Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lost and Happy

By Supriya Savkoor

I’m not supposed to be blogging today because of asundry reasons happening in my non-virtual life, but I just couldn’t resist this topic! So I’ll keep it short…

With young children and so little vacation time on our hands these days, we tend not to go meandering around a new place, relying on chance to find a good restaurant or adventure. Of course, I haven’t traveled to any place new since Yelp and all such fancy apps have come out (not counting Disney), so we’ll see how that plays out the next time I’m wandering around a new country.

But I know I’m not the only one who’s discovered new interesting and sometimes favorite places after getting lost.

On a trip to Switzerland over a decade ago, bad weather in the Alps forced hubby and me to meander around Interlaken, the town where we were staying but which all of our travel guides said was forgettable, kitschy, touristy, and just not worth exploring. As a result, we hadn’t mapped out our every move. When we had no choice but to spend a day there, we started exploring anyway and discovered the guide books had got it all wrong. There was nothing forgettable about Interlaken. We loved it and found it adorable. It’s just a tiny little village nestled in the Alps – yes, one catering to tourists, with boutiques full of Swiss army knives and cuckoo clocks, but even back then, it seemed far less commercial to us than the local sprawling shopping mall near our suburban home outside Washington, D.C.

In Interlaken, we walked and walked, admiring the wildflowers in the green hills around, always hearing the sweet sound of cowbells tinkling in the distance. We finally stopped at a local pharmacy to ask for a restaurant recommendation, and the friendly woman there suggested her very favorite restaurant in town, one that I would now rate as my favorite restaurant anywhere. It was a small hike, a lovely one at that, but we were skeptical when we were seated in the rustic lodge next to an open window that had a gorgeous view but the smell of, you know, cow dung drifting in. (So much for steak!) 

But Café du Nord was an amazing experience. They brought out complimentary cocktails, a sweet concoction of something or other with wide, sugar-rimmed glasses, more like bowls than cups. I discovered the glorious dish of raclette, a type of Swiss cheese simply grilled as a starter. Absolute heaven. I can’t even remember the specifics of what other dishes we savored, only that the food, the service, and the presentation were all so wonderful, we canceled another event on our trip just so to make another visit. Our sweetest dining experience ever…

On another Europe adventure, we got lost at night in a part of Florence that locals had warned us was not a good part of town. It looked dodgy too, with no street lights at all and young gang-like teens wandering around in the shadows. So how surprised were we when we ran right into a small dive of an Indian restaurant, bright and noisy, in an otherwise empty back alley? Loud bhangra music blared from its open doors, the day’s specials written in Italian (pollo tandoori) on a chalkboard hanging in the scratched window, framed by a string of colorful lights. 

Made us laugh and reminded us to keep our minds open, keep walking, and find out what other unexpected discoveries we could make. As all of life's journey's should be, right?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Seek And Ye Shall Find (Eventually)

Photo by Luis Garcia
I’ve never understood some people’s aversion in asking for directions when lost. It never made sense. Why would you spend all afternoon roaming the streets, confused and stressed, when you could be in a bar, enjoying the local brew and watching other tourists wander past, puzzled expressions adorning sunburnt phizogs, and clutching out-of-date guidebooks?

Luckily, I’ve never had a problem asking questions, which is just as well because I am very good at getting lost. When I became a tour guide in South America, my family and friends had every right to worry—for my clients. But alas, their fears were unfounded (in the end).

When I first started out as a tour guide, my Spanish was so-so. I had a firm understanding, certainly enough to ask for beer and where the nearest hospital was, but asking for directions, well… let’s just say a pen and paper and a big, fat smile worked wonders. I became adept at drawing stick figures (hey, my cows don’t look like chickens!), and through my, ahem, diversions, I have met some amazing people and experienced some very unique places.

For example:

When I worked as a tour guide, I needed a home base in Cuzco, Peru. All I wanted was a small apartment to call home between tours and my shifts at the Irish Pub, so one late (and slightly inebriated) night, a friend scribbled down an address of an apartment they knew was up for rent. The next day, bleary eyed, I made my way to where I thought the apartment was, only to find I had the right street name but wrong neighbourhood. The kind lady, whose door I’d bashed on, fired rapid Spanish at me and I stood on her doorstep, my brain whirring but not connecting.

I pulled out my trusty pen and paper, and through some excellent drawing that Picasso would be proud of, I worked out there was a lady down the road who had a place for rent. Figuring I was already in the hood, I toddled down the street and after much searching for non-existent house numbers, I found the place.

Pachacuti statue near my apartment. Photo by D. Gordon E. Robertson
When I was given a tour of the apartment, I nearly fell over with excitement. For a modest rent, I could have an apartment that offered views of the terracotta roofs of Cuzco and the hills behind. Every morning I could wake up and watch the sun rise while hot air balloons floated across the horizon. I could take a thirty minute walk into the city, where the offices of my employer were located, and down the street from my abode was the local market where I could shop for fresh produce and guzzle as much juice as I wished.

Turns out, there’s a lot to be said for getting lost.

After that, every time I hit the road (sans clients), I allowed a bit of wandering around with sunburnt phizog time to allow a new, unplanned experience. Sometimes the windy roads led me to dead ends, other times I stumbled upon a cute ma and pa café that served local cuisine or sold interesting art work. And each meandering left me with an experience I would never forget.

How about you? When have you gotten lost and found a lovely surprise?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Lost In Leipzig

By Heidi Noroozy

City Tower, Leipzig
Photo by Dundak
Everyone should get lost in a foreign country at least once in life. It’s the best way to discover the heart of a place, the cultural gems that don’t make it into the guide books: a tiny restaurant without a menu in English translation, a roadside shrine to a local saint, a pretty park where you can watch the life of the city ebb and flow around you. I’ve gotten lost like this more times than I can count, but one experience stands out from all the rest – the cold day in February when I discovered a rare private bakery in the heart of Communist Leipzig.

I wasn’t a tourist but a student living in a city steeped in history. Leipzig once was home to the likes of Bach and Mendelsohn, and it inspired Goethe to write his masterpiece, Faust. By the time I lived there, though, Leipzig had lost its mojo. The Auerbachskeller, which Goethe used as a setting in Faust, still existed and so did the St. Thomas Church where Bach worked as musical director. But for the most part, Leipzig had become a city of soot-stained buildings and filthy air, polluted by the coal refineries just outside town.

Every chance I got, I’d go exploring and try to find a hint of the grand old days. Usually, I managed to find my way around with a good map and directions from the locals. But one day, I got completely lost. It was the dead of winter, the sideways slick with gray slush, the chill air freezing my breath into clouds of steam. I wandered through streets that all seemed to have the same small grocery stores with half empty shelves, the same stout matrons sweeping debris off their stoops, the same ethnic restaurants where all you could get was German food, due to the scarcity of imported ingredients.

Factory Bakery in Leipzig, GDR
Photo by Deutsche Fotothek
Then I rounded a corner and smelled a rare scent: freshly baked bread. In a country whose bakers are famous for their bread, the smell of baking shouldn’t be unusual in the least. But in East Germany, bread, like most products, was usually manufactured in state-run factories. The shop on the street where I lived carried two kinds – oval rye loaves the locals called Graubrot (gray bread, on account of the color) and occasional rectangular bricks of a heavy, multigrain variety. In both cases, the loaves arrived from the state-run bakery wrapped in brown paper and were usually well past their peak freshness. A private bakeshop, with its wares baked right on the premises, was a discovery worth getting excited about.

On that wintry day, I followed my nose until I saw a line of people snaking down the sidewalk. It was eleven in the morning, only an hour until every shop closed their doors for the obligatory midday break. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I took my place at the end of the line.

Forty minutes later, I made it through the door into the warm, delicious-smelling bakery. The shelves were alarmingly bare. But my hopes sprung eternal as I inched ever closer to the counter. Only to be dashed when the baker sold her last loaf to a customer just ahead of me in line. The rest of us were told to come back the next day.

The bakery opened at six in the morning. I arrived shortly after five (yes, I was desperate). A line had already started to form, but this time I was in luck and left the shop with a rye loaf under my arm, still warm from the oven.

Photo by Rainer Zenz
Later, I learned an interesting fact about the GDR’s private economy. Although the state owned most businesses, anyone could open a private company as long as it employed fewer than fifteen people. With fresh bread such an important element of German culture, it still amazes me that there weren’t private bakeries on every street corner. Leipzig, a city of around 50,000 inhabitants, had only three.

It’s been thirty years since I found my private bakery, but I still remember the taste of that fresh, loaf with its firm texture and chewy crust, just like a good German rye bread should be. So I’m not at all sorry I got lost on that cold day in Leipzig.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Hercules Beetle Boxers

Our guest today is Alex Montalvo. Alex works in the education and conservation field and likes to wander, photograph, write, and make videos. When he's lucky, he works as a freelance photographer and videographer. Some of his work can be found at Originally from Miami, FL, Alex currently lives in Seattle.

As a child, I was reared to see insects in one light: objects of RAID’s affection. My parents, particularly my Puerto Rican father, militantly trained my two sisters and I to scream at the sight of a sugar ant, a battle cry to which he would respond immediately armed with a purple can of floral-scented RAID.

Strangely enough, with time I became an ecologist, developing enough of an insect appreciation to actually work on programs to attract insects to people’s yards.  While my choice of career was perhaps an anomaly, I find my parent’s behavior prototypical of American attitudes toward bugs: we don’t need them, they’re disgusting, kill them. In the back of my head, I felt my insect-loving was making me a cultural pariah, nearly ready to don a Coleoptera Society T-shirt and walk around with a pet praying mantis.

Imagine my surprise, when leading a study abroad trip to Northern Thailand, I encountered the sport of beetle boxing. Yes, Spain has bull fighting, Nicaragua has cock-fighting, and Thailand has beetle boxing, the most PETA-friendly international animal sport of all.

Travelers have long voyaged to Thailand to experience Muay Thai, a martial art characterized by drop kicks to the head, piercing body jabs, and relentless shin beatings, though few know about its gentle sister sport thrust upon the Arthropod world. Thailand is a Buddhist Kingdom, after all, and this form of boxing satisfies the pacifist as much as the purist.

I was nearly ready to strike the words Muay Thai from my vocabulary when, after a fortunate decision to gamble on a winning boxer, a wiry Thai bookie refused to pay. I complained, he called over his posse, and I ran, swearing never to utter the words Muay Thai again. It wasn’t until my homestay father Pi-San, a rugged 55-year old with bullet wounds from the Red Shirt protests, insisted I attend a boxing event that I agreed—one doesn’t argue with a man who stands down a machine gun.

The night of the match arrived and Pi-San squeezed our group of six into a shaky homemade metal sidecar attached to his 125cc Honda Dream motorcycle.  We arrived to an overgrown field surrounding a large sheet metal-roofed cabana. Groups of people, all men less two women, huddled in circles underneath fluorescent lighting like fevered gamblers at a roulette table. As we entered the interior’s green glowing edges, at least a dozen middle-aged Thai men rushed our group cradling 1-2 ft. long pieces of chewed-up sugarcane. Upon the cane fed monstrous beasts with apparent razor sharp alien claws. “Luckily,” my coworker Jackie murmured, “these giant cockroaches are leashed to the sugarcane….where the hell is the RAID?” This was Pi-san’s idea of boxing: his contenders were doping on cane juice before their big fight.

The “cockroaches,” it turns out, were the harmless Xylotrupes Gideon. A behemoth of a beetle, X. Gideon can reach up to 6.5” in length including its 2-4” claw-like horns, earning it the common name of Rhinoceros or Hercules Beetle.

Male Hercules Beetles are the strongest animals in the world, capable of lifting 850 times their own bodyweight, and the Thai conscript is one of largest and strongest. Their lifespan averages only 1.5 years, of which they spend only 3-4 months above ground to mate. Males use their massive horns to pick up a competing male and knock him to the ground, a move that grants him coveted claim to his female’s ovipositor. This period, during the rainy season, makes male beetles very aggressive, and it’s when Thai beetle boxers put their fighters in the ring. 

So here’s how beetle boxing works: beetle boxing ring vendors or home-grown enthusiasts hallow out a small wooden log, outfit it with a door, and carve two dime-sized holes midpoint on the log’s topside. Beetle boxers then adhere two female Hercules Beetles to the inside of the log, just under the holes, so a dime-sized portion of the female carapace is exposed, revealing her presence and scent to the two dueling males placed directly above her. The competing males face one another, on opposite sides of a hand-drawn line of scrimmage. Each beetle’s respective owner then vigorously rubs a 3-5” wooden stick or metal file across the log’s grooved exterior surface, resulting in a loud, relatively high-pitched grating sound, which mimics the hissing produced by an aggravated male rubbing his wing against his abdomen. This infuriates the sex-hungry duo, who now begin to battle for access to the entrapped female. 

No Thai entertainment event is complete without gambling and beetle boxing is no different. Determined to earn my pride back from my botched Bangkok experience, I placed a 100 baht bet on a handsome beetle specimen with extra long horns. Yelling, cheering, laughing, the grating sound of the metal files, and more cheering—at times the dueling beetles furiously locked horns, shaking their opponent in attempt of achieving the biggest mate-winning, point-garnering move, the Beetle Body Slam. Other times the beetles just sniffed around like curious insects.

Unfortunately my big-horned beetle lost, making me 0-2 in gambling on Thai sports. As I watched the money being counted, it seemed the biggest winners on this night were the two lone women selling cans of Thai beer—beetle boxing is just as much social as it is entrepreneurial. And speaking of entrepreneurial, the Hercules Beetle is reportedly an agricultural pest. In a country with a history of reduced access to resources, the Thai creatively took an agricultural pest and made it into a bona fide pastime. Economically, it’s no wonder the “sleeping dragon” awoke. In the States we often don’t know what type of bug we’re killing, less understand its life cycle enough to create a sport out of it. Watch out RAID, after this story breaks, your days are numbered.

Hercules Beetle Boxing from Alex Montalvo on Vimeo.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Beyond the Wild World’s End

By Edith McClintock

The places I’ve wanted to visit are irretrievably linked to books, and romantic suspense in particular, which I fell in love with in middle school. The old-fashioned romantic suspense of Victoria Holt, Barbara Michaels, and one of my favorites in those days, M.M. Kaye. M.M. Kaye is better known for the Far Pavilions, set during the British Raj, but she also wrote a series of light mysteries in sing-song exotic spots around the world – the Andaman Islands, Cyprus, Kenya, Kashmir, Zanzibar. I read them all, and wanted to “…go sailing, far off to Zanzibar.”*

In high school, I discovered Elizabeth Peters. I can still remember reading my first Amelia Peabody mystery while crossing the Everglades in the back of my parents’ car on the way to visit my grandparents. I stayed hooked and fell in love with the Vicky Bliss series too, my favorite of which was Night Train to Memphis. And as all fans of Elizabeth Peters know, Egypt is where her heart resides. And for over twenty years, I dreamed of visiting.

My chance came when I was working in Tbilisi, Georgia, last year. I met a Peace Corps volunteer who was taking a month trip to Israel and Egypt around the same time I was completing my work in Georgia. I didn’t know him and had been planning to travel in Eastern Europe alone, but when I heard the word Egypt over a bonfire late one chilly night, I invited myself along.

Two days before we were to arrive in Tel Aviv, and just a few weeks before my flight left Cairo for New York, crowds of Egyptians began to gather in Tahrir Square. My mother called half a dozen times begging me not to go, while my sister posted Facebook messages telling me there was no way I couldn’t go. Disappointed, but making the best of it, we decided to spend more time in Israel and Jordan, always keeping a watchful eye on the news from Egypt.

We were deep in Jordan, staying in a cave in Wadi Musa, when Mubarak finally abdicated. But by then, I’d already switched my flight home from Cairo to Amman. It wasn’t until the morning I was supposed to fly home that we decided to go on to Egypt. We were only a ferry ride away. How could I not go after dreaming of it for so long?

And so we entered Egypt, on a night ferry from Jordan. I was the only woman onboard, which had its benefits as I was invited to skip the entire line of several hundred boarding men. Only to be greeted at the entry with news that the Egyptians were angry at something President Obama had done earlier in the day. Not the first thing you want to hear when entering a country in turmoil.

I won’t give you all the details of our whirlwind tour of ancient Egypt, but suffice to say I took my night train to and from Cairo. We walked through the Valley of Queens alone. We were applauded in the bazaar with cries of, “Welcome tourists! Welcome!” I saw many of the ancient sites from my favorite books, empty of tourists. All grander and more beautiful than I’d imagined while reading.

But we were also the sole targets of every poor, underpaid, or out-of-work street vendor, shop owner, taxi driver, and kid selling postcards, knickknacks, and horse and camel rides. Even the tourism police demanded their cut of baksheesh. There were many sites I couldn’t visit, including the Winter Palace, where workers were demonstrating, and the village of Gurneh, which had been bulldozed. And there was the poverty of Cairo pressed against the massive, barbed-wire wall surrounding Giza, the canals clogged with debris, the dead horses left to rot amongst the trash.

I spent my last day in Cairo, planning to visit the Egyptian museum. I asked my hotel owner, a French-Egyptian woman, how to find the museum.

She raised an eyebrow in disbelief, no doubt despite having dealt with many clueless tourists in her day. “You have heard of Tahrir Square, yes? What has happened there?” she asked.

I said, “Of course,” although I’d never heard of it until the revolution broke out.

“The Egyptian museum is in Tahrir Square,” she added, pulling out a map.

“Oh,” I answered, feeling incredibly stupid. “Is it okay for me to go?”

She smiled, clasping her heart. “You will be proudly welcomed there with open arms.”

She gave me directions to walk; it was only a few blocks. The demonstrations had ended, although more were planned for the coming Friday. But remnants were still there – the tanks and military. And of course the revolutionary trinket sellers, peddling t-shirts and flags. I spent more time in the square than in the museum, watching the Egyptians taking photos with the tanks and soldiers, a moment of peace and hope.

Egypt didn’t live up to my dream, of course, because nothing could. Although in some ways it was better, certainly more beautiful. But it wasn’t a place carefully contained within a book, or time, or focused on the past. A new history was being made. People had died only days before in Tahrir Square, as would others in days to come, but I was glad I’d taken what on my side was a very small risk to see it at that time in history.

No risk at all in comparison to what the demonstrators had faced. And one day, in my dreams, I’ll go back and sail a dahabeeyah down the Nile, and stop at Amarna, just as Amelia would recommend.

*A song for all of you who dream of far off places, by way of M.M. Kaye, as she mentions it in her book, Death in Zanzibar:

“Stowaway,” by Carolyn Leigh and Jerry Livingston

I’d like to go away – be a stowaway,
take a trip on a ship,
let my worries blow a-way.
There are still many treasure islands
that wait to be explored,
and the wide world
is full of wonders for me.
When a ship’s standing in the harbour,
I wish myself aboard,
and I hide ‘til the rolling tide
carries me to sea.
Then I go sailing far off to Zanzibar,
though my dream places seem
better than they really are,
way down deep in my heart.
I keep them as people will often do,
who are stay-at-home stowaways too.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Tropical Paradise

In honor of our topic of the week, Supriya is running a post we first published in December 2010.

Of all the places I’ve visited, a tiny dot of a village in southwestern India ranks as my all-time favorite.

I’m a city girl, so I was surprised by my affinity to this quiet, coastal town called Murdeshwar. Since childhood, I’ve traveled to India pretty regularly, at least every couple of years, it seems, and visited most of the big cities. In my younger days, I made attempts to visit rural areas, but never made it there, daunted by the lack of adequate roads and transportation connecting the cities I visited to the villages I knew of.

From the time I got married, I’d been hearing about a little farming village near Murdeshwar, in the state of Karnataka. It’s the town from which my mother in-law hailed. One of her brothers still lives there, in the original family home that their father built and where all his children (plus a few grandchildren and even great grandchildren) were born. I’d often heard how gorgeous this place was. In fact, it had been a running joke between my husband and me that whenever we visited any beautiful place, he’d make the inevitable comparison with his mom’s village outside Murdeshwar. Until several years ago, when seeing was believing.

We’d made the trek from Bangalore, piling into a large van, fifteen of us in all. We started early in the morning, our hired driver at the helm, and stopping about halfway for a late lunch in the mostly Muslim-populated town of Hassan, outside Mangalore (not to be confused with Bangalore). It was a long and sometimes bumpy ride but eventually, we arrived, late in the evening, skirting the tiny village where our relatives lived. All the adults, myself included, agreed that I—yes, me alone—might not be able to handle the rustic accommodations in the village, so instead we stayed at a lovely seaside resort in the neighboring town of Murdeshwar. (How thoughtful of the others to “rough it” for my sake.)

Since we’d arrived at night, we couldn’t see much of the town. We checked in and dragged the kiddos up to sleep, leaving our wide balcony doors open, the blanket of stars shining in and the sound of crashing waves lulling us to sleep. At breakfast, we sat in the seashell-shaped restaurant that jutted out into the Arabian Sea, surrounded on three sides by water as we ate South Indian comfort food, watched fishermen throw their nets out, and felt the gentle sea breeze roll over us. That experience alone was worth the twelve-hour journey.

But just outside our resort was the real treat, one of the most phenomenal sights I think I’ve seen. A towering statue of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, lords over the beach town. He’s 120 feet tall, made of cement and steel reinforcements, and his shimmery, silvery form can be seen from almost any vantage point in the area. While photos don’t do it justice, I found it hard to pull away from this truly spectacular sculpture.

We visited the area soon after the tsunami that devastated parts of Southeast Asia. While this region of the South Asian coastline wasn’t hit too hard, the gorgeous white-sand beaches had been wiped out. It still looked pretty amazing to me, especially a particular strip of beach along the nearby town of Manki, which was so pristine and untouched, it looked as if we were the first to discover it.

Okay, so there were no lazy days at the beach, no cocktails with little umbrellas in hand. It was a different kind of vacation entirely. We watched the kids dip their toes in the foamy waves as the sunset exploded into a thousand shades of red. We climbed rocky cliffs, collected seashells, and marveled at not being able to find a single bottle cap or cigarette butt along the way. We took long walks, sharing quiet lanes with an ambling cow or two, and watched the tall grass sway through the rice paddies on either side of us.

At the old family home, we ate fresh-cooked meals, lovingly prepared for us by an aunt who slid our food into a hundred-year-old clay oven known as a tandoor. The beautiful old house also featured a bona fide cradle room where my husband’s eldest uncle slept as a newborn some 85 years ago, followed by his ten siblings and several generations of progeny. We spent a lovely evening around a bon fire while the elders sang and the children danced. We drank from a real working well. (Okay, I watched others drink from it.) We toured the huge family plantation, a stroll that lasted a few delicious hours, as we delighted in every variety of tropical fruit, peppercorn, and unusual herb or vegetable we’d never heard of. Nearby, we visited stunning temples with incredible historic significance, their stories appearing in ancient holy scriptures. 

It probably isn’t the most exciting part of the world to live in, and definitely not a destination for surfers or jet-skiers, but it was one of my best-ever beach vacations.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pearl Of The Persian Gulf

By Heidi Noroozy
Kish Island
Photo by Panoramia
I’ve always been an armchair traveler, at least whenever I can’t get on a plane and head for distant lands. And over the years, there have been many places I’ve always wanted to go (which, if you checked our sidebar, is our topic this week). As a child, I yearned to visit the Arctic – an odd choice for a girl who hated the cold so much that she’d dash indoors after only one thrilling toboggan ride down the hill. But those round igloos with their thick walls made of ice bricks looked so cozy and warm, I forgot that the temperatures outside were frigid.

I’m fickle when it comes to favorite destinations. Once Greece topped my list. I was mesmerized by pictures of white-washed towns perched on craggy cliffs overlooking a turquoise sea. And, of course, I’d read Zorba the Greek three times. But when I got my chance to fly there over Easter break during my student days in Austria, I changed my mind at the last minute and took a train to Morocco instead. After learning that every Austrian student I knew was going to Greece for Easter, I wanted to seek out a place where they wouldn’t be celebrating a major Christian holiday.

I have no regrets. Morocco opened my eyes to an entirely different world – an Islamic one, with hints of Spain and Africa blended in. I was mesmerized by Coca-Cola signs in Arabic script and sprawling souks filled with colorful silks and redolent with the scent of exotic spices. Ever since then, I’ve gone for the less-traveled road, the trip off the beaten track.

More recently, a desert paradise in the Persian Gulf made it to the top of my bucket list: Kish Island. This most unlikely of high-brow playgrounds belongs to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Really. It does. Kish is the closest thing most Iranians will get these days to a Caribbean holiday – shimmering coral beaches, crystal-clear waters, and even the world’s first all-solar hotel. All reasons why Kish Island is dubbed The Pearl of the Persian Gulf.

Photo Source: NASA

Just a 30-minute flight across the Persian Gulf from Dubai, Kish is the only part of Iran that Americans can visit without jumping through hoops to get a visa. A stamp in your passport at the airport of departure (Dubai, Istanbul, and a few other cities) gives you permission to stay for up to 14 days. The island is a trade-free zone, and along with the lower prices comes a more relaxed attitude toward all things Islamic, including the strict dress code. You’re not likely to see sun-bathers in bikinis and speedos, but you may notice a lot more bare skin here than any other part of the country. The laws aren’t different, I’m told – they’re just less rigorously enforced.

But not all the time. Swimming, though actively encouraged , still remains gender-segregated, as in the rest of Iran, with a Ladies’ Beach and a Gentlemen’s Beach. There once was a co-ed area, but I’ve heard that it was recently closed.

The island has an interesting history. In ancient times, it was a crossroads for traders throughout the region. Marco Polo visited Kish and noted the quality of its pearls. The Greek admiral, Nearchus, who scouted the Gulf on the orders of Alexander the Great, stopped on Kish and described the island’s lovely palm groves.

Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, turned Kish into a resort and built a casino – now the Shayan International Hotel – as well as an airport equipped to handle the Concorde. The island’s free trade zone was established after the Islamic Revolution.

I’m not one for resorts, so Kish Island may seem as unlikely a destination for me as the Arctic armchair travels of my childhood. But the island has a lot more to offer. When I go there, I’ll give the shopping malls, theme parks, and golf courses a miss and head for the really interesting spots:

Harireh: This archeological site holds the ruins of an 13th-century city that once was a thriving port with three natural harbors for access to trade routes. The excavated sections of Harireh include a hamam (public bath), private houses, and workshops, enough to give me a glimpse of what life might have been like on Kish 800 years ago. Archeologists believe that Harireh was destroyed in a massive earthquake.

Payab on Kish Island
Photo by Mardetanha

Payab (traditional reservoir): Kish does not have an abundance of fresh water, but its ancient inhabitants worked out a clever way to ensure a regular supply of water for drinking and irrigation. They built domed structures over natural basins and collected rain in deep, underground chambers. One payab has been restored today and even accommodates that ubiquitous institution of Iranian hospitality: a tea house.

Natural wonders: There are too many of these to list, but once I’m tired of wandering around ancient ruins and drinking tea at the payab, I can sit on the beach and look at the underwater coral reefs, watch fish swim by, or gaze at the flamingos wading in shallow waters. Maybe I’ll even find a palm grove like the ones Nearchus mentioned in his report to Alexander.

Now it’s your turn: What part of the world have you always wanted to visit?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Off The Beaten Track: Fast Times

Our guest today is Simon Wood, an ex-racecar driver, a licensed pilot, and an occasional private investigator. Simon has had over 150 stories and articles published. His short fiction has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has garnered him an Anthony Award and a CWA Dagger Award nomination as well as several readers’ choice awards. He’s a frequent contributor to Writer’s Digest. He’s the author of WORKING STIFFS, ACCIDENTS WAITING TO HAPPEN, PAYING THE PIPER, WE ALL FALL DOWN, TERMINATED, and ASKING FOR TROUBLE. His latest titles include THE FALL GUY and DID NOT FINISH. His next book will be HOT SEAT out in the summer. As Simon Janus, he’s the author of THE SCRUBS and ROAD RASH. Curious people can learn more at Simon can also be found at Two for the Road, where he and author Tammy Kaehler write about the world of motorsport.

Like most events in my life, things happen by accident and motor racing was no different. That’s not to say I wasn’t interested in motorsport. I was a fan since I was around ten. Being a typical little boy, anything that went fast fascinated me whether it was cars, planes, boats, or anything else you care to name. I don’t know if this had something to do with the fact that no one in my family possessed a driver’s license or a car.

While I loved watching Formula One, my heart belonged to rallying and off road racing. The unpredictability of a rally stage appealed to me more than circuit racing. So I was an avid fan, with never a thought of taking part myself. That changed when I was nineteen. I wasn’t content to sit on the sidelines. I wanted a racing experience. I signed up for a rally driving training course and a circuit racing one. As much as I wanted to rally cars, my skills for off road driving were okay, but my circuit racing performance was pretty good.

That track day made me wonder if I should go the extra mile and switch from avid fan to competitor. I spent a couple of months exploring the notion of buying a single seater racecar and to be honest, I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. Then the unpredictable element of life took over and I received a call from the owner of the racing school, who wondered if I’d be interested in a 50% share in a Formula Ford and to team up for a season. I mulled the idea over and said yes. A few weeks later, I owned a racecar.

I think the partnership with an experienced driver was a good one. An older and wiser head meant my introduction to motor racing was a smooth one. I think if I’d gone it alone, I would have made some costly mistakes. With what I learned, the following year, I went out on my own running the car myself with a small crew consisting of a couple of friends, my dad, and myself.

I can say racing changed my life. When things went well, I don’t think I experienced highs like it. Also I don’t think I’ve suffered lows like it either when things didn’t go well. But racing changed me as a person. The biggest thing racing did for me was it improved me as a person. I’m not sure it made me a grown up, but it built character. I learned how to handle pressure (self imposed or otherwise), I was more inventive, and it made me come out of my shell in some respects. My day-to-day life got easier, because the problems I’d experience during a race meeting were more intense compared to my day job. So I’ll always be thankful to motor racing for that.

I raced for three years but stopped when the money ran out. While I did have sponsors, I was still the underwriter and the only investor. I’d seen a lot of guys get themselves into serious debt and I wasn’t about to follow them down that dark hole. The ugly side of motorsport is that it’s addictive. You just don’t want to quit. So, after a crash on Brand’s Hatch’s Grand Prix circuit, when I knew all the money had run out, I called it quits. It’s a decision I’m happy I made and one I still regret. Racing decisions are like that.

At the end of the day, I can’t say I blew the motor racing world away, but I held my own. I wish I could have kept at it longer and started earlier, but it is what it is. That’s not to say that if someone offered me a drive tomorrow, I wouldn’t take it. :)