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Travel planning should be fun, not stressful. How can you make it so?
A Checklist Can Ease Your Stress
__ Do you need a passport? If so, allow plenty of time for it to arrive to your door.

__Does your destination require a VISA? Apply six weeks in advance in case you run into bureaucratic difficulties.

__Do you want to sign up for Global Entry?

Global Entry PassportWhat is Global Entry? Global Entry is a program of the United States Government’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. Members enter the United States through automatic kiosks at select airports. It makes international travel so much easier. To apply, one must complete the online application at https://www.cbp.gov/travel/trusted-traveler-programs/global-entry/how-apply. After your application is reviewed, you will be contacted to schedule an interview at one of the Global Entry Enrollment Centers. At the interview, a CBP officer asks you questions, takes your photo, and collects biometric information such as fingerprints. Gunter and I signed up for Global Entry this year and will use this additional stamp in our passport for the first time during our upcoming trip to Uzbekistan. We hope to glide right through those long custom lines! I’ll let you know how it works out.

__Well before you travel, make sure your medical, dental, and eyecare is up to date. Will you require vaccinations? The week before you leave, refill any prescriptions you’ll need, including those little-used “emergency” pills—just in case.

__Prepare a sample itinerary. If you’re with a group, your travel agency will do this. Be sure to ask questions about anything you don’t understand. Which reservations must be made early? If you’re traveling during high season, hotels may fill up fast.

__Purchase your train, bus or plane ticket or prepare your car for travel.

__ Check those sites that combine travel, hotels, and transportation in package deals, such as Travelocity, Expedia, Costco, etc. Will any of these work for you? (Beware, sometimes package deals are misleading and can be difficult to change later.)

__Make a list of clothes and personal items you’ll need to buy; if you’re shopping online, allow time for shipment and/or backorders. Check the weather in your destination – average highs and lows for the time of year you plan to travel. I retrieve our luggage from storage two weeks in advance and begin to throw in personal items and clothes I know I won’t be needing in the next few weeks. Then I repack a day or two before the trip and add any clothes I don’t want to wrinkle.

__Review your photography equipment; will you need anything else? Be sure you have backup flash drives in case you fill up your camera(s). If you don’t normally take a lot of photos, familiarize yourself with your camera’s operation before you go. Will you need to download parts of your manual? If using a smartphone, bring a back-up charger for the trip.

__What will your internet connections be like? Will they have broadband? Wifi? (I just found out that some places in Uzbekistan still have dial-up. I’ll probably transmit only in the larger cities.)

__ If you’re traveling internationally, inform your bank and/or credit card company in advance. You do not want to be without access to funds.

Raj Palace Entrance

Gunter on the Raj Palace stairs to our unexpected suite

Prepare To Expect The Unexpected
What if your expectations don’t meet reality? That’s part of the adventure and thrill of travel. When traveling in India, our flight from Varanasi to Agra was cancelled after we had already checked in our luggage. Our next stop was to be two nights at a hotel near the Taj Mahal. Fortunately, our travel company had provided us with a cell phone and India SIM card for just such emergencies. We called them, and within 20 minutes, they had solved the problem. A driver magically appeared as our luggage was coming back down the carousel; he led us to his car and we were on our way, driving overnight.

Raj Palace Courtyard

Raj Palace Courtyard

 

The dirt road was rough and at some places, the driver went off the road into the ditch to bypass construction zones, but by early morning, we stopped at the palace of a Raj to stay for the day and evening, and the following day, we were safely deposited to our hotel in Agra.

 

 

 

 

 

Raj Palace Light Fixture

One of the many exquisite light fixtures in our suite.

 

 

I wouldn’t have missed staying in that palace for all the tea in China (I mean, India). I felt like a princess as the rising sun shone through gorgeous stained glass and exquisite chandeliers illuminated every room.

So, prepare to be flexible. Don’t over schedule and take things as they come. Above all, don’t stress.

 

 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale at a reduced price for a limited time.

Do you stare at the window at work, nod off into a travel dream while watching TV, or dream of yourself in another place while you’re waiting in the check-out line at the grocery? Do you say to yourself I wish I could be there now…but I can’t? Maybe, someday…Why dream when you could actually do it? Here’s how:

Step 1: Prepare your bucket list and set your travel goals.

Do you have a travel Bucket List? If not, start a Pinterest Vision Board and pin your favorite travel ideas from the Internet. That will give you some ideas of where to go. If you already have such a list, so some additional work on it. I use an accordion-style folder and then add individual file folders inside. My Bucket List folders have expanded into an entire desk drawer over the years. You could divide your own list by national and international, long-term travel vs. vacation, must-do vs. nice-to-do, immediate and later, or simply year by year.
We’ve all learned how to set goals in business. We know that goals must be:
• Measurable
• Achievable
• Realistic
• Time-based
You can use this same goal-setting process to achieve your personal or family travel goals. For example, we added “Central Asia” to our Bucket List after we’d completed our world circumnavigation and wanted to travel to landlocked areas yachts and cruise ships couldn’t reach. About four years ago when traveling in Myanmar (Burma) we met a couple from New York who had been there. They recommended Uzbekistan because they had used a travel agent who had grown up there. We contacted her and set a measurable goal to go there in two years. That goal was achievable but not realistic because it was not the right time of year and we had time-based family obligations. We changed the plan to four years, and voilà! we will make that trip in April of this year.

Uzbekistan_3

Step 2: Decide where to go and make your travel plan.

Decisions are never easy. And sometimes you can be overwhelmed by so many choices that the year goes by and you realized you haven’t gone at all. Think of it this way. Yes, there are so many places left to see, but you do not have to do it all at one time. So simply decide how long you can be gone and then block off that time on your calendar. Select a trip that fits your timetable and budget. If you don’t travel often, start small and stay close until you’re comfortable with longer trips. If you’re not comfortable traveling alone, go with a group or with a friend who knows the ropes.
What is holding you back? Bring that Thing out of the closet and examine it. Can you go anyway? If that Thing is money, think about what you can give up to make it happen. Going out for dinner? Going to theaters when you could get a subscription to Netflix and pop your own corn? Do you really need that new car, new sofa, new bike, new…? Remember, “Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” (see my last blog). If you decide not to travel, it’s because you don’t value it enough.

Step 3: Research your chosen destination.

This is the fun part. Do take the time to look through travel brochures and tag the specifics you want to see. Explore alternatives before you choose what you want. Research on-line comments about day tours and hotels, keeping in mind that complainers are more vocal than “happy campers.” Learn from the mistakes of others but stay optimistic and excited about the places you’ve chosen to visit.

The Travels of Marco PoloBuy guide books, travelogues, and history books and read, read, read. Watch movies and documentaries about your chosen destination. Immerse yourself into the customs and cultures of locals.
Right now, I’m buried in the romance of the Silk Road. My head is bursting with blue-domed cities filled with gorgeous blue tiles, remote yurts (yes, one night will be a yurt-stay), and colorful bazaars. I’m ensnared in the clutches of Samarkand, founded in the 5th century BC. In 329 BC, the walled city was taken by Alexander the Great who said, “Everything I have heard about Marakanda (Samarkand) is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined.” This strategic city sat on the crossroads leading to China, India, and Persia. In Bukhara, two thousand years old, I want to bury myself into Marco Polo’s world, so I’m reading The Travels of Marco Polo, an illustrated classic about his excursions from 1271-1295. In Tashkent, the capital, I want to see for myself a city destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219 and rebuilt to become a prominent center of scholarship, commerce, and trade along the Silk Road. Altogether, I want to take on what has been called “the glorious weight of history” by understanding the customs and culture of just one country: Uzbekistan. Instead of sailing in the wake of ancient explorers, such as Cook and Zheng Ho, I’ll be traveling the sandprints of some of history’s greatest travelers and invaders.

The Travels of Marco Polo

What type of travel do you prefer? At our ages, Gunter and I opt out of group tours whenever we can. We prefer independent travel. We generally go through a travel agent who helps us plan our unique itinerary; sets up inter-country flights, trains, and cars; and books with a local guide. We also prefer “slow travel.” We choose a relaxed itinerary that includes time for leisurely breakfasts, “walking a village” (by ourselves, if permissible), and an extra day or two near the end for me to catch up on my journaling and posting before we head back.

Step 4: Make a commitment.

Those who achieve their dreams go out and do what others dream of doing. So, get out of your little bubble of existence today before you dig so deep into that comfort zone that you become mired and cannot claw yourself out.

“Some people live in a dream world and others face reality and then there are those who turn one into the other.” –Douglas Everet.

Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this  nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale at a reduced price for a limited time.

Trilogy_Instagram_2

Gunter and I embrace the concept of “slow travel.” Our preference for this method of land travel is probably a byproduct of our slow sail around the world (it took us eight years). We like to decide on a destination, dream, research and read about it, plan an itinerary with plenty of spare time built in, and then go. And when we’re there, we like to take our time, surround ourselves with the power of place, understand the culture, and break bread with the locals if we can. Walking a Village is part and parcel of this experience.

On the way to Mt. Popa and Table Mountain in Myanmar (Burma), a popular tourist site southeast of Bagan, our guide parked his car and led us into a small village where we walked among thatched huts, met villagers, and visited a school. We also walked a village outside of Varanasi, India.

During our recent trip to Uzbekistan, we drove off the beaten path into Nurata, located in the foothills of Nuratau Mountains which stretch out hundreds of kilometers from Barren Steppe to Navoi and Kyzylkum Desert. This village is almost 200 kilometers from Samarkand. It was founded as ancient Nur in 327 BC by Alexander the Great, and the remains of his military fortress can be seen on a high hill to the south of town. The fortress was a strategic center for gathering an army before attacking neighboring lands.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

Nurata is known for its famous mineral springs.

The elaborate water system Alexander had installed is partially used today. But the locals don’t care about which western conquerors were here; instead, they host Eastern visitors who come as Muslim pilgrims to visit the holy places and mosques. A settlement called Nur—at the foot of the mountain—contains the graves of many “who have seen” the Prophet Mohammed. This site was chosen as a settlement for its mineral spring, known as Chasma, which always stays at 19.5°C. According to legend, a fire rock (probably a meteor) fell from the sky and a spring of healing water rose where it hit the ground. Now, thousands of believers—most from neighboring towns—come to visit every year to view the strange radiance that sometimes appears over the spring. The complex contains a Friday mosque, qubba (Arabic for shrine or tomb) and a bathhouse.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

A group of tourists in Nurata.

Far from industrial and tourist centers, this town of 25,000 leads an unhurried, idyllic life. The innocence and genuine hospitality of the residents is a primary reason that pilgrims and tourists like to visit Nurata. While our driver parked the car on the outskirts, our guide Fakhriddin, Gunter and I walked into town.

Eager to witness this hospitality for ourselves, we were not disappointed. We felt as if the town had been swept clean for guests: bushes and flowers had been carefully manicured, there was no trash on or along sidewalks, and smiling faces greeted us everywhere. While Fak tried to explain the inner workings of the unique system of underground pipe channels running from the spring, onlookers kept asking questions about us. We were their newest attraction!

“Why are you here? Where are you from? Do you like Uzbekistan? Why? What do you like best?” Of course, we couldn’t understand a word of Tajik or Russian, so Fak was bombarded with questions. He turned to us, “Are they bothering you?”

“Quite the opposite,” Gunter explained. “We want to talk with them. You can fill us in on the history later.”

“America! California!” a student from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, yelled to his friends. Soon his friends surrounded us and the questioning resumed.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

An English teacher from Tashkent visits Nurata.

A teacher approached to ask Fak whether her International Language university students could come over to interview us. They were taking a cultural field trip. “How fortunate for us to find American English speakers,” she said. “That is unusual; few Europeans come here and almost no Americans.” We sat on a bench while a parade of students passed by. “Only one question each,” she instructed.

As we walk along the town’s main plaza, a withered man approached with a young boy, about 5 or 6 years old. “Photo of my grandson with you?” he asked.

“Okay,” Gunter said. “Come and stand here in front.” The grandfather releases the shy boy’s hand and gently pushes him forward. After he snapped his photo, his gnarled face broke into a wide grin. “My grandson will remember this photo for the rest of his life.”

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The center of attention all afternoon, we continued to walk and talk around the village. Those inquisitive-but-friendly people of Nurata will always hold a special place in my heart.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

Lois Joy Hofmann updating her travel journal.

 

 

Should you go to Burma? The answer is a resounding YES! I can still feel the memories of Myanmar coursing through my body and my jet-lagged brain. “This is Burma,” wrote Rudyard Kipling over a century ago. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.” His words are true even today. Everywhere you’ll encounter men wearing skirt-like longyi; children and women with thanakha (traditional make-up) on their cheeks; and grannies smoking cheroots, chewing betel nuts and spitting red juice. There are no Starbucks, McDonalds, or Kentucky Fried Chickens—yet.

The October/early November “shoulder season” is a great time of year to go there. Although it rained during our first two days in Yangon, the wet season is generally over; the countryside is lush and fresh; and the tourist season is just beginning.

I was fortunate to be in Burma during a rare press conference held by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, held a week prior to President Obama’s recent visit. She warned the U.S. not to be “too optimistic,” and that promised reforms have slowed during the past two years. The government’s emphasis, she explained, has been on economic advances rather than human rights.

Suu Kyi opened the press conference in Yangon with Obama last week by addressing reports of tension between the U.S. and those working for democratic reforms in Myanmar: “We may view things differently from time to time but that will in no way affect our relationship,” the Associated Press reported. Burma is clearly counting on the support of the west.

IMAGE: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

IMAGE: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It’s a heady time for the people of Burma. In 2010, Myanmar held its first free elections in two decades. Even though the country’s progress on the road to democracy is two steps forward and one step back, there’s a cautious optimism in the air. The 2015 elections are coming up next fall. I could sense the spark of hope and excitement. Just maybe they will change the constitution so that “The Lady” can run. And just maybe the generals will delete the clause they added that allows them to have 25% of the parliamentary seats no matter what the vote tally shows. Everyone I queried says they would vote for The Lady. Of course. She has given up her life, her freedom, and her family—all for the people—quite a sacrifice.

Restrictions have definitely relaxed since my last visit to Burma in 2006. During a two-day cruise up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, I was surprised that the Paukan cruise line could show the film, “The Lady” (see movie trailer) released in 2012. Even so, the film is still not allowed in Burmese theaters.

We had the opportunity to see much of Burma through “independent travel,” which allowed us more free time to digest what we had seen and learned before rushing home or on to another country. Many of the tourists we met were heading from Yangon, the largest city, to Bagan with its 3200 pagodas, and then to Mandalay, the ancient capital of the kings. By expanding the itinerary of a typical trip and seeing only one country, we could take the time to go deeper into the interior. Swaths of the country, off-limits for years, can now be visited. I fell in love with the fertile farms of Shan state, the mountain villages of Pindaya, and the fishing villages of Inle Lake. We saw people getting around in trishaws or horse-and-cart and farming with little or no mechanization.

It wasn’t all easy travel. Beyond Yangon, Burma is still a third-world country. In the interior, I had to let go of internet, phone and e-mail. However, I’m very glad I went there. And I urge you to go as well!

I plan to post stories and photos of the best of Burma in forthcoming blog posts. Here’s a sneak preview:

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Part III of the “Our Big Bucket Cruise” blog series

I already knew that in one out of every four HA cruises around the southern tip of South America, a landing at the Falklands is not possible. This is not surprising. The Falklands experience some of the worst weather on the planet. Despite its dismal reputation, the climate during the austral summer (Dec-Feb) can be moderate, with temperatures occasionally reaching 75° F. But we are now in the southern autumn.

The total land mass of the islands is roughly equivalent to the state of Connecticut. The capital is Port Stanley, located on the Eastern Falkland Island, where two-thirds of the population of 2,500 live. Nearly everyone else who lives in “the camp,” the term for the countryside, is involved in sheep ranching.

Although we will see some sheep farms, our reason for taking a land tour is to see the penguins. We have observed small yellow and blue penguins in South Island, New Zealand but these are special: large in size and colored in the familiar Patagonia colors: black and white. We look forward to seeing these penguins—with their orange beaks and orange-and-yellow chests. In 1592, Sir Thomas Cavendish, a British explorer, sailed The Desire down the coast of Patagonia in search of the Straits of Magellan. It was in Puerto Deseado, that he described “a curious black-and-white bird that cannot fly but swims like a fish.” A Welshman on board named the bird based on the Welsh word for white head, “pen gwyn.”

I’m reading “River of Desire,” by Simon Worrall, on my Kindle. In Patagonia, Worrall says, people begin counting the speed of the wind from 50 kilometers (about 30 knots) an hour. That’s zero! A “concerning” wind is about 200. To prepare for cold, windy on-shore experiences, Günter and I have packed a duffel with our sailing jackets, fleeces, long silk underwear, gloves and caps.

On Thursday, March 22, Veendam Captain Frank van der Hoeven announces that our ship may or may not land in the Falklands, depending on whether he is able to anchor there: “We are experiencing Force 7 winds, a light SW gale, at 33 knots. If the winds there come from the right direction, we might be sheltered from the long fetch by the land mass of South America. Then we can board using tenders.” Later that day, the Captain orders the stabilizers to be put out. These are 18’ long and 8’ wide. He has to reduce speed to use them, so we will be late in arriving.

On Friday, March 23, at 0805, the captain announces that he is regrettably canceling the stop and proceeding for two days directly to round Cape Horn. Several boats already there are “wallowing in the wind,” he says. They report Force 9 winds, 50+ knots from the SW—not promising. Outside our veranda window, we can see racing whitecaps and spindrift. We do not even want to open our sliding glass door to the balcony! The whining of the wind is constant—sometimes a high whistle, sometimes groaning with the gusts. Surprisingly, with the stabilizers out, the ride on this cruise ship is not too rough. Günter and I can only imagine what it would have been like in our 43’ yacht!

By noon, there is another Captain’s Announcement: The wind is down to Force 8, with swells lessening to 16’. He expects that we will round Cape Horn by 6 p.m. on Saturday. He has altered course directly to the Horn waypoint, proceeding more slowly to ensure our comfort. “Here the warm Brazilian current meets the cold 2.5-knot Falklands current,” he adds, “causing rough seas.” He expects the winds to lessen as we reach the Cape.

Sailing around the world on our own yacht, we have learned to accept the winds and currents and to “go with the flow.”  The political situation in the Falklands, though, has piqued our interest and we continue to follow the news. While in Buenos Aires, the English translation of the local newspapers contained daily headlines about a new conflict between the Brits, who own the Falklands, and the Argentineans, who have been taught in their schools that these desolate islands are rightfully theirs.  The headlines scream, “Malvinas Stand-Off.” Some articles report that by reasserting its claim to the islands, the current government led by liberal President Christina Fernandez Kirchner is gaining the popularity it had lost.

It’s amazing how little we hear about worldwide events in the U.S. I had not heard about any conflict in the Falklands since the struggle for control ended in 1982. This ratcheting up of tensions is the run-up to the 30th anniversary of that war on April 2, 2012.

Some history here: It was the French navigators who gave the islands their Spanish name, Isla Malvinas. Beginning in the mid-1700s, the Falklands have been the source of many battles between countries fighting for control. The islands themselves were strategically important for those ships rounding The Cape before the Canal was built, but they continued to languish economically until the wool business became lucrative.

Thirty years ago, Argentina seized the Falklands and the U.K. invaded to get them back. Britain claimed that the islanders had a right to self-determination; the British population wanted to remain British, of course. The Argentineans were no match for British troops, although both sides suffered serious losses: 255 U.K. servicemen were killed; 649 Argentineans died in the conflict.

Although there is a lot of talk about Argentinean pride and the islanders” right to self-determination, it is the discovery of oil that has caused current tensions. Three oil companies want to drill in these tempestuous seas, especially because oil is being depleted in the North Sea.

While we were in Buenos Aires, it was reported that a cruise ship that had already stopped in the Falklands was denied entry into Buenos Aires or any Argentinean ports. That problem does not pertain to our ship because we are going the opposite way. The Argentineans are also upset with Peru for conducting standard military exercises with a British ship.

Later during our voyage, the Veendam is two hours late leaving Ushuaia, Argentina because it has been held up by the port captain. Reportedly, our captain was asked to sign a statement saying that the Veendam would never again include the Falklands on her itinerary. He did not have the authority to sign, and had to wait for an answer from the head office. Of course, the corporation would not consent to the request, but the ship agreed to pay a “port fee” to be able to sail away.

Captain Frank apologized again and again that, because of the delay, we would miss viewing much of the fjords and would not reach the world-renowned Ushuaia glaciers before sunset. I could hear the controlled anger in his voice.

On our own yacht, we often repeated the phrase, “Pacific Bliss is not a train, not a plane, and not a cruise ship,” in answer to questions and complaints about schedules. But now, we realize that even a cruise ship can miss scheduled stops because of wind, weather, and geopolitics.

October 19-22: New and Old Delhi 

Time Warp

The bad news about touring a country half-way around the world is, of course, the long flight: 5 hours across part of the U.S., a 4-hour layover in Chicago, followed by 14 hours to Delhi, the capital of India.  A rambunctious two-year-old in the seat behind me keeps kicking the back of my seat, so even with a sleeping pill, I cannot sleep until he tires out.  The good news is that the 12-hour time difference between San Diego and Delhi allows Günter and me to arrive early in the evening, stay up for a few hours, and then fall into the deep sleep of exhaustion for the entire night.

We are clearly in a time warp; it seems strange to have “breakfast” on the plane prior to landing, and then to be driven through the city streets in twilight that appears to us as dawn’s first light! We are not hungry for dinner, so we head down from our room at The Claridges Hotel to its Aura Vodka Bar for a drink. The ultra-modern, humongous bar has 47 stools, 50 varieties of vodka, and dimmed-and-dancing, diffused green lights that slowly shift from green to blue and purple. The bar’s space-age ambience adds to my sense of disorientation. Who knows? I could have been beamed up to this surreal starship!

Gunter and Lois with doorman at The Claridges, Delhi

Günter and I slump into a cozy corner settee that faces a flat-panel TV set to the Fashion Channel.  I am more intrigued by the group of businessmen at the table in the opposite corner. While I pretend to watch a Milan fashion show, I eavesdrop on their conversation. The group includes a short-sleeved American who brags about Great Lakes steamers, another casually-dressed businessman with an Australian accent, a European who is probably a Swiss banker, and two Indians with white, long-sleeved shirts and conservative ties, obviously the hosts. Potash is hot, I learn. Over their first vodka, the men hurl the familiar business lingo: strategy, phasing, roll-out, and partnering, playing up what a “good marriage” it can be. By the end of their second round of drinks, names of commodity companies, such as Rio Tinto, come out of those loosened lips, but not enough for me to put it all together.  While Günter drinks his beer, I sip on my raspberry-infused vodka cocktail that also contains cranberry, lime juice and sugar—an innocent drink that I’m certain will take its toll later.

Culture Shock

The breakfast buffet here at The Claridges is average—not like the blow-out buffets we enjoyed a few years ago in Southeast Asia and China. The spread is an easy introduction to Indian food, along with European alternatives. Little do we realize that we should appreciate the blandness, because the spreads will not stay this way throughout our three-week adventure!

We pick up the Hindustan Daily, the Times of India, and read those along with the Wall St. Journal we brought with us on the flight. WSJ contains an editorial summarizing the first polls of the Occupy Wall St. movement. Back in our room, we flip through the TV channels, settling on RT (Russia Today). The “talking heads” are criticizing the Americans as if we are still in the Cold War. They say that the “Arab Spring” movements will not turn out well: a new Western colonialism is brewing; Gaddafi has been taken out and Look! Obama already has boots on the ground in Uganda! They laud the Occupy protests and say this is what a capitalist society deserves. (Never mind Russia’s own crony capitalism.)

Ah! What I love about travel is that is pushes you out of your comfort zone. Travel forces you to listen to new ideas, to look at other ways of living on this planet. Even before we go out to sight-see, strange and different TV programs and newspapers pry open our pores so that we can absorb new insights and understand a culture vastly different from ours. The daily drone of schedules and TO DO lists are far away—out of sight and out of mind.

At 1100, our Enchanting-India trip coordinator, Bhawna Sharma, promptly appears in the lobby as scheduled. The Enchanting-Travel group of companies specializes in tailor-made travel experiences using local guides—just what we want. “By perfecting your arrangements from our first interaction until your flight home, you’ll see India through your own lens and digest all the sights and sounds that make India, India,” says the brochure. Bhawna assures us that she will be the master coordinator of our guides and drivers at each of our six destinations. She hands us each a small 4×5” personalized booklet that contains a summary of our itinerary along with a two-page overview of our hotel and proposed activities at each stop. Then she introduces our driver and guide for the two days we will tour Delhi.

Our first task is to get a new SIM card for Günter’s old cell phone, so that he can eliminate roaming charges on his Smart Phone.  We drive through New Delhi traffic for hours, or so it seems. To get a SIM card here requires a copy of his passport (which fortunately he has), and a passport photo (which he doesn’t have). We stop in a small off–the-highway shop with concrete floors and slapped-together, unpainted wooden shelves.

Here?  All of this technology will magically happen here? Apparently so.

The proprietress wears a purple print sari and her shiny black hair pulled back into a bun. She digs behind the counter to locate a small point-and-shoot camera. She snaps the photo, prints it out, and attaches it to a form that she asks Günter to fill out. Mission accomplished!

Our skilled driver winds through snarled traffic and impossible roundabouts that put Boston to shame. Finally, we reach our first sightseeing destination: the Qutab Minar, a structure that dominates Delhi. The largest free-standing tower in the world, it surpasses the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This UNESCO World Heritage Site also has the distinction of being the tallest brick minaret in the world, at 238 feet (72m). Made from bricks of red sandstone, the entire Qutab Minar is covered in various inscriptions from the Qur’an. Although the minaret was previously open to the public, it is now closed off.  In the 1980s, a number of people were killed when an electrical failure within the minaret sparked a stampede. There are 378 steps leading to the top of the Qutab Minar, and before its closing it was a very popular site, and not only for tourists, but for those wanted to commit suicide by jumping.

Qutab Minar,The tallest tower in the world

Our next stop was to be the Raj Ghat, a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. We discover that the site is basically a black marble platform that marks the spot of Mahatma Gandhi’s cremation, left open to the sky while a flame burns at one end; we decide that getting there is not worth fighting traffic and jet-lag in the heat of the day.

This is the advantage of independent travel! The plan is ours to make or break.

We return to our room. Günter turns up the air conditioner. We slide under the cool, white sheets, soon dead to the world. Later, we head for the pool, and after an invigorating swim, we fall asleep again in our poolside chairs.

The next morning, we are seated at the Pickwick Restaurant as soon as they open at 0630. The sun rises like a faded yellow ball through the haze outside our window table. This haze does not lift until noon.

“It’s not pollution,” says our guide. “That has been cleaned up significantly in Delhi. It is a condition that is typical during the change from the rainy season that ends in September to the dry season that runs from October through April.”

Whatever. It does not make for clear photos!

Our first stop this day is the Jama Masjid, also called The Friday mosque. Towering over Old Delhi, the structure can hold a mind-blowing 25,000 worshipers.  We are there well before the 1100 Friday prayers, in time to watch the men laying out hundreds of carpets, each one in the same neutrals of brick red and gold that blend with the colors used in the mosque. We walk the entire length of the huge plaza. This is India’s largest mosque, Shah Jahan’s final architectural opus, built from 1644-1658. It has three gates, four towers, and two minarets, each 40 meters high—all in red sandstone and white marble. Inside, the mosque is mostly bare. The speaker’s seat is simple, covered with smaller rugsnot artistically arranged.

Arabic verses on the minaret

Our second stop is the Red Fort, a massive empty shell of a place. The numerous moats and fountains are not filled. The greens are kept mowed and the many sidewalks are clean, but this attraction could be made into a great park rather than merely collecting fees as a museum.

Our rickshaw approaches the Red Fort on a hazy day in Delhi

Imagine the former splendor of this Mughal city—it was a time of unparalled pomp, proud eunuchs, ceremonial elephants, and grandiose buildings lined with precious stones! Imagine how the drawbridges creaked as they were lowered over the moats!

This fort was to be part of the new capital of Shahjahanabad. Shah Johan never moved here from Agra because he was imprisoned by his own son, who was the last emperor to rule here. Following the 1857 War of Independence (Indian uprising) the Brits cleared all but the best buildings to make way for barracks and army offices. So the moat has been dry since 1857 and the drawbridges have been replaced with bridges of stone. Every Independence Day, the prime minister addresses all of India from here.

We find the site filled with Indian soldiers, especially at Lahore Gate, a structure that faces the city of Lahore, now part of Pakistan.

Günter turns to our guide. “Why all the soldiers?”

“Terrorist threat.”

Next, our guide puts us on a rickshaw at the east end of the Chandini Chowk, the spine of Old Delhi, near the Red Fort. It is a wide street crazy with pedestrians, bicycles, rickshaws, cows, vendors and touts. Tiny lanes crammed with bazaars fan off the main artery like ribs. In the time of the Shah Jahan, a canal, reflecting the moon, ran down the street’s center, hence the name Chandini Chowk, “moonlit place.” I’m in photographer-heaven! I snap dozens of photos through telephoto lens; most are blurred by the bumpy ride and throngs of shoulder-to-shoulder humanity. One favorite (shown here) is a vendor selling sticks cut from piles of dead branches. Locals chew on them to clean their teeth.

Vendor in Chandini Chowk sells wood sticks used for brushing teeth

High above, a maze of electrical wires provides an evening lifeline to the shops; monkeys jump from one set of poles and girders to another.

Monkeys climb on electrical rigging in the Chowk

Old Deli is a crazy hubbub that bombards the senses, quite a different world from the rest of the city. The vast contrast between rich and poor becomes apparent as our driver takes us through Connaught Place, New Delhi’s core, past gated and lushly landscaped embassies from every country, to the government areas around Raj path (Kingsway) to the south. I am amazed at the size and opulence of this approach to New Delhi. Raj-appointed English architect Edwin Lutyens planned and constructed this area between 1914 and 1931, when the British moved their capital here from Calcutta. This site was to spell out the might of the British Empire, but a mere 16 years later, the Brits were out and the Indians took over.

The streets of Old Delhi from our rickshaw

After being checked through the gate, we drive by the President’s House, built in 1929. The equivalent to the U.S. White House in function, it surpasses it in scale, with 340 rooms. At the time of Mountbatten, India’s last viceroy, the Rashtrapati Bhavan employed a staggering number of servants, including 418 gardeners! The Mughal gardens nearby occupy 130 hectares. The matching north and south Secretariat buildings that house the government ministries have 1000 rooms between them. As we leave, we drive through the massive India Gate, a 42-meter stone arch, inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, that pays tribute to the 90,000 Indians that died during WW1.

As we leave Delhi the next day for our flight to Varanasi, I realize that nothing could have prepared me for India. Already, this subcontinent has inspired, thrilled, and frustrated me. I look forward to the mind-bending experiences to come.

At the airport, I review the statistics listed in the Lonely Planet:

  • India is only 1/3 the size of mainland U.S.
  • India has over three times the population of the U.S.

No wonder this subcontinent, although it appears to be so vast on the globe, seems so crowded!

Population of India in 2008 1,147,995,904 (1.14 billion)
Population of China in 2008 1,330,044,605 (1.3 billion)

With more than 50% its population below the age of 25 and about 65% below 35, the average age of an Indian after 10 years is likely to be 29 years, whereas the average age of a Chinese will be 37. According to estimated figures, the population of India will be largest in the world in the year 2030. What does this all mean?  I hope to find out.

Indian tourists want their photos taken with us.