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Gerry Feehan

“India? Are you nuts?” Join Gerry for Part 1 of his series on India.

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Feature Image India part 1

This is the first in a four-part series on India

“India. Are you nuts?” an incredulous friend remarked. “Why would you want to go there? It’s dirty, crowded, smelly and full of stray cows.”

So, I was anxious as I stared out the window of the Dreamliner 787 on descent into New Delhi after a 14-hour flight from Vancouver. But Delhi was nowhere to be seen. The worst smog in the country’s history had enveloped India’s capital. Visibility was near zero.

Man carrying basket on head

Smog in India

The late-night ride to the hotel was a dystopian dream. With the twelve-hour time change we were in a trance-like state. The streets were eerily quiet. An acrid smell hung in the air. As we drove through dense smog, the moon made a futile effort to silhouette India Gate, Parliament House and the Prime Minister’s residence.

“What’s happening?” we asked the clerk at check-in.

“Diwali,“ he smiled.

Diwali is an ancient Hindu festival that pays tribute to the victory of light over dark, good over evil – and a highlight of the annual celebration is the setting off of fireworks. When Delhi’s 22,000,000 inhabitants simultaneously ignite firecrackers and other pyrotechnics, the sub-tropical air becomes thick with the stagnant refuse of gunpowder. Add to this the exhaust of 9 million vehicles, smoke from burnt stubble fields in nearby Punjab, plus a temperature inversion – and you have unimaginable, eye-searing air pollution.

“…At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium…”

Schools were closed. Construction was halted. Roads were sprayed to keep dust down. Farmers were threatened with fines for illegally burning rice stubble; all to no avail. The particulate index climbed, from just over 600 when we arrived, to 964 three days later. This level is 15 times the “safe” limit in India – and 60 times what would be considered hazardous in Canada.

Women selling wares

Street Vendors during Diwali

Then the currency crisis hit. In an effort to weed out “black money” – cash hoarded through corruption and counterfeiting – Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the demonetization of all 500 and 1000 rupee bills. That’s like cancelling all our $10 and $20 bills.

India’s 1.3 billion people were given a fortnight to exchange old rupees, after which the old bills would become worthless. The bank lineups were horrifying.

India’s is a cash economy and many people don’t even use banks. The country was in chaos. But surprisingly, most people we met – guides, drivers, shopkeepers, restaurant employees – were sick of the endemic corruption and in favour of this Draconian strategy.

Our tour group consisted of my wife Florence and me, together with our fun-loving travel-mates Kim and Simone from Victoria and Joe and Carla from Saskatoon. We struggled through these pollution and currency crises from the comfort of an air-filtered, credit card-accepting hotel. Meanwhile out on the streets the locals coughed, lined up and resolutely carried on life in 21st century India.

school kids some wearing masks

Air quality is an issue

But for me more astonishing and unfathomable than the choking smog and worthless bills was India’s overwhelming, perpetual traffic congestion.

The “sub-continent” has 54 cities with more than a million people. Four of these urban agglomerations have over 20 million souls. And even the smallest Indian village is a clogged spoke of trucks, buses, cars, motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles and foot traffic. Pecking order is determined by size. Bicycles give way to motorcycles, which give way to rickshaws… ascending up to the big Tata transport trucks.

 

full bus carrying men

Traffic is insane

Buses overflow with humanity – arms, legs and heads spilling from every door and window. A moped transports an entire family – and their belongings. The lowly pedestrian occupies the bottom of the traffic heap, flirting death with each wary footstep.

At the top of the heap are India’s cows. Bovines stand nonchalant, impervious – and sacred – amongst the vehicular pandemonium.

people watching cow in street

Cows rule.

This may come as a somewhat of a surprise but Indians are fantastic drivers. In what can only be termed functional chaos, traffic actually moves. Roads designed for two lanes harbour four – in each direction. The tiniest opening in traffic is immediately filled by the largest object that fits that space. India abhors a vacuum.

Horns blast non-stop in a cacophonous chorus, used not in anger but to convey a message. A little beep means, “Hey, I’m here.” A resolute honk indicates, “I’m filling that gap.” And an extended blast from a bus states unequivocally, “Coming through, out of my way.”

The first two weeks of our month-long stay in India were spent in the company – and under the watchful eye – of guide Anoop Singhal and driver Devinder Singh. Each morning Singh Ji, a soft-spoken Sikh, greeted us with a colourful turban and a contagious smile. (“Ji” is an honorific, used to show respect – and we happily started referring to one another as Kim Ji, Anoop Ji, etc.)

kids with balloons

Despite the culinary curry shock to my digestive system – and the occasional experiment with street food – I managed to avoid “Delhi belly.” I credit my intestinal well-being to a daily dose of local yoghurt. But even with the use of air masks, we all eventually succumbed to the dreaded Delhi cough.

White palace on water

The Lake Palace of Udaipur

After “seeing” the capital, we travelled a few hundred kilometers southwest to Udaipur to begin an exploration of the fabulous architecture of Rajasthan. Vast palaces built by fabulously wealthy Maharajas in the 17th century still dominate the landscape. The Lake Palace of Udaipur, the White City, is a stunning snow-white jewel set in a liquid surface.

In Jodhpur, the Blue City, we looked down on a jumble of turquoise buildings from the heights of Mehrangarh Fort. The last in the colourful triumvirate of Rajasthan’s famous towns is Jaipur, the Pink City, where in 1857 Maharaja Ram Singh ordered his palace painted pink to impress the British overlords.

India is a photographer’s paradise. No need to search out photo ops; simply plunk down on any curb and start snapping: a vendor hawking fruit, women in crimson saris haggling over spices, a cow imperially chewing its cud, children laughing, beggars begging. All day, every day the flavour, colour, texture, sound, energy and urgency of India unfolds spontaneously, unrehearsed.

On the last day of our stay in Rajasthan, we stopped in at the famed camel festival of Pushkar where local dromedaries are auctioned annually. I nearly closed on a fine one-humped specimen but was outbid by a clever camel herder from the Punjab. Just as well; probably would have been tough to squeeze a grumpy dromedary into my suitcase.

Next time: Taj Mahal and the Sacred Ganges.

Thank you to these great local sponsors who make these stories possible!

 

If you go: Explore India from Vancouver B.C., www.exploreindia.ca, capably and professionally handled all aspects of our private month-long tour – air and land travel, hotels, meals, guides, drivers, entrance fees and activities – for one all-inclusive price.

Click below to read about some of Gerry’s other great travel adventures.

India Part 2- Terrific photos! Experience the Taj Mahal and Ganges with Gerry Feehan

 

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Gerry Feehan

Cairo – Al-Qahirah

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The Pyramids of Giza

The first thing one notices upon arrival in Egypt is the intense level of security. I was screened once, scanned twice and patted down thrice between the time we landed at the airport and when we finally stepped out into the muggy Cairo evening. At our hotel the scrutiny continued with one last investigation of our luggage in the lobby. Although Egyptian security is abundant in quantity, the quality is questionable. The airport x-ray fellow, examining the egg shaker in my ukulele case, sternly demanded, “This, this, open this.” When I innocently shook the little plastic thing to demonstrate its impermeability he recoiled in horror, but then observed it with fascination and called over his supervisor. Thus began an animated, impromptu percussion session. As for the ukulele, it was confiscated at hotel check-in and imprisoned in the coat check for the duration of our Cairo stay. The reasons proffered for the seizure of this innocuous little instrument ranged from “safety purposes” to “forbidden entertainment”. When, after a very long day, we finally collapsed exhausted into bed, I was shaken — but did not stir.

Al-Qahirah has 20 million inhabitants, all squeezed into a thin green strip along the Nile River. Fading infrastructure and an exponential growth in vehicles have contributed to its well-deserved reputation as one of the world’s most traffic-congested cities. The 20km trip from our hotel in the city center, to the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza across the river, took nearly two hours. The driver smiled, “Very good, not rush hour.”

Our entrance fee for the Giza site was prepaid but we elected to fork out the extra Egyptian pounds to gain access to the interior of the Great Pyramid. Despite the up-charge — and the narrow, dark, claustrophobic climb – the reward, standing in Cheop’s eternal resting place, a crypt hidden deep inside the pyramid, was well worth it. We also chose to stay after sunset, dine al fresco in the warm Egyptian evening, and watch the celebrated ‘sound and light’ performance. The show was good. The food was marginal. Our waiter’s name was Fahid. Like many devout Muslim men, he sported a zabiba, or prayer bump, a callus developed on the forehead from years of prostration. Unfortunately throughout the event Fahid hovered over us, attentive to the point of irritation, blocking our view of the spectacle while constantly snapping fingers at his nervous underlings. The ‘son et lumière’ show was a little corny, but it’s pretty cool to see a trio of 4500-year-old pyramids – and the adjoining Great Sphinx — illuminated by 21 st century technology.

The Great Sphinx

Giza at nightThe next night our group of six Canucks attended an Egyptian cooking class. Our ebullient hostess was Anhar, (‘the River’ in Arabic). Encouraged by her contagious enthusiasm, we whipped up a nice tabouli salad, spicy chicken orzo soup and eggplant moussaka. We finished up with homemade baklava. Throughout the evening, Anhar quizzed us about the ingredients, the herbs and spices, their origins and proper method of preparation. Anyone who answered correctly was rewarded with her approving nod and a polite clap. Soon a contest ensued. Incorrect answers resulted in a loud communal ‘bzzzt’ — like the sound ending a hockey game. It’s not polite to blow one’s own horn, but the Feehan contingent acquitted themselves quite nicely. If I still had her email, Anhar could confirm this.

Cairo was not the highlight of our three-week Egyptian holiday, but a visit to the capital is mandatory. First there’s the incredible Pyramids. But as well there’s the Egyptian Museum that houses the world’s largest collection of Pharaonic antiquities including the golden finery of King Tutankhamen and the mummified remains of Ramses the Great. Ramses’ hair is rust coloured and thinning a little, but overall he looks pretty good for a guy entering his 34 th century.

Ramses the Great

Then there’s Khan el-Khalili, the old souk or Islamic bazaar. We strolled its ancient streets and narrow meandering alleyways, continually set upon by indefatigable street hawkers. “La shukraan, no thanks,” we repeated ineffectually a thousand times. The souk’s cafes were jammed. A soccer match was on. The ‘beautiful game’ is huge in Egypt. Men and women sat, eyes glued to the screen, sipping tea and inhaling hubbly bubbly.

The Old Souk Bazaar

Selfies, Souk style

An aside. When traveling in Egypt, be sure to carry some loose change for the hammam (el baño for those of you who’ve been to Mexico). At every hotel, restaurant, museum and temple — even at the humblest rural commode — an attendant vigilantly guards the lavatory. And have small bills for the requisite baksheesh. You’re not getting change.

After our evening in the souk we had an early call. Our guide Sayed Mansour met us at 6am in the hotel lobby. “Yella, yella. Hurry, let’s go,” he said. “Ana mish bahasir – I’m not joking.” “Afwan,” we said. “No problem,” and jumped into the van. As we pulled away from the curb Sayed began the day’s tutorial, reciting a poem by Percy Blythe Shelly:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

And we were off, through the desert, to Alexandria. Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BC, Egypt’s ancient capital was built on the Nile delta, where the world’s longest river meets the Mediterranean Sea. The day was a bit of a bust. The city was once renowned for its magnificent library and the famed Lighthouse of Alexandria. But the former burnt down shortly after Christ was born and the latter — one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world – toppled into the sea a thousand years ago. Absent some interesting architecture, a nice view of the sea from the Citadel — and Sayed’s entertaining commentary — Alexandria wasn’t really worth the long day trip. Besides, we needed to get back to Cairo and pack our swimwear. Sharm el Sheikh and the warm waters of the Red Sea were next up on the Egyptian agenda.

Gerry with some Egyptian admirers

Exodus Travel skilfully handled every detail of our trip: www.exodustravels.com And, if you’re thinking of visiting Egypt, I can suggest a nice itinerary. No sense reinventing the pyramid: [email protected]

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

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Gerry Feehan

Croatia – Pedal and Sea

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On our second day of riding, while huffing and puffing up an absurdly steep Croatian road, I said to my wife Florence, ‘Perhaps it would be wise if you were to switch to an e-bike. The guide says the grade is going to get even tougher over the next few days.’ As she pedaled away, Florence remarked, ‘You use electricity. I’ll use electrolytes.’ Then she accelerated up the slope and disappeared around a bend in the lane. I stopped disheartened, dismounted and examined my bicycle, hoping to discover a low tire or some other mechanical excuse to abandon the climb.

We were on a seven-day ‘Pedal and Sea’ adventure on the Dalmatian Coast. We’d been forewarned that it’d be a tough slog. Preparedness being my motto, I spent weeks before departure supplementing my strict training regime with long-distance cycling. The calculations were precise. Twice a week I’d do 4 kilometers of pedaling — followed by a beer and a small nachos plate. Or was it 3 kilometers of pedaling, 2 brewskies and a medium quesadilla? No matter. The critical thing was to arrive in Croatia in tiptop condition, ready to pedal.

Ironically, the town we flew into was called Split. A Roman Emperor named Diocletian was among the first to vacation on the Dalmatian Coast. He loved Split so much that, after subjugating the locals and burning a few Christians at the stake, he retired here in 305 AD and built a gargantuan palace hewn from local limestone. Today, his enormous fortress still overlooks the quaint harbour. From the palace it’s a short walk up into Marjan Forest Park, which offers splendid views of the city and the surrounding Adriatic Sea.

We boarded our bark, The Azimut in nearby Trogir. We enjoyed a spread of fresh seafood as the boat motored out of port and into the open sea. Our guides Antonio and Andrei introduced themselves and outlined the program for the upcoming week. After lunch the whole group sat on deck marveling at the pristine, azure water as the Azimut skipped across the flat sea.

Two hours later we landed on Solta island. We disembarked, mounted our steel steeds and enjoyed a leisurely ride to the stony interior of the island. We returned to the boat in time to watch the sun sink into the flaming Adriatic. Then cocktails, then a scrumptious supper, then a few late-night laughs — then off to our berths for some well-earned jet-lagged shut eye.

In the morning I emerged from our stateroom, ordered a latte and watched the crew undertake the laborious daily task of manhandling a boatload of bicycles, bucket-brigade style, from the mezzanine deck to the dock. After breakfast we gathered en masse on the quay, strapped paniers to bikes, secured helmets to heads and awaited instructions. I surveyed my fellow Azimut shipmates, many of whom donned colourful attire advertising past cycling glories. The advanced age of some instilled in me a degree of cockiness. I decided to take it easy on them this first full day of riding; let them know it was okay for old geezers and geezerettes to share the road with me. On the first steep hill four septuagenarians pedaled by me in unison, peloton-style, instantly leaving me in the dust. As they rotated away, not judging a book by its leathered cover came spinning into my mind.

The itinerary was pretty much the same each day — one beautiful Croatian Island after another, but with ever steeper terrain and longer rides. Our flamboyant, able skipper was Captain Jadran. Every morning he stood at the helm, clad in a pink shirt, orange shorts, flip flops and a groovy Navy hat, part Humphrey Bogart, part Austin Powers. A cigarette dangled perpetually from his lips, which he removed only to shout sharp commands at the crew.

Our dapper Captain

There were 36 guests on board the Azimut. Antonio and Andrei our large, male mother geese, patiently and attentively looked after the whole flock, guiding us from start to finish every day, on every ride. They replaced chains felled by faulty gear changes, fixed flattened tires and bandaged the occasional scrape.

Although most of us started out using good old-fashioned human power, slowly but surely more and more e-bikes started popping up on the quay in the morning.

Before the week was half over the hard-core contingent was whittled down to less than ten. And those that made the switch did not switch back. But they certainly smiled a lot more. E-bikes have enabled the family to play together — and stay together. If mom is hard-core but dad and the kids aren’t as enthusiastic, they can still bike together the live-long day.

Fantastic Views

Pristine Harbours

Spoiler: we were not the first travellers to discover Croatia. Although we arrived in September’s shoulder season, the ports, even at smaller remote islands, were crowded — boats often stacked 6-deep, necessitating a circuitous, ship-to-ship hopping expedition to get ashore. Dubrovnik, the gem of Dalmatia, was crawling with visitors. Circumnavigating the City’s famous wall, a 2-kilometre stretch offering heavenly views of the ancient city and port, was a push and shove affair.

Fortunately, we didn’t spend too much time with the maddening crowd. Our days were occupied riding bucolic island byways, our nights rocking on board with the boisterous satisfaction of having conquered thigh-burning mountain passes.

Most of our ocean crossings took less than a couple hours and land was always in sight. The longest haul was from Hvar to the island of Vis — a two-pack sail for the captain. At the height of cold war fears, communist strongman Marshal Tito installed a secret submarine base along Vis’ rugged coast. But frankly, after an arduous cross-island ride, I was less interested in consuming cold war trivia than in downing a large serving of Viska, traditional island dough aroused with olive oil and stuffed with onion, anchovies and tomatoes.

Lunch!

Relaxing on deck after a hard day

The toughest ride was on Korcula. This leg was only a little over 50km, but there were several brutal climbs. Fortunately the pain was abated by frequent stops to admire the stunning white limestone cliffs spilling into the aquamarine Adriatic. The day ended at a small roadside shop where we quaffed a well-earned Radler (a delicious concoction of flavoured soda and beer) purchased from an indifferent Korculan shopkeeper. To be clear, not all Croatian shopkeepers are indifferent.

Some are also grumpy.

Radler time

On our last night on board the ship, at the Captain’s dinner, Jadran thanked us and offered a toast to all his guests. I manufactured an impromptu rendition of the Azimut Blues on my ever-present ukulele. When I finished the ditty, the captain, who had exchanged his colourful garb for proper navy attire, ceremoniously adorned me with a Croatian captain’s hat. An unlit smoke hung from his lips. I looked down at his feet: flip-flops.

Gerry

If you go: https://www.pedalandseaadventures.com/

Lights out

Gerry Feehan is an award-winning travel writer and photographer. He lives in Kimberley, BC.

Thanks to Kennedy Wealth Management for sponsoring this series.  Click on the ads and learn more about this long-term local business.

 

 

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