Saturday, September 15, 2007

We're Ba-ack (Coming Soon To A City Near You)

We made our North American landfall on the eastern coast of New Jersey at a little past 2:30 in the afternoon on Thursday, the 13th of September. Our unforgettable around-the-world journey had comprised 221 days, 23 countries, and over 80 distinct cities and towns. Along the way, we had met up with over 40 friends and family members. Our cumulative air miles travelled were enough to circumnavigate the Earth's Equator three times. We had seen beauty, generosity, opulence, suffering, squallor and resilience. We were humbled, touched, enlightened and exhausted.

Given Kaberi's fondness for itemization and Vik's penchant for irreverence, we thought it only appropriate to conclude this blog with a list. We hope you enjoyed the ride in pictures and in words.

TOP FIVE BLOG POST TITLES REJECTED OUTRIGHT BY KABERI:

1. Mekong So Horny

2. Praguetololgy

3. Fjord and Loathing

4. Je Deteste Vraiment Les Francais

5. I Will Never Edit Another Blog Post Again!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

French Connection

Our around-the-world trip culminated in Paris. Even though it was hardly our first visit (Vik spent several months there as an expatriate many moons ago and Kaberi had made numerous trips to the City of Lights over the years), we still found a number of new experiences to share.

Having timed our stay to start on a Saturday morning in order to frequent the weekend markets, we started our day at the antique fair of St-Ouen in the northern outskirts of the city. We walked through the narrow alleyways crammed with bric-a-brac displays and past larger streetside buildings housing more upscale stalls. We soon found two shops specializing in antique prints where Kaberi picked out an unusual orchid print dating from the 1850s as well as a set of 1901 collectors’ cards depicting several cities we just happened to have visited in recent months. After first stopping off at the hotel to safely stow our new-found treasures, we then proceeded to continue into central Paris.

We next made our way to the 8th arrondisement to have lunch at Lauderee, a fancy tea shop specializing in French macaroons (which Kaberi would describe as light as air and nothing like the dense American version). Between us, we split a towering salmon club sandwich and an assortment of mini-macaroons while taking in the gilded molding and charmingly fussy décor. Invigorated with the sudden rush of sugar, we strolled through the Tuilleries to the L’Orangerie, an ethereal museum featuring eight wrap-around works from Monet’s Water Lillies collection. Unlike the smaller versions of the works we had seen elsewhere, these masterpieces were each easily thirty feet long. Displayed simply with one to a curved wall, each painting made us feel as if we were in the midst of a quiet pond in Giverny. The scale and subtle colors entranced us as we admired the magnitude of each creation. Seeing these paintings for the first time was easily the highlight of the day.

Exiting L’Orangerie, we soon found ourselves before the large ferris wheel on the eastern side of the Place de la Concorde. Overcome with the desire to do something completely silly, Kaberi cajoled Vik into taking a ride to the top to see Paris from the air. At the apex, we could see the glass pyramid and main courtyard of the Louvre to our east, Sacre Couer to our north, the Arc de Triomphe to our west and the majestic Eiffel Tower to our south. Our overpriced ride (roughly $28 for two for twenty minutes) took us on four revolutions with which to enjoy Paris with a beautiful blue sky backdrop.

Remaining in the first arrondisement, we revisited a restaurant that we had discovered on our last visit to Paris. We chose one of the ubiquitous corner cafes for a glass of wine and watched Parisians and fellow tourists wind their day to a close. Our dinner at Livingstone didn’t live up to our fond memories, but we still found it impossible to be disappointed with the day.

The next morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we relocated ourselves to a rental studio apartment in the 7th arrondisement located literally less than a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower. With a kitchen now at our disposal, we decided to explore the Sunday morning food markets, first walking to Rue Cler and then continuing on to the organic market at Sevres-Bablyon. Wandering the stalls of fresh produce, cheeses, breads and wines, we stopped to purchase figs, freshly-baked pain de mie and chevre cheese. Our subsequent excursion to the Les Puces des Vanves market proved much less fruitful than our experience from the day before. As we arrived, we found the vendors were packing away their wares and folding up their tables.

In the afternoon, Kaberi visited the gorgeous Museum d’Orsay (fashioned out of an old railway station) while Vik remained at the apartment to research health insurance options (proof that our journey was in its final stages). We met back at the apartment before heading out for a traditional and casual French dinner in the neighborhood. With most Parisian restaurants closed on Sundays, we settled on a tiny hole-in-the-wall eatery offering an authentic country meal prepared by a warm French grandmother. As we walked back, the Eiffel Tower, lit up the night sky and served as our beacon to home.

The next day, we headed to Saint Michel in the 6th arrondisement, Vik’s old haunt, and one of Kaberi’s favorite neighborhoods in the city. Here, Kaberi continued to indulge her new obsession with macaroons (which have summarily replaced cupcakes as Kaberi’s guilty sweet pleasure of choice), Vik patiently followed his wife from one establishment to another, including Gerard Mulot, Pierre Herme, Paul, and Cacao de Chocolat. We then ventured across the river to the 4th arrondisement to Place de Vosges, billed as the most romantic square in Paris. Happening upon an unoccupied park bench, we enjoyed a casual picnic of tuna baguettes and mini-macaroons.

Attempting to walk off some of the caloric damage, we focused our attention on searching for the hard-to-find Passages in the 2nd arrondisement. Triangulating the locations from our multiple tourist city maps, we soon found the discreet, unmarked entrances. Our efforts were rewarded with supreme examples of vintage Parisian architecture; recently renovations of the arcades celebrated the detailed enclaves of wrought iron, gleaming wood, intricate mosaics and old-fashioned lights. As Kaberi continued on to walk rue St-Honore, Vik begged off from yet another afternoon of girlfriend duty.

On our last day, we started off with fresh baked goods from be, Alain Ducasse’ boulangerie in the 17th arrondisement. Grabbing a pain au chocolate for breakfast and a baguette to go, we continued to the Rodin Museum located just east of the Invalides dome in the 7th arrondisement. Situated in a gorgeous garden, we admired exquisite statues of The Thinker and the Gates of Hell before venturing inside to see The Kiss. After Vik teased Kaberi about her obsessive picture taking (marked by endless snapping away from every possible angle), we finally moved on to enjoy a quick lunch nearby.

In the afternoon, after simply strolling the streets of the 6th and 7th arrondisements, we headed to Mariage Freres for tea. Entering into a corner store, we were greeted by floor to ceiling displays of tea tins from around the world. After sipping green and black varietals in the tea room, Kaberi agonized over which tea to purchase before the journey home. Kaberi justified her decision to buy tea in France at exorbitant prices (rather than at the source in the more affordable tea hubs of India and China) on the basis of the superior aesthetics of the French packaging.

With our last night, we ventured to the Eiffel Tower (where else?) where we closed our evening by laying out on the grass of the Champs de Mar to watch the nightly light show. Despite the overall exhaustion we had accumulated with eight months of travel under our belts, we had managed to realize an excellent conclusion to our trip. Even Vik, who wears his distaste of Parisians as a badge of honor, had to admit that he had thoroughly enjoyed himself.





Friday, September 7, 2007

Irish Eyes-A-Smiling

After a hellish two-hour RyanAir flight where several loud and ill-mannered European children seemed to be concentrated around us, we touched down in Dublin airport. Keeping with form, Dublin’s skies were gray and overcast. Our moods brightened immediately, however, when we were welcomed into the country by a smiling immigration officer with a charming brogue. Stepping outside, we were soon greeted not only by cool, brisk air – a welcome change of pace from recent sweltering days spent in both Dakar and Lisbon – but also by the celebrated Irish friendliness at every turn.

After boarding an airport express bus, we were delivered in the late afternoon to the suburb of Ballsbridge just southeast of Dublin’s city center. Unbeknownst to us when we booked it, our hotel, the Dylan, was a brick manor converted into a chic, vogue boutique hotel recently discovered by Hollywood. Its former guests included Keira Knightley and Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame. During our stay, the “stars” from the movie Superbad conducted press interviews in the Dylan’s restaurant. The next day, Kaberi saw our hotel’s outdoor bar in the background of publicity photos for the movie on People.com. Enjoying our brush with surreal hipsterdom, we settled into our top-floor suite with plentiful windows and mirrors, Frette sheets, wifi, plasma television, iPod speakers and heated bathroom floors.

After a rejuvenating shower, we again focused on satiating our hunger (with the day’s frenetic travel schedule, our day’s food rations had consisted of nothing more than stale airport muffins). Consulting the Dylan’s friendly concierge, Patrick, as to the best local venue for fish and chips, we were directed to The Cellar, an upscale stone bar in the basement of the Merrion hotel. Skeptical that we weren’t being given a recommendation for a local pub, we nevertheless were swayed by Patrick’s claim that The Cellar’s chef there had won European awards for his preparation of traditional fish and chips. Patrick’s faith was soon affirmed; our meal was absolute perfection, with light, perfectly-battered fish, crisply-fried chips and a tall glass of chilled cider. As we toasted our first night in Ireland, we had a good feeling about our next few days.

As Kaberi turned in for the night, Vik migrated to he lobby library for an 8:30 p.m. EST (1:30 a.m. local time) live fantasy football draft. Settled in the swankiest of surroundings with urban hipsters walking past, Vik matched wits with his Stanford buddies at the start of yet another football season.

Atypically-clear blue skies greeted us the next morning and Kaberi ushered a groggy Vik as quickly out the door as possible. We first walked across the street for a heart breakfast of French toast and scrambled eggs at The Espresso Bar. Fully fueled, we then made our way down Grafton Street to Trinity College to see the remarkable Book of Kells, the oldest surviving texts of the gospels estimated to be over 1,200 years old. In a small entry hall, a series of informative exhibits presented the painstaking techniques used to create the books in medieval times. Up a set of stairs, on the next level, we were able to marvel at the detail and texture of colorful pages of the actual books on display behind glass. Afterward, we walked to Trinity College’s aptly-named Long Room to take in the splendor of its arched wooden ceiling, perfectly spaced busts of historical figures and bookcases overflowing with antique books (Kaberi was quite crestfallen at not being able to take photos).

Reemerging to newly-overcast skies, we strolled down O’Connell St and noted the passing statues and monuments, including a grinning James Joyce, a jubilant Jim Larkins, the post office building that served as the headquarters of the Irish resistance and the tall steel Spire built to commemorate the Millenium. At lunchtime, we reached the Dublin Writer’s Museum where a self-guided audio tour introduced us to the vast and prolific literary tradition of Ireland comprising such authors as Joyce, Goldsmith, Shaw, Wilde, and Behan.

At this point, Vik’s late night caught up with him and he begged off for a nap. In the meantime, Kaberi retraced her steps down O’Connell Street to retake photos under the reappearing sun and see the Abbey Theatre, the site of several celebrated literary debuts. After a jaunt through the Temple Bar area and a quick pitstop at Queen of Tarts, she made her way to the Dublin Castle and City Hall. The eclectic building styles of the old British administrative buildings were certainly jarring, not the least of which was the disconcerting Statue of Justice who lacked blindfolds and uninterestedly held her back to the city of Dublin (a telling metaphor for life under British rule). As the afternoon passed, Kaberi concluded her exhaustive walking tour with a search for an imminently-wearable Irish sweater and a stoll through Merrion Square to see the charming door knockers of Ireland’s who’s who.

A few hours later, we arranged to have a much-anticipated dinner at The Tea Room, the trendy restaurant of the Clarence Hotel, which is co-owned by U2’s Bono and The Edge (their investment rescued the Clarence from certain destruction some years earlier). As lifelong U2 fans, we were keen to check out the establishment (whose exorbitant room rates precluded our staying there) and to scan for the influences of its owners. Upon arriving, we thought that we had stumbled upon the wrong place. Looking tired and dull, with monotonous wooden paneling everywhere and no trace of cool interior design, the Clarence was not at all what we expected. Thankful that we had stayed elsewhere, we quickly seated ourselves in the hotel restaurant (which looked to be fashioned out of an old church nave) for dinner. Kaberi enjoyed the sampling of chef’s specialties from the market menu while Vik’s bland pasta entrée proved unimpressive. Afterward, we injected some much-needed personality into our evening by finding a nearby bar for a pint of Guinness and traditional Irish music.

The following morning, we spent hours on-line struggling to secure accommodation in Paris the following night due to the concurrent opening game of the 2007 Rugby World Cup. With the memory of Durban fresh in our minds, we fretted about once again having to change our itinerary to work around a pre-existing event. Luckily, our eventual solution did not require changing our plane tickets; we instead fashioned a piecemeal itinerary that comprised stays in three different parts of town.

Setting our sights once again on Dublin sightseeing, we headed to Chester Beatty Library to see its impressive collection of ancient religious texts and artifacts from around the world. Impressed by the breadth and age of the private collection, we spent an hour perusing the exhibits. Shortly thereafter, we stopped for lunch a brief lunch at the Mermaid Café before hiking out to the Guinness Storehouse on the far west side of town. Our progress was interrupted by Kaberi’s frequent stops to admire the architecture of several churches along the way. Upon finally arriving, we had to laugh at the ludicrousness of shelling out 28 Euros (nearly $40) to take a Guinness promotional tour. Only the excellent views from the seventh floor Gravity Bar with a pint of Guinness in hand made the visit worthwhile. After a stop at the ground floor Guinness store where Vik indulged in an out-of-character rugby shirt purchase, we hopped on two different local buses to return to our hotel on the other side of town.

That evening, we attended Dublin’s Literary Pub Crawl, where the promise of beer and charming Irish storytelling trumped the need to rest our ailing soles. Led by two occasionally-schmaltzy actors, the tour brought us to a number of pubs frequented by famous Irish authors and featured reenacted excerpts from their famous works. Between the heavy brogue and the quickly-paced delivery (Ulysses in particular), we couldn’t always follow what was being said. Yet, the experience on the whole was a lively and pleasant diversion for the night.

On our last day in town, we used the precious remaining hours to locate a pub in the Temple Bar area for a final, traditional Irish meal. We then caught an airport express bus to make the surprisingly-slow return journey to the airport. While our time on the Emerald Isle was all too brief, we nevertheless found that we had accumulated a surprising volume of memories over the course of our three-day stay.