Sunday, February 8, 2009

I love the smell of India in the morning. It smells like . . .victory.

Well, not quite.

Onward to India
An appropriate smell has appeared on our journey (by plane) from Istanbul to Delhi: stale vomit. I say appropriate because I expect to come upon smells like this (and probably much worse) in India. It’s good training. I tried hunting for its source at first, then I tried moving my seat, but it seems to have permeated the entire last 15 rows. In all fairness, we’ve also come across some amazing smells from the Indian food people have brought aboard. I’m excited for more of both. Actually, I’m excited for my first meal in Delhi that hopefully smells a lot like the food in the front of the plane. And I’m also curious how iron my stomach is (not very, at least from the few days of stomach problems in Istanbul) and how it will survive its first bout with Delhi belly. It’s not if, it’s when. Jay mentioned that a friend of a friend caught some lifelong parasite in India. Hopefully that’s not in our future. I think that would be the worst punishment of all for me because it would limit what I could eat (ugh!). For now, to try to weather the storm, I’ve begun to do what any sane person would do on an international flight: get drunk on the unlimited free booze to numb my olfactory senses.

The magic of Bollywood has already graced us with its presence in the form of the film “Tashan” on the plane. Wit, bad music, multiple dance numbers, costume changes, a ridiculous but absorbing story, attractive leads, homages to MTV, Hollywood, road movies, Indian culture, and everything but the kitchen sink thrown in . . .Like a first sexual experience, It is impossible to describe it properly without follow-up experience. I’ll just leave it at “amazing.”

The North
What a bizarre first day. It felt busy but we didn’t really do anything. Got my F-2 visa for Korea processed, which was a relief. Had a great first Thali (set meal) including a masala dosa, Dal (lentils in a spicy tomato sauce), nan bread, and various sauces and curries at Bikanerwalla-a huge vegetarian chain. Better meal for $5-6 than we could have gotten for 10 times that in NYC. On the food front, things look good. We met our CS host, who is interesting, but busy. 3 tuk-tuk (motor rickshaw) rides have left us coated in smog. Traffic and the sheer number of people is overwhelming, especially on day one on a few hours sleep the past few nights combined. Looking out the tuk-tuk window isn’t boring at all, as there are a billion stories here, not 7 million like in NYC.

First Impressions:
Lots of begging. Little infrastructure. Looks like a war zone. Thought I’d be prepared for this after visiting Cambodia, but it’s much worse and I can’t drown it in booze like I used to with Jay and Chris (old travel buddies from Korea) in Phnom Pen. Luxury good shops co-exist next to a hole in the ground or ramshackle building/business and nobody blinks. It is constantly difficult to breathe. Thought we might get carbon monoxide poisoning sitting in traffic and die like people die turning a car on in a closed garage. Drove on a crowded overpass over a crowded highway and thought of a river of smog sweeping us forward.

We had suspected our identity had been thieved in Turkey. It’s definite now and steps are being taken to rectify the situation

There is house help where we’re staying. This seems to be fairly common for the middle and upper classes, although we feel guilty asking for anything from Megish (the 14 year old boy worker). Our host, Kaushal, insists on it, and he’s got a point. Kaushal doesn’t live at the apartment we’re staying in (it’s his 2nd house) and he’s paying the kid to look after it, so he might as well help us. Still, we want to give him a token of our appreciation because he won’t take money. There’s roaches here and dirty floors and outside it looks like the 3rd world, but it has some nice interior touches. We’re having a hard time deciding if this is middle or upper class, although our host seems to be doing well for himself and took us to a fancy hotel for drinks.

Speaking of class, one of the more interesting things we talked about with Kaushal (and there were many) was India’s need for a solid middle class if it wants to sustain its growth. Kaushal says that the extremely rich and poor account for far too large a population segment.

Kaushal gave us some great travel suggestions for our time here. Right now we’re planning on 6 weeks. We’ll head to Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and Udaipur in the north. In the south, we’ll head to Mumbai, then make a stop at one of the beaches in Goa, then head south to Kerala to check out the backwaters in Cochin, stop along another undecided beach further south in Kerala, head up to Mysore and possibly a hill station, then head to the southeast to Pondicherry and a hippie town just south of there, then fly out of Madras (Chennai) and stop in Singapore before heading back to Korea. We were going to try to get to Varanasi, but Kaushal stressed how filthy it is. This is coming from a Hindu (Hindus believe Varanasi to be among the most holy places in the world) and a Delhi resident. If he says Varanasi is much filthier than Delhi (and here is the filthiest place Sue and I have ever been), then we’ll skip it.

A question I’ve been struggling to answer: Is India like an open sewer? Yes in Old Delhi, where I thought the city might swallow us up in its and seemingly logicless narrow alleys. No at the swanky Grand Intercontinental, where we went for drinks with Kaushal.

No rules on the road-Run a red light? Speed? Drive drunk? All you have to do is honk and all is forgiven?

Sue was so drunk last night that she couldn’t spell my last name. Her best guess was Juwitt.

Don’t know how to repay Kaushal’s ridiculous generosity. We met his family yesterday. His wife was charming and his children two bundles of energy.
Delhi is a throbbing city (and a city that leaves your head throbbing) with life (and mostly the unfortunate side, at least as we saw). You find yourself asking-How do people live here? No really, HOW? How can you survive in this overflowing pile. Why not move to the country, where we assume it to be cheaper and cleaner? We’ll be heading there quickly after arriving in Delhi if we make it here again.

Why would we avoid it in the future? You wear filth here. Its on your skin, in your clothes, under your nails. Everywhere. A shower does no good. The city is literally in your skin. Not many other cities can say that, unless they mean it figuratively. This is a city where one of the 10 best restaurants in Asia (according to Time Magazine) is located in one of the filthiest backstreets in the city where you risk being mowed down by cars and auto rickshaws or simply being swallowed up by the sheer masses. So we’re getting out of here and going off to Agra for what I think will be a glorified photo op at sunrise at the Taj. Hopefully that doesn’t send us running and screaming from India, because we’re a bit on edge now.

On the sleeper class train (the class of the common people) to Agra and here are my thoughts/sights:

-Seeing cows grazing in De-facto landfills

-Street kid hassled us for $ through the window of the car. We gave him some from the train window, his friends came over and relentlessly pan-handled for the next 20 minutes while we waited for the train to depart 9It left 30 minutes late). This included poking me, brushing my arm with a found brush, and generally being little pricks. I’m glad I’m not teaching anymore. I also, unfortunately, won’t be giving to the street kids much anymore.

-The garbage can on the train is the window.

-I’ve figured out the smell of Delhi: Something like exhaust, stale vomit, and sewage vapors wrapped up in a bucket of warm piss.

-Thank god for Kaushal, whose hospitality made our time in Delhi bearable-although I must admit that being cooked for by his butler (?) was a bit odd. My mantra: “Go with the flow.”

-Sue and I can’t even imagine how living/growing up here would change our worldview. I feel completely helpless and overwhelmed just visiting and have tried to block out a lot just to get through the days. How could someone do it everyday. Sue’s jealous because she thinks growing up here makes you appreciate things much, much more and be able to adapt to living elsewhere much easier that other people. Hmm.

-How does it get to this? It looks like Hurricane Katrina at its worst as a normal way of life.

-Delhi belly has been mild. Lucky

-Food has been excellent. Definitely the best thing so far.

-Water burned my eyes when I washed my face.

-Intercontinental hotel was eye-opening for its opulence in the midst of the swarming ‘life” outside. We of course, partook in this to de-stress. A-holes we are.

-China seems like a miracle of infrastructure compared to this. I never felt like I was in the middle of a country of over 1billion there. Here, on the other hand, has a population around 1.5 billion or so in the entire country, although it feels like they’re all In Delhi.

-Sue is alternating between miserable and fascinated. She’s started writing again. Whatever it takes.

-How in the world did the Brits maintain a semblance of control here for as long as they did as Colonists. Unbelievable. The amount of religions, ethnicities, regions, the sheer size . . . I think it would be easier to colonize China.

Welcome to Agra
Agra-Took a sleeper car (basic Indian railway transport taken by the common, not middle class, Indian) here. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons, most notably, the hundreds (no exaggeration) of roaches we saw while sitting. This did not sit well with sue, but it’s a testament to her growing fortitude that she managed to tough it out. More amusing was the attitude of our fellow Indian passengers as I killed roach after roach and Sue shuddered and squealed. Their reaction was to shrug and say, “That’s the right way. Keep it up” to me, while ignoring the roaches crawling next to them. It seems that Indian attitudes towards roaches is like ours toward ants or flies-they’re simply a part of the landscape.

Agra was memorable for the Taj-which felt like one big photo op (and our camera ran out of battery!)- but which is also poses a philosophical query about the nature of love. It was created as a monument and tomb to a dead ruler’s wife. It took a ridiculous amount of manpower to build in a poor country, lead to the king being dethroned by his own son and imprisoned with a window out onto the Taj for a view, and, if rumors are true, led to the designers being killed/hands’ being cut off so that they could not duplicate the building’s design. Whether you find this romantic or not tells you a lot about yourself. It symbolizes purely selfish, closed and maniacal love-a truly passionate and all-consuming idea of love that is undoubtedly attractive in many ways and that I know I have dreamed of feeling and having someone feel for me.

It’s interesting that this monument to mad love is housed in India, the same place that gave birth to Buddhism, which stresses all-encompassing, selfless, giving, all-knowing, all feeling love. I couldn’t help but wonder how these two completely opposite notions of love co-exist in the same country.

The Red Fort in Agra was in many ways more impressive than the Taj because I didn’t expect much from it. It’s an ancient city, once of 5000+ buildings, housed inside a red sandstone wall, complete with a mote. It housed the region’s ruler for quite some time, but was most impressive to me because I found the detail of its interior and exterior design to be just as impressive as Angkor Wat (if not moreso). It also was a great place to stroll around peacefully, something that is tough to experience in the constant bustle of India. Check out the pics for detail.

Maybe because we spent so much time in well-maintained and private sites, Agra made us feel that India could be handled after the overwhelming first few days in Delhi. But going to Jaipur knocked Sue back into a “this is too much” mindset, which I could understand after wandering bazaar alleyways populated by 4 auto rickshaws across, bicycles, cows, pedestrians, cow dung, vomit, and rotting vegetables filling in the tiny cracks between each rickshaw, with a lovely stench of all of the above to fill your nostrils as you waded through it all. The views from The Ladies’ Palace were quite nice as you can see from the pics, but overall, we felt beaten down a bit and curious how we would get on during the rest of our trip. Sue, in full trooper mode, promised to press on after some guilting on my part (crappy of me, I know).

This lead to Jodhpur (The Blue City), a smaller city than any of the others we had visited, but still almost 900,000 people. It was a bit more manageable, but bad lodging the first night put us off a bit and we decided to get the heck out of dodge and to Goa to rally the wagons. Jodhpur’s fort was fantastic and must be mentioned as probably the most impressive structure we saw all trip. See pics for its sheer massiveness and beauty at sunset. Also check out how blue the blue city actually is.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Travertines, Meat, and Mary

We had no idea what to expect from Turkey. Hell, we didn’t even know what continent we thought Turkey was a part of. Whenever we described our trip we always said we were going to Europe and Turkey, but, technically, Turkey is Europe. But, quite presciently, our decision to sever Turkey from the rest of Europe was a wise one.

For Sue, Turkey seemed a lot more like Korea than like Europe when we first arrived. The outskirts of Istanbul can do that to you. The neon, abundance of shopping, street food, and developed (but not quite completely) mood gave us both this feeling Go to Taksim square for a perfect example. Having had dreams about returning to Korea for the past two years, this made me decidedly more excited than Sue about Istanbul.

Tolga, our host (through couchsurfing) in Istanbul, was a great guy. Stuffing us like we were in Sao Paolo, he fed us copious amounts of Turkish food (some of it made by his own Mom, Mmm) and gave us suggestions for what to see and do. Our waste lines are a bit wider, but it’s all worth it to have made a great new friend (who better keep his promise to visit us in Seoul).

Because the food played such a major role in our time in Turkey (are you sensing a pattern developing?), we’ll start with that.

Meat, meat, meat. Our first meal was a assorted kebabs, complete with lots of lamb and beef, all spiced to perfection. The best way I can describe it was kind of like Gyro, but not quite. For our first meal it was great, but we came to desire a bit more variety later in our trip as we found lots of the food to have the same spice to it. We also couldn’t handle eating meat like that for days and days.

Stuffed Potatoes- A truly revolutionary idea. Take a big baked potato and fill it with whatever you want. Sounds familiar, but not like this. Vegetables, meat, cheese. . . imagine the variety of pizza toppings that are generally available, but inside a potato. The best part is that the restaurant seemed concerned that I only wanted 5 toppings in mine and reduced the price. Most people get like 10 or 15!

Raki-An 80 proof licorice flavored clear alcohol generally accompanied by seafood or other side dishes. For those of you who have been to Korea, it’s kind of like soju and drunk the same way, with food. I drank a small bottle by myself. This will not be repeated.
Meyhane-A Turkish “tavern,” these are establishments where raki is the drink of choice and dozens of side dishes can be bought. A great deal and always fresh. If I go back to Turkey, I’ll be heading to more of these.

We spent a lot of our time on the coast and got to enjoy some amazing seafood. It’s simply, with the quality of the fish in mind. This made Sue extremely happy after all the continental cuisine of the past month, although she was hoping for a little more spice. Definitely try the seafood if you make it here.

We did other things besides eat food, but none were quite as interesting.

Just kidding.

I was extremely taken by Istanbul. There’s no other city like it and seeing the east and west meet in it’s people. Architecture, cuisine, and overall mood is something special. It’s a huge city that we barely made a dent in, but one that I feel confident in saying cannot be shrugged off by anyone, regardless of their travel experience. The highlights included:

The Blue Mosque-I couldn’t recall ever seeing a mosque (or at least one worth remembering), but that will no longer be the case. Grandiose in the best way, impressive in it’s angles and design like no other religious structure, it should absolutely be visited. I must give warning that I might have been so impressed because this was my introduction to the Muslim world.

Soptaki Palace-A really big, really expensive, really unnecessary construction. Diamond and ruby encrusted weapons, rare and precious stones galore. Still, pretty damn impressive if you don’t think too much about how the sultans could have spent the money on instead, namely their subjects.

We took a ferry to the Asian side of the Bosphorus one night and explored some of the quieter areas. The walk along the water was never-ending and speaks for the vastness of the city (and why they eat so much seafood). The ferry ride itself was also a lot of fun. It was like the whole city took the Staten Island Ferry.

The world famous bazaar-I must hate capitalism, because every time we enter a market I am overwhelmed by the desperation of everyone selling a product. I have to leave after a few minutes because I feel bad for all the people. I see them as lonely and desperate, when they very well might love it in reality. I’m glad I’m not in sales.

Four Seasons Bosphorous-Luxury travel has never appealed to me. Sue has a theory that once you stay in a nice hotel that it’s hard to stay in budget accommodation later on, but sitting in the outdoor café watching the sun set over the Euro side of Istanbul and watching the container vessels, cruise ships, ferries, and various other boats cruise by on the Bosphorous under the bridge linking Asia and Asia Minor (Europe) bathed in the sunset’s light was worth the 22 Turkish Lira for our coffees ($15 US). Staying there, that’s another matter. I’d like to think that there will be a day where I don’t sweat dropping $1500 on a weekend in a hotel with meals and drinks included, but I don’t think that day is coming anytime soon

The best thing about Istanbul was how it made me feel like things are exotic again for the first time since South America. It’s similar to the feeling of foreignness we had in Mexico City where everything felt new. It’s nice after the comfort and familiarity of continental Europe.

Istanbul wasn’t all we saw, in fact it was only about 3 days of our 10 days in total in turkey. The first place we headed was to Cappadocia. We traveled via another night bus (this one a bit comfier) to the land of fairy chimneys and underground cities. We stayed in the city of Goreme, the rumored location for the opening scenes in Star Wars. Nobody seems to be here as its out of season, but that makes it more enjoyable to walk around. Unfortunately, after exploring a cave settlement/church area carved into the rock formations at the open air museum, we found ourselves wrapped in a web of bureaucracy from LAN, Lehman College, and the Korean Consulate. The second two are understandable, but LAN is ridiculous. I advise all of you to never have to deal with LAN customer service, as it took us 5 months to have our ticket PROCESSED to be refunded (it was a refundable ticket) and will be another month before we receive the money.

We spent 2 more days exploring Cappadocia on some package tours (we definitely got ripped off by booking these through a travel agency, though I guess that’s to be expected) and the terrain here is like nothing else I’ve seen before. The closest I have come to it was around the Grand Canyon, but this Is different. The rock formations here look as if they are made by man, but they are in fact, completely natural. The wonders of water, wind, ice and time make it just as impressive as the Grand Canyon in its own way.

Another natural wonder was next on the list as we traveled to Pamukkaleto climb the calcium travertines up to the Hieropolis. This place doesn’t look like it belongs on planet earth and climbing it early one morning after another sleepless night bus ride made it that much more surreal. On top of it was the an ancient Roman settlement that, while not well-reconstructed, was still impressive. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.

After one day there, we were off to Epehesus, one of the wonders of the ancient world. While nice, it would have been a lot more wonderful if we weren’t squeezed into a package tour and surrounded by other package tourists once we arrived at the site.

Near Ephesus, we visited Mary’s (capitalized because she’s the mother of Jesus) final residence. Nestled in the mountains, humble, yet well-maintained, this felt like a genuinely religious place to me, moreso than the phallic power structures of cathedrals and churches built by the church and/or governments for political purposes we’ve seen throughout most of our trip, although it’s ridiculous that they serve beer in the café outside. The home itself is a modest stone cottage that supposedly dates back to the 1st century AD from Carbon remains in the fireplace and can be traced to Mary because her protector John (as entrusted by Jesus) died in Epephesus nearby. I don’t know that I’d call it a religious experience, but it’s the first place to make Mary (and therefore Jesus) feel real to me. Whenever I’m asked about my religion, I say “raised Catholic” and that I believe in God. That God has always been a very ephemeral idea and, while I used to pray fairly regularly, I’ve since lost touch with whatever God is. A few years ago, I came to the conclusion that I do believe in God, even outside of my Catholic conditioning. Sue, on the other hand, claimed she didn’t believe in God, but still prays. I asked to what she was praying if she didn’t believe in God, and she said “you have to pray to something.” Upon being pressed she admits she believes in something, just not the Christian idea of a God, very similar to my feeling recently. Being here has made me reconsider a bit. As I said, it feels genuinely religious here, and if I were a die-hard Catholic, it would be important for me to travel here, more special than anywhere else, more special than seeing the Pope. I don’t know where this is going, but I wanted to get it down on paper. If I still wrote stories, I would like to set one here, something Carver-esque.

Turkey is by far the most geographically interesting and diverse place we have visited. I don’t know that we’d want to live here, but for a visit, its tough to beat Turkey. I’d like to come back again.

Despite getting ripped off by a travel agency, I’m enjoying meeting the “real”people of Turkey who work in basic pensions and guesthouses who just hang out and have been doing what they do their whole lives because their families own the places and scrape by on the tourist season business. We’re lucky because we’re coming outside of the tourist season. We get the real deal.

Which would be worse-working in a giant market and heckling people to buy or working in a resort town and heckling people in the off-season by trying to trick them to stay in your hotel, buy bus tix from you, eat in your restaurant, etc.? I would vote for the resort town. I can’t even be angry at them when they try to do it. They also don’t seem as pressured as people in markets because they know the bucks are coming in the summer. Any business in the off season is just the icing on the cake.

Turkish hospitality is real. We’re experiencing it from people every day. Tea, chats, openness. It’s great.

PS- By this point in time, traveling has become completely normal. I’m used to sleeping in a strange bed, showering occasionally, washing my underwear by hand in the sink, and wearing it wet the next day. I don’t know if this is a good thing.

PPS-We went to the old prison where they filmed Midnight Express. It is now a luxury hotel. No idea what this means, but it seems notable, if only to show how far Turkey has come since the 70s. It is trying to get into the EU, and I, for one, certainly hope that it makes it.

Pickled Herring, Gorillas, and Bicycles

Our hosts were the driving force behind our visit to Amsterdam, and so they must be mentioned first. David and Effrat (whom we met on the Inca Trail) invited us to visit them when in Europe and we took them up on their offer (an excellent decision, although David may disagree after I burned my clothing into his space heater). During our 2 days and 3 nights there, they showed us virtually everything we could have wanted to see in the city and we took care of the leftovers on Sunday on our own.

Our impressions:

Of all the cities we’ve visited, Amsterdam is 2nd to Berlin. It looks much nicer (wow! on the canals and architecture), but isn’t as rough and exciting as Berlin (despite the red light district and hash bars). The natural beauty of the city and its canals-even under overcast skies was enchanting. We were also amazed by how quiet and peaceful it was for such a large city and how easily navigable by bike and public transport it was. The quality of the zoo (Sue loved the gorillas best because she says I look and smell like one) was a big surprise and a lot of fun. Overall, it’s a hell of a city and one we plan on visiting again (and one we could spend extended time in).

We were lucky enough to visit on Museum Night, a once a year event on which you buy a ticket to visit almost all of the city’s museum’s throughout the course of one night (and free transportation with your ticket). As a bonus, djs, bands, and other special events are happening at all these places, and drinks and food are also served. The amount of culture and the interest in it from inhabitants of all ages (26000 in total bought tickets for Museum night) was impressive and is a big reason for our very positive impression of the city. Every museum was interesting, but seeing Damien Hirst’s blinding diamond-encrusted skull was most impressive.
Sue and I came to a conclusion while in Amsterdam: Europe isn’t as exciting as South America, but I think it will have a more practical and lasting impact. I.E.-We think we will keep in touch with the people we met there, but even if we don’t, simply meeting them and being in Europe changed our worldview and plans for the future. And isn’t that what traveling is about?
Off to Turkey. Go Obama!

Gourmet Beer and French Fries

Couchsurfing in Brussels
We were lucky to have a great host for our first couchsurfing experience, Johan. He gave us a crash course in Belgian beers (he used to have his own café), steered us towards some excellent pubs and pommes frites shops, directed us towards some interesting sights, and gave us an excellent overview of the city. He also greeted us with coffee and chocolate, prepared a few filling breakfasts for us during our stay, made us the best traditional Belgian mussels I can remember having, and helped us find the cheapest and easiest ways to travel around the city and to Bruges. Overall, the experience was completely positive and made us excited to couchsurf and host as much as possible in the future. Thanks so much, Johan. We hope that you make it to Korea so we can return all of your hospitality

Check out if you are interested in more info. Sue and I both highly recommend it.

PS-A Finnish girl named Rica (sp??) also stayed with Johan while we were there. It was great to hear about Finland and her extremely positive experiences hosting and being hosted through couchsurfing, all of which have been as positive as Johan’s. We would love to see her again in the future, either in Finland or Korea, just as we hope Johan will come to visit Korea on his Trans-siberian trip in the future. We’re excited to host and be hosted more in the future and are going to look for people to share our time with in Turkey and India if at all possible.

French Fries and beer. . . As stated to many prior to our departure, our original purpose for travelling to Belgium was to sample the delicious French fries and mayo based sauces (it’s good, don’t trust Vincent Vega) introduced to us at Pommes Frites in NYC by the esteemed Jay Boehmer and drink as much good beer as possible. While the fries here in Belgium were good, they didn’t stack up to those in NYC because they were too thin, had no skin, and most importantly, the mayo based sauces accompanying them were a bit thick for us, were not as creative (or numerous), and didn’t have the complexity of flavor that the 20+ choices in NYC do. Still, definitely worth eating if you’re in Belgium.

The beer, on the other hand, lived up to the hype that we had created. We went to several bars with excellent choices of Trappiste, white, and brown beers available, and also got the chance to sample a pure limbic without any infusion of fruit, and all were interesting and delicious. Among the best we tried was XX Bitter, Tara Bulbos (Sp?), and Westmalle. Even the less than stellar options were still better than 90% of the world’s beers. As we decided, a bad Belgian beer is still a pretty damn good beer. We were so impressed that we’re even tossing around the idea of opening up our own Belgian fry and beer shop in Korea and having Johan advise us on beers to carry. Can anyone complete this syllogism: Wine: Sommelier:: Beer: _______?

Trip to Bruges
Saw the movie In Bruges on the plane in South America and it’s recommended more than the actual city of Bruges, which we enjoyed, but after so many other medieval cities, didn’t feel particularly awe-inspiring. Admittedly, we only spent 5 hours there. Still, I think I got it. Nicely preserved (actually, rebuilt), but the mood was quite fabricated. The boat tour we took through the city’s canals wasn’t anything particularly special either.

Medieval architecture and canals aside, Belgium will always be remembered fondly for the hospitality showed to us by Johan and for the life-changing beer (and damn good fries). If you didn’t know already, that should confirm our priorities on the trip. After all, this blog isn’t called the Voyage of Swill for nothing.

The Land of Mastersons

We flew into Ireland on a very loudly color-schemed Ryan Air jet (think of McDonald’s Playland). I spent the majority of the short flight listening to the people behind me converse in what sounded like Gaelic mixed with English (but which I understood less than the Spanish we heard in South America, and, to refresh, I don‘t speak Spanish) and began to wonder if, converse to my expectations, Ireland would be the most foreign of all the places we had visited. In addition, I feared I would make my 100% Irish Gramps unproud by disliking Ireland.

My first impressions of Dublin didn’t help much:
It has a small city center, though not in a quaint, friendly, easily navigable kind of way. It felt too big to be easily traveled, but without the awe-inspiring infrastructure or buildings of a big city. I guess I can blame the Brits for that. I also found Temble Bar to be like a drunken Irish theme park. Everything felt contrived and New York seems more Irish.

It was cloudy and the bitter, biting wind didn’t help to fill us with joy at arriving. The weather has been the number one thing about the British Isles that I’ve always thought would turn me off. I was right.

Our hostel, a giant dorm that was ok enough until you checked out the bathroom, also didn’t help. The bathroom was co-ed, with 2 showers in the same room, one for men and one for women (with no real changing area). This would have been uncomfortable enough by itself, but the kicker was that this one bathroom was to be shared by two rooms of beds that could number up to 28. It also wasn’t cleaned, at all, and some clothes we left behind were easily recovered 4 days later in the exact same spot we had left them in the bathroom.

Luckily, my mother, in all her frolicking glory, and her friend Valerie were there to cheer us up with stories of an over enthusiastic Romanian waiter/green card seeker, the beginnings of their search for the Masterson family history, and what they had already seen in Dublin. We also got to enjoy the creature comforts of their above average hotel room, which was quite a step up from our hostel.

The highlight of Dublin was actually getting out. We headed towards the west coast and our destination of Westport. We made our way there slowly, via a castle in Trim that reminded me of how cool it was to study castles back in elementary school (you remember those big Eyewitness picture books?) and some flooded country roads winding through amazing terrain of moors, mountains, bogs, and sheep and cattle grazing land. The terrain was truly alien in the most positive way possible and what you hope to see when you travel.

In Westport, we enjoyed the charming tourist town vibe, had several pints of Guinness (more on this later), enjoyed some surprisingly tasty food (I had heard negatives about the food and expected the equivalent of gruel and potatoes), argued with Sue about the merits of a small room with a view versus a larger and warmer room looking out upon a concrete slab (I’m all for the smaller view with the nice view), sat near a fireplace in the homey environs of Matt Malloy’s pub (flutist for the Chieftains), and most importantly, headed out to the local heritage center on a tip from my grandfather, who claimed his father was from county Mayo (in which Westport is located) and who had once visited “a town full of Mastersons.” The friendly woman in the heritage center enlightened us with stories of Mayo and Westport, including about how the town grew and was re-located at the orders of the main landowners, how a noble pirate woman named Grace O’Malley terrorized the seas (and her three husbands) hundreds of years ago, and how my girl Grace Kelly visited ancestors in Mayo after being crowned the Princess of Monaco. Most importantly, we got a lead to the whereabouts of the mysterious Masterson heritage and headed to Achill Island on the coast.

There, we found a sister city of Cleveland (Keel), a restaurant bearing my grandfather’s last name, and the trail of our ancestry, which in all likelihood originated somewhere on Achill Island. This was exciting and nerve-racking for me in an odd way, but thanks to Sue and my mother asking all the questions, all I had to do was drive and not risk annoying the locals too much with random knocks on their doors followed up by random questions about Mastersons. After our investigation ended with no definitive results, but with the future possibility of finding my great grandfather’s birth records on Achill somewhere and locating our roots, we headed back to Westport. By itself, the drive through the bogs of heather and rolling hills overlooking the violent waves of the Atlantic would have been plenty for the day, but we got a bit more, in the form of a Masterson hunt, as well. The whole experience made we want to rally all the relatives for a trip there together to enjoy our homeland. Jack and family, Mary and family, Mom, Dad, and Shannon, let’s do this! (This coming from someone who thinks most of all that heritage nonsense is bollocks).

On our way to Galway to visit Jim, Jung-Eun, and Lina, here were my scattered thoughts of Ireland up to that point:

Driving on the wrong side of the road with the steering wheel on the wrong side is somehow manageable.

Good radio in Ireland- Good soul, but way too much Snow Patrol (I was made aware of their new album and shows throughout the UK somewhere in the vicinity of 100 times during the trip).

Westport-Feels like a real small town; the community is truly friendly with eachother; It also made me witness to the classic three tap Guinness pour (see pics)

Masterson’s Restaurant is in about as beautiful a location as is possible. It’s on the shores of the Atlantic not far from highway N59, the equivalent of California’s Pacific Coast Highway in its beauty

I hope we did Gramps proud here. It would have been great to see it all with him. We might be able to find his grandfather’s grave with some research. The parish church could hold records

Potato Famine-The Irish have forgotten it and forgiven the English. My mother, however, is ready to go to war. I think she’d welcome a return of the IRA.

Whole radio stations and television channels are dedicated to only Gaelic language programming. This came as a bit of a shock. I thought some people knew Gaelic, but that it was not the predominate language for anyone.

Ireland and Korea remind me of each other
-The were both conquered by a nearby nation and treated like dogs
-They’re emotional, fun-loving and love to drink
-They have old pagan traditions that have lived on in one form or another for millenia
-Their both isolated on an island/peninsula
-They both have conservative exteriors and politics that, once cracked, reveal much more wild and crazy sides

In Galway, we had the chance to visit with my friend and former co-worker from Korea Jim, his wife Jung-Eun, and their daughter Lina. They welcomed us with a delicious meal of lamb chops and entertained our many questions about Ireland and their lovely daughter like “how in the world did she get to be so cute?” They also took us out into the countryside to see the Cliffs of Moor and to drive along the coast. This all further cemented the fact that the Irish countryside is better than advertised (even in gale force winds) and should be visited by all of you if at all possible (and hopefully will be again by us).

Later, I had a chance to sit down for a chat with Jim. I realized a few things during the course of that conversation:

Jung Eun and Jim have had a great life. They have experienced a lot and seen and
done more than most everyone we know. They traveled Australia together, working in the cities and on the farms and fell in love. Even though we feel extremely fortunate to be traveling and seeing and experiencing so much, they also have shown us how much more there is to see and do in this world.

Jim and I talked about Korea and where we worked together and I realized how my time there between 2004-2006 would probably qualify as one of the best periods in my life. My coworkers, friends, students, and the other circumstances surrounding me were perfect and I’m glad that I took advantage of them. Jim helped to show me the way as a teacher and support me (as did many other teachers) and I’m grateful to all of them.

Overall, seeing Jim, Jung-Eun and Lina was really rewarding and I’m glad they were kind enough to welcome us.

A few words on the booze:

The Guinness is better here. Better than it is anywhere else. They do a special three tap pour that I didn’t quite understand, but certainly won’t argue with. Guinness also serves as an excellent antidote to the cold, cloudy, and wet climate.
Beamish, another stout, was also nice, and a bit cheaper. The Beamish Red was an excellent surprise: creamy and a little sweater, but by no means overpowering. Obviously, it’s much better on tap as the head cannot be simulated out of a can.
Sue enjoyed her Murphy’s. I found it to be good, as expected, but not better than the Murphy’s I’ve had in the US.

We missed the Jameson distillery (and the possibility of being chosen as a whiskey taster). Maybe next time.

We arrived back in Dublin and, after a very interesting visit to the old prison (now closed, except for tours) on the edge of town, sent off Valerie and my mother after enjoying their wonderful company for almost a week. I can’t thank Valerie enough for accompanying my mother over and making it possible for Sue and I to get to see her and get a little taste of home and family on such an important part of our trip. It was great to see the both of you and I hope it’s not the last time we’ll all travel together. Korea 2009, perhaps?

The next day was pretty non-descript. We explored Dublin a bit more and its ho-humness was confirmed. Our final meal, Irish stew and fish and chips, while ridiculously expensive, was excellent. That about summed up Dublin: More expensive than it should have been, but with better food than expected.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Best city we’ve visited so far. This is a place that makes it quite clear to me that living history [not that history’s ever dead (or is it?)] is much more interesting than castles and big cathedrals/churches. In Berlin, you can feel a city remaking its history and changing its what typifies its neighborhoods and itself as a whole every year. I like the new history of Berlin compared to old ruins. It breathes.

Case in point:

I spoke with a guy while traveling who had been to Berlin back in 1965, at the height of the Cold War. He said that West Berlin was a party town, swinging like London, and that when he went through Checkpoint Charlie (the currently touristy area where Westerners used to present passports to cross over into the East) and stopped into an “East Berlin” bar it was populated by a bunch of old guys smoking and staring at one another. Today, the roles have reversed. East Berlin (where the area where we stayed, Prenzlauer Berg, is located) is the heart of the city, both historically, artistically, and if the extremely high density of bars and restaurants is any evidence, in the minds of the people. For those of you in New York (and ignoring geography), it would be like if NYC were broken in parts and Queens was occupied by the west and the rest of the city was under communist control. The west would want to make their part of the city an advertisement for democracy and would therefore turn Queens into a neon- emblazoned party town on steroids, complete with boxy modern architecture (kind of like Korea). Then, after the city were re-united, everyone would realize how Queens is a nice enough place, but it sure as hell isn’t Manhattan, and Queens would go back to being what it was always meant to be, a primarily residential area, but with big, boxy modern architecture as a reminder of the past. And Manhattan would be Manhattan again, as it should be, but it would suddenly be much cheeper than Queens and its streets would have names like Karl Marx Allee and be lined with glorious Baroque Communist buildings originally built for the biggest and best Communist party officials and friends of the communist party that would now be thought of as a hip and kitschy place to live by Wessies (west siders) until they found out how loud the street gets.

By the way, I’d like to live here on Karl Marx Allee for aesthetic and kitsch reasons, despite the noise.

One of the best things about being here was that we had a lot of time to get to know the city and Sue and Jung-Eun had a friend, Youngjoo, who was kind enough to host us for part of our time and give us advice on where to go (despite her heart still being in Paris). We walked the streets of Prenzlauer Berg regularly for 8 days, going to the same markets and the same subway station. This made it feel like we were moving into the city, rather than visiting, which I really liked. It also made it impossible not to notice how quiet the city is. It’s not empty, just very peaceful and friendly. It also, while definitely becoming gentrified, isn’t in the same way that New York is. At least in the area of Prenzlauer Berg, condos aren’t springing up left and right. The old buildings (and their ghosts of communism) seem like they aren’t going anywhere.

Speaking of, I read that the city was unattractive, specifically due to its bizarre mélange of modern and old architecture, communist “bloc” architecture and geometric western style. I found it fascinating, and not the least bit ugly. I especially like how much of the new building of the past 15 years are completely different from any of these styles and have managed to make the city that much more vibrant for the fact that its history is apparent in its skyline. The sprawling, yet manageable Tiergarten also helped to give a more attractive impression.

It really makes me wonder about a unified Korea, especially after learning that the unemployment is 18% in Berlin, mostly due to East Berliners being out of work.

I went on two tours, one introductory free tour, and one pay tour of “Communist Berlin.” Both were excellent and gave me a sense of the city that just exploring on my own wouldn’t have. The excellent operator was City Tours, and they do free tours in several other Euro cities. I recommend you check them out when in Europe.

An interesting role reversal took place here. I was the one out and about, going on tours and sighseeing and Sue was hanging out relaxing. She attributed this to already having been to Europe.

Neighborhoods- We got out on bikes and toured the city in addition to exploring areas throughout our time. A few notable neighborhoods were Kreuzberg, which has a huge Turkish population and was one hip neighborhood of the former West Berlin that has remained hip and Lichtenberg, a particularly economically depressed area in former East Berlin famous for its skinheads. I went there without Sue.

As budget travelers, perhaps the most attractive aspect of the city was its affordability. Food, drink, hostels, rent (so we heard) were all among the most affordable in Europe. That’s why Berlin is known as the cheapest Euro capital and has a thriving art scene. In fact, our host YoungJoo (an artist) moved here simply for the city’s affordability. Having a native, and one on a budget, give us advice on where to go, is great-better than hostels and fellow travelers.

Berlin makes me ask the question again: What is travel-A collection of sights or the feeling of a place? The idea that it’s a feeling is felt here more than anywhere.

Jung-Eun left us to visit a friend in Slovenia before heading back to Korea. It was great having her, and I’m glad we had a great day exploring the city on bike and the best beer in the world (so far) in German beer to send her off.

If you make it to Berlin, due the daytrip to Sanssouci in Potsdam. Check out the pictures for why. Highly impressive and great for strolling. It also adds Frederick the Great as one of the many biographies and non-fiction books I have to read-Neruda, South American history, Polish history, Irish History etc.