Mishaps and Mayhem: Best and Worst of Wanderlust 99

We are all over the board on this one, but such a long journey has definitely a lot of highs and lows, so here's our picks:

Number of narrowly missed natural disasters:  Three                                     1. Earthquake in Northern Turkey, epicenter just south of Istanbul. We were in Istanbul about three weeks before the earthquake, our friend Attila was not so lucky. His carpet shop in central Istanbul, was destroyed not in the original quake but in a major aftershock a few days later. He is currently rebuilding.

2. Cyclone centered in eastern India, around Calcutta and the state of Orissa. We were originally scheduled to fly out of Calcutta on October 30 to Bangkok, but after having such a great time in Nepal, we had no desire to return to India and had our tickets changed to fly from Kathmandu. Unfortunately, the cyclone struck Calcutta on October 30 and left thousands dead in its wake.

3. Avalanches in the Himalayas, along all trekking trails. The cyclone in India changed the weather patterns dramatically for the entire region, and the Himalayas received an unusual snowfall for that time of year and caused a massive buildup of snow high in the mountains. A week after we finished our trek in the Annapurnas, the trails there were closed due to avalanches, but not before some trekkers were caught in avalanches and stranded along the trail.

and they finally caught up with us...

Number of times actually caught in a natural disaster: One                            In central Vietnam, the monsoon struck late and lashed the central highlands with torrents of rain. First, in early November, the imperial city of Hue was completely underwater and thousands died. When we arrived in Central Vietnam, it was the second coming, and we found ourselves being evacuated out of the tiny town of Hoi An which was under siege from the advancing waters. Storefronts along the river were underneath 14 feet of water, and we spent a good week wading through hip high water in our good old tevas.

speaking of weather...

Best Weather Forecast: Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic                   Each evening at 10:00, the much-anticipated weather forecast comes on. It begins with a completely naked man or women. From what we were told, it's usually a women but we were graced this evening with the full frontal nudity of a man. He first does a twirl to bear his behind, then reaches down to grab underwear. On it goes, then an undershirt, a pair of shorts, followed by a polo shirt. And lastly he pulls out a sweater, jauntily throws it over his shoulder and grabs an umbrella before exiting stage left. A striptease in reverse for the day's weather forecast!

Fastest time to rebuild a bridge that has washed out in front of us:            Hour and a half, Northern India, en route from Amritsar to Dharmsala. Plenty of earth-moving equipment. Runner Up: Three hours, DMZ, Vietnam

Number of times a bridge has washed out in front of us: Four

Scariest ride: From Dharmsala to Delhi, when even the Tibetan Monks aboard were chanting, their prayer wheels spinning frantically as we careened around the mountain passes.

Most uncomfortable ride: This is a tough category, as almost all our trips seemed to fit the bill, but the worst had to be the ride through Nepal to Pokhara, coming back from our rafting trip. Our seats were spring-loaded, the backs broken and laying in the lap of the person behind us, and our knees bunched up in our face from sitting over the tire wheel. That trip alone, we counted six times that our heads made contact with the roof. One particularly bad bump, we went up, but Doug's foot was caught under the seat in front, so that while his body went up with the momentum, his foot did not, leaving a pretty bloody mess.

Runner Up: The journey from Amman, Jordan to Petra, deep in the southern desert. We hired a taxi along with four other people, but as they were Jordanian, they grabbed the best seats in our vehicle, which was a converted station wagon, leaving Doug and I with the trunk, converted that is. Our seat was ten inches higher than normal, so we sat with our heads against the roof, for a five hour journey through 120 degree weather, with no air con, save for the open windows that felt like a gigantic hair dryer set to hotter than hell. It didn't help to have a spare engine right behind our heads. To give our necks a rest, we used the engine manifold as a pillow.

Number of times our vehicle met another object: Six                              Another car: Once, Istanbul, Turkey                                                                       A Motor Scooter: Once, Varanasi, India                                                                 A Crowd of people: Once, Cairo, Egypt                                                                  A Cow: Twice, Delhi & Varanasi, India                                                                     A Water buffalo: Once,  Udaipur, India

Number of narrow misses: Too many times to count

Number of flat tires on a single journey: Three on the trip from Varanasi, India to Pokhara, Nepal. Technically, a broken axle is not a flat tire, but it was definitely the last straw.

Various methods of transportation used around the world:                           Car, bus, train, minivan, jeep, 4x4, trunk of a station wagon, auto rickshaw, cycle rickshaw, cyclo, subway, cable-car, travelator, trolley, tram, motorcycle, motor scooter, airplane, ferry, Nile cruiser, felucca, paddleboat, tarred basket masquerading as a boat, camel, elephant, horse, water buffalo, own two feet and occasionally hands as well as feet.

Most unusual first world method of transportation: Travelator                  Hong Kong's latest transportation scheme, a bizarre futuristic chain of elevated escalators and moving walkways enclosed in translucent tubes snaking up the surrounding hills. More vertical than horizontal, it has helped to alleviate the horrendous traffic by getting people out and walking.

Most unusual third world method of transportation: Top of the bus, anywhere in India and Nepal.

Best metro: The St. Petersburg Metro, not only the grandest metro filled with 'socialist workers unite' art, but also the most efficient system, where trains come exactly three minutes apart.

Best bus travel: Turkey. Every bus is state of the art, equipped with deluxe seating, overhead luggage racks, fold-down tray tables and even your very own hostess, who serves tea, coffee & snacks, followed by a quick splash of light cologne for every passenger.

Most scenic train ride: From Salzburg to Venice through the Austrian Alps. Also winner of the most comfortable ride.

Worst Border Crossing: From Russia into Estonia. The border guards seem to derive great pleasure in taking their frustrations out on Americans. Think strip search...

Runner Up: Ferry from Aqaba, Jorden to Dahab, Egypt. We took a four hour ferry that was overcrowded and sweltering, but the worst was an older man with a horrible, phlegm-filled hacking cough that came up and sat right next to us. We had found a nice bench and was settled in nicely and then he came and squeezed in. The cough was so horrible it had to be masking some exotic disease like ebola that was no doubt, highly contagious. Within minutes, everyone in the near vicinity had packed up and moved out, leaving a wide ring around him, but he couldn't settle down in one place and kept getting up and moving around, whereas we had to keep moving as well to avoid him.

Best en-route entertainment: US Marshals dubbed into Russian by a single monotone male voice for the journey from Tallin, Estonia to Vilnius, Lithuania. The love scenes were a riot ... huh, huh, ooh, ooh!

Worst en-route entertainment: Ear-splittingly loud Hindi music on any bus ride in India. When we queried as to the possibility of turning it down, the other passengers glared at us, til we realized that the music was responsible for keeping our driver awake.

Runner-Up: First class on the Cairo to Luxor train, playing appallingly high-pitched Egyptian musical videos and even worse, a very annoying Arabic variety show.  

Best London Musical seen: Shock-headed Peter seen in Tel Aviv

Only London Musical seen: Shock-headed Peter

Most incredible economy in-flight service: Thai Airways, on a short hop from Bangkok, Thailand to Saigon, Vietnam, total air time of fifty minutes, the amazing flight attendants managed to serve a delicious meal of chicken curry with complimentary wine and beer. This was followed by hot towels and on our descent, ladies were presented with beautiful magenta orchids.

for meals not served on a plane ...

Best roadside snacks: Meat pies in St. Petersburg, perogies in Poland, namkeens and savory vegetable pakoras (fritters) in India, bhel puri in Bombay only, bologne balls in Thailand, dumplings of steamed meat & quail eggs in Vietnam, and gelatinous bean & rice curd patties in Hong Kong.

Best ice cream flavor: Rice Pudding, in Budapest, Hungary (Ann-Marie) Mauvic Magic in Kathmandu, Nepal (Doug) Runner Up: Cottage cheese, also Budapest, in fact they had the best ice cream of the entire trip!

Best beer: Budvar, the original Budweiser (no relation to the American swill) brewed in Cesky Budjovice, Czechland. Runner Up: Tiger Beer, brewed in Saigon, Vietnam

Worst beer: Baltica No.4, served warm, brewed in St. Petersburg, Russia

Best Wine: Hungary, their #6 is incredible!

Worst drink to be called wine: Raksi, local grain alcohol brewed in the foothills of Nepal. Highly flammable

Another horrible drink with a name similar to raksi: Raki, a licorice-flavored grain alcohol brewed in Turkey. It also brings up bad memories of drunken college kids screaming Raki in the middle of the night.

Number of times we ate mystery meat: More than we should have!

Worst meal that we had to choke down: Goat intestines, heart, brain, tongue, liver and other internals along with a side of blood soup, served to us, the guest of honor at a ritual slaughter during the Dasain festival in Nepal.

Most eclectic food cart: the insect lady in Bangkok. She pushed her cart along the streets peddling mealworms, fried grasshoppers, and a whole bevy of more-than-four-legged creatures.

Number of countries we visited that served the ubiquitous Banana pancake: 19 out of 19

Best Cuisine: Tie between Indian and Vietnamese

Best Country for Vegetarians: India

Best special of the day: Steamed Crap, Cat Bau Island, Vietnam. When we asked if it was crab or carp, the waitress replied that we could also have our crap boiled or fried. mmm mmm

Best free meal deal: The Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, dedicated to the ideal of offering hospitality to every pilgrim

Best drink in cold weather: Hot tea

Best drink in blazingly hot weather: Hot tea, at least that's what they say in the Middle East

Best tea variation: Chai, served throughout India and Nepal, is a lightly sweetened blend of black tea, cinnamon, clove, ginger, cardamon, and honey, brewed into milk

Best coffee variation: Vietnamese Iced Coffee, Ask for café sua da, and they bring you a glass of ice with sweetened condensed milk in the bottom and a mini French metal filter atop the rim, brewing fresh into your glass.

Food most likely to wreck havoc on your stool if taken in vast quantities: Hummos, Hummos, Hummos. Three times a day in the middle east and we were not solid for months!

Seemingly Worst Variety of Food: Nepal: dhal bhat tarkari ad infinitum

Number of times we broke down and had McDonalds: Four, all in the Egypt, at the end of a long run of hummos, hummos, hummos.

Worst Digestive Woes: Israel

this is probably a good segue ...

Most unusual bathroom experience: Nepal, somewhere in the Annapurnas range in the Himalayas. We were tired, and rested at one of the many homes along the way. I asked the homeowner if I could kindly use her restroom. She pointed back down the trail and motioned into the trees where there was a break. I went down, found the gap in the trees and went in hoping to find at least a hole in the ground, some semblance of a toilet. What I got was far better, well at least far more unusual. In front of me was a woven bamboo screen. I went around it and was shocked to find myself on the edge of a cliff. Next to me was a metal bar lashed to two trees. Judging by the residuals along the cliff face, I was to hold on to the metal bar, hang my exposed tushie over the cliff face and let her rip. I have never been so frightened by a bathroom, but when you gotta go, go as the locals go.

Runner Up: A wood modesty shack built around the gutter by the side of the road in Udaipur, India.

home is where the heat is ...

Most uncomfortable accommodations: The ATM booth in Siauliai, Lithuania. We had arrived in the middle of the night, trying to get to the Hill of Crosses, basically the middle of nowhere. Everything in town was pitch black and it was FREEZING outside. With the bus depot locked, and too cold to sit outside, we looked around frantically for a shelter and spied an glass enclosed fluorescent lit ATM island. We curled up inside and hunkered down for the night, feeling like fish in a bowl on display.

Runner Up: Campground cabins in Oludeniz, Turkey where we were the feast du jour for the swarms of mozzies. We even left blood splats on the walls as testament to our misery.

Best Lodge Owner: Our Nepali big sister "didi" who owns the first lodge at Machapuchre base Camp (altitude 13,850 ft) A lovely, ample women who spends all her days in a down parka is one of the few female lodge owners in Nepal. She runs a fabu place: the beds are comfy, the bucket of water for showers is really hot, she makes a mean dhal bat, greets everyone with a huge hug, cracks bad jokes and celebrates her guest's birthday with a candle in a snickers bar. LUV her!

Most unusual location for a cyber café: Up in a tree house in the treehouse town of Olympus in southern Turkey on the Mediterranean. Basically in the middle of nowhere, two hours from the nearest semblance to civilization, we found a computer terminal high up in the treetops.

Runner Up: In Vilnius in someone's private office! We had a listing for a cyber café and went in search. Found a small office building, went in and starting 'internet?' Finally someone said that there was internet at this one place and we went in, and the woman was so nice, she moved her stuff from the desk and sat us down at her terminal and let us email. When we finished, she wouldn't take any money. Duh, this was no cyber cafe...

after surfing the net, we went in search of ...

Most unusual service performed by the side of the road: Dentistry, performed by a large heavy-set man squatting next to a blanket spread out upon which is laid an assortment of tools and dentures and fake teeth. Found throughout northern India.

Scariest tool in his assortment: Rusty pliers

Runner-Up: Barbers, armed with a folding chair, a mirror to be hung from a tree, and scissors.

Best Laundry: Anywhere in India, even your undies come back with creases in them.

Best Shave: In Aurangabad, India

Worst Shave: Hanoi, Vietnam. As Asians have very little body hair, they seem to be unused to Western faces. Doug stopped by an outdoor barber, and while he did a wonderful job on his hair, the face did not fare so well. Completely done-in by the copious amounts of facial hair, the guy sliced and diced his way through a shave, until Doug could not take the pain any more and took his butchered face back to the hotel to clean and bandage.

Worst place to take an after-shave dip: the Dead Sea

Quickest haircut: Bangkok, Thailand (Ann-Marie) The women combed my hair out dry, took one swipe across with the scissors and pronounced me done. It took all of thirty seconds.

logistics aside ...

Best site that was  better than the hype: The Taj Mahal. Absolutely breathtaking!

Best site that was actually worse than the hype: The Pyramids. Over-blown, completely over-rated pile of rocks!

Best crumbly: Karnak Temple in Luxor, Egypt Runner Up: The Library at Ephesus Turkey

Worst crumbly: Temple of Artemis outside Ephesus, Turkey. One of the original seven wonders of the world, now reduced to a sad lone pillar in a muddy bog off the road.

Skyline that opens a can of whoop-ass on Chicago: Hong Kong              Denser than dense, the futuristic skyline in Bladerunner was modelled after the view from Victoria Peak, but the future has arrived and Hong Kong has elevated the Chicago projects to new heights. Look for the incredible building-taking-flight swoops of the new convention center designed by Sir Norman Foster as well as the Bank of China by I.M.Pei, and other masterpieces.

Eeriest Experience: Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, Lithuania. Arriving at the crack of dawn, the place was deserted and quiet, save for the wind blowing through the myriad of rosaries strung around the crosses, tinkling, tinkling ...

Most inspirational mosque: The Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Most inspirational church: Kosciol Mariacki (St. Mary's Church) on the Rynek Glowny in Krakow, Poland & The Cathedral in Salzburg, Austria

Most inspirational Buddhist stupa: Boudanath, in Kathmandu

Most inspirational Jewish temple: The ruins of the bombed temple in Jerusalem. All that remains are four short walls and a single arch, but we came upon an orthodox wedding one night. Celebrating the joyful union with singing, dancing and merriment proved that it's the people that stand testament to the endurance of religion not the buildings that house them.

Most inspirational Hindu Temple: Don't know, not allowed in.

Hardest building to get into besides a Hindu temple: The Hungarian Parliament - Strange hours, grumpy guards, sold-out tickets, and a state visit by the President of Latvia all conspired to keep us out.

party like it was 1999 ...

Festivals we managed to hit en route:                                                                       Festival of the Trinity - Krakow, Poland                                                                    Five Petal Rose Festival - Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic                                   Dasain - throughout Nepal                                                                                          Loi Krathong - Ayuttaya, Thailand

Strangest moment of spontaneous bursting into song:  our guide to the Perfume Pagoda belting out 'Let it be'

Most surreal moment: Discussing the British judicial system with an ex-barrister turned Bangkok-sex profiteer under the unfocused, glazed eyes of Thai go-go dancers.

Runner Up: Being told how long you are going to live during a Tibetan astrological reading. Thanks Nyima ...

Town most likely to hang out with cast members of the New Adventures of Robin Hood: Vilnius, Lithuania

Best Cheap Date: a night at the Krakow Symphony set us back $1.50

Best place to get lessons in backgammon from a champion: Galeria Anatolia our friend Attila Kosker is the Cappadocia Backgammon champion

Best place to buy a carpet: Galeria Anatolia,  Attila's shop, Buy a carpet and he may throw in a free lesson.

Worst Place to buy a carpet: Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, unless you enjoy getting fleeced.

by the way, beware ...

Biggest Lie told around the world: No Problem

ladies and gentlemen, on your right is a tower of Babel ...

Worst communications conundrum: On a trip through the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan, we hired a driver and hooked up with two Israelis for the day. Our driver, Ibrihim spoke Arabic only. Mustafa, an Israeli Arab spoke Arabic and Hebrew. Benny, an Israeli Jew, spoke Hebrew and English and we spoke only English.

Best countries for English only speakers: India, Israel and Hungary (their language is so bizarre that they must learn English to talk to anybody else)

Worst country for English only speakers: Russia

Number of languages we learned to say "hello"and "thank you" in: 19

Most unusual way to keep in touch with the in-laws: Using a megaphone at the so-called 'shouting fence' Purple Line, DMZ Syrian / Israeli border

Types of nationalities Ann-Marie was mistaken for: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Tibetan, & Nepali (specifically the Thakali ethic caste)

Types of nationalities Doug was mistaken for: none

money, money, money ...

Silliest currency name: the Vietnamese Dong

Most ridiculous rate of exchange: the Turkish Lira which currently stands at 1,400,000 lira to the dollar. Indicative of the weakness of the currency, it was 415,000 when we were there. We were Turkish billionaires!

Times robbed: twice

Best-looking currency: The Netherlands guilder (Dutch design)

Most unusual currency: The Hong Kong Dollar because the government doesn't issue the currency, but instead allows the three largest banks to issue their own. So each denomination has three different designs. This initially caused a lot of problems when we thought we were being passed fake money.

Runner Up: the Australian dollar. Even though we didn't travel to Australia, Emma showed us the strange plastic coated bills. We spent an inordinate amount of time trying to tear it up.

Most expensive country to travel in: Austria (thankfully the parents were with us; it might have been a very short stay at those prices)

Cheapest country to travel in: Vietnam (I think that we could live here forever on our current savings)

on the other hand, the barter system is alive and well ...

Number of times Doug was offered camels for Ann: 9

Highest bid: 500 million camels

Number of times Doug was asked how many wives he had: 14

danger, danger, will robinson ...

Place most likely to get run over crossing the street: Cairo, where crossing the street is a real-life game of frogger, ala fast, fast, fast Ms PacMan

Runner Up: Vietnam, death by pink & grey Honda Dream moped

Location most likely to be in the line of fire: Metulla, Israel, on the Israel / Lebanon border. From there, scuds kinda look like fireworks. Also one of the best places to meet cute Israeli soldiers. Today, while Metulla is quiet, sadly the rest of Israel seems to be in the line of fire.

Most paranoid people: Israelis, for very good reason

Longest Security Check: Getting into Israel, visiting the Wailing Wall, visiting the Dome of the Rock.

Fiercest fashion accessory: M-16 slung around your back... But mom, all the other girls have one!

Moment most likely to spiral out of control: When our driver pulled a foot long dagger another driver after a minor fender bender in Istanbul, Turkey.

Number of times offered drugs: 134

what goes up, must come down ...

Saddest moment of the trip: Birkenau Concentration camp outside Krakow, Poland. Fully realizing the enormity of the evil while standing out looking over barracks as far as the eye can see.

Runner Up: Agra, India at the Cantonment Railway Station. We were sitting waiting for a train when a young child beggar came up and tugged on my sleeve. Every traveler to India has to develop a method for coping with the non-stop in-your-face begging just to stay sane. We decided to ignore anyone that seemed capable of working and young children, as that only encourages begging and not education. I didn't look his way. He kept standing there, barely tugging. Finally I noticed out of the corner of my eye, his right leg. It was horribly disfigured by elephantitus. The limb was ballooned to four times it's size, and his foot looked like a rubber glove blown up to bursting, each toe the size of a tennis ball. I gave what I had, and spent the entire train journey back to Delhi crying, thinking of this young homeless child and his future. India had finally gotten to me.

the friends we made ...

Bes t travelling buddy: Emma Saggers of Wagga Wagga, Australia

Best travel buddy moment: Lying naked (just Ann and Emma) on a marble slab being simultaneously massaged and shooting the breeze.

Best travel buddy to talk about the meaning of life with: T. Pringle of Chicago, USA - At least we'll always have that Dharamsala 'Art is Crap' discussion.

Best host and hostess: Balazs and Zsuzsanna of Budapest, Hungary. Her homecooked meals, mmm ... when can we come again? 

Best guide and porter combo: Devi & Euro. Devi taught us Nepali, explained flora and fauna of Nepal, carried my backpack when I got tired, ran ahead to secure lodging, celebrated Dasain with us, and Nepal became a more beautiful place for it. And well, Euro, he is the Human Metronome.

Other cool people we met along the way: Michael of Belgium, Thupten, Yeshi & Sangye of Tibet, Huong, Minh & Thi Vu of Vietnam, Mustafa, Mohammed & Murat of Turkey, Rajesh & Mazidkhan of India ...

and last but not least, truly our highs and lows ...

Highest altitude reached: 4595m (15,071 feet) Annapurna Sanctuary in the Himalayas, Nepal

Lowest altitude reached: - 408m (1338 feet below sea level) Dead Sea, Israel

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