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Indian Journey Part IX: Tempting Death July 3, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in India, Travel.
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I risked death several times during my stay in India.  And no, it’s not the spicy food.  It’s the crazy traffic that I mentioned in any earlier post.

Which auto rickshaw should I choose?

On our second day in Hyderabad, we decided to go grab a late night snack at the luxurious Marriott Hotel at around 10pm.  After finding out that a booked taxi would cost us 700 rupees to get there compared to a 50 rupee auto rickshaw ride, we opted for the latter in order to save a bit of cash.  After all, the Marriott was only 4km away.  How bad could it be?

Anyway, we got the hotel to arrange two autos for the four people (two in each) and they negotiated a 50 rupee fare for each one.  The ride there took about 15 minutes, but it was a heart-stopping ride as the auto zig-zagged through speeding traffic and we were jolted out of our seats every time the little three-wheeled vehicle hit a bump or pot hole (and there were plenty of them).  It was pretty scary, and we decided after arriving at the Marriott that 700 rupees on the way back would probably be worth it.

Riding inside an auto

However, when we were ready to leave, we asked the hotel reception, who said that it would cost us 1300 rupees to get a taxi back to the Taj Tristar (where we stayed).  1300 rupees!  We weighed that up against the cost of an auto ride and thought, what the heck, we’ll risk our lives again.

The hotel basically told us to go out of the gates and find our own autos, which we did, thinking that it wouldn’t be all that hard.  After all, my marrying mate had told us that the city of Hyderabad “comes alive” after 11pm each night.  I think he got “comes alive” and “drops dead” mixed up, because when we exited onto the street it was eerily quiet, not an auto to be seen anywhere.

We waited and walked around, and finally a lone auto headed our way.  Realising that this was our only chance to get back to the hotel, my colleague was happy to pay double (ie 100 rupees) for the ride.  The auto’s driver for some reason had a companion with him in the front seat, so the four of us all squeezed into the back seat.  We were basically sitting on each other’s laps.  I thought this was uncomfortable until I saw that it was nothing because locals often packed six or seven people into the same space!  Once we even saw 10 people on a single auto!

If we thought the ride to the Marriott was rough, the ride back was ten times worse.  For starters, the streets were almost completely empty, with only the occasional sedan driving in the opposite direction, usually coming right at us because this auto had no lights.  “Come alive” my arse.

The auto traversed various back alleys and rough roads, and we had absolutely no idea where it was going.  For all we knew they could have been driving us somewhere to rob us.  Did I mention that the driver didn’t exactly know where our hotel was?  We showed him the hotel’s business card, but he didn’t look confident at all (no head wobble).

At last we arrived at a giant intersection, and the driver turned around and asked, “Left or right?”  Taking a wild stab in the dark, we pointed left.  Fortunately, the 50% gamble paid off and it was the right direction.  Shortly after we could see the hotel.  Imagine if we got it wrong?!

Unbelievably, the day the wedding concluded, we went back to the Marriott for dinner.  I don’t know what went through our minds, but we ended up catching autos to and back, after vowing never to risk our lives in one of those things ever again!  I guess being cheapskates outweighed safety.

Let me go first

A Few Quick Thoughts on Italy and Vatican City March 24, 2009

Posted by pacejmiller in Food, Religion, Travel.
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Note: Travel Diary has been updated!  Pictures to be added

I’m having the time of my life on this awesome 3-week European journey, and I’ve tried to put in the effort to write as much as possible during this time, even if it’s just to keep the creative juices flowing and so I don’t ever forget this amazing adventure.

However, I’m falling a little behind with my Travel Diary entries.  I just completed my lengthy entry on Rome (still no pictures, unfortunately, but I’ll try and add some soon), though I have been in Switzerland the last couple of days and from tomorrow will be in Germany!  I’ve finished listening to Stephen King’s brilliant On Writing but I’m still yet to write a review (but more importantly,  jot down some helpful tips from King that I’ll want to employ in my own writing from this point forward).

In my last post I wrote about this wonderful little cake store near the Colosseum called Cristalli Di Zucchero.  Anyway, I thought I’d add a few more thoughts about Italy and Vatican City before I forget it all!

Must-see attractions

I visited 4 cities in Italy: Pisa, Florence, Venice and Rome.  I’d say Venice is the prettiest, with its beautiful turqoise canals, clean, narrow streets and lack of modern architecture.  Rome, of course, is a must visit because of its history, the abundance of attractions, and Vatican City.  Florence is very nice, kind of charming and relaxed in its own way, and Pisa is just good for the Leaning Tower.

Of all the places I visited in Italy, my top 5 attractions (in descending order) are:

5. San Marco (St Mark’s Square) – a massive square and a world heritage site in Venice and home to Basilica Di San Marco.  Moreover, the journey through the canals to get there may be as amazing as the place itself.

4. Galleria dell’Accademia – in Florence, home of Michelangelo’s David, a truly magnificent masterpiece.  See it if you plan on seeing just one sculpture.

3. National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II (or Altare della Patria  or Il Vittoriano for short) – in Rome, very close to the Coloseum.  Big, white and not ancient, but amazing to look at nonetheless.  Plus you can walk up all those stairs to the top where you can enjoy the best views of Rome!

2. Vatican City – corridor after corridor of art in the Vatican Museum (and the most famous ones in the Sistine Chapel) and St Peter’s Basilica are unforgettable regardless of your religion.  Just make sure you buy tickets in advance for the Museum if you want to avoid the long queues.

1. Palantine Hill – the archaeological site next to the Colosseum in Rome.  Head around the walls to the North-Western side and look down from above.

Pizza

Pizza is everywhere and we had it at least once a day (fat city).  It’s difficult to find BAD pizza in Italy, but some are clearly better than others.  Prices can also vary significantly, from a couple of Euros a slice in corner stores to twenty-plus in posh restaurants.  Chances are they won’t taste all that different.  The best ones we had were actually from the small shops where you buy a slice and eat it standing on the side.  The worst would be from chain store restaurants that look too neat and touristy.  However, the most amazing tasting ones we had were actually from a takeout joint called Spizzico, at Roma Termini station.

Most pizzas we came across were pretty authentic – meaning tomato base, cheese, and one or two simple toppings such as mushroom, prosciutto or sausage.  None of the crazy toppings you’d find at Pizza Hut or Dominos.  However, a common problem (for me at least) was that they were too salty, especially the tomato base.  It seems they are a bit inconsistent in this regard.  You can get two pizzas from the same place and one could be just right and the other too salty.

Gelato

We (well, my wife) are big gelato fans.  There are plenty in Italy, just about on every touristy street.  The majority taste pretty similar, to be honest, but prices vary.  €2 for a small cone would be a decent price, but some can charge as much as €3.50 for a single scoop.

The best and cheapest we had was at Old Bridge Gelato (address: Viale dei Bastioni di Michelangelo 5) just around the corner from the Vatican Museum.  The smallest cone is just €1.30 (and the next up is €1.50).  The gelato is top notch and you can get up to 3 flavours regardless of size of cone – plus you can get free cream on top!  Here is a review of the place.

The crepe place next door is very good too.

Coffee

I’m not the biggest coffee fan but my wife likes to look for good coffee places.  There are quite a few in Italy, but some can be quite expensive.  The best one we went to came highly recommended, and it’s very close to the Pantheon.  It’s called Caffé San’ Eustachio and it is quite small and seemingly always crowded.  You order at the counter then give your receipt to the coffee makers.  Most people stand and finish their cup, though a few take them to the limited seats outside.  I found this blog post about the place.

Safety

Before I came to Italy I was warned by family members that it was a dangerous place.  People get mugged all the time.  If you don’t keep an eye on your bags they could disappear any second.  Hoards of kids crowd you in and pick your pockets.  Stuff like that.

Fortunately, I experienced none of the above.  Not even close.  For the most part, I found Italy to be seemingly quite safe.  Of course, I took the necessary precautions, such as not going out too late, keeping my belongings zipped up when I go out, and keep to the main streets.  The street vendors were actually quite nice and polite, totally unlike the thugs we encountered in Paris that try to force you to buy their crap.

Vatican City

Visiting Vatican City was a dream come true.  I’m not a Catholic, but I had always been fascinated by its history, and more importantly, the amazing architecture and priceless art works.  In that regard, the visit was everything I had expected.

What I didn’t expect were the long lines (silly me) and the number of people who tried to push in and sneak to the front.  When everyone’s waiting patiently, seeing people who blatantly break the rules can be frustrating.  So be smart and purchase tickets in advance to avoid the hassle.

Another thing I found disappointing was the over-commercialization of the place.  Sure enough, the tickets were expensive, but I didn’t expect there to be so much merchandise everywhere I went!  And people (I assume mostly the religious ones) were lapping up the over-priced products like Pope pens and pendants like crazy!  Don’t they make enough money from the entry tickets already?  It almost felt like they were exploiting people’s faiths.

Most troubling were the school groups, where the guides would point to various paintings like The Last Judgment and try to scare kids into Catholicism by telling them they’ll go to hell if they don’t do this and that.  Surely there has to be a better way to teach religion to children?

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