When I first began my trip, I was intending to keep friends and family up to date on my activities using this forum. Unfortunately, I have been recalcitrant on those updates for a number of reasons (cost and time, but mostly laziness); the updates have drifted steadily out of synch, falling farther into the past. In the process, they have increasingly lost relevance. Since in my head I keep intending to push out the updates, this has resulted in me simply failing to keep everyone updated on my whereabouts, defeating the original purpose of the site.
So. I've got a lot of updating and writing to do -- and I intend to, if for no other reason than my own recollections in the far flung future. Below you will find a brief summary of where I've been, which should give a good indication of the size of the task. In the meantime, since these updates are no longer relevant, in the temporal sense, I will disable the Toadfriends mailing list that has been notifying you of these updates. Instead, if you are interested in relics of my past, you can check the site from time to time and find the updates. I will still employ the mailing list for general notifications, but there will not be many of them because I only have a little over a month left to travel! Inconceivable, really.
Fresh on the heels of a wonderful two month trip segment with Susan, I am currently dialing into the world from Spain, where I will spend Christmas. Below you will find a brief summary of all the points in between the border of Malaysia and Thailand, where you last heard from me, and here in Iberia. It's been a long and diverse road. Mea culpa on my incommunicado status -- I hope you understand.
Actually, I have already completed the Thailand writeup; in fact, I had completed it, for the most part, when I was still in India prior to meeting up with Susan in Istanbul. What with the dillies and dallies, the update sat on my home mail server. Now it is entombed on that same computer due to some sort of hardware failure, but I plan on having access to it soon. So check back for the Thailand update in a few days.
So, oh so briefly: From Malaysia I ventured into southern Thailand in order to check out the amazing technicolor limestone formations that comprise the islands off of the west coast -- these same, lush islands have been featured in movies such as The Man With the Golden Gun and, more recently, The Beach. From souther Thailand I zipped up to Bangkok to deal with visa issues and rendezvous with fellow world stomper Chris Tarr. Together, along with Than's cousin Owen, we painted the nights of Bangkok in a frenetic burst of big city exploration including city sights, Thai Boxing, the so called "red light" tour, and night life amongst some of the most friendly people I've ever met in a big city (with at least one significant exception).
Due to bureaucratic entanglements with visa acquisition, I was in Bangkok longer than I planned, so I had to skip northern Thailand. From BKK I hopped on a bus over to Cambodia. I was stunned and awed by the crown jewel of Cambodia, the temples of Angkor Wat. I was disturbed and morbidly fascinated with the modern legacy of Pol Pot, the site of the "killing fields" where so many families brutally perished and their remains can be seen to this day.
From Cambodia it was overland to Vietnam, starting with Saigon (Ho Chi Min City). Hopping onto the tourist track that the government has encouraged, I worked my way gradually northward, reflective on the ghosts of war, the war which they, perhaps not surprisingly, refer to as the "American War" from their point of view. The people were extremely friendly and the food was nothing short of spectacular -- so many fresh herbs in everything! I checked out some of the war remnants, in particular the VC tunnels where I duck-walked to some of the labrynthine corridors in the scarred and blasted land. I particularly enjoyed the highlands around Da Lat, which provided a welcome respite from the crushing heat and humidity that is more or less inescapable all throughout Indochina. Beaches and ruins, particularly those of the Cham empire who were depicted so vividly in the friezes of Ankgor Wat in their battles with the Kmer. Eventually I made it to Hanoi itself, a far more laid back and less frenetic place than Saigon, but nevertheless choked with the same incessant horns and crazy traffic.
From Hanoi I had another brief stayover in Bangkok, Thailand, before embarking on an altogether different and unforgettable experience, brief as my glimpse was: India. Starting in Calcutta I worked my way up into the highlands towards the wonderful tea capitol of Darjeeling. After lining up the various permits, I headed up into the still restricted province of Sikkim to bounce around and trek a bit between the villages of the Indian Himalayas, where the people are more Nepalese and Tibetan in nature than "Indian." The mountains in this region are nothing short of spectacular. Being the tail end of the rainy season, however, I cannot say the same of the hungry and prodigious leeches. After several days in Sikkim I returned to Darjeeling.
I was in Darjeeling on September 11th; when I found out what had happened I was shocked, sickened, frightened, and felt very, very alone. I'm still dealing with the events of that day, as I'm sure we all are. The locals, for their part, were extremely sympathetic and concerned -- this goes for just about everywhere I showed up, but diminishing with time. This was fortunate for me, because after that day I did not see many American travelers until Turkey.
From Darjeeling I headed straight into Nepal. After taking advantages of the conveniences of Katmandu I headed up into the mountains and spent ten days trekking on the Jomsom trail. Trekking in the Himalayas was amazing, if short -- I need to come back some day and do a full month or so of trekking. The terrain is rugged, but the experience is more posh than pure wilderness trekking due the preponderance of tea houses and lodging all along the way -- the locals live in those mountains and use those trails every day, so providing for trekkers is a natural opportunity. The terrain is magnificent, from the lush lower elevations all the way up to the dry dessert climate of the Tibetan plateau. At one of the higher points I collected a few ammonite fossils from a river bed, proof positive that those mighty peaks were once on the bottom of a sea.
From the mountains I headed down into the lowlands, on the fringe of the Gangetic Plain. Here I stayed for a couple of days in a wildlife camp where I attempted to spot Bengal tigers, wild elephants, and rhinos. Of these I only spotted the rhinos, but heard elephants crashing through the forests and a lion chuffing in his sleep.
I then dropped back into India and headed out in the far flung west of Rajastan. Here I took a camel safari through the dessert dunes, inescapably aware of my proximity to Pakistan while the U.S. was pressuring their government for cooperation in future military action in Afghanistan. Rajastan was an amazing province. The lowlands of India are an absolute assault on the senses, a study of extremes. On the one hand you have some of the most divine and exuberant foods, colors, and architectural constructs, absolutely divine qualities which leave the senses humming. On the other hand you have some of the most depressing evidence of poverty and abject filth you could ever fear encountering. There is not much in between. This disparity recurs throughout all levels of Indian society and culture.
At long last, it was up to Delhi where I hopped on a plane to Istanbul in order to rendezvous with Susan. Turkey, strange as it may seem, felt like home for me after my adventures in so many countries of Asia. Turkey is an interesting fusion of western modernism and Muslim tradition. We had a wonderful time hopping around the country, inspecting seaside communities, the gleaming white mountain formation of the travertine pools, the incredible "fairy chimneys" and underground cities of Cappadocia (where we lived like Trogdolytes (or as Susan would have it, cave fairies) in rooms carved out of rock towers), ancient ruins including Troy itself, and the delights of Istanbul.
Due to the aftermath of sentiment resulting from September 11th, we figured it would be prudent to alter our original plan of traveling overland from Istanbul through Syria and Jordan down to Cairo. From Turkey we hopped on a bus and headed into the mystery of Bulgaria -- Bulgaria? Who the hell goes to Bulgaria? What's there? We didn't know, but it was on a map so we went to find out. There's plenty in Bulgaria, still actively defining (or rediscovering) itself after emerging from under the Iron Curtain. We saw many lovely villages, inspected the curious architecture from Bulgarian Revival days, visited wineries, monasteries, and beautiful Orthodox churches, walked in the countryside amidst the bursting colors of Fall and grand vistas, and helped ourselves to cheap beer of excellent quality -- something that had been sorely lacking for me all through Asia (quality, that is).
From Bulgaria we dropped down into Greece, thereby completing our circuit of the old land of Thrace, components of which reside in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece. We were floored by the monasteries of Meteora, perched precariously as they are on the tops of enormous rock column formations. We hopscotched down to the Cyclades islands, beginning with beautiful Santorini which is the partial caldera and cinder cone of an enormous volcano peeking above the waves. Naxos, Paros, and Siros were next. We were well out of tourist season, so many times we had the places to ourselves, other than locals. We celebrated Thanksgiving in Naxos. Highlights of these islands included sampling local wines and olives, plus exploring the ancient marble mines and quarries of Paros.
From the islands we headed to the southern appendix of Greece, Peloponnese. We started of by visiting Kalamata, epicenter of one of the most fantastic olive delights on the planet -- though I must say that having toured Turkey and Greece my appreciation for the sheer variety and tasty quality of olives has shot through the stratosphere. It was harvesting season. In addition to the Kalamata olives themselves, olives intended for oil production are grown here as well. We stormed one olive oil facility and the workers, amused at our interest, were kind enough to explain the workings in broken English -- all the while we both had fresh, unfiltered olive oil straight from the spout on a big hunk of bread, dripping down our chin and forearms. We rented a car and enjoyed a drive through the countryside, inspecting castles and ruins from the days of the Venetians. Circling back north on the west coast, we headed out to the island of Kefolonia, part of the Ionian islands. Next door to Ithaki this island was part of the domain of our famed adventurer Odysseus; more recently it has featured in Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The highlight of that visit was another drive around the staggering countryside, some of which reminded me of Hwy 1 in California, winding along cliffside roads and dropping in on gorgeous beaches with imposing surf. Heading back into Peloponnese, we took a slight detour on the north coast in order to ride the rack-and-cog narrow gauge train up the vertiginous walls of Vouraikos Canyon. Continuing, we stopped at Corinth to inspect the ancient ruins and sheer walls of the Corinth Canal, which connects the Agean and Ionian seas.
Finally, we were in Athens, city on the move in its massive efforts to prepare for the 2004 Olympics. Here we made the pilgrimage up the Acropolis to pay homage to the Parthenon, as well as down to the gorgeous Sounion cape to admire the Temple of Poseidon. The weather was cold, but the ruins were nevertheless spectacular. We also rendezvoused with Ninos, family friend of Susan's, who showered us with spectacular hospitality and fed us well.
Wrapping up the visit to Greece, we hopped on a flight to Cairo in order to pick up the trail of our original tickets. We only had a few days in this ancient land, but we made the best of it by visiting the astonishing and eccentric archaeological museum (King Tut! Yes! Plus the mummy exhibition including Ramses II) and the breathtaking pyramids of Giza, Dahshur, and Saqquara. Due to the decline in tourism to the Muslim countries of northern Africa, we once again enjoyed relative calm and privacy in our explorations of these most touristed wonders of the ancient world. Unfortunately, pollution from Cairo obscured our views for the first part of the morning (the pollution can be quite shocking, even worse than Delhi), it eventually cleared up. All together we witnessed the three great pyramids of Giza (and the sphinx), the step pyramid of Zoser (eldest of all the great pyramids), and the so-called Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid at Dahshur. This last is every bit as spectacular as the Great Pyramid of Giza (ten meters shorter!) and it was this pyramid in which we scampered some 65 meters down into the innermost chambers for a taste of what it might be like as a claustrophobic mummy.
Sadly, Susan flew home after Cairo, after an absolutely fantastic trip shared together. As for me, I continued on to Morocco. The main attraction in Morocco is the people and their activities -- primarily the medinas and bazaars whose labrynthine corridors you can wander endlessly without seeing the same thing twice. Like Egypt, however, Morocco was still celebrating the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which put a stint on most activities -- primarily eating during the day. A bit homesick and with Ramadan cramping my style, I didn't linger long in Morocco though it is an incredible place to which I would like to return and explore properly. Nevertheless, I explored Casablanca, Féz, and Tangier (of Interzone and Naked Lunch fame), my explorations consisting mostly of wandering around in the medinas, constantly reminding myself to lift my lower jaw which was constantly agape at the crush of people and offerings for sale.
From Tangier I hopped on a ferry and crossed the Straits of Gilbratar to Spain, braving Scylla and Charybda. Spain, wonderful colorful Spain, here I type.
I plan on spending Christmas in Seville, but will try to see Barcelona and San Sebastián (where I hear tell they've got some crazy festival in early January where the whole town dresses up and runs around berserk) before continuing to Madrid. From there I will fly to Rome and spend a couple of quick weeks in Italy, followed by a rapid visit of Ireland where I will finally get my true Guinness before heading home.
And there, in a nutshell, you have it. As you can see, my work is cut out for me because I have only scratched at the surface, here. It is difficult for me to gloss over so much detail and richness, but I suppose it's a larger crime to leave everyone wondering what the hell I've been up to and where I am.
So -- look for the Thailand update soon; hopefully from time to time I will finish my more detailed descriptions of the places I've mentioned above. I'll be home soon and look forward to seeing everyone again.