Author Archives: Marce

Which way should we go?

Now that we’re road legal and with a new and improved propane system on board, it’s time to cross the Irish Sea and make our way south. We planned to take the ferry back to Scotland and visit another sailing friend on our way to Dover but it turns out our friend is off traveling too, so that route makes no sense. We did some quick time-distance-cost calculations and decided instead to take the ferry from Belfast all the way to Liverpool, an 8-hour sea journey that cuts off some driving time but also gives us an opportunity to stare at the sea for hours and look for dolphins.

It’s been a year since we coaxed Escape Velocity onto a ferry but she didn’t mind one bit, even after having to do a delicate backup maneuver to slot between two giant trucks.

Eight hours is a long time on a ferry and we batted around getting a cabin for the crossing but in the end decided instead on the Plus Lounge, with an all day buffet of snacks and beverages and comfy seating just below the bridge.

Jack wasted no time ordering his favorite breakfast.

It was a gloomy day so not the best sea views we’ve ever seen, and sadly no dolphins, but we enjoyed it anyway and ate our fill of the mostly healthy snacks.

As usual we had no plan on arrival but a symbol on the map intrigued me and before long we were off to Wales.

What caught my eye was the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the longest in Britain and the highest in the world. That’s certainly worth a detour. (Is it a detour if you aren’t following a specific route?) It wasn’t the nicest weather the UK can offer up but it wasn’t raining and for that we were grateful.

The aqueduct carries the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee on a stone and cast iron structure with 18 arches. It’s 12 feet wide and 5 feet deep and 126 feet above the river. There’s a towpath along one side, which we walked.

I have a perfectly reasonable fear of heights but despite the palmsweat I made it all the way across and back again with barely a whimper. I even looked down once in a while.

The aqueduct is quite the engineering feat and it’s another UNESCO site for us to tick. After watching the boats and paddlers for a while we chatted with the volunteers in the visitors center, had some ice cream, and continued on our way. Jack is on a mission.

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Remembering

Ten years ago today while on passage to French Polynesia the unimaginable happened and a catastrophic rigging failure brought down our mast. We were 450 nautical miles from land with no way to carry on. Luckily we were not injured and aside from the loss of the rig, the boat was still sound. We limped back to the Galapagos on our tiny engines and eventually to Costa Rica where six months later we were rerigged. The giant lemons life threw at us that day gave us the lemonade of a year in Central America and the gift of new friends and cousins we hadn’t met before. Almost exactly a year after the dismasting we finally made landfall in the Marquesas. We still count that day as one of the best ever. We hope we will always carry on.

You can read the original account of the dismasting and our recovery starting here.

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Long haul made easy

As the days ticked by I kept looking for an affordable flight back to Dublin to rejoin our campervan and get ready to cross the English channel to Europe. Flying from Kochi doesn’t offer the best options and I explored other airline hub cities for better departure times and layovers. I wasn’t having any luck until late one night out of the blue I found an unheard of price for Kochi – Dublin on Etihad Business Class for only a little more than the best economy fares I was finding. Not only was the price suspiciously low, but the connecting city was Abu Dhabi instead of Dubai, and with a long layover. I quickly checked to see if we could leave the airport during the layover. Yes, we could. Sold.

We were sad to leave India. We came not knowing what to expect traveling on our own through a country often portrayed as chaotic and depressing, and fell in love with the people, the culture, the history, the energy, and yes, the chaos. We already have a list of other regions we want to visit. But that’ll be next time.

Our first flight was a comfortable four hours to Abu Dhabi. You can’t always leave the airport on a layover without a visa, but the UAE, or at least Abu Dhabi, allows a transit visa for up to 48 hours. I booked a private city tour that would pick us up and drop us off at the airport.

Immigration in Abu Dhabi was easy. We just showed our Dublin boarding passes and we were stamped and through the gate in no time.

By a funny coincidence, our driver and tour guide was from Kochi, exactly where we’d just come from. That made it the perfect transition for us as we gushed about how much we loved India and Kochi at the same time we were learning about and touring the island capital of the UAE.

We began in the jewel of Abu Dhabi, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. You enter via an underground plaza that looks suspiciously like a mall, then enter a concourse where a ten minute walk brings you right to the outer perimeter of the mosque. You experience the complex first in closeup rather than at a distance.

The building is exquisite, like the Taj Mahal but newer, bigger, more elaborate. No expense was spared, with only the best materials sourced from all over the world.

There are 82 domes, 4 minarets, and 1192 pillars. The courtyard is the largest marble mosaic in the world, and the carpet in the main prayer room is also the largest in the world. The wool for the carpet is from New Zealand; the marble is from Macedonia, Italy, and India; the chandeliers are German, made with Swarovski crystals. The whole effect is breathtaking and it was hard to stop taking photos and just appreciate the beauty.

I look stupid like this because I didn’t have a head covering with me and rather than rent one our guide suggested I just wear my hoodie while in the mosque. It was hot.

We spent an hour and a half in and around the mosque and it wasn’t nearly enough, but then our guide drove us to this spectacular viewpoint.

I’ve grown to love Islamic architecture, the domes, the minarets, the symmetry. This one is stunning.

We stopped at the date market, a commercial road lined on both sides by purveyors of dates and other dried fruits. I love dates, and in fact all dried fruit, and this shopkeeper gave me lots of different types of dates to taste. Jack and the driver eventually had to tear me away as it was getting dark.

I was trying to decide how many kilos of dates I could fit in our luggage.

For the next few hours we visited more of the beautiful modern architecture of Abu Dhabi. Everything is so new that at one point Jack asked, “Where are your antiquities?”

There aren’t any, apparently. Before oil was discovered in the 1950s the people here were either nomadic, in the interior, or fishermen, on the coast. There’s a Heritage Center that’s usually part of the city tour but our layover was late in the day and it was closed. That’ll be next time.

These three buildings are a Roman Catholic church, a synagogue, and a mosque, all in the same complex.

Our last stop was the Emirates Palace, a luxury hotel, where we walked through the domed lobby and around the wide terraces.

And then it was back to the airport where we still had a few hours before our flight to Dublin.

Because we were flying business class we could spend the rest of our layover in the top rated Etihad lounge. It’s three stories of restaurants, buffets, cocktails, snack bars, showers, private nap rooms, and all manner of comfy and quiet places to wait for your flight. We took full advantage of the food and lounge areas, but forgot to take photos.

And then we were on our way. We said goodbye to six warm countries in six months, and after a couple more great Etihad meals and a long nap in a lie-flat bed, we said hello to cold and rainy Dublin.

I know there are travelers who only take carryon luggage but we always check one bag between us and usually by the time we get out of immigration our bag is on the carousel. Not so in Dublin. The baggage claim area is small and crowded, and far from the concourses, so the baggage took forever to arrive.

And please tell me why people stand right at the carousel waiting for their bags. Stand back, people, and step up when yours comes, ok? Jack had to fight his way to our duffle and the people blocking the carousel were actually angry that he had to reach past them to get it.

Our routine when we arrive in a new country is to find a cafe and orient ourselves with a cuppa. This cafe was right beside the international arrivals door and we enjoyed watching the excited homecomings.

While one of us stays parked at the cafe with the luggage, the other hits the ATM for local currency and gets local SIMs for our phones. Only then do we arrange ground transportation to wherever we’re going, in this case the one-hour bus ride to Newry, where our friend, van caretaker, and concierge Alan will pick us up for the final leg of this long journey.

It’s cold. It’s raining. We question our sanity in returning so soon, before Spring has sprung.

But it’s so good to be home. Alan took great care of Escape Velocity while we were gone, and she’s clean and dry and warm inside. It took all of three days to unpack, reorganize, dig out our warm clothing and stow our travel gear for next time we fly away.

Now what?

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Exploring the lanes

We learned there’s a historic synagogue in Kochi and on our first day exploring the chaotic market Jack spotted it tucked away down a long alley. We were surprised to see a tropical fish shop inside, and the doors to the sanctuary locked.

This is the Kadavumbhagham Ernakulam Synagogue, by some accounts the oldest of the synagogues of the Malabar Jews, establish about 1200. It holds only occasional services and to visit you have to make an appointment with the caretaker. We hadn’t.

When we moved over to Fort Kochi we were interested in visiting the other oldest synagogue, and we hired a tuktuk to drive us to the area called Jew Town rather than hoof it in the Kerala steam heat.

We’re at the end of the tourist season, good because there are no crowds, bad because many businesses have already shuttered for the season. Luckily the synagogue is still open for visitors.

This is the Paradesi Synagogue and as you can see, it claims “oldest in the Commonwealth” status.

Before you enter the synagogue there’s a small gallery of drawings, paintings, and maps illustrating the history of the Jews on the Malabar coast. The congregation of this synagogue are descendants of the Sephardis who were expelled from Iberia in 1492. The Malabar Jews and the Sephardic Jews maintained their separate cultural identities. After India gained its independence most of the Malabar Jews emigrated to Israel, and most of Paradesi Jews emigrated to other commonwealth countries, leaving only a small congregation here.

The synagogue is small but lovely, filled with artifacts and antiquities from its long history. The elaborate crystal chandeliers are Belgian; the hand painted blue willow porcelain floor tiles are Chinese. The provenance and significance of nearly every feature is detailed in small plaques.

Kochi is part of the old Indian Ocean trade route that includes Singapore, Malacca, Penang, and Zanzibar. We’ve loved visiting these crossroads for the lasting imprint in architecture and culture left by the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English, Arab, and West African traders. Kochi was, and still is, known for spices and textiles.

Back at the beach we explored the back streets, graveyards, and old and new art as our remaining time in India grew short.

Every time we walked to dinner we passed an intriguing sign: Jail of Freedom Struggle. There was an iron gate and a uniformed guard. We decided to see what it’s about.

The guard let us in and walked us around the compound. It’s not clear when the jail was built or who it housed but it’s believed to have been a transit jail where freedom fighters were held before being moved to other facilities. There are eight small cells with concrete slabs for beds. Pretty gruesome.

Back when we were in Delhi our food tour guide told me all the spices except saffron are grown here in Kerala. I figured I should buy some fresh local spices to take back, but knowing the strict customs regulations on bringing plants and plant products across the border I looked for packaged spice mixes that have a better chance of being allowed. I consulted our guesthouse host and he invited his own spice supplier to bring us some samples. She grows and dries the spices and creates her own blends. Everything smelled so good and I bought more than will fit in our tiny campervan, and some for friends and family too.

We bought even more spices from this lady down the street who had our favorite peppercorn mix and an intriguing ginger coffee that I couldn’t pass up.

With only one more day left we watched our last Arabian Sea sunset before dinner, and peered through the fence at a wedding party on our way home. I’ve barely stopped smiling since we got to India and I can’t believe it’s almost time to go.

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Theatre night

While we were checking into our new guesthouse the host offered to book seats to a traditional performance that evening. VIP, he said, and he wasn’t kidding. We were ushered to the front row in the theatre of the cultural centre right across the street.

This was a Kathakali music and dance performance, a style of theatre native to this area of southern India and practiced by the Malayali people.

The performance was in three parts. As the audience arrived the two actors were already seated onstage preparing their makeup, a ritual part of Kathakali. There are distinct designs representing individual characters, and each of the colors is symbolic. The actors spent many minutes grinding natural pigments into a paste then applying base and designs with what looked like sticks. There was an unhurried, meditative quality to the process and it went on for an entire hour. The process presents the transformation of an ordinary human into a mythical character right before your eyes.

Makeup done, the actors left the stage and a musician arrived with a large drum and curved drumsticks. As he set up a narrator described the traditions of the art. He explained that to become a Kathakali performer a boy apprentices at a young age for many years to learn the flexibility and muscle control required to portray the ritual emotions.

This lead to part two of the performance, a demonstration of the actor’s craft. As the narrator described each move or emotion, and the musician drummed trance-like rhythms, the actor demonstrated through his eyes, face, hands, and body the coded moves that tell the story.

At one point as he held his face perfectly still his black eyes circled round and round and round and round, fast and faster, accompanied by insistent drumming. It was at once creepy, hypnotic, dazzling. I was so transfixed by the minute control he had of his eyes and the individual muscles in his face that I didn’t even lift my camera. The man was middle aged and pudgy but moved with the strength, balance, and posture of a ballerina. I’m pretty sure I was staring agape at some of the things he could do. This was by far our favorite part of the show.

During the demonstrations the performer interacted with those of us in the front rows, then invited a young boy onstage with him, where he taught a few moves. The kid was a good sport and we gave him a hearty round of applause.

Finally, after a short break the actors appeared in full costume and performed an abbreviated version of one of the classical Kathakali plays. The musician sang a haunting tune and enhanced the story with his drumming.

At the climax of the play the woman, portrayed by the chubby actor, turned away from the audience for a moment, then spun around and shrieked and was revealed to be a demon. It was quite dramatic, even though we’d read the text of the story in the program and knew it was coming.

This was definitely one of the best experiences we’ve had in India and we’ve chided ourselves for not seeking out this kind of cultural show more often in our travels. It’s always exciting to see traditional art forms, particularly music, dance, and theatre.

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A different India

By the time we left Mumbai we were questioning our decision to go south this time of year. Five minutes on the street, even moving in slow motion, left us dripping and dull-witted. Nevertheless, we flew even further south, to Kochi in the southernmost state of Kerala along the Malabar Coast of the Arabian Sea. We’d read that it’s unique and a change of pace from where we’ve been so far. Truth be told, each of our stops has its own character, culture, food, and general vibe. India is a big country and we wanted to get a taste of different regions for this first trip.

I initially parked us in the business district of Ernakulam, just to get our bearings and clear our lungs of the residue of Mumbai air. We soon realized we really want to be in Fort Kochi, close as the crow flies but a world away, and right on the sea.

First, of course, we ticked off the required Marce Tour of the city market. It was a long and sweaty walk but even in these conditions I love to poke my head into the various stalls to see what’s on offer.

Kerala is where most of the spices are grown. Seeing these tubs of fresh whole spices and breathing in the exotic aromas made me long for a kitchen and a pantry big enough to stock with bags full of everything.

I don’t know what these little clay cups are for, but there didn’t seem to be much English spoken in this market.

I’ve never seen so many varieties of dried fish.

When we left the market we were stopped by a colorful gridlock right where we wanted to cross the street. Locals walked right through, weaving their way around trucks, cars and motorbikes. We stood aside like the tourists we are, laughing and waiting for a little more room to move. It was like one of those sliding block puzzles where only one piece can move one space at a time, allowing the next to move one space. Even the drivers and passengers were shaking their heads, some in amusement, some in frustration. Eventually we got where we were going, which was back to our hotel to pack up and cross the backwaters to Fort Kochi and a little peace and quiet.

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Mumbai over and out

A must-see in Mumbai is Dhobi Ghat, the open air city laundry where over 100,000 pieces are washed, dried and pressed every day. We got an Uber to drop us off at an overpass where an observation deck gives you a good view of the activity below.

We were there at midday so missed the flogging of the clothes in the concrete wash pens but some of the dhobis (washermen) were still hanging the clothes on twisted ropes.

The dhobis and their families live here, and the trade is passed down the generations. This is supposedly the largest open air laundry in the world. You can see some great closeup photos here.

Mumbai is huge and we moved to another area of the city to experience something different. It was an hour-long Uber ride from one neighborhood to the other and we drove over the Bandra-Worli Sea Link, the fifth longest bridge in India. It’s tough to get a good photo of a bridge you’re driving over from the backseat of an Uber but we did get a better shot from shore a few days later.

Our new neighborhood was more upscale than the noisy tech-store district we’d been in. It was still lively and close to the Arabian Sea and despite the intense heat we walked along the shore hoping to reach Bandra Fort. Unfortunately, after a couple of hours of profuse sweating we found the entire fort peninsula closed for renovations. These are things Google maps doesn’t tell you. We wisely called an Uber to take us back to the hotel and air conditioning.

We moved again to another hotel, this time in the clothing shopping district where I got a pair of trainers to replace the Merrells that have nearly fallen apart in the two years since I bought them in New Jersey. For the price I paid for the new ones if they last a year they’ll be worth it.

The very best thing in this new neighborhood was a gelato store where I got the most amazing ice cream I’ve ever had, guava-papaya sorbet with chili sprinkled on top. I went back the next day to have it again and asked for more chili. After tasting it, all other flavors pale in comparison. Even the delicious Tanzania chocolate couldn’t hold a candle to it.

And then it was time to say goodbye to Mumbai. We both agree the Mumbai airport may be our favorite so far. Not only is it quiet, but the Museum of Modern Art made the airport an adjunct gallery and we barely noticed the distance we had to walk to our gate because we enjoyed the art so much.

Against all advice from locals, we are on our way further south. We must be out of our minds.

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North? No, south.

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re making up this India adventure as we go along. Here in Udaipur we asked many Indians for suggestions on where to go next and I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that not too many people in this huge country have ventured very far from home. Those who have traveled widely urged us to go north, as it’s getting mighty hot even here in Rajasthan, and it’ll be cooler in Dharamshala and especially Kashmir. We love the mountains but unfortunately every route north involves backtracking through Delhi, then returning again to fly out to the UK in April. This would be a clear Rule #1 violation, plus a big ol’ dent in the travel budget. There’s no cheap or easy way to get to Dharamshala. Next time, we sighed. South it is, continuing our linear path. And it’s going to be hot.

A long Uber ride from the Mumbai airport gave us our first look at India’s second largest city and its financial capital. We’re told there’s great wealth here, and great poverty.

We haven’t seen the wealth yet, and our perfectly adequate budget hotel is above an electronics store on a street lined with nothing but electronics stores for at least half a mile.

Around the corner we found a small city market and a wet market but Jack couldn’t put his hands on a Snickers bar.

We plunged headlong into sightseeing, something we usually don’t approach with diligence. It would probably be easier to book a city tour and get driven around from photo op to photo op but our aversion to being herded and my general inclination to take on the navigation duties always send us off on our own to find (or not) the things you’re supposed to see as a first time visitor. I think we did pretty well in Mumbai.

We started, as you do, at the Gateway to India, a monument to the arrival of George V and Queen Mary in 1911, and the symbol of Mumbai. More significantly, the last remaining British troops departed through the arch in 1948. We’d read warnings about crowds, touts and pickpockets but no one bothered us at all, not even for selfies.

Across the street is the magnificent Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. I should mention that we went through security (scans and bag checks) both to enter the grounds of the Gateway and the hotel. The hotel was the site of a terrorist attack in 2008 during which more than 160 people were killed.

It was fun to walk through the lobby, and especially to see the photos of some of the famous people who’ve stayed here.

This is the Colaba area of South Mumbai and a collection of Gothic Revival and Art Deco buildings make up a UNESCO World Heritage site. We had fun seeking out some of the buildings, and they are all beautiful.

Part of this UNESCO site, but also listed on its own is the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus, formerly Victoria Terminus. It’s a huge and fabulous Italian Gothic complex and we spent a long time trying to photograph it. It’s just too big to fit in the frame of an iPhone but we did our best to capture its glory.

Mumbai is so huge that we could only tackle one area a day. Like Delhi, it would take more than the few days we have to fully appreciate the scope and variety of this place. We’re always aware with our advancing age that this may be our only opportunity to be here and more than visiting “the sights” we often just want to soak up the atmosphere of the places we visit. We chose to move hotels every couple of days to experience different parts of the city. Did I mention how big it is?

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Happy Holi

Holi Anni is the Spring Hindu Festival of Colors celebrating love and the end of winter. We had planned to move on from Udaipur but when we learned Holi was coming up in a few days we extended our stay. The city was booked up, including our wonderful guesthouse, but our host found us another room just around the corner.

Last year we were in Bhaktapur, Nepal, for Holi and it was a joyous but rather sedate celebration. We looked forward to the Rajasthani version, which we were told can get a little rowdy.

The day before Holi we crossed the footbridge into the city and visited the main temple. Jack, as always, stayed on the perimeter with his shoes on while I subjected my bare feet to the hot hot hot stone temple grounds to see what was going on inside. There was already quite a bit of color on the people and the temple itself and I could hear chanting and bells and clapping.

I joined the crush on the steep steps but only got a glimpse as I teetered at the top.

I followed the cows down to the street and Jack and I sauntered back to the Old City.

At the crossroads of nearly every neighborhood men were constructing the trees that will be burned to symbolize the victory of good over evil. We’re told the big bonfires will be in the main square in town along with the big crowds but these little neighborhood celebrations appeal to us. Our original host has especially invited us to join his family at their neighborhood full moon ceremony.

They light the bonfires close to midnight so while we waited we took a turn around the Old City. Things were certainly heating up. Down the street from the footbridge we joined a crowd outside an open doorway. Neither of us could figure out what was going on, and while a local next to me tried to explain it I couldn’t make out what he said over the din of traffic, chanting and bells. We could see the man inside quivering, his right leg vibrating so hard it looked like it might fall off.

In the main square the dancing had started.

We made our way back toward our old guesthouse where our host and his family were beginning the ceremony.

First was a blessing and offering, then the lighting of the tree. It was so much more explosive than we expected, and so hot we couldn’t get near it for about 20 minutes. At one point an ember fell on my head and burned a patch of hair. That was about the time one of the overhead electrical wires melted and the power went out. We noticed this happened above several of the burning trees nearby but the lines were reconnected or rerouted quickly and the power was back on in minutes.

The tradition is to walk around the burning tree seven times for good fortune in the year to come. If you can’t do seven then five or even three are enough. We did the optimum seven and I felt like my right side was barbecued.

The actual festival of colors was the next day. You’ve probably seen this in NatGeo where people dance and carouse and throw color powders and colored water on each other. We’ve been respectfully daubed with colors before in Fiji and Nepal but we really wanted to see the full action, if not join in completely. We selected T-shirts that we wouldn’t mind tossing if they got ruined but neither of us has any throwaway trousers. In any case we prepared to make our way to the square to join in. That’s when these two arrived back at the guesthouse from their foray into the city.

They’d had a lot of fun, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience but in the end we chickened out, mostly because of the gauntlet of young kids we’d have to run at the end of our alley before we could ever get to the footbridge. Most of the older folks, tourists and locals alike, also skipped the colors fun. Still, I think we’re both disappointed in ourselves and if we ever intersect with Holi again I think we’ll plunge right in. Why not?

We did get the respectful daub again, so there’s that. Happy Holi!

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Out of the triangle

We successfully completed the #1 India must-do, the Golden Triangle of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur and now we head into unknown and unplanned territory. We were reluctant to leave the beautiful sanctuary of our guesthouse but we’ve barely scratched the surface of India and we’re keen to experience more.

Everyone says we absolutely must travel India by train and I finally figured out the online booking system and got us comfy seats for the 6-1/2 hour journey to Udaipur.

The first couple of hours were in daylight so we got to see a little of the territory. We were given water and a newspaper before departing, and served food and beverages four times during the trip. Amtrak could learn a thing or two.

We arrived in Udaipur in the dark and after a lively negotiation with two rather enthusiastic tuktuk drivers we finally got onboard for a nailbiting careen through the narrow alleyways of Udaipur to our randomly chosen guest house deep in the labyrinth of the Old City. Someone should make a video game of driving a tuktuk through the crush of pedestrians, motorbikes, cows, and dogs all vying for the same 8-foot wide lanes, and yes, even late at night.

The following day we set out to explore our new neighborhood.

We can never pass up a music store and we got a bonus from the proprietor of this one, a discourse on the sitar and a brief demonstration. He claims the sitar is easier to play than the guitar because while the sitar has many more strings, you only play on one of them. The rest are drones. I didn’t know that.

Udaipur is the City of Lakes, and of course we love being near the water.

We happened upon a small museum in a restored palace. It was cool inside and a nice break from the scorching midday sun.

We found a tiny fruit stand serving beautiful smoothie bowls and established ourselves as regulars.

We’ve learned to take shelter in the worst heat of the afternoon. Then we take to the rooftop for sunset before re-emerging after dark for dinner. We seem to have settled in nicely.

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