I finally got my wish. When we returned to Mumbai we experienced heavy rains and several days of flooding. During the short breaks in rain, we ran errands in Mumbai, finished our shopping and visited Nadia’s extended family.
After a lot of conversation and some soul searching, we decided to return to California to prepare for our next adventure: Russian lessons and volunteering in Kazakhstan.
We spent a little over a month in California studying Russian, packing and hanging out with friends and family. Highlights include time in the ocean kayaking and surfing, spending time with friends and family in San Diego and LA, BBQ on the beach, 75 cent rides at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, nightlife in San Francisco and family reunions.
We are excited for the opportunity. More from Kazakhstan to come soon…]]>
By chance, we met a member of Nadia’s extended family in Mumbai who had just returned from a week in Kashmir with his family. “It is beautiful this time of year. And the region is stable. You should visit Kashmir because you never know how long the peace will last,” he reported. We excitedly decided to fly to Srinagar and spend several days on and around Lake Dal after our stay in Delhi. Little did we know, unfortunate events were in motion that would surface deep-seated tensions and threaten the peace in Kashmir.
May 26: “The forestland in the Sindh range north of Srinagar was first diverted to the [Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board] on May 26 for raising a prefabricated infrastructure including lavatories at a base-camp for the Amarnath pilgrims.” (Source: Khaleej Times) The Amarnath caves are dedicated to the god Shiva and are one of the most important Hindu sites in India, especially during the holy month of Shravan in July-August.
June 21: Nadia and I set out for Delhi and Agra with news from Kashmir seemingly peaceful.
June 23: “Violent protests broke out in Srinagar once again over the controversial allotment of forest land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board by the state government. Protesters took to the streets as leaders of both factions of the separatist Hurriyat Conference in Jammu and Kashmir were placed under house arrest. Hurriyat leaders were supposed to be part of the protests.” (Source: Times of India)
June 24: We arrived to Srinagar and headed for our houseboat on Lake Dal. We were tired after three days of packed itineraries in Delhi and Agra so we decided to rest and take a leisurly tour of Lake Dal, backdropped by the majestic Himalayan Mountains.
June 25: We were intrigued by a popular tourist destination near the Pakistan border called Gulmarg. Gulmarg boasts Asia’s highest and longest cable car project, the Gulmarg Gondola, as well as the highest golf course in the world.
The day started early with breakfast at 7am. Tariq from the Chicago Group (our houseboat company on Lake Dal) accompanied us to shore. We had heard from other guests that he had accompanied them to Gulmarg earlier in the week in a company-owned car. Once ashore, he walked us to a taxi, put us inside and thrust his hand through the window to shake mine and wish us good luck. He hurried off before we could ask why we were going alone. Nadia and I exchanged confused looks, but shrugged it off as we drove into Srinagar.
The taxi driver looked unusually tense. As we approached the city center he commented that all of the shops were closed due to a protest. “What are they protesting?,” I asked. “They are protesting the sale of Kashmiri land to non-Kashmiris. This is against our law.” He answered his cell phone and suddenly he stopped the taxi in the middle of street, turned around and started driving in the opposite direction on the wrong side of the street. “Protesters have closed the road and are throwing rocks at cars,” he explained. “They are fighting with the police and two people have been shot.”
Our driver called the Chicago Group, who suggested he take us in the opposite direction to Pahalgam, a popular tourist spot for trekking in the Himalayas. Pahalgram is primarily used as a base camp for Hindu pilgrims visiting the Amarnath caves. By now we were peppering our driver with questions trying to catch up on current events in the region, struggling to understand how we were caught by surprise in the middle of something so serious.
Our driver turned the corner onto the road to Pahalgam and slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the final car in a long line of cars trying to get out of Srinagar. The road seemed closed, but we weren’t sure who had closed it. As we sat there, we negotiated with our driver and the Chicago Group, who was worried about the money they had planned to charge us for the full day of tours, to take us to the removed Mogul Gardens on the south side of Lake Dal away from Srinagar and the roads leading out of town. We enjoyed a quiet afternoon in the hilltop gardens that were once the summer home of Mogul Emperors, overlooking Lake Dal and the surrounding valley. Our day concluded with the unavoidable stop at a carpet shop on the way home.
June 26: Having gained momentum and public attention, the protesters extended their reach to the lake. Houseboat owners rely almost exclusively on tourism for income and were less inclined to support the protesters. The protesters demanded a full strike on the lake and organized patrols of young shouting men to force participation. Parts of the lake were blockaded by strings of boats tied together.
As a result, we spent the day confined to our houseboat watching the eerily empty waters of the lake. Tourist areas were closed, including the gardens we had visited the day before. Tariq wasn’t able to buy meat that day, but defiantly rowed over to a nearby boat to procure fresh vegetables for dinner.
June 27: “With violence escalating on the fourth day of protests across the Valley against the transfer of forest land to Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB), hundreds of tourists fled Srinagar on Thursday, while others are waiting to follow suit.” (Source: Times of India)
A general curfew was announced starting June 27th. We had flights back to Delhi for the afternoon, but had to leave the houseboat around 6am after a sleepless night in order to clear military roadblocks. The Srinagar airport was chaotic and we were forced to become ‘Indian’ – we pushed our way through crowds and lines to make sure we got our seats! We passed through five security checks at: the airport grounds, airport terminal, entering the ticketed area, entering the boarding area and on the tarmac before boarding the plane. It sure felt good when the plane took off!
The protesters succeeded in gaining a formal revocation of the land transfer on July 1st.
Unfortunately Kashmir remains unstable and unsafe for tourism. In response to the protests we witnessed in the largely Muslim valley over transferring land for use by Hindu pilgrims, protests have broken out in the majority Hindu area around the city of Jammu. Read more…
Tragically, Pakistani and Indian soldiers engaged in the first inter-nation gun battle in Kashmir since 2003 earlier this week. Read more…]]>
We left Mumbai for the north on June 21. Nadia wanted to see a few things in Delhi she missed during her last visit and insisted that I couldn’t come to India and not see the Taj Mahal!
We stayed in the bustling bazaar/backpacker district of Paharanj in Delhi and spent the first day touring sites in the area, including the Red Fort and Jama Masjid – one of the largest mosques in India commissioned by the Mogul emperor Shah Jahan. We were initially caught off guard by the aggressive tactics of touts and con artists in Delhi. It took us over 30 minutes to navigate through the web of stories and people trying to distract us from visiting the official tourist office at the New Delhi train station.
By the second day in Delhi, we were becoming pros at avoiding scams. We took prepaid taxis to the newer neighborhoods of Delhi to see the India gate (or war memorial depending on who you ask), spent several hours in the fantastic National Museum, which houses an amazing collection of historical artifacts from the Indus region and, of course, spent some time shopping in Connaught Place – the second largest financial and commercial center in India (after Mumbai).
On the 23rd, we took a train to Agra and hired a local taxi for the day. We started with a trip to Fatehpur Sikri about 40km outside of Agra. Fatehpur Sikri is a wonderfully preserved fortress city built by the Mogul Emperor Akbar to serve as his capital. Lack of water in the area limited the stay of the Moguls to less than 15 years, but the intricately designed city provides a great glimpse into the Mogul era in India.
We spent so much time at Fatehpur Sikri, we decided to head straight for the Taj Mahal to make sure we had enough time to visit before our return train to Delhi. The Taj Mahal was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal. The mausoleum is architecturally famous for its perfectly symmetrical design and white marble facade.
Visitors from all cultures, countries and religions come to marvel at the aesthetically beautiful and deeply moving gesture of love and devotion. It seemed fitting to spend the afternoon admiring this tribute to love on our honeymoon.]]>
We arrived to Mumbai on June 14 and were welcomed by Nadia’s uncle Ashraf at the airport. We were a little nervous about visiting India during monsoon season, but the rains stopped a few hours before we arrived and didn’t return until the end of our three-week stay in India.
We spent a few weeks in Mumbai with Nadia’s grandparents – enjoying their very kind hospitality and delicious homemade Indian cuisine. Each day we ventured out to a new part of this bustling and VERY crowded city, usually with Ashraf and/or Nadia’s grandmother.
In addition to meeting Nadia’s family and the wonderful food, highlights included bargain shopping for clothes and souvenirs and a day trip to Elephanta Island in Mumbai Harbor. The island is home to a half dozen ancient Hindu caves, which house one of the country’s most spectacular stone carvings of the god Shiva. The island is also home to very tame (and slightly aggressive when food is around) monkeys.
It was so much fun learning about the history of Nadia’s family in Mumbai! We even got to visit Breach Candy Hospital where Nadia was born and the beautiful ballroom in the Taj Hotel where Nadia’s parents were married.]]>
We arrived in Bahrain on June 6, and were surprised to be greeted at the airport by almost all of my aunts and uncles. My cousin Wahid even showed up in full Bedouin dress to impress Aaron.
We stayed with my Uncle Ismail, my Aunt Mary and cousin Sam in their huge house. Mary and Ismail couldn’t have been more hospitable, and Aunt Mary was sweet enough to drive us around and show us the sights of Bahrain during our week long stay.
I was surprised by how much Bahrain had grown in the two years since my last visit. There was construction everywhere and a lot more cars (and hence, traffic) on the road. It was apparent that the economy is booming. Everywhere we went appeared new and modern, with all the comforts of home. We were even able to find ingredients to make Mexican food in the local grocery store! Bahrain is a very cosmopolitan place, much like the U.S. or Europe in terms of standard of living. And, much like home, there are malls just about everywhere!
We were showered with affection and stuffed with food in Bahrain. We spent time playing video games with Sam and reading and relaxing. Aaron learned lots of new recipes from Alsabi, my aunt and uncle’s housekeeper. It was just what we needed after all our travels. It was too hot to spend much time outdoors but thankfully, everywhere we went had air conditioning.
We spent lots of time being driven around by Aunt Mary, who is a great tour guide. She is our unofficial family historian, and we enjoyed her stories. Aunt Mary drove us out to the desert, where many Bahrainis still camp out in the winter, sometimes for months at a time! Aunt Mary explained that many tents had satellite TV and all the luxuries of home. Not exactly roughing it! Camping season was over when we visited, but we hope to come back and experience it ourselves one day. We did see lots of oil rigs.
We visited Al-Areen Wildlife Park, which is a nature preserve for many of Arabia’s indigenous animals. The park had quite an array of deer and birds, some of which were very beautiful. Some of the birds were quite aggressive- Aunt Mary got attacked by one and had to defend herself with her handbag.
We saw ancient beehive graves dating from 4100 – 3700 BC. Bahrain was once known as Dilmun and has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. It was amazing to see remnants of Bahrain’s 7000 year old history scattered in between homes!
Another tourism highlight was our visit to Sheikh Issa’s house in Muharraq. My cousin Wahid took us here and showed us around. After seeing so much of Bahrain’s growth and modernity, we enjoyed this trip into old Bahrain. We walked through the souk to get here and found ourselves in a beautiful old complex that was once the Sheikh’s home. There was even a wind tower, which I remember my mom telling stories about from when she was young. The wind tower is an element of architecture in Persian and Bahraini homes that acts as an ancient form of air conditioning. My mom has childhood memories of hanging out in the wind tower in her parents’ home to escape the heat.
We enjoyed touring around Bahrain, but the absolute highlight of our stay was spending time with family. My mother’s four brothers and one of her sisters live in Bahrain, and much of the extended family. They couldn’t have been more warm and welcoming and we had such a great time with everyone.
My Uncle Ebrahim and Aunt Fatima hosted a delicious luncheon for us, and Aaron met most of the family there. I heard some great stories about my mom from my aunties.
Afterwards, my cousin Deena took us to the family business, fabric shops started by my great-grandfather and passed down to his sons. Uncle Ebrahim now owns the shops, and Deena manages them. The stores still bear my great-grandfather’s name.
We had the chance to spend lots of time with various cousins and aunts and uncles, and were taken out to dinner almost every night. One night, Deena and Wahid took us to a delicious fusion Asian restaurant. Another night, we celebrated Hisham’s 28th birthday with him, my cousins Safiya and Tariq and their friends. And yet another night, we were treated to a delicious dinner by my cousins Nasreen, Sohair, and Ali, Ali’s wife Julie, and Sohair’s son Yusef. Most of my memories of Bahrain revolve around eating, and now I understand why!
Our visit culminated in a wonderful family party that my Uncle Ismail and Aunt Mary hosted for us at their home. My cousin Mohamed happened to be visiting from Egypt and we were happy to see him again. It was great to see all the family together! The Khonjis are known for their love of singing and dancing, so it was appropriate that the evening ended with an impromptu concert by my four uncles.
We had such a wonderful time spending time with family in Bahrain and are excited for our next visit!]]>
The High Dam (newer of the two) was completed in 1971 and generates roughly half of the country’s electricity supply. On the flip side, constructing the dam led to the creation of Nassar Lake, the world’s largest artificial lake and the subsequent flooding and and relocation of Nubian villages and monuments in the area. The dam stops the annual flooding of the valley along the Nile River which has had mixed results on the land. From the High Dam it is possible to see northern Sudan on a clear day.
On the way back to Aswan we visited the Philae Temples. The oldest remaining part of the temple was built around 400 B.C. and rulers of Egypt successively added their mark to the complex until as recently as 300 AD in worship of the goddess Isis. Later in the day we took a felucca (sailboat) around Elephantine Island and explored Aswan Botanical Gardens.
Day Two on the Nile:
We stopped off at Kom Ombo, the temple erected in honor two gods: Sobek, the crocodile god and Haroeris. Kom Ombo was a major trading port and was even a regional capital during the Ptolemic times. The mummified crocodiles are thousands of years old!
Day Three on the Nile:
We awoke to find our cruise ship docked in the town of Edfu the next morning. Edfu is largely an agricultural center and its specialty is sugar cane. The main tourist attraction is the Temple of Horus (falcon god), which is one of the best preserved temples in Egypt because it was built on higher ground and avoided seasonal flooding of the Nile. Construction of the temple began in 287 BC and was completed about 200 years later. Modern day Edfu was built on top of the sand covered temple until it was rediscovered excavated in the 19th century.
From Edfu, we sailed to Luxor and passed another small dam, which creates a disparity in the water level. Our ship passed through a locking gate system similar to the system used at the Panama Canal in order to continue down the Nile at a lower water level.
Day Four on the Nile:
Luxor, once known as Thebes, has been inhabited for over 8000 years. The city became the capital of Egypt around 2000 BC when Montuhotep II conquered and united all of Egypt. Luxor is also affectionately known as the hassle capital of Egypt and we certainly experienced our share of locals following us around offering to help with everything from carriage rides to carpet sales.
We made a quick stop at the mostly destroyed Colossi of Memnon and spent the morning in the Valley of the Kings, which houses tombs of the Pharaohs. The tombs date back to about 1500 BC and so far archaeologists have found over 60 tombs, the most recent discovered a few years ago – and they are still digging! The entrance ticket includes three tombs; we visited Ramses I, III & IX. The tomb of Ramses IX was especially impressive with much of the colorful hieroglyphics still intact.
The Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, the most powerful and important female ruler in ancient Egypt, was equally impressive, although most of the coloring has faded.
After recovering in the air conditioning of the cruise ship, we set out again in the afternoon to visit the very large Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple. Karnak is one of the largest ancient Egyptian monuments, constructed and added to for over 1500 years. No one knows why this site was so important, but one and a half millennium of rulers felt compelled to add their personal touch to the site in form of a kiosk, obelisk, sanctuary, pylon or temple. It is fascinating to observe the changing architectural styles over the years.
Luxor Temple is home of the picturesque valley of the sphinxes. Modern day Luxor still covers most of the avenue of sphinxes which runs 3km to Karnak. The temple itself was once underground. There is still a mosque on top of main temple where the street level used to be before excavation.
We headed back to Cairo with a renewed interest and appreciation for Egyptian history and mythology and humbled by the tremendous achievements of a great ancient civilization. The next time we will be more careful in selecting our tour guides: The first day the guide didn’t really speak English; the second was more interested in Nadia’s bosom than the temple; the third kept trying to make us pay again for things that were already included in our package; the fourth was great, in spite of the inevitable detour to the alabaster pottery shop. Upper (southern) Egypt is a must see!]]>
Egypt was a bit overwhelming at first, with the noise, heat and sheer amount of people (20 million in Cairo.) Mohamed was nice enough to let us use his driver Tariq, which was a good thing since we could never drive in Cairo. The painted dividers separating lanes seemed to be for decoration only, as most cars straddled the lanes and zipped by one another with only a honk to signify that you would be hit if you didn’t move. Meanwhile, pedestrians strolled through the highways and streets at a leisurely pace, seemingly unaffected by the danger. Walking anywhere seemed like a constant stream of near-death experiences. I warned Aaron that Mumbai would be much worse, since in India we would also have to contend with cows and other animals sharing the road, and lots more cars.
Our first day in Cairo was spent touring the pyramids, including the pyramids of Khafre and Khufu, as well as a visit to the Sphinx. The pyramids were stripped of all the wealth and statues, but climbing through a pyramid was an experience in itself. I say climbing because we had to squat and wobble up a long passageway, and Aaron was bent completely double. Pyramids are not for the claustrophobic! I did feel a bit like Indiana Jones as we struggled ahead in the dim lighting and narrow passageways.
Outside, we saw the Sphinx, which is being corroded by a kind of monument cancer from within. And of course, camel drivers were everywhere, following us around and telling us “My friend, I will give you a good price for a ride.” Or, “You want to take a picture?” Overall, everywhere we went there were people constantly coming up to us and asking us to buy things. Having a six foot white guy next to me certainly added to the harassment level.
Afterwards, we spent the afternoon with Aaron’s friend Shady, his American wife Kate and their adorable six month old baby, Ray. Shady and Kate took us to lunch on the Nile, then we spent a relaxing afternoon at the beautiful Al-Azhar park that was recently built near the Citadel. The park was apparently once a garbage dump, but is now a beautiful and relaxing oasis in the city. We had dessert and drinks at a restaurant inside the park, and spent the afternoon chatting and catching up.
The next day we spent the morning at the Egyptian Museum, where we wandered around with our guidebooks on a self-guided tour. Aaron joked that everyone must have thought I was his Egyptian guide. In fact, many people asked if I was Egyptian on the trip, but of course once I opened my mouth the illusion was lost.
One of the more interesting and morbid exhibits in the Museum is the display of royal mummies. There were about a dozen pharoah’s mummies on display, including Hatshepsut, a few of the Ramses, etc. It was a bit eerie considering we were basically staring at ancient bodies. It was amazing how the facial features, and in some cases even the hair, were intact! Another highlight was the golden treasure of King Tut, the boy king whose tomb was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter and is one of the only examples of an intact tomb.
In the afternoon, my college friend Monem treated us to a sumptuous Egyptian lunch at Abu el-Sid and told us he was recently engaged! Congratulations Monem! Later, we wandered around Khan Al Khalili, the biggest bazaar in the middle East, and enjoyed browsing around, though we didn’t enjoy the constant harassment by the vendors.
In the evening, we had made plans to meet Aaron’s friends Heba and Nahla at a restaurant on the Nile, called Sequoyah. Getting there was an adventure itself. We took a taxi for the first time alone. The ettiquette of taxis in Egypt is that you are supposed to get into a cab, tell the driver where you are going, then once you arrive at the destination you are supposed to just pay what you assume is the fare and hop out.
This was Aaron’s second visit to Cairo, so he knew that if we followed the normal ettiquette, we would be overcharged, and the driver would yell at us and cause a scene when we refused to pay more. So, we stood on the side of the road, as Aaron negotiated rates with every taxi driver that stopped. When they failed to give a good price, he waved them on. Finally, the third (or was it the fourth?) agreed to take us at a reasonable rate. We hopped in, told the driver the destination, and started the journey.
We soon realized the driver did not speak English. He said he spoke some French so I tried that, but he only knew greetings. We called Heba to tell him where to go in Arabic, and he said he understood, but then kept stopping and asking people if they spoke English and could tell us to tell him where to go. Since we had no idea where the restaurant was, this was imposible, and after much discussion in broken Arabic, French and English, we decided to get out on the Nile and figure it out from there. By some miracle, we found ourselves at the restaurant and enjoyed the evening with Heba, her fiance Sami, and Nahla.
We went on a Nile cruise for several days, which deserves it’s own blog entry. When we returned to Cairo, we had planned to go to Alexandria for Aaron’s birthday, but we had both eaten something that made us sick (or what I call, the real curse of the pharaohs) and had to take it easy for the rest of our visit. We enjoyed spending time with Mohamed, who we also visited at his office in Heliopolis. Mohamed is regional director of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) which is a UN agency, and we enjoyed the tour of his office and the chance to meet his staff.
I loved Egypt and its history, and we both especially enjoyed getting to know Mohamed and spending time with our Egyptian friends.]]>
Our first daytrip was Cochem, a charming little wine-making town in the Mosel River Valley. Cochem looked like a scene out of a storybook, with it’s medieval, winding, cobbled streets and castle overlooking the town. I love visiting castles so we climbed up to the castle and took a tour. Unfortunately the tour was in German but we had a printout in English to get the main points. The castle dated from the middle ages but had been revamped in the eighteenth century and was made into a comfortable home for the inhabitants. The castle also had impressive stone statues that overlooked the town, which I thought were frog-kings but were actually strange looking lions.
While in Cochem we enjoyed bratwurst for the price of 1.80 euros each, which was a real bargain compared to most of our meals. We also stumbled on a wine festival in the town square. Cochem and the Mosel Valley is a center for wine in Germany, and we spotted many tourists and locals enjoying the sunshine and the views of the Rhine while sipping their wine.
While in Germany we found it more difficult to communicate than we expected, as most people we met didn’t speak English and we know French and Spanish between us, but unfortunately no German. All the other tourists seemed to be German senior citizens. Aaron picked up a few German words pretty quickly and we were able to communicate in sign language, broken German, and occasionally English.
We spent the last day before our flight on the Rhine River, which was beautiful, with green cliffs and castles everywhere. It seemed every town had a castle and I lost count of all the castles we passed.
From the ferry we stopped in Koblentz, the spot where the Rhine and Mosel rivers converge, as well as the town of St. Goar, home of the famous Loreley statue. The Loreley was a sort of siren, found in German operas, poetry and stories, that lured sailors to their doom on the cliffs adjacent to the Rhine. St. Goar was also very charming and we enjoyed relaxing on the river before our flight to the Middle East.]]>
Despite its reputation as the home of the notorious Red Light District, Amsterdam is quite a romantic and charming city. Tourism officials often boast that Amsterdam has more canals than Venice and it is true that just about every street corner in the city center could serve as a postcard image.
We flew to Amsterdam from Dublin on May 19th and spent two days in the city. The highlight was the Anne Frank house, which provides a wonderful insight to what life was like for Jewish families in hiding during WWII. The museum also has a great temporary exhibit that encourages visitors to think about and weigh individual freedoms with the wishes of the majority in a society – the exhibit is called Free2Choose.
We spent the rest of our time wandering around the canals and sampling international cuisine found in this highly diverse and progressive city.
What started off as a quiet calm weekend on the McDermott dairy farm, became a celebration as the Wicklow Gaelic football team won a huge game on Sunday.
Steph took us all over County Wicklow, including Glendalough – where many of her ancestors are buried in an ancient Monastery. We also visited the site of her and Chris’ upcoming wedding and the beach by her farm. We learned how a dairy farm operates and even learned about the calving process as one of their cows gave birth while we were staying on the farm. Other highlights included Sheela’s cooking and incredible baking and a tour of the neighboring horse ranch.
Congratulations Wicklow on the big win!]]>