Southern India: Kanyakumari to Chennai

KANYAKUMARI

As much as Kiran and I were moving around there was destined to be one brutal travel day, and it was provided by the drive from the houseboat at Kumarakom to the southernmost tip of India at Kanyakumari. It took 10 hours to drive 140 miles. When we left the houseboat dock and drove through the middle of a jammed town I figured we’d get through it to the highway on the far side, but the jammed town continued for the entire 140 miles.

DSCN1709I don’t know where to begin to describe the semi-controlled chaos of driving in India. There are many buses, but there are no bus lanes so they stop in the middle of the road to pick up and discharge passengers. There are swarms of “auto rickshaws”, the yellow, three-wheeled taxis that look to be reasonably safe for three people but often carry ten. There are thousands of motorbikes, squeezing in wherever they can. There are pedestrians trying to cross the road: women with babies, old men with canes, kids without fear. There are cows on the side of the road or crossing it to go stand on the median. On this day – the first of a three-day holiday weekend – there were tens of thousands of people on our route lining the streets in a celebratory mood.

There are no lanes and no apparent rules. A red light means: “go, if you think you can make it.” If you stop at a red light the people behind you honk. But that’s OK, so does everyone else. Since you can’t break your concentration on what’s in front of you long enough to check your mirrors, as a courtesy drivers honk as they are about to pass. And passing, that’s where the real fun begins. The oncoming lane is open territory, and if you drift

The Vivekananda Memorial

The Vivekananda Memorial

over there to pass a bus that is passing an auto rickshaw and two motorbikes, it’s the responsibility of the oncoming traffic to try to give you room. If there is no room you wait until the last possible second and then force your way back in line. And so it went for ten hours on the road to Kanyakumari.

Kanyakumari is at India’s southernmost point, where three bodies of water come together: the Bay of Bengal to the east, the Arabian Sea to the west, and the Indian Ocean in between them. Many people died here during the

tsunami of 2004. It’s a spiritual spot, the site of the impressive Vivekananda Memorial on an island just offshore and a place where thousands of people come daily to touch the sacred waters. But it’s also festive, with huge bazaars and many shops, and people come here from all over India. I looked at thousands of faces that morning and only four or five others were white.

The Gandhi Memorial

The Gandhi Memorial

Kiran and I wanted to take the boat to the memorial but the line was too long. Instead we drifted over to a very pink building that turned out to be a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. We checked our sandals and were met at the entrance by Jilal, the memorial’s self-appointed guide. He told us that after a tour of the U.S., U.K., Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma and other countries, Gandhi’s ashes had resided here before being spread in the Ganges River and here at the junction of the three seas.

“He was murdered in1948 at the age of 79, and this building is 79 meters high,” Jilal told us. It has architectural elements of a Muslim mosque, Hindu temple and Christian church: again, the theme of acceptance. “Three seas, three religions,” Jalal said. In the middle of the main room is a waist-high memorial to Gandhi. There are two holes in the ceiling and only on October 2

Kiran and I pay our respects

Kiran and I pay our respects

every year, Gandhi’s birthday, does the sun line up perfectly and shine directly down on where his ashes rested.

We walked up to the top of the memorial to take some pictures. The waters here are holy to Hindus and we saw many people dipping their toes or hand in the water, some diving in off a rock. On the terrace of the memorial we met some of the young men from the group that dresses in black during their annual 40-day passage of humility, and took a few shots with them. We went to the water’s edge and waded in, admired the Vivekananda Memorial and hit the road to Madurai.

MADURAI

I don’t know how two journeys of equal length to and from the same city could be so polar opposite, but the drive to Madurai was on a modern, four-lane highway with little traffic, and what took ten hours the previous day took less than three.

After checking in to our hotel we were met by a wonderful guy named Mahesh, a client of Prasad Chavali’s, and he took us to the Meenakshi Amman Temple, one of the biggest in India and for the purposes of my trip the Hindu equivalent of St. Peters’s Basilica and the Hagia Sophia Mosque. It was completed in 1655 and is the centerpiece of a city that has a 2500-year history.

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Dedicated to Meenakshi, the consort of Shiva (the Destroyer), Hinduism’s most popular god, the temple receives a remarkable 15,000 visitors per day, up to 25,000 on Fridays, and one million during a ten-day festival in April. It features 14 towers, five of them huge and visible from a long distance. Each tower was carved from one rock and is covered with colorful depictions of various Hindu deities. Vibrant color is a theme throughout the temple, even on the ceiling of the interior, a reflection of the celebration of life and the fact that many Hindu deities had their favorite colors.

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There is a Hall of a Thousand Pillars, countless shrines to various deities and a couple of inner sanctums with long lines of people waiting to enter, but only Hindus. Kiran and Makesh were apologetic about the exclusion of non-Hindus but I was very content to roam the outer corridors waiting for them, looking at the more than 30,000 sculptures. Again, I was one of just a handful of white faces, as I had been that morning in Kanyakumari. I did feel like a bit of an intruder but that was more than countered by the sense of being somewhere truly, authentically spiritual and of importance to a great many people.

At one point Mahesh said something about there being one God in Hinduism. Ah ha, I thought … I’m finally going to get a definitive answer about this. “OK,’ I said, “if there is one God, who is it? Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva?”

“It’s all of them,” he said. “And so much more.” They are not making this easy.

Mahesh was kind enough to take us to dinner that night at one of his favorite spots across the Vaigai River and as part of my acclimatization routine I kicked up the spiciness factor a couple of notches, much to the amusement of the support staff watching me sweat and turn a devilish shade of red.

CHENNAI

The next day Kiran and I flew to Chennai, formerly known as Madras and India’s fourth largest city with nine million people living in the greater metropolitan area. From the airport we went to the home of Prasad and Kiran’s cousin Ramu and had vegetarian pizza from … Pizza Hut. Then six of us, including Ramu’s wife and two little girls, piled into his car and made the drive toward the coast to see two sites of ruins from the sixth and

Ramu and his family.

Ramu and his family.

seventh centuries. It was a holiday and the road to and from the beach was packed, and there were a lot of visitors to the ruins. It was fun and chaotic and a treat to be with a nice young family.

Later Kiran and I checked into our hotel and went to a “British” pub in the basement called Geoffreys to have a beer. We were wearing long pants and dress shirts, but they wouldn’t let us in because we had on sandals. There was one guy at the bar and one guy shooting pool, so apparently they felt they had enough business. I had to laugh at the irony; in the past week I had been to a dozen places where I wasn’t allowed to wear shoes, where I got hissed at for holding shoes, and now we can’t get a beer in this dive because we’re not wearing nice enough shoes.

Two flights up we found a sensible bar.

Music Corner.  Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton were together briefly in Blind Faith back in the 1970s, and reunited at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival for a modernized version of the Blind Faith classic Can’t Find My Way Home. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT-SFgkVlno

Our friends from the Gandhi Memorial

Our friends from the Gandhi Memorial

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Southern India: Mumbai to Kumarakom

Greetings from India, the place Christopher Columbus was really looking for when he accidently bumped into the Bahamas. Chris was right, there are a lot of spices here, a point that is reinforced at every meal.

My three weeks in India have been organized by my good friend Prasad Chavali – you will meet him later – and by many of his friends. This has been a team effort for which I am extremely grateful, and it would take me from Mumbai on the southwest coast down to the southern tip of the country, up the southeast coast, to Hyderabad for a week with a side trip to Prasad’s hometown, and ultimately up north to Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. But it started when I flew from Istanbul to Mumbai, the biggest city I have ever seen.

MUMBAI

The seven most populous incorporated cities in the United States (Wikipedia, 2011) are: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, Phoenix and San Antonio. The total population of the seven combined is 21,282,546. The population of Mumbai is 22 million people, who are densely packed into seven “islands”, which are almost different cities. It’s like seven Clevelands all strung together. Mumbai was known as Bombay until the British left and it was returned to its original name.

The Leopold Cafe

The Leopold Cafe

After an all-night flight and a few hours of sleep I met Subbu, a childhood friend of Prasad’s, and he took me to dinner. It was a 90-minute drive around and through a couple of the “islands” and provided my first glimpse of Indian traffic and driving, which is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We bumped into and knocked down a pedestrian going through one intersection, but he bounced right back up and went on his way as if it never happened. Subbu and I had dinner at the Leopold Café. In November 2008 a boatload of Islamic terrorists arrived from Pakistan and carried out three days of shootings and bombings killing 164 people in all, including seven at the Leopold Café. It would have been many more if not for a courageous Australian tourist who steered a large group of diners to a safe place and then barricaded the stairway with chairs as the two shooters were trying to ascend to the second floor. All the terrorists were shot and killed by Indian armed forces except for one, who was captured and hanged just a few weeks before I arrived.

The next day the same driver, Rizwan, picked me up at the hotel and within 10 minutes on the highway we had been rear-ended. The perp started to take off but Rizwan sped up and cut him off. It took just five minutes at

Victoria Terminus, the largest train station in India

Victoria Terminus, the largest train station in India

the side of the road to clear everything up; apparently no one is at fault, no one’s insurance pays for anything, it’s just another dent, but five minutes is required for intense gesturing.

I saw a good bit of Mumbai that day, including the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, the largest train station in India. Originally called Victoria Terminus after the British Queen (and still known to locals as VT), it was completed in 1887 in a lively combination of European and Indian architectural styles. It was also victimized by the November, 2008 attacks as two terrorists attacked commuters with AK-47s and grenades.

We visited the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, an enormous outdoor laundry where half the city must send its clothes. Only men (dhobis) are strong enough to scrub the clothes all day in the concrete troughs, standing in chemicals. They also launder themselves, as we saw voyeuristically from the overpass above. The job is passed down within families and the dhobis earn around $4.00 per day, according to Rizwan.

Just your basic strip-mall dry cleaners.

Just your basic strip-mall dry cleaners.

At the seawall of the Arabian Sea is the impressive Gateway of India, which was completed in 1920 and is designed to be the first thing that visitors to Mumbai see if they arrive by boat. In 1947 the last of the British troops occupying India left through the Gateway. Directly across the street is Mumbai’s most famous five-star hotel, the Taj Mahal.

The Gateway of India

The Gateway of India

The next day I walked from my hotel to a large, modern mall, where I was wanded by security people before entering. Security here is very tight everywhere; luggage goes through screening upon leaving the airport and upon entering a hotel, for example. Relations with Pakistan, always tense, became heightened a few days earlier when two members of the Indian army were killed by Pakistani freedom fighters, one of them beheaded.

BANGALORE

After a flight to Bangalore the next day I had a wonderful dinner with two more of Prasad’s childhood friends, RK (Rama Krishna) and Srini. When I mentioned the possibility of seeing an Indian movie RK said: “Bollywood movies are about nothing. If you go see one, put your brain in the freezer.”

Most of our conversation that night was about Hinduism, and in fact the entire visit to this bustling, tech-oriented city would be so. I had told Prasad that one of the objectives of coming to India was to absorb what I could about the background and principles of the religion, and RK provided a great introduction.

Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion and is often discounted by the monotheistic religions because it has many “gods”. Everything in nature is a god … the sun, moon, rain, wind. There are gods for almost everything conceivable: for education, for overcoming obstacles, for health.  There are gods by name, like Krishna and Rama the big three: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. RK explained that all the gods were really “avatars” of Vishnu. Listening to him I started wonder if this was a matter of semantics and the broad use of the word “god”. Over the coming days I would hear devout Hindus refer to God in the singular – “God will watch over them”, etc. – and I have come to think of Hinduism as a one-God religion at its core.

The International Society of Krishna Consciousness

The International Society of Krishna Consciousness

Confusing the matter more is that Hinduism is based on a cycle; nothing begins or ends. There is no starting point, no governing body, no Jesus or Mohammed, no preferred day to worship, no tangible structure and no identifiable supreme deity, which makes it all the more challenging to comprehend.

I spent my day in Bangalore in the company of RK’s nephew Phani, a very pleasant young man who thinks Pierce Brosnan is the best James Bond ever but understands why old people like me prefer Sean Connery. Our first stop of the day was the best: ISKCON, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. I wish I had good photos from the interior but I had to check my camera, along with my shoes.

Recorded chanting greets you as you approach, and a long line of people were methodically entering by stepping to the next tile with each new chant. There were many young men dressed in black, unshaven, and Phani told me they follow a strict 40-day program each year during which they simplify and de-personalize their lives: dressing plainly and identically, eating bland food, even abandoning their names and calling each other “swami.” We would see many of these pilgrims over the next few days.

Phani introduced me to a number of gods during our time at ISKCON, but this place is all about Krishna, who looks very feminine in most renderings with soft features and curly hair, but who apparently is quite impish and likes to flirt with girls.

Inside the Big Bull Temple

Inside the Big Bull Temple

I met with one of the spiritual residents of ISKCON, Varada Simha Dasa. I had difficulty understanding him, as many of the words he used to describe the philosophy of Hinduism were Indian words, but at one point I did gather he was telling me about the four primary sins: sex outside of marriage, eating meat, gambling, and alcohol and coffee consumption. I need to find out if they believe in hell.

We then went to the Big Bull temple. The bull is a legendary symbol in Hinduism and signifies strength, and this temple features a large black bull, adorned with white and yellow garlands; quite odd, almost cartoonish, but it’s a very well known and spiritual place and is located on Big Bull Boulevard.

At our final stop of the day Phani and I removed our shoes to visit some smaller shrines and then carried them as we walked into the main temple, where silence was mandatory. I stood respectfully in the back and was vaguely aware of an odd sound behind me, and finally turned around to see this woman on her knees hissing at me and pointing at my shoes. So I walked outside to wait for Phani, put my left shoe on the bottom step to tie the laces and was immediately set upon by one of the security people. I have purchased several Hindu spiritual guides but apparently what I need is a rulebook.

KOCHI

I would be travelling the next five days with Meher Kiran Nori, who had worked in the U.S. for ten years including three with me in Florida; he is now back working for Prasad in his Hyderabad office. Kiran took a train

The Chinese fishing nets of Kochi

The Chinese fishing nets of Kochi

to Bangalore, picked me up at the hotel and we flew to Kochi, which is in a different state and has a different language and alphabet. Kiran explained that most of India’s 28 states use a different, Sanskrit-based language; Hindi is the nation’s common language and English is widely spoken as well.

The highlight of our afternoon in Kochi was being at the waterfront for the sunset. It’s famous for its Chinese fishing nets as Kochi is the only place outside of China where they are used. They are distinctive and interesting as they dry in the late sun.

The promenade along the water was very crowded and festive, with many children and ice cream vendors and

Sunset Point in Kochi

Sunset Point in Kochi

artists, and the fishing boats returning, and even a few other tourists who had come for the setting of the sun. There was one painting I liked and Kiran explained the imagery featuring three religions: Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. It reflected the openness and tolerance of Hinduism, the respect for other belief systems and philosophies. “All religions are rivers flowing to the same sea.” I’m beginning to really appreciate the pacific values and the pragmatic themes of Hinduism.

KUMARAKOM

On the way from Kochi to Kumarakom, Kiran and I were slowed by a long procession, a line of well-dressed men preceded by several hundred women in their colorful saris. As we gradually made our way to the front we saw four large flags: red, with a white hammer and sickle. “CPI,” said Kiran. “Communist Party of India. They are big in this state.”

Houseboat on Lake Vembanadu

Houseboat on Lake Vembanadu

We got to Kumarakom around noon and boarded one of 20 or so “houseboats” tied up to the shore on a tributary leading to Lake Vembanadu, the largest lake in the state. These long, iron-hulled vessels were once used to carry up to 50 tons of timber and other goods, and were rowed manually. Now they are covered, powered and feature a kitchen and several staterooms.

We had a three-man crew for the two of us and after an introductory toast with coconut water we got underway.

Kiran kicks back

Kiran kicks back with a Kingfisher

As we entered the expanse of the lake Kiran and I sat back in easy chairs as one of the crew brought us beers. It was so peaceful and relaxing after six days of major cities, some much needed tranquility. The shoreline of the lake features many acres of rice paddies, the only ones below sea level outside of Holland. There were many species of beautiful birds and purple hyacinth growing among the lily pads.

After enjoying a gorgeous sunset we were brought a delicious fish dinner, and we watched an India-England cricket match on a small flat screen. Kiran was patient in explaining the sport, and I started to get excited when India appeared to have a chance to come back and win, just falling short. Being on a boat is always therapeutic, and the night we spent on Lake Vembanadu was the ideal respite before the next phase of the trip.

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The Intrigue of Istanbul

My brother David arrived in Istanbul on the afternoon of December 29 and left the morning of January 1. Two full days and a bit, all the way from Boston to Turkey and back, just to see his big brother before he gets any further away. How lucky am I to have the brother and sister that I do?

David Beckwith looking stylist at the Grand Bazaar

David Beckwith looking stylish at the Grand Bazaar

We arrived roughly the same time from Boston and Cappadocia respectively. The hotel sent a driver to pick us up, and the ride into town was the first indication as to the nature of our Istanbul adventure. All was fine as we drove along the water toward the skyline in the distance, when suddenly traffic just stopped. “First 15 kilometers, 20 minutes,” the driver said. “Last three kilometers, one hour. Maybe more.”

Several times he darted off to the right into a double-ended parking lot to try and pick up ground. The first time we went through the Istanbul Fish Market, which was fascinating to see, but the market traffic was almost as bad and we cost ourselves time. On another occasion he bolted into a strip mall, floored it to the other end and forced his way back in line on the main road, having gained five car lengths. As we cracked up in the back seat the driver looked at us in the rear view and shrugged. “It’s the Turkish way,” he said.

Finally he pulled a U-turn and headed into some side streets, ever upward, ever narrower, 90-degree turns at max speed. It was great! He dropped us off at the end of a cobblestoned lane that had a red carpet running down the

Domes and Minarets: From the terrace of our hotel.

Domes and Minarets: From the terrace of our hotel.

middle. We walked past half a dozen restaurants with their pitchmen out front and up an alley to the entrance of the Ambassador Hotel, which turned out to be an exceptional place to stay: well located, intimate with only 20 rooms, and a great view of the big mosques from the breakfast patio on the top floor. We checked in, grabbed some dinner at the Kabob House, and crashed.

A tour the next day began at the site of the old hippodrome, where there is an obelisk that was made in Egypt around 1500 B.C.; it was brought to Istanbul in the fourth century and had to be cut by a third because no ship was big enough to transport it. We visited the Blue Mosque, which has six minarets and 21,000 blue tiles on the interior, and holds 4500 people for prayer. “Imams used to climb the minarets to call people to prayer, but now they used PA systems,” the guide said, in case anyone in Istanbul wasn’t aware of that. “Imams used to be fit. Not anymore.”

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Istanbul’s most famous and visible landmark is the Hagia Sophia, which started out as an Orthodox church, became a mosque and is now a museum. Originally built in 360 it was plundered and then rebuilt in 415.

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Inside the Hagia Sophia

Destroyed once more it was built yet again by Byzantine emperor Justinian starting in 532, but with much more majestic dimensions.

We got a demonstration of how Turkish carpets are made from a wholesaler who must have a kickback deal with the tour company, had lunch, saw another mosque and headed for Topkapi Palace, which I had been looking forward to ever since seeing the movie Topkapi in 1964, the instigator of my love for heist films. The crowds there were enormous, as they had been all day. “Christmas crowds,” our guide told me. “Worse than summer.” There was a security checkpoint heading into the palace. I put my man-purse on the conveyor, walked through the machine, handed my ticket to someone, went through the turnstile and took off with my group, forgetting the bag.

Ten minutes later I realized I didn’t have it. There was nothing of value in it except my passport, wallet and credit cards, and two cameras. David and I ran back and we found it in a security booth; my passport, I remembered, was actually in the safe in my hotel room, and everything else was just as I left it. Stupid and lucky … a combination you just have to gratefully accept from time to time.

Bulent, our trusty w

Bulent, our trusty waiter/bartender at the Port Shield

That Sunday evening we found an Irish bar (“Specializing in Turkish and Italian Cuisine”) called The Port Shield that shows American football. All season I’d seen only about ten minutes of a college game in a hotel lounge in Prague and was in need of a NFL fix, and David, being a Patriots fan, was interested in several games that could influence the Pats’ playoff situation. We watched a bit of the Giants-Eagles and Bears-Lions games while listening to music that was no more Irish than the food; my brother, the most musically hip member of our family, identified a band called the Sneaker Pimps, who were followed by some weak lounge tunes and then by a 1930s French ballad sung by Edith Piaf’s tone-deaf sister. “It sure isn’t Danny Boy,” David said.

On the roof at the 360 Club.

On the roof at the 360 Club.

We hopped in a cab and headed across a bridge to another part of town to meet up with Douglas Cajas, who I had met in Cappadocia. We walked from his hotel down a long pedestrian boulevard that reminded me of Vienna;

upscale shops and restaurants, stylish young people. We zeroed in on a well-known Istanbul club and restaurant called 360 because of its panoramic view of the city, hung out for a while with the beautiful people and had a bite to eat. David and I ended up back at the Irish place having one last beer and watching a bit more football.

The next day we did some shopping, including a visit to Istanbul’s famous Grand Bazaar, a covered labyrinth of 4,500 shops. We were advised not to buy anything of substance there, like jewelry or carpets (“tourist prices”) but we were just t-shirt shopping anyway. I struck up a conversation with a carpet merchant named Mehmet Sert, who invited us in for tea. A really nice man, and he knew America as well as we did.

Jacksonville? “Beautiful city. I have many clients there in the Navy.”

Our friend Mahmet in his carpet shop in the Grand Bazaar

Our friend Mahmet in his carpet shop in the Grand Bazaar

Princeton? “One of my favorite places in the U.S.”

Boston? “I have many friends there, I can tell you all the best Turkish restaurants in Boston.” He is headed to America in February and it wouldn’t surprise me if he and David ended up having dinner in one of those restaurants.

That night was New Year’s Eve. I booked a cruise on the Bosporus, having been assured of a great dinner and fireworks coming from both the European and Asian sides of the river. It was extremely cheesy with an irritating band, a bad belly dancer, worse champagne and virtually non-existent fireworks, but we were at a good table with a Pakistani family of five from Calgary and two lovely women from Morocco, so David, Douglas and I had fun. And it was a fairly invigorating stroke of midnight on the upper deck with the city’s festivities going on all around us.

Douglas makes a friend

Douglas makes a friend

After David left for the States the next morning I saw a few other Istanbul attractions, including the Basilica Cistern, a huge underground storage area for the city’s water supply, built in 532 by the Romans and supported by 336 marble columns. But the highlight of my remaining time there was the Hodja Pasha dance show on my final night (“Trip Advisor’s #1 Night Out in Istanbul!” according to the brochure).

Dancing has always been an integral part of culture in this part of the world, whether it was used to distract people from pending invasions or celebrate a good hunt. During the Byzantine rule, religious oppression and totalitarianism forced dancing into secluded places around the harbors and in underground taverns, environments that must have been like the Prohibition speakeasies of 1920s America.

One of the underground dancers of that period was named Theodora. She was the daughter of a circus guard, but she became the mistress of the emperor Justinian and was so sexy and ambitious that Justinian eventually married her and made her empress. She became the most influential and powerful woman in Byzantine history. I have a major crush on Theodora.

The show was terrific. It was in a circular theater with stone walls that reminded me of my cave hotel in Cappadocia, with maybe 200 seats on the outside of the circle. There was a 7-piece band and even though the instruments they played (except the bass) were unfamiliar, you could tell they were excellent musicians. They had an occasional number on their own during costume changes, and the music was wild and wonderful.

And the dancers were outstanding, especially the women. They were elegant and graceful and fit, and the dances were unusual and energetic. There was only one belly dance, and it was breathtaking, nothing like New Year’s Eve. This woman was so seductive and athletic, and every twitch of every muscle was in sync with the percussionist. And later she did a dance under a black light with different colored scarves that was hypnotic. It was a great show. Here’s a promotional clip, but people have posted other clips on YouTube if you are interested.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kk7lCaFQBo

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On the way home I stopped by the Port Shield for one last beer and to say goodbye to Bulent, our favorite bartender. Walking back to the hotel through the midnight mist I realized how at home I suddenly felt here. The narrow, winding, cobblestone streets … the restaurant hawkers … the diners sitting outside no matter what the temperature, smoking and arguing … the exotic music and the variety of smells coming from the kitchens … all of it was so intoxicating, and so familiar after just five days. Before tonight I would have said that Istanbul was special because of the time I got to spend with my brother but that it wouldn’t go on the list of places to return to one day. But now I’m not so sure.

Music Corner.   One of the things I enjoy most about exploring music on YouTube is discovering combinations of artists you would never expect. James Taylor and the Dixie Chicks? Not a pairing that would necessarily come to mind, but here they are, doing a version of Sweet Baby James that makes you think maybe it was a country song all along.

Here are few more shots of Istanbul.

The bridge at midnight. All of these weird effects are absolutely intentional, the result of years of training.

The bridge at midnight. All of these weird effects are absolutely intentional, the result of years of training.

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern

Istanbul fishermen

Istanbul fishermen

Trees and sky.

Trees and sky.

Hagia Sophia from terrace of the Ambassador Hotel

Hagia Sophia from terrace of the Ambassador Hotel

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Cappadocia

There is an intergalactic thread throughout a visit to Cappadocia. The guides often refer to the dramatic geology as a moonscape. The local legend is that fairies from another planet built the dwellings in the rocks, and there are even statues of aliens outside some of the tourist shops. And in truth the only word to describe this place is “otherworldly.”

The area is famous for its cave hotels, which are built back into the rock cliffs that populate most of Cappadocia,

A Cappadocia Cave Hotel

A Cappadocia Cave Hotel

and I stayed two nights at the Hotel Asia Minor, in the town of Urgup. I couldn’t see much in the darkness upon arrival but was escorted to a large room with rock walls; “yes, you are in the cave” the night manager said. And so I was. The room was wonderful, with hardwood floors and ceilings, a large and modern bathroom and free wifi with a strong signal.

I wandered into a bar down the street, had a glass of local wine and spent some time chatting with Ramazan and Yusef, a couple of very friendly local guys. Ramazan works in the bar but he is also a tour guide; he speaks English and Japanese fluently and is working on Spanish. He was born during Ramadan, thus his name. Yusef asked if I was going for a hot air balloon ride, and when I told him I hadn’t thought about it they both insisted it was the best way to see Cappadocia. I asked them to hook me up, and they said they would.

I was picked up the next morning by Selim, our guide for the day, and he quickly got into the history of the area and how it was formed. Here is the Cliff’s Notes version:

  • Cappadocia (pronounced Cappa-DOKE-ia, more in line with the Turkish spelling Kapadokya) is in central Turkey, a 75-minute flight from Istanbul and an hour drive from the airport in Kayseri. The area is 450 square kilometers. The name comes from ancient Persia (6th century B.C.) and means “Land of the Beautiful Horses”. The Persians came to this area and trained the indigenous wild horses to be used in combat.
  • The unique geology of the area is the result of several things, starting with the eruption of Mt. Erciyes millions of years ago. At almost 13,000 feet the mountain is visible from all over the region, and the locals
    Mt. Eciryes

    Mt. Erciyes

    call it “white mountain” since it’s covered in snow year-round. The eruption covered the area in up to 150 meters of ash capped with 15-20 meters of magma, which turned into basalt.

  • Over the centuries seismic activity in the area caused several mountain ranges to squeeze the Cappadocia region to form huge mesas, and then the vertical erosion from the rain and horizontal erosion from the wind gradually created the monolithic structures that today attract visitors and scientists from all over the world.

The softness of the ash is what makes the area unique; it’s not just interesting geological features, it’s the fact that the rock could be hollowed out and that people have been living in those rocks for 2000 years or more. In one A.D., immediately after the crucifixion of Christ, Christians came to this region from the Holy Land to escape persecution by the Romans. They lived here in hiding until the fourth century, when the emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion.

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We visited an open-air museum where a theological community was formed around the tenth century, with one large convent, a number of monasteries and several churches, where the frescos demonstrate clearly the advancing levels of sophistication in both art and religion. And the best-known features of the area are the gardens of “fairy chimneys” and “mushroom rocks” that so vividly display the geological layers and effects of erosion.

Monasteries from the 10th Century

Selim gave us insight to the culture of the area as well as the geology. Men have traditionally been potters, and we OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAsaw a demonstration of the old-school kick wheel method of pottery making. Women work in textiles. Marriages are arranged here; young girls start working on their dowries in their teens, making Muslim prayer carpets, embroideries, socks, and other items. When the dowry is ready the family flies a flag over its house indicating that families of young men may now come and visit. I asked Selim if his marriage was arranged; he said it was. I asked if he was happy. “Yes, I am happy,” he said. “About 70 percent.”

I had dinner that night with Douglas Cajas, a wonderful young guy who had joined our tour in the afternoon. Douglas is originally from Guatemala, is a Stanford graduate and works in New York for a German media company. We had a very pleasant evening and made plans to meet up in Istanbul a few days later.

Up, Up and Away

Outside my hotel at 5:45 a.m. the next day, awaiting my ride to the balloon takeoff point on a cold and still morning, I was startled by the call to prayer that commenced simultaneously from three mosques in the neighborhood. The wailing from each of them was distinct and clearly personal, but it was all plaintive, shrill, and of considerable distress to every dog within half a kilometer. The sound systems must have come from a recent U2 tour.

It was short ride to a large flat area where dozens of vans from different companies were pulling in. Maybe 200 people gathered in a building to grab a tea or coffee and present their credit card. When we arrived there was one balloon starting to inflate, but within minutes there were fifteen, and the sound of the massive gas burners and the glow of the flames in the pre-dawn were a treat for the senses.

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I was assigned to a balloon that was still on its side but quickly filling up, and 28 of us were loaded into the massive basket … me, and 27 of my closest friends from China. There were four compartments with seven people in each, and a space in the middle for the pilot. We lifted off easily and floated along a meter or two above the ground. All around us other balloons were doing the same thing, some already up to 100 meters, some still inflating, and the higher we went the more balloons we could see rising from other staging areas nearby. It’s a bit dodgy at first as every pilot tries to find his path clear of the others, but gradually we had open air, our pilot cranked up the heat and we started to climb.

It was a magnificent site. All around us these enormous things were floating at various altitudes, each becoming more vibrantly colorful as the sun peeked over the horizon. Below us stretched the extraordinary geology of Cappadocia’s volcanic tapestry, flat and eerie at first, but more breathtaking as the sun got high enough to create shadows and depth of field. I’m not crazy about heights, but on this morning I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

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At the recommendation of Ramazan and Yusef I had signed up with a company called Kaya Balloons. “They are better than the others,” Yusef told me. “They have the best pilots and the newest balloons.” Two fairly important components of the experience, one would guess. Our pilot’s name was Murat Coban. I asked him how long he had been doing this. “It’s my first flight,” he said, a joke I’m guessing he pulls out four or five times a week. He has been flying the balloons for 17 years and in fact is the owner of the company.

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A couple of times Murat dropped down beneath the level of the ground into a canyon, coming within feet of the canyon wall before expertly hitting the gas and popping back over the top. Then we would rise three meters per second and be at 200 meters within a minute. Our highest point was 550 meters, about 1,800 feet. At the end of the trip we drifted over to a Kaya truck, gently landed on the trailer, had a glass of champagne and received a certificate of achievement. I was back at my hotel having breakfast by 8:45. Hell of a way to start the day. Here are a bunch of pictures.

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Music Clip

I actually found a clip of the 5th Dimension singing Up, Up and Away, a good fit with the balloon pictures, but it was lip-synched so that’s a non-starter. Instead we have the Moody Blues classic Nights in White Satin. The performer is Mario Frangoulis, a young Greek guy singing in Italian. The venue is The Theater of the Earth, in Thessaloika, Greece, which may remind you of Red Rocks in Denver if you’ve ever seen a concert there. And for fans of the Moody Blues there is a nice surprise at the end. Enjoy!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xcEdAYfddAQ

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Leaving Europe

I trust everyone had a wonderful, over-indulgent Christmas with family and friends. My Salzburg buddies and I had a nice farewell dinner, and Christmas day was spent packing and enjoying some goose soup, a concession to the local holiday cuisine.

I’ll probably end up saying this about the whole trip but certainly the European section to me will always be about friends … catching up with old friends and making new ones. Hanging out in Florence with Leo and Penny McCullagh; sailing in Croatia and touring Rome with Tom and Peggy Briggs and being with them in Tuscany with Rick and Nancy Richardson; spending quality time in Rome with Brother Santiago Mejia-Rojas; doing Vienna and Salzburg with my amazing sister, and having dinner in Vienna with Julie Hautin, a friend from Paris who volunteered with me in Tanzania; my Salzburg friends Gabi, Maria and Thomas, and the entertaining tour guides they introduced me to; and my wonderful new friends from the river cruise. They’ve all had a hand in making the past four months so memorable.

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As far as places, Prague, Budapest and Vienna stand out as very special cities for very different reasons. The  islands of Croatia are beautiful, especially Trogir, Hvar, and Korchula, and of course Dubrovnik as well. Rome is in a league by itself when it comes to history and art and religion. But it’s the beauty and ambiance and food and wine of Tuscany that seems to be the most enduring memory. I’d love to go back one day.

Anyway, here are a few other items and random thoughts as I leave Europe, with a couple of nice shots of Salzburg after a fresh snowfall.

Greifswald.  While on safari in Kruger National Park in July I spent a couple of days with Michael North, his son Chris, 16, and daughter Connie, 12. Michael is the chairman of the history department at the University of Greifswald, in northern Germany. When we parted company in South Africa I said something about maybe DSCN0571coming to see them when I was in Europe. In early December Chris sent me an email that basically said “are you coming or not”, so I booked a rental car, made plans to spend a day in Berlin and then head up to the Baltic Sea.

I don’t have much to say about Berlin. I know it’s a terrific city and maybe I’ll visit again under better conditions, but I was there just after the shootings in Connecticut and it was the wrong time to be sightseeing. I did a three-hour walking tour on a cold and rainy day, and saw some stuff … a big chunk of the wall that was fourth-generation, not at all what it looked like originally (but I liked graffiti you can see below: “madness”) … Checkpoint Charlie, which has been rebuilt for tourists with German guys in American military uniforms who charge you to take their picture … a parking lot marking the location of the bunker where Adolph Hitler and EvaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Braun were married just before they took cyanide pills and ended up in a pool of burning gasoline, surely one of history’s least romantic honeymoons.

From Berlin I drove north to Greifswald, a chance to experience the real German autobahn. In my little Ford I made it up to 180 kilometers per hour – about 112 mph – before wimping out. At one point I was doing 100 mph in the middle lane and Audis and Beamers and Mercedes were passing me on the left so fast it made my car shimmy. In the rain. These people are nuts.

Reconnecting with the North family was a very welcome distraction.  Michael and I walked around town a bit that first evening before Chris joined us for dinner at an Italian diner. The next day Michael showed me his university, which has 12,000 students, many of them from countries around the Baltic like Finland, Norway, Estonia and Russia. We visited the historic old cathedral, and then drove 10 minutes to the beach, in a fishing village on the edge of the sea, where we had an amazing and very scenic fish lunch. That evening I was invited to their home for cheese and wine and had a great time … got to see Connie again, and meet Regina, Mrs. North. They are all excellent musicians … double bass, cello, piano and organ, trumpet, bassoon … the Von Trapp family of northern Germany! Wonderful people, and as they come to the U.S. every year I will see them again.

It’s a Small World, Part II.  Many of you know about the man for whom I am named, my great x 3 grandfather Edmund Ruffin, who at the age of 61 fired the first shot at Ft. Sumter and kicked off the Civil War.

When I was in Michael North’s office at the University of Greifswald I saw a small confederate flag in a pencil holder on his desk. “I gave a speech not long ago in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and brought that back,” he said, ever the history buff. So I told him about Edmund Ruffin and he became very animated. “I know this guy!” he said excitedly. “I heard about him in a lecture yesterday.” Excuse me?

He went and found his young colleague, Robert Riemer, who just the day before, as part of his doctorate program, had given a talk entitled “Reforming the Slave Economy”. I never did quite grasp the benefit of discussing what the economic future of the American south might have been had the Confederacy won the war, but in any case Edmund Ruffin, because of his contributions to the agronomic prosperity of the south and the books he wrote on things like crop rotation and soil management, figured prominently in Riemer’s lecture. A young history professor-in-training way up here on the Baltic Sea in the former German Democratic Republic, and he knew more about Edmund Ruffin than I did.

And how about the timing! This wasn’t two years ago, or six months ago, it was yesterday! Life is sure interesting sometimes.

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Overstaying my welcome.  About a week before I left for Turkey a met a guy in a bar who told me that there is a 90-day time limit for staying within the European Union. His American girlfriend had flown to Salzburg from California and because she had previously violated the deadline by just three days, she was not allowed into Europe; they held her for a day at the Salzburg airport before sending her back to the States. I had already been in Europe around 120 days. “They’ll let you out, but you won’t ever be able to come back,” he told me. Ever? Seems a bit harsh.

I didn’t think about it again until I was at the Munich airport this morning, about to board a plane for Istanbul, and the lady at passport control started taking longer than usual.

“When did you come to Europe?” she asked.

“It’s been a while,” I said, which was true. “Couple of months,” I said, which was not.

She flipped through all the passport pages again. “And where did you enter Europe?”

“Amsterdam.”

She kept looking for the stamp that would bust me, and then called over the guy from the next booth. He scanned the passport for a minute before saying something that I assumed was along the lines of “screw it, let him go”, because she did.

Turkey is in Europe, at least the half where I’m landing. I may have to bluff my way out of this again.

Conservation. When it comes to energy conservation Europe is many kilometers ahead of the United States. So many sensible practices are just ingrained in the culture and part of the day-to-day routine.

Every car here has a manual transmission, and all the cars I rented used diesel fuel, a bit more expensive but much more efficient. People turn their engines off at red lights (diesels shut down automatically in neutral). In hotels you need your room key to turn on the lights, so you can’t leave them on when you go out. Lights in many places are movement activated and shut off when none is detected. Escalators go one-third speed when there are no passengers. Toilets have two flush buttons, a smaller one for water only. Mass transit is efficient, affordable and widely-utilized. Recycling goes without saying. Signs of alternative energy in the form of wind turbines and solar farms are everywhere. It’s impressive.

Music. While on crutches for three weeks in September I didn’t go out much and became addicted to YouTube as an amazing source of music; you can stumble upon remarkable clips there from past and present, and from time to time I may throw a link on here to something interesting.

The first one is personal, a major source of my love for music. I first heard this version of this song on a transistor radio while hiking through the woods at camp one summer in the early 60s, and thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Still do. And while I didn’t really understand the significance of the lyrics at the time, they clearly had meaning beyond the moon/June love songs that dominated top-40 radio. So grab some ear buds and see if this brings back a memory or two.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AW6NVcqcRVE

Weather permitting the next post will feature photographs of a very dramatic place: Cappadocia.

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Making the Turn

I hope everyone back home is well and coming off a wonderful Thanksgiving. I had spaghetti in Switzerland which was fun and unique, and you don’t have to eat turkey to still be grateful for so much. I’m especially thankful for the six amazing months on this journey, for the new friends and unforgettable experiences … but I’m also thankful there are six months to go!

Things have been relatively quiet since returning from Budapest. I had a pleasant couple of days with a friend at Lake Como (we rented a boat and buzzed George Clooney’s place but he wouldn’t come out and play) and a fabulous week with my sister Jean. We did three days in Vienna and three back in Salzburg, with lots of walking and talking sprinkled with a museum or two, a palace, a concert, Irish pubs and great dinners. She’s absolutely the best company, and a great friend. And now my brother David – my other favorite person in the world – is coming to join me for New Year’s in Istanbul, so I’m truly blessed and very thankful for my family.

When Jean was here we looked back through the photographs from this trip and I realized there are many I like that never made it on the blog. Since this is the halfway point for this adventure it seemed like a good time to share some of them. (Let me know your favorite … erb0603@gmail.com). Thank you for checking in!

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Kilimanjaro casts a imposing shadow on the clouds far below. Mt. Meru is in the distance.

DSCN0160I’ve always wanted to see Antarctica, but I can’t imagine it being any more dramatic than Kilimanjaro’s crater and summit, where the snowfields are sadly diminishing.

DSCN0232This is inside the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater. We saw a number of endangered species there, but the zebra was not one of them.

DSCN0281Wildebeests party all night and need a mid-afternoon nap. Just like the Spanish.

DSCN0342I love how the Acacia trees give definition to the Serengeti. The giraffes are cool too.

DSCN0360I just like the sky in this shot of the Serengeti.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a rain in Longa, one of the townships near Cape Town. The conditions are beyond description.

DSCN0452We visited a penguin colony on a beach in South Africa and one of the brochures blew onto the sand. “Hey Phil,” I’m sure I heard this guy say to his buddy, “come look at this. You won’t believe the crap they’re saying about us!”

DSCN0489Male elephants in Addo Elephant Park near Port Elizabeth, South Africa, have been getting gradually smaller, so they brought in four big males from Kruger National Park. Three of them were accepted by the herd, but this guy was not and he roams the park alone.

DSCN0511Victoria Falls … the natives have always called it “The Smoke that Thunders”, an excellent name. Take a raincoat.

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Pre-dawn on the beach at Bagamoyo. I like this picture because it reminds me of the end of “Close Encounters”.

CIMG0424This was taken by my friend Julie Hautin at the orphanage where she volunteered in Bagamoyo. So many beautiful, innocent faces.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASiwadaa Malingumu is one of the wonderful women I worked with at Bawodene, an organization in Bagamoyo that focuses on empowering women. Her granddaughter is Aisha Ally Juma. Nice soft light.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is my artist friend Idd Mnyamili and his adoptive brother, Mudi. Idd’s father brought Mudi into the family after he was abandoned by his mother; such is the treatment of albinos in Africa. Mudi’s a great kid who is doing well in school, and he has an exceptional big brother to love him and make sure he wears his sunblock.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe morning of the day I left Bagamoyo I went for a walk on the beach with Idd and the wonderful, irrepressible Emily Farley, who was supposed to leave before I did but stayed three more months. A cool tree, and two very special people.

DSCN0596Bruges, Belgium, a lovely place.

DSCN0660The pristine and melancholy beauty of the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, in Normandy.

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There is an overlook on the south side of the Arno River where tourists and vendors and street musicians gather to enjoy the view of Florence, which is dominated by “Il Duomo”, the great cathedral.

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Croatia is 95% Catholic but we were told that Croatians are really not that religious. Maybe if the churches were just a little bit more accessible …

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On the wall surrounding the old town of Dubrovnik.

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It’s hard not to fall in love with Tuscany.

DSCN0946St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a very accessible church, and incredibly beautiful.

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These guys outside a shop in Positano are a little creepy, but you have to respect the attention to detail with the chest hair.

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First snow of the year in Salzburg.

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This is almost a black-and-white photograph except for a couple of hearty trees hanging onto the last vestiges of autumn.

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Another shot of the overlapping seasons.

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My Salzburg friends Gabi (above) and Maria (below). Gabi owns the apartment I am renting and Maria works at the jewelry store across the street, and both are also in demand as tour guides. Wonderful people and a lot of fun.

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We’ve seen dozens of magnificent churches in six months, few more spectacular than the cathedral at the Abbey in Melk, on the Danube cruise.

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OK now, repeat after me ….

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Nice villa on Lake Como.

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My sister’s going to kill me for this, but I think she looks cute.

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I wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and a New Year filled with love and good health. God bless!

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Images of Budapest

The first thing you learn is how to pronounce it: Buda-pesht. Then you learn that Budapest is really two cities divided by the Danube River: Buda, the hilly, wealthy residential area on the south side of the river; and Pest, the much larger, flat, more commercial area to the north. They may not like each other much, but they are both beautiful and endlessly interesting.

The river trip concluded in Budapest with a city tour in the afternoon and a post-dinner cruise to see the city at night. It was cold on the upper deck, but waiters passed around shots of Palinka – Hungarian fruit brandy – to provide some warmth. The views were stunning in every direction. The Royal Palace, the Castle District and St. Mathais Church overlooked the river from the hilltop on the Buda side; the enormous and striking Parliament building dominated the Pest side; and the Chain Bridge and the other crossings of the Danube framed the picture east and west.

(The photo at the top is of the Chain Bridge and the Royal Palace. The bridge is the oldest in Budapest and, as with every other bridge in town, it was destroyed by the Nazis on their way out of the city in 1945. For a while a make-shift pontoon bridge provided the only way across the river, but the Chain Bridge was rebuilt and reopened in 1949.)

I stayed in Budapest for two days and enjoyed an authentic Hungarian dinner with local residents Adrienn and Laszlo Barta, a wonderful walking tour of the city the next day with Anrienn’s sister Anita, and a fun dinner the last night with Greg and Becky Graves, friends from the cruise. Here are some pictures of this intriguing city.

From a colonnade behind the St. Mathias Church in Buda, this is the view on a foggy afternoon back across the Danube, toward Pest.

Heroes Square features the Millennium Memorial, which honors the leaders of the tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century. The Memorial was started in 1896 on the country’s 1000th anniversary, and completed in 1900. 

The magnificent Budapest Parliament Building, on the banks of the Pest side of the Danube.

Bronze shoes affixed to the concrete and candles and flowers left by visitors pay tribute to the Jews who were brought to the bank of the Danube during WWII, and shot and dumped in the river by Hungarian Nazis.

I had a delightful dinner with Adrienn and Laszlo Barta. Laszlo is the cousin of a friend back in the States whose family left Hungary during the revolution in 1956, and he teaches mechanical engineering at a local university near their home outside of Budapest. Adrienn teaches dentistry in the city. And yes, I had goulash.

I don’t think they serve goulash here. During my walking tour with Anita, she showed me the first McDonalds ever in Eastern Europe. It was opened in 1989 and because the Russians still occupied Budapest everyone was afraid to go there. But when the Berlin wall came down toward the end of that year it became the hottest place in town, and people used to get all dressed up just to go have a Big Mac and fries.

This is the marvelous City Market, where each shop is family-owned and where most of the city goes for groceries. Upstairs are clothing shops and small pubs. “The people who are eating are tourists,” said Anita as we strolled through at 10:30 in the morning, “and the people who are drinking are locals.”

 

On the left, a typical shop in the City Market.

On the right, well, I guess those guys will be forever linked, even in a little shop in Budapest.

Around 2000 a unique phenomenon began taking root in Budapest: “romkocsma”, they are called in Hungarian. In English: Ruin Pubs.  These hip and eclectic bars started popping up in abandoned buildings in the city’s 7th District, the Jewish section of Budapest that became neglected during and after the war when so many of its residents were deported, or worse.

Ruin Pubs are generally large areas with many smaller rooms and usually one outdoor area that is popular in the summer. Anita and I stopped by the best-known of them, called Szimpla Kertmozi … Simple Garden. To enter you walk through three doors of thick plastic strips hanging vertically. Inside, everything is junky and funky, each room “decorated” differently; one was covered with old computer monitors that were programmed with indecipherable images. Every inch of wall space was filled with graffiti, strings of lights hung randomly, and the large open space in back showed old black and white war films on a large screen. There were tables, chairs and stools of every shape and description, whatever, one assumes, could be found discarded elsewhere.  There were dozens of interesting seating options, including an old car, a bathtub, theater seats, and a pommel horse.

The place was empty when Anita and I visited at mid-day, but after dinner I dragged Greg and Becky Graves back there and the pub was comfortably active. After touring the whole place – there is a substantial upstairs area as well – we found a table in a side room where some college kids were smoking from a hookah pipe. A young woman approached us with a bucket of huge carrot sticks. “This is a tradition here, they are for good luck,” she said. I already felt pretty lucky being able to see this place, and in surfing the Internet later I found that, on one site anyway, Szimpla Kertmozi is rated the third best bar in the world. The first two are in Amsterdam, where the hookahs probably contain something different.

My last morning in Budapest I took a cab to the Keleti train station, a dark, foreboding place that was still appealingly atmospheric. All the signs and announcements were in Hungarian only, and although no one was rude, no one was outwardly friendly. After two guys in uniform were unable to help guide me to the right platform for my train, I started to laugh. Five months ago I would have found this environment uncomfortable, but now, for some reason, it actually made me happy.

I walked into an enormous restaurant with marble columns and an ornate ceiling that had to be 20 feet high. It had a stage underneath some windows with speakers to either side … seriously, a train station with live entertainment? I did my best to order a ham and cheese omelet from a waiter who looked like Bela Lagosi, and got a small egg pizza that might have had a piece of meat on it somewhere. But it wasn’t bad.

As I started to enter a restroom a man grabbed my arm. “Hey, you pay first. You give that lady 150 florit”. (That’s about 70 cents I think. If I write a book about this trip, the European section is going to be called “Paying to Pee”.)

When I walked out of the restroom the same guy started following me through the station. “Where you from? USA? Oh, United States, very beautiful people, very clever. Do you like tennis? I like tennis. Mister John McEnroe, Mister Andre Aggasi, I like them very much.”

His name was Tibor (TEE-bor). “One of the greatest Hungarian footballers, his name also is Tibor”, he said. I asked him how he learned to speak English so well. “Rock music. I like to listen to rock music. You know Aerosmith? The Rolling Stones? I like them very much.” I gave him a couple of Euros, but his entertainment value was worth far more.

Tibor likes tennis and the Rolling Stones. I like Budapest.

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River Cruise II: Nuremberg and the AmaDolce

After three days in Prague we took a bus to our ship in Nuremberg, Germany, settled in, had a great dinner, and the next morning took an amazing tour of the city with our guide Art, an American who has been living here for 23 years. After September visits to Normandy and the concentration camp at Mauthausen, our day in Nuremberg was a fitting conclusion to my World War II trilogy.

In terms of the war, Nuremberg is well known for two reasons. It was the site of the huge Nazi rallies and some of Hitler’s most megalomaniacal projects, and it was also the venue for the historic war crimes trials after the end of the war.

Because of its strategic importance Nuremberg ended up being 90% destroyed by allied bombs. Its central location and its rail system made it ideal for transferring military equipment and personnel to the countries Germany was attempting to occupy. And there were factories there that produced most of the engines being used in the war effort; submarine engines, tank engines, even motorcycle engines, were all made in Nuremberg, so it became a primary target for the allies.

The location and the rail system were also the reason Hitler chose Nuremberg as a rallying point for Nazi party activities; it was easier for 500,000 people to gather there. Additionally, the police chief was an enthusiastic Nazi who could guarantee security. Finally, Nuremberg was once the seat of power for the Holy Roman Empire, and the symbolism was not lost on Adolph.

We drove into and around the former Congress Hall, which was modeled after the Colosseum in Rome but would have been twice as big if it had been completed. It was built next to a lake (which was drained on this day) and the infirmity of the earth necessitated the sinking of massive pilings, but Hitler thought it would look twice as big when reflected in the water. It had huge doors that were designed to make any individual walking through them feel weak and insignificant; only when he is part of the masses should a man feel strong.

Here’s the kicker: Congress Hall was being built to host just one rally each year, on just one day, featuring just one speaker. Now it’s used for storing appliances.

Just across the lake from Congress Hall is Zeppelin Field, where the big rallies took place. The grassy hillsides are overgrown and the austere presentation stadium has been partially dismantled, but enough of it remains to leave an uncomfortable impression. The Versailles Treaty at the end of WWI restricted Germany to only 100,000 soldiers, so they recruited “farmers” and trained them to be soldiers but put shovels in their hands that could easily be exchanged for rifles. And they came by train from all over Germany and they filled this field.

I climbed up the stairs to the presentation stand, paused a moment, and walked out onto the platform where Hitler used to speak. We’ve all seen pictures and video of those rallies, more than 300 huge swastika flags waving in the wind, the little man saluting 250,000 of his lemmings. All kinds of thoughts go through your mind standing there. How does one evil man get so many disenfranchised young men to follow him? How could this have happened, and are we really sure it can never happen again?

From Zeppelin Field we went into town. Here are a few quick facts about Nuremberg: it’s the site of Germany’s first train station (1835); there is a seven-kilometer medieval wall around the old town still stands, mostly intact despite the bombing; and Henry Kissinger was born and raised there, and still returns on occasion to watch his favorite soccer team.

We went to the courthouse where The Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal took place. Prior to the end of the war Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill met three times to discuss what to do after the war ended. Stalin wanted to pick 100,000 German soldiers and execute them publically. FDR and Churchill wanted a fair and very visible trial. Stalin wanted it in Berlin, which was the capital of Germany and of course in the Soviet zone, but there were no facilities big enough. Courtroom 600 is the largest of the 80 courtrooms in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice, and it was suitable. Also, there is a prison just behind the courthouse (still functioning) and the defendants could be housed there and transported safely through tunnels, reducing the possibility of an attempt at liberation or assassination.

There were 24 original defendants who were charged with conspiracy against peace, war of aggression, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The group did not include Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels or Heinrich Himmler, as the gutless bastards had all committed suicide before they could be indicted. The United States, France, England and Russia all supplied judges, and the prosecution was overseen by U.S. Supreme Court judge Robert Jackson, who was given a leave of absence. His opening and closing statements are considered to be among the great speeches of the 20th century.

The trial lasted one year between 1945 and 1946 and attracted worldwide attention; Walter Cronkite was among the journalists covering it, and Ernest Hemmingway attended as well. Of the 24 original defendants, 12 received death sentences and were executed in the prison grounds, eight received life sentences, two were acquitted and Hermann Goring killed himself the night before his execution with a cyanide pill rumored to have been supplied by a guard in return for a gold watch.

Martin Bormann was tried in absentia and his remains were found in Berlin in 1972. Adolph Eichmann was found hiding in South America in the early 60s, tried and executed. I remember being in the school lunchroom that day and everyone standing and cheering as the clock struck the appointed hour. I’m not sure any of us really understood the specifics, we just knew it meant the end of another Nazi bad guy.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

After Nuremberg we started cruising on the AmaWaterways’ ship AmaDolce. I’ve never been one for cruises, had no idea what to expect and was prepared for anything, but it turned out to be an exceptional experience in every respect.

The three-year old AmaDolce was extremely comfortable. It certainly helped that the ship’s capacity is 148 passengers and we had just 64, November not being the optimal cruise season (in fact this was the AmaDolce’s last cruise of the year) and a number of cancelations coming courtesy of Hurricane Sandy. It never felt crowded and was a much more intimate environment that it might have been otherwise.

The ship is 360 feet long and only 11.5 meters wide, as some of the 25 locks between Nuremberg and Budapest are just 12 meters wide. When we were in one of those you could open the sliding glass door in your stateroom and touch the wall of the lock.

The crew of 40 was exceptional. Most were eastern European, and they were unfailingly cheerful and helpful despite the fact that it was the end of a very long season and they were all anxious to get home. The Cruise Director that held all of this together was Kriss Stallabrass, a Canadian now living in Holland. Kriss was somehow equal parts tour guide, historian, Elvis impersonator, camera mechanic, psychiatrist, raconteur, excursion coordinator and a dozen other things. She may not be a doctor but she knows one in every port. Her job, she said, was to “be a mind reader and try to anticipate what will make everyone happy. You can never forget that for every person on board, this is the trip of a lifetime.”

Ama was started by an Austrian named Rudi Schreiner ten years ago. “He wanted to start a company that would feature  everything he would want in a cruise,” Kriss told me. “Different wines every night, free Wi-Fi throughout the ship, free movies in the rooms, the best food. So that is what we strive for.”

Our good buddy Szabolcs (pronounced Saboch) Smida, from Salgotrjan, Hungary, was the bartender. Sabo is 25 and has already been in 68 different countries.

“I have been in almost every European country because of cross-country skiing,” he said. “I was on the Hungarian national team and almost went to the Olympics. But I didn’t go because I fell in love. I stopped training because of love. We were 19, it was the first love for both of us, and we were crazy.”

“Please tell me you are still together,” I said.

“No,” he said, with a touch of sadness. “It didn’t work. We didn’t talk for four years, but now we are great friends.”

One afternoon we were offered the opportunity to visit the bridge. The second captain, Imre Valentyik, was on duty; there are three captains who rotate. Imre had gone to navigation school for five years and then been a sailor in the Hungarian navy for six years before joining AmaWaterways.

The ship has two 1050 horsepower Caterpillar engines, props that can rotate 360 degrees, and 700 hp side thrusters. It can go 30 kilometers per hour with the current, which were doing on this trip. The Danube seems to be consistently deep – there were between 5 and 6 meters under the keel the whole time we were on the bridge – and without sand bars or anything tricky, except for the locks. We did have to change our schedule one day because of rain and the need to get under one bridge before the water got any higher.

Imre kept the ship on course with a flick of his finger, following the electronic charts and the GPS effortlessly. “Can you see other ships on the river?” he was asked. He tightened in on the GPS and showed us a ship coming toward us several kilometers away. He said it was a cargo ship currently going 12.5 kph. “And the captain,” he said, “his name is Herbert.” All that information was on his screen. Very cool.

Kriss and the team had scheduled interesting excursions almost every day. A large group spent most of one day in Salzburg. We all enjoyed the amazing Abbey at Melk, a massive Baroque structure overlooking the Danube. In the Middle Ages it was a fortress guarding the area from the Turks, but 300 years ago it was refurbished as a monastery, and it’s also a large and active day school with 920 students attending. The monks are good businessmen who have figured out how to make the place prosperous, and 500,000 visitors per year at ten Euros each is a pretty good start. They have come a long way from the day they sold their copy of the original Gutenberg Bible in order to pay to have the roof repaired.

I spent most of one day in Vienna with Greg and Sharon Duggan, who had been there often and knew it well. It was a scouting trip for me since I’ll be back there with my sister in a couple of weeks. An unexpected treat was walking through a nearly deserted amusement park; it’s a little known fact that the three most revered attractions in Vienna are Schonbrunn Palace, St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the bumper cars at Prater Amusement Park.

Of course what made the trip really special was getting to know the other passengers. Some acquaintances were made during the three days in Prague and then it seemed that each day of the cruise you learn three or four more names and stories, so by the end of the trip you feel surrounded by friends. I spent quite a bit of time with the Duggans, who are in the travel industry in the Denver area; Ed and Cindy Berre, the couple from Cincinnati I had dinner with in Prague; and Greg and Becky Graves, from northern Maine. Greg Graves is a big man with a big personality who likes golf and Duke basketball, so you know he’s a hell of a guy.

There were John and Faith, a couple who live in Reno and Phoenix respectively but make it work; Tony and Nancy, who got married two weeks after they met at a hotel he was managing; Lynn and Linda, charming cheeseheads from Wisconsin, home of the Green Bay Packers and tough guys with guns; and the delightful Mary Beth and Jill from Durham, North Carolina. Mary Beth is a doctor whose brother Jim Spanarkel was a great Duke basketball player in the late 70s, the first Duke player to score 2000 career points. These people and others contributed to this being such a memorable experience, and all seemed to agree that spending a week in a nice hotel that floats from one amazing place to another is not a bad way to go.

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The River Cruise I: Prague

Ever since the end of the Cold War I’ve wanted to visit Prague and Budapest. While working on the itinerary I found a river cruise that started in Prague and terminated in Budapest, and that seemed like a good way to connect them, see some other places along the way and spend some leisurely time floating along the Danube, courtesy of the good people at AMAWaterways.

The train ride from Salzburg to Prague was five hours, but the time passed quickly thanks to fellow travelers. After changing trains in Linz I was in a six-person compartment, alone for the first hour until joined by a nice young man named Peter Larndorfer, a teacher in Vienna on his way home to see his parents in a small town in northern Austria. “I would like to travel more, but I think I am too timid,” he said. “When I go somewhere I am always wanting to go home.” His only trip out of the European Union was to Israel, probably the place I am not visiting that I most want to see.

Peter worked as a guide for seven years at Mauthausen, the concentration camp I visited in September. I asked him about guiding relatives of victims. “Of course, I’ve had relatives of both victims and perpetrators,” he said. “It was just as emotional for families of the SS guards.” I told him how I had found the memorials there to be a symbol of hope. “Many of them were designed or built by people who were imprisoned there,” he said, which I hadn’t realized. “So yes, they do represent survival.”

He asked about the election and we talked about American politics for a while. “I like how strong people’s opinions are in America,” he said. “In Austria we walk lightly about such things, but in the U.S you always know where someone stands.” I asked where he learned to speak English so well. “From watching American films and shows.”

Peter got off, others came and went at various stops, but for the final 90 minutes it was just me and George, a young guy who was reticent at first to speak English. He works as a cook in a restaurant in Germany half the year, and comes home to Prague to be with his family the other half. He told me the most important thing to see in Prague is the Charles Bridge … “the oldest stone bridge in Europe” he told me, which turned out not to be quite true, but you have to love the civic pride.

I really liked George. When there was a lull in the conversation and I gazed out the window for a few moments, in the reflection I could see him looking at me, wanting to talk some more and thinking about what to say. His confidence grew with each sentence in English and he was clearly feeding off of it, so I asked him many questions. Sometimes I understood the answer, something not so much, but I enjoyed watching him dig for the right phrase, fail to come up with it, and then with great determination find another way to communicate his point. When I asked about the Czech language, for example, he said it’s very similar to Russian, but he made it emphatically clear that people in the Czech Republic have no use for anything Russian.

Walking from the platform into the main train station in Prague I saw a plaque dedicated to the man for whom the station is named: Woodrow Wilson. He was instrumental in Czechoslovakia becoming independent in 1918.

European cities are often qualified in architectural terms. Prague is 1,100 years old and therefore thought of as a product of the Romanesque Era, which lasted until the 10th century and was characterized by semi-circular arches. By the time of the Gothic Era in the 12th century (pointed arches, heavily-decorated facades), Prague was flourishing, and because both styles feature towers and steeples it’s known as the “City of One Hundred Spires”, even though it now has more than 500.

Prague has a rich and varied history. It has been the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and seat of two Holy Roman Emperors; it was an important asset to the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and after the First World War became the capital of the combined entity of the Czech state and Slovakia, which had been part of Hungary.

Czechoslovakia was the only democracy in this part of the world between the wars, but unemployment caused by the Great Depression made the country susceptible to Nazi propaganda, and Germany started to occupy it in the late 1930s before declaring it part of the Third Reich.

Following the war there was a predictable backlash against the extreme right of Nazi Germany, and the nation became vulnerable to the appeals of Communism, which was voted in in 1948. Those who didn’t agree were imprisoned or worse; many priests and resistance leaders were hung in the 50s. Gradually the private sector was eliminated, and the state ended up owning everything.

We had a guide named Hana who lived through it. “We could not go to Western Europe, only to Poland, Bulgaria and East Germany. We could not buy appliances, good clothing or jeans, and we had to buy bad East German cars, not even the good ones made in Czech Republic. We got fruit from Cuba. It wasn’t good, but I remember how much I loved the half a banana I got at Christmas time.”

They listened to Voice of America to get the truth. Students demonstrated peacefully – and effectively – in what became known as the Velvet Revolution. On one occasion 200,000 people protested in enormous Wenceslaus Square, and in 1989 things started to loosen up, with East Germans getting permission to go to the West in advance of the wall coming down on November 9. On the 25th the Communists finally gave up, a president was elected and the borders opened up. Slovakia had its own aspirations of independence and in 1993 there was a peaceful split, both countries agreeing to create a capitalist economy.

Today Prague is a thriving city of 1.2 million people. Located in northwest Czech Republic, not far from the German border, it has become one of Europe’s biggest tourist attractions. Like many European cities it has an “Old Town”, and this one dates from the 9th century (Prague’s “new” town was built in the 14th). And almost everyone speaks English. The Slavic language makes Russian and others languages in the region easy to learn, “but we no longer learn Russian in school,” Hana told us. “Since the end of Communism here we learn English.”

The leading destination for visitors is the Prague Castle. Built in the 1340s and on a hilltop overlooking the city, it is enormous and includes a beautiful cathedral that was started in 1344. We walked down from the Castle, through commercial areas and across the river on the famous Charles Bridge, which quite an experience with its statues of significance, vendors, street musicians and an amazing amount of people. I had been told about the crowds in Prague and it was no exaggeration; even in mid-November the number of tourists was staggering, with large groups of Chinese and Japanese dominating, but we heard most European languages as well. Not many North Americans this time of year, but others more than fill the void.

At a friend’s recommendation I checked out the Sex Machines Museum, which was weird but not uninteresting. There seem to be a lot of very creative people out there inventing things that would Caligula blush. I got a particular kick out of the intricate schematics in the patent applications; anyone who masters the assembly process deserves to have a little fun.

Architecturally, Prague is a beautiful city, but, like many parts of Rome, some of the beauty is ruined by graffiti, which is just a shame. And the city would be well served by giving someone a pressure-washing contract; old is great, but so is clean.

At night, though, Prague is magical. Any city looks better at night, but in Prague it seems different. The stone streets of Old Town and the huge squares shine under the street lamps, and the old buildings are beautifully lit. The huge crowds have dissipated and people move about energetically, in couples and small groups. There is music everywhere, from the street musicians playing exotic instruments to classical concerts in a wide variety of venues. Old Town Prague just feels romantic, with a pulse and a purpose.

I had two great nights there. The first I hung out with Ed and Cindy Berre, a terrific couple who live in Indian Hill, Ohio, the Cincinnati suburb where I went to high school. During the tour that day we’d seen a notice for a guitar concert that looked interesting, so we went to see the “Czech Guitar Duo” in the basement of an art gallery, where folding chairs seated maybe 50 people. The guitarists were brother and sister Jana and Petr Bierhanzl, and since Jana is also a painter of note, they often perform in galleries. They played some classical things, including pieces by Vivaldi and Paganini, and ended with some lively Flamenco numbers. A nice way to pass an hour.

The three of us then found a restaurant close to our hotel, and had fun time comparing notes about Cincinnati. In an attempt to extend the culinary adventure that has so far included kudu, impala and ostrich, I ordered lamb glands; which glands, I didn’t ask. It was tasty, unless you looked at it.

The following night I had dinner with Kriss Stallabrass, the Tour Director Extraordinaire of our AMAWaterways cruise. She took me to Krema, her favorite local spot, down an alley and into a wonderfully authentic subterranean environment. Kriss is a knowledgeable world traveler, a Canadian who lives in Holland, having moved there from Budapest, and we enjoyed sharing travel experiences. She introduced me to Becherovka, a local herbal drink.  “If you’re sick it will make you better,” she told me, “and if you’re sad it will make you happy.” And if you’re sober it will make you less so.

I ended all three nights in Prague at the casino in the Marriott across the street from our hotel. The first night was horrific, the second included a minor comeback, and the third, with a couple of very engaging Brits sharing the blackjack table, was outstanding.

The three days in Prague passed too quickly. But it was time to cruise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Positano and the Amalfi Coast

I had an eventful drive from Rome to Positano, mostly because the GPS lady and I were having trust issues, but I arrived safely to my hotel, walked out onto the balcony and saw this:

The view alone made the difficult drive worthwhile. Positano is a modest village on the Amalfi Coast between Sorrento and Solerno, in the region of Campania. It’s blankets the craggy hillside like all the coastal towns here, with the commercial area wedged into a fold in the hill leading down to the Mediterranean, where boats await passengers for the 40-minute trip to the island of Capri.Positano was a thriving port during the Middle Ages and through the 17th century, but experienced hard times in the 1800s when more than half the population emigrated. Tourism began to take hold here in the 1950s, especially after a 1953 magazine essay by John Steinbeck appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. He wrote: “Positano bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.” One of the more interesting Positano facts is that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote “Midnight Rambler” in a bar here.

It was the last weekend of “the season” and many hotels and restaurants were in the process of closing down. I did the Capri trip, pleasant enough, and found a few really good restaurants with amazing views, but basically it was a quiet couple of days and a good chance to decompress from and reflect on the previous month in Italy and Croatia. Positano and Capri are both extremely vertical environments, providing ample exercise by necessity, and my knee held up well, which was encouraging.

No reason for more words than that, so … ciao!

 

 

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