Saturday, May 30, 2009

Trebic, Chech Republic - Day 51: Lucia & Matt's wedding

It was pouring outside when Lucia and Matt exchanged rings. I know because I was standing outside to muffle my toddler's tantrum. The wedding was a warm and personal event and we had so much of fun hanging out with Lucia & Matt's family.

Lucia was our son's babysitter/nanny for 6 months and Isaac was so attached to her. In New York, he ran down the hall every morning to greet her. He was elated to see Lucia again after all these weeks. He has a problem with Matt - the other man in her life now, but they seem to be making progress.

I love this video of the reception - all the musicians in the band are Lucia's cousins. Isaac was a bit confounded at first, but rocked the dance floor later in the evening.

Pictures from the wedding on our FB album.

Trebic, Chech Republic - Day 50: The kindness of strangers

Last night, we arrived at Trebic, a small town in the south of the Chech Republic. We changed 4 trains to get from Budapest and by the time the 2 wagon suburban train pulled into town, it was 11pm and all of us were hungry, tired and in need of a shower.

We are in Trebic for Lucia's wedding - our babysitter and friend who we know from New York. Lucia had booked us a room at Pension Eliska - a family run guesthouse. At the deserted station (not counting the homeless person), we asked the station attendant for directions. Perhaps because she felt sorry for us (or our son), she proceeded to lock up the station and escorted us to the pension. On getting there, we found the main door locked and the lights turned off. I began to panic, considering the bleak prospect of finding alternative lodging at midnight.

The station attendant persisted with the door bell and used her cell phone to dial the number listed on the signage. And all this while it was cold, dark and drizzling!

10 minutes later, a tenant in the building peered out of a window. A conversation ensued between the station attendant and the man, and a few phone calls later we were let in by a receptionist who must have been knocking back a few beers at the local pub.

This morning, it all felt so surreal. T and I are amazed at the kindness of strangers. If it weren't for the station attendant and the man in the window, we would have had little choice but to sleep at the station last night.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Bratislava, Slovakia - Day 50 : Europe's youngest capital

Bratislava may be Europe's youngest capital but it has a long and myriad history, having served as the capital of the Habsburg Monarchy. The old town is packed with Baroque churches and medieval towers - but we didn't get to see it all because of the torrential downpour on the ONE day that we had in Bratislava!

When we walked through the old town, it was getting a major face-lift. All the buildings are being repainted in pastels (!) and there is a definite push to make the city more attractive to visitors (large and swanky tourist information centers). Perhaps Bratislava is trying to attract at least a sliver of the tourists that overrun Prague every day and rightfully so. It has an interesting mixture of Soviet architecture and 16th century buildings, and is just 60 kms from Vienna. If you are ever in the vicinity, it's definitely worth a visit.

We wanted to make it to the Novy Most - a futuristic UFO bridge over the Danube built by the Soviets but never did because of the weather. So we did what anyone does when it rains - found a warm place to sit down and dig into food. T got this delicious plate of 'Makovegulky' - warm gooey poppy seed dumplings.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Budapest, Hungary - Day 49 : Inviting Waters

The Buda castle, the Parliment building and the beautiful bridges over the Danube light up like a Christmas tree in the evenings, making it perhaps the most romantic city I have visited after Paris. Thus far (and I type this nearly 2 weeks after I have left Budapest) it is the one city I would love to live and work in some day.

And if the waters of the Danube aren't enough, Budapest's 100 thermal springs (more than any other world capital) are reason enough to bring me back. We spent an evening at the Gellert Spa - soaking in the healing thermal baths and cooling pools surrounded by a melange of mosaic tiles, Roman columns and domed glass roofs that streams light in like the fingers of God. And all of this for a mere 3100 Forint (15 $)!!

Pictures of beautiful Budapest (and Gellert Spa) on my FB album.

*Travel Tips for Parents*:

The Gellert Spa is perfect for a toddler. There are 3 children's pools but children are welcome in other pools as well. We took turns splashing with our son at an outdoor heated pool (one of the more lukewarm ones) while we explored the sex-segregated saunas, massages and baths. They also have a convenient family changing room that can be rented as part of the entrance fee.

We stayed at Town Hall Apartments - a very child friendly apartment rental company which provided a baby cot at no extra charge. There is a DM pharmacy (for diapers & wipes) and a large playground right outside the building.

Image Source:

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Budapest, Hungary - Day 47: Biking

The past 2 days we rented bikes and rode around Budapest, the perfect way to cover such a sprawling city and all the beautiful bridges over the Danube. Isaac loved the wind in his face, was in peels of laughter and kept saying, "More, More, More". Budapest is especially beautiful at dusk - when the rays of the setting sun lights up Pest.

Budapest has bike lanes, but when there isn't one, you are 'permitted' to ride on the sidewalks or on the road - both are precarious and unsafe. Still, Budapest is extremely bike friendly and cars always give bikers the right of way. It isn't Amsterdam or Paris, but it's getting there. After riding along the Danube on the Buda side, we rode to Margaret Island - a green oasis splat in the middle of the river. The idea of a pedestrain only recreational island is just so refreshing - If I lived here, I would jog on this island everyday.

The bike shop - Budapest Bike had this cute 'Critical Mass' poster. Critical Mass is a movement promoting cycling as a convenient and clean means of urban transportation. Apparently Budapest has one of the largest Critical Mass Bike rides in the world - last year's attracted nearly 80000 riders. In contrast, Critical Mass in NYC is fraught with controversy, with frequent confrontations between the NYPD and the riders.

A cool video on the last Critical Mass event in Budapest.

Bringázás a Föld Napján - Biking on Earth Day - from Tapsi Hapsi on Vimeo.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Budapest, Hungary - Day 46 : Apartments vs. Hotels

We are in Budapest for 5 days and we have checked into a fabulous 1 BR apartment in the heart of the city. I was feeling fatigued, so it was a perfect excuse to skip any sightseeing and just sit back with a cup of coffee and relax while Isaac ran around the apartment and T stepped out for some informational meetings.

Which brings me to the case for renting apartments when traveling. Before Issac, T and I always scoped out boutique bed'n'breakfasts which gave us the best flavor of the country that we were visiting. But when traveling with a toddler, laundry piles up fast and washing milk bottles in a bathroom sink gets tiring. Besides even $100/night hotel rooms are cramped and tight.

We first rented a apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine purely by chance because none of the other accommodations worked out. After that it has been'apartment fever' all the way. It has alleviated all my travel issues thus far - mainly washing clothes in a bathroom sink and constantly eating overpriced restaurant food.

I have stayed in 4 apartments thus far, and all of them came with well equipped kitchens and all (with the exception of 1) have had washing machines. And they are *SO* much more affordable than 2/3 star hotels, almost always less than $85-$90 a night. We have found apartments for just 1 or 2 nights, at short notice and there are tons of online reservation websites. The apartments are often located in the suburbs but for about $10 more, you could find one pretty close to the city center.

We have thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of buying local produce and wine, and cooking meals in the apartment. And the biggest advantage - it is almost always located in a historic district or building, making the travel experience so much more authentic than a cookie cutter hotel room. And yes, our toddler gets to run around and wear himself out.

I feel I have stumbled on a priceless piece of travel wisdom that I wish someone had pointed out to me earlier. While traveling with a toddler or even otherwise, renting an apartment is definitely far more value for money.

Friday, May 22, 2009

L'viv, Ukraine - Day 43 : Someone's happy!

This video was taken at the rental apartment in L'viv, Ukraine. Needless to say, Isaac has been a happy camper all through this trip and has been adjusting better than we imagined.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

L'viv, Ukraine - Day 42 : Toddler Menace

We are in the historic city of L'viv in Ukraine. The primary attraction is the old town dating to the 13th century - which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is Ukraine's bible belt, choc-full of churches and cathedrals. After the 5th church we stopped counting.

We spent the morning shopping at the local market for basic provisions - a fascinating old-world experience that reminded us of what grocery shopping was like before the emergence of supermarkets. I will be uploading pictures to our Ukraine FB album.

We checked into our rental apartment - a lovingly renovated unit in a historic building.

An hour after settling into the apartment, we found our toddler scribbling on the wall with a permanent marker....which led to a rather embarrassing call to the owner.

And this after having dealt with another situation yesterday. During checkout from our Kyiv apartment, we were told that we had run up a 88 Grivna bill ($11)for a call to Stockholm. We denied the charge but T suspects that our son may have something to do with it :)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Odessa to Kyiv, Ukraine - Day 38 : Ukrainian Trains

I am finding out that trains in Ukraine can be very 'third world'. The toilets are unsanitary and cramped, I could smell second hand smoke through the air vents and they didn't have a restaurant car or meal services on an overnight train. At least on an Indian train, you will never be wanting for food or water.

We paid for a private'luxe' coupe but all there was to show for it were plastic plants (lots of them), formica coupe walls and depressing seat fabric. All night the train kept halting abruptly and then jerking forward. The only saving grace - Ukrainian trains run on time.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Black Sea - Day 35-37 : UKR Ferry from Istanbul to Odesa

I was expecting the worst of the 36 hr ferry ride from Istanbul to Odessa. Pictures of the 4 berth cabin on the UKR Ferry website didn't look very promising. And, I wasn't too thrilled that it was priced like a Carnival cruise ship but looked more like a freighter.

Much to our surprise, we got the entire cabin to ourselves which made the trip so much more bearable.

The furniture isn't the only thing that has not had a makeover sine the 1970s - the wait staff still have their Soviet-era steeliness. One morning T got scolded for arriving late for breakfast!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Turkey - Day 27-34

Turkey is by far the most child friendly country I have visited. Strangers pile my toddler with far too much attention to the unfortunate point that he now squeals when he sees someone approaching him. On trains, he has been handed cookies and fruits . At restaurants, the waiters play with him, while T & I have our meals. And at a ferry office, they let us use their office to change his diaper. Everywhere we go, my son gets his cheeks pulled, pecked and outright kissed. We'd like to think that our son is cute, but I am convinced Turks love children as much as their kebabs.

Our pictures from Turkey posted on our Facebook page.

*Travel Tips for Parents*:

Since our toddler has limited patience when strapped in a plane seat and can't move around in a bus, we planned to visit only places that were accessible by trains. Seat 61 is a great source. We traveled from Istanbul to Izmir (with a ferry connection at Bandirma), took a day train from Izmir - Ephesus, an overnight sleeper train from Izmir-Ankara and the Super express train from Ankara-Istanbul. We would highly recommend the trains in Turkey - for both comfort as well as cleanliness. Infact, I would implore you to try them out; it's perhaps the best way to travel if you have young children.

Much to my son's delight, we found lots of children's parks in Istanbul - I particularly liked a small secluded park at Taksim Square tucked into the center of the busy intersection. Hotel Alaaddin that we stayed at provided a baby cot/crib. Only a few restaurants provide high-chairs but they make up for it by holding your baby! The ferry from Istanbul - Bandirma had a cozy childrens play area - pretty impressive for an 80 minute ferry ride. Supermarkets have a variety of fruit yogurts, cheerios, cheese snacks, and milk in tetra packs that don't require refrigeration. In Istanbul, we suggest heading to 'Dia Super market' in Karakoy ( it's the 4th stop on the tram line from Sultanahmet) because everything is overpriced in uber-touristy Istanbul.

What I do find surprisingly little of in Turkey are vegetables on the menu other than an occasional eggplant or a tomato and lettuce salad. In Izmir we came across Kumpir- a baked potato dish that you can ask for with vegetables, a perfect break to all the meat that we had to feed our toddler. Most public restrooms don't have changing tables, so we have perfected the 'standing' diaper change - which requires 2 pairs of hands - one to hold him straight while the other changes his diapers. Of course this is immodest, but necessity forces creativity.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Cataloging fear

With less that 12 hours to the trip, I am panic stricken about all that can happen to us, more so to my 18 month old son than T or myself.

As I was packing today and putting together our first aid kit, T's friend - Robert who is with us in Kerala right now and has traveled extensively around the world said, "A First aid kit is like an African talisman - you hope that by packing one, you ward away any potential hazard and never have to use it."

By cataloging my fears now, I hope to look back at the end of the trip and examine if my fears were baseless or within reason.

1. Either one of us will break a leg or arm
2. T or I being jailed or imprisoned without fault
3. Being unable to find lodging for a night in a strange city
4. My son getting lost or kidnapped
5. T or I being victims of a racist attack or being physically attacked or mugged
6. My son falling sick and requiring hospitalisation
7. Being cashless and being unable to access an ATM or use our credit cards
8. Physical and mental exhaustion from living out of a backpack for over 12 weeks ( somehow I guess 12 weeks will be a turning point for me - by then I will know if I will love this trip or hate it!)

Saturday, May 2, 2009

India - Lost and Found

We have been having a great time in India so far - decamping from all the physical stress and emotional upheaval of leaving NY. Since getting here, we have been getting our pending affairs in order - filing our U.S taxes, making sure our credit cards have the updated address, and researching budget friendly hotels in the various cities we will be traveling through.

I love coming back home, but every time I do, I find myself comparing India to every other place that I have ever lived or visited. I come away frustrated at how my time gets wasted and how inefficient the 'system' can be. That being said, I did also find some very heartening changes...

* We arrived in Cochin on May 13th with a 1 day layover in Chennai. Tariq spent an interesting day trying to buy a hard drive - an errand that took him most of the day and inspired this humorous post. If running an errand outside home takes so long, it's no surprise that we need all the domestic help we can get.

* The level of professionalism and enthusiasm across the service industry leaves much to be desired. I went to a local "highly recommended" salon to get my hair trimmed - a rather unpleasant experience which came close to sheep shearing. The person cutting my hair was uninterested and lacked any of the courtesies that I have come to expect of a hair stylist. Unlike the West, in India a large percentage of salon attendants come from a socio-economic background that leaves them with limited professional options - in stark contrast to the stylists I have met in NY who think of themselves as artists and love what they do. It doesn't help matters that waiters and hair stylists in India earn negligible tips - further exacerbating the quality of service being rendered.

* Civic sense seems just as bad if not worse. Now that there is more 'packaged goods', I find that streets (and even rural trails) are even more littered than 6 years ago. On a train ride from Mumbai to Pune, I sat across a man who threw 2 plastic bottles out of the window.

* Perhaps the most promising change I have seen during my visit is an almost feverish motivation among the urban youth to make a difference in the current elections. A friend pointed me to the 'Jaago Re' (loosely translated to 'Awaken' ) campaign started less than 2 years ago by a U.S returned couple who took it upon themselves to simplify the process of registering to vote.

* Delhi's Metro system is a shining example of how public transportation and infrastructure can transform a city for locals and tourists alike. We loved riding the train and for the first time I got a glimmer of what life in India ought to be - clean, efficient and modern.

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