Monday, June 22, 2009

Home Again, Home Again

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- We returned home safely Saturday evening, tired and still exhilarated.

(The 45 minute flight from JFK to National arrived three hours late. With the exception of the cancelled Royal Jordanian flight, the only noticeable air delays we experienced were on U.S. domestic flights.)

There are many more photos; we'll post links in the days to come. Sunday was our day for getting back to real life. Oh, and for doing laundry.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Does Barcelona Count as Another Country?

BARCELONA, Spain-- I have an architecture guidebook. Keating has his camera bag. Together, that spells a very slow walk along Barcelona´s boulevards.

In the early 20th century, this city was the home of a quirky architectural movement known as Catalan Modernism. It had its roots in France´s Art Nouveau school, but quickly branched off into something completely different. Its best-known practitioner was Antoni Gaudi; his works form the visual texture of whole parts of the city.

While Barcelona is legally in Spain, it is proudly the capital of Catalonia, an area with its own language (Catalan) and years of separatist politics. Think Montreal, but with street signs in a language that looks like a cross of Spanish and French with a lot of extra Xs and diacritical marks thrown in for good measure. Spanish is the second language; sometimes, English shows up, too, but trilingual signs can look a bit silly.

The Barcelona city government helpfully publishes a book with a well-explained walking tour of Modernism. On our first afternoon and evening in Barcelona, we followed it carefully (and slowly) for several miles, ooohhing and aaahhing at one spectacular building after another, ending our stroll with our first look at La Sagrada Familia, the cathedral that is Gaudi´s masterpiece.

As we saw when we revisited La Sagrada Familia the next morning, the cathedral is still very much a work in progress. Actually, it´s a construction site -- see photo -- where hundreds of people are laboring on a building that has been in the works for more than a century. There was a bit of a setback in the Civil War years, when anticlerical activists trashed the place. However, the sanctuary is scheduled to be completed in 2010, barring the usual construction delays, I guess.

From there, we crossed the city to Park Guell, a Gaudi fantasy of a public park. This, like many of his other works, was built with the backing of a patron who more or less gave him an open checkbook. That sort of unstinting patronage seems necessary for extreme art like that produced in Barcelona at the time. (Of course, such flashy spending also feeds the anarchist revolution that came soon afterward.)

Barcelona´s extensive subway system made it simple to reach sites spread about the city--over our days there, we saw the mansions of Tibidabo Avenue, the Joan Miro museum in Montjuic, and more.

And the narrow medieval streets of the city´s old quarters--Barri Gotico and El Raval--made it a blast to seek out shops and bars on what I could only think of as the "Picasso Drank Here" tour. Two of the more famous ones where the Spaniard spent some time: the London Bar and Els Quatre Gats. The latter received a new touch of fame in recent years as one of the key settings in "Shadow of the Wind" ("La Sombra del Viento"), a book that was a runaway European bestseller. In Spanish, it´s a spooky Gothic thriller that´s soaked in Barcelona atmosphere. In English, I´m afraid it´s a bit silly.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Madrid Me Gusta Mucho

MADRID, Spain--It´s probably not possible to live on jamon alone.

Every now and then, you need some bread and cheese.

It seems that on almost every block in Madrid you can buy a quick snack of wonderful ham, or a jamon bocadillo, which is a ham sandwich. That comes in handy in a city where we found ourselves walking a lot, largely because the walks were so pleasant.

Aside from that ham, the highlight of the second day in Madrid was the Prado, a museum that lives up to its billing as one of the world´s best. Just the El Greco, Goya, Velazquez and Bosch would be enough for an entire museum of Spanish greats.

On our third day in the city, we spent the morning wandering around an Egyptian temple that had been moved to a Madrid park during the construction of the Aswan Dam. Somehow, it seemed appropriate to soak in that little bit of cultural fusion before we got onto the high speed train to Barcelona.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Estamos en Espana

MADRID, Spain--We brushed our teeth with tap water today.

Then we headed out into a city where we speak the language and can read the street signs. There's a lot to be said for coming back into the First World.

The cultural highlight of the day: seeing Picasso's Guernica at the Museo de Reina Sofia, an extensive collection of 20th Century Spanish art.

The psychological highlight of the day: doing laundry!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Week of Wonders, Part Three

CAIRO, Egypt-- Remember, we didn't set out to absorb the culture of India, Jordan and Egypt. We set out to see three of the wonders of the world in one exhausting week.

And the Great Pyramids of Giza are the biggie there, a wonder that has been attracting awestruck tourists since the days of the Romans, if not earlier. And they are indeed awe inspiring. The hassles of seeing them are also well known. Even the tourist police are continually hitting you up for baksheesh, that is, tips.

However, we did have a lovely, calm view from our hotel room in Giza. That's it in the photo, if I can find a computer that will let me upload the photo.

After being suitably awestruck, we went into downtown Cairo for a taste of the city and a deep dive into the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities for two days. That's a confusing, poorly curated collection of thousands of the most incredible Pharaonic items imaginable. Just room after room of elaborate sarcophagi, funerary goods, mummies and more. The popular King Tut exhibit that toured the US a couple years ago was just a few of the pieces the Cairo museum has on display.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Among the Red Ruins of Petra

PETRA, Jordan -- Wow. Wow, wow, wow.

I admit Petra would not have been on my must-do life list. I mean, yes, there is an article about this lost city of the Nabateans in an old copy of Smithsonian magazine that has been floating around my house for a while. Still...

Petra, which is about a three hour drive outside Amman, Jordan, was established as a trading crossroads more than two millenia ago by the Nabateans, a once-nomadic race that usually doesn't get top billing in world history. Over the years, they settled in and carved the facades of a magnificent city of tombs out of the native reddish sandstone. Thousands of living people also made their homes there, in an easily defended valley. They soaked in the influences of trading partners including Egypt, Greece and Rome. Around the time of the Crusades, the city was abandoned except for a relatively small tribe of Bedouins who moved into the mausoleum caves.

It was rediscovered by the outside world in about 1812, by one of those intrepid Victorian-era European gentleman explorers. In 1985, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and the Bedouins were relocated to a nearby village. In 1994, after Jordan signed its peace treaty with Israel, Petra began attracting increasing numbers of visitors. Hotels and the like were built in the village at the Petra main gate, called Wadi Musa.

Because we lost a day to our cancelled flight earlier this week, we decided to head straight from the airport to Petra, spend one night, then go straight back to the airport. Our expectations were low. Some of the guidebooks we read to prepare for this trip made Wadi Musa in particular sound like a grim, dirty tourist trap. (I'm guessing the main culprit was the Rough Guide, a series whose authors generally don't seem to actually like the countries they write about. That, or they're trying to scare away visitors.)We steeled ourselves for another experience like Agra, the grim, dirty tourist trap of a town that surrounds the Taj Mahal.

How wrong! Wadi Musa was small and dusty, but pleasant, with clean, clear air, smilling shopkeepers whiling away the time on the sidewalks, neatly dressed children playing in the streets, and the occasional small herd of goats wandering about. It was notably free of touts and beggars.

At the main gate of Petra, employees with badges nicely told us not to hire unlicensed guides, then set us up with a licensed guide. (After making it very clear that guides were optional.) Mahmoud was a young Bedouin man, born in the caves of Petra before his people were moved. He walked with us in the hot sun for more than three hours through the ruins of the old city, explaining the monuments and the history. He also chatted about how his people live now. (They lost their ancestral homes, but got the rights to the concessions in the park, tax-free.)The huge ruins were spectacular -- it was as if a race of classically influenced architects had carved bigger and bigger building facades out of the red rock desert of Sedona, Arizona.

We spent perhaps five hours in total poking about the park before dunking ourselves in the cold hotel pool. Once again, we were up before dawn the next day so we could be the first tourists back to the site, walking quietly so that we didn't wake the Bedouin shopkeepers who had spent the night sleeping in the shadows of the old tombs.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Delayed in Delhi an Extra Day

DELHI, India -- It was the flight I had been dreading for months: Leaving Delhi at 5:30 am, bound for Amman, Jordan.

We got up on time -- tired, but on time -- and a very helpful hotel concierge at the Airport Radisson accompanied us to the airport before 4 am. But when we got there, the bad news: The flight had been cancelled. Not delayed, not moved a bit. Cancelled. No other flights leave Delhi for Jordan today.

After some long, heated wrangling with the Royal Jordanian station manager --no, sir, I think I would have noticed if you had sent me notification this flight was cancelled! -- he arranged some token compensation, and confirmed that we have seats on the 5:30 a.m. flight tomorrow.

And the wonderful front desk at the Radisson put us back into our room, with a smile and a complimentary breakfast.

We now need to rearrange ongoing plans in Jordan, but otherwise plan to spend the day recharging and lazing around; perhaps also thinking in some more depth about our experiences so far, especially in India, which has been a bit overwhelming. It's too hot outside for our usual turbo-touristing.

And remember: If you ever need a hotel near the Delhi International Airport, the Radisson is pricy, but worth every penny.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Dawn at the Taj

AGRA, India -- We were the first tourists to visit the Taj Mahal this morning.

Right at the crack of dawn, we were at the gates to what we were reminded again and again is the world's No. 1 wonder. And it truly is wonderful, particularly in the cool light of the morning. It was still too early for the 45-plus degree Celsius temperatures we sweated through yesterday as we toured sites in Delhi and elsewhere in Agra. (That's well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.) It was also too early for many of the touts and crowds and beggars who make visiting the Taj a well-known tourist trial.

It was spectacular. Breathtaking. Words fail. These photos give a quick peek. Later this week, we'll share photos from other places in India, a country that unfortunately we are giving very short shrift.

One Hour in Bangkok

BANKGOK INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, Thailand -- So we went to Thailand after all.

All 'round-the-world travelers are supposed to spend time in that country. It's beautiful and cheap, the conventional wisdom goes. I'm sure that's true, but at the time we were planning this trip, political unrest had closed down the airport. I am decidedly not a fan of landing in the middle of a simmering civil war, so we plotted our trip with no sight of Siam.

From Bangkok
The airlines had other plans. It turns out our flight between Hong Kong and Delhi had a one-hour Bangkok stopover. Unfortunately, because of security concerns, they wouldn't let transiting passengers get off the plane. So we were left with one hour to look out the window at airplanes and fill out yet another of a series of swine flu quarantine forms. (No, in the last 7 days, I have not had a high fever or cough-like symptoms. Neither has anyone else I know. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Hong Kong Highlights

HONG KONG -- Just a few photos, as we prepare to leave Hong Kong.

By the way, a few tourist rants, all of them based on Hong Kong doing things the right way. Every tourism office director out there should visit Hong Kong if only to get a lesson in how a city should put up signs directing people to everything. You would have to try very hard to get lost in Central Hong Kong or in many of the closer-in neighborhoods. Every time you're about to say, "Gee, I wonder where...," you practically run into signs. In at least two languages.

Also: Anyone who plans to build an airport 45 minutes or more outside the central city should be required by international law to build something like Hong Kong's Airport Express, a dedicated train that connects easily with the MTR (subway) system.

An one more thing about public transit: As a Washingtonian, I've long been annoyed by people, mostly ex-New Yorkers, who whine that Washington isn't a real city because the Metro doesn't run 24 hours a day. MTR in Hong Kong runs 6am-midnight, and this is as much of a "real" city as anyone could imagine.

Flashback: Images of Bali

Here's a slideshow of Bali. I was unable to post these earlier because fast Internet connections are not universal (and, admittedly, there are some big files here.)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Flashback: Tokyo in the Rain

We left Tokyo more than a week ago, but just got around to posting a few photos. It rained the whole time we were there, so you'll see a lot of umbrellas.

These Bargains May Bankrupt Me

HONG KONG -- I haven't bought a suit yet! Shouldn't I buy a suit? Wait -- I'm going to be unemployed in three weeks. Who needs a new bespoke suit, no matter how cheap it is?

Breathe. Breathe.

Of course there are temples and other cultural landmarks. There's a skyline that's one of the most breathtaking in the world. And there are old-style neighborhoods that at first seem like the biggest Chinatown you've ever seen, until you realize that it's not Chinatown, it's actually China.

But a lot of Hong Kong is about shopping. Huge Prada-Tiffany's-Chanel stores. Guys on street corners trying to sell you "Rolexes." (And it does take an admirable level of chutzpah for them to do it right in front of a real Rolex store.) Vendors in the Jade Market bragging they have "real jade," and sounding as surprised about it as they should.

I have to admit the prices on my new little camera and my new sunglasses were pretty good, though.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

At the Jaya Pub Bali

LEGIAN, Bali, Indonesia -- When Elvis sings about the cotton fields back home, there are already several levels of cultural dissonance. On top of that, imagine a 60-year-old Australian crooning the lead, backed up by an Indonesian cover band called "The Down of Revolution."

Why "Down?" I have no idea, but that's correct.

The Australian's name escapes me now, but he's the bald guy in the photo. So obviously Bali is about more than art, nature, complex spirituality and magical sunsets.

A few more random observations:

--The sunset over the beach really is magical.

--High-tech wicking T-shirts are great; so are little tiny LED flashlights. The flashlights would be better if they were a lot brighter.

--If a new global era of communications is going to be based on fast Internet connections, we aren't there yet.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

$52 a Night Private Villas Don't Have Ocean Views

LEGIAN, Bali, Indonesia-- "Where you from?," the bus boy asks. "The United States of America." "Obama! Oh, Obama!"

To say this president is popular in Indonesia is an understatement. It's tough to imagine how big the smiles are when we say we're from Washington. But folks seem a bit let down when we hasten to add that we don't actually KNOW Obama, although we live in the same city.

On Tuesday, we moved from Ubud, up in the hills, down to Legian, which is part of a strip of three beach towns, sandwiched between Kuta (the budget-friendly magnet for party-seeking Australians) and Seminyak (site of some of the world's luxest beach resorts). A nice man we hired in Ubud drove us first further up in the hills, to the Bali Botanic Garden and then onto a lake that is the location of a rather splendid water-surrounded temple. Ketut --which means "fourth-born child," so at least it's less common than "Wayan," or first-born child-- was a bit reluctant to drive all the way back to the beach, which is about an hour beyond Ubud. But I guess he needed the money, so he did.

It quickly became obvious that, as nice as he was and as skilled as he is at maneuvering around slow-moving trucks on mountain roads, he is not a city guy. I suspect he had never actually been in this area, which is a densely populated place where crossing the road requires taking a deep breath and darting through dozens of motor scooters. He certainly didn't know where our hotel was. That became obvious as he decided to drive down a dirt cow path through shoulder-high weeds, on the off-chance it was the road we were looking for. The cows didn't seem too perturbed--but after about 100 yards, we all decided we were probably off track, which upset Ketut a bit. We actually were in a situation where it was the tourists who had to keep saying "No problem! No problem!" Eventually, he found a cab driver who pointed us in the right direction.

I decided to pinch pennies a bit on this hotel, the Puri Dewa Bharata. Our room is comfortable, with its own private walled outdoor sitting area--that makes it a villa. There's AC, a pool and the rest. But it turns out that it is two or three VERY long, hot blocks from the beach--that's a lot of motor scooters to dodge, and a lot of sarong-sellers and time-share hawkers to ignore. ("Lady, you speak English?" After a half-dozen or so times, I moved from ignoring the poor guys to answering, "No, no hablo ingles.")

But that beach is wide, wide, wide, with warm surf, palm trees, the whole bit. And the hotel itself, once you're inside the compound, is as elaborately decorated as everything else in Bali--even the stone ledge around the pool is carved with what I'm guessing is another elaborate version of a creation myth. The statues of gods are neatly dressed in their own sarongs (which believe me is odd-- a stone statue needs a sarong?) And each day, someone has placed a nice, flower-strewn ceremonial offering to the gods in the little altar niche outside our room.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bali Nights

UBUD, Bali, Indonesia--I hope it was just a coincidence that the hotel guy was changing the bulb on our porch when the lights went out.

(Let me back up a step and describe Ubud, a town a bit more than an hour inland from the famous Bali beaches. It bills itself as the artistic and spiritual capital of the island. It's a handful of villages that have more or less blebbed together into a town. From a tourist perspective, there's an east-west main street, and two or three roads that stretch about a kilometer south from that to the Monkey Forest. Those roads are lined with stores, restaurants, etc., as well as plenty of taxi hawkers. I'm sure the calm spiritual place that figures so hugely in the book "Eat, Pray, Love" is here somewhere, but I'm not 100 percent sure where.)

(Those roads are connected by a network of paths, some paved and 4 to 8 feet wide. Those serve as secondary roads for the motor scooters. One of them runs along the Monkey Forest, to the south of it. A 10 minute walk on that unlighted path connects the quiet neighborhood where we're staying to the town center.)

When the lights went out, we figured we would proceed with our plan to walk into town for dinner. (One restaurant promised a Sunday night Indonesian buffet/banquet that I craved.) The town was dark, too--most of the storefronts closed, and even the taxi hawkers were gone. But the restaurant we had in mind (and some of its neighbors) had a generator that provided enough power so that the lights there went out just once. As we ate dinner, the rain storm that had loomed all day let loose.

When the rain stopped, we headed back through the dark town, along the dark path, to the candle-lit hotel.

Only one thing seemed possible, in a Somerset Maugham-ish kind of way. We sat on our porch, looking out over the night-time rice paddies, lit only by the occasional headlights from a faraway motor scooter.