2017 Travels

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We have just embarked on a seven-week journey around Eastern Europe and North Africa; we feel privileged to have the opportunity to experience new cultures and cuisines.

We spent eight days in Poland, where we enjoyed visiting Krakow, Warsaw, and Gdansk. Our favorites were Krakow and Gdansk.  Instead of a popular view of Poland being a dour land of older ladies in head scarves sweeping their fireplaces, the Poland we visited was young, alive and vibrant. Along the way we tasted many new Polish delicacies.

First Course: Soup

Warm and hearty soup is central to the Polish cuisine. One day in Krakow, we visited a “Milk Bar” -- an inexpensive, no-frills cafeteria style restaurant that used to be subsidized by the government during the Communist era. Here we tried: Zurek--a white soup from a sourdough base that included a hard boiled egg and sausage and Barszcz, otherwise known as Borscht--a clear tangy, beet soup. Both were pretty good, but basic. Later in our trip, at the Gdansk Solidarity Museum, we elevated our soup game by trying Carrot and Orange Creme soup. This was definitely more gourmet than the first soups we tried!

Pierogi Paradise

Pierogi are ravioli-like dumplings that come in all shapes and sizes. We tried a combo platter in Warsaw, which included Potato, Duck, Cheese, and Spinach.

Our favorites are the Russian Pierogi--which are not Russian at all, but are filled with a mixture of boiled potatoes mixed with quark (a type of cheese) and seasoned with salt and pepper  They are served with fried onions (sometimes crispy … sometimes sauteed.) Yum!  Some of the pierogi we tried were light and delicate; others were more dense. The thickness of the dough was inversely correlated to the quality of the restaurant!

And, on the potato front… they are everywhere!  Boiled, baked, mashed, fried.  The magazine on the LOT Polish airline even included an article titled, “22 ways to eat potatoes”. Potato doughnuts, anyone?

Traditional Dishes

We also dined on several traditional entrees: Beef Cheeks with wine sauce  and Pig Knuckle. Both were delicious. Sometimes they were served with an extra flair, including a flower!

And, we tried a few more unusual dishes -- Bigos , a sauerkraut stew cooked with meat (surprisingly tasty) and Golabki, cabbage stuffed with meat and rice.

 

Dinner of the Knights

For Ed’s birthday, we celebrated at a Krakow restaurant in a medieval cellar. Here we dined in the style of the Knights of the middle ages. Wild boar.  Lamb chops. Goose carpaccio. Clear chicken soup that the bride and groom drink on their wedding night. And, Chilean wine that had a label printed in Polish. (Who knew that Chilean wineries can customize their wines this way?)

Lots of Other Cuisines

Lest you think that Poland only offers traditional dishes with lots of potatoes, we also enjoyed seeing the emerging “foodie culture”.  We were surprised to see the variety or restaurants, many with inventive names.

 

Since Gdansk is along the waterfront, the seafood was fresh and delightful (with potatoes, of course).

And, we enjoyed Beef Bourguignon at Correze, a local French restaurant named for a department in southwestern France we had not heard of previously.

To Top it Off:  Vodka!

We tried many types of artisanal vodka (wodka), which was often served as a “bonus drink” with the check. Here’s our (not-too-scientific) analysis:  Ginger -- very strong, tastes like a huge portion of candied ginger; Blackberry -- tastes like cough syrup; Pear -- not too “true” of a flavor; Mint -- nice and subtle; Hazelnut -- not too sweet and our favorite!

As they say in Poland, Na zdrowie! (Cheers!)

During the last week of March, my mother and I took our second trip to Cuba.  Previously, we followed Ernest Hemingway's footsteps.  This time, we followed another famous "Ernest": Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

Che is beloved by the Cuban people and his picture is everywhere!

In Santa Clara, we paid our respects at Che’s mausoleum – a reverent spot hosting an eternal flame. The nearby museum displays his white medical coat, baby pictures, his report card from elementary school in Argentina, and his many weapons. All the photos on the wall showed him as a handsome and charismatic leader. And his statue towers over the city.

Also, this train museum marks the spot where Che and his troops derailed a train used by Batista’s soldiers. This battle marked the beginning of Che’s revolutionary victories.

And, a monument on top of a hilltop celebrates the Battle of Santa Clara and the July 26 Revolutionary movement, led by Che and Castro.

On our last trip, we visited Cueva de las Portales, the cave where Che led his band of revolutionaries during the 1966 Cuban Missile Crisis. We hiked in this cave, with the expert supervision of a local guide. We saw the creaky bed where Che slept and the phone that Che used to direct his troops.

Reflections on My Cuban Travels

As a fortunate three-time traveler to Cuba in less than 16 months, I've noticed some changes and similarities.

What Costs Less?

Airfare from the US is now much cheaper. Previously, we paid approximately $400 per person to take a 1 hour charter round trip from Miami to Havana. This trip, our direct flight on JetBlue from Ft Lauderdale to Camaguey was $89 per person. Nice.

What Costs More?

With the explosion of AirBnB across the island, you can now book Casa Particulares in every community in advance. What used to cost $20 - $30 per night, now runs $30 - $45 night plus a $9 AirBnB service charge.  In the past, to book a casa in advance, I’ve sent money to bank accounts in Italy and the Netherlands through many different cash transfer services. This time, I booked with VISA on my AirBnB account. Since my picture is on my AirBnB account, everyone said, “Hola Jan” when I knocked on the door. The service was very personal, and the prices are still reasonable.

What’s the Same?

Restaurant entrees still ranged between $4 (shrimp at a local café in Santa Clara that was recommended by a local) and $18 (4-course meal at a restaurant that is frequented by tour groups overlooking the water at the tip of Cienfuegos.) Prices may be higher in Havana, but we didn't go there this trip.

Car rental is still expensive. This time I booked with Rex, the premium agency, and our car was fine (except that sometimes it would stall when I was going slow in an intersection.) At least the trunk and doors all locked (which was different from the car we had from a cheaper agency last time.)

The people are still gracious and friendly. We had some delightful “people to people” encounters – including this mother/son duo who invited us into their tiny two room apartment for coffee.

And these gals who leaned over our car to give directions. (They even gave us a gift!)

In Trinidad, when this man at a neighboring table heard that mama is 94 years old, he bought us a second round of mojitos and joined us for the photo.

Although the majority of the tourists sill come in groups, we did meet several American couples and families who were traveling on their own. They had checked the “people to people” or “humanitarian” boxes on the Cuban visa form.

Cuba is still welcoming, wonderful, and a bit wild. The '57 Chevys bring back memories; the rum flows freely; the traffic is sparse; and most of all the people greeted us with open arms and gracious hospitality.

It was another fabulous trip.  I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to share this time with my mom and the many Cubans we met along the way. Viva Cuba!

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Sri Lanka embraces its long history as the “pearl of the Indian Ocean”. It has had its share of rulers (Dutch, Portuguese, British), but now celebrated its 69th year of independence on February 4, 2017 (while we were there). Tradition and history lurk around every corner, and since the end of the civil war in 2009, modernization has been on the rise.

Tea Time!

During our recent visit we stayed in two tea plantations and hiked among the tea plants. In Dikiya we stayed in a Governor’s Mansion that was visited by Queen Elizabeth in the 50's.

At this beautiful tea plantation, local women pick the fresh tea leaves in a methodical and organized fashion. We learned that each plant can be ready for picking every six days. The ladies work in groups – each picks her own row, selecting the freshest and newest leaves. They pick the bright green leaves on the top of the plant, leaving a spot for new growth to come.

 

The picking process has been the same for over 100 years. The ladies pick approximately 7 kilos per shift, and carry the bags of leaves on the back of their heads. It is a social endeavor – the ladies talk and laugh together while picking, and they receive frequent breaks for tea-time.

But now there is a modern twist. At the weighing station, the foreman uses a smart phone to scan the picker’s ID Card and register her in his database. Then he weighs her load and enters it on the phone. We don’t know if it’s beamed to the cloud immediately, but somewhere the “payroll department” receives it. The ladies earn $7 – 10 per day, depending on their productivity in picking.

Another of our plantation accommodations was on a hilltop, nestled among 125-year-old tea plants. The road to get there was so old and rutted that it could not accommodate a regular tourist van. Instead, we were shuttled up the 3 km mountain road in a trusty Land Rover. Most locals walked up and down the hill, but those who could afford it used the dependable tuk tuk.

The ladies used the same picking and tea-carrying methodology.

And, this plantation’s modern twist was… an infinity pool!

Colombo – Old and New

The Dutch Hospital in Colombo is considered to be one of the oldest buildings in Colombo. Recorded as early as 1681, it has housed a hospital and a police station. It’s a beautiful building with Dutch-style architecture, and is steeped in history. The 50-cm thick walls keep out the heat and humidity. Old illustrations show patients on mats and mattresses. (It’s doubtful that the food was very good back then …)

Now … it’s been restored and hosts several gourmet restaurants. One of them, The Ministry of Crab, is rated one of the top 50 restaurants in Asia. We enjoyed dinner with our traveling companions, even though the restaurant charges New York prices! Keep Calm and Crab On!

At Colombo’s Independence Day Parade (held on Feb 2, 3, and 4), the traditional falcon-handlers were showing off their prowess in front of the Galle Face Hotel.

Traditional bands and drum cores marched through the streets with a huge show of military pride.

And, with a nod to the modern, the parade also included PT-boats, missiles and drones!

The Galle Face Hotel is the grand-dame of Asian hotels. Built in 1854, it has hosted celebrities from Arthur Conan Doyle to Scarlet Johansson. Now it’s a gracious, elegant respite with lovely restaurants and vistas. A marching brigade plays bagpipes at sundown and marches to lower the Sri Lankan flag. The pool is delightful and the Gin & Tonics are plentiful.

However, we saw that they were dredging the area to the right of the hotel (on the Galle Face Green). A Chinese company is developing an entire marina, complete with Hotel and Casino. Yikes! This is not the type of modernization that we would favor. Hopefully it won’t wreck the peace and tranquility of the lovely hotel.

Ancient Cities

Due to UNESCO World Heritage status, the ancient 5th Century AD palace of Sigiriya has been maintained by archeologists. Nestled atop a steep rock, there are the foundations of palaces, throne rooms, gardens and swimming pools.

While climbing down the rock, we watched a cobra snake charmer do his “magic”! Nothing modern here.

The ancient city of Polonnaruwa, from 13th Century, once hosted 20,000 residents but has been abandoned for 900 years. Beautiful ruins and statues still grace the area.

Yet, even near this ancient area, we stayed at a modernist, exciting hotel designed by Sri Lankan architect, Geoffrey Bawa. It has only 141 rooms but boasts one of the longest hotel corridors in the world. We almost reached our 10,000 steps on our Fitbits by walking to and from breakfast!

Riding the Rails

One area that has not been modernized is Sri Lanka’s train system. It is still reliable, heavily used, and a bit slow. The passing lanes are still monitored manually by a conductor.

And each station is a period-piece.

But the ride through the tea fields was beautiful and we arrived safely to our destination.  Luckily we didn't need the "travelling repair van".

Another Old and New City

On our trip back to the US, we stopped for a 36-hour layover in Singapore. This city-state exemplifies the exquisite combination of old and new. The Raffles Hotel is still a gracious queen of civility nestled among high rises.

And the Singapore Sling, a traditional delicious concoction that originated at this hotel, is served with grace … but once again, at New York prices.

The "Slings" allowed us to conclude our trip with a (albeit pricey) toast to this wonderful adventure!

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In late January, Ed and I spent twelve days exploring Tamil Nadu, India's southern-most state covering 800 miles of coastline along the Bay of Bengal. It hosts 77 million people and many temples from the 6th to the 9th Century. We enjoyed the massive temple complexes with brightly colored Gopurams (gates).

Our favorite was Brihadiswara, which reminded us of Angkor Wat. Not even a day of rain could dampen the spirits of our traveling group that includes ourselves and two other couples: Barbara Sharp & Todd Sack, and Inge & Scott Baker.  (Note that temple visiting is a barefoot endeavor!)

Also, several non-temple experiences stood out.

One Million Protesters

On our first day in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu formerly known as Madras, we noticed that there was tons of traffic—stopped in gridlock. Our guide explained that over one million people had been protesting along the beachfront because the Indian government had banned a beloved Tamil traditional celebration—the Jallikattu. This traditional celebration involves running after bulls and trying to grab them. PETA and other western organizations had lobbied the Indian government to cancel this because it was harmful to the bulls. And, the Supreme Court had banned it for the last three years. However, this month, in a show of national pride, and a desire for the community to control its destiny, the protesters shouted “No! It’s our tradition and we don’t need Westerners telling us what to do!”

The protests were loud, and the TV news showed they were a bit violent.

Our experience was traffic gridlock–and police presence everywhere.

After six days of protests, the government backed down, decided to allow the Jallikattu, and dropped all charges against the protestors. After the days of gridlock, traffic flowed smoothly as we left the city.

In the Midst of the Jallikattu

As we were driving to Madurai—home of a huge temple complex—we were surrounded by throngs of motorcycles, each with three men aboard. Most were young; all were helmet-less.

Our driver explained that they were headed to … the Jallikattu! Every so often, we encountered a bull, either in a truck bed, on a cart, pulling a cart, or walking along the road with his master.

When we arrived near some open fields, we observed thousands of men (and very few women) who were ready for the bull running. In the other direction, a slew of local government officials sped by in their motorcade to open the festivities. We were able to stop and get close to a bull. Each village brought their own bull for the festivities. Everyone was in good spirits and ready for action.

We later learned that 37 people were injured during the Jallikattu in Madurai. No word about any animals being injured.

Our First Hindu Wedding

In the midst of a Hindu temple, we stumbled upon a beautiful wedding ceremony. This couple, who was meeting for the second time, was married by a Hindu priest. After the ceremony, the groom placed a ring on the bride’s toe – indicating that she was now a married woman.

After the ceremony, Scott and a Japanese tourist joined in the wedding party photos. Talk about a nice groomsman in a hat!

Meditating near the “MatriMandir”

One of the stranger places we visited was Auroville—a community of 550 residents based on the principles of yoga, philosophy, and spirituality. Founded in the late 60’s, Auroville was envisioned as a “futuristic international city, where people of goodwill would live together in peace.” It attracts residents who are in “search of enlightenment without the trappings of traditional religion.”

The town claims it’s not a “tourist destination”, but instead a “spiritual location”. Every day, they invite 150 guests to meditate with them for 45 minutes of silence. Unfortunately, we were too late to register for the meditation, but we were able to view a film of the meditation “globe” and later we walked to the vista point overlooking the MatriMander.

This globe reminded us of the spaceship in the recent movie, Arrival. Others thought it looked like a golden golf ball.

We were able to see a model of what the globe looks like on the inside.  The hole in the top projects sunlight into the white-carpeted space.

Since we couldn’t join the group meditation, we had to settle for our own private meditation… in the van!  (It didn't last 45 minutes...)

Rejuvenating Ayuervedic Massage

Another first was the Ayuervedic foot massage at a spa near the beach. Ed had a male masseuse.  Mine was female. The masseuse gave us a 1” strip of cloth on a string around our waist to cover our “privates” and then set a towel down on a gym mat. We laid down on this towel, and the masseuse held on to a string suspended above us and proceeded to massage every nook and cranny of our body using one of his or her feet.  She balanced on the other foot and held on to the string. First face up. Then, face down. Every so often, she dribbled oil on us and continued her relentless pursuit to cover every inch! This massage also included more oil dribbled on our heads and some more traditional massage on a massage table where the masseuse used her hands. At the end of the 90 minutes, we were very relaxed and rejuvenated!  Photo disclaimer:  Nice butt, but this is not Ed ... it's an online pic!  No cameras were allowed in our rooms.

Yoga on the Terrace

Experiencing the 7:00 AM yoga class with the Naral, the Indian yogi, was a treat. He led a group of about ten guests (including Inge and me) through many of the traditional poses and breathing exercises. (His voice and accent sounded just like Depak Chopra on the Oprah/Depak meditation tapes.) The meditation was punctuated by the morning “caw-caw” of local birds and the faint hint of the waves crashing on the beach.

Other Colorful Characters

With the variety of cultures and religions present in Tamil Nadu, colorful characters were everywhere.  Including, a man in orange and a police captain in Pondicherry,

and a cute girl at Mamallaparum.

When we saw this ancient elephant at Mamallaparum,  we decided to "assume our favorite position".

A First for Us!

Ed and I have to admit that we hadn’t heard of Tamil Nadu until our friend Todd suggested that we come here prior to our journey to SriLanka. It is not usually a tourist’s first introduction to India, but it was for us! And what a wonderful introduction…