1. Myanmar is more open to tourism than ever before. The country welcomed some 3 million visitors in 2014, about half of those international tourists. Five million tourists was a target set for 2015, although the numbers are not in yet. The number of tourists to Myanmar (Burma) is exploding because tourists may now enter freely after acquiring a visa online and picking it up on arrival; they can travel freely throughout the countryside without escorts (this was not the case during my first visit in 2006); and Myanmar is the most authentic and untouched of all the countries in Southeast Asia. Tourists are rushing to see it before it turns into another Thailand. So now is the time to go!

My husband and I chose Myanmar as our international vacation destination for 2014. Because of skyrocketing tourism, hotels tended to be scarce during the high season, so we chose to leave in October and return in early November. We booked through Enchanting Travels, Myanmar. They organized an independent “slow travel” tour for us via auto and plane, with a local tour guide at each destination. Our round-trip tour included the bustling city of Yangon, the fertile farms of Shan state, the mountain villages of Pindaya, the fishing villages of Inle Lake, the stupas of Bagan, a two-day cruise up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, and relaxing at Ngapali beach, where I had an opportunity to journal before heading home.

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You can access my blog posts and photos about my trips to Burma here:

Why Go to Myanmar?

Burma in My Blood

Walking a Village in Myanmar

Burma, My Next Favorite Place

I recommend booking hotel rooms in advance through a local travel company—at least for the first few days of your trip. Cash is king in Myanmar. You can exchange dollars for kyats as you go.  Credit cards are not widely accepted but ATM machines are readily available. WiFi is like dial-up internet of the 1990s in most places, but that only forces you to adapt to the slow travel approach. Just be patient, take it easy, and enjoy the spectacular scenery and friendly people. Pack for hot weather. The “peak season” to visit with the best weather is from November to February. We traveled in October during the “shoulder season” because we wanted to be home for Thanksgiving. If you visit in other months, you’ll suffocate (110F/45C in Yangon) or you’ll soak during the rainy season.

2. Cartagena, Colombia is one of the most charming cities we visited during our entire sailing circumnavigation. Now you can fly there from almost anywhere in the world. The city holds a special place in my heart because this was our refuge from a Force 10 storm that we encountered off the coast of Venezuela during the Maiden Voyage of Pacific Bliss. In fact, I wrote this about Cartagena in Chapter 7 of In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: Maiden Voyage:

Cartagena is a magical place that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime. But a word of caution: Once you come to see her, you will dream about when you can return. From its charming, old walled city to its historic naval and land fortifications to the posh, modern high rises and its tourist beaches, Cartagena dazzles and thrills. However, this is a city that cannot be devoured; she needs to be savored—slowly and deliciously. Mark my words: Gunter and I will be back!

The photos below are taken from Maiden Voyage.

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Although we haven’t returned to this marvelous destination yet, rest be assured, it is on our bucket list! If you want to see the city, just book a hotel and take a city tour or travel around by cab. Be sure to spend a full day in Old Town Cartagena. While you’re there, you might want to take one of the many Spanish language courses offered. Or you might want to book a day sail to Islas del Rosario for some swimming and snorkeling. If you’re more adventurous, contact Worldview Travel about one of their jungle tours.

3. I never tire of Bali, Indonesia. But beware: Once you go there, you’ll return again and again. Bali has a special significance to me because Gunter and I spent our honeymoon there back in 1995. We rented a hotel at world-famous Kuta Beach, not far from populous Denpasar. If you like loud music and crowded beaches, this is for you. If you are more adventurous, you can do what we did. We checked out of our hotel after two noisy days and booked a four-day boat trip to Lombok and then to the Komodo Islands to see the dragons. Back in Bali, we spent the second week at the far side of the island, at a quiet beach resort with a volcanic, black-sand beach. We were instructed to hit the dong of a wooden carving outside our door to call for coffee service. Later, a server asked us, “Did you know that Mick Jagger slept here—in your bungalow?” Hmm. But our favorite part of Bali was the traditional town of Ubud in the interior, where we watched Balinese processions, visited carving and silver shops, and took in a Legong Dance at the King’s Palace.

When we visited Bali the second time, during our world circumnavigation, we knew exactly where we wanted to stay. With Pacific Bliss safely berthed at the Bali International Marina, we took a taxi to Hotel Tjampuhan on the outskirts of Ubud. For one week, we enjoyed a totally hedonistic experience in a secluded hillside bungalow overlooking a lush valley.  Birds called back and forth, their high notes overriding the deeper sounds of rushing water far below. Squirrels raced up tall tamarind trees and red hibiscus blooms added color to the verdant landscape. We swam in a cool, spring-fed pool, and enjoyed side-by-side massages at a spa dug into the hillside above the waterfall. In the cool of the evening, we walked into town and enjoyed performances at The Royal Palace. Later during our sojourn in Bali, we booked a few days with friends in Sanur Beach—a much better alternative to Kuta. I haven’t been back to Bali since the advent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love book and movie but rest assured, this island will never lose its charm.

Pool at Hotel Tjampuhan.jpg

4. Vietnam is a must visit that combines history and beauty—and they openly welcome Americans. We visited Vietnam in June 2006, along with a cruising couple who had set up our private tour for four with a local travel agency, Focus Travel. That worked out well because we could share a van and driver. In fact, the total cost for each of us to tour there for 10 days, including guides, private transportation, four-star hotels, tours, a cooking class, 10 breakfasts, 4 lunches and one dinner, plus domestic flights from Hanoi to Danang and from Hue to Saigon was $673. We flew from Langkawi, where Pacific Bliss was berthed, into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Vietnam has over 2,000 miles of coastline and our route from Hanoi to Saigon covered most of it, backed by central highlands and jagged mountain ridges throughout most of it. Fertile farms line the rivers and deltas. We loved Hanoi with its charming French colonial boulevards and landscaped lakes. The city was a wonderful mixture of old and new. In addition to taking in a Water Puppet show and a Vietnamese cooking class, we toured the Military Museum and the sobering Hao Lo Prison Americans called the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

DSCN2056 (2) Rice Fields of Vietnam

We found the people giving, gracious and anxious to please. I was fascinated to learn what the younger Vietnamese think about what they call “The American War:” According to them, that was but a blip in their history, following a1000-year war against China and a 30-year war against France. Yes, the older generation of Vietnamese are battle-hardened, proud, and nationalist. But for the energetic younger generation (the median age is 29) Vietnam is a place to succeed, to earn a lot of money, and to have a good time. They care little about politics; they were born since all those wars occurred.

From Hanoi we drove along the coast to Halong Bay, a World Heritage site, then flew to Danang with its stretches of unspoiled sandy beaches, and drove on to Hoi An to relax at a beach resort for a couple of days. In a town famous for its tailors, we dropped off clothing to be “copied” and picked up the next day. Next we drove over the mountains to Hue, the former capital city of Vietnam where we took an evening barge trip down the Perfume River. We flew to Saigon and checked into a 1920s hotel in the heart of downtown, great for shopping and touring a city that, in 2006, had no McDonalds, KFC, or chain stores of any kind. From Saigon, we toured the Mekong Delta and then drove through industrial areas south of Saigon—car assembly plants, and numerous manufacturing complexes. There, we could see that rapid industrialization was underway.   

DSCN2035 (2) Tourist Boats, Halong Bay

With over 90 million inhabitants in 2014, Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country. A full 65% of its population is under 30. Since 2000, the country’s GDP growth in has been among the highest in the world, with the U.S. as its largest trading partner. When we were there, the populace was very excited about joining the World Trade Organization in 2007.  Since then, much has changed dramatically, so if you want to see parts of the old Vietnam with the simpler life, go there soon!

5. If you want a more adventurous vacation, check out Savu Savu or Fiji’s remote Lau Island Group.  We sailed almost all the way around Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, then left our yacht in Savusavu, on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu. We had obtained a special permit in Suva to visit Fiji’s remote Lau Group for a thatched-hut-on-the-beach experience. Not easy, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Chapters 8 and 10 of Sailing the South Pacific, my second book in the adventure series, describes two sailing seasons we spent in Fiji, where we had too many adventures to list here. Feel free to ask for advice in the COMMENT section below.

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What are your travel plans for 2016?

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I’ve been doing a lot of gardening at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin lake home, this summer. In between gardening and visitors, I’ve been writing my third book in the series, In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss. I’ve been noticing how gardening and writing flow together: engaging in one activity prepares me for the other. Today, I realized why. When I’m gardening, I’m enjoying all five senses; when I’m writing I’m doing the same.

What do you notice first as you come upon a gorgeous garden? I notice the overall garden design, how it flows together. Then I focus on the characteristics of individual plants—colors, textures and how foliage and flowers combine to complement each other—these are all related to the sense of sight.

You’re probably familiar with the oft-repeated command, “Stop and smell the roses.”  I only have one rose bush, but I do have a couple of lilacs, a few honeysuckle vines, and many groupings of oriental lilies. And I have a half-barrel overflowing with wonderfully scented herbs including lavender, basil, coriander, chives and even Mojito.

Touch is another sensual delight of the garden. I love to run my fingers over the smooth waxy leaves of a magnolia; touch the feathery fronds of astilbe; and feel the soft wooly texture of silver sage.

Gardening is best when you leave those earphones or iPods inside. I love to listen to the songs of birds, so I have birdhouses, bird feeders, and birdbaths in my gardens. The swish-swish of hummingbirds in flight and the soft rustle of leaves blowing in the breeze is music enough to my ears. I recently read that a scientific study has proven that the sound of birdsong opens up blossoms. Amazing synergy!

Last but not least is the enticing scent of taste. I love to grab a raspberry or blackberry on the way to the garden, and though I do not grow vegetables because of the deer, I am growing nasturtiums this year for salads.

My dream is to plant as many fruit trees as I can at Northern Bliss, so that can see and smell the delicate, fragrant blossoms, feel the breeze blowing through them, attract even more birds, and pick fruit right off the trees. Meanwhile I’ll continue to enjoy both writing and gardening!

Bluebirds at Northern Bliss (photo by Holly Ricke)
Bluebirds at Northern Bliss (by Holly Ricke)
P1080704 Delphium and hostas
Delphinium and hostas
P1080860 Astilbe and Hydrangea
Astilbes and hydrangeas
P1080881 Nasturtiums and other herbs
Nasturtiums and other herbs

It has to be done. It’s all part of the process. An author agonizes over writing every line of the book manuscript. Then he or she fusses about the editing, the formatting, the layout, the cover. When all that creative work is finally completed, the author—an introvert during this time, working in PJs—is forced to change roles and to promote his or product, first to get it published, and then to get it sold.

I’d gone through the process once, but that didn’t make it easier the second time around. Because now, with two books on the market and a third book still “in creative,” I’m expected to take on both roles, sometimes within the same day: donning my “presentation clothes” and my smiley face to promote the first two of the series, and then changing to my PJs and trying to get into my creative mode. Schizophrenic? You bet!

This spring, I presented at the Pt. Loma Optimists Club, MOAA (Military Officers Association) check exact name, Southwestern Yacht Club, Pacific Beach Library, and Upstart Crow in San Diego; and at Changing Hands bookstore in Phoenix. I exhibited at Strictly Sail Oakland (the largest sailboat convention on the West Coast), at the SCWC booth at the L.A. Festival of Books, and participated in the downtown library’s Local Author Exhibit. I gave on-line interviews and two podcasts: The Sailing Podcast by David Anderson, an Australian, and The Gathering Road on Women’s Radio, by Elaine Masters.

I breathed a sigh of relief when my last presentation on the Spring Author Tour, at West Marine on May 10th, was over.  I can’t say I enjoyed all the organizing, setting up the displays, and hauling those heavy books (over 2 pounds each) to various venues! Always, before I speak, I worry about forgetting what I want to say. So I update my cards, tailoring them for each event. But when I begin to speak, I relate to my audience and my stage fright dissipates. I just go with the flow. I wrote this nautical series because I wanted to share. I realize that when I speak, I’m still sharing, but in another way.

Gunter also frets over whether the computer and projector will work. But at the end, he loves interacting with audiences! The Q&A afterwards is our favorite part. Why? Perhaps it’s because we haven’t lost the love for that surge of adrenalin that occurs when one is living on the edge. We never know what question will lead to yet another revelation about adventure travel.

Audience questions challenge us and perk up our lives. And many of those we meet become our readers and our friends.

Here are a few photos from my Spring Author Tour. To see more, please visit my author Facebook page.

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I love voyages!  I love mixing it up: the inner spiritual voyage and the outer physical voyage. While taking the “outer voyage,” circumnavigating the world––34,000 nautical miles in a 43-foot catamaran––I was taking an inner voyage as well.  Our ship’s library was stocked with hundreds of books.

After becoming a landlubber again, I began to consolidate my eighteen journals into a trilogy called “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss.” In the process, I undertook yet another voyage. Because, as Henry Miller once said, “Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery.  The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become the path himself.”

After the creative exhilaration of writing each chapter of the second book in my trilogy, “Sailing the South Pacific,” came months of grueling rewriting, editing, polishing, and proofing.  And just when I thought I was sailing toward the home stretch, all kinds of production problems reared their ugly heads.  But finally, all of them were solved, and there I was at LightSource Printing in Anaheim, watching the cover of my new book roll off the press.

Last Friday, the first copies of the book came out of Bindery, and were delivered to my home.  The remainder will be delivered to Amazon and other outlets this week.

I tell my audiences that I write to share with them the stories of my adventures and moments of bliss. That’s true. I do write to share.

Today though, I realize that Miller was right. Writing also allows me to take yet another Voyage of Discovery. It has been quite the trip!

Part I of the “Northern Bliss/Heritage Home” blog series

August 2012, Balsam Lake, Wisconsin

“What will happen to all your beautiful flowers when we leave here in three weeks?” Gunter asks as he watches me just a’diggin’ in the dirt.

I’ve been gardening for over two hours this morning. Enhancing the flower gardens here at our lake home is more than just a chore.  I am returning to my roots. I was born in Polk County, Wisconsin—in Cushing, less than 30 miles from here.

I set my tools down and move my kneeling pad over to the next clump of weeds to be pulled. “Leave? I’m just settling in, marking my territory.”

Digging in the dirt has become a compulsion since we moved many of our belongings from San Diego in mid-July.

“This reminds me of carrying pails and pails of water for my mother’s and grandmother’s gardens,” Gunter answers.  He points to the foxgloves. “The flowers in Bavaria were very similar to these. Only the flowers had different names.”

Foxglove (Digitalis Purpurea)

Huge hydrangea

Tiger lilies grow well in Wisconsin

I’m not sure how to explain this drive to dig in the dirt, to go back to one’s roots. The compulsion comes from deep within and the process provides deep satisfaction. And when I’m all tired out, my chores completed for the morning, Gunter says I always return with a smile on my face. So it must be good for me.

Even though I’ve been a sailor throughout much of my life, and made my home on the sea for eight years, as a farmer’s daughter, the need to return to the land is a primal instinct. This is not unusual. Captain Cook, who sailed farther than any man had sailed before, retired on a farm in England near where he grew up, that is, until he was called back to sea again for his final voyage.

This land also provides for me a sense of completion. My family lost its dairy farm to foreclosure after the dreaded Bang’s Disease swept through the herd and the milk could not be sold. I was a freshman in college at the time, and I never had an opportunity to say good-bye to that land. It all happened so fast. Perhaps that created a longing in me that I’ve buried as deep as the foxgloves I have planted here.

If so, that longing didn’t surface until I attended my 50th class reunion in St. Croix Falls in September, 2010. I rarely attended reunions, and may not have come to this one had not my granddaughter scheduled her wedding the week prior. During the event, a classmate of mine asked me, “Are you here to look at a summer home?” Her question startled me. “Lake homes here are selling for half of what they were before the 2008 crash.”

That comment set the process in motion.

For the next two days, Gunter and I drove through the countryside admiring the fall foliage.  “I love all the deep blue lakes, the lush rolling hills, and the wonderful colors. It reminds me of my own roots in Bavaria,” Gunter exclaimed.

“That’s probably why so many German immigrants settled in Wisconsin,” I replied.  “They must have thought the same thing.”

“Lots of FOR SALE signs around here,” he noted. “Interested?”

My heart skipped a beat. “Yes! The home should be here in Polk County.”

Now why did I say that? I’ve never even thought of buying a home here. Not sure I want this. Too many memories—not all of them pleasant.

But the die was cast. Actually, the die had been cast two years earlier, when we completed our world circumnavigation. The planned trilogy, “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss,” would cover the eight years of our sailing adventures. But even then, I thought about writing a book about what happened in the years before we left to go sailing.

During presentations promoting the first book in the series, MAIDEN VOYAGE, many readers asked about our lives before sailing. That would make an interesting story: how did a farm girl from Wisconsin who wanted to escape her past and succeed at business and a boy from Munich who loved math and science meet each other—after many wrong turns in life—and become soul mates?

What would I need to do to write such a book?

I would need to pick up the dialect I’d forgotten. I would need to stay where I grew up for a while to re-acquaint myself with the farming culture again, to regain that sense of place.

OK, I can do that!

Beware of setting a goal. It just may have a way of happening before you know it! I had only a goal. I had no strategy in mind, not even a plan. My writing goal, however, seemed to fit with our shared goal of providing ways to keep our families in touch with each other. Since both of our parents died, Gunter and I have taken seriously the responsibilities of being the matriarch and patriarch of our respective families. We sponsor family reunions where all the children, grandchildren and cousins can get together. Could having one central property for those reunions—sort of a Heritage Home—work for us?

The following year, 2011, we organized a family reunion by renting a cabin on the shores of Balsam Lake, the largest lake in Polk County, to market test the idea.

If we build it, will they come?

It worked!  During the main event, a barbeque on the cabin’s big deck, I counted 28 attendees; they were all related. So the search for an appropriate lake home began.

If it all proceeds smoothly, it’s meant to be.

By the time we left the cabin, Gunter and I had made an offer on a home on nearby White Ash Lake.  After returning to San Diego, and negotiating back and forth, we soon found ourselves the proud owners of a family home.

But the task of remodeling it to make room for our four children and their spouses, five grandchildren (two with spouses), and two great grandchildren was just beginning. We would knock out three walls to make a massive Great Room. I planned the kitchen and dining area to seat 17, the patios to seat 16 and all the bedrooms—including a bunk room we would build—to sleep 16, with space for additional air mattresses. Not all would always come at the same time, but there are always a few extras in any gathering! I am the eldest of ten (nine living), visits by siblings needed to considered as well.

As my readers know by now, Gunter and I love to travel! We had already committed to two international trips—to India and South America—when we purchased the home. In between trips, Mike, my son-in-law, and I managed the remodeling (he did most of the work himself). It was an amazing process and a tight schedule, but a mere two hours before the first visitors arrived in July, the carpet had been laid in the bunk room and the bunk beds installed! (For those readers asking why the India and South America travel blogs remain unfinished, this is my excuse. They will be completed sometime this winter!)

When all the hub-bub becomes too much, I retreat to my garden to dig in the dirt. The birds chirp merrily as they perch on their feeders and splash in their birdbath. The breeze whispers through the pines, birch and oak—so different from the palms in Southern California. And across our dead end street near the woods, a doe stands and stares, daring me to chase her from my hostas.

Life is good here.

She dares me to chase her away from my hostas

 

Yellow Goldfinch at the bird feeder

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Writing about Patagonia is one of those rites of passage for adventure travel writers.

Yet, Patagonia is not a specific region on the map. It has never been a separate country. Vast and vague, it is an undefined region that encompasses 900,000 square kilometers of southern Argentina and Chile. Some writers say that it can be effectively defined by its soil—made up of basalt pebbles left behind by glaciers—and its flora, a low bush called jarilla. Other writers, such as Bruce Chatwin, describe Patagonia by its climate, a wind that blows incessantly with terrific force from October to March “stripping men to the raw” and making small planes fly backward rather than forward. Paul Theroux simply refers to Patagonia as “travel book country,” the kind adventurers dream of because it combines wilderness, wide open spaces, and the grassy plains of the pampas with the majestic backdrop of the Andes. To summarize, Patagonia is all about light, space, and wind.

While the Veendam plows through the rough seas surrounding Tierra del Mundo, the end of the world, I read up on the inland areas that we will not see during this cruise. I have plenty of time, since both Günter and I are holed up in our cabin with terrific colds and coughs. I begin with Chatwin’s In Patagonia, and proceed to Simon Worrall’s River of Desire. To wrap it up, I read a novel on my Kindle called See Before You Die: Patagonia, by J.E.Leigh, whose heroine is a travel writer/photographer who takes a trip to—where else?—Patagonia.

Travelers from Darwin on have noted how the very bleakness of Patagonia seizes the imagination. In other words, nothingness supposedly forces the mind on itself. Well, here I can sit out on the balcony of our cabin here and view the nothingness of the sea. And while sailing Pacific Bliss, I remember the nothingness of days at sea, staring at blue on blue underneath the dome of the sky.  I can remember night after night underneath a canopy of stars.  Is nothingness on land any different?

In Patagonia, the writers say, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks more; the believers pray more and become closer to God; and the lonely become even lonelier, and sometimes commit suicide.  And everywhere, these eccentric personalities with fantastic stories turn up. Anything can happen. It seems to me, they could just as well be describing life at sea!

Perhaps Patagonia is just an ocean passage for landlubbers, substituting a horse for a boat!

Chatwin describes a poet he met who went to Patagonia for a visit and stayed for forty years. He cried, “Patagonia, she is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets you go.”

I could say the same about the sea!

Okay, so now I’ve dutifully written about Patagonia. I doubt that I’ll do it again.

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.