Odds are you won’t be able to spend a day in India without someone trying to get the better of you. From the predictable to outrageous, mundane to ingenious, India has it all on display. The reasons for this are numerous. Bollywood has publicized a notion that Westerners are minted. Given that half the country lives on less than 2$ per day, who’s to argue with that. A Westerner in India sticks out like an Irishman at an AA meeting and everyone from the poor rickshaw guy to the town crook is going to have a go at you. Crooks will always attempt to exploit your naivety to run away with your money. It’s a battle of wits out there. If you manage to keep your cool and think like a con artist, you will survive. And if it makes you feel any better, once in a while even an Indian falls victim to these scams.
As with most things Indian, international standards are rarely adhered to. Even among crooks. With their constantly expanding repertoire, it’s difficult for any Indian cheat sheet to be comprehensive. To avoid stating the obvious, I’ll ignore kinder-garden tricks such as the good-old distract and pickpocket, cow dung on the shoes, I’m an English student, etc. Here’s a list of scams that should get you into the Indian frame of mind.
Most taxi tricks are pretty obvious to figure out – ludicrous pricing, deviant routes and dark alley robberies are the text book scenarios. India has another variant. While you’re busy sticking your head out of the door, tongue hanging out, admiring the skill of your friendly neighbourhood two-wheeler, your auto-rickshaw meter has just jumped from 20 to 30, skipping all the small but important numbers in between. Either that or once you’re in the rickshaw, the meter ticks faster than the seconds hand on your watch. On confronting the driver with the jumping meter, he will defend himself with ignorance, innocence and arrogance, in that order. The only choice you have at this stage is to stop the rickshaw, pay him half of what the meter says and leg it. Unless you’re a local and you know roughly what the ride should cost, you’re defenseless against this one. Just pray that the meter doesn’t jump from 10 to 110.
If someone tells you that a tourism office, hotel, travel agent, monument, etc. is closed or does not exist, your radar should smoothly slip into overdrive mode. Watch the person’s next move very carefully. What do they suggest you do next? And how do they intend to profit from it?
This one’s the most unbelievable of the lot. The tiny 5-year old kid pressing her scruffy face against your car window has a boss and the 10 rupees that you gave her doesn’t go towards a snack to quell her hunger. It goes towards supporting an entire begging industry that feeds on people’s sympathy and ironically their lack of concern. The begging industry in India includes 7.3 million people and churns out annual revenues to the tune of Rs 1.8 billion. So the 10 rupees you handed over might have bought you some peace of mind but if anything, it probably has done more harm than good.
This one has the distinction of being an Indian beach special. As you’re walking along the beach, minding your own business, you feel an unknown object being violently thrust into your ear. A wet willie without the wet. At the risk of sounding stupid, the reason this con-man has snuck up from behind you and wedged a metal wire into your ear is because he wants to sell you a service – ear wax cleaning. Why they would choose to approach their clients in such a careless and uninspiring manner is still a mystery. Rumour has it that they use sleight of hand to extract a pound of wax from your ear and then go on to demand equally ridiculous amounts for this treatment. A growing stream of them on the beach suggests that business must be good (Otolaryngologists looking for a retirement plan please take note).
Walk into a store and bargain until your face turns red. The shopkeeper finally relents and sells that adorable little elephant with a bell (why the bell?) to you for Rs 400. Just as you’re giving yourself a pat on the back, the street vendor grabs your 500 rupee note and refuses to give you your change back. You beg, plead, cry, yell and threaten, all to no good. You’ve got no choice but to buy something more from the shop worth Rs 100. Daylight robbery or hard sell? Tough to tell.
Get rid of visions of jumbo the elephant thrashing about in a cool stream, sucking up water into his trunk and then spraying it on himself to cool down on a hot summer’s day. Despite the ticket suggesting otherwise, you’ll be faced with a grumpy elephant, being threatened by a mahout brandishing an ugly iron hook while simultaneously being hosed down with brown water from a garden pipe. Yippee!
Some fraudsters take the game up a notch by claiming to be direct descendants of the original builders of the Taj Mahal commissioned by Shah Jahan (history check – the architects and workmen had their arms chopped off, eyes gorged out or just killed. Work ethics in India has improved since). Once they’re done with their elevator pitch, they whip out a miniature Taj carved from the original marble quarry. What’s even more incredulous is that some tourists actually fall for this.
With such intense competition, branding is an integral part of any strategy to stay ahead of the pack. Given the MBA craze in the country, it’s not surprising that some clothes vendors take this hocus pocus to heart. They take regular cotton shorts worth nothing, brand the material as ‘Gandhi cotton’ (which they claim is sacred) and then sell them off at a cool 500 Rupees (10$).
Incredible India indeed!
Before you start walking around with a pocket knife in your pocket (where else?), it’s good to put things in perspective. Indian scams usually involve some poor guy trying to make a quick buck or a crook testing your gullibility. What they don’t involve is football hooligans with beer in their bellies or kids with red hair armed with shotguns. Treat the whole situation as a game with low stakes. Worst case scenario, you lose a few hundred rupees and escape with a great story to tell at your next dinner party. Best case scenario, you con a con-man.
Munich (German: München) is undoubtedly a guy’s paradise. It’s got everything a man could want – fast cars, great beer, fanatical football and cute girls (though I’ll admit to being a bit prejudiced towards Bavarian blondes). Even Hemmingway said “You do not even go somewhere else, I tell you there’s nothing like Munich. Everything else is a waste of time in Germany”. In addition to this, Munich has consistently ranked among the top 10 most livable cities in the World that’s clean, crime free and well organized leading to the nickname Toy Town.
The first thing that strikes you when you arrive is that Münchens (can I call them that?) are an athletic lot. The roads buzz with the not so familiar hum of overenthusiastic cyclists. And do they take their cycling seriously! Jay walkers beware; an accidental step in the cyclists’ lane might earn you an elbow in the face. No wonder, as strange as it may sound, drinking and cycling is against the law.
Apart from the cyclists, the parks are dotted with runners and the river full of surfers (yes surfers). The Englischer Garten (I’d love to watch a German spelling bee) is Munich’s pride and is one of the largest city parks in the World; even larger than Central Park and Hyde Park. Walking around, it’s easy to forget that you’re in a 2 million people city. It’s even easier to get lost in this never ending park that incidentally comes with a stream. However, this is no ordinary stream. A strong current under a bridge creates a never ending wave that makes you want to reach for a surfboard even if you’re not a surfer. Once you’re done with that, you’ve still got options. You can either get your tan on by nude sunbathing on the grass or if you were born with a tan, head to the huge beer garden right in the middle of the park. Burrp..
Everyone who knew anything about Munich kept recommending the museums and so to kill time until beer o’clock I decided to see what the fuss was all about.
Just like Munich’s history, the Stadt Museum is confusing. Numerous shiny artefacts loosely tied together under the banner of Munich’s history adds to the chaos. Given the comprehensive nature of the other museums, the Stadt Museum doesn’t stand a chance. If I were to go back, I’d spend my 5€ on a schnitzel instead.
Erected in 1385 and extended over the next 400 years, the Munich Residenz Museum is the former palace of the Bavarian Monarchs. With 130 rooms on display, the vastness of this museum tends to overwhelm and slowly dull the sense of awe experienced while walking through the first few rooms. Due to the continuous construction over 4 centuries, numerous architectural styles are on display – baroque, rococo, neo-classical and renaissance. Many of the palace’s ceilings were destroyed during World War II but were subsequently seamlessly restored.
Dr. Richard Feynman, notable for his wit (and possibly his Nobel Prize) once said if he could pass only one thing to the next generation he would tell them that all matter is made up of smaller particles called atoms. I’d beg to differ. If we pass on anything, it should be the Deutsches Museum.
From Mining to Aeronautics to Computing, the museum has it all. It would probably take a week to visit all sections. As the largest technology museum in the world, it’s guaranteed to give any nerd a wet dream experience. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic – and the Deutsches museum subtly reminds us of how much magic we’ve created in the last 100 years compared to the previous 2000.
The World famous Bavarian Motor Works. This is where the money is. From futuristic models to timeless classics, this museum is a car and bike lover’s dream come true.
The Kunstareal is the art district in Munich and if you need a crash course in art (and I did), this is where you should be. Of the several museums in this area, I visited only top 3 mainly because art museums aren’t for people travelling on a budget.
The Alte Pinakothek contains paintings from the 14th to 18th century – think Raphael or Leonardo da Vinci. Most of the paintings here are intricate and majestic and each painting tells a story – mostly a religious one. The museum was designed specially to house a 2 storey painting of Rubens Last Judgement.
The Neue Pinakothek contains paintings from the 18th and 19th century – van Gogh and Monet. An impressionist painting by Manet of his friend Monet in his boat studio was one of the most interesting pieces of art I’ve ever seen.
And finally the Pinakothek der Moderne contains ‘masterpieces’ from the 20th century. However, modern art isn’t for everyone and if you’ve got some time to spare, here’s a list of modern art masterpieces that were thrown away after being mistaken for rubbish.
In Munich, if beer is religion then the beer garden is the place of worship. One historian went far enough to claim that local food in Munich isn’t of much importance because it’s just a garnish for the beer. And who am I to argue with that. This is after all the home of the biggest drunken celebration in the world – the Oktoberfest. Beer gardens are scattered all across the city and in some of the older ones, you’ll notice that people have carved their names into the table to reserve their seat.
The most popular beer house (among the camera touting tourist crowd) would be the Hofbrauhaus for its sheer size and its significance in Munich’s history. Since the Hofbrauhaus is over 400 years old, it was visited by Mozart, Kennedy and Lenin. But no one cares about them because a tiny man with a funny moustache notoriously started his National Socialist campaign here.
“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it’s all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizz ing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime…”
Having read and re-read Robert Pysrig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, the (non-existent) romantic in me had no greater aspiration than to pack my stuff into a bag, strap it onto a motorcycle and ride into the sunset. And what better place to do this than the home of arguably the World’s best motorcycleable roads, hidden between the slopes of the mighty Himalayas – Nepal.
Teaching someone to ride a motorbike in Kathmandu would be as futile as teaching a monkey to juggle eggs. Once you’re out of Kathmandu, normalcy returns and you no longer need to fear for your life at every bend. The Kathmandu-Pokhara highway is one of busiest in the country but still makes for a pleasant ride. With the roads being quite windy and steep, the average speed is barely 30kmph. But then a motorbike trip is never about the destination.
A tiny nondescript road leaves the highway towards Bandipur. The air clears up and civilization makes way for the trees, valleys and mountains. You’ve now entered the surreal world of Bandipur, far removed from the chaos of modern day living. Old Newari buildings line the paved streets and the Himalayas serve as a backdrop betweent adjacent buildings. The town centre is off limits to all traffic (probably because of the steps on the streets) and so peace reigns supreme.
Leaving the perfect little town of Bandipur is difficult. But the fact that Pokhara is the next destination eases the pain. The bike ride to Pokhara is relatively easy provided you don’t puncture your tire in the middle of nowhere. Fixing a punctured tire in Nepal is a bigger ordeal than it should be but that’s all part of the game. Powerful gusts of wind over the last 5kms welcome you to Pokhara.
Pokhara’s location on the banks of a green lake with the snow capped peaks of the Himalayas in the background probably accounts for its popularity but nothing will prepare you for how picturesque this town is. If you’ve got your hiking boots, then this is the last chance to indulge in the little comforts of life before roughing it out in the mountains. If you don’t, then buy some wine, rent a tiny little boat, row to the middle of the lake and drink in this spectacular mountain town.
It’s all downhill from here. Literally. This stretch of road is virtually unused and the riding is easy. If a road trip around Nepal had to be compressed into a couple of hours, then this is the section you would use. Riding a motorcycle never felt this good.
After Pokhara and Bandipur, Tansen is a small let down. It’s caught in the grasp of a familiar and inevitable phenomenon called development. Since it’s in the process of growing beyond tiny, you’re surrounded by chaos with remnants of the old Newari culture still visible. The best thing to do is to run for the hills and search for the abandoned Palace of Ranighat. Why anyone would build a palace here, is still a mystery to me. Hiking to Ranghat takes 4 hours and biking there takes 2 hours (sounds fishy?…I thought so too). But this is no ordinary bike ride. Every turn is more hazardous than the next with steep precipices waiting for the tiniest error. If you survive this, then you definitely earn another serving of momos (delicious dumplings).
The roads out of Tansen are as hilly as ever and then you make a turn and the mountains just disappear and the landscape gives no clue of the mountains ever having existed in the first place. The mercury rises and the air gets warm and heavy with humidity. It doesn’t take long to realize that this could very well be India.
Lumbini sits on the border and is definitely more India than Nepal. One of the most sacred sites in the World for Buddhists, Lumbini is the birthplace of the Buddha. The actual spot is marked by a carved stone showing Queen Maya Devi giving birth to the Buddha while holding the branch of a Sal tree. A monstrous building has been constructed around the ruins of older temples that date back at least 2000 years. The entire compound is a World Heritage site and religious institutions from all over the World have built monasteries surrounding the Maya Devi Temple. If you’re not big on the Buddha (how unfashionable!), monastery hopping under the blazing sun gets very old, very soon.
There comes a time when you just need to put your head down and get on with the job (twss). The ride from Lumbini to Chitwan feels that way. Straight flat roads flanked by dried brown fields on either side while the road reflects heat and the sun incessantly burns from above. Not so easy. The greenery of Chitwan is a well earned reprieve from the heat.
Sauraha is a tiny tourist town on the border of Chitwan National Park. This is now a world heritage site that was a popular hunting ground for the British Monarchy. On one memorable rampage in 1911, King George killed 39 tigers and 18 rhinos. There’s little to do here other than sit in the shade with a beer or man up and head into the wilderness. There’s a buffet of options when it comes to exploring the park – elephant, jeep, canoe or foot. Due to the Maoist insurgency tourism plummeted and that probably has done wonders for the animals. The park is well maintained, and although we didn’t see any, our guide claimed that tigers and rhinos were not uncommon, before reenacting an episode he had with a grumpy rhino.
The never ending cable car at Manakamana is a great break from the motorcycle monotony on this final and possibly most difficult leg of the trip. Traffic into Kathmandu is stressful and dangerous, especially once the sun has set. 8 hours on a (by now) rickety motorbike is no joke. Kathmandu feels like a different place at the end of a 1000km trip around Nepal.
If you think of hopping on a 5$ peer day motorcycle and hitting up the slopes of Nepal (or anywhere else in the World), keep this simple fact in mind – your bike WILL break down. It’s just a question of when. All you need to do is take it in your stride and get the bike fixed. Nothing to it. Without the uncertainty, there wouldn’t be any adventure.
You’ll see new highs, experience a few lows, learn to strap a bag onto the guard rail with your eyes closed, and at the end of it all, you’ll walk away with some amazing memories.
So…what are you waiting for?
Although famous for its mountains (especially the big one), Nepal often lives in the shadow of India when it comes to culture. However, driving through the narrow roads of Kathmandu, its clear that this place is as different from India as chocolate cake is from cheese cake. People look different and talk different (though the food tastes the same). Kathmandu is a boiling pot of cultures and this Country, less than 1/20th the size of India, boasts of 120 native languages.
Kathmandu Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its beautiful and historically significant temples. Since the Buddha was born in Southern Nepal, many temples are Buddhist, even though 80% of the population is Hindu.
Located bang in the centre of Kathmandu, this temple complex sneaks up on you as you wander through Kathmandu’s narrow crowded streets. Tiny cramped Newari buildings make way for majestic temples and palaces. Most of the locals take these magnificent buildings for the most normal thing possible and are understandably more interested in maneuvering through the crowd.
The oldest temple in Nepal and one of the most important Hindu temples in the World, Pashupatinath stands on the banks of a tiny river and dates back from 400 A.D. Since only Hindus are allowed to enter the temple, visitors must content themselves with attempting to snatch a glimpse of the temple from across the banks of the river. However, in case that sounds a bit too mild for your taste, then the cremation of the dead along the banks of the river should give you something to write home about.
Although the stupa of this temple complex stands tall on a hill, looming over all of Kathmandu, this temple is not about the temple. Its about the monkeys. Which is why it’s commonly known as the Monkey Temple. Monkeys reign supreme here and are always on the alert for an easy meal. If you’re not careful, you might find yourself on the losing end. The monkey temple is an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists and is second only to Boudhanath. Stunning views of Kathmandu are to be had at the top of the intimidating flight of stairs and if you’re lucky, the Himalayas might grace the background of your panoramic shot by peeking out from behind the clouds.
Despite the thousands that flock to Boudhanath, the most sacred pilgrimage site for Buddhists, a sense of zen overpowers all the noise and chaos surrounding this temple. The stupa is one of the largest in the World and sitting at a cafe on the terrace of on the the adjoining buildings gives you a birds eye view of the entire canvas. Numerous monasteries have been constructed by refugee Tibetans all around the temple complex creating a maze of tiny lanes with the stupa towering over all the neighbourhood buildings.
Pathan Durbar is a small city a few kilometers south of Kathmandu. The Durbar Square here used to be a palace for the Kings of a bygone era and has now been converted to a museum dedicated to presenting Hindu Gods by displaying artifacts found in Nepal. More impressive than the collection is the ancient building that has been beautifully restored and gives you a glimpse into the past. It also overlooks the entire Durbar Square.
If you’ve had enough of temples to last a lifetime, I wouldn’t blame you. Here’s what you could do to drown the pain.
Thamel is Kathmandu’s tourist central. White people gather here by the truckload as if intimidated by the rest of Kathmandu. Jokes apart, Thamel is undoubtedly the best place to get a drink and take in some great live music. A hot Newari meal must be sampled before you leave Nepal and what better place than Thamel House. Be warned that if you do stray into any of the shops, you’re more likely than no to walk out a North Face billboard because everything is THAT cheap.
This is no normal museum. Its a strange strange place somehow overlooked by tourists. Located right next to the Monkey Temple, this nondescript building houses an extensive collection of dead animals preserved in bottles of formaldehyde. The museum is worth a visit for its collection of snakes alone.
Step out of the chaos of the streets and into a secret enclave that could even be in another Country or another era. The Garden of Dreams lives up to the high expectations its name sets. Relax under a tree with a book or pay an arm for a meal at the cafe – its upto you.
Seen the movie Invictus? In one scene, a plane arrives is arriving in town with the full view of Table Mountain in the background. That’s when I knew I wanted to go to Cape Town – and I did not know one other thing about the place.
The city takes it entire character from the Table Mountain in the backdrop. The view of the City centre, aptly called City Bowl, as seen from the top of the Table Mountain is breathtaking with the ocean on the other end. Take a cable car ride up to the top of this 1000 metre high mountain first thing. Not only will you get your bearings right as you see everything on both the coasts, you will also just feel very lucky to be in town.
Once on top, the name Table Mountain will make a lot more sense. You can trek on the plateau or just sit and have some beer – don’t worry! The last lion on the mountain was shot almost 200 years back. A thin strip of cloud forms over the mountain and it looks like the Table Mountain’s ‘tablecloth’.
After soaking in the views, if you have a few hours in your hand and a functional heart, try the walk down. But if you want to fly business class, try paragliding from the top of Lion’s Head – you will land on a cricket field in a country club right next to an awesome beach. That’s what I call a smooth landing.
Cape Town is a cape after all. Most famously, this is where Bartolomeu Diaz gave up his attempt to go around Africa – he named it Cape of Storms. Vasco da Gama succeeded and renamed it Cape of Good Hope.
What it also means for the city is that between the cliffs and the ocean, there are beaches. With sand the quality seen in Thailand, these beaches can be an absolute treat in the South African summer. No wonder all the beachfront property, especially the ones with their own little private corner of the beach, are being gobbled up by expatriates and rich Capetonians. You will find yourself noting down property agent numbers on For Sale billboards as you take a stroll through Clifton and Camps Bay.
But watch out if you wanted to take a nice dip in the water to make the day perfect. You may just freeze! The funny thing is, even in the middle of summer, the water on the Atlantic Seaboard is about 13 degrees C thanks to the Agulhas current.
Every second shark documentary is filmed off South Africa for good reason. The first thought that came into my mind when I realised I am going to South Africa was ‘shark cage diving’.
In a safari, sitting in an SUV with reinforced windows looking down on lions, you realise you can afford to be a bit relaxed. After all, we evolved on the savannah side-by-side with these animals. You can run, you can breathe, you can scream.
But a shark is different. You are literally out of your depth in the water, and your adversary is evolved to perfection to hunt here. Now imagine jumping into a flimsy aluminium cage in choppy, frigid waters and holding your breath underwater. All the while chumming the water around you with fish oil and a big piece of yellowfin on a hook to attract a monster from the deep. And it obliges.
The great white shark is the perfect nightmare – Jaws wouldn’t have been so successful with any other monster your imagination can conjure. There is nothing like having a 4-metre, 1-tonne, great white rattle your cage because it is hungry and looking for the tuna that it smells all around you.
For those who’d rather dive without a cage, and deal with a lesser monster like ragged-teeth sharks, you could just visit the Cape Town Aquarium and dive with their sharks. No cage means you have to be extra careful – no flash photography, no sudden movements or pointing fingers. Especially just before their weekly feeding time, fingers can look real yummy.
If you are like me, you will find New York and London too temperate, Singapore too tropical. That is why I love to visit the sub-tropical zone of awesomeness – like Brisbane and Cape Town, and maybe someday San Francisco and Rio.
To be fair, I have only been to Cape Town in its glorious summer. I will update this when I go over again in the winter. But in summer, this place is awesome. The sun is nice without being too sharp. And there is always a cool breeze floating around. You couldn’t break into a sweat if you tried without ever needing a jacket.
No wonder this place is increasingly becoming the place for the footloose global rich to have a holiday home to spend the months of January to March. Brisbane and California are too passe, and Rio does not speak English.
Capetonians are colourful people – literally. In the days of apartheid, Cape Town was officially anointed to be a city for the Coloured people. Coloured in the context of South Africa refers to people of mixed heritage – Khoisan, Bantu, European, Indian and Malay. This is at its most riotous heterogeneity in Cape Town – scientists believe these people probably have the highest levels of mixed ancestry in the world!
Half the people in this lovely city are coloured and within that is a wide spectrum. There is no greater way to feel unhinged and floating in a global village than to have people around you in every hue possible. Add to them, the more conventional colours of white and black, you are in a truly cosmopolitan city.
Add to them the large numbers of holiday-ers with every possible excuse – Brazilians learning English, Swedes on a stop-over, Americans volunteering and Singaporeans on work (ahem). Partying in Cape Town can be great fun – the people look great (whatever your persuasion) and they know how to have a good time. And you will never feel too foreign when you mix with them.
Ethiopia is a land with many unique faces –
Life – One of the oldest sites of human existence with the remains of Lucy, our oldest ancestor, being excavated here.
Religion – Ethiopia was the first empire to adopt Christianity as a state religion and is also home to the oldest Muslim settlement in Africa.
Culture – The Country with the most number of World Heritage Sites in Africa. Ethiopia has also probably shaped the World’s culture because of one major contribution – coffee
But you already know all this.
To get a glimpse into the beliefs, culture and history of Ethiopia, it’s necessary to journey to a tiny little town in the Northern part of the Country – Axum. Axum, once the Capital of Ethiopia, is a perfect example of how remnants of ages long gone are still preserved in monuments and traditions of modern day Ethiopians.
Legend has it that Moses descended from Mount Sinai after his little chat with God with a bunch of rules; 10 to be precise. These commandments were stored in a case also known as the Arc of the Covenant. Legend has it that the Arc of the Covenant has been preserved to this very day and lies in the repository of St. Mary of Zion in Axum. Only one designated priest is allowed to enter this Chapel and this extraordinary claim will remain as another one of life’s unsolved mysteries.
The coffee ceremony is a ritualized form of brewing and drinking coffee in Ethiopia. Green coffee beans are roasted over hot coals causing aromatic coffee smoke to be produced. Next the beans are ground into a fine powder and boiled in a special container. After a torturous ten minute wait, the aromatic coffee if finally poured out into tiny cup and handed to the participants of this ceremony. One tiny sip, and coffee anywhere else in the World will never be the same again.
Before Christianity arrived, the Ethiopians believed in Pagan Gods and also believed that their dead were to be buried under huge stelae or obelisks to guarantee good fortune in the after life. Many of the 20 odd metre long stelae were carved out of single pieces of stone and transported from the quarry and erected at the burial site; which is an engineering miracle for that age. The Stellae carved out for the Kings were extremely intricate while all the peasants got was an oval rock in the mud. The 1700-year-old Obelisk of Aksum was broken into 3 parts packaged and shipped to Rome during Mussolini’s attempts at colonizing Ethiopia (which didn’t last too long). After a UN directive in 1947, it was finally returned to Ethiopia in 2005.
The Queen of Sheeba remains a mystery at large to the World. According to Ethiopian legend, she visited King Solomon in Jerusalem somewhere about the 6th Century B.C. and bore him a son, Menelik I, who went on to become the first Emperor of Ethiopia. What remains in Aksum is an excavated palace assumed to belong to Queen Sheeba due to the artifacts found at the site.
Most Countries put 200 year old artifacts into temperature and humidity controlled chambers and charge visitors a whopping entrance fee to peer at them through thick glass walls. Not Ethiopia. Here 900-year-old manuscripts lie around in Churches and bookshelves gathering dust with occasional undiscerning monks and even tour guides leafing through them like it were the morning newspaper.
Built in the 6th Century A.D., this is one of the oldest structures in East Africa. Yeha monastery is surrounded on all sides by hills and definitely sits on prime real estate. A lot of excavation work has been done to piece together the monastery. Adjacent to the monastery is a relatively new (and by that I mean only 50 years old) Church holding Ethiopian artifacts.
Modern day Jesus is white. This is highly improbable given the location of Biblical events – the Middle East. If he did exist, Jesus would be, at the very least, a nice brown tan. Perhaps even black. And paintings within the St. Mary of Zion Cathedral have tackled this very point. 2 identical paintings adjacent to each other have one fundamental difference. Any guesses?
If you’ve ever been on a road trip, you know exactly what Uncle Waldo was talking about.
Life is a journey, not a destination – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The wind in your hair, the sun on your shoulder, amazing music on the stereo; road trips are the stuff of legends. However, if you do mess up your planning, road trips could so easily morph into the worst part of your holiday. For instance, here’s my personal list of top 3 road trip fails
Moral of the story – This list might be the difference between a lettuce sandwich road trip and a chocolate cake road trip.
But before we get stuck in, this list is only applicable to car road trips. Having recently survived a 600km road trip in a 25-year-old car (and having cracked open the bonnet at several stages), I believe I am now allowed to talk somewhat authoritatively about car road trips. On the other hand, bike road trips still remain as alien to me as French table manners and hence the disclaimer.
Secondly, there are no rules. Think of these items as guidelines rather than the law. If you prefer Coke to Pepsi, go ahead. Improvise.
This is the big one. Other than getting your car thoroughly inspected, a spare tire and a jack is an absolute must. Showing leg on the highway is not the solution to a flat tire. Learn to change a flat before you even think about a road trip. And just to be on the safe side, stock a set of spanners, screwdrivers and a piece of life saving rope.
This is a matter of life and death. Don’t mess it up. Stock all possible snacks – salty, tangy, sweet, etc. And ensure that you’ve got plenty of water and other beverages at hand. A hungry woman is an angry woman.
Men don’t ask for directions. They’d much rather use their genetically superior internal compass to figure out the best way to get lost. Don’t cheap out. Get a map or a GPS unless the plan involves spending the night in your car.
Practicality definitely outweighs fashion on a real road trip (doesn’t it always?). Comfortable clothes and shoes are the way to go. Carry a change of clothes if you want to be on the safe side. And don’t make the rookie mistake of leaving behind your sunglasses.
Skinning peanuts and throwing the shells on the floor of somebody else’s car feels mighty good. If that car happens to be your car, then it’s not so good. Cleaning up at the end of such a road trip is a bitch. A tiny little garbage bag will make all the difference between happiness and pain.
Road trips make memories. Capture the moment.
Or if nothing else, at least you’ve got something to do to kill some time. Which brings us to the next point.
Without music, life is a journey through a desert – Pat Conroy
This is applicable to your road trip too. But for the sake of everyone in the car, please ensure that you’ve hooked your phone / music device to the system. Carrying along 2 CDs is NOT a music fix for your trip. And once the music has outlasted its novelty, carry along some games and books to be brandished in accordance with the general mood.
Common sense huh? Enough said.
Whether it’s bribing the cops who charge you with speeding or buying yourself an embarrassingly pink popsicle, cash is king. Don’t count on encountering ATMs or moneychangers at regular intervals. Break the bank. This road trip’s gonna be a once in a lifetime experience.
Creativity failed me at this stage and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out a number 10 without making up stupid stuff like ‘spare underwear’ (which incidentally gets shelved under point 4). If you can come up with something more intelligible, let me know.
Living in Jakarta can be overwhelming at times. Exotic bars, glamorous malls, fancy cars and world-class restaurants, all surrounded by horrendous traffic and abject poverty. A 2-hour drive away, Taman Safari offers a great chance to escape from the craziness of Jakarta and enter a strange man-made animal world. Taman translates to park in Bahasa Indonesia (the National language).
As the name suggests, Taman Safari begins with a safari. However, this is no ordinary safari. Strangely enough, it starts off with the purchase of a few kilos of carrots and bananas. An elephant induced traffic jam leaves you with no doubt as to what the carrots and bananas are meant for. All the animals have connected the dots between tourists and food.
Progress is slow. Fortunately, the fascination of having a zebra’s mouth pressed against a car window or an elephant snout in your face never gets too old.
Once you’re done with the vegetarian section, all windows are required to be tightly shut. The residents of the next section would choose you over the carrots. Lions, tigers, bears and rhinos either glance suspiciously at the passing cars or ignore them completely. That probably depends on whether lunch has been served or not. The lush green landscape does well to disguise the fact that this is just a zoo with a drive through cage.
You would assume that boring half-asleep animals in cages would never be able to match up to a carrot safari. But then comes the central exhibit – a liger (cross between a male lion and a tigress). Ligers grow larger than tigers and lions and exist only in captivity since the territories of lions and tigers do not overlap. And all of a sudden, the zoo’s interesting again. Next comes the petting park where all tourists go wild since they can now pose for a picture with either a tiger or lion cub. The cubs are trained to smile for the camera with a stick. I believe that this practice is extremely cruel since the primal instinct of these hunting animals is to either attack or run away from humans.
A wooden walkway through a large football stadium sized cage allows you to get pretty close to a wide range of birds in all shapes and sizes. Exotic parrots, one legged cranes and weird orange beaked birds are all on display along with a bat cave. Unfortunately the thrills of the zoo and safari ensure that the bird park experience can never match up.
And if all THAT wasn’t enough to make an interesting day, Taman Safari has various shows on offer as well – elephants that paint and dolphins that walk on water. They’ve even gone one step further to cater for the non-animal lovers with a Wild West show and a motorcycle globe of death (that’s not as morbid as it promises to be).
If you catch yourself in Jakarta with some time to spare, Taman Safari’s sure to entertain, amuse and bewilder any seasoned traveler. Besides that, squeeze all this stuff into a day and you’ll need a week to recover. Phew.
When faced with a beach, we realize how insignificant we, as individuals, are compared to nature. This evokes emotions of awe, which in turn leads to a trivialization of our anxieties followed by a deep reflection on how we fit into the big picture. In other words, what is the meaning of life? Beaches are powerful escapes from the ordinary and if you feel like you need a break, it just might be time for another beach holiday.
Having grown up along the beautiful beaches of Goa, allow me guide you through a selection of what possibly are the best beaches in Goa and the World (the latter claim is understandably unsubstantial but thrown in nevertheless for dramatic effect).
Vagator boasts of the best beaches (and raves) in Goa. Comprising of 3 beaches, the largest beach is popular with day-trippers who show up in the hundreds to pose for photographs. However, within a few hours, the day-trippers are herded back onto their buses and the beach drifts back into obscurity. Beach number 2, Ozran is a stretch of brown volcanic sand hidden by rocky cliffs and is relatively peaceful due to its inaccessibility. Little Vagator to the south is known for its iconic Shiva carving that has made its way onto many postcards. It’s also known as Spaghetti beach because of its popularity with the Italians.
Right next door to Vagator is Anjuna, a stalwart on the Goa scene. Although the beach is nice, the reason for Anjuna’s popularity transcends the beach. Anjuna is the birthplace of Goa trance, the genre of music that has evolved in Goa over the past 20 years. Music and parties aside, Anjuna comes alive every Wednesday with everyone heading to the massive flea market.
Until 10 years ago, no roads to this beach existed. Now, haphazard roads and makeshift houses have sprung up making Arambol the new hippie haven. The beach is beautiful and beach huts on a hill that overlooks the entire stretch, can be had for a pittance. No wonder people come here and refuse to leave. It’s also the reason why you won’t find anything Goan on this beach. The hippies have taken over and they’ve imprinted a traveller culture on to this beach. Every evening, all the travelers gather on the beach and dance to the beat of drums as the sun sets. All in all, quite a surreal experience.
If you’re a selfish person, unwilling to share your precious piece of sand with anyone, Ashvem’s just what the doctor ordered. Empty stretches of beach with calm water make this a perfect picnic spot. The road extends until the beach making Ashvem surprisingly accessible. Sit back, relax and get your tan on..
Once Goa’s best kept secret, Palolem is no longer an undiscovered paradise. Palolem has leapfrogged in the game and made its way onto every tourist’s checklist. White sand, shallow waters and a coconut tree studded coast is what Palolem is all about. Hidden away in South Goa, the atmosphere here is very laid back. Every Saturday night, the beach plays host to a silent noise party where the entire party moves to music played over wireless headphones until the wee hours of the morning.
BONUS – Patnem Beach
Just 50 metres south of Palolem lies a tiny cove, hidden from view by a set of rocks. Although the rocks make swimming impossible, this is the perfect place to stare into the sunset and figure out the meaning of life.
At 5,895m Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa. Attempting to climb this gentle giant was ludicrous until a hundred years ago although even now, it’s still pure lunacy. A common misconception is that Kilimanjaro consists of 1 peak when in reality it’s a 2-peak mountain. Kibo is the taller volcano peak that has been immortalized by every African picture book out there. Mawenzi is the virtually unknown second peak of Kilimanjaro. Due to its jagged form, climbing Mawenzi is not as easy as Kibo (and not as photogenic).
Mount Kilimanjaro is also the tallest freestanding mountain in the World. What this means is that Kilimanjaro isn’t part of a mountain range. It stands alone. This is quite evident on the drive from Nairobi to Marangu. Mount Kilimanjaro sprouts out like a pimple on the face of the Earth. Marangu is a tiny little town popular only because of its proximity to the big mountain. Enjoy your last warm shower here. Showers and bathrooms are luxuries that the mountain does not offer.
After registering at the Marangu gate, a 3-hour range rover ride gets you to the Rongai trail. Wave goodbye to civilization as you pass all the tiny Tanzanian villages. Rongai gate marks the head of the trail. Don’t let the gentle slopes and beautiful forests fool you. Day 1 is just a warm up for the real climb. Volcanic ash covers the entire path and after a few minutes of carefully trotting through the ash, you give up and realize that it’s actually a lot of fun walking through a foot of ash. As you head towards camp 1, the pine forests give way to smaller trees.
The morning of day 3 greets you with an amazing view of Kibo and Mawenzi. They both seem quite a fair distance away. Day 3 doesn’t seem to go anywhere and is a rough welcome to the mountain. The day wears on and each ridge gives way to yet another ridge much to everyone’s frustration. Finally, the second campsite shows up on the horizon. The final challenge of the day is crossing a stream to get to camp. You realize that this really is a tall mountain. Sleep at the end of day 3 is a relief.
Day 4 marks another day of trekking up what is now beginning to seem like an unending mountain. The trees around have disappeared now and shrubs along the path are beginning to dwindle. One foot up this hill is one step closer to the summit and this is the stage where travelling with a fun group of people definitely helps. Tarn hut lies in the shadow of Mawenzi and camp is right next to a beautiful little lake.
Humans are only capable of dealing with altitudes below 3000m. Any further and breathing, sleeping and eating becomes a struggle. Acclimatization is crucial to any summit attempt and climbing higher and sleeping at a lower level seems to help. That’s exactly what day 5 is all about – a peaceful baggage less hike to the foothills of Mawenzi and a descent back to camp to spend the night at Tarn Hut again.
A U-turn at tarn hut ensures that the group finally heads towards Kibo. The region between Mawenzi and Kibo is a barren, flat region that has been compared to a lunar desert. ‘The saddle’ as this is known as is a never ending path that begins and ends in clouds. After a never ending crawl through this desert, a small hill appears through the clouds and an excruciatingly long scramble up this tiny hill gets you to Kibo hut – base camp.
Summit night begins at 11:30pm on day 6. This is it. The most challenging day of the entire trip. Months and months of preparation all boil down to this day. Talk about performance anxiety. Without blowing this out of proportion, summiting Kilimanjaro can be a matter of life and death. Due to the inability of our bodies to deal with high altitudes, acute mountain illness can cause fluid to build up in the lungs or brain and may eventually result in death. The only treatment for this disease is to descend. And fast.
Mountain sickness aside, 8 hours of grueling climbing in the numbing cold gets you to Gillman’s point (5681m). At this level, the air’s pretty thin and breathing is difficult enough without have to trudge along the rim of the crater to get to Uhuru peak. On the other hand, the sunrise at the top of the mountain more than makes up for all the hardships over the last week. It was worth it. And given the chance, I’d do it again.
The glacier at the top of the mountain is surprising large when standing next to it. Hearing it creak is truly an awe-inspiring experience. Due to global warming, Africa’s only glacier atop Kilimanjaro is melting at an alarming rate. In the next 10 years, it will cease to exist. Before you rush to book the cheapest ticket to Nairobi, here are a few things to consider before climbing a big mountain.
Climbing up the mountain is just half the job. A majority of mountain mishaps occur on the way down, because people have the tendency of letting their guard down once the mountain has been summited. Fortunately for me, other than a few blisters and an intense craving for warm weather, I survived the descent and have lived to tell the story…