Kolkata in a Day

Leaving Goa wasn´t easy, but it was time to move. I missed traveling, the moving around with a backpack kind of traveling. I was off to Calcutta, one of those far away places that sounds like it only exists in colonial history, but it exists today as Kolkata, a city beating with West Bengal life so strongly that only the architecture reminds you it was once the capital of British India.

curbside barber shop

I arrived at the airport late at night, to a dysfunctional system of prepaid taxis. There were as many taxis curbside as people that needed rides, but one or two police guys in an office box had to get our names, numbers and destinations printed out and take payment from a long line of tired travelers. An hour later I was finally paired up to a driver that took me to the only hotel in the city that somewhat resembled a backpackers – Kolkata Backpackers Bed and Breakfast. It was more like a homestay, or paid couchsurfing, and the rooftop breakfast was worth every penny.

puchkas waiting to be filled

If you come to Kolkata for one reason only, let it be the food. Flury´s bakery, est. 1927, is a tearoom that sells pastries on par with a Parisienne patisserie. I found a bar called Someplace Else that certainly felt like someplace in Ireland, and two incredible restaurants: Peter Cat and Mocambo (they had steak!). There are street vendors and markets in every neighbourhood, and red carrots almost half a meter long were common. For more familiar things, there´s a beef-free McDonalds, and a local version of a kind of Starbucks called Cafeccino that sells frappuccinos worth waiting in line for.

the memorable Victoria Memorial

I was only going to spend 2 nights/1 day in Kolkata, since I was enroute to Bangladesh. My second night I stayed at the Hotel Bengal Guesthouse, which says it has a bar and restaurant, but doesn´t, and the dorm rooms aren´t arranged by gender, but passport. I stayed in the ´foreigner´dorm, where Indians and Bangladesh travelers can´t stay. There was a middle-aged Chinese man with me, who spoke not a single word of English, and after listening to me trying to cough myself to sleep, came over and tried some Chinese medicine on me, with the help of his smartphone translating.

Park Street Christmas lights

As far as tourism goes, there´s not a whole lot to do or see in Kolkata city itself. If you like architecture and religious monuments, don´t miss the Birla Mandir temple and St. Paul´s cathedral. Nearby, the Victoria Memorial is unforgettable, as big and white as the Taj Mahal, surrounded by groomed, green gardens (nota bene: Indians pay 30 rupees to enter, foreigners, 500). The New Market and Park Street are worth a stroll, especially in the evening, unless you´re like me and trying to avoid Christmas – apparently there are enough Christians and westerners around to justify decorating the whole length of Park street in Christmas lights with festive music beaming from speakers at every major intersection and hawkers selling tacky hats and LED jewellery. I looked forward to arriving in Bangladesh the next morning, where the Muslim city of Dhaka would actually be skipping Christmas.

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The Curse of Traveling Gluten-free

I recently discovered that I’m gluten intolerant. I’ve probably been for a while but only figured it out in August because a horse back rider on tour with me was a dietitian and tested me for it. I’m not a food blogger but food is a huge part of traveling, and gluten is a huge part of food, so being gluten intolerant causes some problems on the road. Personally, its made me crave sugar and sweets much more, so replacing bread with chocolates could slowly turn me fat… or super hyper.

I couldnt eat the khachapuri (bread boat) in Georgia

I couldnt eat the khachapuri (bread boat) in Georgia

Not being able to eat gluten doesnt just mean you have to skip your toast at breakfast – it means you can’t eat hamburgers, sandwiches, pizza, pasta, croissants, donuts or even french toast 😦 Worse than that, you can’t drink beer. Beer is an international social drink, and so many things happen around it, and on a super hot day, having an ice cold, salt-rimmed Corona with a lime in it just isn’t beatable.

Thank God I’m not vegetarian, and only God knows how vegetarians (or worse yet, vegans) survive on the road. But hey, I may as well give up meat too because its so unusual to eat meat without some form of bread (ie. here in the Caucasus you can’t be served meat without some sort of bread accompanying it or wrapped around it like lavash) and eating the meat without the bread means your no longer eating a hamburger, but a piece of meat with some salad.

atleast tomatoes, hummus and wine are still kosher

atleast tomatoes, hummus and wine are still kosher

I would much rather be lactose intolerant (and they have pills for that!), since milk and cheese are foods I’d rather give up than pasta or pizza. Oh pasta, how I crave to eat those mushy little noodles with Bolognese sauce. Or a cheesy tomatoey pepperoni pizza. Sigh. And how will I live without instant noodles, my go-to comfort food, always cheap and sold in every supermarket around the world? Or chicken noodle soup, chow mein or roti? I guess its rice and a lot of potatoes from here on out. And vegetables. But I’m going to have small tears well up in my eyes everytime I pass by a bakery with the smell of freshly baked bread, and the next time I see a sketchy street food seller with all sorts of doughy deep fried things, I’ll have to walk away and find the even more sketchy meat on a stick seller and hope its not dog. I’ve always thought bakers were more trustworthy than butchers, but I’ll just have to get used to getting a little Delhi belly once in a while.

On the Road Again

It’s been a wonderful summer in Iceland, the best that I can remember in 8 years. I even had some time off between tours to be my own tourist in Iceland, roadtripping, fishing, hiking and camping in the highlands and west fjords. The horses and people from around the world that I spent my tours with were also wonderful, but as summer winds down and fall sets in, I’ve developed a serious travel itch.

off the beaten track

off the beaten track in a Belarusian forest

I couldn’t imagine a better day to leave Iceland than September 21. I finished 2 sheep round ups, saw the leaves start to fall from the auburn trees, and the first snow fell on Esja mountain in Reykjavik the night before. September 21 is also the autumn equinox, the last day of the year when the day is longer than the night. So in my perpetual need of warmth and light, I have to keep moving south to chase the longer days.

First stop is Belarus. I know it’s an unusual tourist destination, and getting a visa is a nightmare, but what more reasons does a traveler need to tease curiosity? I wanted to go to Minsk when I was traveling in Russia, since it was relatively close by and a similar kind of place, but I only worked out a visa by late August. A friend from New York who has a friend in Washington D.C who I met in Reykjavik knew a girl in Minsk who could help me. Lord knows why or how she did, but she sorted out all the paperwork and paid all the fees for a stranger she’d never met.

there's always entertainment on the road

there’s always entertainment on the road

Even more than that, she offered to host me before I arrived, and luckily enough I did arrive, and get in, legally, and planned to stay with her half my time in Belarus. The weather should have been warmer, but it was only in the teens and the trees have started to turn here too.

The rest of my autumn carries on to the south, first to the Caucuses, then Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. My 200th country might likely be Laos, or I’ll skip down to the Indian Ocean and visit some of those dreamy island destinations – the Seychelles, Maldives or Mauritius. Wherever I’ll be on my 30th birthday next year, every traveler, host or couchsurfer I’ve met throughout the years is heartily welcomed to come join in for the celebration 🙂

The World is a Circus

I see many strange things when traveling, things I’ve never seen before or never imagined. I had one day on the road that felt like all the people around me were part of a circus set that I had accidentally gotten lost amidst. There was a guy walking around with a (live) bird in a cup, for no apparent reason. There was a huge and hairy transvestite wearing a belly dance costume dancing to hindi music, but not for money (there was no hat), just for fun. Beside him/her were amputees begging, each with a few euro cents in their hat, behind me was a midget making gigantic bubbles with two sticks, some string and a soapy bucket, and a fully covered Muslim woman walked passed without noticing any of this. When I thought I’d seen it all, a 9 year old gypsy kid carrying a drum lit up a cigarette. Before I could remember where I was, I turned to the next ATM to maybe withdraw some money, but a bird had chosen to nest there for the day. Since then, I saw an Oklahoma license plate in Kosovo, and learned that the garbage trucks in Prizren sing songs… just like the ice cream trucks in Canada.

In England a couple weeks ago, I heard people speaking English that I couldn’t understand a single word of. I couchsurfed in Liverpool in an old brick factory warehouse where 10 or 15 people live semi-illegally. I tasted dozens of sour beers at a beer-festival In Manchester, since apparently sour beers are ‘in,’ but it tastes like rotten cider without any sugar and I’m not sure why everyone’s making it. The alternatives weren’t all that better, since the English like warm, flat ales and really dark and heavy stouts, but thankfully there was an actual cider brewer where I could taste something yummy and familiar.

The ferry from Liverpool to the Isle of Man takes 2 hrs and 45 mins because it can’t sail in a straight line; if it wasn’t for all the windmill farms in the Irish sea, the ferry could avoid its zig-zag course and get there in less than 2 hours. Sailing past gigantic, white posts with rotating blades standing in the middle of an open sea made me feel like I was on another planet.

And beyond all the strange sights is the strange world of money. The cost of things here and there and the exchange rates of currencies from different countries seems like a game of monopoly, or a gambling game that has no explanation. For example, from Reykjavik it’s faster and cheaper to fly to Manchester 1000 miles away than drive to Akureryi 235 miles away. A return ticket on the Liverpool subway is £1.80 but a one way is £1.75. Carlsberg is cheaper than a local beer in England, and Tuborg is cheaper than a local beer in Montenegro, when Carlsberg and Tuborg both come from one of the most expensive countries in the world, Denmark.

In Serbia and around, bottles of wine are more commonly in 1L bottles, and get capped with a beer tap instead of a cork. You can eat a whole meal for €1 but a coca cola might cost you €1.60. In the Balkans, a carton of cigarettes might cost 15 euros on the street, but cost 35 euros taxless in the airport duty-free… ? The taxi ride to a bus station or airport might cost you more than the bus ticket or even the flight, with Ryanair, Easy Jet and Wizzair all serving the Balkans with flights starting at £15.

But, without all these idiosyncrasies, traveling wouldn’t be traveling, since it’s the weird and crazy, nonsensical things that make it fun, challenging, and different than sitting at home. So bring on the circus, I’m sure they have space for another clown.

Tourism in the skies

I’ve spent the last month going from Africa to Europe to Asia, and back full circle to Africa through Europe. I’ve flown airlines from countries I didn’t visit, so I feel like I’ve been on tour of the sky, a sampler of cultures from far away places through the airplanes I’ve sat on for hours on end. Its fun to compare the services, food and drinks each plane gives you, and what kind of flight attendant gives it to you. The uniforms they wear and the safety briefing announcements change, and trying to read the safety card in the seat in front of you is always a challenge, especially if the alphabet isnt Roman or they go right-to-left or up-down instead of left-to-right. You start to memorize the announcements they make, and sometime recognize numbers and words like “kilometres,” so you fill in the blanks and realize they’re discussing the hours of travel and time of arrival. Then they go into the oxygen masks and how to fasten and unfasten your seat belt, and you start to believe you’re understanding Korean just because you know the monologue by heart.

flying over the Sahara with Turkish Airlines

flying over the Sahara with Turkish Airlines

I was stressed to fly with Aeroflot, an airline notoriously infamous for plane crashes. I was surprisingly reassured by the friendliness and beauty of the Russian flight attendants, Im not sure why, but I figured such a happy plane could never crash. Turkish Airlines had great complimentary meals and Turkish wine, but EgyptAir only offered over-sweetened fruit juices and Norwegian Air Shuttle didnt even offer water to drink. I love it when you get 3 or 4 seats to yourself and get to lie down and sleep (thank you Air Garuda), but sometimes private-entertainment system distracts with a great choice of movies to stay awake and watch. The women of Sri Lankan airlines had the best uniforms, with the women adorned in turquoise, peacock-pattern saris, their brown bellies exposed around the midriff.

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Paris Paris

I flew with Sri Lankan from Jakarta to Colombo, and arrived in Sri Lanka with a day-long layover. I was given a hotel room because they had delayed the flight an extra day, and I met an English Pakistani woman who wanted to share a rickshaw and explore the beach town of Ngombo with someone. She was a tough lady, but slowly started to open up about how she had been cursed with black magic by her sisters and brothers. She explained that she had come to Singapore and Sri Lanka to speak with black magic doctors, to try and break the curse on her which had now extended to her missing son. I was feeling confused but sorry for her, until her parting words were “be careful around me, my black magic might spread.” My flight from Colombo to Paris was 11 hours straight, which was alot more than the 6 hours I incorrectly calculated with our time-zone change.

My 3 day stopover in Paris was a wonderful city get-away, but somehow so disruptive in my transition from Asia to Africa. I had an 8kg backpack full of only tropical-weather clothing, and had forgotten how expensive normal life can cost in Europe. But I warmly welcomed the organization and cleanliness of Paris, walking around in adoration of each and every apartment building that looked like it qualified for UNESCO world heritage site status. I woke up each morning a few blocks away from the Eiffel tower in a cold, clean room, and in my half-awake-state, would only remember I was in France after first realizing I couldn’t be in south-east Asia or west Africa.

Colombo at night

Colombo at night

I hate it when flights are delayed, unless they’re delayed more than 4 hours and you get some sweet compensation. My flight out of Colombo and into Abidjan were reported as late, but then changed back to being on schedule, which is somehow more stressful than just accepting the delay and enjoying the place you’re in for a bit longer. I got 6 emails in a 6 hour period from Egyptair quoting delays and then no delays, but then the flight boarded 45 mins early. I’ve still never missed a flight, but its bound to happen sooner or later, especially with technology like SMS notifications that tell you 4 new, different departure times when you’ve already arrived at your boarding gate and decide to wander off, only to hear your name being called over the PA system. I couldnt understand the final boarding call because it was only made in Indonesian, but after enough airports and airplanes you’ve also learned to understand what it means when your name is called over the loudspeakers, and even in the strangest accents. And that’s because its every traveler’s worst nightmare to miss a flight, especially one which you bought a non-refundable, one way ticket for.

5 Lessons to Learn when traveling in West Africa

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1.) There are three questions you should never ask:
-how long does it take?
-where is an atm?
-where can I buy wine?
First of all, no one has any idea (or respect) of time, so 3 African hours can easily equal 6 normal hours, and you have better luck asking how many kilometers are left, although that still doesn’t help you guess how long until you’ll reach your destination. The roads are pretty terrible, and none of the stops along the way seem to be planned or timed. But Bon voyage anyway 🙂

Secondly, no one here seems to use banks, and almost no one I met has ever needed to use an atm. The idea of using a machine to make money appear out of thin air is another reality for them, and when they’ve never had to do it, they have no idea what kind of place your looking for. Most times we ended up at a cell phone credit recharge place, since that’s the most common way people share money, or a western union, which is one place they know cash can magically be wired to someone in Africa. I ran into one cleaning lady who had been sent to an atm to withdraw cash for her boss, and she needed my help to insert the card and type 80,000, since both were feats she couldn’t imagine doing herself.

Thirdly, in a majority Islamic culture, wine and beer aren’t sold just anywhere. And where it is sold, the sellers aren’t advertising it. So the shop right beside will have no idea to send you next door, and will usually send you instead to the nearest big city, sometimes hundreds of kilometers away. In St. Louis, we bought the alcohol from the city distributors, who supply the hotels, since we never found an actual store. So better yet, don’t plan to drink anything but dirty water and warm soft-drinks.

2.) Bring a lot if passport photos, atleast two per country, and expect to spend most of your budget on visas and random border or security check-point bribes. And try to get a visa for the next country as soon a you arrive in the neighboring country – sometimes it takes a few days and weekends don’t count.

3.) If you have time, you can save money, but if you have money, you can buy a lot of time. Transport is slow, hot and uncomfortable, but domestic flights are sometimes more expensive than a flight to Europe. So stick do the crappy roads, just remember not to ask “how long does it take.”

4.) If someone stares at you, especially if he does it for a long time with a serious face, all you have to do is say “Bonjour, ca va?” And his face will quickly break into a smile as he replies “bonjour ca va bien” and looks away shyly. But don’t ask too much more or else you’ll have a shadow following you for the next kilometer expecting more conversation, money or food.

5.) Always carry small bills and lots of coins with you, even if it weighs down both your pockets. Few vendors or taxis have change, or are willing to make change, and they’ll take ages to break your bills, asking every other vendor or driver around for change they also don’t have.

Guide to Iceland

Tourism in Iceland has been growing every year, and the last 3 years have really been booming now that the Icelandic kronur has fallen to an affordable exchange rate. Visitors from Europe and North America saw their dollars and pounds double in value, while Icelanders started cutting back on travel abroad and enjoying the ´stay-cation´ instead. The only thing missing as our tourism industry explodes is an informative site where tourists can go and figure out what to do, where to go, and who to talk to. Now, that problem has a solution: www.guidetoiceland.is

Contact a Local at Guide to Iceland

Guide to Iceland is only 5 weeks old, still under phase 2 of development, but now that its gone public, people are talking. Its the first website to have a comprehensive site with everything you need to know before coming to Iceland, written and run by Icelanders themselves. The website doesn´t sell anything itself, not even advertisements, but creates a forum where all the different tours and tour operators can be listed, compared, and reviewed by tourists themselves. The home page is divided into 9 tour types, where tourists can filter between city, nature, spa treatment or fishing tours, to list a few examples. Each of the general tour types is then subcategorized down to every option imaginable: horse back riding, hiking, surfing, kayaking, whale watching, snorkelling, diving, or taking it easy on an organized bus tour. The tours will take you anywhere you´ve dreamed of going, from glaciers to volcanoes, underwater to waterfalls, from fjords to mountains, or even to some kick ass ice caves. There are short tours, day long tours, multi day tours, and they´re even specially working on Greenland tours. You can choose your mode of transport: ATV, snowmobile, super jeep, rental car, raft, canoe or mountain bike.  Then you can pick where to go: the West Fjords, Westman Islands, Akureyri, Skaftafell, the highlands, or Thingvallavatn. Finally, you can pick what to do: photograph northern lights, bathe in natural hotsprings, climb an ice wall, or swim through the continental rift. Then, after its all said and done, you can go back and share your experience with other soon-to-be Iceland-lovers by reviewing each tour you took.

We have an About Iceland section, with short, informative, picture-filled articles to give you the background info you need to know on everything Icelandic – the nightlife, the people, the music, the weather, food, history, and a forum where travellers can write their own article about Iceland, like what they recommend and how they liked Icelanders.

Let there be Northern Lights

Finally, the most interesting part of the site, and what sets it apart from all other travel guide sites, is the bloggers. On the page ´Contact a Local´, you have more than 20 local Icelandic people you can talk to directly. They all have their own speciality and marketing edge in some way, with travel or tourism experiences of their own in Iceland and abroad, and offer their help, services, or just a friendly email to anyone who needs advice with planning their trip to Iceland. There are people already working in the tourism industry as guides, there are bilingual writers helping speakers of Spanish or Chinese, professional athletes and musicians, and even a supermodel named Elli.

So, if you´re planning a trip to Iceland, want to know more about travel in Iceland, or just have an Iceland fetish and want to know more about this sub-arctic Volcanic island straddling the North American and European tectonic plates, check out www.guidetoiceland.is. Help spread the word, share your comments and reviews, and get to know some Icelandic people if you haven´t already!

Photo Credit (c) Iurie Belegurschi