Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Dhabas are roadside eateries in northern India that serve hearty, inexpensive food to travelers. A friend of mine stopped at one of these dhabas where the chalkboard advertised TODAY’S SPECIALAloo Mattar ( Potato and Peas Curry). It was quite tasty so, on his return journey, he stopped at the same dhaba.

This time, the chalkboard read TODAY’S SPECIALMattar Aloo. (Peas and Potato Curry). Puzzled, my friend asked the proprietor about the difference in nomenclature.

The reply, ” Sir, last week there were more potatoes than peas in the curry. This week, the curry contains more peas than potatoes.”

Talk about truth in advertising!

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Even before our recent trip to Germany, I had eaten my share of German style sausages or wursts. I’d tasted Bockwurst, Knackwurst, Bratwurst, Mettwurst , liverwurst and frankfurters ( of course). I enjoyed them all except for the liverwurst ( ugh). There are dozens of others that I haven’t tried including  the oddly named extrawurst which is reputed to be very much like American bologna. Another was  currywurst and I was eager to find what it tasted like.

I got my chance on a trip to Luneberg, at a hole-in the-wall, little more than a kiosk, called Jimmys. What a disappointment ! I’d assumed that currywurst was a curry flavored sausage. Not true. What was served to us was a sliced bratwurst ( steamed fried pork sausage) doused in a curry ketchup and served with French fries and a bread roll. Currywurst is an improvement on bratwurst which is rather bland , but  that’s about it.

Talking to my German friends, I learned that this is an exceedingly popular street-food, with upwards of 800 million currywursts being consumed each year. There is even a Currywurst museum in Berlin and by tradition, every candidate for the post of Mayor of Berlin is photographed at a currywurst stand. I can understand some of the appeal of currywurst because it adds a little zip to the blandness of bratwurst while, at the same time,its spiciness is tempered by the ketchup component.  However, it’s not something I’d go out of my way for.

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On a recent trip to Brussels, we had a guide to show us the sights. “Avi” proved to be very knowledgeable and entertaining. A history buff , he was a fount of knowledge about Brussels and its  growth. When we met him at the Grand Place, he asked us what our particular interests were. We told him that we wanted to see the major sights of Brussels and that we wanted to buy some Belgian chocolates . We were standing outside the Godiva shop in the Grand Place and indicated that we wanted to go there towards the end of the walking tour.

” Godiva !” our guide sneered, ” Godiva is the McDonalds of Belgian chocolates ! They’re only for tourists; no self-respecting Belgian eats them. I will take you to some shops where you will get the best.”

And so, at the end of our tour,  we found ourselves making a round of choclatiers in the Galeries Royal Saint Hubert, that magnificent arcade at the heart of  Brussels. There were more of them than I could have imagined and their displays were breathtaking: serried ranks of jewel like creations, each one better than the last, and all of them expensive. The three that our guide recommended as the best were Mary, Corne’ Port Royal and Pierre Marcolini. At each of these , our guide was able to get us samples to taste. Some of the other names I  recollect were Leonidas, Côte d’Or and Neuhaus. By the way, one well-known brand is Guylian, which sounds Chinese to me. Couldn’t the Belgians have come up with something else?

After looking at all the shops and their creations, we were unable to make up our minds. All of them were so good! How do you choose some over the others ? At the end, to save ourselves the trouble of packing our already full suitcases,we decided to pick up chocolates at the duty-free shop at the airport. The ones we chose were Corne’ Port Royal ( one of Avi’s selections), Neuhaus and Leonidas. We did not get any Godiva or Guylian because both of them are easily available in America.

It’s been over a month since we were in Brussels and the chocolates are almost all gone. I can’t say that one of them was better than the others. Perhaps true connoisseurs can make out subtle differences in chocolate brands but , for ordinary folk, they’re all equally good and it makes sense to get the ones that are on sale.

I read that Belgian chocolates are second only to the Swiss. I’m going to have to find out for myself. These were all so good that I cannot imagine anything better.

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Except for the hassle of checking in and getting through airport security, flying does not bother me. Once I’m in my seat and the plane takes off, I can easily occupy myself. I always carry a book of crossword puzzles and another book, one I’ve been meaning to read. Once the plane has leveled off, I first skim through the inflight magazine and do the crossword puzzle ( if someone hasn’t already done it). Then I start on the crosswords in my book. Since I never do crosswords, except on airplane flights, I’m not very good at them. I allot myself 45 minutes or an hour for each after which I look at the solutions and fill in the answers to clues I’ve been unable to solve. Three or four puzzles, a little reading, discreetly checking out my fellow passengers and wondering what they do and where they been and where they’re going, looking out the window if I can… all these keep me engaged. Before I know it, we are being to told to return to our seats and buckle up as the plane begins its slow descent.

Because we’ve traveled so often between New York and Los Angeles, a five hour flight is something I’m accustomed to. Anything longer can get tedious. On longer flights, I spend a lot of time following the progress of our flight on the video monitor. I note the current speed, the altitude, the distance we’ve already traveled, the distance to the destination, the outside temperature and the ETA. As they keep changing, I do all sorts of mental math with the numbers. Still, there is a limit to how long I can keep myself busy. On long flights, like the 14 hour non-stop from New York to Tokyo, the last two or three hours seem interminable.

That is why I was fascinated by Pico Iyer’s account of his twelve hour flight from Frankfurt to Los Angeles which he gives in his book The Art of Stillness.

The passenger next to him was a young attractive German woman who  exchanged a few friendly words with him as she settled into her seat. She then sat quietly, saying nothing , doing nothing for the rest of the flight. During that time,  Iyer himself dozed a little, dipped into his novel, checked out the options on the monitor and visited the toilet. She however never moved, wide awake but absolutely still and completely at peace. As the plane began it’s descent, Iyer asked her if she lived in L.A. She said not, that she was off for five weeks of vacation in Hawaii, a welcome respite from her stressful job as a social worker. She told Iyer that she liked to use the flight to decompress and get the stress out of her system. Thus, she could arrive at her destination relaxed and ready to enjoy her vacation.

How different this is from what most of us do. When we are on vacation, our minds are rarely still. We are constantly worrying about tickets, connections, hotel accommodations and sundry other details. Or we are worrying about things we should have done before we took off. Or we are worrying about what’s happening at the office while we are away or what awaits us when we get back. And , even in the plane, we are keeping ourselves busy with books, inflight movies, crossword puzzles and the like. We are never truly at rest.

On his next trip, from New York to California, Iyer decided to emulate his co-passenger’s example. He didn’t turn on his monitor and he didn’t read a book. As he writes, ” I didn’t even consciously try to do nothing; when an idea came to me or I recalled something I had to do back home, I pulled out a notebook and scribbled it down. The rest of the time ,I just let my mind go foraging – like a dog on a wide empty beach. ”  Iyer relates that when he arrived in L.A his mind was absolutely clear and refreshed.

We are going on a flight to Europe next month and I’m going to try this out myself. Even though the journey isn’t boring ,it can be tiring. I must admit that when we arrive at our destination I am far from refreshed. Let’s see if the anonymous German lady’s technique works for me.

P.S Just in case it doesn’t I’m taking along my crossword book.

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The phoenix is a legendary bird that, towards the end of its life, builds a nest and sits in it. It then bursts into flame spontaneously and is reduced to ashes, nest and all, only to emerge young, fresh and ready to begin a new life. In many ways, Las Vegas is like the phoenix. Each time we have visited it, and we have been there four times, it has appeared new, different and more colorful than ever.

The first time we visited Las Vegas, in 1987, it was much smaller than it is today. Despite the flashing neon signs, it appeared seedy and somewhat tacky though it tried hard to be glamorous. We were staying at one of the smaller hotels on the strip and I don’t remember much. It was a novelty to find that no matter where you wanted to go on the main floor you had to go through the casino. I was not tempted but plenty of others must have been.
We went to Vegas twice in the nineties. The first time we stayed at the Monte Carlo , the second time at the newly built Mandalay Bay. This was the period when Vegas decided to promote itself as a family destination. There were plenty of kiddie attractions including circus acts at the Circus Circus, hotel rooms at give-away prices and dirt cheap buffets ( all-you-can eat, $ 9.95). It must have worked for a while because the casinos were crowded. In between our two visits, Vegas transformed itself as older casinos were torn down and new supersized theme structures took their place. There were new entries to the Vegas scene such as the Paris( with its scaled down but still impressive Eiffel Tower), the Luxor pyramid, New York, New York with its replicas of famous NY attractions such as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, the Excalibur, the Venetian ( with gondoliers plying their craft in the “Grand Canal”) and the beautiful Bellagio with its “dancing fountains”. And then there was the MGM Grand, awesome for its sheer size; it had 4,000 + rooms. Rooms and buffets were not as cheap as Vegas tried to attract the well-heeled crowd. Many of the restaurants were helmed by celebrity chefs such as Joel Robuchon and the stage shows too were more sophisticated.
When we went to Vegas last December, it had changed once again. There were even more large casino-hotels such as the Aria where we stayed. Frontage on the Strip is limited, and therefore at a premium. Some of the older hotels had been torn down so that new ones could take their place. Another big change was the replacement of pedestrian crossings with overpasses. The aim was to ease the car traffic on the Strip and it did alleviate the problem considerably. However, traffic is so heavy that it still took us twenty minutes for our taxi to go from the Wynn to the Aria. It also made it difficult for pedestrians who wanted to walk the Strip. I always try to walk around a city I am visiting; it’s the best way to really experience it. In Vegas it wasn’t easy. From our hotel, I walked to the ends of the Strip, to the north one day and south the next; it took me over an hour each time. Climbing up to the overpass and down again each time I had to cross a street was tiring. It was also unpleasant because all the panhandlers park themselves there; every few steps on the bridge there was one. I really wondered how much ( or rather, how little) they collected. There were just too many of them and, besides, vacationers in Vegas are not inclined to be charitable. Perhaps it is the high cost of staying and dining in Vegas or perhaps they want to save their money for the slots. I was happy I went on my walks though because I really got to appreciate how different the casinos were and to get a close-up look at their charms.
Yet another change this time was the tourists in Vegas. Fully forty percent of them were mainland Chinese. There were all kinds: groups of young men , families with young children, honeymooners and gaggles of young women. I suppose it was a reflection of the changing world order; in the seventies it was the Japanese , now it is the Chinese who have the disposable incomes and the yen to see the world. Las Vegas has a glamor and glitz that Macau cannot match and, on one trip to Vegas, Chinese visitors can experience New York,Venice, the Pyramids, Paris etc. Many of them were wide-eyed at what they saw; their chief activity was to take photos of themselves framed by Vegas attractions, so that they could show their folks back home.
The celebrity chef syndrome has reached new heights in Vegas. Practically every chef worth his salt has to have a restaurant in Vegas, sometimes more than one. Bobby Flay, Emeril, Giada de Laurentis, Todd English, Gordon Ramsey are only some of the marquee names I noticed. Naturally, the meals they put out are not cheap. We ordered tasting menus at two of the restaurants and prices ran between $125 and $150 per person, not including drinks and tip. I must say that the meals were awesome.
So were the shows. The entertainment scene in Vegas is dominated by Cirque de Soliel which was staging shows at no less than seven of the casino-hotels. We saw ” Le Reve ” ( the Dream) at the Wynn; it was created by the founder of Cirque de Soliel for his friend Steve Wynn and it was spectacular. It is about a girl who breaks up with he lover and is visited by a dream with angels, devils, butterflies, jesters and other fantastic creatures. Finally, she wakes up and is re-united with her beloved. The action takes place in a circular pool where the water level is raised and lowered to create elaborate tableaux. The performers are clad in unbelievably colorful costumes as they splash and cavort in the water, diving, swimming and posing to create an unforgettable spectacle. For the finale, one of them is raised into the rafters and then drops feet first into the water sixty feet below. The show is beautiful, it is scary, it is indescribable. BTW, some of the other shows were headlined by performers we thought had long since retired; remember Donny and Marie Osmond. They are still going strong.
As ever, Vegas is best at night. Driving down the Strip is one way to experience it. Another is to sit in your hotel room and look out the window at the millions of lights and the rivers of neon. Someone remarked that Vegas uses more electricity than the entire Indian state of Gujarat. It may be an exaggeration, but not by much.
Three days , maybe four, are about as much as I can take of Vegas. Vegas is exciting, it is gaudy, it is excess personified, it is enjoyable. But, in the harsh light of day, as you head out to the airport you realize that Vegas is an oasis in the desert, a mirage, a dream. Time for the real world.

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In the late seventies, my wife and I made our first and only trip to England. We spent an idyllic ten days with relatives in the village of Tottington , near Manchester , taking day trips to York , London, the Lake District and Stratford on Avon. One of the things we fondly remember about Tottington was the local pub. What a wonderful place to go to of an evening !  Relaxing atmosphere, friendly people, good beer, a game of darts and watching soccer on the telly. I know that some serious drinking does go on in pubs but that village pub was more of a social meeting place to meet your friends and have a good time over a glass of bitter. I have never experienced anything else quite like it.

I was sorry therefore to read in the New York Times that  British pubs are fast becoming an endangered species with more and more of them being converted to supermarkets or parking lots. There are a number of different reasons being trotted out for the decline of the pub. One big reason is that the availability of cut-price beer at supermarkets makes drinking at home an attractive option. In general , a pint of beer costs about five times as much at the pub. Times are harder now and there is not that much disposable income to go regularly to the pub. Another prime reason is that the large independent holding companies that own more than half the pubs in Britain are trying to cash in on their real estate. As a result , many pubs have been sold to developers who tear them down and erect stores or housing. Other reasons: Anti-smoking laws which keep away the smokers. The rise in violent crime which makes people scared to venture out at night. The rise in social networks and cellphone use which has removed the need for a community gathering place. A change in Britons beer drinking habits which has seen consumption fall by almost a quarter over the past five years. No wonder the British pub is under siege.

Cognizant of the problem , the British government is trying to do its bit to protect pubs from the clutches of developers. Designating pubs as ” an asset of community value” protects them from demolition and gives community groups a chance to buy and operate them. It is a badly needed move because more than 7,000 pubs have been shut down since 2008, a fact which is all to apparent to tourists and others who visit the U.K and find it difficult to find a pub. I hope that the decline in the numbers of pubs will be slowed , if not arrested , by such efforts. The pub has a special place in British life and is one of those beloved institutions which are unique to that country.
Pubs are not an unalloyed blessing, however, and some British wives may not be totally in favor of them. When we were in Tottington all those years ago, the next door neighbors were a very nice couple, Tony and Sue. Tony, an accountant, had a fixed schedule on weekdays. He would get home from work at about 5:30 and have dinner with the family. Then it was off to the pub for him while Sue stayed at home with the kids. He stayed there until 9 or so, knocking back a couple of pints , before getting back home. Only on Saturdays would Sue accompany him to the pub while a babysitter took care of the kids. I don’t know how much Tony earned but the cost of those pub visits must have put a big dent in the family’s finances. His schedule also didn’t leave much time for the family.

I wonder what Sue thought about pubs.

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As we plan our virtual trip , using travel guides and an atlas , it becomes clear that most of South Dakota’s attractions are along the I-90 corridor. North of it , the only things that might be of interest are the Indian reservations . Even Pierre, the capital of South Dakota , holds limited appeal for us. We’ve also decided that on these trips  we’ll only visit those places that are a) unique to the state or b) exceptionally good for their kind , even if they are not unique. That means we will not be visiting as many museums of prairie life or frontier life,  or colonial era houses or Indian reservations.

Starting out from where we left off ( Sioux City , Iowa) , we will begin our South Dakota sojourn in Sioux Falls and then take I-90 westwards through Mitchell, Chamberlain and Rapid City. Then we will veer off to take the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway through the Black Hills to Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse and Presidents Monuments with time out for the mining boom towns of Deadwood and Lead before ending our journey in Spearfish.

Day 1 of our virtual trip

We get off to an early start , leaving our Sioux City motel at 7 AM  and taking I-29 north to Sioux Falls. It’s a cloudy day with the temperatures in the low sixties  but as we cross over into South Dakota the sun comes out. Twenty minutes into our trip , we see a pair of elk and I realize why the nearby town is called Elk Point . It’s pleasant driving these Interstates in the mid-west , so different from the rush hour traffic back east . An hour later , we are in  Sioux Falls a midsize town/city of about 160,000 which has an industrial base but has morphed into a center for finance , healthcare and retail trade. Attracted by South Dakota’s relaxed usury laws , the credit card divisions of Wells Fargo and Citigroup are headquartered here .

Our first stop is at the falls which give Sioux Falls its name. Located on the  Big Sioux River , these falls drop only about 25 feet but they are set in a beautiful park and there are walkways and a tower which offer lovely views of the falls . It is wonderful walking around in the cool of the morning looking at the cascading waters and reading the informational signs.  We spend an enjoyable hour there before  grabbing  a coffee at the restaurant and heading of to our next stop , the Sculpturewalk in downtown Sioux Falls .

Sculpturewalk  consists of several sculptures ranging from the whimsical to the abstract that are on loan from the artists and are displayed on the sidewalks from May to September. The public gets to vote for its favorite sculpture and each year the most popular one is acquired by the city and put on permanent display . Great idea. My favorite is the girl riding a pig , her pigtails flying

Our last stop in Sioux Falls is the USS South Dakota Museum .  The USS South Dakota was a battleship that saw extensive action in the Pacific during WW II and was scrapped in 1947 . When she was cut up , many of her features were salvaged  and acquired for this museum . The “museum” consists of  part of a city park with the exact dimensions of the battleship. Bits and pieces of the battleship ( the barrel of a 16″ gun, a smaller deck gun, the mast, a reinforced hatch door, propeller, part of the wooden decking, radar, and an anchor) are arranged in the approximate locations they would be on the real ship. The effect is like a battleship sunk in a city park. Bizarre and a little disappointing.

Still talking about our battleship experience , my wife and I  head for the Carnaval Brazilian Grill on S. Carolyn Ave. Wanting to keep light for the afternoon drive , we pass on the Sunday brunch  and content ourselves with small plates . As we sip our drinks and scan the menu , we nibble on chips and salsa and select three small plates which we will share.. They are Crab and Mango Fritters served with tropical slaw and lime -cilantro aioli , Ahi Tuna ( thin tuna slices marinated in soy sauce, sesame seeds and wasabi , seared and served on a bed of field greens) and Carnaval Fish Tacos ( 2 soft tacos topped with cabbage , fresh salad and citrus crema).  Saisfied but not weighed down , we set off for our next stop, the Corn Palace in Mitchell,  75 miles away . The non-existent  Sunday afternoon traffic allows us to cover the distance in just over an hour.

The Corn Palace is certainly unique. It is a Moorish revival building whose exterior murals and designs  are completely rebuilt each year with corn and other grains . The original Corn Palace  was built in 1892 to showcase the rich soil of South Dakota and to encourage people to settle in the area. It was a wooden castle structure on Mitchell’s Main Street that was twice rebuilt , the last time in 1921. Russian-style onion domes  and  Moorish minarets were added in 1937, giving the Palace the  distinctive appearance it has today. At first glance , it seems to have been built of corn but appearances are deceptive.  It is actually a reinforced concrete building whose exterior , each spring , is covered with thousands of bushels of native South Dakota corn , grain and grasses arranged in large murals. Typical yearly themes for the murals are South Dakota Birds or A Salute To Agriculture or Youth In Action.  Thirteen  different colors or shades of corn are used : red, brown, black, blue, white, orange, calico, yellow , even  green ! The decoration costs $130,000 annually and the designs are created by local artists.  The decorating process usually starts in late May . Ear by ear the corn is nailed to the Corn Palace to create a scene.The corn murals are stripped at the end of August and the new ones are completed by the first of October.The Corn Palace serves as an auditorium for touring celebrities ,as a sports arena , and as the headquarters of Corn Palace Week which   marks the end of the harvest — and the beginning of the planning for next year’s Palace theme. After Corn Palace Week ends and winter sets in, local pigeons and squirrels make a feast of the tasty murals.

The Corn Palace is a surprising attraction , whimsical , gaudy , raffish . It occupies our minds and dominates the conversation in the car as we proceed to Chamberlain , the site of the next attraction on our list, the Alta Lakota Museum and our overnight stop. It’s 80 miles from Mitchell to Chamberlain and before we know it we have arrived . We could have left this last leg for the morrow but that would have meant a long drive from Mitchell to Rapid City . Now we are 80 miles closer and can be more relaxed.

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