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.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How to Operate a Rickshaw

After a rather relaxing, although relatively sterile, group tour, we arrived back in Kolkata in the evening. The company bus dropped us off at our original departure point, Priya Cinema, and we bid good bye to new friends made during our time together seeking out the person-eating tigers (I think they mostly ate men, but I don't think they would be particularly gender specific) in the mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans National Park.

We wrangled a cab to take us back to our hotel, the appropriately named Tourist Hotel on Sudder Street. There was a lot of traffic, not an uncommon occurrence in Kolkata or apparently to our driver, so at convenient intervals, usually intersections, we simply drove on the other side of the road. In Canada, as in many other countries I'm sure, such action would have resulted in death, dismemberment, bad feelings, and maybe some fisticuffs. In India, opposing traffic simply accommodated our oncoming vehicle. What was once five rows of traffic in four lanes became five rows of traffic in three and a half lanes of space, our taxi occupying the remaining half. We were actually driving on the other side of the concrete median for some time down Jawaharlal Nehru Road, not an insignificant street. Fortunately, the constant bleating of the horn warned anyone who was listening that we meant business, and were not about to be chased across the median by five columns of onrushing steel boxes
The following day we had planned to go see a movie called Jodha Akbar as the posters on display looked pretty cool. 

Unfortunately that cool movie was this day replaced by some lame Hollywood shoot'em up. With some time to wander, we take to the back streets and within moments strike up a conversation with a middle aged man with an unshaven face and a warm smile. We talked for over half an hour in the blazing hot sun. As I was wearing pants, it was none too comfortable. I could feel the sweat running down the backs of my legs, sweat was dripping down the man's forehead, but we were so engaged we just kept on talking. Arranged marriages, Canada's cold weather (I love how people react when I say, "forty BELOW zero"), how much my camera cost, family life in India vs. in Canada and how priorities were different here. Meanwhile Jonas and Matthew spent some time trying to coax the dogs out from behind some scooters. Be careful, my eyes told them.

All in all, we must have been pretty entertaining as by the end a dozen or so people had gathered around us to listen in. The man eventually got around to inviting us to his shop, but he seemed to have a much more genuine nature than some other 'shop owners' and feels a bit more legit, so we followed. 

We headed down a slender, crowded alley, hidden from the sun by buildings and tarpaulins. Why couldn't we have talked here? my body said. We were barely a hundred yards from the Newmarket area [a mall and newer stores] but we might as well have been a hundred years away. Tiny lanes filled with authentic shops,  men squatting, crushing cinnamon in metal containers with thick plungers, other men using ice picks to drag blocks of ice from here to there, spice shops lining both sides of one lane so that it smelled otherworldly.

"Remember this smell, " Laura said to the boys, "because you can't take a picture of it."
Matthew immediately pulled twenty rupees out of his pocket and bought a small bag of cinnamon. His clothes will smell delicious when we get home.

Matthew was standing beside one of the cinnamon men, and I motioned to the man with my camera. He gave an agreeable nod, and I put the camera to my face. This is going to be an amazing drawing, I breathed, as I clicked the shutter. He smiled in a way that made me forget where I was, forget what we were doing, and I could only see the world as a drawing with the cinnamon man.

Laura bought a bag of a masala tea from the friendly shop owner and he invited us to take a photo of him and his son. Everyone posed for the picture, and he handed us an address and asked that we send the photo to him. We lost the address a few days later, but in typical Canadian fashion, are now bound by guilt to return to that alley in Kolkata one day and present him with the photo.

After a little more meandering we came across a man and his old fashioned (it may very well have been quite new, it just seemed old to us) running rickshaw. He facility with English was far superior to our acuity in any Indian language or dialect, but we managed to have a great deal of fun. He talked/mimed about how the city of Kolkata was going to ban the use of his rickshaw in favour of cycle rickshaws, as the running rickshaw was deemed to be "inhumane." He explained/showed, with the help of others who had now gathered to see what those dopey Canadians were up to, how it was much harder to to operate they cycle version when you actually had to pull people around, which was sort of the whole point of the job. He got Laura to hold the handles and he jumped into the seat and motioned for Laura to pull him around. 

"Wow, this is easy!" she shouted.

Laura was immediately convinced as his rickshaw was perfectly balanced and easy to manoeuvre. With bodies loaded on to the cycle rickshaw, it was very hard to pull, particularly in the congested traffic of downtown Kolkata. I noticed that he was barefoot and made motions noting how my pampered North American feet would not last a minute on theses roads. We shared a lot of smiles and laughter.

On the way back to the hotel, we came across a bookstore that sold only computer books. Jonas found a book on HTML and CSS programming. I told him that if he wanted it, we would be happy to buy it for him, but I certainly wasn't going to be carrying it anywhere. Despite the fact that books printed for the Asian market are a fair bit cheaper than in North America, the shopkeeper knocked ten percent off the price when I told him it was a birthday present for Jonas. When he gave me change, a quick calculation revealed that he gave an additional discount as well. Before leaving the store, we met up with Ian, a friend we met while in Varanasi ten days earlier, and talked for a while about our experiences over the last while.

In the late afternoon, we we checked out of our hotel. I handed a ten rupee note to the porter type guy who was standing by the door, another to the kid that cleaned the halls who appeared moments after the ten rupee note, and another to the old man sitting on the front steps because the kid brought me out and presented the man as another worthy recipient of my change. I wasn't sure what the man's role was in the operation of the hotel, but he was on the steps all the time and appeared to see everything.

We were booked into a four bed room at Hotel Airways. We were flying to Bangkok early in the morning, and were told it would be wise to be closer to the airport as morning traffic could be unpredictable. From the Tourist Hotel, it was a long drive to Hotel Airways, close to an hour, even in the light evening traffic. It was well after dark when we arrived, but things at Hotel Airways were somewhat amiss. Our first clue was them showing us a small closet which contained a single bed. At the desk again, Laura showed the clerk her name and the number "4" written beside it. 
"There are four of us," Laura said, pointing to each of us in turn.
We are walked over to their "sister" hotel but they wanted to give us a double room for twice the originally quoted price. We tried to convince the clerk to understand that it might be in their best interests to at least attempt to accommodate us, but he just stood there looking uncomfortable. We asked him to call the manager, but he said he couldn't….ahem….get a hold of him. We did our best to negotiate and he relented and offered us a single and a double room for more money again, but I wasn't feeling comfortable being split up in a place that conducted business like that. We probably went back and forth for forty five minutes, but to no avail, our voices steadily rising throughout, he wouldn't budge. Finally, we decided to have a look at the double room he offered earlier. 
"It's already rented," he said.
It was at that point that I suddenly began to see things in a clearer light. We were not getting a room here. We had a few choice words for the guys now gathered behind the desk, told Jonas and Matthew to get their backpacks on, and we headed out the door. We walked about ten feet to the hotel next door, and immediately got a three bed room, tiny and unkempt. I think if we had known how easy it would be, we would have been here an hour ago. The stupid thing was, after we got checked in at Hotel Continental (is that hair on my pillow??), it was after nine o'clock, and we would need to be up at three o'clock to head to the airport.

When I look back on that night, a lot of the nuttier stuff that had gone on over the previous seven months comes to mind, and I am amazed at how well Jonas and Matthew have dealt with things. While we argued our case without the hotel clerk, quite strongly at some points, they sat calmly and read a book. While I took my complaint with a rickshaw driver out of the rickshaw and into a nearby shop, they sat and watched the colours of Varanasi. As Laura and I scoured the Cairo airport looking for any flight headed towards India, they sat alone with our bags, reading, guarding, playing knuckles. They placed their faith in us, and it's as though all our time on the road had prepared them for everything they would face, and they just took it in stride. Everything had worked itself out to that point, and judging by their expressions, everything would continue to work. They believed it, they believed in us, and that fills me with great joy.