Around the World in 68 Days
Wednesday, January 22, 2003
We're home! Here's what happened the last few days. We probably won't be adding any more to this history, but check back periodically because at some point there will be pictures. We took about two thousand pictures or so during the trip, and it'll take awhile to find the best ones and to make them presentable.
We stayed three nights with Ray's cousin Gene in his house which he built next to a big crater on the southeast part of Hawaii. It's off the grid -- the electricity comes from the sun with a diesel generator as backup. He and his wife Diane live pretty normally, except there's never any need for heat (the house has no insulation whatsoever, and it has a wood stove to help keep things dry during the rains) and they're pretty aggressive about turning off lights. The jungle is pretty aggressive about growing everywhere really fast -- between mowers, machetes, and a half dozen sheep, they can make a few trails and try to suppress the more egregious invasive alien vines. There's an alien frog which arrived in a nearby state park that will probably be all over the place in a few years, making it harder for the native birds to find insects.
We went to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, and found out that you can only see glowing lava after sunset when it gets dark. We decided to bail on that plan and wait until Mauna Loa goes off sometime later this year -- hopefully Gene will call us so we can go back and watch it erupt. We drove around the Kiluaea crater, walked through a lava tube, smelled some sulfur fumes, and visited their museum. We also found the Volcano Island Honey factory, which makes a really good creamy white honey out of mesquite flowers, and bought a few jars.
We flew to Orange County on a cheap one-way Aloha 737-700, the first 737 that can make such a long flight. There isn't much room in them to stand up and stretch during a long flight, but otherwise it was fine. Boris picked us up in Ray's car, and we had fun seeing old friends at the NAMM show and at yet another "Opcode" dinner at Special Thai (including "exploded fish"). On Sunday, our visit to the Owl House inspired us to go see Watts Towers, Simon Rodia's sculpture which he made in 35 years of his spare time using concrete and broken tiles he brought home from work. Soon it was dinner time again and we assembled more LA friends at AOC, a wine/cheese/tapas bar in West Hollywood which was wonderful. Monday we headed home, stopping in Lompoc to see the Mikowiczes, and in Palo Alto to have Monday night dinner with Cyndi and to restock the fridge.
Now we're home. We've started to sort out four grocery bags full of mail, including Christmas cards. Our friends Justin and Andie stayed here when we were gone and left everything very clean and intact, though we're finding the various clothes and kitchen gadgets which were moved. There's lots of TV for me to catch up on, and we're back to using our own computers. And after eating in so many restaurants we'll definitely be eating at home for a long time. At least until Friday night.
Wednesday, January 15, 2003
We spent two days in Melbourne, one day walking around the center of the city, and another day taking the tram to various neighborhoods. Unlike Sydney, it's filled with modern architecture, starting with the new Federation Square, which has lots of crazy patchwork buildings which house the Australian Center for the Moving Image, the aboriginal art of the National Gallery of Victoria, and a bunch of retail. One of the most dramatic examples is the Melbourne Centre, a shopping center which dares to enclose a historic shot factory tower with a large glass cone. There are lots of cafes everywhere, and I decided that my favorite coffee drink was a "strong flat white" (two shots with a little milk, served in a cup), though each one I got was different. Walking around the city, there were lots of "arcades" -- small enclosed shopping malls in the downtown area, some dating back to the turn of the century; any claims about Edina Minn being the first mall are just wrong. We had our first Japanese food and our first Chinese food in awhile (and another delightful California lunch) in Chinatown. The next day we went to Valencia St. I mean Brunswick St., Columbus Ave I mean Lygon St, Castro St I mean Commercial Rd, and a couple other neighborhoods called South Yarra, where we ate at a delicious Sardinian restaurant where the chef just sent food until we told him to stop, and St. Kilda, a strip like Venice Beach but with lots of patisseries.
Someone suggested that on the drive back to Sydney we go on the Alpine Way through the Snowy Mountains. We called to reserve a room and they told us the roads were closed because of bushfires. Indeed, the air was very smoky all the way up from Melbourne well into New South Wales. We decided to go to the capital, Canberra, instead, and the sky got clear but we could see impressively terrible fire clouds on the horizon. Canberra also has some interesting modern architecture -- the National Museum of Australia has a 30-meter-high looped strip that serves partially as something to walk under towards the entrance, a big outdoor space with ponds and map fragments on a structure that would have been fun to skate on, and inexplicably some very large Braille characters high up on the exterior that only a blind god could read. We also had to go see Parliament House, the counterpart of the US Capitol building, which like a certain fantasy house is built into a hillside and has a grass roof. Canberra is so much less of a big deal than Washington DC -- it has 300,000 people and isn't a major metropolitan area, and lets people visit the Parliament House, including walking onto the roof, without the excessive security measures.
The US probably has as many video cameras watching people as Australia, but in Australia they're very upfront about it -- there are signs pointing it out everywhere. The speed limits (and red lights) are enforced by speed cameras, as they are in South Africa, but I get the feeling that they're more pervasively implemented in Australia because I never saw anyone going more than 10 kph over any speed limit in Australia and I was passed constantly in South Africa by people going very fast. You really feel like you're being nagged after awhile -- there's just sign after sign after sign that speed cameras are used, speed camera ahead, blah blah blah. There was a billboard showing a speedometer with the speed limit 100 indicated and the needle pointing to 130 and the caption "You're going $524". When we arrived in Melbourne, the Avis lady told us about how complicated it is to use the tollway, which doesn't have toll booths and only uses cameras. We decided to get off at the beginning of the toll segment and just go on the normal street -- immediately upon arriving the normal street we encountered a sobriety checkpoint, where I was waved over and asked for "just one long continuous breath, please" -- no ID or anything; I was going again seconds later (a few hours after wine tasting in Tasmania). I guess this is how they encourage use of the tollway.
We're back in the USA in Hawaii. We saw Aron Nelson this morning and were thrilled to find out that he's supporting his family and paying his mortgage by playing music. Now we're on the big island for a few days, and hope to see some lava. We're at Ray's cousin's house which I'll tell you about later after I've seen it in daylight...
Friday, January 10, 2003
One more thing about the Cradle Mountain area -- it's a great place to spend your twentieth anniversary of being with a wonderful person.
Wednesday, January 08, 2003
Sorry we haven't posted for awhile -- Tasmania has been a lot of fun, and the Internet cafes are a little expensive and remote from hiking trails.
We spent a day in Sydney walking around Fisherman's Wharf I mean the Sydney Harbour, the Botanic Gardens and the Opera House. Such a whimsically beautiful piece of architecture, but it seems that they think that since they've done that they don't need any further such examples. Oh well. We had a wonderful dinner with ex-Opcodian Brendan Dwan and Katherine, and the next day we flew to Tasmania.
Tasmania is beautiful (except for Queenstown, a mining community, but we're told even that's prettier than it was 40 years ago). We drove around the shoreline south of Hobart, which looks like the San Juan Islands, went on the Tahune Forest Airwalk, a metal catwalk up in the tops of the regrowth-after-logging eucalyptus trees which is more of an engineering stunt than a serious lesson in the overstory. We went on a six-hour walk in Cradle Mountain National Park -- even though we didn't go to the summit we probably climbed up and down as many rocks as we would have if we did. They have signs at the start telling you to keep on the trail, and then omit to mention over which boulder the trail officially is. It's tundra up there -- lots of really pretty moss and lichens and wildflowers and bogs. We stayed in a little trailer home wilderness cabin operated by Weindorfer's Great Food and Real Coffee, which is run by a charming woman who has unlimited energy. We've seen lots of different landscapes, lots of tree ferns which they call "man ferns", lots of wallabies (perhaps some were small kangaroos), lots of opossums, and an echidna crossing the road for reasons of his own. Today we're going to see a lavender farm, taste some wine, and fly to Melbourne in the evening.
Thursday, January 02, 2003
We've had some really nice food in Bangkok. Ray has been on a quest for something he had in 1983 he calls "exploded fish" which he's never seen in the US. We've found it here, in fact, several times -- it's called yam pla duk foo, or catfish salad, or fluffy catfish salad, or whatever. A place called "Lemon Grass" had really great iced lemon grass tea, and some very tasty Chicken Southern Style, thigh meat with cinnamon and probably 20 other spices. A little place called "Koloang Seafood" or "Koloang Home Kitchen" on the river had roasted ark shell clams. The first time in the US I had the Cambodian/Thai appetizer where you put the peanuts and dried shrimp and stuff in spinach leaves, it had spicy peppers. Every other time it's had stupid bell peppers. Here both times it's had nice spicy peppers, and another kind of leaf. A nice hotel restaurant where we met up with some friends from Switzerland had great grilled prawns. Another gallery/cafe called "Gallery Cafe" had a delicious sugary deep-fried chicken, and some nice crab soup. Durians and mangosteens bought on the street and eaten in our hotel have been good.
Last night we had our most expensive meal here, at the Oriental Hotel's Sala Rim Naam. It was in a big room which looked like you were sitting on the floor but had wells under the tables so you could put your feet down. In fact, you had to -- when Ray knelt in the Thai-eating way, some waiter told him he had to put his feet under the table. In the middle of the room was a big stage, and later in the meal there were six interesting and varied traditional Thai dance performances, with live music accompanying them. The big disappointment was the food -- there was only a set menu which was all old and cold, from steam tables in the kitchen, and not very innovative or interesting. No one told us in advance that if we forgot about the show and ate out on the terrace in the steamy Bangkok evening we'd get the a la carte menu which might have been a lot better, if only from having been made to order. It's probably time to go back to our usual plan of not considering hotel restaurants.
Yesterday we went to Ayuthaya, the former capital of Thailand. There were several little ruined temple complexes, not nearly as ornate and not nearly in as good shape as Angkor Wat, even though they were more recent. They just didn't build stuff like they'd used to. Today we're going to see the "Teak Palace" in Bangkok, and then get on a plane to Australia for the next chapter in the vacation.
Tuesday, December 31, 2002
It's New Year's Eve. I think we're going to have a nice dinner at a restaurant which has a normal menu as opposed to a $X00 gala special champagne party, and go back to our hotel, and watch New Year's on TV, go to sleep, and get up early to sightsee.
Anyway, Happy New Year!!!
Sunday, December 29, 2002
We're back in Bangkok now, at a different hotel my cousin mentioned which costs less but has no credit -- you have to make phone calls at the front desk.
Cambodia was very "interesting" and "educational":
-- it was the only place where you drive on the right (unless you want to drive on the left)
-- it was one of the few places without international ATMs on our trip
-- most tourist transactions happen in US dollars, with bills given as change. Cambodian bills fill in where US coins would have been used
-- the countryside is very beautiful and non-polluted; rice growing in fields, houses up on stilts, though the monsoons don't flood very high; nice magenta waterlilies
-- frogs hanging out everywhere in the evening, including the sidewalks of our hotel
-- the $20/ticket for the temple ruins go mostly to a Vietnamese oil company and the politicians who made the deal; a small amount goes to restoration
-- a shadow puppet show that was a surprise during dinner last night was performed entirely by little kids, including all the music
-- various governments are helping: the Japanese and French are doing lots of restoration, the Swiss entirely underwrite a hospital for children
-- many people carry two pigs on their backs on the back of their motorcycles, presumably to market in the city
-- motorcycles are used to pull various carts
Anyway, now we're back in civilization -- we'll see what sightseeing can be accomplished over the new year.
Saturday, December 28, 2002
Thursday we began our Holiday In Cambodia. We chose to go by land so we could see the Thai and Cambodian countryside, which is very pretty. This included a 5-hour bus ride from Bangkok to the border, a little over an hour going through immigration and hassling with the "taxi mafia" to get a taxi to drive to Siem Reap, the town near the Angkor Wat temple ruins complex, and 3 hours on the taxi, which was a little like India, only at 55 mph on the parts of the road that were good. Our taxi driver was very experienced, and knew when he could go fast, and when a pothole was coming up. Some of the road was very bad, some was merely bad, and there were some stretches that were almost OK. The most interesting part was a bridge which was out -- the taxi driver had to pay some "tolls" to go through people's backyards. We got to our hotel and asked for a guide and driver to go to the temples in the morning.
Here's Ray's version of the taxi ride:
I doubt that Cambodia has traffic laws. They hardly have roads. We were on highway 6 yesterday in a Toyota Camry (they ought to be making ads in Cambodia) All the taxis are Camrys. Anyway, never mind it was a dirt road with lots of ruts and holes. Parts of it you could go 100k and parts of it 20. We came to a part where you could only do 0: a long line of trucks and busses indicated a bridge was out. The driver pulled over and talked to a peasant. Never batted an eye. He drove about 300 meters up the road, past the trucks, and made a sharp right into somebody's driveway
oh by the way, in Cambodia they drive on the right!! go figure
"driveway" = two ruts leading to a yard of chickens
My father told me, that when he drove across the United States in 1919, that Indians would sometimes take out the bridges and charge you to be forded or ferried across.
In the yard, about 6 children standing by a bamboo pole mounted across the ruts like a railroad gate. Our taxi driver debated with them about five minutes, handed them 20 Thai baht (nobody in Cambodia uses Cambodian money, only dollars and baht) and they lifted the gate. Their dad was also in the yard, it wasn't all their idea. A few meters farther, another gate manned only by a genuine baby, maybe three years old, but that was settled with intimidation.
Now we were really nowhere. The taxi, this is a stock Toyota Camry remember, drove out across a dry season rice paddy on only the barest of tire tracks. He continued about 500 meters, taking invisible turns where he sensed other cars had turned before him, and came up against a damn irrigation ditch. There were three or four men standing by the ditch. This was the river that the bridge went over, the bridge that was now fallen down. And in between us and the next dry rice paddy was about thirty meters of muck.
I don't want to build up a sense of literary tension here, because at no point did the driver act like anything but Business as Usual. He talked with the three men, evidently about what the right Angle of Attack was, since they had probably prepared the muck for driving; and after a few seconds, and with a man moving his hands and arms subtly guiding him on the other side, he gunned the engine lightly and darted into the swamp.
I was guessing we would sink up to the windows in mud but in fact, the Toyota Camry glided over and up a very steep bank and was back on dry land. 400 dry paddy meters later, and an effortless trip up a REALLY steep levee, and we were back on the road. I didn't know those passenger cars had it in them, particularly powered on whatever fuel you get from old ladies selling gas in two liter coke bottles in rattan-roof stalls on the side of the road. There was no drama, he just drove this poor car up a 45 degree angle, literally, and then he was back on the dirt road, and a few kilometers later the tarmac started up, rush hour in Siem Reap, motorcycles with pigs trussed upside down sideways on the passenger seat in bamboo mats, bicycles with rows of live chickens hanging upside down from wooden poles.
We got up yesterday morning and the hotel guy told us that all the English-speaking guides were busy with other customers. So we went with the driver to the Bayon temple in the Ankgor Thom area, which was very interesting and ornate, and had lots of bas-reliefs and statues and stuff we didn't really understand. It would have been much better with a guide -- later one a guy started informally guiding us and explaining lots of details of some of the bas-reliefs, but at the end he told us he couldn't be seen by the police going out the exit. Too bad there weren't more people like him. I guess it's understandable -- it's the week between Christmas and New Year's, a pretty peak season, they're still building up their tourist industry since things became peaceful here about five years ago, and before that they killed all the people who spoke other languages. But it's a little disappointing. At least we've found good food, including about a kilo of mangosteens a day.
Today when we got up the hotel guy had found a guide who speaks very good English and took us around Angkor Wat, an architecturally impressive temple with five towers, one in the center, representing Mt. Meru, and one in each of four corners, representing the four corners of the world. It also has bas-reliefs in galleries which have survived the last 800 years very well. The guide insists on having lunch, during which we're taking the opportunity to burn pictures onto CD so we have room for more.
Wednesday, December 25, 2002
Today had some interesting cultural disconnects. We went to a bakery in a 5-star hotel, the Amari Watergate, for breakfast (we could stay there after we get back from Angkor Wat for only $89/night but we have reservations at another place for just over $20). The person programming the Muzak reasoned, "it's Christmas, so let's play songs or albums which contain the word Christmas". The result was a very long version of "Mr. Hankey" -- it made for a very festive meal.
Later we went to see the Golden Buddha and had a bite to eat. Then we got in a taxi and asked to go to Wat Pho, a large temple complex which features the Reclining Buddha, an enormous statue. We noticed that the taxi driver was going the other direction, and finally stopped. We were looking at the map, and someone came to help. The taxi driver thought we said Patpong, which is Sex Tourist Central, the place where all the go-go bars to find girls are. (The ones to find boys are elsewhere.) Thai is a pretty tonal language, and I guess our pronunciation is really bad.
The Golden Buddha started out as a large plaster Buddha statue. At some point in its history it got dropped or bumped, and some plaster chipped off revealing that it was really made out of pure gold. Now the plaster has all been removed and it's shown in its full gold glory. The Reclining Buddha (described by Lonely Planet as a beached whale with painted feet) takes up a fairly large building, and is a Buddha lying down on its side, with mother-of-pearl decorations on the bottoms of its feet. It's pretty impressive, as is the entire temple complex it's in.
We haven't really seen Bangkok yet -- we've been making arrangements for our trip to Angkor Wat tomorrow, burning picture CDs, etc. Maybe we'll see more of it today.
Here, instead of Fry's, they have a six-story shopping center very densely packed with small computer stores. It was pretty incredible.
Anyway, what we mostly have to say is:
Tuesday, December 24, 2002
A lot of us are very skeptical about tales from the Mysterious East and attribute them to mass hypnosis, drugs, prestidigitation, even intentional prevarication, but with my own eyes today I saw the most incredible event, and it wasn't an illusion: when we claimed our luggage in Bangkok today, an Indian Airlines employee actually checked our luggage tag to make sure we were picking up the right suitcases.
(To anyone reading this who is younger than say, 35, I should explain, the reason they staple those little tags to your ticket is that they once intended that you take the bags with tags matching, when you got off the plane. If you look at the baggage claim area at, say, SFO, you might be able to see archaeological traces where there used to be a barrier. The ancients would position ladies in PSA outfits at breaks in the barrier to make sure you left with the same bags you got on with. Go google "PSA". "Our smiles aren't just painted brown." As far back as most people can remember, though, the emphasis has been on identifying what you are getting ON the plane with; paan-leaf cutters, nail clippers, libertarian attitudes. This is what travel is all about, seeing things the way they used to be, or the way they might be now, or in the case of India, the way they will be in the United States after another couple of decades. Those of you who don't remember having their baggage tags checked might not believe me when I mention that India was the first place I ever saw homeless people.)
It's not far from Calcutta to Bangkok. Travelocity felt so bad about originally selling us seats that did not, in travel agent lingo, exist, that they gave us executive class seats on that leg at the same price. There was some additional misunderstanding --- a change of equipment perhaps --- Dave is at another computer in this internet cafe near Sukhumvit explaining what he thinks happened --- When you add the first-class fussing-over of any airline to the general fussing-over of India, you can imagine we weren't left alone for a minute on the two hour flight on a nice clean Airbus 310-300. Dave had called up and got us window seats and I watched the Irrawaddy River roll by, and the clouds puffing up over Three Pagodas pass, and down over a surprisingly modern version of Bangkok: freeways with cars staying in their lanes; row houses; neat squared off fields --- it looks a lot like the approach to Heathrow, which was not the case the last time I landed here. The Thai tourist people don't fuss over you; the Thai people lucked into an incredibly diplomatic dynasty --- up to Rama the Ninth and no signs of flagging in political skill --- what a sad comparison to our own dynasty, which is only to Bush the Younger and already in the phase of the idiot-king with warring regents. The result is that modernity is arriving on nobody else's terms. Also, the food is great. I know this from the smells on the street even though I'm still full from Air India.
We took it pretty easy in Calcutta -- about the only touring we did was a half-day taxi tour to a very ornate Jain temple (the ornateness involving lots of silver and gold and other precious things from all over), the house that famous Indian poet I hadn't heard of Rabindranath Tagore died in, and the Marble Palace, a big house where some Maharajah once lived that was chock full of sculptures and paintings from all over the world, that tourists can walk around in and not take pictures of. The amount of not taking pictures in Calcutta was pretty annoying, but I did get a blurry one from the taxi of men bathing on the street, and another one of a couple guys in a rickshaw (the kind propelled by another guy running).
Mainly what we did in Calcutta was eat Bengali food, which is somewhat different from Indian food. Bengali to Hindi is probably like Catalan to Spanish -- similar but different. We went to two reasonably competent hotel restaurants, and to one wonderful independent Bengali restaurant Kewpies. Go there if you're ever in Calcutta, but be sure to make a reservation. We had cauliflower and cabbage because we'd seen them sold everywhere, hadn't seen them on any menus, and had read about a huge glut this season of both of them. The big Bengali traditional dishes are fish in mustard sauce and prawns in coconut sauce and sweet yogurt for dessert. These and everything else were really good. Afterwards, they serve paan -- betel leaf, with betel nut and sweets and other stuff that tastes like soap, which you're supposed to chew for awhile and then spit out. The spit, at least from local professionals, is quite red and it makes their mouths red too.
We were doubly-bumped on our flight from Calcutta to Bangkok. Bumped from economy to executive class because Travelocity sold us an economy ticket when there really weren't any; bumped once again to first class because the flight was overbooked generally. The food wasn't amazing, but it was nice anyway. There were lots of clouds, but Ray did see pieces of Burma and Thailand as we went. (The armrest in first class is so wide I couldn't see out the window very well).
Arriving in Bangkok was a pleasant shock. The airport was modern. The taxi was a nice roomy late-model solid-feeling Toyota (OK, one of the seat belts didn't latch), and the taxi driver drove 130 kph on the freeways, which existed. The freeways had no autorickshaws, cycle rickshaws, rickshaws, bicycles, carts, pedestrians, bulls, or goats. I haven't seen any actual dirt yet in Bangkok -- totally unlike everywhere we went in Africa and India, except maybe Cape Town and Pretoria, it's all pavement and concrete, like most cities in the West. Ray looked out the window at the "sky train" elevated subway and said "We're in Thailand-land!"
It was pretty easy to find an Internet Cafe and an ATM, but it might be harder to find a place to burn our pictures onto CD. We'll see. Also, we have to find a place to eat dinner -- our Lonely Planet guide is the "on a shoestring" edition so it might not be that much help.
Friday, December 20, 2002
When we got to the station to take the Toy Train, there was a mob of people. A Bollywood film crew was filming a former Miss Universe and a famous male movie star, Sharukh Khan, making some movie involving the train. But they let us through, and the train left only 15 minutes late, with a diesel engine instead of a steam engine. The entire day was pretty foggy, so we didn't get any majestic mountain vistas. But it seems to be a major twice-daily event in the lives of many of the people living along the tracks, who stop what they're doing to wave or just look at the people on the train. On the overnight train from Siliguri to Calcutta, we met a very nice "educationist", the director of a Darjeeling-area school who I think was coming to Calcutta to raise money.
We're staying at the Fairlawn Hotel. It was in Lonely Planet's "top-end" section, and I expected the usual vast walls and driveways of a more-than-three-star hotel. Instead, it's the cutest place you ever saw. The small drop-off area is followed by a walk underneath a bunch of plants to a tiny lobby; upstairs there's a sitting room with thousands of books, and the walls are completely covered with various Indian and British pieces of memorabilia. It might not be such a nice place that you'd never leave your hotel room, but it's nice enough you might never leave the hotel. We'll be having lots of Bengali food the next few days at nice restaurants, but one could live on the really great food available on the street.
Wednesday, December 18, 2002
Darjeeling is our "vacation from the vacation" -- we're not madly hiring guides and chasing all over, we're staying three nights, and just generally taking it easy. The other thing which makes it that is that our vacation is to warmer climates than California during the winter; Darjeeling is a vacation from that because it's cold and foggy just like home. I'll be happy to get back to the vacation temperatures in Calcutta.
We might have done a little more chasing all over, hiring a jeep to go to the top of Tiger Hill around sunrise if it had been clear when we woke up this morning. But just like the eclipse seemed to happen on the first day of South Africa's rainy season, the morning we arrived seemed to be the last hours of Darjeeling's mountain viewing season, and so we've just goofed around shopping instead of viewing. I'll buy a photo taken from Tiger Hill instead. They also sell tea here.
Our first night was spent in a dreary old dark cold hotel where you get one small bucket of coal to heat a huge room. The next morning we moved to a charming little place with a good view, and a small electric heater to heat a smaller room. We heard some chanting as we were eating breakfast this morning in our room -- perhaps there was a Buddhist meeting nearby. Yesterday we walked down from our hotel to the Bhutia Busty Gompa, a small festively-decorated Buddhist temple which allegedly has the original copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead -- the friendly monk pointed to a yellow package. He also showed us the murals in the prayer rooms, and blew into a conch with another monk for a few minutes, a really nice one-note concert.
This is really a charming little town -- half the streets are pedestrians only, and the missing foul smell of diesel is replaced by the sweet smells of incense. There's hardly any begging or people trying to sell us stuff. Now, if it were only warm. Tomorrow we'll take the Toy Train back towards Calcutta, an extremely narrow-gauge train which descends these steep hills in 7 hours covering what it took us 3.5 to come up in our delayed taxi. If it's not too foggy, it should be quite beautiful.
Monday, December 16, 2002
We're in Darjeeling upstairs from a basement disco bar, and next to a bakery where they serve Darjeeling tea to people who aren't using the Internet. I suspect if we hung out here all night we would meet every other Westerner in town, which is not a lot. Mostly the tourists here are Indians; the locals are Nepalese or Tibetan refugees. We had a late lunch or early dinner just now (5 PM); ten momos, which are little steamed buns, a big bowl of chicken noodle soup, but the noodles are handmade and round, and banana lassi and lemon tea and Tibetan tea which is made with yak butter so it tastes kind of meaty and salty. I haven't actually had any Darjeeling tea yet, must get to that tomorrow. Cost of dinner: $3 for both of us (cost of hotel: $8/night; they should have started the fire in the fireplace by now)
It has been a tough trip from Varanasi. I think that Indians don't have the sense of personal space that we do. You see people sleeping in their shops on the street with 110 dB of horns and shouts going on around (anybody who thinks that New York is the big vibrant city that never sleeps has never been in Old Town Varanasi on a Saturday night. India has the vibrancy of a net full of minnows being hauled out of the water: nothing like being hours away from death by starvation since the day you were born to animate your desire to sell services to tourists or whoever) As this applies to riding on railroads, we bought a ticket for a 2-tier sleeper which is supposed to be two bunk beds in a compartment, sleeping four people. We got to our compartment and there were seven people there hanging out. They came and went, but all night long there were people that would come and sit down on your bed and talk loud to their friends regardless of the fact that the actual paying customer was already trying to sleep there. The Indian lady across from us took no notice of the two people sitting at her feet, so I tried not to either. If you have never been in a room by yourself the whole of your life, even assuming you have a room which is obviously not the case of the bicycle-rickshaw drivers who sleep on the open seats of their bikes .. well, they probably weren't being rude, they probably just don't regard making noise and sitting on us as an inconvenience. It's not like they were pouring tea on our heads or stealing our luggage.
We got off the train and shared a taxi with a pair of mountain climbers who have a website at www.dcxp.com but I'm not going to go there with 7 computers in a bar sharing a 56K line, you should see how long it takes to draw even Yahoo. It cost 700 rupees ($14.50) for the three and a half hour drive to Darjeeling, at most 90 km ... how can that take three and a half hour you ask? the whole road is 1.5 lanes wide with trucks, buses, vans, jeeps, rickshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians in both directions, much of it through small cities and big towns; the road goes up a very steep tight zigzag to the top of a Himalayan foothill, probably 5000 feet of elevation gain; we were delayed a half hour by an army base where they were doing some damn thing (the military presence here is huge; the train out of Varanasi had soldiers patrolling with rifles and on the next track was a train with artillery mounted on train cars, must be unrest in Assam or more likely a make work project. India's government is rightist like the US and they do try to keep the population terrified so they don't notice they are hungry) but the main thing is the taxi broke down every fifteen minutes or so the whole way; had to have water, or oil, or the driver was blowing out the fuel filter with his lips, good reason to eat curry, and every repair required taking out the front seat. The mountaineer dude tightened down the oil cap and stopped it spraying around. It was all a group effort because when you stop on a road little kids run up and other cars stop to help or steal your passengers or just look. I couldn't recommend Maruti vans even if they were legal to use as lawn ornaments in the US let alone vehicles.
Sunday, December 15, 2002
Under "Dangers and Annoyances" in the Lonely Planet chapter on Varanasi, you're warned about a scheme where the taxi drivers picking you up at the station tell you the hotel you're going to has gone out of business or burned down, and try to steer you to some other place. Indeed, our driver (or the person with him) tried to steer us somewhere else but we insisted that we were going to the Hotel Varanasi Ashok, since we'd already paid for our reservations there. So they took us there. It in fact had stopped operating about six or seven months ago and was an empty shell that we should have taken a picture of. We walked to the fancy hotel next door and got a room -- Hotels4Asia.com owes us a refund at this point.
We went to the tourist office, booked a guide for tours of the Hindu temples in town in the afternoon, a boat ride at sunrise on the Ganges along the steps where Hindu pilgrims bathe and are cremated, and a trip to Sarnath, a Buddhist historical site a few kilometers away. After seeing the temples, our guide and taxi driver located a new restaurant where I've had the first paneer that squeaks that I've had in a long time -- it was in a really nice curry. After that we went to a concert of Indian classical music at the International Music Center Ashram -- sarod and tabla for an hour, and then sitar and tabla for an hour. All the players were very accomplished, and the evening was very enjoyable. All of the players were chewing paan, some kind of slightly conciousness-altering leaf. Almost all of the audience were tourists. After the boat ride and the trip to Sarnath, we were showed the local silk weaving shop and somehow left not empty-handed. Now we really don't have room for anything else.
We're about to go to the "Mughal Serai Junction" train station in the middle of nowhere to catch a train to Darjeeling, a presumably charming spot in the Himalaya foothills where we'll just relax for a few days. Perhaps you've heard of their tea. Hopefully it won't be too cold -- we didn't bring any fleece.
Friday, December 13, 2002
On first glance, the sleeper car on the train from Bombay to Agra looked like it wasn't going to be much fun -- it was essentially a dorm room for 64 people. Each car was divided into eight areas, each of which held 6 people on one side of the aisle and 2 on the other. We were two of six, which were three facing three while seated, and upper middle and lower bunks when sleeping. The train left PRECISELY on time, and they quickly brought tea and snacks, which we figured along with the food we brought would make a sufficient dinner. Then, they brought dinner. All the food was modest but very tasty -- even the bread sticks had some interesting unidentifiable spice. Sleeping was actually pretty pleasant -- there were straps to lock your luggage to, all the lights turned off, and my earplugs from the plane came in handy to deal with the snoring guy on the top bunk. In the morning, there was breakfast. A nice guy on the train took us with him using his favorite taxi driver to get to Agra.
Agra is big (over a million), polluted, and not very urban (no international ATMs, lots of pigs, monkeys, dogs, bulls, and your occasional camel; cycle-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, and not many taxis). The first afternoon we went to the Taj Mahal -- it's a very beautiful building. We went late enough, but it was pretty cloudy so we didn't really get to see the building's colors change as the sun set.
The next day we took a Government Tourist Office taxi to Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned city containing a palace and a tomb about 30 km from Agra, and a guide explained about Akbar, a Mughul emperor and his three wives (one Muslim, one Hindu, one Christian), showing us the areas where each wife lived. After abandoning Fatehbur Sikri, which was too far from water, Akbar built Agra Fort, which contained another magnificent palace, one part of which later was a prison for Akbar's grandson Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, so that he wouldn't build a black one across the river. We also went to Akbar's tomb. These buildings were primarily Muslim in design -- they brought in architects from Persia, but there were lots of Hindu and Christian design elements in the ornate decor. This morning we saw another tomb designed by Shah Jehan before he did the Taj Mahal.
We took lots of pictures -- sorry the internet connections here don't make uploading any of them very realistic. Just wait until January.
A characteristic of the local economy is that there aren't boundaries to any economic transaction, or even to any pre-contractual negotiations. It is simply not possible to politely dissuade a taxi driver from taking you to one of his cousin's shops on the way to a destination. Not even a government-owned taxi driver. Nor is there any way of telling an auto-rickshaw driver no, you're only walking fifty meters. I think what they are actually doing is begging, and the autorickshaw is their cup. An auto rickshaw is a threewheeled open gizmo with a lawnmower motor. Surprisingly, you can fit an extended family into one --- grandma, mom dad and the kids, and a few others who happen to be going to the destination. Very strong structural elements on the rickshaw combined with malnutrition on the part of the passengers make this possible (the coffins in the imperial tombs would not fit a child). The blacksmiths like everyone else have shops where the sidewalks would be and they are busy. Anyway, the rickshaw drivers follow you to the door of wherever you are walking --- I suspect that people of our economic class walk less in India than they do in Los Angeles --- or if you are very rude they will say. "Bye bye sir, good for you, not for me," as if your failure to be going anywhere were a personal affront.
We had some really good South Indian vegetarian meals last night, which together cost less than a glass of Pernod we had waiting for the Sheraton's disappointingly ordinary restaurant to open the night before.
Tuesday, December 10, 2002
Finally, I got to post an update. I've been trying lots of Internet cafes in Bombay, and they always messed up. We're waiting for the overnight train to Agra, and I seem to have found a cybercafe that lets me post updates. Yay! Too bad the return key sticks. I'll use the one on the numeric keypad.
We got together last night with Cyndi, who had come to India for a wedding and was returning to Bombay to fly home. She told us about having been scammed by a driver her Delhi 5-star hotel found for her, who took her to see the Taj Mahal for 45 minutes, and then took her to an endless string of carpet and antique junk dealers. She filed a complaint and the hotel has fired that driver. India is a little trying -- one is constantly assaulted in the tourist areas by beggars and touts. No, I don't want a peacock feather fan. No, I already have postcards. And I definitely don't need a six-foot balloon. Ray tells me Agra will be worse. Cyndi was wonderful to agree to take home some of our heavy and breakable items so we don't have to haul them around the next six weeks.
If we had seen the eclipse near Kruger Park, we would have been tempted to drive through it, but that would have been wrong. It's incredibly huge and there are so many interesting things to stop and see that you really have to stay in the park. Ray's original plan was to get to Pretoria during the day after the eclipse, and just hang out there, decompress, and have some nice food. But when I found out that we could book a hut in Kruger that night, I jumped at the chance. Even though it ended up involving getting up at 3:45 AM, driving through the park for the next 12 hours, and then driving to Pretoria in driving rain, getting there at 8:45 a little late for our dinner reservation, those twelve hours, and the five spent on the way to the camp the night before, are some of the finest I've ever spent. I'm incredibly happy driving through an African wildlife park with Ray, seeing some bird or antelope, watching it for awhile, looking it up in the book, and then moving on. Ray's correct in stating that we really should spend at least a week there, but I'm still so happy to have gotten a day.
We saw the "big five" I mentioned before, but I was wrong -- the Big Five includes leopard (which we didn't see), not giraffe. Still, we saw five lions walking along the road right next to the car; a herd of dozens of baboons crossing the road, many with little baby baboons hanging on below and nursing; a herd of dozens of elephants crossing the road the other direction; giraffes here and there, with the usual red-billed oxpeckers hanging on them; a few kudu and a group of waterbuck (which a local told us are thought of as having sat down on a freshly painted toilet seat, since they have a white ring around their tail), and too many impala to mention. There was a tree filled with vultures, another with grey louries, lots of solitary eagles which never matched any of the drawings in the book, some dwarf mongoose, and a beautiful tortoise who had come to drink from a puddle next to the road just after the rain started. The local I mentioned was a young student from Johannesburg who had driven her back wheels off the road while trying to make a u-turn; we took her to the next camp, which probably helped us keep on schedule.
Yesterday we took a nine-hour flight to Bombay, a bustling, polluted city of 16 million people; we're staying in a really nice "eco-hotel" next to the airport. I'm glad I'mnot driving -- every day there are several million near-collisions. Crossing a street is a game of Frogger but it's all very natural to the locals. Yesterday we took a taxi to the Prince of Wales Museum; the taxi driver pretty much insisted on waiting for us while we were in the museum; he waited for us outside the internet cafe and waited for us during dinner, all so he could take us back to the hotel. My favorite exhibits at the museum were under the fans and in the air-conditioned room.
Today -- surprise -- we got the same taxi driver. We made him let us out in this twisted maze of tiny market streets. He ws adamant about not letting us out there. "It's dangerous. It is the market for thieves." (literally, the Chor Bazaar) This is Indian English for "this is a street where I will not get commissions if you buy a 2 kg brass 'OM' to hang over your door" and it scares the taxi drivers worse than the traffic. We have been walking around all afternoon, looking at billions of tiny storefronts, one which sells wrenches, the next which sells bearings, etc. The next block might have antiques, or jewelry, or fabric. We offered to buy some little brass things, but the seller wasn't in a mood to bargain, so we left.
Wednesday, December 04, 2002
Sunday we drove to a campground in the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary in Swaziland which had some nice little huts. They have lots of various sorts of antelopes and birds, but no "big five" (lion, giraffe, rhino, elephant, buffalo). We went on a little walk to the hippo pond, and as the sun set, it was so Garden of Eden -- a beautiful sunset over the mountains, with zebra and blesbok grazing in the bush (little blesbok frolicking next to their moms), and a flock of sacred ibis flying from a tree by the campground to a tree overlooking the hippo pool.
Monday we drove to the place we are staying at for the eclipse. We took a dirt road from Swaziland into South Africa which ended up being a little rough and stressful on the South Africa side; after rejoining the tarred road, we sped past of lots of cute stuff near Kruger national park, a probably empty waterfall, a natural bridge, and a scenic river canyon. We did go to a really nice restaurant in Tzaneen, and at 11 pm ended up at Knott's Trail Camp, the closest place we could find to the eclipse zone when booking only six months in advance. (This is a gross simplification -- we didn't have directions to the camp, didn't rent a cell phone, the public phones are as bad here as in the US, and the restaurant really helped us find our way, including giving us a map showing all the new names -- the Northern Province is being renamed Limpopo, and all the town names are being renamed as well.) Knott's Trail Camp is a "conservancy", formed by a bunch of white farmers dedicating their land to conserving game while hoping to protect it from violent takeover like is happening now in Zimbabwe.
Tuesday we awoke to complete overcast. We were assured that this was pretty normal for the area south of a little mountain range called the Soutensberg, and that north of it everything would be clear. We set out to scout around a bit so we'd be familiar with our options for the eclipse. We could either drive two hours up to Messina, or two hours east towards Kruger Park to get close to the centerline. Everywhere we went north of Soutensberg in fact was completely clear. Messina had worse traffic, but was really a desert. The Kruger route crossed the actual centerline, but there was lots of vegetation, and likely more clouds and rain.
This morning, Wednesday, we awoke around 3:30 AM and watched the clear night sky quickly become complete overcast. We decided to chance the traffic towards Messina thinking it had better prospects for thinner clouds, leaving at 4:30. The traffic turned out not to be too bad, and we got to a decision point where we could go out to the centerline, or up to Messina, and stopped and watched the clouds for awhile. They seemed to be an advancing front from the south, advancing a little slower than we could drive. So we proceeded north, and when we got to Messina it seemed like it would be cloudy by the time the eclipse got there. We drove west (we couldn't take the rental car into Zimbabwe, and it'd have taken too long to get across the border anyway), and eventually reached a spot where there weren't too many clouds, but still enough within the totality zone that the eclipse would last long enough to be worth seeing. Cloud after cloud crossed the sun, but as the crucial moment (8:18 AM UT+2) arrived, there were no clouds, and we saw a very beautiful, bright, short eclipse, probably a little less than a minute. We didn't see any prominences, not much corona, and we saw Venus. It did make all the driving and research worth it, though, and now we can put on our "2002 Eclipse Eye-Witness" t-shirts we bought yesterday. Also, now we can join the locals in wishing for rain to put an end to their drought.
The traffic here in Messina is familiar to anyone exiting a concert at Shoreline. We are hanging out at the fairgrounds, where the shopkeepers are packing up their tshirts, eclipse viewers, clay pots, paintings, and eventually their Internet Cafe. Perhaps we'll find some interesting things to do with the rest of the day.
Sunday, December 01, 2002
Last night we stayed in a Bed And Breakfast in Durban. Not some little motel that serves breakfast, not even a cute one like a couple nights ago in Knysna, in which we were in the "honeymoon suite" with a sitting area in a gable. No, this was A Family's Actual House, with a guest room, and they pretty much stopped what they were doing to take care of us. They had a very cute thing that converted two twin beds into a king bed, embroidered zebra pillowcases and sheets, designer soap. They did our laundry, and fixed an enormous breakfast. Lots of stained glass -- the front door, many windows, a little screen in front of their fireplace. He was from an originally European family, but his family lived in Kenya for three generations. She's from Ireland, and was talking about "Irish hospitality". Definitely very hospitable, and nicer than the Holiday Inn Garden Court by the very crowded beachfront.
The internet cafe we're in is pretty nice -- it's been playing really pleasant interesting modern music the whole time we've been here. A restaurant in Knysna played good jazz. Other than these two, we've had pretty obnoxious Muzak everywhere we've been in South Africa. The internet cafe was able to burn cds of the last week of pictures, but charged dearly for it. Also, its connection is really slow. But at least it charges by the minute.
Yesterday we saw a bunch of caution signs on the road with a picture of a cow with a phone number underneath. Ray said "Talk to a live cow." I wish we'd gotten a picture.
Friday, November 29, 2002
What does celebrity bring to anything, for that matter? A worker I guess you would describe as "ditzy" and blonde, at the Rust en Vrede winery in Stellenbosch, approached us and asked us to sign a bottle for her. This is of course another instance of being mistaken for Z.Z. Top. The people who mistake us for Papa Noel have a different tone of voice. In most cases it hasn't changed yet. Anyway, the interesting thing here was that as a kind of a random affectation, I said "We aren't who you think we are," instead of saying "We aren't Z.Z. Top," and it quickly became apparent that she did not know who we were supposed to be, either. I don't actually know the names of the two persons we are supposed to resemble, although being connected to the Internet i suppose I could find out quickly enough except that opening new Windows in Windows is tedious compared to on the Mac --- another instance of advertising your weakest point, calling that operating system "Windows". I remember when Dean Ballard showed me a beta version of Windows 2 back in the 1980's some time ... the feel of it hasn't changed that much. So I couldn't help her out with who we were supposed to be, and I refused to mention the name of the band which was the only clue I had; and we never signed the wine bottle of course but what does it mean, to ask a stranger for an autograph because he looks like someone you feel you ought to be familiar with (as an icon, not as a person --- there are all sorts of people you want to approach on the street because you feel you ought to know them based on their pileation or something)?
I very much appreciate Dave doing all the driving. It's like being on a family vacation in the 1950's, looking out the window on a two lane road and holding the map on my lap. I miss that you can't get free maps from gas stations any more. On the other hand, it's nice that you can get post cards for free from pubs and the like, although all the good ones are always gone.
Ostriches really do lay their heads down on the ground. You go by a pasture of ostriches and there are all these fluffy brown blobs suspended on three props.
We've successfully avoided Thanksgiving by being in South Africa. Maybe the stuffed quail I had for lunch today can be our little Thanksgiving dinner -- we would have liked to have guinea fowl because they're annoying but apparently they're even tougher than usual this time of year so they don't offer them.
We spent another day and a half tasting wine around Stellenbosch, and hopefully we'll recognize some of it on the teensy South Africa shelves when we get back. We found some really good wine but the prices are still really distorted. The $40 we'd spend for a nice but not amazing bottle at a restaurant in Palo Alto bought a top-rated 1994 Cabernet/Merlot blend at a restaurant here -- it was delightfully smooth, especially compared to all the 1999s and 2000s we've been tasting.
Now we're spending about six hours a day for the last two and next three days driving up to where the eclipse is, stopping for whatever cute accommodation and food we can find. It's not easy -- none of the acccommodation guides have addresses, and we don't have maps or a cell phone. Many of the main roads between large cities in South Africa are two-lane roads with pretty wide shoulders. The common (but probably illegal) practice is to move onto the shoulder so the car behind you can pass without going into the other lane. (Or the car in the other lane will move onto the shoulder also to make it easier for you.) Usually people flash their hazard lights a couple times to say "thank you" and sometimes people will flash their lights to say "you're welcome". I haven't really seen this kind of driving since being in Alberta in 1975, but Ray says this is how they drive in Texas.
Tuesday, November 26, 2002
After seeing two power generation buildings converted to art museum in London, we decided to check out one converted to a lodge in Stellenbosch. The ceilings are a little high, but the shower and bed are the best we've seen the whole trip. The owner is very congenial and has lots of suggestions about what wineries to drive into the parking lots of just for the view, and which ones to taste the wine of. On the "Eat-Out Africa" web site list of the top 10 restaurants in South Africa, three are in a wine town nearby called Franschhoek. We went to one, Le Quartier Francais, for lunch, which was really great. The ostrich fillets were served in a basil emulsion, this kind of green foam. We had some nice wine with lunch, and went tasting at a few places afterwards. There's lots of really good wine in South Africa, and almost all of it is much less expensive than California wine in US dollars (though the rand has gone from 9.9 to 9.2 to the dollar just since we got here...)
Speaking of ostrich fillets, driving towards Cape Town we saw a small number of happy ostriches wandering around on little farms with striking pink tails. Later on we saw crowds of unhappy ostriches with no pink, in a scene pretty reminiscent of one exit north of the Harris Ranch on I-5.
Today we drove to Cape Town. First we went to the airport to switch cars, since the 4x4 is way expensive, inefficient, and takes up lots of parking space. We ended up with an Opel Corsa which is pretty darn basic. At least it has air conditioning. They don't really rent cars here with cruise control, which is too bad since the next several days will be long drives.
We walked around the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, which is in a beautiful setting beneath the mountains behind Cape Town. It had a fragrance garden -- unfortunately most of the fragrances were bad. We seem to have missed most stuff blooming, unfortunately. There were some really great Zimbabwean stone sculptures scattered around.
We had dinner at the Africa Cafe, with a fixed menu of 16 items which though it was all-you-can-eat, the initial amount they served us was all we could eat. It had stuff from all over Africa: 3 kebabs (vegetables, potatoes, chicken), lots of dippable things (falafel, something made out of sweet potatoes and cheese, something made out of corn meal and spinach), mussels, ostrich stew, etc. It was delicious. The decor was really whimsical, with lamps in the shape of insects in which the wings were recycled x-rays, menus bordered with beads on safety pins, and on and on.
There's an Internet cafe in the student union at the University of Stellenbosch two blocks walk from our lodge, so we've been able to check mail pretty frequently. But the conversation going on here is getting kind of animated, even though it's presumably in Afrikaans, and I'm having trouble hearing myself think, so I think I'll just go to sleep.
Monday, November 25, 2002
Saturday we drove to the Owl House in Nieu Bethesda. A slightly crazed old woman lived there, and had a pretty peculiar way of fixing it up. Inside, many of the windows were colored glass; many of the walls were covered with ground glass, for texture, I guess. In the backyard there were hundreds of cement sculptures, including quite a few of a "camel train" worshiping at a small Nativity scene. There were several little cylindrical buildings made out of bottles, like in Rhyolite but more artistic. We took lots of pictures.
We arrived in Graaff-Reinet, found out that a guest house Ray had found on the Internet is booked 7 days a week months in advance, and that they only serve food to their guests. So we stayed at the Drostdy Hotel instead, which had transformed the rooms originally lived in by slaves and later workers into hotel accommodations. The same color pattern was used on the bedspread, headboard, chair, ottoman, drapes, lights, and magazine rack, and was very cute. A six-course dinner (for $10 each) was nice, and we got a $6 bottle of very good wine. We were supposed to pay the bar tab separately (the dinner went onto our room bill) -- unfortunately the money I left on the table mysteriously disappeared before the bar guy picked it up, making a pretty awkward situation. To make matters worse, I forgot to return the room key, and Ray's at the post office right now doing just that.
As we've been driving around South Africa, we keep thinking of places in the US that the landscape reminds us of. Most of the driving Sunday was like Wyoming -- grasslands surrounded by the occasional mountain range. All of a sudden we found ourselves driving up a stunning little river canyon, very deep, whose walls had been very twisted, which was much more Idaho or Colorado. It came out in a little town called Prince Albert, and then we proceeded to Stellenbosch, the St. Helena of the Cape Town wine country. We'll be spending the next two or three days tasting wine and checking out Cape Town.
Saturday, November 23, 2002
We arrived in backwards-land, South Africa, where they drive on the left and the sun and moon go from right to left, on Tuesday morning. We picked up our Nissan Hardbody 4x4 and drove immediately to Thendele Hutted Camp in Royal Natal National Park, where we stayed in an adorable little one-bedroom apartment with a thatched roof. Cute birds were flitting around through the trees, and not-so-cute guinea fowl were walking around and squawking. It's located next to the Drakensberg Escarpment, a mountain range in South Africa and Lesotho, and situated in "the Amphitheater", an area surrounded by dramatically high cliffs. It was a very stunning view to have from our little chalet.
Wednesday we walked up Tugela Gorge, hoping to see Tugela Falls, the second highest waterfall in the world after Angel Falls in Venezuela. Unfortunately there wasn't any water yet (the local rainy season starts in about two weeks). We should have brought more water with us as well. After a few miles of trail, the walk consisted of going up boulders in the gorge, and climbing up various ladders and roots to avoid the narrowest stretch. It was pretty exhausting, and very beautiful.
Thursday we drove down a gravel road through the Drakesnberg foothills, parallel to the escarpment, and then up an ever steeper little road to Sani Pass, where 4WD vehicles are required, and for good reason -- the last zigzags of the road are very steep, rocky, and twisted. At the top of the pass we entered Lesotho (pronounced le-soo-too) and were incredibly fortunate to be able to stay at the Sani Top Chalet without having made a reservation. It reminded us of the hotel at the top of Nemrut Dagi in Turkey -- a little collection of small buildings alone at the top of a desolate mountain. The owners were very gracious, knew the names of all the local bird species, and tried to help us send a "short message" to Boris' cell phone which apparently didn't work. They served a wonderful dinner and breakfast, which along with the room came to about $30 per person total. They were disappointed that we weren't very good drinkers, and we fell asleep early and got up early.
The "short message" to Boris was because we forgot one of the little components necessary to save pictures from our cameras onto a little hard disk we borrowed from Skot. Maybe we'll get it sent to us later in the trip, but for now we can use the compact flash reader I just bought to burn CDs at enlightened Internet Cafes like the one we're at now in Bloemfontein.
Friday we left Sani Top to take the "quick route" to Maseru, the capital of Lesotho, on the other side. It took about 6 hours to go 200 miles through incredible mountainous scenery, passing a few villages, herds of goats, going over pass after pass from one amazing vista to the next.
Sunday, November 17, 2002
Ray here. Just finished dinner with dinner theater. The dinner theater was a table full of Texans who projected as well as any subtle music hall character ever did. The main character was named John and he was from Houston and his blue and gray Porsche, his mechanic said was the best car he ever worked on. The leading lady was his sister and she had about 10% as many lines as he did. John has a timeshare in Austin. You can't get a house in that neighborhood for less than $500,000. Those of you who are clucking at the use of the "ironic" voice in modern dinner theater should be well to note that prices in this part of London are 50% higher than they are in the Bay Area, and you couldn't get a linen closet for that price. John must know this, he isn't the sort of person to fail to look into real estate office windows. The other two women at the table were not speaking parts --- John called one of them "dear" so she might have been his wife, but the main theme of the performance was the brother and sister describing scenes from their childhood, which did ultimately have the effect of humanizing the characterizations which had heretofore consisted mostly of making fun of liberals. We know enough about John now to assume his identity but there doesn't seem to be any real reason to.
Been looking at art galleries and stuff. Yesterday afternoon was devoted to portraits. First we went to the National Portrait Gallery, which only has pictures of celebrities, Tudors and Beatles and that sort of person. How would you characterize what Celebrity brings to a portrait? This afternoon we got puzzled at the Barbican, this big 3-D development with insufficient signs. There was a David LaChappelle show there. David la Chappelle does celebrities and people both, and when you are looking at a photo even if you don't recognize that it is, say, Ryan Philippe with different makeup on, you can just tell that this is a person that you should have heard of and not, by contrast, a fat model painted blue holding something over her face. The Photographer's Gallery had a retrospective of some commercial portrait photographer in Brixton who had just retired at the age of 90 and donated all of his photos to some artist group. His people weren't famous. They were mostly graduating from school, wearing their Mason uniforms, doing kung fu moves (in the 1970's) or posing with guitars (in the 1960's) and acting and failing to act in ways that Pamela Lee wouldn't fail to act (using the word "act" in a specific anthropological sense) in a passport studio, you can just tell --- and they were all in front of the SAME BACKDROP 1950-1999, Jan Saudek would KILL for such a sense of continuity in his basement wall. Two of the art galleries we went to (Tate Modern and the Wapping Project) are converted decommissioned power generation stations.
Had dinner with Frank Colcord last night. Old Opcode hands will remember him from about 1987. He has worked for his dad the last 15 years, computerizing a company that sells highly refined oil for specific applications such as ecologically transparent oil for North Sea drilling bits, and Johnson and Johnson's Baby oil. It was a noisy restaurant and it would have been easy to sit and take it all in but his friends are gracious and personable and it was easy to talk with them, even absent the beer.
Friday, November 15, 2002
So we're in London, getting used to the time change and the different keyboard layout. We're nowhere near the eclipse yet but someone already stopped us in the street and said "Weren't you at the eclipse in Zambia? I gave you the copy of the Times of Zambia with your pictures on it...?" We got his business card. It's a pretty small world.
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
Here's the basic itinerary:
Thu 11/14/2002 San Francisco - London Virgin Atlantic VS020