A man walks down the street
- Paul Simon, Graceland
Mon. Mar. 2: Agra, India. The last few days have been crazy. Fri. we got to the airport early, and found a long line leading up to the Royal Nepal counter, which had a mob of about 20 people in front. After a while we realized the line was worthless, so I joined the mob in true Asian style and fought my way to the front. I was told that I was not on the "list", and was booked for tomorrow's flight, even though we had reconfirmed in person and had a stamp to prove it. The next hour turned into chaos as 40 of us slowly found out we were not going to Delhi that night, regardless of tickets, multiple reconfirmations, or connecting flights to Europe. No explanations were given, and no money was given for hotels or food. It got so out of control that an airline agent was actually punched in the nose. (Although I didn't do it, I did feel he thoroughly deserved it.) Eventually we were all told we would be on a 2:45 pm flight the next day, and we had to talk to the airlines office the next day about hotel money. So we stayed another night. Sat. we got reconfirmed (another stamp), and we even got a voucher that paid for our hotel, but not food. Got to the airport early. All the faces were familiar this time, and we were all talking about rumors we'd heard, and stories from the night before. Some people had waited up to 4 days trying to get out, and had no more money, and their visa had run out. It started feeling like we were in a country that just went to war, and all the foreigners were trying to get out. Generally, I agree with the philosophy that it doesn't do any good to get upset or cause trouble, and that you should wait your turn in line like everyone else. But those rules work much better in the Western world. Here, if you do nothing, and wait like they say, you often get nothing, and it makes things worse. A little rudeness and a lot of persistence are sometimes what it takes here. We finally got checked in, got our luggage checked in and x-rayed, and made it to the departure area. But, of course, the flight didn't leave until 5:00, so we waited for another 3 1/2 hours, talking with several of the other "victims". So our 9:15 am flight had changed to 7:45 pm, then 2:45 pm (a day flight), and finally 5:00 pm (arriving just after dark, of course).
India exchange rate:
After all the stories I've heard from other travelers about India, I was really nervous, especially arriving at night. India seems to be one of those places in the world that's a must-see, but that can be very challenging. Apparently it's also a bit famous for having some of the worst airline arrival times. I've been told of 3am arrivals in Bombay that were met by a mob of people outside. So we decided to spend some more, and take a taxi instead of a bus and a rickshaw, and stay at a nicer place than we might usually. So we got outside, at the airport, expecting a mob scene, but it was fairly calm. We used the "taxi pre-pay" counter, so we didn't even have to bargain with the driver. And, he took us straight to the hotel, and didn't once try to go anywhere else! Stayed at the YWCA--too expensive at 500 Rs, but we didn't have completely horrible memories of India. The exchange rate here is similar to Thailand, so again we're converting by saying, "multiply by 4", so 500Rs is about $20. I think coming west through Asia first is a major advantage. Coming from Europe would be a big shock. But since we had a lot of practice with people trying every way possible to get your money, and had gradually seen the conditions of food and hotels get worse, India was not that big of a leap. But things are bad here. The poor are much worse off, and the philosophy of "anywhere outside can be used as a toilet" is very true here. We're using our money belts more here, something we really haven't done much at all so far. We usually leave stuff locked in our packs in our hotel room, and use the day packs (with locks also sometimes) to carry money for the day, etc. But there are a lot of truly amazing sights to see here--some are buildings, and some are just the way life goes on.
Sun. we bought train tickets for Monday to go to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. The railway booking office for tourists is on the 2nd floor of the New Delhi Station--but it's closed Sunday, so we got to experience the main reservations office. Eventually got tickets both ways, and paid 330 Rs (US$12.90) each for the round-trip on the "Superfast Shatabdi Express". Air conditioning, food, and only 2 hours. Hardest part was finding which platform the train left from (#1, in case you ever need to know). The train station is famous for pickpockets, and everyone wants to help carry your bags and help you find your way. But we were on full alert as usual, and came through fine. Took a tuk-tuk (they call them auto rickshaws here) to the "Shaj Jahan" hotel, which was recommended by someone in Nepal. 5 Rs each for the ride. The book says not to let a hotel recruiter take you because his commission (up to 40%) is included in the price of your room. Got a big room that overlooks the south gate of the Taj for 200 Rs (US$7.80), with fan and hot water. Only a 2 minute walk to the south gate. Have to buy tickets at the east or west gate for 2 Rs (that's 8 cents!). The entrance itself is pretty incredible, but the Taj is truly amazing.
Beautiful white marble everywhere--the towers, the dome, the walls, the floor, the stairs, everything! Have to take off your shoes, so you walk barefoot on the cool marble all around and inside the building. It was built from 1631 to 1653, and is basically a huge tomb for the emperor Shah Jahan and his wife. He had it built for her after she died while giving birth to their 14th child. The inside is one big chamber with 2 false tombs, and a stairway down to a small room where the real ones are. The detail is incredible--the carvings in the marble, and the semiprecious stones inlaid into it to make pictures and designs.
There are 2 massive red sandstone mosques--one on each side--and the river runs behind it.
It's a huge place. Walking around it on the marble, you get an incredible feeling of the work that was put into it over the 22 years. There is no wood or metal to decay--just marble everywhere, inside and out. I am impressed! Also went to the Agra Fort today. Worth seeing, but pretty anticlimactic after the Taj. It's a giant red sandstone fortress with lots of interesting buildings inside. Both the Taj and the fort are swarming with salespeople outside, trying to sell you anything they can--including film they say is color but is actually black & white, or already used! But they can't get inside the compounds, so you don't have to deal with them until you leave. The rickshaw drivers in Agra are the worst, most annoying people I've ever seen. One bicycle rickshaw driver followed us down 3 streets trying to get us to go with him (to stores where he gets commission no doubt), while I said "no" about a hundred times, and even yelled at him to leave us alone! Went back to the Taj to see it at sunset, and it did look different, and very pretty. You're supposed to see it during the day, at sunrise and sunset, and under the light of a full moon, when they say tons of people show up and it stays open 'til midnight instead of sunset. It's been a long day since we got up at 5:00 this morning in Delhi, and I'm going to bed now. Goodnight.
Thurs. Mar. 5: "On the plane from Bombay to London". Finally. The last few days have been pretty strange. Tues. we called about our Air India flight to Bombay and found out that our reservation had been canceled due to some stupid rule we didn't know about. So we spent the rest of the day trying to get it straightened out. We ran around town to airline offices and long distance telephone services. But every time I called Air India in Delhi they either said the computer was down or they didn't speak English, in which case they just put the receiver down on the table 'til I got tired of paying 1 Rupee every 8 seconds and hung up! By the end of the day I was in one of those angry, depressed, agonizingly frustrated, "I just want to go home" kind of moods. No matter how hard we tried, something horrible seemed to happen. So we went back to Delhi wondering if we were ever going to get out of India. On the train we met another backpacker and traded "India" stories for the entire 2 hours. There are so many strange, irritating, and completely foreign things about this place that I think I could fill a journal even after only a week. I'm sitting here trying to decide which stories to write about. There's the "society" of people that seem to live at the train station. There's all the people with physical handicaps or deformities (and we've seen some strange ones too) that roam the sidewalks begging for "baksheesh". There's the cows in Agra that won't be killed because of religious reasons, but will starve to death walking the crowded streets looking for food and chewing on cardboard. There's the walls that smell of urine so bad you have to walk on the other side of the street. There's the rudeness and general angry feeling you have to put up with wherever you go and whatever you do. There are the people that stare at you so blatantly that staring back doesn't even make them turn away--they just stare at you eye-to-eye. There's the absolutely endless bureaucracy and red tape involved with hotels, trains, airlines, and airports. There are the lines you stand in only to find that you're in the wrong line or that you had to have something done first--even though there were no signs saying so. I can't believe the number of security checks, forms, stamps, signatures, and long lines we had to go through just to get on the plane. And everything has to be late. Even though our plane had been at the gate for half an hour, we didn't board until it was the time we were supposed to be departing. Then, the chaos on the plane was incredible. You don't get a seat assignment 'til right before you step onto the plane. So of course a lot of people aren't sitting with the people they're traveling with, including us. The plane left an hour and twenty minutes late just because of all the delays we had getting onto the plane, and because of the 45 minutes it took to get all the Indians into their own seat--they were sitting anywhere they wanted. By the end of the flight there was trash all in the aisles, and the stewardesses were exhausted from all the hassles and having to tell each one of them to put away their luggage, put up the tray tables, bring their seat upright, and fasten their seatbelt, even though we had just heard an announcement in 3 languages saying the same thing. To get on the plane, we went through security where they frisked us, took us through a metal detector, x-rayed our bags, stamped our boarding cards a few times, checked us off of 2 different lists, but didn't even look at my camera when I wanted it hand checked--they just waved me through. Forms were filled out, signed, stamped, and never checked again. The passport officer even hassled Kathey, asking all kinds of questions including if she had the receipt for the Indian visa we got in Kathmandu.
Ok, that's all, I feel better now.
[ I hate disclaimers, and it's taken me a full year of the journal being online to get the courage to write this one. Mostly it's an attempt to explain some of my current feelings about India after receiving so much mail about the previous paragraphs--feel free to skip it if you don't like disclaimers either. Russell ]
England exchange rate:
Sun. Mar. 8: Suffolk, England--the Murrays' house. K. and I finally got seats together on the plane, and made it to London. What a difference! Friendly, clean people, good drinking water from the taps, English spoken as the first language, good food (no curry!), great transportation ... what a country! It feels like we're home, but neither of us have been here before. We got a couple of maps from the airport, and a list of the YHAs. We didn't have our Europe book yet. We were shocked to find how expensive the YHAs were, and that they don't have co-ed dorms (usually). The prices were about £12-16 each in the dorm. That equates to about $22-29 with the horrible exchange rate we got at the airport (£1 = $1.83). This is the first country where the U.S. dollar is worth less than the local currency. It's harder because we're used to looking at prices and always thinking the U.S. price is lower. But here it's more like, "twice the price, minus a little." We decided to go to the GPO, and to buy the 1992 "Let's Go Europe", and try to find something cheaper than the YHAs. Left our bags at the airport (Heathrow) and got a day pass for the "underground". The pass was £3.40 (US$6.20). Made it hassle-free to the GPO in about an hour, and got 2 letters from my grandfather, one from my mom, one from Chuck, and a postcard from Maria, who's in Stockholm for work. Her card made it here in 2 days!! I forgot how close we are to Sweden now. Bought the book, found a cheaper (private) hostel for £8 (US$14) each, went back to get our bags, and got to the hostel that evening. Had a great time walking around, looking at all the things we'd always heard about, like Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, and the red double-decker buses. The hostel turned out to be pretty good. We read that we are not supposed to change money at the airport, so we still aren't sure how much we lost there. Don't know what the bank rates are yet. We talked to the Murrays (friends of K's family), and they met us the next day (Fri.) and brought us here to their house. It's about 3 hours north of London, in Suffolk. The last 2 days have been filled with us saying, "I haven't had that in 5 1/2 months." It's so nice to be in a home again, eating at a dinner table, cooking food, sitting on the couch watching TV--it's really nice. It's cold here--about 52 degrees F (11 degrees C) for a high and near freezing for the low. My brother Michael and our friend Jeff are meeting us in Greece for about 3 weeks in April, so we're trying to decide if we should go ahead and do the U.K. (England, Scotland, Wales, and N. Ireland) and Ireland now, and then meet them in Athens at the beginning of April, or go down to Athens sooner and do Egypt before they get there. We're doing lots of reading to figure it all out.
Tues. Mar. 10: The Murrays' house. Mon. we went to Cambridge by bus (45 min.) and spent the day looking at fantastic buildings, chapels, gardens, and the town itself.
Great place to wander around. Went to one of the libraries and saw the original handwritten manuscript for A.A. Milne's "Winnie the Pooh." I consider it one of the highlights of the trip! Also saw where Charles Darwin lived while attending school, the fountain where Lord Byron sunbathed in the nude, and the doorway where Sir Isaac Newton stomped his foot to test his first theories on the speed of sound. Today we went to Ely to see the cathedral. Really impressive. It was started in 1081. Beautiful stained glass and painted ceilings. In 1322 they built the "octagon" to replace the central tower that collapsed. Eight stone pillars holding 400 tons of lead and wood that create a really impressive octagon at the top, with more stained glass. The entry has a marble floor with black and white pieces that make a small "maze". The path is about a foot wide, and leads to the center. If you walk to the center, it measures a total of 213 feet walked, which is the height from the floor to the ceiling. Going by bus back to London tomorrow. Our plan is to do England, Wales, and Scotland before going to Greece.
Sat. Mar. 14: London. Took the bus back to London Wed. The buses are good, but the one-way fare is the same as the round-trip fare! We stayed the first night at the Westbourne Hotel (another private hostel) for £8, but didn't like it so we came back here to the Palace Hotel. There seem to be several cheap hostels in this area--we're in the NW part of Central London, near the Notting-Hill Gate tube station. Thurs. we went to the GPO again and got a few things. A letter from my grandfather, and several things from my mom: A Dallas newspaper, a cassette hand winder, 4 rolls of film, K's second journal, and some reprints from the pictures we've sent home. Also a "home made" postcard from my brother. It was really nice seeing the pictures! We take so many (over a thousand so far) but never get to see any. Also went to Trafalgar Square and the National Museum. This would be a great place to start London. You come up out of the tube station and see a thousand birds all around a huge statue and some fountains. At one side of the square is the museum, which seems to be one of the best in London for art. And free! It's great just to see all the black taxis (which are old "looking" cars--50's style--and big), and the double-decker buses. Several streets come together at the square and all the buildings are interesting. Great place for pictures. Fri. we went to Buckingham Palace to see the changing of the guard--or should I say, the backs of the heads of all the people watching the changing of the guard. Even a half-hour wasn't early enough. But it was good anyway. Then went to Parliament Square and saw Westminster Abbey,
Big Ben, and the Houses of Parliament. There was a line to go inside the Parliament Gallery for free, so we went. We weren't even sure what we were about to see. They x-rayed our bags, frisked us, we walked thru a metal detector and an explosives detector, and signed a paper saying we wouldn't make any noise or disrupt what was going on. It turned out we got to watch the "debates" and "voting" down below. Parliament was in session and this was the next to last day. It was both interesting and depressing. To think an entire country's laws are constructed by such a group of ridiculous people. And even worse, it was very similar to the Congress in the U.S. But it was pretty entertaining and we laughed a lot. Today we went to St. Paul's Cathedral and the Tower of London & the Tower Bridge. Well, we did go to them, we just didn't go inside them. The tower was £6, so that's about $22 for both of us, and we decided it just wasn't worth it--at least right now. So if we have any money when we come back at the end of the trip (ha ha) we'll see it then. Also went to Victoria Station to check on buses to Scotland and Wales. Lastly, we went to Picadilly Circus and looked around a little. It was fun to go inside the Tower Records there because I called them a couple of years ago to have a CD shipped to me. London is full of places like that, that you've heard or read about all your life, but have never seen before. Like Sherlock Holmes' house at 221B Baker St. We went there too. Actually, there's a museum (£5!) on Baker St. at about 236, but they painted 221B over their doorway anyway. The real 221B doesn't exist. I think there's a bank in the spot where it should be. The Baker St. tube station is interesting too--all the walls have Holmes' face on them, and of course there are lots of shops like "Sherlock Holmes Cafe" nearby. I should say that the Tower of London is supposed to be one of the best things to see here--but it'll have to wait for now. It's cold here--did I mention that already? We discussed whether we should have my coat sent from home (K. has one but I just have light stuff), but finally decided to buy one for £30. We've also been rained on a few times. We have umbrellas, but it's usually easier just to use our hoods. Our coats (and sweat pants which we wear sometimes) are water resistant.
Thurs. Mar. 19: London. Sun. was our rest day. Stayed "home" and didn't do much. Mon. was our errands day.
Went to the U.S. embassy and got some extension pages for my passport. Then to the GPO and got a letter from my grandfather and a card from Per & Ulrika, at home in Sweden. It was good hearing from them. Sounded as though readjusting to normal life was not easy. I wrote to find out more--that's a subject I've often thought about. Then we went to Victoria Station and bought "standby" tickets to Cardiff, Wales. It's cheaper, and usually just as easy to buy standby because it's not the peak season yet. We bought a "Brit Express" card which gives a 30% discount (for foreigners) on all bus tickets for a month. It cost £12 each (US$20.70). The Wales tickets cost £13.30 (US$22.90) with the discount. Then went to Piccadilly Rd to the French Railways office for Eurail info. Found out that the three month pass has changed prices twice since we left, and is now over £100 more! We may get a youth pass (under 26) for K. and a normal one for me. There are several possibilities--not sure about the cost yet. Also we're not sure if we'll have enough money for 3 months--have to see how much Africa tickets cost. It was a 3 1/2 hour bus ride to Cardiff Tuesday, and fairly comfortable. They even had a toilet and food service. The choices for accommodations in Cardiff were either expensive guest houses or one hostel, which was the YHA. Strict rules, but overall ok. Took a local bus there for 50p (pence) each. Bought some food and cooked dinner at the hostel--something we haven't been able to do since Australia. All the signs in Wales are written in Welsh and English--"Cardiff" is "Caerdydd" and "Wales" is "Cymru". Welsh sounds very different, and the "sing song" patterns in the voice are like Irish and Scottish. Looks like an interesting language, but the signs are impossible to translate just by guessing. It's funny to walk down the residential streets and see blocks and blocks full of the same apartment-type buildings, all connected, and with just a few variations like the colors. Every place looks the same on every street, at least to me.
Wed. it rained a lot, but we did our sightseeing anyway. Most of the days here have weather that at home we'd call miserable. But I've been told the slogan is "Don't wait for a good day to do it." It's very true, 'cause you might wait a long time. Went to the Cardiff Castle, which is conveniently right in the center of town.
Paid about £3.30 (US$5.70) for the grand tour, which we usually don't do. It was good though--lasted an hour. Lots of history lessons and interesting things about the castle. It was built in 1091, and has been lived in and used constantly for the 901 years since. Learned an interesting thing about the names for the days of the week. They come from the names of Viking and Saxon Gods. Monday and Sunday are the exceptions, being named after the moon and the sun. Tuesday is from Tyr, Wednesday from Woden, Thursday from Thor (God of thunder), Friday from Frigga, and Saturday from Sater. Walked around Cardiff a while, and went to the National Museum. Interesting exhibition on the ice age and mammoths, but otherwise not that exciting. The scenery here is really pretty--all the green reminds me of New Zealand. Took the bus back today, and bought tickets for Saturday to go to Edinburgh ("Edinboro"), Scotland. Had to buy reserved seats since Sat. is more crowded and there are fewer buses. Cost £22.40 (US$38.60). Again came back to the Palace Hotel--took the free van from the Hostel Booking desk at Victoria station. Had sun today. Was actually warm enough for just a shirt and a sweatshirt. I think I mentioned before that I chipped one of my front teeth when we were in Malaysia. I decided we couldn't afford to have it fixed 'til we get home--it's just not worth the money that would have to come out of the trip, especially since it's just cosmetic. One of the things we often think about when we think about being home is having money again. As I've said before, money is absolutely the biggest problem for travelers. It gets so tiring having to worry about every cent, and having to decide whether the admission price is worth it. At home, spending too much means less money for luxuries that week. Here it means fewer countries you'll be able to go through.
Fri. Mar. 20: London. Did a few more touristy things today. Went to the GPO and each got a letter--mine from my grandfather. Took a double-decker bus from Oxford Circus down to Parliament Square (Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, etc.), which was good because we really don't see that much taking the tube. Then walked back up along St. James's Park to Trafalgar Square. Very nice parks here--big, clean, and very green. Looked around in the National Gallery some more, and then played with the pigeons. Bought a cup of bird food and took pictures with them swarming all over us--pretty funny.
Even funnier were the kids that were completely covered with birds. Then went to the famous "Harrod's Dept. Store". It's huge--takes up an entire block, and has everything, especially expensive stuff--but fun to look around. A guy in our dorm room said he was at a train station today that had to be evacuated because of a bomb threat. They seem to be fairly common, which is a bit scary. Lots of signs and continual announcements warn not to leave bags unattended. Luckily most scares are false alarms. All the trash cans have been removed from the tube stations, and even the art museum will only check coats--no bags. It's so bad that the police have set up code words with the IRA so they'll know if the bomb threat is real or not!
Thurs. Mar. 26: London. Sat. we went to Edinburgh--an 8 hour bus ride that was about a thousand times better than the 8 hour bus marathon from hell we took from Kathmandu to Pokhara. More beautiful green scenery, and some rain and even a little snow. Arrived at 6:30 pm and took a local bus to the Bruntsfield SYHA (Scottish YHA). Cost £6.50 each for dorms. I'm beginning to really dislike YHA's. In Scotland, all hostels have separate dorms for men and women. So we slept on opposite sides of the building and had to set a time to meet in the morning. But the real reason I don't like YHA's is because of all their crazy rules. At this one it was hard to keep track of them all: 7 am--earliest time to take a shower. 7:30--earliest time to leave the building (no early checkouts). 9:30--have to be out of the building 'til 2:00. 7 pm 'til 10 pm--only time to make advance bookings, which must be paid in full at another hostel, and never on the same day. 10 pm--the kitchen closes. 11:15--TV room closes. 2 am--front doors are locked--no late check-ins. You can't even walk to the side of the building for the opposite sex in the day time. And you can't use sleeping bags at all (because they bring in "strange diseases" from "strange places like Asia.") Anyway, we save some money by cooking a lot--we're also sick of eating out, especially cheap places. The Scottish accent was harder to understand than Welsh. Sunday we went to the Edinburgh Castle, also right in the center of town. Castle cost £2.80--no tour this time. It was hard to figure out what parts were old 'cause of all the touristry changes they had made over the years. But it was good, and had a great view of the city from the top of the hill it's on.
Lots of little shops that remind us of a skit from "Sat. Night Live" about a shop called "All Things Scottish." And a few people playing music on the streets for money--bagpipes of course. Saw a few people dressed for the tourists in their kilts and knee high socks, and even a display in a store window for tuxedo kilts. Tux. on top, kilt etc. on bottom--for weddings. Mon. we went to the unimpressive art gallery and looked around a bit. We were tired of museums and castles, so we saw a movie--Star Trek VI. The first one we've seen since Brisbane, Australia. Tues. we bought more traveler's checks from the American Express office. Used a credit card to get a cash advance to pay for them. Went to the library for a while and "studied" about Africa and Europe. We're still trying to figure out how to do Europe and which parts we want to see. Wed. took the bus back to London--rained all the way. Called the Palace Hotel before we left and had 2 beds held, without paying anybody a deposit, and on the same day, and our beds were in the same room, and we called when we wanted! Took the free ride to the hotel with the hostel booking place at Victoria again. Really convenient. Just show up and they take you--that's it! It's a little window outside, on the west side of the British Rail building, next to the escalators. The Palace Hotel is like our 2nd home lately--we've checked in 4 times now. Kind of funny because it was the "Palace Hotel" in Singapore that Tony Wheeler (the writer) had fond memories of. Like the one in Singapore, it's not perfect, but it's good to come back to familiar places and people. Today we went to the GPO (of course) and got a letter from my grandfather and one from Per & Ulrika. Also a letter and card from Christine. P & U's letter was wonderful! It was so funny and so nice to hear all about when they got home. Some things I expected, some I didn't. Their weather went from hot and sunny to very cold and snow. They said their town felt small and deserted compared to frantic Bangkok. All of their friends were so impressed with their stories--even some things that were normal to us--"Did you really stay in those bungalows?" Ulrika's mom made their favorite meal but they could hardly stay still to eat it because they were so excited about seeing everyone. They said it sounded strange to hear Swedish everywhere. But even after just a few days the trip seemed to be a dream. I'm sure a lot of that will be true for us too--it was exciting just to hear about them going home. Michael is all ready for Greece, and we're excited about seeing him and our friend Jeff. I wonder if it will be harder or easier when they leave. It's almost like they're coming to visit us in our town, and going home again after a short visit. I remember when two-week vacations felt long! It seems like a weekend now. A German girl told me they work only 35 hrs. a week, and get 6 weeks vacation even just after starting work. They can hardly believe we only have two. Another note about P & U... I feel like we have a connection with them that we don't have with anyone else in the world. I can talk about things with them that no one else would understand, even if I explained it. Like I've said before, even with all the pictures and all the words I write here in the journal pages, I still can't quite get across everything I want to. I can write to them and speak so easily, without having to explain things, or wonder if it gives the wrong impression about some country. I have a feeling we'll be friends for a long time.
Sun. Mar. 29: London. Fri. we got another day pass for the subway. Went to the GPO and got a letter from my friend Maria. It was nice to hear from her. Found out (a little late) that we can cash Am. Express trav. checks at Am. Ex. offices without being charged a commission, which is usually 1%. Went to the British Museum. Very good, very big, and free! Saw a lecture and slide show on Pompeii that was really interesting. I didn't realize it was so accessible to tourists. Also saw the Rosetta Stone and one of the 4 surviving copies of the Magna Carta, which had an English translation that was interesting. This is another museum that you could spend a couple of days in--like the Nat. Gallery. Fri. (Mar. 27th) was also our 5 year anniversary since we met, so we splurged a little and ate dinner at the "Texas Lone Star Saloon" nearby. Good but not quite like home. Mostly lacking in "Southern Hospitality" and general friendliness, which seems to be true for every country we've been to so far. I guess "working for a tip" is worth more than I thought. We still get charged a "voluntary" 10% service charge though. Like Australia, iced tea is not highly regarded here, to put it mildly. But since they had it on the menu, we tried it. They somehow think it should be made from a mix and must have lots of sugar and lemon flavoring--yuk. Other than the fact that it was supposed to be so authentically Texan, the restaurant was good and we had a good anniversary. Sat. we met Cathy W. for lunch. We had traveled with her from Brisbane to Sydney. It was good to see an old "traveling" friend. May see her later also. Today we walked to "Speaker's Corner" in Hyde Park, nearby, and watched all the people on their soapboxes yelling about anything people would listen to--mostly politics and religion. Of course, nobody was actually interested, but there to see the event--like we were. Flying to Athens tomorrow at noon. Michael and Jeff arrive Friday at 4:30 am. Looking forward to warmer temperatures.
Well, the first journal is full after 6 1/2 months. 149 pages for 197 days. Thinking a lot about who will read this and whether I can do something with it. Can't quite see how to write a book from it yet, but still thinking.
[ Note: Remember that this was written in 1992, before the web. :-) ]
Greece exchange rate:
Sun. April 5, 1992: Athens, Greece. The beginning of the 2nd journal. Looking back through the 1st journal, I'm reminded of how far we've gone and how long it's been since we left. Sometimes I forget what our "other" life was like. Monday we flew here without problems. Arrived in the late afternoon so we still had daylight, which is always nice in a new country. Took the bus for 160 Drs. to the "Alex Hotel" on the north side. Turned out to be cheap, but pretty crappy. Stayed the night in the dorm for 700 Drs. each and decided to find a better place the next day. The exchange rate here is a little less than 200 Drs. per dollar, so we convert by saying, "divide by two, plus a little." So 700 Drs. is about $3.70. Tues. we walked to another hostel to find it closed. So we took the trolley down near Syntagma Square to look at a few more. After we figured out which trolley to take and got on one, we realized that you're supposed to buy a ticket before you get on. By the time we figured it out and got off, we had made it to the square anyway--oops. It wasn't very far actually--we usually walk around town now. Looked at the "Thisseos Inn", which was kind of a hostel, but with private rooms. Pretty good, but decided to look at one more first. The "Festos" hotel (similar to Thisseos) was really good, but full. So we reserved a room at the Festos for the next night and decided to stay one more night at the Alex and then move. Got a (somewhat) better double room at the Alex for 2500 Drs. (US$13). Had free entertainment that night, as there was a big fight in front of the hotel, just below our balcony. Glass was broken, a guy was knocked out, and the police came and we didn't even have to pay admission. Gladly moved to the reserved room at Festos Wednesday. Took the trolley since we had our packs to move. (Bought a ticket this time--75 Drs.) Much nicer room for 1850 (US$9.80) each. Went to the GPO the day before and got a letter from Kathey's grandmother and one from a friend of Kathey's from work. Walked around a lot and found a lot of things like the American Express office, a few banks, a McDonald's and a Wendy's, a couple of grocery stores, and a couple of other places to eat. Most things are near Syntagma Square, so staying in a hotel there is a lot better. I had heard some bad things about Athens, but now I wonder if they're just bad if you compare Athens with the islands. As big cities go, I really like Athens. It feels safe (the fight was in the middle of the night, and between two locals) and it's easy to get around the city. The streets are busy but major ones all have crosswalks with lights.
Just walking a few minutes, you see so many things. The big streets, the small, narrow side streets with lots of shops, and pedestrian malls with lots of "side-walk cafe" restaurants. Sometimes you turn a corner and find a street that looks straight up to the Parthenon--what a sight! Lots of old Byzantine churches scattered around. We got a free map from the tourist info desk at the airport--it's invaluable when you wander around all the narrow side streets that twist all around. I'm tempted to say I'm reminded of Asia. But Greeks don't put up with the uncleanliness of Asia. It's a great mix of interesting little streets and modern cars and shops. The people are much friendlier also. In Asia, a lot of the society is built so that it's just clean enough or just comfortable enough that tourists will come. But this is more like Western cities where the city is there for the locals, not the tourists. And they're happy to help you find something or explain something--not because they want your money, but because they're just being nice. The street signs are written in Greek and English, but we've had a lot of fun translating words from the Greek alphabet to ours. Our book has all the letters listed. We walk around looking at signs like: and sounding them out like a little kid first learning to read. After you sound each letter and say the word a couple of times you realize it translates to: STEREOPHONICA. Of course, only some actually translate to English words, so it's a constant game to see if it will be a word you recognize or a Greek word. The word: means DRACHMAS (the local currency). Thurs. we just looked around some more but didn't do any of the touristy things--we wanted to wait 'til Michael and Jeff got here. Went to a restaurant--"To Gerani's"--listed in the book to try some more Greek food. Looked at the menu and saw nothing but Greek--but with cheap prices. So we decided to give it a try. Asked for a menu in English and the waitress (who spoke English really well) said, "We don't have one, but I'll bring out all the dishes and you can pick what you want." So she brought out a big tray full of plates with hot, delicious food and told us what each one was.
[ Note: the book now lists the restaurant as Ouzeri-Kouklis. The address is Tripodon 14, in the Plaka. And it was still there, and just as great, in May of 2000, and again in November of 2005 :-) ]