Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bach Ma at Peace

We entered Vietnam on the edge of a monsoon at the end of a calendar year. Some days are bleak but dry; others see rain that beats down hard the whole day and night. Our clothes stay damp. The pillow and bed sheets are damp. The sun that I need to clear up the congestion in my lungs doesn't appear and now my husband has a cold too. As the sky turns purple once more, I know it’s going to be a lousy day for bird watching.

Our over night field trip to an old hill station called Bach Ma is pre-arranged and we can’t cancel it. This will be a wet one.

Bach Ma is a national park located half way down the crooked finger of a country that is Vietnam. It's a forested mountain and protected area that butts up against Laos. Only two hours by car outside of the ancient imperial capital Hue, forty years ago, someone would tell you that Bach Ma was located south of the demilitarized zone.

Our ornithologist, Mr. Minh greets us warmly. In spite of the rain and the unlikely prospect of seeing many birds, he insists we trek up the mountain during which he entertains us with his life history.

Minh was university educated in Czechoslovakia. On scholarship there, he was homesick and isolated over several winters, slipping on snow he'd never seen before, and wearing Vietnamese-made leather soled shoes that quickly fell apart. Understanding that we were on the cusp of our new year in a foreign land, he told us about his own memorable new year’s experience in Czechoslovakia

It was the Tet New Year and to celebrate, he lit some homemade firecrackers inside his boarding house. Not surprisingly, the explosives set off a heated argument in the neighbourhood. On one side, his landlady, the neighbours, and the local fire department; on his side, nobody. He narrowly avoided being thrown out on the street but for his fine manners and good judgement 364 days of the year.

He told us too about his part recently in an Australian research project documenting the history of colonial Bach Ma. His role in Dr. Fife's study was to ferret out the local elderly to record their memories. Too often though, they were not cooperating, dying before he could interview them.

It rained sideways. We walked more than twelve kilometres over an afternoon and the following morning. Minh continued his stories, now about the history of Bach Ma, interrupting only to draw Dan’s attention to a bird. Over three days, the bird count will total 35 in spite of the rain. Dan is delighted.  For my part, I walk and listen, taking notes about the mountain as best I can under a borrowed hooded motorcycle poncho that drapes to my ankles. It had a built-in "window" of clear plastic through which I could view my moving pen.

I was reasonably comfortable in my portable tent and confident that the anti-leech socks that Minh lent us would protect me from losing a bucket of blood to those awful creatures. Minh is an advocate of leech protection. He recounted, matter-of-factly, how he had to pull a leech off his penis one time on an overnight campout on the mountain. His girlfriend was just as unlucky but he didn't continue the story.

Bach Ma was a hill station built by French colonists in the 1930s. That’s comparatively late for many hill stations across South Asia since the idea of a seasonal home in the mountains developed in former English colonies more than a century earlier. Most were built around a sanatorium where homesick foreigners could recuperate from fatigue and life-threatening tropical illnesses. Later they evolved into small towns, architecturally similar to home. Ex-pats surrounded themselves with clubs, libraries, churches, and recreational facilities built in the architectural styles of Europe. Many hill stations remain today, some a lot worse for wear since they have overseen political upheavals, and new landlords. Others, like Bach Ma, were destroyed beyond repair, unable to side step being on the front line of war.

The most famous hill station surviving in Vietnam is called Dalat, and that town was conveniently protected by agreement between Hanoi and Saigon not to bomb it during the war. It remains well preserved and adapting to a new generation, enriched by the new economy of their post-war world. Providing refuge for a growing middle class, Vietnamese of means are not fleeing tropical heat nor pestilence today; now they are fleeing choking, exhaust-filled cities.

On Bach Ma, we walk the same cobbled path as had Vietnamese bearers eighty years ago when they transported French officials and their families in litters to the mountain retreat. Earning what Minh calculated were three Indochina pennies for a day's labour, one of these labourers could then buy about five kilos of rice for his family. It was a good living; an even better one for the colonist.

We walk by the hard rock foundation stones of villa after villa, all that’s left after what's called the American War. We stopped at one fully intact structure, recently restored as a guesthouse for naturalists and students who now come to Bach Ma in peace time.   While the building had been pasted back together, the pool, a gazebo, and the tennis court lay abandoned in the sunken terraces off the road, overgrown and cracked. Other houses, beyond restoration, show bullet-pocked foundation stones jutting up from piles of dead leaves, like grave stones. Here is a place where man has retreated, and nature is reclaiming its own.

Minh identifies a screaming red-wiskered bulbill.

At its height, there were more than 130 structures on Bach Ma. Ironically, the village’s destruction is perhaps the mountain’s best protection in peace time. The mountain was left alone and then designated a national park in 1991. As a park and not a hill station, Bach Ma is protected from modern developers who are changing the environment of other hill stations, like Dalat, by bringing in timeshares, condos, arcades, shopping centres and karaoke.

Bach Ma was pulled into the war because the plateau at the top was used by an American helicopter launch and observation post. The view over the agricultural basin extends to the sea and Bach Ma was therefore of strategic value. But with the misty rain and fog, I had trouble seeing my own hand scribbling notes. The commanding view was lost on me.

Although the Viet Cong could not hide in the villas, they continued to be a threat to the plateau. Minh shows us the entrance to a complicated tunnel system with five exits in which Viet Cong fighters lived and observed. For three years, both sides were stalemated here. Neither mounted an attack against each other. The Americans could hear voices in the bowels of the mountain, and although they knew the location of at least a few of the entrances, they would not blow them up for fear of damaging their own helicopter base. The Viet Cong on their part would not compromise the system of tunnels by coming out to sabotage the base.

A silver pheasant crosses the road ahead.

At one turn of the slithering path, the outline of a staircase makes Dan curious. Like Alice peering into the rabbit hole, he can’t resist entering.  Together we push away the vines and climb the jagged, broken stones and stand before the facade of a stone church. Two of the balustrades, pitted with bullet holes, remain, and an entrance set of stairs leads to a doorway with nothing beyond.  Before our eyes, the jungle is arm-wrestling the standing pieces into the ground. Although the destruction is fresh -a mere half century in an archaeological calendar - it had the same quality of an ancient ruin. But unlike the ruins of, say, ancient Khmer, these ghosts seem to me still fleshy. You can smell them. This quiet place is not on the map for war-relic tourism, yet in the late afternoon twilight, the uninterrupted misty rain, the woodsy scent of jungle rot, I had a powerful sense of Imperialist Europe's Indochina and its decline. Especially it's decline.

A black-throated laughing thrush squeals somewhere deep in the woods.

It's time to turn back. It's nearly dark.

Three kilometres later, we arrive at the stone building which was once a police station and now the park's entrance hall and restaurant. It's deserted except for a few staff, assembled to support our stay in the empty old chateau across the path. Once we pick off the leeches that have stowawayed into the folds of our socks, it's time to retire. As we head off into the dark, Minh tells us that this is the place where he saw a tiger grab a chicken the previous year, right here on the driveway at about this time of night, just when we are crossing it to our room. Minh is so droll.

I am carrying seven blankets to our room under my portable tent. It's still raining. Our room has a fireplace but it doesn’t work. There are twelve-foot ceilings, a gigantic half moon window with shutters, and no furnishing except two metal-legged beds with naked mattresses. I will wrap one of the blankets around the mattress for a base and use the others on top.

Dan and I bury ourselves under the blankets. We are so tired. We forget to wish each other happy new year before falling into deep sleep. In the silence of these first hours, Bach Ma is at peace.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Two Faces of Ambergris Caye, Belize

There's two sides to Belize's Ambergris Caye. The 'Isla Bonita' is growing up in a material world.
Within minutes of landing at the Philip S. W. Goldson International Airport in Belize City, my husband and I are in line waiting for a connecting flight to Ambergris Caye.  It’s an informal process with no boarding pass, just a list of names on a clipboard. Nor are there pre-assigned seats. When one plane fills its fourteen seats, it taxis off and another takes its place.

The tiny Cessna pulls up to the door of our waiting room. We enter first and the pilot invites Dan to sit in the empty co-pilot seat. I wedge myself in place behind him. The size of this plane reminds me of my Subaru Outback; in fact the purring engine and smooth ride also brings my car to mind. We’re quickly aloft, the skies are clear, the views are blue and in fifteen minutes, as promised, we’re touching down on the Caye.

Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize and the country’s main vacation destination. San Pedro is the island’s only town and if you believe Madonna in her 1987 hit song, San Pedro is la isla bonita. Like southern Mexico, the Caye is a subtropical mix of mangrove forests and lagoons supporting 200 species of birds, all under the protection of the largest living reef in the northern hemisphere running down its east coast. 

But things have changed since Madonna’s song rocked the airwaves a generation ago. There’s another side to Ambergris Caye that’s emerged. The Caye is growing up in a material world. 

For example, there are more cars in San Pedro than there were even ten years ago. While many of them are golf carts, most are gas-powered and are as charming as a fleet of lawn mowers. But despite the modern-day scars of growth, hardly unique to Belize, the town has appeal.  

As a beach town, San Pedro is ultra casual. It may not be the hippy commune it once was, but it’s not glitz either. There are few upmarket shops. Expansion of that sector will need more well-heeled foreign retirees. And they might come and invest in the expanding condominium developments. But in spite of the chic, low rise, low-density, developments, San Pedro does not look like a town poised to boom. The island’s capacity for growth along the coast is finite. Or is it? 

One of our guides told us that the government is selling off plots of the shallow limestone shelf extending from the Caye. Authorized or not, developers are starting to dyke the shelf, drain it, fill it with sand, and then build on it. Voila, land.  It’s a worrisome trend for people concerned about the Caye’s fragile ecosystem. Environmentalists as well as responsible resort owners who rely on marine ecotourism worry about the reef. Eighty percent of all tourists to Belize visit the marine parks.  
Tourists usually come to Ambergris Caye to visit Hol Chan Marine Reserve and the Blue Hole, the latter a natural phenomenon believed to be the world’s largest vertical underwater cave. Both sites are part of the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The designation is not only supposed to protect the area from development, but also from commercial fishing. The variety of colourful fish is impressive as is the quantity. At first plunge, I found myself snorkelling a few meters above a barracuda the size of a sofa.

You can swim with nurse sharks. 
Nevertheless, despite the pleasure it still affords, a few years ago, the marine park made UNESCO’s endangered list, joining Florida’s Everglades also named that year. The committee cited mangrove cutting and excessive development as the main problems putting the reef at risk.

The reef lies half a mile offshore and runs the entire length of the Caye (if it circled the Caye, the island would be an atoll). And while folks are rightly concerned about hurricanes, they also know that the reef can cut the size of a tidal surge by half.  Still, no one is complacent and the church in central San Pedro remains well attended. A long time resident told me he has a hurricane plan in place. Coordinated amongst his extended family, it includes a central meeting place with thick concrete walls and emergency supplies of food and water. So far, their gatherings have ended in family cook-outs, good times, though spotty electricity.

The Caye’s development has been a big issue for a decade. Concerns are both about the  explosion of vacation properties as well as the government’s sale of whole islands on the bay side which faces the mainland. Dr. Colin Young, a natural scientist of Belize’s Galin University, says that one of several issues facing Belize is "ineffective institutional and legal frameworks that inhit enforcement of environment regulations on developers. The enforcement agencies lack financial resources and personnel to enforce regulations."   

To some, the environmental cost is especially painful. Birder, dive instructor and author Elbert Greer (“Bird Watching with Bubba, A Guidebook to Birds of Belize”), told me that whole islands on the bay side of the Caye have been sold by the government and this happens quietly. It’s done before a protest can be launched. The small islands, like tufts of green hair on a limestone shelf are nesting sites for some of the region’s loveliest water birds, the White Ibis, the Roseated Spoonbill, among others. “I’ve seen people tear down the trees. I don’t take people birding there anymore.”  

One such island was sold to Leonardo di Caprio. The good news is that di Caprio, an acknowledged environmental activist, intends to build a resort in partnership with Four Seasons based on sustainable design and environmental conservation. But not all developers have such goals.  

Sadly, with a taxpaying population so small (the population of Belize is about the same as the number of people who work for Toyota Motor Company worldwide), there are choices that need to be made. Even discounting government's lack of regulatory enforcement, not unusual in developing countries, there is only so much public funding to go around after servicing a large debt.   

A good part of that public money admittedly comes from tourism and especially from the 9% tax the government collects from the trade. Business in Ambergris Caye however would like to see more of that money turned back to improvements on the Caye. For example, the lagoon-side road is always in bad shape even without hurricane Richard in 2010. Only one street in town has a sidewalk, partly. On a recent radio talk show, a Caye resident complained that a sewer project begun three years ago by the government had yet to be completed. In the meantime, the septic lagoon serving his community has overflowed because of the rains. 

If you don’t know Ambergris Caye as a largely unpopulated island, its village community sustained by coconut plantations and fishing, then you may not take much notice of the development. The hotels and condominiums creeping along the coast are typically a string of single to four-storey structures, many artfully designed, and often dotted with coconut trees and couched in well landscaped grounds. So far, the visual effect is quite the opposite from a Cancun-like block of high-rise hotels. Outside of festival time, there are no crowds here and this lends a quality of exclusiveness to the experience.   

The beach is public and you can walk for miles unobstructed.  Resort attendants rake the sand within their boundaries and collect debris washed to shore, the litter of sea vessels and distant islands, often trapped in the sea grass. The beaches are sandy and inviting but the sea grass is so thick, and dredging officially disallowed outside of small portions, that snorkelers have more fun in the water than swimmers. To the government’s credit and thanks to the cooperation of the resorts, the sea grass largely remains in place, in spite of complaints by uniformed vacationers. Sea grass is a natural sieve, holding back sediment from washing into the sea and trapping pollutants. Sediment clouds the water and makes a barrier to photosynthesis, a chemical action that coral needs to live.  

Many of the Caye properties are owned and managed by foreigners who have banded together to form an association. As a group they have been effective in lobbying for training programs for local staff, people who seek work but are poorly equipped after graduating, or not, out of a struggling and underfunded education system. Most on the association’s mind these days is their recent lobbying efforts, in cooperation with mainland groups, to oppose plans around offshore oil exploration. With the 2010 gulf oil disaster still in mind, people are extremely worried about what even a small oil spill could do to the reef. 

So what have I learned about Ambergris Caye?  

Ambergris Caye has two faces, each on its path to its own destiny. There is a breathless quality to the pace of some newer developments here, reckless disregard for government regulations and the lagoon environment. At the same time, there are citizen action groups, feverously working to educate the public and lobby the government to enforce its own rules, however slim. And in the mix there are environmentally aware resort managers, like at the Xanadu Resort, maintaining their plot of sea grass, planting trees, educating their staff, and integrating sustainable and green practices into the management of their properties.  

So while the quiet island village is no more, condominium developments are not all bad, and certainly Trip Advisor reviewers don't think so in that Belize's resorts have won several 2013 Traveler's Choice Awards. Still, informed, mature travelers vacationing in Caye can choose to walk or rent electric vehicles over gas-powered ones. They can celebrate the sea grass rather than complain about it to their friends. After all, part of the Caye’s future is owned by visitors like ourselves.   

Literally, "ambergris" means the spit of sperm whales, a gray bubbly mass that washes to shore when whales migrate through these parts. Possibly named by fishermen, the concept doesn’t have much cache for travel agents. But it’s just another example of the two sides of Ambergris Caye. Depending on what you think about the Caye’s development, the future of Ambergris Caye will either be your Isla Bonita or whale spit.

The Phoenix Resort

A lovely condo in Ambergris Caye

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Entering India from Nepal by Road

Although sciatica doesn't stop this mature traveler, it does complicate things. Still, a good muscle relaxer and a set of stretches and back exercises is all I need to get myself together for a surface border crossing. Here's my trip... in more than one way.

We enjoy hiring a driver and moving about in a private car. As we're older now, we're putting more of our money into door-to-door transport than in previous years. A private car eliminates complex and optimistic train and bus schedules, dirty waiting rooms, the crush of touts and beggars, all of those things you get in stations. And although on the road, we're limited to one snaking, overcrowded pathway, it's still easy to enjoy the passing landscape. I'm engrossed by the swell of the hills, surprise of mountains, drama of recent landslides, and narrow, rutted bridges that shake with bouncing vehicles.

I admit that touring like this gives you only a succession of images. You don't understand much of a culture just because you see rural people at work. As a passing voyeur, you're privy to a storyline that's much the same between under-developed countries: people assembling wares for market, or bent over mats of grain separating the chaff, or packing cow dung with straw and wrapping the mixture around three-foot sticks that will serve, cleverly, as easy-to-handle cooking fuel. I might as well be watching television without the voice-over. Framed by my window, it's hardly different than a twenty-inch screen.

I'm deep in such thoughts as we near the Nepal-India border. I've got a second wind now after a drug-induced sleep in the jeep. Earlier that morning, I'd thrown out my back yet again, this time worse than before.  It happened in the hotel room, just before leaving. When I reached back for the toilet paper -which all too often is badly situated in these budget hotels - I felt that familiar and unwelcome pain. In order to avoid a full out seizure of the muscle, I hit the floor immediately to perform some breathing and stretching exercises.

We planned to leave at dawn in order to get to the border before the worst of the truck traffic. With no place to get breakfast so early (an acceptable breakfast that is), I took two extra-strength muscle relaxants on an empty stomach. By the time we were into the countryside, I was seeing pink piglets in the fields, wearing pink saris, marching into a pink spaceship.

Then it started to rain. Hard sheets of rain. The spaceship disappeared into mist, as I did myself.

The Border

Border crossings are always challenging, confusing, humiliating, or all of the above. It's never easy and Dan and I needed to have our wits about us to figure out how to manage this one into India. My back was sufficiently numb now after the pills, and provided I didn't sneeze or laugh, and stood or sat absolutely erect, I was fine.

Our driver, Berinda and his companion Suriyanna (his fiancée had joined him for the trip with our permission) were very helpful. In fact, we had the power of a high-priced tour agency in our jeep. Berinda knew, for example, exactly where we would find all the jeeps waiting for people wanting to journey on to India's Darjeeling or Kalimpong versus jeeps for other destinations. You could either pay 150 rupees per person (about $7 for Dan and I) for a shared jeep - meaning three or four people corkscrewed into the back seat and three in front - or you could pay 2200 rupees (about $48) for a private jeep. It would take about three hours from the border to Kalimpong. Curiously, all of these India-destination jeeps were lined up on the Nepal side of the border, counter-intuitive for me as I had expected to have to source our jeep from the India side.

Dan chose the vehicle (his criteria is functioning seat-belts) and then Suriyanna used her cell phone to call our hotel in Kalimpong to get the owner to give direction to our driver in Hindi. As another precaution, Berinda took the license number of our Indian jeep and gave it to the hotel with notice that he would telephone again in about three hours to check that we had arrived safely. Our driver is wonderful.

We parted from our friends promising to keep in touch and wishing them happiness in their forthcoming marriage and emigration plan. Suriyanna would be leaving Nepal soon for Australia. As a recent nursing graduate from a university there, she was being sponsored by a hospital in Brisbane. Once there, she would in turn sponsor her new husband and, like tens of thousands of Nepalese, would make a new life in a foreign country and send money home. Within a year, Nepal will lose one of its very best mountain drivers.

We're off to India. But not yet. After about 100 meters, the jeep stops. Our new driver, who doesn't speak English, motions with a wave of his hand for us to go into an office at the side of the road.

It's raining hard. The dreary cement building is cold and smells like mouldy paper. This is the Nepal immigration office and our visa is checked to ensure we've not overstayed the time limit before our passports are stamped. We also agree to dump our Nepalese currency with this official in exchange for Indian rupees. He offers an acceptable rate and gives us our new currency out of his pocket. Everyone has a sideline.

Then once more we're off for India. But not so fast. Another 100 meters we stop. The driver points to the India customs shack and pulls over to park on the curb.

At the end of a gloomy, muddy path, we enter a one-room wooden building. An official in army fatigues offers us two grimy seats opposite his desk, and pushes over two forms each (they seek identical information) and waits for us to complete our paperwork. He's rolling back on the legs of his chair, his eyes follow the strokes of our pen.

The room is dark. A single light bulb dangles on a thread from the wooden ceiling, either it's burned out or turned off. A pig waddles in crab grass outside the window. He's not smiling but he's not snarling either, the official that is, not the pig.

Twenty minutes later, our visa is in order, our destination is acceptable. We're dismissed.

Dan can't leave without trying to lighten things up. "Welcome to India. Oh, sorry. You're already here."

Something like a smile, or perhaps just a muscle twitch, crosses his face.

It's taken ten years of cajoling and scheming and throwing literature at Dan to convince him to come to India. Not that I'd been to India myself, but it's always seemed to me that I have too narrow a perspective on Asia. And since both Dan and I have proven we're able to get sick in a wide variety of countries, developing and under developed, we can't exclude India any longer for health reasons. And as for sciatica, well I just live with it. So we're finally in. It's still raining. We're choking in the exhaust of idling trucks. I take another pill for the road and hope for the best.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Ayurvedic Massage Virgin in India

My personal trainer back home is concerned about my sciatica and my energy level while I'm traveling in India so she did some research into India's ten best spas. She says I need to give myself a break from travel and begged me to book myself into the Kaya Kalp in Agra. I did. It was wonderful, and surprisingly, not as expensive as I had feared.
At one point during our two months in India, we moved on to Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal.
But let's skip the big white palace for a moment and talk about something really important about Agra. That is, the Kaya Kalp Spa at the ITC Mughal Agra Hotel. Booking myself an Ayurvidic massage was job one; homage to a dead princess can wait.
I'm told to come half an hour early for my treatment in order to be assessed. My husband escorts me to my appointment, if for no other reason than to admire the architecture of this five-star hotel.  
While sipping an infusion of apple, pepper and ginger, I get to work on a three-page questionnaire. I'm told that my doshas are imbalanced and the choice of oils for the Ayurvedic massage will restore balance and "awaken the inner wisdom." I'm asked endless questions, among them, skin sensitivities, tendencies to bloating and gas, sleep habits, and project management skills.
I require the Pitta oil. The interviewer says I have too much fire and need the cooling properties of sandalwood, lavender, and ylang ylang. I probe further for meaning.
"Madam, you have too much leadership."
She's being diplomatic, searching for the right word. Dan interprets. "You're just too bossy and insensitive."
"Dan, it's okay for you to leave now. Meet me at 4:30."
"I rest my case."
Once he's gone, I turn my attention to the assessment. I note they don't allow for menopause on the questionnaire. I'm thinking that every woman over 50 should get some Pitta oil.
The Kaya Kalp spa is pure loveliness and solitude. It's the antithesis of any wailing urban space of the east. And no one under 16 is allowed.

It's appropriately situated in the city of the Taj Mahal, occupying a whole wing of the pricey ITC Mughal Hotel. The spa comprises a series of dimly lit corridors, individual treatment rooms appointed with spare red wood furnishings with marble floors and vaulted ceilings throughout. Chrysanthemum petals are scattered in the fountains.
My personal attendant will be with me for the duration, offering towels, slippers, guidance, holding my robe. Waiflike, she glides along the hall hardly touching the cool white floor. Her doshas must be exquisitely balanced.
After a steam and sauna, each in my personal steam and sauna room - the wood in the sauna is moulded to make a pillow - I'm taken to the massage room. Part of my treatment includes laying me out on a hard surface over a towel. The massage will be medium-strength over my body laid out on a back-friendly wooden plank.  I try to suppress the mental vision of a manual-crank lasagna-making machine.
I follow instructions. The robe is removed and I lie face down. I've been given a disposable bikini bottom, but that's all.
Then the twins enter.
This Ayurvedic massage involves two people administering coordinated long strokes over a generous basting of herbed oil. First the legs, then the back, then the legs and back, the arms, the arms and the legs and back, then the neck, back and legs. I know this technique. Back at home, I make pies. Rolling out the dough is second nature.
The two masseuses are young women with faces I keenly remember before going under. They have porcelain skin and rounded features of an ancient time. They move lightly, like twin apsara, winged angels of the kind you see sculpted into the soft sandstone of a Hindu temple. But whimsy aside, these ladies understand NHL Zambonis. My body melts into the towel, but in a pleasant way.
Then I'm asked to flip over.
Now being raised Catholic (however compromised over time), the idea of being long-stroked toe to windpipe full frontal by the twins is disturbing. An eye mask of silk and cucumbers is applied. Either they have divined my discomfort, or maybe it's standard practice. What you can't see you'll forget about. So in time I relax. Besides, in this out-of-body experience, floating as music on scented air, it's really someone else's body laid out on a plank. Father forgive me. It's not me!
At the end of the hour which has included my head being similarly oiled and stroked, my personal attendant returns. I feel like a kite on a string as she draws me over to the steam room and then to the shower.
I dress and move on to the salon for face and foot work delivered by the chief wedding beautician. She's a busy lady during the wedding season, which doesn't quit here until mid December. I submit to the upper lip threading without screaming and am rewarded by a pedicure enriched with softening oils and some reflexology.
Dan awaits in the reception area and happily receives me, doshas corrected.
Now we're on our way to the Taj Mahal. Those in the know say to go there in the morning before the crowds come but we didn't have a choice. This morning it was shrouded in fog so we had to wait until after my spa treatment. So we're arriving at  5:00 pm, an hour before closing.
There are thousands of people cueing and elbowing at the entrance. Guards in army uniform blow whistles and chase people who are breaking the rules (like trying to climb the marble lattice work circling the tomb inside). Organized chaos is not the appropriate ambiance for the Taj Mahal, a monument to peace in death.
I know in my soul that I experienced the best of the Taj Mahal feeling at the Kaya Kalp spa. The Taj Mahal is a sad song for a dead princess. It's about a prince's love and his continued worship of the beloved after her death. But at 5:00 pm it's sadly also about rushing the gates.
After touring the building like a rat prodded through a maze, there's only one thing I must do here...alone, at least as much alone as one can amongst a thousand other tourists. Dan's off taking pictures and I find my way to the marble bench on which Princess Diana sat on a dark day preceding her divorce. I tried to imagine the place empty and exuding the richness of feeling it was designed for.
A young Indian woman sits next to me.
"Are you enjoying? Is this not the most beautiful place?"
"Yes, it's lovely."
"You know that white is the colour of love." She gestures towards the scene before us, the most famous white marble tomb of all time."
"But white is also the colour of death in those times" I respond. I couldn't help myself. Let's be clear.
Dan overhears this exchange, watching the young woman as she sinks away quietly, sadly.
"I see your doshas have returned to normal."



Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Iceland's Playful Gloominess

Instead of flying home directly from Amsterdam, we broke up our crossing by stopping over in Iceland for five days. Ever since I saw my first Fridrik Fridriksson flick at the Toronto International Film Festival (Reykjavik101), I've wanted to take in a Saturday night in downtown Reykjavik. Unfortunately, Dan and I slept through our 11 pm wake-up, dead exhausted from a trip to the interior, so Saturday night Reykjavik mayhem remains at large.

We took advantage of a special offered by Iceland Air to break up our trip home to Canada from Amsterdam with a five-night stopover in Reykjavik. So in mid April, we left the bursting colour of a Dutch spring for Iceland's playful gloominess.

You need to be a bit strange to live in Iceland, situated barely a frozen finger south of the Arctic Circle. With an average summer temperature of 14 degrees, the island has been likened to a fridge that's left open for six weeks a year. At least that what author Hallgrimur Helgason says in his quirky novel (and therefore classically Icelandic), A Hitman's Guide to House Cleaning.

One day, we're on our way to the Laundromat Cafe, a popular eatery that merges three happy pastimes: chowing down on puffin steak, reading paperback novels, and doing one's laundry.

But first, a blond teenager stops us on the street demanding that we listen to her sing while her giggling friends take her picture. She has a sweet voice and gives us her take on an Icelandic song about running away. Growing up in the company of 33 Holocene volcanoes (young and active) and 2 Pleistocene volcanoes (older and active) probably explains the theme.

Reaching the cafe, Dan is delighted to see thousands of paperback books lining shelves under the bar. He's been carrying around a kilo of pulp fiction throughout Europe not finding any used book exchange.

"Yes, we trade books," responds the blond waitress.

"My books are nearly new so I want to exchange them for good ones. Which ones work for an exchange?"

"It depends on the colour." she explains.

We bend our heads to examine the collection looking for some kind of colour-coding.

"I don't understand."

"If you bring us a book that's mostly blue, you can take any other blue book from the shelf. If you want that title, referring to the one in Dan's hand, you need to give me a white book in exchange."

I stand back and look again at the library. Indeed, all books with predominately white spines are grouped together, then blue ones, then red. There's no topical or alphabetical organization to the books; it's only by spine colour. Until now, I've never noticed that The da Vinci Code has a red spine, as does The Accidental Tourist. These are side by side with Face Down in the Marrow Bone Pie, another fine piece of literature with a red spine.

After lunch, Dan and I return to our walking tour. It's so damp-cold, Dan broke down and bought a sheep wool headband. I'm dressing in layers. It won't creep past 6 degrees today.

I was expecting the old town to look like St. John's Newfoundland with clapboard houses and colourful paint, but Reykjavik's wooden or stucco-clad structures are mostly white. Perhaps a white house is easier to see when you stumble home in the dark six months of the year.

There's an eccentricity to the architecture and an artsy quality to many products displayed in shop windows. I admire the expensive salmon skin purses for their design and suppleness. And unusual combinations keep surprising me, like freshly squeezed orange juice accompanied by cod liver oil on our breakfast buffet.

One building in particular is eye-catching. It's the grey-white, unpronounceable Hallgrimskirkja Church dominating the horizon. Its cement buttresses, inspired by natural basalt rock formations on the coast, remind me of gigantic organ pipes up close. But from far away, the buttresses make the church tower look like an upright rocket ready for launch. Gothic-meets-Viking in the twenty-first century. In my mind's eye, I can see the entire population of 300,000 blonds filing through its enormous doors when this geothermal time-bomb blows. Then it would take off to a new home in the sun.

Dan says I'm sounding like an Icelander. "Stop it."

Speaking of unpronounceable words, Icelandic is a language that baffles me. But we're not alone in being unable to remember or repeat place names. A few years ago, when six days of volcanic eruptions shut down air travel throughout Europe, journalists gathering here just gave up trying to pronounce the name of the belching volcano, Eyjafjallajökull. They settled for "that volcano over there."

While speaking and spelling words are one thing, singing the language is something else. You can only imagine how hard it is to sing any language with more consonants than vowels. So when we took in Les Miserables a couple of nights ago at the National Theatre, and it was performed entirely in Icelandic, we made sure to get seats outside of spitting range.

It's time to go home.

For our last afternoon here, we visited the famous Blue Lagoon, a large outdoor thermal bath. In this chilly weather, the steam billows up and rolls over the hot water opaque with finely ground minerals. Dan and I can barely see each other. It's all foggy white, bathers are shadows lightly sketched on a blank canvas. It's when we leave the steamy pool that we become clear.

Such is travel.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Doing Lunch in SOHO, Hong Kong

There are so many places to eat well in Hong Kong that the choices confuse me. So I've carved out a tiny piece of the city to explore for luncheon options. SOHO is a good start for a newcomer.

Hong Kong island gets me turned around. Intuitively, I think that the water is "south" and yet it's really "north". The reason why I lose my bearings is because the billboard maps, conveniently posted about town, are always rendered with the water at the bottom, which is the place I would expect to find "south". Then again, maybe it's just me.

Perhaps a better way to hold onto your bearings is to think of Kowloon, the mainland, as being north of the island, which is how we'd be looking at Hong Kong on a world map or globe. In this way - keeping the big picture of Hong Kong front and centre - you'll probably keep your correct orientation on the island.

So here we are around one third of the way up the mountain (due south and up) from Central MTR station in an area called SOHO, an acronym for "South of Hollywood". There are a few streets here, parallel to each other running east-west where we take our lunch just about every day. These streets are: Hollywood, Staunton, Elgin and a few other small intersecting lanes. The SOHO area is really a subset of the larger area called Central.

This is an area where I go without a fixed restaurant in mind. We don't make reservations and we just walk around and look at the concentration of unique, hip, artsy, boutique-like small restaurants each with Set Lunch Menus. Invariably the selection is international. If we wanted Dim Sum, we'd head over to the mainland. Here on Hong Kong island, in SOHO it's all about western expats, international finance, select wines and pubs.

Lunch crowds begin around 1pm and the prolific eateries fill up and drown you out with chatter, clinking, rushing waiters and it keeps going up to about 3pm. In order to have our choice, we start the hunt after noon and take a seat before 1pm.

We've found that set lunch menus are posted everywhere and typically include an appetizer, a main, and tea or coffee. Some will be $88 HKD, many more $98 and a few pushing up to $128. Beyond that price point there are more exclusive, formal places, with set lunch as high as $198. But most of the options tend to hover around $98. In USD, this means between $11 and $17.

While this price range may be pricey to some and cheap to others, that's only part of the story. If you add a glass of house wine to your meal, you'll likely pay $70 HKD or more, almost the price of your set lunch! Wines might be easy to come by here compared to other countries in southeast Asia, but I find that kind of price, per glass, expensive (especially when you can buy a decent bottle merlot in the supermarket these days for $49 HKD in a two-for one offer). Thankfully, the house wine is usually a solid Australian entry and not something made locally.

But assuming you don't take wine with lunch, then you will finish off just 10% higher than the posted price since service is always added to the bill. There's no tax, at least no additional tax.

When you explore SOHO, also tune into the location of the Central-Mid Levels Escalator which bridges each of the parallel streets as you make your way up the mountain from Connaught. My husband and I only discovered this brilliant lung saver after a few days in town. While walking the streets in Hong Kong is easy enough provided they are east - west streets, once you head south you're mountain-climbing. Streets are steep and in the hot, humid weather, without the escalator, you'll work off your lunch in a mere block.

But maybe that's a good thing for the young. Me, I prefer the escalator. I'll work off lunch by shopping.