Friday, September 4, 2015

The Remarkable Doors of India.


When my family and I travelled around the world, I didn't plan on collecting door photos. I wanted lots of photographs, but they were going to be used as reference for all the drawings and paintings I would do after we returned home.
    But as things usually go, I was drawn to the things I found interesting, like those columns beside that door, those bricks around that door, a magnificent church façade surrounding that really cool door, my son standing beside the door of our rented flat. 



Pretty soon, and without me even realizing it, doors were becoming the focus of some photos. It was just, "Hey, that's cool," and I'd take a picture.
     "Look at how the plaster is crumbling…beside that door."

Pyrgi, Chios Island, Greece

    "Look at that intricate wood detail…on that Topkapi Palace door."


     The stonework around a door in Damascus. Doors through archways on Greek Islands. Massive entrances to citadels. Stones that held up openings and archways, but secretly dreamed of relaxing and falling to the ground at Termessos.


(For the record, I'm defining 'door' as any door or doorway-type thing, like an arch or entrance, pretty much anything marking a passage from one room or area into another.)
     Somehow a door made its way into the frame no matter where I pointed the camera. Sometimes the only thing that stood in the frame was a doorway.


By the time we got to India, I had become aware of consistencies as I went through my photographs at the end of the day. But India, as I've said before, is not to be contained, and was not content with me merely noticing a pattern. India, Incredible India, opened my eyes to the wonder that could dare to call itself a door. 

Whether it was age, colour, scale, it didn't matter. Doors exuded a grace and style unlike any doors we'd see to this point in our travels. They protected forts, and decorated palaces. Adorned simple homes in forgotten alleys and announced themselves proudly at centuries-old monuments. Every day we were witnesses to some of the most beautiful doors in the world. And every day, I took notice.
     Here are a few of my favourites.

Boxing Day in Gokarna, returning from the beach down a little used lane, I could have sworn I heard this door breathe my name, and for seventy-six days, I was entranced.

Lunch at a tiny place to eat in the small town of Anegundi, just outside of Hampi. We sat at a small, outdoor table, and this was right beside us.

One of many gates at Dalatabad Fort.

The first photo I took in Jodhpur.

Our boys enjoying the audio guide inside Mehrangarh Fort.

Looking out of Jaswant Thada in Jodhpur.

The courtyard in the City Palace in Jaipur has four unique but similarly designed doorways (two shown above).

Looking through the front gate at the Taj Mahal in Agra.

On another building within the Taj Mahal complex.

One of a great many at Fatehpur Sikri. Okay, one more...

And finally

One of my paintings from a door in Chittorgarh, a place we weren't even supposed to visit.

From the people to the beaches, historical sights to the colourful doors found in every city and village, India was a complete experience. Delightful and frustrating in every possible way, but just an incredible time.

My favourite India door poster.

If you've seen some beautiful doors in India that struck a chord with you, show them to me on Twitter or Facebook. I'd love to see them.

--almost forgot the Red Phone in Gokarna. Not sure what the doily is supposed to be doing.

Want to see and hear more of India? Have a look at our book about our seventy-six days in India. From Kerala in the south, Rajasthan in the west, to Kolkata in the east, we covered a lot of ground, and took a lot of pictures. It's all there in the book, 166 pages of full-colour India. See the trailer here, or at the top of this page.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Staying Fit While Travelling

I've seen a number of articles about how to stay fit while you travel, but I think if you're travelling, staying fit is the least of your worries. On the other hand, if you're a tourist sitting on a beach somewhere, then you might want to give it some consideration.
Before we left home on our two hundred and seventy-five day trip around the world, we were a reasonably fit family, and I think a big part of staying fit on the road is having already established healthy habits. You can very easily develop some good habits while you travel, but you can also very easily entrench the bad ones.
Here are my thoughts on the subject.
First of all, it's all relative. What does "fit" mean to you? That opens up a whole other can of worms, but by and large, let's say that by "fit," we are also considering your health. Generally speaking, if you're fit, you're healthy. And if you're healthy, you're fit. That's how we'll approach this.
Fit also looks different on different people. So we're not talking how you look, but how you feel. And how you respond to the rigours of travel, both physical and mental.
If your response to a missed train is a bout of screaming and stomping your feet, or if climbing a flight of stairs makes you wheeze, you should probably take some time to consider how that will impact your travel plans.

For my family and me, staying fit was less of an issue than making sure we were getting enough calories. We weren't running marathons or doing cycling tours, but we walked an awful lot, carrying all our stuff in a single backpack each. At the end of the day, we were hungry. And at the beginning of each day, we needed a good meal to help us stay energized.

Travelling encourages you to do a lot of walking. You could take a taxi or other mode of mechanized transportation, but if you don't have to, don't. Walk. See the sights on the way to the site. Meet local people, stop and talk, get to know your surroundings. It will do wonders for your psyche and help you shed some unnecessary pounds, if you have any. Walking is simply one of the best exercises ever 'invented,' and comes will all sorts of excellent side effects. Being fit has the potential added benefit of allowing you to experience a place a little more fully. So if you need to walk the five hundred steps up to the top of St. Peter's, or the nine hundred steps up to The Monastery at Petra,

 you can do it without over-exerting and maybe hurting yourself. If you can't now climb a few sets of stairs comfortably, start preparing for your travel dreams today, or be realistic about what you'll be able to accomplish. Or both.
We did a number of hikes, like in the Vikos Gorge in Greece, that demanded a fair bit of physical literacy, as they say.

You could also carry your kids' backpacks when they get tired. Or carry your kids...we tried to avoid that as much as possible. We tossed the frisbee with locals on the beach in Gokarna, India. Walked from the Ephesus site back to the nearby town of Selcuk, Turkey. Walk, walk, walk.
We stayed in apartments throughout Europe, and in addition to giving you more space, you also have your own kitchen in which to prepare meals. You will likely cook with less salt and less fat than what you will find in a restaurant meal, and you will save a ton of money. If you're travelling with your children, have them help prepare the food and make it a family affair and teachable moment. That being said, there were times when we just couldn't resist.

One thing we really cut down on was snacking. Mid day snacking, late night snacking, bad food snacking. This is not to say we didn't have a bag of chips here and there, but we significantly curtailed our bad-calorie input. Bad calories have a tendency to weigh you down physically and mentally, so the more you can avoid them, the better off you will feel. Being on the road with a food hangover, be it when your bus blows a tire in the middle of India or you're climbing those never-ending stairs to the cupola in Florence, is no fun at all.

Having a more active day will often result in a less active night. And getting a good night's sleep is critical to being your best self in any circumstances. Travelling with children certainly encourages good sleep habits, as you will be home earlier in the evening, and less likely to be dragging yourself out of a bar at 7 a.m. on Khao San Road.

If you want to be a little more hard-core, you could always do pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, rudimentary squats, or search out a gym, but we found that our overall fitness level was never better than it was in the middle of that trip. Much of that was due to walking and climbing everywhere, hauling our own backpacks, eating and sleeping well, and being together as a family. No other workout required (being with my family was not a workout! It added to the overall sense of well-being).

Driving in Athens

September 12

Let me just say right now that I have never driven in Athens (and as you all know if you've been reading along, I have still never driven in Athens, but being in the front passenger seat is still pretty darn close), but it is an experience like none other. It has its similarities to Rome, but like a comparison between the two countries, Athens driving seems a little rougher around the edges, a bit more frenetic, maybe even a bit more dangerous. But not really. Somehow it all works itself out, everyone seems to take care each of other, and no one seems to get too worked up about things. Unless you don't anticipate a green light. It starts innocently enough, just a little blurt of a horn to let you know the light is now green, but wait more than a second, then all hell breaks loose. Horns start blaring, people holler, bikes and scooters fly by.
There are no pretences in Greek driving. If you need to get somewhere, even if it's across three lanes of bumper to bumper traffic, you go somewhere. If someone needs to get across three lanes of traffic, well, he/she must have a pretty good reason so you let him/her do it. 
The nutty thing for the uninitiated is that there are very few overhead signs letting you know what the major routes are, and street sign placement is not an organized science. Many are placed on the side of a building at a street corner. No building on that corner? Wait till the next corner, maybe you'll get lucky. When you do find one, which after some practice in locating them you usually do, it may not include the English lettering along with the greek. And if it does, it may not be spelled them same as on your map. It's like code-breaking at 50 miles an hour in a confined space with no coffee break, someone sitting right beside you bemoaning the fact that he has no idea where you are, where you have been, or where you are going, or else he's shouting 'Turn here!!' without mentioning which direction 'here' is.
On the way into the city on the big highway, Laura tried to pass an army truck full of army guys in the back. Some joker in the fast lane doing 150 came flying out of nowhere to give Laura a blast of his horn and Laura jumped back in to our lane rather awkwardly behind the truck full of army guys. They all had a big grin on their face and they all seemed to be looking at me. My return glare made it clear that if I had half as many weapons of mass destruction strapped to my body as they did, we'd already be where we were trying to get to.
We got lost more than a few times in trying to find our way to the Europcar office downtown. With the help of a guy at a gas station (who showed us on the route on the map, then when he saw us still standing in the middle of his parking lot a few minutes later staring at the map, he came over and said, "okay, forget the map, you go this way, turn right then go until….." etc. He then got to work filling up something and almost got run over by someone else!), we managed to miraculously (I do not use that word lightly) make our way to within one block of Syngrou Avenue, where I asked a newsstand guy where we were now. This time when he pointed, it was a very direct point, not a vague towards the moon kind of point like the elderly couple near Megalopoli. One block, he says. Brilliant.
We made it on to Syngrou, flew by the Europcar office, turned at the next block and found ourselves at dead end. I got out and ran to the office and the guy told me I can park it anywhere on the street. There was no room on the street, but that was a minor detail. We unloaded most of our bags with our friends (who had been following us through all of this), and tried to get back to the office. Not easy. We got back on to Syngrou only to find out you can't do a u-turn. We obeyed the law for about 2 kilometres (we are Canadians, after all) then did our u-turn. Then went the wrong way. Then found our way from another way, then arrive at Europcar and parked in the middle of a crosswalk. Finally, we were in Athens.

After 20 minutes of paperwork, and a call to our apartment guy, and I drove off with John and the bags while everyone else walked. We got there on our first crack. John double parked (like 40 percent of the other unoccupied cars in Athens), and I ran over to find Liana and Penny waiting for me. I apologized profusely for being late, they smiled considerately and brought me up to the apartment, and it is fantastic. Bright, clean, balcony, bathtub, and a washing machine. It's perfect. I mean, really nice.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

How to Smuggle Your Knife into the Vatican Museum

After all the walking around we did yesterday, it was decided that we should figure out this transportation thing quickly or we'd wear ourselves out before Rome was done with us. We managed to get ourselves lost walking down to the central train station, but the good thing about getting lost in Rome is that it is just so darn fun. There's something interesting to see literally everywhere - down the street, across the street, in the trees...

     At the train station, the patient lady at the tourist info booth tells us that we can find a bus map 'out in the centre.' We walk around out in the centre for ten minutes, looking for a sign that said ATAC, Rome's public transport company. What seemed so endearing yesterday, the dearth of public signage, is now a curse. Nothing. 
     We ask at a magazine shop, Parle Inglese? 'A bit.' Where would we find the ATAC office so we can get a bus map? 'Outside and to the left,' he says proudly, and off we go before he can say another word. We head outside, spirits lifting on this bright and sunny Rome morning. We're doing it, I'm thinking to myself. We turn left and find exactly nothing. Maybe he meant the other left. Nope. A few more minutes of befuddled wandering before we go back inside, and Laura asks someone at an official looking desk where we might find this most important map. 'Any newspaper or magazine seller will have one,' they say. Hmmm. At the nearest magazine shop, I find exactly what I'm looking for on the left side of the rack. I hand my euros over to the familiar looking retailer who eyes me kind of strangely.
     Our booklet contains a remarkably comprehensive and intimidating bus guide, as well as a handy metro map which shows us that the nearest metro stop is right outside the station, beside the ATAC office. On our way to the bus stop, I frown in that direction, just as some guy jumps out of his chair to ask if we need any help. No thanks, I mutter, forgetting the blue skies for the moment, we're just going to catch a bus. To the Vatican! Laura shouts gleefully. 'It's right there! Go, GO!' he says, his arms flailing in a 'get moving' sort of fashion. We jump on the bus just before the doors close and have our tickets stamped (Matthew is free) in a self serve machine. No one checks that we have done so, but failure to stamp them could result in a fine of up to 500 euros. We will continue to stamp them as required.

     In a shady spot near St. Peter's Square, we eat some lunch (assembled from parts purchased at our neighbourhood bakery) and watch all the goings on. Tourists travel in large packs, small groups, as individuals, so much activity that this is nearly an event unto itself.
     The lineup for the Vatican Museum is minimal today, so we get in pretty quickly, so quickly in fact, that Laura's still packing our lunch knife away, a knife sharp enough to cut tomatoes so thin your in-laws will never come back. Then we see security, and the bag screeners that look like they're on loan from a major airport. Laura quickly tries to stuff the knife in my bag. I'm thinking, put it in the kids bag, for crying out loud, not mine!
     We decide to come clean and tell the security guy hanging out by the door that we have a knife that we used for our lunch, you know, to cut cheese and such. 'What kind of knife is it?' he asks with a pleasant smile. Uh, a cheese-cutting type knife. 'Let me have a look,' he says, still Mr. Casual. Laura pulls out the serrated cheese killer, and security guy does this very audible inhaling whistle. 'Better check that,' he says, pointing to the bag check desk. 
     Bag check guy is uninterested in us, even as I walk toward him with a knife in my hand. 'Security first,' he says, and waves us away. I stuff the knife deep inside one of our bags and throw them on the rollers of the bag screener, sending them through along with a little prayer. The guy watching the x-ray TV calls Laura over and asks her to explain purpose of the long, sharp-looking item. She opens the bag in question and starts to pull things out, but that is not the bag I put the knife in. I start to suggest that maybe it is the stiff backing of the very sturdy day pack, but TV man puts his hand up in a sort of 'back off' gesture. He calls over a couple of co-workers, and the three of them come to the conclusion that it is probably the hair brush. Yeah, that's it, the hair brush, I say, with a nervous laugh as I quickly gather up our other bag, you know, the one with the KNIFE in it, and we do an innocent-as-possible jog over to Bag Check. We wait for a few minutes before the clerk looks up and says, a bit impatiently, 'You can't check that here, this machine is broken. You have to go upstairs.' I was tempted to say, We have a knife! but I held my tongue.
     Up the long escalators, then we see the Baggage Check desk, beyond the ticket booth. We pay our way in, 42 euros (no freebies here), and walk with purpose over to bag check, relieved to finally be rid of this albatross. The man smiles brilliantly and waves us on by, like he's doing us a favour. 'It's okay,' he says, 'you can take that in!'

     Stunned, we walk into the Vatican Museum with our very sharp knife.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Slow Down

A glimpse into the process of haggling, and inter-city travel.
Page 118 from my book, The Great Year - India Edition, our last day in Khajuraho and then heading off to Varanasi.

Text below.

Click to see larger

The slow down has officially begun. I think we’re at the point where we’re simply just enjoying India. There’s not much of an agenda, other than eat, explore, enjoy. Sounds like a book title. Laura spent a good deal of time negotiating for some wall hangings and cloth lanterns, back and forth with the proprietor. It was like watching a cross between a tennis match and a Vaudeville act, but with more contact. As the guy set the stage for the final act, Laura replied with a forehand smash. I will accept that offer, she said, if you throw in these two wall hangings. Oy, you’re bad, I said. The man put a heavy hand on my shoulder and said, wearily and with the appearance of great effort, Oh, thank you sir...thank you! as though commiserating with someone who recognized Laura’s deviousness. Then he quickly agreed and happily set to work assembling our purchases.

*  *  *

     Today we are bound for Varanasi. As soon as we are seated in the newer model vehicle, I turn to Laura and say, I could get used to this...The car takes half the time of the bus/train combo, and for that we are truly thankful. I’m remembering one of our bus rides, hours long over mostly dirt roads with windows that didn’t exactly close. We were covered in dirt by the end. Literally covered - after the trip I shook out my formerly white cotton shirt, and we could hear the debris hitting the ground. There are no bathrooms on the buses so you have to wait until the bus stops somewhere and hope that it stops long enough for you to do what you need to do, and it seems like they never replace the shocks on these things...what was I saying again? Forgot to mention that on the trip to Khajuraho we made a stop where Matthew and I got off to look for a bathroom. Well, this was just a snack stop apparently, as there were a ton of chip vendors but no toilet in sight. We found a policeman and asked where we might find a bathroom. He sort of bobbed his head in a direction across the busy street. Well, there is no official looking bathroom here, just an open space, a fence and plenty of men with their backs to us. Official enough. 

Carrying on to the next page:
     This car ride however, is uneventful, at least as uneventful as an eight-hour car ride in the middle of India (quite literally the middle) can be. Even the town with the car-sized pot holes (that is no joke or hyperbole - there was construction going on that necessitated ninety-degree turns in every direction, including down and up) does not merit much more than a glance from us. I am, however, happy to know that there is a town with more and slightly larger potholes than Winnipeg.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Local Bus

The rickshaw driver who takes us to the bus station cannot understand why we’d take a bus to Fatehpur Sikri when he could take us there and back for only seven hundred rupees. Well, for one thing, the bus there and back will be two hundred rupees. We’re getting the sense that there is an impression that money is no object for Westerners. There are times when a private vehicle is warranted, welcome or maybe even necessary. But the local bus provides an experience that is somehow more real, more right, and more informative. The bus ride is a bumpy, dusty affair, the bus itself scarred on the outside (and in some places on the inside) by the unwashed remains of previous passengers’ colourfully recorded memories of this trip. Less than half way there, the woman in front of Laura and Matthew appears to be looking at the somewhat mangled bare foot of the young man a few rows ahead. After a few lurches, she asks her neighbour for the window seat. She rolls down the window and hangs her head out. I give Laura the back pack in case she needs to deflect anything.
     We manage to arrive incident free, and right off the bus are asked by a few people if we would like a guide, very cheap price. No thanks. But how can you see the beauty of this place without a guide? This is the third time that line has been used on us in the last twenty-four hours. Not to take anything away from what a guide can offer, we’ve found that it’s often more fun to let the kids spend time in some of the nooks and crannies, and experience things at our own pace, not feeling like we’re on the guide’s schedule. Some of the guides that we have overheard didn’t have much useful information. ‘Lookit the statues here. The carving is very intricate. It is an elephant. Now lookit here....’ dragging their clients from one point of interest to another. From what I’ve seen, I’m half convinced that some guides are making up their commentary on the spot. 
     A hopeful restaurant owner points out a shortcut to Fatehpur's main gate, which involves a short climb up a garbage covered hill, complete with, much to Jonas and Matthew’s delight, a warthog rooting around in the garbage. At the top of the hill we are greeted by a naked boy and his only slightly more clothed older brother. 
     Fatehpur Sikri is a city that was built by a Mughal emperor several hundred years ago, but was abandoned not long after. As such, it is in immaculate condition. Immediately inside the massive, one hundred and sixty-five foot high front gate, a young man presents himself and tries to begin our tour, like he works there. A student, he says.  We say we’re not interested in a guide. No guide, I just tell you and show you, come over here. Look, not interested. He keeps on and on and on, following us for several minutes, until I finally just turn and move into his space for a change. Listen, we are not interested in you following us around. You’re pissing me off. Go away. Okay, but promise you won’t let any other student guide you around? Get lost, I say, leaning in a little closer, cage door opening wider.
     Mughal emperor Akbar originally called his walled city Fatehpur, or Town of Victory, after, yes of course, a particular military victory of which he was quite proud. Fatehpur Sikri today is a wondrous place (even without the guide), an architectural inspiration, well maintained, with lots of green space. It’s a fascinating place for all of us to wander around, with all kinds of delicate, lacy, carved stone screens in marble and sandstone.

There are a number Indian tourists visiting today and many say hello and introduce themselves, get their photo taken with us, and smile broadly. Despite the jokers, India continues to impress us.

     The helpful restauranteur is happy to see us, and he takes us up the gritty staircase to the rooftop dining area where we enjoy a relaxing meal, our cheeks brushed by a gentle and sunny dust-kissed breeze. With the bus stand right below us, we can spot our bus and head down in time to get a ticket and get on board. 

     If you visit Agra, Fatehpur Sikri cannot be missed. And I highly recommend the local bus.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Places Kids Will Love

This is sort of a response to a "Where to take your kids" travel post, that I found through Nomadic Chica's twitter feed.
The post was written by Eric Stoen, who has been all over the world, and by the sounds of it, a few times too. (He also has a logo that is eerily similar to what I used in a book a few years ago.)

But anyway, he was recommending places as top spots to take your kids while travelling, and to me there seemed to be some glaring omissions. I haven't been to a quarter of the places he's been, so it got me thinking that maybe there really isn't anywhere that wouldn't be great to take your kids, depending on your sensibilities.
People enjoy different things, and kids grow up with different things and different expectations, so what to some may be a treat, to others may be a nightmare, or at least just not fun.
So with that in mind, here are some of the coolest and most fun places we went with our kids during our year off.

Probably the most amazing place for all of us: Angkor.
Just say it out loud: Angkor. How cool is that? And if you think it sounds cool, check out what's there.

And if you think that looks cool, imagine watching your kids exploring through it all. One day, our son took the the book (that we purchased from a young boy carrying a library of books through the ruins) and used that as a guide to take us around to his favourite spots.

Angkor in Cambodia would be my number on place to take kids for extreme cool factor.

Next stop, maybe Termessos in Turkey. I'll just show a few pictures and say no more (other than to say it's located north of Antalya, in these hills).

Fun cities would be Rome for starters. Ice cold water flowing from ancient fountains on nearly every street corner. Super old and fascinating attractions like the Colosseum, museums with neat scale models of the city in its heyday, warm and sunny weather, enormous churches with incredible statues that look like they've jumped out of a Marvel comic book, the list goes on and on.

Petra would be another favourite, great for kids who love to climb and hike and see some of the most amazing remains of any ancient city on Earth.

For some quiet beach time, why not hit up a under-hyped Greek island like Chios? If you're in Limnos in the middle of September, you'll have the whole beach to yourself. 

Climbing sand dunes in the Wadi Rum in Jordan, and hang out with some Bedouins and fellow travellers for the night.

Swimming in the Dead Sea.

Man, there are a lot of cool places on this Earth that do not include Disney princesses.

The point is, if you want to travel, don't let having kids stop you. There are loads of places they will love, and probably some they won't. But don't let someone's 10 Best list spoil your plans. If you think your kids will enjoy something you've picked out with them in mind, chances are they probably will. After all, they're your kids.