In the 500 Yards Between India and Pakistan, I’m a VIP

15 Mar

Outside Amritsar.

This is the road to Pakistan.

Lahore: 23km.

Somehow, when our Indian friend asked which of us might be interested in visiting the India-Pakistan border, I was the only one to speak up. I mean, Pakistan? When am I ever going to have that opportunity again? Now – cold sweat in check, I’m curious, but I’m not crazy. Knowing this is a somewhat delicate political territory, I’d looked this one up in the guidebook, and I had a small idea of what we were about to see. But even I was surprised.

The welcome sign at the India-Pakistan border.

We rented a car for the hour or so ride to Wagah, site of the only open border crossing between India and Pakistan. With a somewhat hesitant mood, we piled in and went for a drive. The cars and motorbikes heading in the same direction seemed to thin out the farther we drove, their turban-clad drivers seemed increasingly somber. We passed army base after army base for several miles. I pictured barbed wire, and lookout towers, and the typical “no-photography under penalty of imprisonment” signs you find at immigration and military zones the world over. Images of utilitarian government waiting rooms and holding rooms and stacks of official forms filled my imagination.

You can buy border souvenirs! And Coca-Cola!

We were warned before stopping the car that any bags would be confiscated and that we needed to leave anything valuable behind. We drove past a roadblock protest and stepped out into a sea of people. We walked along border fences, lookout posts, glass booths, and were pushed into a fast moving crowd, then quickly ordered by a horse-mounted official with a whistle to separate men from women, not something we wanted to do. We continued along – through a security pat-down, past confiscated bags and bottles of water, into. . .a festival arena grandstand.

Pakistan is just on the other side of this gate.

Now, hold on a moment. Those were bags of confiscated popcorn at the gate. Popcorn? Of course, from the lines of snack vendors just outside the gate. Snack vendors? Yes, fruit and tea and nuts and candy – and families with small children and school field trips and teenage girls in bright-colored, sequined scarves. We weren’t headed to impending doom. . .we were headed to a full-out, stand up to the blaring pop music, wave your mini-Indian flag, and cheer along with the track-suit clad emcee political rally-come-dance party that is the nightly India-Pakistan border closing.

Fancy border guards!

Not at all what we expected. We were pulled out of the crowd by a guard and directed to a different gate – the VIP gate. Special reserved seating for visiting officials and foreign tourists (Guess we didn’t look very Indian. No surprise there.) That’s right, somewhere on this soil between the India-Pakistan border, I got picked out of the crowd as a VIP.

The patriotic crowd runs flags back and forth.

The event was really a non-event. I mean, they close this gate every night. The ceremony itself was full of pomp – (very, very tall) Indian border guards dressed in their fanciest official uniforms doing unintelligible prolonged chants and fancy high-kick synchronized marches. Pakistan had its respective grandstand and music and fancy-uniformed guards. They opened the gate. They brought down Indian and Pakistani flags. They closed the gate. You know – border closing.

The India crowd at Wagah.

But the surrounding interest and festive atmosphere was really surprising. A crowd of thousands of enthusiastic Indians had made this hour-long drive to witness this nightly event, cheer along with their countrymen, and shout positive nationalistic chants over a megaphone, a shout that carried far on the wind and echoed off the less-filled stands on the other side of the gate.

These “Temple Socks” Aren’t Coming Home

11 Mar

Karni Mata Temple, Deshnok.

In an earlier post from India, I started writing about “suspending my general (Western) perceptions” of how this world works. I was back on the Ganges, trying to wrap my brain around the idea of a holy-deity-river being the site of simultaneous bathing, prayer, laundry and cremation.  Welcome back folks, here’s another example of how my Western perception has been expanded.

Happy rats! Deshnok.

Prepare yourselves, this one’s not for the squeamish. In today’s “you’ll only find this in India” installment, I visited Deshnok’s Karni Mata Temple – a.k.a “The Rat Temple.”

(I also tried pistachio camel milk ice cream, but that’s another story. It was a full day. . .back to the rats.)

Beautiful silver door. Deshnok.

The subject of several television documentary stories, my travel friend and I decided we had to see this one for ourselves. A good 45-minute drive outside of the up-and-coming desert city of Bikaner, you’ll find a unique Hindu temple. As the story goes, Bikaner’s patron deity was asked to perform a resurrection and spoke with the gods, only to find out that all of her male descendants would come back as rats…in her temple…in Deshnok. Or, something like that. In short, it’s a beautiful out-of-the-way temple in a tiny town with thousands of holy rats running freely alongside the (human) worshippers.

Big line of penitent followers. Deshnok.

Now we knew what we’d signed up for, but as we stepped up to the door, our Indian friend turned to me and asked “Are you OK with this?” Well, we were about to find out.

Before you get all freaked out, let me say – these are without a doubt the happiest rats in the world. They’re tiny, not un-cute, and pretty well-behaved. They lounge around with a thousand of their closest friends and relatives sipping milk, nibbling on holy sweets and nuts, and in an interesting turn of the tables, having the humans worry about not stepping on them all day.

They’re arguably cute. Deshnok.

It’s an easy imaginative jump to, say, “The Rats of Nimh,” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (Splinter was a rat, right?)

A huge (real) silver door leads a line of patient, penitent hundreds along a marble floor to catch a quick glimpse of a fiery (yes fiery!) icon set deep within the temple. The scene is complete with offerings and chanting and blessed food and lots of rats running around.

I mean really Indiana Jones type stuff here. For being basically in the middle of nowhere in the desert, we were surprised just how popular the temple was. Easily a thousand or so people returning from a nearby festival decided to stop in by the tourbus-full to pay their respects to the deity.

Adjacent snack stalls sold souvenir pictures and keychains of the icon – and the rats – along with sodas and gum and CD’s of Hindi pop music. It was downright festive.

All socks and wet wipes. Deshnok.

Though decidedly foreign,  the experience wasn’t quite as terrifying as those tv shows would have you believe…except maybe for one thing: I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that to enter Hindu temples you have to take off your shoes. Yep. That’s right. Picture yourself, tiptoe-ing barefoot or in your little knit socks across a cold marble floor, sticky holy sweets and grains stuck to the bottom, weaving your way around thousands of holy rats.

Needless to say, that pair of socks is not coming home. It didn’t even make it back to the car. Plus, the pair of clean socks I put on after them may not come home either.

In my comic-relief moment of the afternoon, I spotted only the second public trash bin of my entire India trip – right next to the temple shoe stand – chock full of socks and wet wipes.

Sari Charlie!

3 Mar

Park your camel. Park your motorcycle. Johdpur.

While the far-traveled sendmoneyplease was traipsing the globe a year or so ago, he picked up a gift for me: a sari. Now, for a guy who’s backpacking for months at a time, I am fully appreciative of the effort that went into this gift on his part – it included spending the better part of a (no doubt) excruciating afternoon in a woman’s world – sitting on the floor of a fabric shop, having a crayon-box full of colors and materials and sequins and sparkles thrust in front of his eyes for consideration, all the while, I’m sure, trying to describe the fickle female whims of an absent westerner, her height and measurements converted into imperial standards. It’s overwhelming for me – and I’m a clothes shopper with the best of them!

The garment district, Johdpur.

He did fantastically, choosing a simple lavender-grey silk, and I love it. I really couldn’t have done better myself. But even then, after being barraged with an impossible selection, and negotiating a price, only then came the most difficult part – he had to carry this precious cargo with him for the remainder of the trip, another couple months, taking up valuable space and weight in an already stuffed backpack that had made it around more than half of the earth’s longitudinal lines, but still had half the world to go.

Old town of Jodhpur.

However, the fabric, beautiful as it is, remains unfinished. It’s a several meter long scarf at the moment – but to be worn as a sari, it’ll take several more components. And so I set off to complete the outfit.

Glass bangles, bazaar, Jodhpur.

India is every costume designer’s dream. In a country where even the camels and the rickshaws all have shimmering metallic tassels, flower-shaped ornaments, framed photos and mylar streamers, the ladies’ “everyday wear” does not disappoint – bedecked with sequins and borders and colors and patterns. You can have anything sewn to your exact size and specifications in record time.

Old meets (somewhat) newer technology.

So we set off to find a tailor. We walk through a tangle of Jodhpur’s old city streets and alleyways, past cows and dogs and goats and shops lined with aluminum cookware, fresh vegetables and fried dough – to find a one-room tailor shop with an older gentleman, balancing a pair of spectacles and a tape measure around his neck.

Old town, Johdpur.

Now, this is really just the beginning of the process – because though he has the patterns, and a young lady who helps him sew, and his sewing machine (an historic foot-pedal model rigged up to a makeshift electric motor on the table), he doesn’t have any fabric – for that you have to visit another specialist.

The blue city of Jodhpur.

Handwritten address in hand, we weave deeper into this maze of backroad vendors – to find the wholesale sari/fabric/trim neighborhood – the garment district of Jodhpur. With the help of the shop’s owner and some very curious ladies in the shop (“Why do you want to wear a sari when you’re so comfortable in your own pants?”), I finally decide upon two textiles: a beautiful crinkled lavender which was everyone’s favorite, and a plain silver that I have a feeling will be the better match. Also included in the purchase (and the educational lesson) was the readymade cotton petticoat underskirt and, later on, some lovely silver trim I’m hoping to add.
 

 

Bazaar, Jodhpur.

A mere 24 hours later, I’ve got my two sari-tops in hand – and I can’t wait to finally put all the pieces together for the first time.

 

[An important note: I take no credit for this title – that honor goes to the very witty sendmoneyplease(thank you honey!). Also, it strangely doesn’t translate at all into Australian English, to which my travel companions will attest.]

My hotel courtyard, Jodhpur.

“Do You Need a Guide Madam? You Will Have the Best Time! You Will See the Bodies Burn!”

27 Feb

First light on the Ganges, Varanasi.

India has overwhelmed every one of my five (or maybe six?) senses. Color and chaos, spice and fruit and chili explosions on my tongue and in my nostrils, views of unequaled exotic beauty juxtaposed in the same 12 inches with trash and animal waste and children wearing no shoes. An array of horns and engines and screams and animals and calls to prayer has assaulted my ears and entered my dreams in the middle of the night.

On the Ganges, Varanasi.

Sunrises are a time of day I don’t see very often – those few fragile moments when the monochrome grey of night awakens into color and life. A paint-by-numbers – just add the delicate morning light.

At the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi.

Sunrise anywhere is an optical transformation – and in India, where my senses are experiencing unparalleled intensity, they are magic. We’ve been fortunate to capture this moment several times so far on this trip – some by effort, and some by the serendipity of an early train or bus, our unintentionally sleepy grumpiness dissolving into jaw-dropping astonishment.

Near the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi.

I cannot possibly begin to understand the functioning structure of this society in any way – how the population and the religions and the occupations mesh together to form order in this frenetic daily pace. But I’ve been advised to suspend my general practical perceptions a little, and so, to observe: to be present and to smell and to taste and to witness.

 
 
 

 

On the Ganges, Varanasi.

For millions, one river holds a special place geographically, spiritually and metaphysically – the Ganges, a sacred waterway for activities my western mind would never categorize together: bathing and laundry, prayer and commerce and livestock, ice cream and cremation and snacks and paying tribute to the dead.

 

 

Sunrise, Varanasi.

Varanasi.

And so it was that sometime while the sun was still tossing and turning in its bedsheets, we hailed a rickshaw and made that pilgrimage to the waters’ edge, through wooden stalls, over dirt roads, past locked storefronts, along with a somnambulic stream of those going to sell and those going to worship and those swinging cameras around their necks – to haggle a price for us all to board a painted wooden rowboat and bear witness to this inconceivable jumble of saris drying in the sun and monkeys jumping on rooftops and smoke rising from burning funeral pyres and the first apparition of a bright, red, Indian sun.

Herding Traffic With Sticks

25 Feb

Blow horn. And do they ever. Kolkata.

So, apparently, you can herd cars like farm animals. That is, by hitting them with a stick.

Crossing the road in Varanasi.

I really had to see this one in order to believe it. The traffic in our first two stops – Kolkata and Varanasi – has to be experienced. No attempt to describe the sheer chaos will in any way give you a snapshot of the reality. One of my traveling companions has already resorted to earplugs just in order to venture outside, and we’ve all decided to don a scarf over our faces if any sort of vehicle travel is involved.

Hold on tight! Auto-rickshaw, Varanasi.

Picture the midway at the state fair – vendors and children, meandering pedestrians in open-toed shoes, hawkers of every sort selling sandals and cigarettes and cut cantalopes, the bright multi-colored lights and shiny painted kiosks, blaring pop music, revving truck engines -

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Varanasi.

then add more vehicles than can possibly fit: mercedes cars, tour buses, local buses, military trucks, bicycles, mopeds, taxis, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, 3-wheeled auto-rickshaws, tractors, carts piled high with shoes and steel rebar and entire families balanced on the frame of a bicycle.

That’s Johnny Walker SHOES under the McAloo Tikka. Clearly. Varanasi.

And to this flow of color and movement, add livestock: donkeys, goats, herds of buffalo, dogs lounging listlessly in the dirt, chickens, tiny scraggly cats, monkeys hanging from above, and then clearly – a holy cow – parting the sea of traffic in any which direction it chooses, nibbling mounds of trash and discarded vegetable scraps off the side of the road.

Directly centered in this crowd is a meter-high turret holding a uniformed traffic officer – armed with what can only be described as a long, reed-like stick – slapping the flank of any type of transport that lingers in one place for more than a few seconds.

Kolkata.

Colorful and chaotic, carnival-esque – and terrifying. I’m thinking of starting a non-profit with the goal of making helmets standard issue for anyone with the insurmountable desire to cross the street.

Cycle rickshaw. Kolkata.

A Half-Hour Off

25 Feb

The coast of Dubai.

I’m currently in a time zone 1/2 hour off from my hometown. The more I think about it, that half-hour off seems like a very exotic place to be. It’s as though I’ve landed in a place inbetween any time I’ve been before. Balanced somewhere between two solid time markers, it’s a world not quite grounded by the same rules of time and space where I’m from, and I’m expecting it to be a surprise.

Made with real sugar, not high-fructose corn syrup.

The trip here was long but relaxing. There’s something really calm about being in transit, wrapped in the air-tight cocoon of your plane, sheltered in a cushioned commuter’s airport haven; you’re confined, catered-to; resources are convenient and flight attendants bring hot beverages at the touch of a button. It’s especially relaxing in the sparkling desert oasis mega-hub of Dubai, home to the fleet of the world’s largest aircraft – and where unlike JFK’s Delta terminal, at least you’ll find reclining chairs.

Dubai.

The airport hums with activity at all hours of the day and night. And though, sure, you can find the uniquely foreign assortment of duty-free powdered milk, caviar and hookas, it’s more westernized than much of Europe. The terminal is flanked at either end by American fast food chains – Burger King’s “Texican” and “BKool” is balanced by the McDonald’s “McArabia Chicken” several hundred meters away. You’ll find Haagen Dazs, Segafredo, and a Starbucks – complete with the current winter selection: ceramic American coffee mugs in festive red and white, featuring a girl wrapped in her winter scarf.

 

The McArabia. Don’t worry, the Maharajah Mac is coming up soon. Not a joke!

Let me be clear, I checked the weather before flying into Dubai: it’s sunny with a high of 76 and a 0% chance of precipitation. Same as it was yesterday. Same as it is tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. I mean, it’s a desert. On the Arabian Peninsula.

 

 

The taste of your childhood lives on! It’s just in duty-free in Dubai. Now, they know what you should buy as a gift in the airport!

I always feel pampered in this soft-landing buffer zone, and it certainly made for a terrific contrast to the frenetic stream I was about to step into.

 

Mystical Champignons

15 Feb

Delicious! Chez Clo, Montpellier.

Perhaps no activity fills French families with nostalgia and anticipation (and causes the uninitiated American to cringe in fear) more than hunting the coveted cep mushroom (that’s porcini to you).

An Easter egg hunt for adults, it’s a magical trek. There are rare, valuable, (and delicious!) treats – hidden far from the urban world – buried under leaves and nettles, deep within a cool, misty, fir tree forest. They’re ephemeral; they come with the rain and the season; they only pop up one night in advance; they’re best to find at the first light of dawn.

 

Fairies live in these woods. Cevennes.

They’re free, and they’re waiting there for you if you can find them. There’s the danger that if you choose poorly, you’ll be poisoned. It’s hilly and slick, cold and damp, and surrounding you are gun shots and terrible baying from the hunting dogs in the chase for wild boar. It’s so, so much better in person than any movie or video game would have you believe.

These are what you’re looking for. Cevennes.

The preparation and the journey make it even more the mythical quest that it is. You rise before dawn and pack hot coffee and cheese and cloth sacks. Then you drive north into the Cevennes mountains, up and over winding roads only wide enough for one car, past expansive valley vistas, dodging white hunter’s trucks parked off the side of the road. Then you hike, searching out your favorite secret spot under the fir trees or next to the stream where the ceps like to hide, telling stories of the golden season when you found more mushrooms than you could carry home with you.

 

Definitely don’t touch these. Cevennes.

Well, ok, being the foreigner (and the artist), it always turns out that I get so preoccupied with how pretty the forest is and how cute all the other mushrooms are that I end up taking tons and tons of photos, and never find any edible mushrooms. We picnic and lay in the sun and take in the countryside and it’s easy to understand why this is a favorite French activity.

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

This year we drove up much too early in the season to find mushrooms. However, we came upon several other chance encounters on our trip. We hiked, lunched, and talked with the hunters about how it was too early in the season for the mushrooms, then came across an entire herd of sheep grazing along our path. I’d never considered the possibility of modern shepherds just out with their animals in (completely industrialized) southern France, but I think the environmentalist-nutritionists would be happy.

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

They were just passing through, feeding on the tender grasses near our favorite Cevennes site during the off-season. Each wearing colorful yarn pom-poms, as though they were dressed up for a county fair squaredance, you could hear their bells as they were led off to the next pasture. We all thought it was funny that their yarn decorations were made from what was once their own wool – as though it would be absurd to fashion a hat out of our own hair and then wear it.

Black sheep in the Cevennes.

Having completely failed at finding any mushrooms, we decided to stop at the scenic outlook nearby where were treated to a surprise. As it turned out, it was a national history day, and many of the national museums and parks had special activities going on. Mont Aigoual, where we’d stopped for the view, is also home to a national weather observatory – and we were some of the few to get a private tour of their facility and observatory experiments. The region has unique weather conditions, and the observatory team (it’s the last remaining weather station in France still inhabited by meteorologists) is housed in a turreted, stone fortress. Like a ship, they are completely self-sufficient, as they could get snowed-in for days. Merci à tous!

Grazing herd in the Cevennes.

The Train Doesn’t Get There from Here

9 Feb

Le Vieux Berger Roquefort.

Being the self-proclaimed “foodie” that I am, one of the pilgrimages I always wanted to take was to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (population 715). It’s the one and only place in the entire world where Roquefort cheese is lovingly created.

Roquefort cheese is one of those famed French products that holds a special place in my memory. That creamy, buttery, tangy, spreadable, crumbly, blue-type cheese. . .some vaguely sweet, some overly pungent, some with tiny, crunchy mold veins.

I can remember gorging myself on Roquefort and little melba-toast-like Heudebert biscottes when at university gatherings, my fellow students didn’t quite know what to make of it. I felt the need to, ahem, properly show my appreciation.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, the holy grail of cheese.

11 years ago when I lived in France, Roquefort was one of the distinguished French imports on which the US government decided to place luxury taxes.

Strangely not-so-well-heard-of in average American circles, it goes something like this: farmer-activist José Bové wanted to bring awareness to the US hormone-treated beef industry, so he organized a series of French farmer demonstrations – including covering a McDonald’s in truckloads of apples.

The EU decided to ban the importation of hormone-treated beef. In turn, the US government imposed special “luxury taxes” on several French products, including Roquefort cheese. (José Bové was a sheep farmer in the region around Roquefort.)

It was a fun time – I remember camping and attending a (I would call it more “global awareness” than “anti-American”) rock concert/demonstration in Millau during the protests and trial.  

Read about Bové – admittedly a bit extreme in his actions, but he’s a folk hero, an interesting political figure, and has gone to jail for your nutritional well-being. (You may also note that the French Wikipedia version is about twice as long.)

L’atelier of the Vieux Berger, Roquefort-sur-Soulzon.

Back to the cheese. . .

It’s pretty hard to get to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon by train, or even by bus. I mean, at least for the budget traveler under the age of 60 who has no interest in taking a group tour. It’d involve about 5 hours travel time and an overnight stay.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon is a tiny village in an agricultural region, and you’ve really need a car to make the most of your trip.

There’s only a few producers of the cheese. Each (of the artisanal producers) has it’s own special bread – baked once a year from which to get it’s mold. Each has their own special mold starter, set of caves where they age the cheese, and milk producers. The producers are hard to get to on foot, and then, you still have to haul your cheese home.

To be expected in a village of 715, I guess. In short, it’s pretty special stuff.

Le Vieux Berger Roquefort.

I finally made it. Better yet, imagine my delight when my good friend decided to actually buy a half-round of you’ll-only-find-it-here, not-to-be-found-in-any-store Vieux Berger cheese – and then allowed me to be the first to slice into it!

It was a transcendental experience. It felt as though someone had plopped a gorgeous, untouched, just-baked wedding cake in front of me and told me – and me alone – to slice it & take a bite. It’s just something you never do!

The image of her tiny, French-sized fridge holding a half-round of Roquefort, bathed in the artificial halo of the fridge lamp on the top shelf will be one of my favorite memories of all time.

Pavé de l’Aveyron, from Roquefort.

Free Wee-Fee! Oui oui!

4 Feb

Montpellier.

Let’s catch up, it’s been awhile.

There’s a big, new international adventure in the works, so I’m officially back on the blog. But before I shift gears and continents, France deserves a little more time & space from me. Following SendMoneyPlease’s departure in Grenoble, I headed back to one of my all-time favorite places: lively Montpellier on the sunny Mediterranean coast – spending some quality time visiting friends and adopted family, gathering new vocabulary words & soaking up that delicious southern French way of life (read: hiking, beautiful beaches & pastry!). In other words, I officially dropped off the map for awhile.

Picnic at Palavas-les-Flots

It’s been 10 years since I lived in France, and during my train and bus rides, I had plenty of time to observe and reflect upon my French experiences.

A couple of things have noticeably changed:
  • Wi-fi is everywhere! I distinctly remember waiting hours to use one of the three university computers or the two private library computers (if the computers were up and running that day) to check my email 10 years ago. It was one of those “adjusting to French bureaucracy” things you came to accept, along with difficult-to-locate classroom & grade postings and official identification cards that had actual photographs stapled to them. (I mean, really? You wouldn’t accept my state driver’s license as a form of ID at the grocery store, but an ID with a stapled photo is ok?) Now, the Internet’s at every hotel, hostel, private home and coffee shop. Yea technology!

Doctor of sexologie in Montpellier.

  • WCs are much more prevalent. As an American, I’m very sorry that McDonald’s has invaded the earth , but I will take it as my personal right to use their (increasingly difficult to find) free bathrooms. However, I’m happy to report that we found WCs in even the smallest villages on this trip. Free & with modern “flush the whole room down” cleaning systems.
  • French youth have recently picked up on some early-90s-US-style-trends. Lip rings are all the rage, Converse hi-tops are in full fashion, and Eastpack backpacks are being worn everywhere. I bet that original Eastpack in your attic could fetch top dollar on Ebay right now, just be sure to list it in French.
And a couple of French things will never change (and I hope they never do):
  • Mussels with onion, fennel & white wine, chez Clo, Montpellier.

    The food is still delicious. Maybe it’s the proximity to the source of fresh, local produce. Maybe it’s the unpasturized milk and cheese products. Maybe it’s not being afraid of cooking with real, full-fat foods. Maybe it’s a unequaled culinary tradition & technique. Maybe it’s the knowledge that some good things just take time & seasons & skill & the right climate. I think it’s all of this, coupled with a country that has a discriminating palate (Trust me, I’ve seen the number of cheeses on the elementary school menu. It’s impressive for the tastes of a 1st grader.)

Tulipe – chestnut paste & whipped cream, Montpellier.

  • Everything’s still closed on Sunday (and sometimes Monday). Including the hypermarkets. Even Carrefour, 2nd largest hypermarket chain in the world, knows what’s good for its employees.
  • They’ve still got that charming there’s-nothing-we-can-do-about-that-shrug-your-shoulders sense of bureaucracy when it comes to banks/doctors/schools/official business. One morning we attempted to exchange currency. Turns out, there’s only one bank that exchanges money in the not-so-touristy (but huge city) Montpellier. As it also turns out, it had a handwritten note taped to the door explaining that it was closed that morning. No explanation. Sorry. 
  • Montpellier demonstration, September 2010.

    The French still love strikes and demonstrations. They still turn out in large numbers with their families to participate and observe them. And they still schedule them in advance (because it is very practical to know if the buses won’t be running, or there’s no school that day).

“Sidewalk, not crapping-ground.” Nantes.

  • And oh sure, there’s still plenty of dog poop on the sidewalk. But maybe that’s changing too. . .

I’ll wrap up France with a few more posts from the sunny Mediterranean & then I’ll be relating the events of the next big adventure. . .

“My master picks up after me.” Sidewalk in Nantes.

Grenoble & Alpe d’Huez

18 Oct

From Cauterets to Grenoble

Well, unlike me, SendMoneyPlease had a destination: an airport, on a certain day, at a certain time, to catch a certain flight. So, we knew we’d be going to Grenoble. (At this point, you may be wondering how it is that we decided to jump from the western, Spanish border of the country all the way over to the Alps – and, rest assured, there is more to the story: the beautiful Mediterranean coast. But more on that later.)

Leaving Bourg-d’Oisans, near Grenoble.

A quick TGV ride delivers a dramatic change of scenery into mountains of another name. Why Grenoble? Well, once again, we can thank RyanAir for its choice of airport, but also, I’m sure the proximity to one of the more famous Tour de France mountain stages played into this as well. (A quick footnote here: the Grenoble airport, although being situated in a relatively large university and ski-country city, only serves one destination in the summer. If you ask for the airport, or the bus to the airport, you’ll be sent to Lyon. We asked at 3 different offices to find the bus to the actual Grenoble airport. Why? It only runs twice a week – and only at one time: before the only scheduled flight.)

View from the Bastille, Grenoble.

The city is a seamless mix of old and new, urban and outdoors: cosmopolitan boulevards and an above-ground streetcar line boutique after boutique of high-end shopping; expansive cobblestone squares have outdoor tables set against a cathedral backdrop; the information office and (really well-staffed) national parks office handle tourists and returning university students in search of bus passes and hiking maps. Nestled in a valley, the city is completely bike-friendly-flat – surrounded by steep mountains on all sides. The student population is immediately evident – we encountered more joggers/runners and Indian restaurant options than anywhere else on the trip.

The teleferique, Grenoble.

A very manageable walking destination, the flowery city park leads directly onto the hiking path up to the main lookout point over the city: the Bastille, a fortress complex of 18th century fortifications and underground (or really, through mountain?) tunnels. Tourists in search of elegant dining with a view take the iconic, albeit Jetsons-like cable car over the river – and meet up with via ferrata cliff climbers at the top of the hill. The small, but superb (and free!) Museum of the Mountain Troops has multimedia displays explaining challenges of military maneuvers in difficult terrain, and the equally superb (and free!) Dauphinois Ethnography Museum shows models of mountain houses, lace making, cheese fabrication, and explains just how much bread the average Alpine family ate (um, impressive!).

Finally, a real bike. Bourg-d’Oisans.

For competitive cyclists, the town name Alpe d’Huez conjures images of raw manpower, of mind over matter, of polka-dotted jerseys, of world class athletes conquering a mountain by using sheer willpower. (Or so I can only imagine. Sorry folks, no first-hand experience of competitive cycling here for me.) However, once again, my travel companion has the good taste to appreciate such things, and this warranted a scenic bus ride out to the bottom of the hill: the Alpine ski village of Bourg-d’Oisans. If you’ve been following the blog entries, you’ll be happy to hear that SendMoneyPlease finally found a rental bike up to his racing bike standards, and a mountain course to challenge him. Me, I found free Internet access outdoors along a scenic canal and a SuperCasino grocery store for lunch in the most charming of Alpine villages.

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