Monday, July 14, 2014

Krak des Chevaliers Tour

We get going around 8:30 for the one and a half hour drive to 'The Krak'. Our driver Hassam doesn't speak much English but seems really nice, and it's here we get a real lesson in how driving in Syria works. Hassam is a real pro, but is not aggressive or unduly dangerous so that's good. If you are coming up beside someone and are going to pass, you give a tap on the horn so that they know you are there. If you are merging at high speed, you judge where you are going to fit into the flow of traffic and go for it no matter what. If you see someone walking with their back to you on the road, you give them a tap on the horn so that they know to look out.  I don't think we have to stop even once on the way there, as the roundabout system really works if you know what you are doing. Oh, and very few people use their lights here until it is absolutely necessary, like as in dark.
So, Krak des Chevaliers is a very cool old castle from around the 1100's. It's big and complete and a fascinating place for all of us to explore. Lots of nooks and crannies, great views, and crazy winds up top.

The only downside was that it was a bit cool and very windy and cloudy, but that sort of added to the experience I guess. What wasn't adding to the experience was the feeling in my stomach, so lunch today in another spectacular location, directly across the road from the castle, is less exciting. Matthew is not feeling well either, so he and I merely push the food around in our plates before giving up.
The typical Krak tour includes a couple other stops so we drive north to Misyaf, another castle. Coming out of the hills, the sky completely clears up, and we step out of the car at Misyaf to crystalline blue skies. 

We have the option to carry on to Apamea, so we look around just long enough to be polite (and find and use the rest room), then jump in the car and drive north. From the pictures at the Riad Hotel, Apamea looked like one of those places you shouldn't miss. Misyaf might have been one of those places had we not just seen Krak des Chevaliers.
As we arrive at Apamea, we can see the remains of the massive walls that once surrounded this city, but it's obvious from a distance how impressive this place is. Columns. Lots and lots of columns. Hassam drops us off at the entrance and explains that we walk through and he will be waiting for us on the other side. He points west and says, "You walk, I wait other side."
Got it.
We go to the ticket booth and it takes a few seconds for the guy to look up at us. 

Note the rather unassuming ticket booth on the left.

"Oh!" he almost jumps when he notices us. He looks surprised to see anyone out here but recovers quickly and gives us a big smile.
"How much?" we ask.
"Where are you from?"
"Ah, Canada Dry (a joke that still elicits a smile from us because he says it like we could not have possibly heard it before (not remotely true))!. Welcome here! Kids are free, so 300 pounds," or six dollars. Another guy comes out of the booth and tries to sell us some postcards. "150 pounds," he says, and I'm fairly certain that's the only English he knows. I ask the guy behind the counter, with a bit of a smile, if that's a good price.
He says, "Yes, that's a good price." Then he talks to post card man for a bit, and then says, "100 pounds, that is a very good price."
We could get 20 cards in Rome for one Euro, but the museum that houses the mosaics on these cards is closed already so we pay him.
He wishes us well and we walk in to the site. A delightfully diligent arch greets us, 

I take picture after picture, and Jonas says, "Uh, Papa." I don't immediately respond. "Papa, I think you should take a look at this." When I turn, something catches in my throat as I look at my family, standing awestruck before two kilometres of pillars lining what was once Apamea's main street.

The city of Apamea was founded in the 2nd century BC and prospered for many centuries. It was apparently flattened by an earthquake in the 1100's. What remains, and what has been restored (I think) is pretty amazing. Two and a half kilometres of columns along what was once the main road. The afternoon light is magical and for the first few minutes we are the only ones here, other than these guys racing around on dirt bikes who pull up and try to sell you things like the ancient coins, more postcards, stamps and other things. They are persistent, but not outrageously so. One of the guys keeps pointing things out to us. There is the basilica, Roman houses, don't miss that, look at this, etc. Thanks, thanks.
Both Matthew and I are starting to succumb to the effects of an overdue shwarma from the Hama bus station so we just try to keep moving, but we still walk for an hour through the columns. 

We reach the end, the sun is setting, and Hassam greets us and drives us home, pointing out a few more interesting things on the way. There are a number of Bedouins who are living in tents very near to the highway and within spitting distance of the nearest town. It's not exactly the romantic image I had in mind when thinking of the Bedouin lifestyle.
It's been a wonderful and fascinating day, but now I am ready for bed. As we pull up to the hotel, Matthew quips, "Wouldn't it be funny if I threw up in the car?" Hilarious. We come inside, Laura greets Abdullah, the proprietor, but I carry on because I need to lie down. I fiddle with the keys for a moment, unlock and open the door and Matthew walks straight to the bathroom and from the doorway vomits directly into the toilet without having said a word like, "Hurry!" or "Quick!" or "I am feeling a little nauseous, could you open the door right away and let me inside?" I am thinking of a book entitled '101 Good Reasons to Leave the Toilet Seat Up'. So far I have one entry.
Matthew and I are not interested in food this evening so Laura goes out and gets some felafels and bananas and brings them back for her and Jonas. We watch some stupid television show, then call it a night.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Royal Museum of Luang Prabang, Laos

Here's a story from our travels with a bit of a Portage connection.

April 9th
Luang Prabang

We spent an hour this morning after breakfast (Scandinavian Bakery, Luang Prabang Division) looking for another place to stay as the nice young fellow at our place told us they are fully booked starting on the 11th because of the New Year holiday. We look at almost a dozen before finally finding one that has a room available, so we'll move there on that day. It's not nearly as nice, and doesn't have air conditioning, but it does have a room available. 
Funny story. We check out a place a bit earlier, and he has a room available but it's $45 per night - cheap by European standards, but expensive for us here. It's a fabulous room though, large with four comfy beds and a nice area to lounge in with a low table and cushions. We decide to treat ourselves and will take it for a couple of nights. On the way out, after paying a deposit, the guy says, Oh, and we are booked on the 12th so this room is not available. But you just booked us in for the 11th and the 12th. Yes. So we can stay in that room. Yes, on the 11th, but not the 12th. But you just booked us for the 11th and 12th. Yes, I forget.....pause. Well, give us our money back then. Okay, can I see your receipt? Give me the money now, then you'll get your receipt, joker. 
That's pretty funny, isn't it? Usually it's hard to be funny when it's 40 degrees outside, but this guy makes it seem so easy.
Okay, so we eventually find a room, then go get a fruit shake and cool off in our air conditioned room. After lunch we were off to the Royal Palace Museum which was interesting in its lack of opulence, given that it is a Royal Palace and all. The highlight of the visit for us was the room containing all the gifts from other nations to the monarchy, back in the 70's, 1975 I think. The silver articles from Cambodia were numerous enough to fill a large china cabinet. From India, loads of ivory items and a large silver disc bearing a number of Hindu images. The USA had a similar amount of things, including a ridiculously hideous model of the moon lander, but also a piece of the moon on a plaque bearing Richard Nixon's name. Just goes to show that it doesn't matter how much money and power you have, it still can't buy you a personality that the rest of the world can live with. 
It also goes to show how history continues to repeat itself.
China had given, among other things, the most gorgeous ivory balls that had carved ivory balls inside. The largest was made up of 22 balls, all carved, all moveable, all progressively smaller inside one another. Amazing.
Denmark gave some nice stuff, Australia a boomerang, and some smart gold containers.
Canada's gift to the monarchy? A Mayfair plate. Seetusee glass, I think we call it. 
Maybe that's only funny to Portagers, I don't know, but it was sure funny to us. Laugh out loud funny, in fact. So loud that the museum attendant came over to make sure we weren't up to something sinister.
We pointed to the plate and said that as beautiful as that plate was, we might have to go out and get something else to add to Canada's contribution.
A seetusee plate in Laos. Awesome.
After that we walked down the river to Wat Xieng Thong and had a look around. Then we just wandered around the town, occasionally getting sprayed or doused with water. Earlier in the day, Matthew made a squirter out of his water bottle by cutting a hole in the cap. One group of twenty year old guys approached Matthew, motioning that they were going to spray him and Matthew squirted the main assailant in the face and ran before the guy could get him. He and all his friends laughed at Matthew's sneakiness. We pretended we were not associated with Matthew in any way.
Supper at a nice riverside place but Laura ordered a papaya salad that was short on papaya and long on hot. Inedible hot. I gave it my best, but was easily defeated.
Then a walk though part of the night market, and then back to the room to relax a bit before bedtime. Our TV has some awful but addictive games on it so we play for a while before getting to sleep.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

I Love Art Membership Drive

Bulk Mail: Canada

Dear Resident,
I am writing to alert you that you do not have an adequate amount of artwork in your home. This means you may be vulnerable to ridicule from a variety of sources - your friends, your neighbours, meter readers, your internet posse who sees your webcam shots with barren walls in the background, your mom, virtually anyone to whom you allow a view into your home! - and once you've been branded a loser, it's difficult to escape your own very public hell.

Without an 'I Love Art!' membership, you'll be forced to create and frame your own artwork, which not only takes time, but could cost you more money in the long run. With our plan, you only pay for the art you buy, not the mistakes you make, and you don't have to do anything. No late night trips to the do it yourself frame shop, no more velvet elvis¹⁰ doodle art, no more bad taste.

Sample art from the I Love Art Collection

Even if you don't have friends who visit, the day may be getting closer when you will. After all, visits from friends happen all the time, from culture to culture, even among men! Every year, 8 out of 10 people talk about art and its impact on your disenfranchisement from your community. It's a documented fact - right now 8 out of 10 people are talking about you and your fridge-cum-living room art.

Because of the urgency, I've arranged an in home art consultation for you, on very favourable terms. First, buy any art valued at over $1000 and we will waive the consultation fee. Secondly, buy any five (5) pieces of art with a total value over $2500 and we guarantee¹ that the letter carrier will stop laughing at you. And if that weren't enough, we will also certify that your home is free from WMDs. 

Normally, this sort of protection and aggrandizement would cost a small Swiss fortune, but if you join now you will save $25 off your 'I Love Art' Membership. For everyone, friend, family or otherwise, that you also enrol (membership paid in full) in an 'I Love Art' Membership, we will pay you $10 in special 'I Love Art' currency to be used against future purchases! Plus, you can use² your 'I Love Art' membership card at retailers across³ Canada⁴ to save even more face! Remember, coverage costs what can be measured in pennies⁵ per day. Isn't your peace of mind worth at least that?

Honestly, when you look at all the features available to you, your 'I Love Art' Membership literally⁶ costs you nothing⁷ compared to what you get in return. Look⁸ for travel discounts at participating merchants worldwide.

Please, for the sake of your own personal status, join now! If you do, we'll throw in the 'I'm Not Responsible!!' Card, which you can flip out at parties at your friends' homes, when someone questions the choice of artwork on the bathroom walls. It is guaranteed to exonerate you from all culpability in your friend's bad taste. Should anyone accuse you of artistic interference in your friend's choices, have them call our 1-800 number listed on the back of the card, where we will unashamedly back you up.

Join now! Remember, good taste isn't free. It's essential.®


'I Love Art' Executive

1. Should the Letter Carrier still laugh, we guarantee to get him/her put on the route from hell. Then he/she'll stop laughing.
2. Often, the barcode and/or magnetic strip on the back of our cards can confuse Interac devices, allowing access to accounts not normally under your direct control. This may not be legal in some jurisdictions.
3. Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nunavut, and New Guinea.
4. We are aware it's not "officially" in Canada, but have "associates" working to change that as we speak.
5. For argument's sake, 100 pennies = 1 CDN. 1000 pennies = 10 CDN.
6. Did we say literally? We meant 'figuratively'.
7. Does not include (our) cost of living adjustments, prescriptions or tobacco.
8. You can look all you want, but you won't find anything outside of #3.
9. It's really a misnomer these days, isn't it? Kind of like the word terrorist. I mean if everyone is a terrorist, the word sort of loses all meaning. If a credit card company charging you 19.75% interest can sign a "Pay Immediately" statement 'Sincerely,' well then in that same spirit, we are being sincere. Definitively.
10. We are sincerely sorry. We thought of this one during the proofing process. Velvet Elvis is a bad idea seven times out of ten. We help you avoid the pitfalls of when and how often. Velvet Conan, on the other hand, is another story.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Where's the Beach?

One of the best pieces of advice we received from our travel guru, Max Johnston at Great Canadian Travel, was that if we planned to be travelling for nine months, we would need to take occasional vacations.


I wasn't entirely sure I had heard him right, but as soon as he said, "Maybe on a Greek island," I was sold. I think he carried on a bit after that, but my mind was already filling with ideas and possibilities. 

His belief, which through first hand experience became our belief, was that travelling as we were planning on doing could be gruelling at times. We were not staying in five star resorts, no one was picking us up at the airport, nobody was arranging our day to day activities, and we weren't really quite sure what kind of beds we would be sleeping on, given our budget, or even where we might be sleeping, as on many occasions even that very night.
Max's first suggestion was an island by the name of Chios (which I previously talked about on the 275 Days Facebook page). "After six weeks, it might be a good idea to have a bit of a rest," he said, noting that once we got into the Middle East, there would be one more layer of, not difficulty, but something. He didn't actually put it into words, but we recognized that things would just begin to build at some point. The language barriers, the time away from home, the lack of additional supports beyond immediate family, always searching for accommodations, restaurants, bus stations, trains, always looking, always processing, always seeing new things, new people, new places, day after day. It was exhilarating, but without proper preparation, it would have been exhausting. We didn't fully understand before we left, but thankfully we took his advice.

Before we left home, I had booked a house on Chios Island for two weeks at the end of September, and with our itinerary in mind, had my eyes on a few places we might try to stop at throughout our journey. Little did I know how infatuated we would become with apartment living, which led to the rental of an apartment in Astros, Greece, three weeks before we would land on Chios. The place in Astros was a five minute drive from our first beach experience, pleasant, uncrowded, and very buoyant, salty water. We spent seven days on the Peloponnese, two of which were dedicated to that beach, sort of a primer for our time on Chios.

Developing the Drip Castle technique

It was in Limnos, a tiny hamlet on the west coast of Chios, that the real vacation began. 

Early evening on the beach

We saw exactly this many clouds in Greece

Incredible rock formations on Limnos Beach

We spent every day on the beach, reading about Turkey, thinking about where we had been, and just plain having fun. At one point Jonas said, "I'm tired of going to the beach every day." He joined us later.
It wasn't for another two months that we managed to get to the beach again, this time at the small community of Dahab, Egypt, on the east side of the Sinai Peninsula. Although we planned to do a trek out to Mt. Sinai to walk in the footsteps of Moses, the allure of the easy life in Dahab had too great a hold. The snorkelling (so I was told) was fantastic, colourful, beautiful fish and coral reefs just footsteps from the shoreline in some places. Laura popped out of the water a couple of times just to shout, "Wow!"

Hanging out at The Islands at Dahab

Morning from El Salaam Camp

An afternoon at the Blue Hole

Koshary at Koshary House ( I think it was called) for lunch and supper kept us satisfied, and milkshakes at Al Capone's Restaurant (another story) making for relaxing afternoons by the water's edge, looking out to Saudi Arabia across the Gulf of Aqaba.
If you're in to diving, check out this video (not mine) posted on Vimeo.
We managed to extricate ourselves from Dahab's grip after four or five days, before we threw ourselves into the smog and congestion and fun of Cairo and Luxor.
Prior to and for the first few months of our trip, we spent a great deal of time thinking about what to do over Christmas and New Year's. A chance meeting in late November with Al and Maggie on an overnight trip with Bedouins in the Wadi Rum in Jordan provided the answer. One thought had been Goa, sort of the go-to beach destination in India. Al and Maggie suggested an alternative for us in little known Gokarna, which they said was what Goa used to be, fifteen or twenty years earlier. I started hunting down a place to stay, but it wasn't until December 12th that I confirmed our room at Hotel Gokarna International, for two weeks starting on Christmas Eve.

Walking home from Kudle Beach, that's the town beach ahead of us

Those two weeks would prove critical to our piece of mind as it would be more than two months before we'd have an opportunity to relax like that again. Gokarna was the perfect place for us, easy going, very beautiful, great local, small, family run restaurants, and as a bonus, remarkably inexpensive.

View of the town beach

Kudle Beach has several small restaurants to choose from so you never have to leave

Our New Year's Eve celebration meal at the Pai Restaurant, complete with lassis and desserts for everyone, came to the kingly sum of about $10.25 Canadian.

The lineups start early for a table at the Pai

I think we had twelve of our fourteen breakfasts at Mahalaxmi's. Yet one more reason I want to go back to India, to sit on the covered rooftop at Mahalaxmi's at breakfast time and have another lassi with my muesli while staring out at the Arabian Sea.

Breakfast view from the Mahalaxmi rooftop

As we learned our way around Gokarna, figured out just how exactly the bank machines worked (don't follow the instructions on the machine itself), discovered a place on the way to the beach that sold fresh cinnamon buns, and found the most beautiful path to the beach, life became very peaceful. It was the perfect place to power up before plunging into the chaos (and I mean that in the most positive way) of India.

Don't leave your bags unattended on the beach

Colourful Kudle Beach

Walking home from Kudle Beach in the evening

Ohm Beach, a twenty minute walk from Kudle Beach

Beachgoers curious as to what the blond kid is doing

Eight weeks after leaving Gokarna, we hopped on a plane in Kolkata that was bound for the shiny, shiny country of Thailand, and three weeks after that, found ourselves willing captives of the Hong Di Guesthouse in Mui Ne, Vietnam, on the South China Sea. Again, it was a place to wind down, and take time to process all of the excitement, the frustrations, and the thrill, while recovering from the overnight busses, the two dollar beds, the pace of life on the road.
Early morning in Mui Ne

View from our table at breakfast

Fishermen were busy throughout the day

Another five weeks of movement, and then we made our way to Koh Chang, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. This was our last vacation, our last week in fact, before we would fly home. We did a lot of reflecting during that week, and that beach on Chios Island seemed like a lifetime ago. At the Treehouse Lodge on Long Beach, there was nothing around for miles, no distractions, and very few people.

We had cold showers in the open air bath, we laid in the shallow water as the tide rolled out, we played with the cats, we relaxed and we dreamed of home.

One of our two beach huts on the water's edge

Want to take an extended vacation? Make sure you have a holiday or two while you are away.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Dining in Damascus

We were going to Damascus. It sounded very cool, just the name of it.
After one last breakfast at the Riad Hotel, we packed our things, said some goodbyes (to proprietors and fellow travellers), and slowly made our way out the front door. It always seemed as though there were more taxis on the street than people, and today was no exception. I approached the closest one and said, "Bus station." The driver pulled over, named a price that was agreeable, then got out and loaded our bags for us. Unlike in Aleppo, the bus station in Hama is almost deserted. A young, well dressed man approached us and said, "Damascus?"
"Yes," I replied warily. Why do my spider senses only tingle when we're not being scammed? "How much and when does it leave?"
"Ninety pounds each and four minutes."
We were on the road in ten minutes. Seven dollars for four people to travel two hundred and thirty kilometres.
We were let out in the middle of the gravel parking lot at Harasta bus station on the north side of Damascus. Our bus must have been one of the few today as we were immediately surrounded by a gaggle of taxi drivers.
"Where are you going?"
"Sultan Hotel."
"Ah, Sultan," said twenty guys in unison. At least they knew what I was talking about.
"Five hundred pounds," said one guy, hopeful that we were poorly versed in both mathematics and geography. Another guy, my height and several pounds heavier, grabbed as many of our bags as he could get his hands on, and said, "Come with me, sir," dismissing all the other drivers. When I asked him how much, he said no problem and just walked faster. Had I been thinking, I would have noticed that my spider senses were on lunch break, the clear signal that there was something sinister afoot. But at the end of a long bus ride, with that typical stale taste in my mouth and an itch to get to our hotel as expediently as possible, I let my guard down.
As he put the first bag in the trunk, I said again, "How much?"
"Four hundred." 
"I was thinking maybe two fifty." Had I read the guide book more carefully, I might have been thinking one hundred or one fifty. But I did not read that section of the guidebook.
"Three hundred, sir," he said, very politely.
Somehow we eventually settled on two fifty, and off we went. We arrived at the Sultan without further incident or conversation, two hundred and fifty pounds in my hand securing our satisfaction. At the front desk, I explained that we had emailed, and yes, they had a room that was actually for five, but they were prepared to give it to us for a special rate. Thirty four hundred Syrian pounds. Yowzers, that's sixty eight bucks. Rhymes with sucks. We checked out the suite, two rooms and a bathroom, but it was just an average, not entirely unattractive looking hotel room. It's not bad, but it's not a $68 per night room. We paid twenty bucks at the Riad, so we told them it was just too much for us. Their response suggested that there would be plenty of bodies to fill that room later today, and as such they wished us well on our way out.
We walked to the backpacker area, about a kilometre away, and found the Al Rabie Hotel. We looked at two rooms and chose the larger one that had four beds and a couch, and our own bathroom,* for sixteen hundred pounds. The rooms were a bit unkempt, and the place was clearly past its prime. It had been a family home at one time, very fancy, with a large courtyard, and many pretty rooms with marble floors and fifteen foot ceilings. Laura described it as a crumbling palace. More like a crumbled palace, but it had a certain charm that we could easily appreciate.

*The bathroom on the other hand, was completely charmless. It was about three by five feet (perfect for one of our new Turkish carpets), and the shower head, as in Aleppo, came directly out of the ceiling. Almost directly over the toilet, again. It was more like a shower stall that happened to have a sink and a toilet in it. We were sort of used to the shower head out of the ceiling/bathroom as a shower stall thing, but this place was taking it to a whole other level. The sink had a tap on it that looked like something you might find in the boiler room of a submarine. The kicker was that when you turned it on, more water ended up on the floor beneath the sink than in the actual sink itself. Maybe it's the foot shower, Jonas said. And the sink was so tiny that when I brushed my teeth I had to press my face to the mirror and turn sideways to spit. Mind you, if I accidentally spit on the floor, I just had to turn on the tap. Funniest of all was that I hit my head on the shower head the first time in there, then stepped in the puddle under the sink that the previous person (Laura!) left behind. I think this is one of those times where words alone could not allow you to completely appreciate such a marvel. And yes, it was as bad as it looks.

No, it was worse.
Despite my misgivings about the bathroom, we got settled quickly, dried our feet, and went out to find a restaurant for supper. We ended up at the Al Kamal Restaurant, and a fancier place I have never frequented in my life. With great respect, we were escorted to the second floor and seated next to a large window, giving us a fine view out on to the busy street. The aroma on both floors was tantalizing, making our mouths water. There were guys in gold suit jackets everywhere, some waiting on diners and others who appeared to be just waiting for someone to whom they could attend. We asked our gold suited waiter what it was that we could smell. He thoughtfully looked up and to one side before replying, "Perhaps the lentil soup?" We ordered the lentil soup.
Waiting for our order, we spent the time watching the action outside the window - cars, busses, taxis, and pedestrians all jockeying for position on the road. Our efficient waiter came with our soup, and neatly placed everything in front of us - the soup, some little pita chips, and cut up lemons in separate bowls. As he straightened up, I gave him the, "What now?" sort of look. Now, it was subtle, but I clearly heard the air as he exhaled through his nose, the way a zealot might do to a heathen who was unsure of how the ceremony should proceed. He grabbed my chips and crushed them in his hands (not a metaphor) and sprinkled them over the soup, then squeezed a piece of lemon over it all, then worked his arms and hands into a position that looked like an Olympic gymnast completing his floor routine.
"Enjoy," he said, and off he went. The soup was even better than his performance. Then borouk, sort of a cheese filled pastry thing, and then roast beef. I hadn't had red meat like that since we left home. Fabulous.

After dinner, we rested up at the palace for a bit, then went out to an internet café to finalize some accommodations in Jordan for the following week.

Matthew and Laura went for a snack while Jonas and I were on a couple computers (that kid would give up a limb for computer time), then later on the way home, Matthew needed to stop at a small shop for a chocolate bar. There were loads of these kinds of places, smaller than a mall kiosk, burrowed in at the street level of aging buildings, all selling sweet and salty snacks, sometimes bananas. Matthew selected a bar that looked like a Syrian version of Twix, and asked the guy behind the small counter how much. 
"Ten pounds (twenty cents)," said the young man.
Without taking his eyes off the man, Matthew took another bar in a manner that suggested he was afraid of getting caught, then handed the man twenty pounds. The young man gave Matthew a big smile. "How do you like Syria?" he asked us. Wonderful, we replied together.
The kids ran about, back and forth, while Laura and I walked slowly, hand in hand, down the tiny lanes back to the hotel.

We did some journalling, admired our bathroom one last time, and went to bed.