into the Prima Palace Hotel. It seems that hotels also observe the Sabbath so guests cannot check out, rooms are not cleaned, and nothing can happen until the sun goes down. Elderhostel had arranged for me to be able to check in a night before the rest of the group arrived and at their significantly lower rate. The hotel is located in a heavily Orthodox neighborhood in the Israeli (western) side of Jerusalem. I’d call it a three star probably.

On Sunday at 6:00 we had our first get-together for introductions and biographies. The biggest surprise was the number of people traveling alone. Not just women in pairs as one might expect but husbands and wives whose spouse was not interested in travel at all or at least with this particular trip. In order to avoid paying the single supplement, I had signed up for a roommate but, lucky for me, each of the other singles HAD paid it so I got off free. Lucky thing, too, because the room was mighty small.

So, yeah, they’re old - but then so am I. Nice people, smart people, educated and successful people, many former or current educators, well traveled people. Besides the cruise which is slightly different (there are 600 people and you aren’t schlepping around as a group at all times) this was my first tour group. I think the oldest is 84 and the youngest is actually younger than I am.

I won’t give a long description of the places we have been, the things we have seen except for a list in order to refresh my own memory when I am sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch twenty five years from now. We visited places I had been before like the Dome of the Rock, the Western or Wailing Wall, the Mount of Olives, and the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. The latter was crowded and we were rushed through with our guide without the chance to also see the Children’s Memorial, one of the most moving places I have ever been. What I was not prepared for was the beauty and poignancy of the whole Sea of Galilee area. I have no religious affiliation nor allegiance. Jesus is a historical figure who brought a message of love and forgiveness into the world which promptly ignored it and began killing in the name of the church it had spawned. But to walk on the ground and imagine the scene where Jesus walked, preached, purportedly performed miracles, went to weddings, collected and charged a group of disciples was far more moving than I would have anticipated. The lake sits low in the Jordan River valley, a verdant and peaceful agricultural area wreaking with history. We stayed in a Kibbutz cum hotel for two nights and the whole experience was wonderful.

On the way to the Galilee we also visited the ruins of Caesaria, a complete Roman town built right on the Mediterranean, half way between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Herod the Great, an obsequious Roman want-to-be but, in fact, the King of Israel or whatever it was called at the time, built this brand new city where no city had been before - a real first - on a beautiful harbor; he chose the spot because it had no association with anything Jewish or religious. I think he died before he ever got to spend a night there but it is a fabulous ruin.

We continued on up the coast, had lunch in and toured Akko, one of the oldest settlements in the world and an ancient harbor on the major trade routes from the east. We drove through Haifa which turns out to be a really appealing ancient city also on the sea and built on hills that roll down to it. I loved what I saw of it.

In sum, I love Israel and for different reasons than I had left with four years ago. There is enough to see, experience and feel here that one could easily spend two weeks. I said when I left on this trip that I would probably never pass this way(s) again but I would jump at the chance to return to Israel. While it was Jerusalem which caught my imagination last time, it was Tel Aviv, the thriving Mediterranean city, and the northern area around the Galilee and Golan Heights that drew me this time.

Jefi is right. This land is the home of our myths, the religious education of our childhoods even if that education didn’t "take," our ethical and moral compasses, our history and our literature. Not only the history of the Jews and the Christians but heavily the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines upon which Western civilization is based all converge here.

They also clash with the rest of the history of the area. The spread of Islam and its 1500 year old ownership of the land. The travesty of colonial empires and their later demise. The carving up of the whole world east and south of western Europe by those same colonial powers in such a way that constant warfare and ethnic clashes were bound to result. The Holocaust. The Zionist movement and the sense that the world truly owed the Jewish people a refuge and a land of their own, the first land they had ever "owned." The pushing out of the people who were native to that land at the time. The refusal of the rest of the Arab world to do anything for those people except use them a pawn in their own games of propaganda.

And on and on. Where does it stop? Most of the people I have talked to, Israelis themselves and their observers, those who have spent years studying and working on the issues, and the people invited to speak to us by Elderhostel expect little. The problem is truly intractable and the more deaths that occur, the more intractable it becomes.

I was reminded at dinner tonight, however, that twenty years ago apartheid in South Africa was equally intractable. It was assumed that the impoverished underclass majority population (which the Israeli Arab population will also be before long) could never be allowed to take over their own government and live in peace with those who had settled in their land several generations earlier and claimed it for their own. But it happened. Somehow people got over it. Not simple. Not all the problems solved. But a solution which everyone seems to be able to live with and no bloodbath.

Everyone assumes that if there is ever a solution it will be a two state one. How that gets worked out given physical realities here is more than I can imagine. George Mitchell negotiated a peace in Ireland which has not only held but this very week when two policemen were killed there both communities rallied in solidarity against the violence. Tony Blair, too, has spent the last year as the EU (or is it the UN?) Special envoy to the Middle East. If I were one to pray, I would be praying that now might be the time, the window, the opportunity for peace in this holy land.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Wednesday, March 11 Entry from Tel Aviv

March 10 Good bye to India
The remaining days in Mumbai were essentially the same as those that preceded them. Relaxed. A few more trips into town, more shopping for nice, comfortable, baggy and cheap clothing. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel about that stuff once I’m out of India!

Nancy left for Casablanca on Saturday, the 28th and Dennis and I mostly hung around the Breach Candy Club and tried to organize ourselves for whatever was coming next. We were invited to go sailing with a friend of theirs. He is a member of the Bombai Yacht Club but not the owner of a boat. It seems that the club has a limited number of very old and very decrepit but nevertheless sail worthy boats for day or afternoon sailing excursions. We stood in the staggering heat on the dock near the Gate of India and in front of the Taj Mahal Hotel and waited for a rowboat with a motor to come for us and deliver us. Once on board with the sails up, it was comfortable and quite lovely. The pollution is staggering and once you are out a bit, you can hardly see the famous sight of the hotel and the Gateway. I was struck by the very small number of pleasure boats moored in the harbor given the population and relative wealth of the city. Astounding, too, was the number of huge cargo ships simply sitting idle off shore. Such is probably the effect of the worldwide depression.

I had turned down an invitation to go out into the countryside and see some water projects being run by a friend of mine from the Kennedy School, Crispino. It would have allowed me to see
some of the famous and monumental Buddhist cave carvings but involved lots of flights, expense, and changing beds every night or two. I’ve about run out of energy for that so I elected on Monday, the 2nd to take the ferry out of Mumbai harbor to Elephanta Island where a lesser but still famous group of these carvings exist. The carvings are in the form of an enormous atrium with two story high pillars carved out of sheer rock and statues and scenes carved all around telling the story of the life of the god, Shiva. While I got myself down to the harbor and on to the boat alone and without a guide, I was invited by a group of four Americans to share their guide which was nice. They had had a guide every moment of the three weeks they had been in India, were staying at the Taj, and thought I was very brave to have figured out how to navigate the city on my own. Of course, I had my driver to pick me up afterwards.
Dennis was meeting Nancy a week later in Morrocco for a week. I considered joining them but by now I’ve spent a lot of time going to and from airports and a twenty hour flight which would overshoot where I need to be next - in Israel - seemed silly. So, I flew to Goa on the south west coast of India on Friday the 6th and Marielle and Steve joined me from Delhi on Saturday. Goa was a Portuguese colonial entity and it didn’t become part of India until 1961, quite a bit later than the Brits let go of the rest of India. It was the scene of Bacchanalian drug and rave parties in the sixties and still has the aura of backpackers and vagabonds. You see an occasional ancient hippie on a motorbike, but most of them are back in the States wondering what happened to them in the current downturn. It’s also famous for Ayurvedic treatments and yoga etc. but, in fact, most of it is pretty rundown. I had my eye on one of the quieter retreats to the south of the main town of Panaji but Trip Advisor comments about rats sent me scurrying to the Marriot resort which Marielle had chosen. A very good choice.

My room faced the sea and the ambience was lovely. Tuesday and Wednesday were Indian holidays so the place was full of people taking the whole week off - or at least making it a long weekend. We mostly laid around the pool and read or played cards. We hired a car for four hours on Sunday night to take us to one of those famous sixties beaches and then to dinner at a great beach restaurant right. My whole red snapper done in a tandoori oven was one of the tastiest and most beautiful meals I’ve had. On Monday, the 9th, we again got a car and driver from the Marriot and explored Old Goa, once a magnificent Portuguese colonial city which has now completely disintegrated except for the slue of old Catholic churches and a few temples.

All in all, Goa was a big change from the rest of India. More like being in the Caribbean (with its poverty thrown in as well, of course) or interior Florida. Tropical, humid, palm trees, water buffalo walking in rice paddies rather than down the streets, one or two lane roads, no auto rickshaws. Very little in between five star hotel resorts and beach huts and grunge.

Thoughts on India after six weeks
While I’ve been sitting around pools and lying on beaches and waiting in airports, I’ve also done a lot of reading. Before the trip, I worked my way through William Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali and a book called Holy Cow whose author I forget. Similar travel logs although the former is a
very well known travel writer from Britain who lived for a time in India. The former head of Proctor and Gamble in India, Gurcharan Das has recently published India Unbound, one of many books by economists and political scientists. And, naturally, I had read Eat, Pray, Love before I left. Once here, though, I switched to more fiction and find that those books are interwoven with the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen. One cannot pretend to be an expert on India when he/she have spent most of the time with Americans and their servants.

Those of you who know me well know that I think in broad strokes, not careful detail. My mind is always struggling to tie all the threads together, understand how the horrendous poverty of India squares with its reputed spirituality; how the world’s largest democracy is really a huge, corrupt, sluggish bureaucracy which is supposedly trying to wrestle with immense infrasctucture and social problems. Or are they problems? The New Yorker this past week has an article on the slums of Mumbai, naturally, given Slumdog’s successes. It speaks of the enormity of the slums right in the shadow of the airport which I just flew over and it is absolutely true. There are even "slum tours." And I’ve heard people say, hey, what’s the problem? They may be poor but everyone has a place in the system. Municipal recycling may not occur but all those women who sleep on the street with their children and comb through the garbage picking out the plastic and glass are just doing the same thing in a more or less efficient fashion. Grown up around every treelined neighborhood are dozens of little grocery and flower and fruit and battery and bike tire sellers. True, they don’t have licenses, don’t have deeds of property, but they are eking out a living - and providing services to theresidences of the neighborhoods.

One of the books I read here in Mumbai was called The Space Between Them. It is about the lifetime relationship between an upper caste/class woman and her maid, the parallels in their lives on many levels including having been abused by their husbands, and the ultimate betrayal. White Tiger is being sold on every street corner and it deals with a similar subject, the upper class business man and his driver. Did you ever wonder what all those drivers do all day long while they are waiting to be called to drive their masters for maybe two hours a day? Ah, the incredible knots of both loyalty and what we Americans can only imagine to be resentment.

Finally, though, I read Paul Thoreaux’s Elephanta Suite. I mention that I visited Elephanta Island and the suite in the book is the luxurious corner suite at the Taj Hotel which looks out toward the island of the same name in Mumbai’s harbor. Three medium short stories revolve around visitors to India and their involvement with the culture. I find that the ultimate conclusion that must be drawn is that "nothing is as it seems." Just as one thinks that they might have a handle on how Mumbai functions as a city, a new experience will negate that understanding. Just as one feels an intimacy based on relationship, a paradox will emerge.

I’ve taken that conclusion to mean that I have not failed in not being able to figure India out. In fact, it would be nothing but hubris to claim to have done so. I don’t feel guilty that I didn’t "feel" the deep spirituality of India. Yes, I have read about and visited the temples and churches of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, and Christians. I have observed the rituals in each. But I certainly can’t pretend that I will ever know the deep - or not so deep and only rote ritual - spiritual connection of any of them.

More importantly, as I enter what Jane Fonda calls the third act of my life and as I start the last third of this three month journey, I realize that the same can be said of all of life: Nothing is as it seems. As Edith Snow, Emma Willard School English teacher taught us, life is transitory. Chimera. Paradox. We are capable of sobbing at a movie or play about the holocaust and laughing at Mama Mia only a few hours late as happened to me in London last fallr. Somehow we find it possible to live with our conscience when we stay in a five star hotel in India. Paradox. Chimera.

So now I sit in the international terminal in Mumbai waiting for an El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Ready for more cultural change and paradox.
Ain’t life grand?

Wednesday, March 11. Twelve hours in Tel Aviv
Even if things are not as they seem and all of life is transitory, I am experiencing here in Israel one of those spiritual or emotional confluences which has no good explanation - other than it is my experience. I’ll elaborate on many of the possible explanations but suffice it to say that I feel elated here. I’ve just walked the two blocks from the Mediterranean Sea shore where I spent several hours walking, observing, reading, sitting in the sun, having a glass of wine. The decision to come to Tel Aviv ahead of the Elderhostel trip was riskier than I’ve taken before. I’m alone here, chose a hotel on a whim, hoped that I could connect with some old friends from the Kennedy School but NOTHING had been settled when I landed including the hotel. Since then, I have had four invitations for events and dinners, have easily found the hotel which did, in fact have the reservation even though they had not bothered to confirm, etc. etc.

The most important explanation is probably my life long love affair with Israel and Jewish culture. But doesn’t that sound a bit too rational? One hears about fault lines and meridiens where spiritual forces might come togehter (Stonehenge, for instance Or Daraslama or Tibet. Or Machu Pichu). People who are at those places feel moved in unexpected and profound ways. I did not experience that sensation at Machu Pichu but this is my third time in Israel and I have felt it each time. An exhilaration, an elation that defies logical explanation.

This is a double thrill because I feared that my excitement for each leg of this trip was beginning to wane, that the Elderhostel trip, tagged the Journey of a Lifetime, was going to be an anti-climax; that I’d already seen so many temples and mosques (if not synagogues) that another wasn’t going to do much for me. However, now I’m really excited about each day and the trip ahead, seeing my Israeli friends and making new friends.

The day here is not unlike a day in Erie in the early spring. Perhaps I have more of an emotional and spiritual connection to the land there than I realized. Especially after India (the good, the bad, and the ugly), to spend a day in clear air, 75 degree sunny weather, along the sea shore facing west, not a beggar or piece of garbage in sight is been fabulous. I’ve walked the streets, taken the city tour.

Like the sense I had the first week in Cambridge, MA, I feel a deep affinity for Tel Aviv, Israel. I may not have the credentials or life history but I feel as one does when one has come home.

Friday, February 27, 2009

February 27 Entry - Mumbai

Academy Award Night in the US but Monday morning in Mumbai. What fun to be watching Slumdog Millionaire clean up at the Oscars while in the city where it was made. From my personal vantage point, I haven’t seen anything like the poverty, filth, or sadness that either the movie portrays or that I saw in Delhi. This is not to deny the reality of the portrayal of the city but rather an accident of where I’m staying in relation to the tourist areas and where my hosts work.
But I am getting ahead of myself....
A review of the entries thus far reveal that I have failed to introduce the most important characters in this story. First of all, Cindy who has traveled with me for six weeks and returned home to California on Feb. 18th is an old friend from the late sixties. We were married for a very long time to two best college buddies who were also business compatriots and we spent many a New Year’s Eve or summer idyll around the pool in Erie or in motor homes playing bridge, Risk, and otherwise having a great time. Cindy moved to San Diego several years ago to be near her two married kids and two grandchildren.

The people we have visited are all friends from my five and a half years in the Foreign Service, a later-than-midlife adventure which few people even dream about. One comes into the FS with a group of others and mine was the 111th A100 class, named after a long-forgotten training room somewhere in Arlington, VA. There were 89 of us and Jeremy (Kuala Lumpur) and Nancy (Mumbai) were among them. Jeremy was in Thai language class, Nancy in Dutch, and I in Greek on about the same schedule so we spent most of 2003 together before heading off to our respective first posts. Jeremy made a detour first, however, and was a volunteer for six months in Iraq before the government was even (nominally) turned back to the Iraqis. He met Max in Thailand, married her two years later, served a tour in Berlin and is now an economic officer in KL.
Nancy and her husband Dennis hail from Portland, OR and have welcomed me as a single into their lives throughout our careers and have introduced me to many Portlanders in lots of places. As we were (the only two members of our A100 class) together in Western Europe (well, that’s a bit of a stretch for Greece), we saw quite a bit of each other, meeting in Athens, Santorini, Amsterdam and London. Their next tour took them to Bogota and Nancy is now the Immigrant Visa and American Citizens Services chief in Mumbai. That title qualified her to lead the American response to the Thanksgiving terrorist attacks here and her stories are harrowing. It is she, of course, who had to identify the American dead, including the rabbi who was killed, at the morgue.

Marielle and Steve also came into the foreign service after other careers (she was in the 114th A100 class along with Kathryn who you will meet later in Corsica) and we met in Athens where they arrived and remained about six months after my arrival and departure. Marielle’s second assignment was in Chenna, Indiai and they arrived in Delhi only a few weeks before my visit with them.

What all foreign service officers have in common is a love of travel, adventure, making new friends, representing the U.S. sometimes in spite of our foreign policy. We all are required to do one consular assignment, i.e., visa interviews or American citizens’ services. Some, like Nancy and her husband Dennis who has also been hired as an "eligible family member," have chosen consular work as their career area. Jeremy is an economic officer and I was in public diplomacy. Most of the time one doesn’t get to actually work in their chosen "cone" until their second or third tours. I didn’t work in mine at all except to be special assistant to the undersecretary for public affairs and public diplomacy, Karen Hughes and, briefly, for her successor, Jim Glassman.
While we are scattered around the world, we also cross paths very often. Everyone comes back to Washington for one week or six or eight month trainings for their next positions and new languages. As I was assigned to DC for two and a half years, I got to see everyone as they came through town and it is great. There is an open invitation to visit just about anyone you ever met wherever they happen to be.

Perhaps I have pushed that invitation a bit far by arriving on the doorsteps of Jeremy and Max, Marielle and Steve, and Nancy and Dennis for extended stays and their generosity in sharing their homes, time, help, and travel lust with (Cindy and) me has been just fantastic.

Friday through Monday, February 13-17. Weekend trip to Amritsar and the Golden Temple. Our flight back from Udaipur was hours late on Thursday and we lazed around at Steve and Marielle’s aside from a trip to see the Mughal Gardens outside the Parliament Building. They are open only once a year for about a month. Security is VERY tight, no gum, smoking, food, or even water is allowed, and the place is filled with school trips. Beautiful, elegant. We ate in a Thai restaurant in Connaught (sp?) Place a circle of once grand shopping centers and businesses.

Saturday morning bright and early we met at the US Embassy for an American agency/school/embassy sponsored trip to Amritsar which was probably one too many excursions for Cindy and me. We found almost everything about it distasteful but are surely glad that we didn’t miss seeing the Golden Temple, one of the most famous places in the world and rumored to be as popular a site for pilgrimages and tourist visits as the Taj or Mecca. The Sikhs are the guys with the turbans who you run across driving cabs in DC. The sect broke away from Hinduism over the caste system and pride themselves on humility and equality. The cornerstone of their rituals is a carrying of the hand written book from five or six centuries ago from its resting place adjacent to the Temple to the center of the Temple where it is read aloud continually by a group of priests until it is returned to its bed at sundown. A huge pool - more like a lake - surrounds the property and pilgrims actually bathe in it as part of the ritual. It was a cool morning when we were there and there were hundreds of men dunking themselves in the water and managing to redress under the cover of a towel. I was told that there is a separate place where the women can also bathe without being seen.

At the end of the Temple tour, there is a visit to the museum where we get to see the history of the nine Sikh gurus as they fought against their enemies. It may be all about equality but, like all religions, its also all about bloodshed in the name of God and some of the bloodiest paintings of beheadings I’ve ever seen.

We were also treated to one of the more bizarre rituals I’ve ever seen. Amritsar is 20 km or so from the Indian/Pakistani border and every evening at about 6:00 a ritual lowering of the flags on either side of the border occurs. Believe it or not, about 10,000 people assemble on each side and sit in bleachers (or in our case, due to our high diplomatic status and the advance notice to the Indian authorities that a group of 25 of us would be there, front row seats and lots of obsequeous behavior, tea, cookies, cake and a private meeting with the commandant) to watch a half hour of strutting, marching, huffing and puffing by the guards. Really quite a colorful show and fun to watch. The soldiers on each side do exactly the same movements and marches at exactly the same time and it’s all kind of a friendly contest of cheering and choreography.

So what didn’t we like about his little excursion?
- We met at the Embassy at 6 am.
- There followed a twenty minute bus ride to the train station in Delhi which is the home to about 10,000 homeless souls who sleep all over the station itself, bales of stuff waiting to be loaded on or off trains, in parked or abandoned cars. Truly a horrifying sight as the sun is beginning to come up over smoggy, filthy Delhi. A human cart dragger appeared to take our luggage away and it miraculously appeared again fifteen minutes later at the train.
- Our seats were clearly not in the first class car - or else this is as good as it gets. Dirty, drafty, the fine odor of the "facilities" which consist of nothing but a squat hole which empties directly on the track (giving a new meaning to "living beside the tracks"). Now, mind you, this was also NOT the bottom level of service because at least we each got a seat. And we were served lots of tea and not even so terrible food - breakfast on the way and dinner on the way back.
- It is a six hour trip each way..... We saw miles and miles of wheat fields (pronounced veet veelds) as the Punjab has become the breadbasket of India. Seeing green after all this time was an incredible treat.
- The guide, Mr. Singh. A smelly man with a short man’s inferiority complex. Name dropper extra ordinaire, he has been in the business for twelve years, is himself a Sikh, with an incomprehensible accent to his nevertheless knowledgeable English, he was insufferable. We alternated between trying to stand close enough to struggle to understand whatever he was saying and getting as far away as possible. Cindy persevered more than anyone else and by the end I thought they might kill each other because he was ticked off at her for asking him to repeat himself and pronounce everything again and she was, like the rest of us, sick of his pomposity.
- The hotel was dark, dirty, and they twice through us in crew lounges capable of holding 15 people and set up a barely passable buffet. Both Saturday’s and Sunday’s lunch were at the Chrystal Restaurant, either the only decent restaurant - and it was terrific - or the only one that gives a kickback to the tour company so we were spared the hotel for those two meals. We were actually allowed into the dining room for breakfast, a rather sorry affair. I think I reached my breaking point when, ten minutes after requesting coffee, I looked up to see a smelly waiter waving a teaspoon of instant coffee over my cup and asking if it was enough.....
So, back in Delhi at midnight on Monday night, President’s Day to the rest of you. We spent Monday and Tuesday recovering, packing and preparing for Cindy’s departure to home and mine for Mumbai.

Wednesday to Friday, Feb. 18-27 Mumbai
I leave Cindy at the airport with sadness that our six weeks together is over and with a real sense of good fortune that any two people could have gotten along as well as we did for this long. I have missed being able to comment honestly about what I’m seeing and reacting to since she’s left!

Mumbai impressions: Dennis and Nancy’s driver, Badr picked me up at the airport late afternoon. I was immediately assailed by the heat which everyone here considers to be just the end of a chilly winter. I’m not kidding. It’s 90-95 each day and this is only the beginning of the heat build-up leading into the monsoon rains in June. I’ll try not to mention too often how uncomfortable it is.

But where is the cacophony of honking motorcycles, cars, cabs, rickshaw etc. that I’ve come to expect? Not that honking is not still a part of driving. But here it seems much more cosmopolitan, sophisticated. And I’ve discovered the reason for the honking: It seems that rear and side view mirrors are either not provided or immediately broken so honking notifies that you are passing.... Wide boulevards. Observed lane markers and traffic lights. Not a single cow sighting on the way. Indeed, very few cow sightings in nine days in Mumbai. And what to my wondering eyes should appear but cement mixers, cranes on top of high rise building projects, even a steam shovel or two. Dennis told me that one high rise was taken down entirely by men with picks and axes though....

The apartment is in a building on top of a residential hill in a good section of town and not far from the famous and sophisticated centers of the city, a ten minute walk downhill to both the Consulate where Dennis and Nancy work and the Breach Candy Club. Yup, that’s the name of a swimming, tennis, and dining club right on the Arabian Sea which my friends joined as a way to escape the heat and the lesser-than-Delhi but still prevalent crush of people, traffic, and pollution. Originally a British social club, the only Indians there were servants but those days are long gone. So is the polish on the place but with a glorious view, an indoor and second floor balcony restaurant, a huge swimming pool and an undercover lap pool (one wouldn’t even consider going into the sea; consider 20 million peoples’ worth of raw sewage pouring into said sea and make your own judgment), playgrounds and canvas sunning chairs, it quickly looked to me like a place to call home for much of the time here.

I’ve been here for more than a week and have done very little because, well, you know.... The heat.

Worth mentioning, though:
The State Department and the Indian cultural centers were jointly celebrating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s visit to India and Gandhi. MLK the third, his wife, and a whole retinue of Congressmen and Senators were in India for the President’s Day weekend. This kind of visit involves an incredible amount of work on embassy and consulate employees plates as every whim of each member of the delegation is indulged and a carefully choreographed schedule of sight-seeing, shopping (yes, guided shopping), dinners, meetings, and cultural events is put in place. The group arrived from Delhi the same day I did for a jazz and blues concert.
And I had a ticket! In Mumbai’s concert hall, a la Kennedy Center, Herbie Hancock, Shaka Khan, Dee Dee Bridgewater, the Theloneous Monk Institute musicians, and a host of other American jazz and various Indian musicians played to a packed house. The energy in the hall was palpable and I’ll never forget it. If only "we" would wise up to the indisputable fact that cultural and public diplomacy is not only cheaper but also way more effective than military might in winning the hearts and minds of people in other countries. This was an elegant, happy, sharing affair and everyone loved it.
Dennis and Nancy have a knack for meeting and becoming friends with interesting people wherever they go, especially among the arts community as Dennis is an artist. On Friday night we went to a gallery opening. And last night we watched the reprise of the Academy Awards at the home of a radio talk show host who’s one of the most recognizable names in Mumbai. Just us for dinner.... Another pinch me moment. The same gentleman had taken us to a promotional event for a vodka company in a very chic bar on top of the Taj President Hotel after the concert and I’ve never seen so many photos snapped in my life. Because an American diplomat of any level is considered a celebrity, Nancy and Dennis have appeared in India GQ and several times on the society page of the Mumbai paper.
On Sunday, we went to the horse races where "Elle" magazine was sponsoring one of the races. Located right on the water, the race course is a real throwback to the colonial era gone to seed. The glitterati were turned out in their finest and the paparazzi were there again snapping away.
Saturday afternoon was spent, as it often is here, shopping, lunching, and doing errands. With your driver waiting outside and holding down parking spots, it’s all very civilized. Nancy bought a new formal Indian outfit and I wore my silk Vietnamese dress to a Parsi navjote, the Indian equivalent of a bar mitzva. What a hoot. Lots of Bollywood dancing, preening, Indian food. Hot. Very hot, even at 10 pm.
Nancy’s motto is that one can only stand to do one thing in a day in India and I think she’s right. I took a cab downtown one morning at about 9:30, way too late to beat the heat, viewed the famous Gateway to India which was mostly the exit from India for the British in 1947, sat in the Taj Mahal Hotel (you remember it from the November terrorist attacks) coffee shop overlooking the pool over a cappucino, just so I could say I'd been there. Built by a man named Tata- now one of the wealthiest names in the world, with one of the biggest steel mills - at the turn of the last century when he wasn't allowed into whatever the fashionable British hotel of the time was, it is unbelievably opulent. I'm reading The Elephanta Suite by Paul Theroux, three inter-related stories, one of which is set at the Taj. I was surprised that I could even get in, given the terrorist attacks and the fact that the Taj group turned Cindy and me away in both Udaipur and Delhi. I walked to the unairconditioned museum of art. Nice collection, serious headache by the time I left. On the way to lunch, I not only saw a rat but tripped over him/her. He/she got confused crossing the sidewalk due to on-coming pedestrian traffic, all of which had backed well off, and he finally settled on coming in my direction. Lunched alone at the Indigo deli and fled for home with the driver who Dennis sent for me.

Yesterday, I felt that I had mastered the corner of Bombay which is mine and actually managed to find a store I wanted to shop in without benefit of driver. A long walk but at 10 in the morning it was okay. As I was paying for my purchases and inquiring about taxi rides back, a bescarfed woman offered me a ride. Turns out she’s from Saudi Arabia, has lived in India most of her adult life, and her niece from Kuwait was visiting her. Perfect English. Perfect. I "lunched" at Crossword Bookstore, a la B and N and then walked up the hill to a VERY busy hair salon where color and cut were accomplished for $40. Now I won’t have to worry about that again until I’m in Cairo!

Such is life in India. This is a change from the pace I have been living at as a tourist but it’s just going to have to be alright. It was my hope to stay in places long enough to really get a feel for living in them. So far, Cindy and I kept moving frequently enough to be mostly tourists, albeit tourists staying in someone’s home. Now, I have slowed to a crawl and will spend two weeks in Delhi going nowhere but for early morning walks and reading by the pool until it’s time for cocktails on the roof each night.

Friday, February 13, 2009

February 13 Entry from Delhi

February 2-13 Ten days in India: Delhi, Agra, and Udaipur
Observations to follow but here is what we’ve done:

Monday, Feb. 2 Six and a half hour flight on Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to Delhi. This is NOT the same aircraft we traversed the Pacific with! Oh well. No more Asian faces. All Indian now. Cindy sat across the aisle from a huge, fat, disgusting man who snored from the moment we got on the plane. Picked up at the airport by Steve and driver Ravi, a new employee to go with the rented car they’ve got for the next few months. An Indian dinner prepared and created by the live in mother-of-two, Subitha.

Tuesday, February 3: Never left the house except to go to dinner at an Indian restaurant. Phone calls, more banking issues: unbelievably, my ATM card expired on January 31 and the new one is presumably waiting in Erie in a big stack of mail.

Wednesday, February 4: Steve, Cindy and I go to the Red Fort, built by Moghul emporer Akbar in 1500 something. Still remarkably in tact and lovely grounds. Red sandstone, hence the name. Not to ever be called chickens, the three of us spend the next two hours wandering through the Chandry Chowk (market), a warren or labyrinth of commerce, filth, hawkers, spitters, bathers in puddles, little stalls six feet wide at the most, neighborhoods of squalor. Everything we have ever been told or expected. I am no more startled than I expected to be; indeed your senses are
immediately impacted; the one that was pleasantly surprised is the sense of smell. We wind up at the biggest mosque in the world.....

Thursday, February 5: On Elizabeth Corwin’s recommendation, we tour the Delhi craft museum; at Lynn McBrier’s suggestion, we have lunch and a glass of wine at the famous Imperial Hotel, an oasis of green and smooth colonial serenity in this raucous sea - so easy to leave all the riff-raff outside, right? Then across the street to the cottage industry emporium, four floors of inlaid wood or marble furniture, silks, jewelry, scarves, pashminas, clothes, leather, etc.
Friday, February 6. Ravi dropped us to shop in an area that mainly attracts expats, lovely wives of diplomats shopping for Indian luxury at a cheap price. Which is what we did. Three tops, a pair of those tight at the bottom pants, and six scarves later, I parted with $100. We joined Steve and Marielle for lunch around the pool on the Embassy compound where at least 40 of the families also live in townhouses. Seemed a bit claustrophobic to me and I think Steve and Marielle are smart to have chosen to live in a separate neighborhood. There are bars on all the window, but they are, of course decorative, and a guard appears discretely at night to guard the precious diplomats inside. We enjoyed a manicure, pedicure and one hour full body massage for a total of $18 plus tip.

Saturday and Sunday, February 7 and 8: A five and a half hour drive both ways to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, without question the most beautiful building and compound I have ever seen. In terms of reputation and experience, the Taj Mahal ranks up there with the pyramids of Egypt or Machu Pichu. In actuality, it far surpasses the others, possibly because it and it’s grounds are completely and perfectly intact and you don’t have to imagine walls or colors and jewels where there is only a pile of rubble. Perhaps also because of the horror and filth you have to pass through in order to get there. A $15 entrance fee keeps the poverty far away....

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, February 9-12: Ravi and Steve drive us to the Delhi airport for the Air India flight to Udaipur via Jodhpur. We’re told that this flight would ordinarily be filled with Caucasian tourists to fill the palace hotels of Rajastan but they are all Indians and many on the way to Mumbai, the third stop on the flight. We are met by Uswar holding a sign reading Chrispine Chrispine which turned out to mean me. No air conditioning in this cab. About a half hour ride through the dust of several smaller towns and into the city of Udaipur, through streets so narrow that the cows can’t get past people on bikes.

The Hibiscus Haveli deserves a paragraph or two. Carol, an Englishwoman, and Babu opened a bed and breakfast sort of place with three rooms several years ago and recently moved a few doors away into a larger property that they own. They also bought the property next store and it will be their home when renovations are complete. Cindy had read several travel blogs extolling the cleanliness and pleasantness of their hospitality and it certainly is true.
Our room is huge and faces the Lake and the Lake Palace Hotel if you can peer over the top of several rooftops, trees, and hovels. A very mixed neighborhood but lovely. More luxurious international and Indian resort groups are expanding into Udaipur, buying up properties like the one that Carol and Babu previously rented and on which they had three years remaining on their lease before they were forced to move. Fortunately, they already had purchased this property and were planning on operating both places. Our room is huge with newly updated bathrooms, everything out of stone, firm (hard?, uncomfortable?) Indian beds, bright colored cottons on beds and windows. Immaculate in spite of the challenge of the constant dust. It is so unbelievably dry here that there is no dew on the grass even early on a cool morning.

We grabbed a cab shortly after choosing our room and headed for Eklengi where the local "ruler" mentioned later attends the Monday night temple services every week and receives the offerings and obeisance of the locals. Checking our bags in lockers outside and under the attention of lots of security, we entered a 700 AD temple replete with hundreds of small shrines probably added successively over the centuries. We purchased garlands of flowers which we did NOT smell and handed them into the shrine where the great man was although we couldn’t really tell which one of the turbaned men inside was he and which his acolytes.

Back to Udaipur, through a back alley, past what might have been a sewer, to a lovely restaurant on the water where there were perhaps 50 people dining, most of them foreign tourists. The lake is extremely low so the scene is not as beautiful as the pictures but after the monsoons, it will be fuller. We can see boats plying back and forth to the Lake Palace, and watch some fireworks.

On Tuesday morning we walk to the City Palace and engage a guide who we ended up spending the whole day with. He is an employee of a tour company who was just freelancing on his day off. More about the City Palace later. Huge, built with a mountain in the center, scene of elephant fights, consorts, pageantry, narrow passages to keep any invading enemies from being able to enter easily, the whole deal. The real deal. Kings palace. Queens palace. Magnificent mosaics of semi-precious stones. The exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Museum that I saw in November is of court paintings from this very spot. Not having the benefits of photography, the emporers ordered artists to record the events of the royals’ lives. The paintings are done on silk and painted with single hairs from a squirrel’s tail or several camel’s eyelashes using paints created from ground lapis or malachite etc. Magnificent.

After the palace tour, we emerged back onto the loud and busy street and were taken to the artist cooperative to see the revived miniature artists’ showroom. I couldn’t stop myself from purchasing a painting on silk of the city palace and the lake, mostly in browns like the desert scene all around. I love it and will get far more pleasure from it than custom made clothes hung in a closet. Across the street, our guide took us to a silk tailors’ cooperative and Cindy was measured for and had made a beautiful cream colored embroidered silk top with gold-tan silk Indian narrow legged trousers. They were delivered to our haveli that evening, returned for fitting the next morning, and delivered back again that night.

By now the day was late and our guide delivered us to the boat landing for a tour of the lake and a trip to one of the islands that the maharana is operating as a hotel. Gardens and beauty abound again. We returned to the Sunset Terrace within the City Palace complex for a cappuccino and a sandwich and then wandered back through the streets of town, stopping to pick up a couple of pastries to have for dinner in the dining room of our haveli with a pot of freshly made coffee.

On Wednesday morning we headed for town. By now we are easily recognizable and being called into shops for the third and fourth time. "Later" isn’t working very well any more. In some shops we are heavily pressured, in others, not. By the end of the day, we have spent six or eight hours on our feet, walked the town four times up and down the main street, purchased lots -of gifts for very little, returned Cindy’s clothes for fitting, been escorted by the miniature painter and the tailor and many of their relatives and co-workers to a turban shop, a spice shop and given general directions to keep us safe and happy - and to patronize their cousins’ and uncles’ shops. It has made it all so personal and so much fun. Probably we could be cynical about the motives for all this care and friendship but we prefer to think that these young men were kind, were reciprocating for our patronage - and really didn’t have much else to do given the paucity of tourists in town.

We ate on a rooftop restaurant looking down on the lake and the palaces and the more elegant hotels then found our way back to the Hibisus, changed into some of our new tops, hired our first rickshaw and headed for the Udaivilas, the Oberoi Hotel. And were denied entrance. Since the Mumbai incident, security is very, very tight at the Taj and Oberoi Hotels and we had already been told that we could not get into the Taj Lake Palace Hotel even to eat unless we had a reservation. The gate to the Oberoi is shared with the Trident Hilton Hotel and we were granted admission there. Oh the greenery, gardens, magnificence and expansiveness of the hotel and its grounds, the lovely pool, the plethora of greeters and employees, the vast dining room and beautiful bar. And we were the only people there. Well, I exaggerate slightly because there was one family of about eight sitting around the pool and two ladies walking the grounds. We took a walk around and could peer into many of the rooms where there were clearly no occupants and then had a lonely but lovely glass of wine on the outside veranda as the sun set.

Returning to the haveli, we sat in around the dining room and talked to Carol and/or Babu, played with the huge black great dane, Alfi, and the new Great Dane puppy, Oscar, and talked with the only other two guests, a 39 year old Israeli drop out and his Thai wife who are traveling about India.

I am spending this, our last morning here in Udaipur before flying back to Delhi, catching up this journal and hanging around in the garden reading. I have loved it here and find this to have been my favorite place in India. Perhaps because here we were on our own and not the guests of someone else. Perhaps because we can really appreciate getting out of the chaos of Delhi’s 12 million people or Agra’s three. Perhaps because of the special poignance of being in our sixties and knowing that we very likely shall not pass this way again.

Ruminations and Observations:
1. How to deal with the poverty issue philosophically? First of all, I suppose we have all seen enough documentaries on India and pictures of the poverty. Is there something wrong with me that I am not as shocked or horrified as I was told I would be? How is it possible to go past a man whose limbs are twisted at angles you can’t imagine who is begging in the middle of six or eight "lanes" of traffic and crawling with flipflops on his hands and then go to lunch at the Imperial Hotel? How can I be inside an air-conditioned car with a driver and turn my gaze away from the woman holding a baby and scratching with am empty milk bottle in her hands at the window of that car? How can I ever laugh again and sing and take a beautiful trip when thousands of people I have just seen with my own eyes are living in total squalor? How can such a magnificent structure as the Taj Mahal, one of the wonders of the world, and which took 22 years and thousands of man hours to build, be smack in the middle of a filthy, chaotic city such as Agra and no one notes the incongruity? Where did the driver hired to drive the car we rented to go to Agra sleep that night while we were in a Taj Hotel (not a particularly nice one, we all felt....)

And then I try to think about it from a macro-economic point of view. India has enjoyed one of the highest levels of growth of any country in the world. The U.S. among others has poured billions (or is it millions? Decimals have come to mean so little.) of dollars into development here. India is touted as the world’s largest democracy and a fine example of entrepreneurial capitalism. But how, if you were one of Delhi or Agra’s city fathers, would you begin to think about tackling the problems all around you? I kept thinking about just cleaning up the garbage, planting a few trees, greening the thoroughfares. But then I’d realize how inconsequential all those things are compared to the way human beings are living. And high GDP growth may be the only way that India will be pulled out of the morass but 9 or even 10% of nothing is still nothing. How long will it take for the compounding to amount to anything?

2. At the risk of moving too quickly from the horrific to the sublime, I’ll stop halfway between to comment on traffic and driving. From huge diesel belching trucks, to foul looking ancient buses laden with twice as many people as can be safely held, to cars, to motorized rickshaws where whole extended families are crowded in like clown cars, to bicycle driven rickshaws, to motor scooters, to simple bicycles (also loaded with at least a few people), to cattle wandering freely, to oxen pulling carts loaded with stuff, to the occasional camel pulling a wagon, to the elephant we saw working in the streets of Agra, everyone is on the roads. Lane markers are merely a suggestion and where there would be three lanes in the U.S., there are here six or eight. Driving is done with the use of the horn. On the back of every truck, bus, and public vehicle is written "Horn Please." What’s that all about? So it’s a cacophony of sound and fumes and one would think terror. Except that nothing is moving fast enough for anyone to get too badly hurt, I guess. The driver of the motorbike may be wearing a helmet but you can be assured that the wife and three kids in front and in back are not. I witnessed a three year old sleeping behind his father and holding on. Did he fall off a few blocks later? How would he have gotten to the hospital? Is there a hospital?

It becomes very clear that getting around India is not simple. There is very good reason why one doesn’t rent a car and drive it herself and why the driver is provided. (Perhaps he is really in a cleaner and more comfortable position sleeping in the car in the Taj Hotel parking lot than in whatever hovel he calls home.) The trip to Agra took five hours including the break at the only pit stop along the way where there are public (squatter) toilets and the distance would have been about the same as going from Erie to Cleveland. Trains might be preferable. Planes are supposedly cheap within India but our tickets to Udaipur are $220, not exactly cheap, and then there is the problem of getting to and from the airport.

3. There is construction and construction dust everywhere. People are not only begging and destitute. They are also employed or engaged in entrepreneurial activity or working as servants and drivers and gardeners. In Marielle and Steve’s neighborhood, there are many new and remodeling projects in process and you see groups of workers along the road. It all looks chaotic and unorganized but at least it is happening. Many of the workers are women and they are all dressed in their saris. We’re told that the women are doing most of the work but the men do the heavy part. You could have fooled me. It’s the women I see with the picks, carrying huge piles of rocks on their heads, and lugging buckets of cement. I have not seen a single steam shovel, backhoe, jackhammer, or cement mixer. As in Athens, cement is mixed on the street in front of the building so no street is actually smooth as a result of hastily scraped off and dried cement. Where are the children of the construction workers? In Udaipur, they are probably at home with grandma and the rest of the extended families in villages outside of town. We saw buses crammed with six or eight people to a seat lumbering up over the hills at sundown one night. In Delhi, the family often lives on the construction sight, setting up makeshift living quarters out of boxes and bags, bathing by sponge bath from some source of water.

4. Scenes from the window of the car: Tent cities or cardboard cities with women carrying water jugs on their heads and children in tatters, dogs everywhere, cows wandering through it all. A field immediately adjacent to the road where at least a dozen people were squatting with their pants down and defecating.

Scenes from the window in Udaipur: Here we are staying at a very inexpensive bed and breakfast with a bit of a view of the famous lake Pichali and in the middle of a neighborhood. I am sitting in a window seat the size of a single bed on the second floor. Directly in my line of sight is the loudspeaker for the call to prayer for the local mosque. It is mounted on a house and each morning I have watched the members of the family emerge and do everything that involves water at the curb. There appears to be an outhouse with its back to me and giving out onto the small space where this toiletting occurs. There is a huge water barrel and I see the people dipping tin cans and buckets into it. Each person first emerges carrying a toothbrush and tooth powder and strenuous brushing ensues. I saw one boy of about ten give himself a bath which involved lots of soap and shampoo and even a brush. He was wearing something like boxes shorts and as far as I could tell, none of the parts inside those shorts got even a rinse but every other square inch of skin was scrubbed till it should have fallen off. Some of the people brushed their teeth with their fingers, the rinse water is the wash water, and all is done squatting and spitting and rinsing into the street.

Overhead on all rooftops and swinging from limb to limb in the several big trees are monkeys the size of dogs. Carol, the owner of the property, says they ate all her petunias. They’re fun to watch and don’t seem to bother anyone but then I haven’t opened my window, mostly because there are no screens and there are lots of mosquitos at night since the waters in the lake are low and it is swampy. I just watched a mommy monkey with baby clinging to her underside walk by me on the neighboring roof and jump into the tree.
Next, out come the women with larger buckets of water in which they are washing dishes and clothes. Apparently the cooking or breakfast preparation and consumption have occured inside the house. The clothing is hung to dry in the dust and dirt which is the air all around. We saw one two year old being washed by his mom. She squats behind him and he bends over to have his butt washed by water splashed up from a cup. Children head off for school, usually with fathers walking behind them. The women remain at home and huge volumes of laundry occupy the clothes lines outside.

5. Guides. Of course, I have discovered guides or guided trolley tours in first world countries are great ways to see and learn. In India they are essential in order to fend off the vendors and hawkers and other would-be guides. Yes, they are good. Yes they are well informed. I’m not sure what the training is but I hear them all saying the identical things at the same places. They probably learn by listening to each other. Such is the way oral tradition continues.

6. Some Udaipur history: Udaipur is the only town in Rajastan that didn’t eventually cave in or sell its soul to the Moghuls who brought Islam by the sword to India in the 15th or 16th century. The tours of the palaces and cities show three or four hundredyears of continuous rulers who never capitulated. The current maharana of Mewar, his wife, and two grown children still live in the huge city palace but he has a hotel and restaurant management degree from Australia. He has turned two thirds of the city palace into a museum with a three star hotel in one part. The 4th highest ranked hotel in the world is the sparkling white Lake Palace Hotel, formerly the summer quarters and no more than a five minute tuk-tuk ride from the city palace; the maharana owns it jointly with the Taj group. (There is another palace visible on a hill nearby for surviving the monsoon season.) In addition, he also owns another eight or ten hotel properties known as the HRH group, not His Royal Highness but the Heritage Resort Hotel group. Smart and adaptable man. Once independence came to India in 1947, the princes stopped receiving funds or recognition from the state so other means of surviving were required. Many of the bed and breakfasts or even fancy hotels are owned and operated by former nobles.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Tuesday, February 3 Entry

February 3 Entry from New Delhi India
We’ve arrived safely and soundly in India and have gone into hiding for a day or two. No sight seeing. Little venturing out. Just trying to assimilate all that has gone before and clear my sensory palate before trying to take in teeming India.

We spent three days in Hong Kong, Friday through Sunday, Jan. 30-Feb.1, one of those nights on the ship and two in the Kowloon Hotel, upgraded at the generosity of Volkmar and Inge to the business floor where we had round the clock internet/coffee/tea/high tea/ and breakfast privileges replete with a sliver of a view of Hong Kong’s harbour.

I was expecting Hong Kong and Singapore to be similar but they really aren’t. Hong Kong is built on hills while Singapore is quite flat. The river in Singapore is crossable by a short footpath while traversing the bay in Hong Kong requires a ferry ride above or a metro ride below. While the business sections of both involve many sky scrapers, it feels much denser in Hong Kong; similarly to NYC, daylight doesn’t really get down o the street unless the sun is lined right up with that street. Even the hotels are thirty or forty story buildings and they are packed in on the bayfront and hillsides. Our hotel is immediately behind the world famous Peninsula which we of course had to peruse, admire but not partake of high tea, and avail ourselves of the only $20 glass of wine I ever drank. I consider these visits to the fabulous and historic hotels of Asia to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Another difference: the climate in HK is a gorgeous California mid seventies with cool mornings and evenings. This makes all the difference.

Friday morning a group of eight of us left the Azamara Quest (berthed in a cargo facility to try to avoid the costs of a bay berth given the terrible losses the line is experiencing, we think) and headed for the city. Michael (the guest diamond jewelry dealer and lecturer), his wife Yvonne, Inge, Volkmar, and an Austrian couple whose names escape me had kindly taken Cindy and me in tow. Michael had been on board for the ship’s previous voyage which took the same route but in reverse so has had an idea of things to see all along. The ship provided a shuttle to the central metro/bus/train station; we used each of those services as well as taxis during the next three days, mastering yet another Asian metro system. Much more complicated than the others, this one requires lots of walking within stations just to get to the right train. It’s the only way to go though since the traffic is brutal. Not as many motor scooters as previous cities but tons of cars and pollution. Lots of people sporting the ever popular medical mask.

Our first stop was the top of the highest peak with its breathtaking views of the city - and we had a clear day for it. Next, following Volkmar’s great find of a guidebook, we walked DOWN a good part of the way via a jogging/walking path which wanders down the hillside and lands in what I guess you’d call Chinatown. Except now we are in Hong Kong and it’s all Chinatown. We found a place for lunch. I use the word place because I’m not sure even how to describe it.
Something like a NY Dim Sung parlor, banquet hall, wedding hall, night club. Terrible service by waiters who really did not speak English (or German) caused us to miss the fact that there were a couple of menus with food that might have been good; instead we ordered off a check-off-your-choices dim sung menu. Who knew whether an order of one of anything would yield, in fact, three to a plate gelatinous rolls of stuff like shrimp or veggies? Kind of yukky but an experience.

Next stop: a grocery store and Starbucks, a gambol through the marketing streets of the city which truly is teeming at all time of the day. I probably saw some strange items but by now strangeness is not registering in my brain quite the same way.

Michael then led us to the Peninsula’s upper floor bar for the aforementioned glass of wine.
Buffet dinner of the ship and packing. I think we are all actually tired of so much food and - well, just tired. This was the last night and we said our good-byes, put our suitcases out by 11, and prepared for the transition to the next chapter.

Saturday mornings disembarkation (isn’t that a weird word?) was smooth and orderly. Like many other serendipitous happenings, Cindy has received an email saying that the hotel at which we had reserved a room was unable to process her credit card and they would have to cancel our reservation if they didn’t hear from us. Great news because it was going to be much simpler to hang out with Volkmar and Inge if we were in the same hotel. That registration and upgrade completed, we headed out for the flower market and the bird park/market. The flower mayrket is self-explanatory but the bird park was a totally new experience. It seems that the men of Hong Kong have bird collecting and comparing as a major pastime and that they congregate at the bird market with their own birds to compare notes. Presumably there is a fair amount of competitiveness at play here, maybe like all suburban American men mowing their lawns or comparing golf scores.

Aberdeen, a section of the city on the bay where hundreds of fishing boats are tied up, female only sight-seeing boat hawkers make visiting uncomfortable, and a huge fish-market occurs each morning is basically shut down by the time we get there. As is the herb market where Volkmar is pretty sure we should have been able to by tiger penises - an Asian version of Viagra. Too bad, we missed them.

We’d been saving ourselves - or our appetites - for the high tea that we thought would be just like that we’d observed the day before at the Peninsula but a few paltry salmon on white and turkey on equally white were all that were to be had although Cindy did manage to peel and eviscerate three mangos and serve them up. So we repaired to the bar where it turns out the upgrade provided for unlimited drinks rather than one each. There was only time for one, though, because we had to rush down to the waterfront for the nightly laser show. There are lasers situated on the tops of all the big buildings on both sides of the bay and their antics of light are correographed with music piped off the pier. We loved it. And following Lynn McBrier’s suggestion, we boarded the ferry across the bay to see the lights by night. Truly as memorable as she had predicted.

Sunday found us joined by another Austrian couple, Heinz and his daughter. (Michael and Yvonne, Ned and Jeff had left early on Saturday morning) Both Heinz and Volkmar had determined the perfect itinerary for the day and it was a lovely subtext to watch the cooperative efforts of these two accomplished and at times headstrong Germanic tour guides! We metroed to the bus to the gondola ride that goes high above Landau island. Bussed down the hill and back up crossing the island to a monestary which houses the world’s largest Buddhas high on the peak. The monestary is really quite a tourist trap but also quite well done and Cindy and I found the temple to be one the loveliest ones we’d seen - and we’ve seen a lot. Three huge gold Buddha’s, the hundreds of donated flower arrangements, here all orchids and peonies, and truly grand paintings and architecture were just fabulous.

Down the hill by bus to a fishing village where the market was in full swing. We are totally exhausted by now; bus to the BIG ferry (not the little one which just plies back and forth) to the little ferry and straight to what’s left of tea. Having learned our lesson, we got to the free drinks and hor d’oevres right when it opened, enjoyed two hours of R&R and headed down for the light show again.

Good buy, Hong Kong. A five thirty in the morning wake up call and the next chapter begins. I can’t end without noting that there is a train to the airport, like in many cities. But in Hong Kong, each airline has offices in three of the metro stations where you can check your luggage and pick up your boarding pass. Amazing efficiency. Amazing to not have to drag your luggage. We loved it.

Okay, rating time: Most interesting experience city, Hanoi. Favorite city, Singapore. Most interesting experience, the new year visit with Thuy’s friends in the village outside Hanoi. That’s it for East Asia. We’re now off to South Asia!