Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

You can contact us at werkingwells (at) gmail . com

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cairo Egypt: More than Mummies, Mohammed & the Military

I know this is going to sound kind of odd, but after spending hours in the neighborhoods of Cairo, in the markets and the old Islamic part of town,

it’s easy to forget that we came for the Pyramids and ancient Egyptian sights, since the more modern (only 2000+ years old areas) are just as compelling to visit.

Cairo is one of the more developed cities in Africa, but it too has woes similar to many of the other places we’ve seen in Asia. Traffic is horrendous and the Egyptians love their horns as much as the Vietnamese. Trash is dumped in piles along the highways and side roads, often seem to have been built in the times of Cleopatra and not maintained since, are mostly dirt paths filled with random bits of cobblestone and the dirt and grime of a couple thousand years. Even in the crisp, cool mornings of winter, a haze settles around the city, obscuring the view from our room of a huge mosque overlooked by the hilltop citadel. What we’ve noticed the most is the number of men in this city. It seems that for every woman we see, there are twenty men, often hanging out in small groups, talking and drinking glasses of tea. They’re not really menacing, but we wonder, do they have jobs? And if they do have jobs, there is always the desire for a little baksheesh, the tipping economy that thrives here, since wages are so low.

We’ve been here during an interesting time. A couple of days ago Condoleezza Rice was visiting and we caught part of her press conference on CNN. The bird flu is making front-page headlines since there is a rumor that people dumping dead birds in the Nile have introduced the virus into the water supply, so people are making a run on the grocery stores for bottled water. We haven’t noticed activity that’s much different from any other major city, but have kept away from the live birds we’ve see at almost all the markets in Asia and Africa.

Security is paramount here, since the Egyptians do not want to see a huge drop in tourism should their be another terrorist attack like there were in Luxor in 1997 or Sharm el-Sheikh last year. It seems to us the second-highest employer in Cairo, behind taxi drivers, are military police and guards. We’ve seen riot police line up at an anti-Denmark rally, guys in flak vests standing on the roofs of buildings next to our hotel holding machine guns, police on camels at strategic points near the pyramids, and at every tourist sight we visit we go through at least one metal detector. This level of security is not for Rice’s visit, or for a special event, but a sign that Egypt cannot be lax in these troubled times.

Lest we forget the glories of the Pharaonic times, we went to the amazing Egyptian Museum yesterday and gazed in awe at all the stuff that was crammed in there. With little interpretive signage, it was like stumbling upon the greatest attic in the world, where you could view King Tut’s tomb next to a 12-meter-high pair of statues of Amenhotep III and his wife Tiy, whose reign represented the apex of ancient Egypt’s power and prestige.

We leave Egypt today for our next stop, Munich Germany! Actually, we just fly into Munich and take a train to Bickenbach where my friend Ute lives. We will stay in Germany for about a week, but we need to settle down after this difficult, chaotic, crazy month of traveling and plan to rent a flat in Paris for a few weeks and just sit and smell the bread and pastries. Europe here we come…..

Monday, February 20, 2006

Cairo Egypt: Wowing the toursits for 4000 years and counting

Here’s the picture that we’ve been waiting six months, four days and six hours to post on our blog. Actually, we’ve waited a lifetime to take it, since no other sight in the world has motivated so many (including ourselves) to get up off the couch and take in the wonders of the world. The Great Pyramids of Giza, just off the freeway southwest of downtown Cairo Egypt!

In addition to the pyramids, we’ve strolled in the oldest parts of Cairo, the Coptic Christian neighborhood, where the holy family stayed when they escaped Judea,

and admired a Greek cemetery festooned with laundry from the people living in the crypts.

We are kept agog staring at the ancient, so brashly colliding with the modern, like the guy pulling his donkey driven cart and chatting on his cell phone, or the huge dingy apartment blocks all topped with huge satellite dishes.

What keeps us shaking our heads is how familiar this world seems to us, even in its foreign-ness, perhaps because we are entering the ancient lands of Western civilization, which so much of our mythology, psychology and history are built upon.

It doesn’t hurt at all that the incredible warmth and friendliness of the Egyptians is also making us feel welcomed. For the first time on this trip, Dylan is seen as a novelty. In fact, a touring group of Muslim school girls made more of a fuss about her--squealing, gathering around and pinching her cheeks--than they did for the 1300-year-old church we had all come thousands of miles to see.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Mumbai (Bombay) India: Making a Ripple on the Subcontinent

Okay, let’s get this out in the open right from the start. We’ve barely seen enough of India to talk about it. There are some cities, and even some countries, where four days are enough to give you a general idea about the place, but not India. We had originally planned on being here for five weeks, to see the ghats of Varanasi, the Taj Mahal and most importantly the rat temple at Bikaner, but after spending five weeks in China and Tibet, we weren’t sure that we had the stamina to “tackle” another huge and incredibly difficult country. And so coupled with the facts that we were justly worried about Dylan being crushed in the crowds or constantly touched, and had a very cautious reading from my friend Ruby the psychic, warning us about a particularly unsavory character we might cross paths with in India, we didn’t need much more encouragement to cut back our plans from 5 weeks to 4 days, essentially making this a stop-over on our way to Egypt. So we realize that we’ve just stuck a dainty toe into the huge ocean that is India.

But this is not to say that we’ve haven’t gained some impressions. We decided that since we had so little time, we would take the rich colonial route and hire a car and driver to show us the sights and take us shopping.

We’ve gazed in awe at the huge Gateway of India that sits on the edge of the city, which in the days before airplanes was the traditional welcoming harbour for visitors and conquerors alike.

We’ve watched the washmen at the Dhobi Ghats pounding thousands of pieces of laundry while trains pass by, packed so tight that men hang off the sides.

We’ve seen our first Jain temple, and walked through the hanging gardens, looking over the edge for the bodies laid out by the Parsis, who use the circling carrion birds to dispose of their dead. We’ve visited the rooms where Mahatma Gandhi stayed when he visited the city,

and we’ve even been given a blessing by a “priest.”

India is a land of contrasts. It is one of our most expensive stops and we are paying more here for a hotel than any other place in the world so far, yet outside our doors are two million citizens who are without a place to even go to the bathroom. They don’t even have access to the public latrines found in the slums, and have to run to the train tracks and do their “business” between the constantly traveling trains. It has one of the oldest living cultures in the world, yet cell phones and advertisements for financial services rule the landscape. And among the dirt and haze and grime, women in saris and salawar kameez manage to look fresh and polished, adding some beauty to this beleaguered city.

India has managed to enchant, frustrate, tease, and pain us, often all in the same moment. That is her spell and we have been smitten. For us, India will have to warrant its own trip, when we are fresh and not so weary. But if we have any say about it, we will be back, because if there is any place on this planet left for an adventure, we know we will find it here.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Bangkok Thailand: A Royal Valentine

We’re back in Bangkok, on a two-day stopover en route to Bombay India. Although we didn’t plan for this, we are spending yet another holiday at the Nai Lert Park Swissotel. We celebrated Halloween here, and today we got to see how the Thais celebrate Valentine’s Day: think lots of roses and teddy bears, hmmm, just like the US.

Besides visiting the Erawan Temple and doing some shopping, we were privy to a visit by the Crown Prince of Thailand, HRH Maha Vajiralongkorn his wife HRH Princess Mom Srirasmi Mahidol na Ayuthaya and infant son HRH Prince Dipangkorn Rasmijoti who are the Thai equivalent to Chuck, Di and Wills. Seems they are having a romantic Valentine’s getaway at the Nai Lert with their entire entourage, including the royal poodle, who was dressed in a fetching pink and white striped sweater and was carried in by an army officer. It was a pretty exciting affair with scores of police, secret service and pomp and circumstance. We’re staying on the same floor as the royal family, so in case we see them again I need to work on my curtsey, which has all the grace of a bobbing goose!

Modern Siem Reap Cambodia: The Ghosts of Angkor

The Cambodians believe in the supernatural world; there are spirit houses scattered across Siem Reap, like there are in Thailand, except here the ghosts are restless. They still haunt the people, struggling as best they can in a world that has been topsy-turvy for them since the 1970’s.

Unless you know a bit about the history of this ravaged land, it is impossible to understand why the streets are torn up, the sidewalks impassable dirt mounds,

why children walk around in rags begging,

and why women practically engage in fistfights in a competition for your desperately-needed tourist dollars as they hope to sell you a scarf or postcard.

If you have studied southeast Asian history or even watched The Killing Fields, you will remember that on April 17th 1975 the Khmer Rouge, an army of peasants from mostly rural areas of Cambodia (under the direction of Pol Pot, a local boy who gained his communist education in Paris), stormed into the capital, Phnom Penh, and proceeded to kill those loyal to the royal family or the United States, and those with any education, including doctors, teachers, journalists, civil servants, scientists, and even those wearing glasses, as it was believed that they were part of the educated “elite.” The only hope of staying alive during that chaotic time was to claim you were a cab driver, and suddenly overnight thousands of Cambodians were claiming they were cab drivers. When the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh there were about two million people in the citunbelievablybly they left behind only 12.

Those not left behind or killed included children, the old and the sick, who were marched into the countryside to work 12-15 hour days in the fields. The Khmer Rouge’s goal was to create an agrarian utopia, where there would be no rich or poor and all of Cambodia would be living off the land. It was one of the most brutal political experiments in the history of the world, which left 2 million dead out of a pre-civil war population of 7 million. For three years, eight months and 21 days the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything the Cambodians held dear, their families (replaced by Angkar, or “the organization”), their land, and their religion. Even the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 to stop the Khmer Rouge didn’t bring peace to Cambodia. Khmerguerrillaserillas, under the continual leadership of Pol Pot and his successors, disrupted life here as recently as 1998.

So what’s left in Siem Reap are signs of a developing country, struggling to rebuild. Easier said than done even if you have an educated or at least experienced work force who understand road building, construction, health care and agriculture, which the Cambodians don’t. There has been some rebuilding here, and the luxury hotels have managed to create an oasis of calm outside of the city, but for the rest, it is like no place we have ever seen.
A typical "gas station"

Just a couple interesting things about Cambodia that we didn’t realize before coming here. This is the only country we have visited that uses the US dollar more than its own local currency, the reil. The reil seems so greatly devalued that you can’t buy much with it. We’ve gotten some as change when we use our dollars (they have no US coins) but find we can’t buy anything with them because the prices are so high.

I haven’t seen a working ATM either. This is one of the most heavily landmined countries in the world, and it’s all too common to see people walking (limping?) around who are missing limbs.

Another thing is that our hotel, a fairly simple clean guesthouse, is run by a bunch of teenage boys. Actually, they may be older but, the point is, they look like teenagers, and there is no one working here that looks like a 40-60 year adult. Come to think of it, we haven’t seen too many around here. Everyone looks like they are under 30 or over 70, it seems an entire generation has been lost.

I hope that the tourist dollars can help Cambodians to become self sufficient in their own country, but I’m dubious that will soon happen. We spent US$80 for 2 three-day passes to visit Angkor, which is managed by Sokimex Petroleum Company, which takes the majority of the money. The luxury hotels (which frankly we would have rather stayed at) are owned by foreign countries and a couple of the construction projects we’ve seen have had signs that Korean, Japanese, or European ccontrollingave the controllng stake.

In a previous post I alluded to the killing fields, which were what the areasPenhside of Phnom Phen specifically, and more generally the entire country, was known as. While Andy and I expected to see some pretty incredible sights on this trip, and knew we would come across people far poorer than any you would find in the United States, I think we were unprepared for what modern-day Cambodia offers. We can’t walk around and constantly think of what we’ve seen in Cambodia and not go crazy, but we will be haunted by this sad, beautiful country for a long time to come.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Ancient Siem Reap Cambodia: The Ghosts of Angkor

Cambodia is a haunted country. If you listen carefully when the wind blows, you can hear the ghosts calling out, telling ancient tales. If you pause you can see the ghosts everywhere, in the eyes of the 40 year old who survived the Killing Fields, and on the bas reliefs that are glorified at Angkor Wat.

Modern Cambodia is depending on Ancient Cambodia to rescue the country from its past. The hope is that tourists coming into the country specifically to see Angkor Wat will help by bringing in dollars (and in turn infrastructure) sorely needed as a life buoy for this once sinking country.

So, like the million other tourist who are predicted to visit Siem Reap this year, we have come to take in the glories of the ancient Kingdom of Cambodia and discover why Angkor Wat is one of the greatest religious monuments in the world (interestingly enough the greatest numbers of tourist come from Korea, and so far we’ve heard as much Korean as Khmer). Ironically in a country surrounded by so much death, it seems fitting that Angkor Wat is not only a temple, but also a mausoleum.

Angkor Wat is the largest and most important of a series of temples that sprawl over an area the size of New York City. At the height of the Khmer kingdom, over a million people lived in this capital city. The temples at Angkor Wat were built over a 500 year period from the 9th century to the 13th century. Although the glories of Angkor Wat were known throughout ancient Asia, they faded into obscurity until they were relatively forgotten by the outside world. Then in 1860’s, a French explorer named Henri Mahout stumbled out of the jungle and happened upon the most amazing sights: huge stone towers, a moat the size of large river, and thousands of statues depicting ancient Hindu gods. Since he publicized the place in Europe, Angkor Wat has been seducing visitors from around the globe. Hopefully these tourists will not to succumb to the same fate as Mahout, who later died of malaria that he contracted on his trip!

While we’ve taken over a 1000 photos, we’ll only bore you with a few of them.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Ho Chi Minh City Viet Nam: Cám ón, ngon lám! (Thank you, that was delicious!)

Before we leave Viet Nam we want to thank our gracious hosts and talk about the amazing food here, which--when we think about it--are two tasks that go hand in hand. Not since Japan have we been so inspired by the food. Viet Nam is a culinary delight. Its food is less spicy than Thai, less greasy than Chinese, and more varied than the ubiquitous chips we’ve had in Australia and New Zealand.

While here, we’ve eaten a lot of pho (pronounced fuh, as in what the fuh….?!?), a Vietnamese staple for any meal. It is a broth with rice noodles and slices of meat, topped with fresh herbs and lime juice. A delicious simple dish.

Pho can be found for as little as 10,000 Vietnamese dong (about 70 US cents) or as much as 25,000 dong (which is about US$1.50) The only difference price brings is that the surroundings at the cheaper places may consist of an open air roadside restaurant, often tacked onto the front of a family’s home, complete with plastic stools and dubious cleanliness,

while the more expensive food comes in an air-conditioned modern setting. At every place the soup’s been great.

Another staple is French bread, a legacy of the occupation, which is sold on nearly every street corner for pennies.

The markets are full of colorful and exotic fruits,

as well as the odd bottle of snake- and scorpion-infused wine, something we’ve not gathered the courage to try.

But we did snack on wild frog legs, which--as you might have guessed--taste like chicken.

I have happy memories of being a guest at Bay’s home in Montana when she made us bahn xeo (an amazing rice pancake eaten inside lettuce leaves and dipped in the ever-present nuc mam, a fermented fish sauce diluted with vinegar, fresh lime and garlic)

and goi (pronounced goy, as in “she went and married herself a nice goy”), a cabbage and chicken salad with mint, basil and other spices. And so she and Lein have treated us to some delicious comfort food.

They even let us help once in a while, like when we made heaps of spring rolls for dinner one day, and six of us were busy wrapping the rolls, while two others fried them in a wok.

The Vietnamese can produce all of this food with some pretty basic supplies. Lein works with a two burner gas cook plate, uses a strong knife for all of her chopping, and has a few plastic colanders where she puts all the prepared vegetables while she cooks.

On our only full day in Saigon we’ve visited the Reunification Palace, which gives an interesting take on the war and has groovy 70’s decoration,

had massages, a haircut (for Andy), and spent hours using the free internet in our room. It’s almost time to check out of the Continental Hotel where we’re staying, also the place where Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. Next stop, Cambodia and the temples of Angkor Wat!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Dalat Vietnam: Paris of the Highlands

Like the French before us, we sought refuge from the relentless heat around Saigon, and so decided that a field trip to the highlands was in order. It’s a 6 ½ hour drive, on dusty roads, crammed with motorbikes, buses belching out black fumes, and cows wandering alongside, but the rewards of the cool crisp air, gorgeous flowers and semi-relaxed pace makes Dalat well worth the drive.

We stayed at a Vietnamese government run hotel that had an incredible flower garden, and we woke to a view of bougainvillea spilling over the roof and wide valleys dotted with red roofed homes.

Dalat is known as the Paris of Vietnam, but I actually thought it reminded me more of the hillsides outside of Florence. Bay told us that when the French colonized Vietnam, they forbade the Vietnamese from entering Dalat. Now it is a honeymoon destination and vacation spot for the Vietnamese.

While we saw a few westerners, it wasn’t overrun with foreign tourists like Chiang Mai Thailand, but still had the funky vibe of that town due to the tribal influences and the array of activities for vacationers. For centuries tribal people have lived in the area; the French called them Montangards, or mountain people. They are identified by their dark blue sarongs, and often by the beautiful baskets they carry on their backs.

While in Dalat we read about two very interesting places, and had to visit them. Hang Nga Gallery, also called the crazy house by the locals, is where a fantastical world of storybook rooms had been created in concrete trees and mountains. It is a guesthouse, café and amusement in its own right and one of Dylan’s favorite things about Viet Nam.

The other place was the home of a prolific monk, Vien Thuc, who has been painting every day since he was ten, and who has created hundreds of thousands of paintings that he sells to tourists. The paintings are dubious in quality, but the monk’s enthusiasm makes them all the more endearing. He is saving the money he makes from his paintings for a round the world trip he hopes to take, where his plan is to visit travelers who have been to see him and the homes where his paintings hang. So if you see a man at our house who is dressed in brown robes and what looks like a knitted aviator cap on his head, don’t worry, he’s just checking out the picture he painted of Dylan and perhaps enjoying a cup of tea before he gets back on the road.

We just had to include this picture: it’s a family of 5 we passed on the way to Dalat. Coming from a country where we strap our babies into painstakingly designed and exhaustively tested car seats, where they are protected by a couple tons of steel and belted within a inch of their lives, and where we get excited by the number of cup holders in our cars, somehow this picture seems funny, crazy, insane and a bit sad at the same time.