Tag Archives: facts

Impressions of Greece

We drove south from Bulgaria into Greece on our own personal bailout mission for the Greek economy.  Exiting the lush mountains of Bulgaria, we immediately noticed a difference.  Although greener than we had expected (at least in the North), Greece had smaller mountains, larger valleys, and less vegetation.  Here are some things I find interesting about Greece:

  • The Greek alphabet, like the Cyrillic alphabet of Bulgaria, is difficult to read.  My background in mathematics allows me to identify most of the letter names, from which I can often guess their sounds, but it’s a challenge.  Thankfully the names of most towns on signs also have the Latin character equivalents (a requirement of European Union membership), which makes it possible to match them to our map and GPS.
  • Other than Athens, most Greek towns seem very quiet.  There are not a lot of shops open nor activity on the street, other than men drinking and talking at the local coffee shop.  At first we thought it might be a holiday, but it appears that most days are that quiet.
  • Many places in Greece have ridiculously low speed limits and a proliferation of stop signs.  However, after Romania and Bulgaria where roadside police were a common occurrence, we haven’t seen a single police officer on the side of a road in Greece.  The only place we’ve seen them is hanging out in town, sitting on their motorcycles in groups and talking.
  • Perhaps because of the previous point, Greek drivers ignore the rules of the road and the speed limits (e.g. not stopping at stop signs, passing on the right, lane splitting on scooters or with cars, double or triple parking).  In Athens, like in Italy, scooters and small motorcycles swarm about the vehicle while driving (their high pitched engines even sound like bees), and wriggle their way to the front of the line at traffic lights.
  • We were shocked by the first campsite we visited in Greece.  Although it was one that is inspected annually by ACSI (a camping club that we belong to), the place was a mess.  Many people leave their trailers there and awnings up permanently, but many had collapsed.  We decided to move on, but I asked the manager why the mess, and he said that they had half a meter of snow this winter, something they never get.
  • Greece has a growing problem with illegal immigration from Turkey and the Arab Spring countries.  As it is the closest EU country to the Middle East, the short, porous border between Greece and Turkey has become a gateway, an issue for Greece and now for the other members of the EU (another reason to them to complain about Greece!)
  • We visited Syntagma (Constitution) Square in Athens, the site of most of the protests about cutbacks imposed as a result of the Greek debt crisis, the ones we’ve seen on the news.  There were no protests to be seen, nor have there been any anywhere in Greece recently.  Localized protests that make the news leave the impression of something much larger.  The negative press has had a big impact on tourism though.  It is down considerably, reducing Greece’s primary source of foreign income, and therefore its ability to pay back the debt.
View from the top of steps overlooking square filled with normal people going about their business

All quiet on Syntagma Square

  • There are over 2500 archeological sites in Greece.  It is expensive to excavate them, but much more expensive to preserve and maintain them.  Without a direct source of income, like visitor admission fees, many are unsustainable.  As a result, some sites have not been excavated or have even been recovered with dirt to protect them.  It’s ironic that the countries with the legacy of the world’s great archaeological sites are ones less equipped to afford them (e.g. Greece, Turkey, Egypt).
  • Almost 35% of Greece’s population lives in Athens.  For a variety of reasons, Athens grew in an uncontrolled fashion, and in 1990 was one of the least desirable capital cities in Europe.  It was very polluted, noisy, and crowded with cars.  This improved when it underwent a major re-vamp in preparation for the Summer Olympics in 2004.  Major improvements like new Olympic facilities, a new subway, and some pedestrianized streets, along with a lot of general cleanup, have greatly improved Athens.  But it still isn’t a particularly great capital city nor particularly clean.  Most people just spend 2 or 3 days visiting the monuments and museums and then head for a Greek island.
  • There are a surprising number of people begging in Greece, more than we’ve recently experiences in Central/Eastern Europe where living conditions are generally lower.  Like most places in Europe there are Roma (gypsy) people begging here, but others as well. • Like in many places in Europe, graffiti is a problem in Greece.  It’s a bit weird to see it written in Greek letters.  Thankfully most of the ancient monuments have been spared, but not the traffic signs.  Spray paint and stickers placed all over traffic signs often make them illegible, which is not only annoying but dangerous.  In Canada, although we have graffiti, it almost never blocks traffic signs.
Round red traffic sign covered in worn white stickers making it illegible

Can you read this important traffic sign?

  • Greek food is terrific.  In addition to all the foods familiar from our Greek restaurants back home, there is a proliferation of seafood, usually grilled.  The calamari is bigger, the hummus is runnier, and the tzatsiki thicker (due to the Greek yoghurt).  We’ve noticed an alarming trend away from traditional roasted potatoes and towards serving meals with french fries.  Although I enjoy good french fries as much as the next guy, they most definitely do not belong between spanakopita and a Greek salad.
  • Free-camping outside of a campsite is officially prohibited but widely tolerated in Greece.  You can’t beat this free campsite.  Yes, that’s the Mediterranean in the background!
Our white motor home parked on the beach facing toward the camera with blue water and sky in the background

Surf’s Up!

Impressions of Bulgaria

Bulgaria is the last of the formerly communist countries that we plan to visit this trip.  We continue to head south to warmer and hopefully drier weather.  We enjoyed our relatively short visit to Bulgaria.  Here are some things about Bulgaria that I think are interesting:

  • Bulgaria is a former communist country in Central/Eastern Europe.  Since the fall of communism in 1989, it has successfully transitioned to capitalism and it joined the European Union in 2007.
Ruined castle on hilltop surrounded by green trees.  Single flagpole with raised Bulgarian flag.

Bulgarian Flag atop Tsarevets Castle in Veliko Turnovo

  • Bulgaria doesn’t use the Euro yet.  Its currency is the Leva (worth about 66 cents Canadian), each of which is broken down into 100 stotinky (sometimes called ‘stinkies’ by travellers).
  • Bulgaria is very green at this time of year.  May is its rainiest month and the countryside is beautiful.
Diane beside a walking path with lush green grass and trees and a cliff in the distance

Diane walking in the Bulgarian countryside near Ivanovo

  • Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet.  It was developed in the 9th Century in the land that later became Bulgaria.  The Cyrillic alphabet makes reading menus and most signs here almost impossible.  It has extra letters (30 in total) and several false friends (letters that look the same as our Latin letters, but are pronounced differently) (e.g. ‘p’ is pronounced as ‘r’ in restaurant).
Two black and white signs pointing to Bulgaria's capital city Sohpia, the top one in Cryrillic and the bottom one in Latin charactes

Both signs point the way to Bulgaria’s capital city Sophia. Both are pronouced the same way, but the top one uses the Cyrillic alphabaet.

  • Thankfully, almost all young people in Bulgaria speak some English.  If we need assistance, we ask a teenager.
  • Hoping to annex Macedonia, Bulgaria sided with Germany in World War II, but refused to turn over its Jews to the Nazis, saving at least 50,000 people from the genocide
  • Bulgaria adopted communism more wholeheartedly than other Warsaw Pact countries after World War II.  They were very subservient to ‘Mother Russia’ and in 1973 even proposed that they join the Soviet Union.
  • Under communism, Bulgaria was well known for its wrestlers and weight lifters who were national sports heroes.  Afterwards they often became bodyguards for the countries leaders.
  • With the fall of communism, many of the communist leaders and their bodyguards successfully transitioned to capitalism, and now lead many of the major companies here.  This was almost certainly done with some mafia-style strong arming.  Bulgarians say, “The music changes, but the musicians stay the same”.
  • The vast majority of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christian (almost 90%), a quick turnaround from Communist days when religion was not allowed.
  • Corruption is more widespread in Bulgaria than elsewhere in Europe.  Although Bulgaria is a member of the European Union, it is monitored and often rebuked by the EU for problems with fraud.
  • Because it is cheaper than most other European countries, Bulgaria is becoming popular as a tourist destination for Europeans but it is rarely visited by North Americans.  Most of the Europeans who come here come for cheap skiing or for beach destinations on the Black Sea coast.
  • There are a growing number of British ex-pats here who can buy homes and live less expensively and with better weather than in the UK.
  • Traditional Bulgarian food is grilled meat and vegetables, stews, roasted peppers, feta cheese, and yoghurt.
  • Bulgaria is the cheapest of the European countries we’ve traveled to.  Last night we had a huge meal, 2 appetizers, 2 large and fancy meat entrees, and 4 beers for about $21.
Hot circular metal pan covered with grilled pork, onions, tomatoes, and yellow peppers.

Grilled meat with onions, tomatoes, and peppers

Impressions of Romania

• Romania appears less developed than the other countries we’ve been to in the European Union, including other former Communist countries Poland and Slovakia.

• It is common to see people driving horse drawn wagons in the countryside and smaller towns.  For many, this appears to be their primary form of transport.

• The roads in Romania are generally poor.  A lot of rural roads aren’t paved.  Even those that are can be bone jarring, resulting in average speeds of 40-60 km/hr.  Despite careful driving (don’t worry Sue and Martin), we had unwrapped eggs break while bouncing in the camper refrigerator door.

• Romania is the home of Transylvania and ‘Count Dracula’.  This should not be confused with Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia, and home of the Tasmanian Devil.

• Transylvania was settled by Saxons from Germany in the 12th Century, who accepted the invitation of King Geysa II of Hungary to come to Transylvania.  They established many of the major towns in the region.  There were over 700,000 Germans in Romania in 1930, but today there are less than 45,000 native German speakers.

• Romania tried to remain neutral in both of the world wars, but was coerced to side with the Allies in World War I and with the Axis (Germany, Italy, and Japan) in World War II.

• Nadia Comăneci was born in Romania, and won 3 Olympic gold medals in the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.  She was the first female gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect score of 10 in an Olympic gymnastics event.

• Nicolai Ceauşescu was the leader of Romania from 1965 to 1989 when he was overthrown during the collapse of Communism.   He was tried in 2 hours and executed along with his wife on Christmas Day 1989.

• Praising the crimes of totalitarian regimes or denigrating their victims is forbidden by law in Romania.  This includes the Ceauşescu regime.

• Romanian houses are often painted in pastel colours of cream, yellow, peach, green, or blue.

Looking down a street with green, blue, and peach pastel houses.

Romanian houses painted in pastel colours

• Hitchhiking seems to be common here.  People on the roadside wave a straight arm up and down a couple of times then bend it to the thumb up position that we typically associate with hitching.  At first I thought they were indicating that we should slow down, but we don’t drive that fast.

• It is illegal to drive a dirty car in Romania.  This is hard to avoid when many roads aren’t paved.

• It is a legal requirement to wear a reflective safety vest when walking beside the road at night or in poor visibility.  This is not just for people whose cars have broken down (which is common elsewhere in Europe), but for everyone.

• There are a lot of stray or feral dogs in Romania, mostly street-smart mongrels about 8-14 inches (0.3 meters) high at the shoulder.  They are large enough to deliver a bite, but not big enough to really intimidate.

Sad mutt with grey and brown tones walking down the sidewalk

Feral Dog

• Romania has the largest wolf and bear population in Europe, but we didn’t see any.

• There seem to be a lot of short women here.  Many of the young woman are petite, but the older women dressed in traditional clothing look squat.

• The Romanian language is a romance language that is related to Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.  As a result, it is easier for me to recognize some of the words than in Poland or Slovakia.

• It is common to see people selling things beside the road.  Cheap plastic children’s toys seem to be popular, as are craft and food items like leatherwork, preserves, and honey.  We saw several people selling stills by the road, large copper kettles with corkscrew condensing tubes attached.  Yes, the kind used to make hooch.

Impressions of Hungary

  • The Hungarian language is very different from those of its neighbouring countries which speak Slavic languages.  Hungarian is more closely related to Estonian and Finnish which share a common history from when the Huns invaded the region in around 500 CE.
  • The Kingdom of Hungary existed for 950 years before being absorbed into the Habsburg empire which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
  • World War I was triggered when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie were shot in Sarajevo by a Bosnian Serb assassin.
  • Hungary was on the losing side with Germany in both World Wars.  After World War I it lost two-thirds of its territory, including its only sea port and most of its population, to other countries.
  • After World War II the Soviet Union controlled Hungary, but not as strictly as in other Warsaw Pact countries.  Hungary’s soft ‘goulash-communism’ lasted until the fall of communism in 1989.
White building with many spires and a large dome beside the Danube River

Hungarian Parliament Building beside the Danube River

  • Hungary is better known for its wine than its beer.  The wine is of higher quality and is more popular.  When in Rome…
  • Hungary has some of the best food in Central/Eastern Europe.  It is famous for paprika (which is also the Hungarian word for pepper, pronounced here as ‘paw-prick-kaw) which infuses most of their food.  It is often classified as édes (sweet) or csípős (hot), but there are actually 8 different grades.  Hungarian specialties include stews, braised dishes, and soups including the famous gulyás (goulash).
  • Hungary is very good at water polo, winning gold in the last 3 Olympic games, and also in swimming (they are 4th in the all-time Olympic medal count).
  • Hungary has hundreds of small lakes and hot springs.  There are hot springs all over the capital of Budapest (pronounced ‘Boo-dah-pesht’).
  • Budapest is a beautiful conglomerate of 2 cities on opposite sides of the Danube river – Buda and Pest.  Buda is the hilly and more historic part, and Pest is flat and more modern.
Hill covered in many old buildings with church spire on top

Castle Hill in Buda

Impressions of Slovakia

We passed though Slovakia for our 2nd time. We were here last October briefly, visiting Bratislava for 1 day only.  Thankfully we had more time and better weather this visit. Here are some of the things I found interesting…

  • Slovakia is a narrow, landlocked country in Central Europe. It is surrounded by the Czech Republic, Austria, Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary.
  • For almost 1000 years, the region that became Slovakia was part of Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian empire. Slovakia then became part of Czechoslovakia, a union which took place after the World War I.
  • During World War II Slovakia separated again and was a fascist puppet state led by Jozef Tiso and controlled by the Nazis. The pre–World War II population of the country included an estimated 90,000 Jews. After the genocide only about 2,300 Jews remained. Tiso was the only European leader to pay the Nazi authorities to deport his country’s Jews.
  • After World War II, Czechoslovakia was reconstituted and was under the control of the Soviets. Jozef Tiso was hanged in 1947 for collaboration with the Nazis. As part of the many population transfers agreed to by the Allies, more than 80,000 Hungarians and 32,000 Germans were forced to leave Slovakia.
  • In 1989 the Velvet Revolution brought about the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia. Slovak nationalism was rekindled leading to the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993 (known as the Velvet Divorce).
  • Slovakia has a varied geography with a lot of mountains. 20% of the land is protected in parks. The beautiful High Tatras, in the North of the country near Poland, are the smallest of the high mountain ranges in Europe.
Snow covered mountains reflected in lake with treed green shoreline
The High Tatras
  • We visited the capital city Bratislava last October. It was cold and drizzly and a Sunday, so everything was closed. The castle above the town was a recent reconstruction. I didn’t enjoy it much. It gets praise from many others though, so I’d like to give it another try some day.
Manhole cover with picture of castle and "Bratislava" surrounded by brown tile

Bratislava Manhole Cover

  • Bratislava is only 60 kilometers from Vienna, the capital of Austria.
  • Like its former partner the Czech Republic, Slovakia plays pretty good ice hockey at the international level. Slovakians are fanatical about it, which sounds like some other people I know…

Impressions of Poland

After crossing Germany, we spent time in the south of Poland, visiting a variety of places and driving almost the full width of the country.  Here are some of the things about Poland that I think are interesting:

  • The Republic of Poland is the largest of the previously communist countries in the European Union.  At 38 million it has about 5 million more people than Canada, but has much smaller area.
  • Due to the Nazi genocide and the forced relocations that took place after World War II, Poland is very uniform ethnically.  98% of the people are ethnic Poles.
  • We had thought that Poland would be very different from the countries of Central Europe.  It looks a bit rougher than eastern Germany, but differences weren’t as great as we had imagined.
  • The campgrounds in Poland are plentiful and nice.  They have free wi-fi and the one we stayed at in Krakow even had free washing machines.
  • The Polish language is harder to figure out than German, which seems to have more in common with English.  As a result, food shopping was more of a challenge.
  • In 1795 Poland ceased to exist.  It was partitioned between Prussia (controlled from Potsdam in today’s Germany), Russia, and Austria (controlled from Vienna).  It was not reconstituted until 1918 at the end of World War I, but then immediately had to defend itself from Russia under Lenin who had visions of spreading socialism across Europe and eventually the world.  After the 2nd World War, Russia installed a communist government in Poland, despite its promises to the Allies to hold free elections.  Along with Hungary, it was one of the least repressive of the Communist Bloc countries.
  • While we were there, Poland celebrated the anniversary of its constitution, initially established on May 3rd, 1791.  It was the first set of modern supreme national laws in Europe, and second only to the American Constitution of 1787, which is something the Poles take great pride in despite the fact that their current constitution dates from 1997.
  • Poland is the birth place of Chopin, Goethe, Marie Curie, and Pope John Paul II.
  • Marie Skłodowska-Curie (Marie Curie) was a Polish physicist and chemist born in Warsaw in 1867 who did pioneering research on radioactivity in France.  She was the first female professor at the University of Paris, and the first person to receive 2 Nobel Prizes.  She died in 1934 of aplastic anemia caused by her years of exposure to radiation.
  • Pope John Paul II is revered here.  He was born Charles Joseph Wojtyla in the Polish town of Wadowice in 1920.  He suffered various hardships as a child (his parents died young), during WWII (he narrowly avoided deportation and had to study for the seminary illegally), and under the communists.  Despite this, he learned to speak 9 or more languages, became a philosopher, and a thought leader in the Catholic Church.  He took the name ‘John Paul II’ in honour of his predecessor (John Paul I), who died only 33 days after becoming Pope.  John Paul II was generally accepting of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution regarding the human body, but believed that the human soul was created immediately by God.
  • In 1980 the independent trade union Solidarity, which opposed Soviet rule, was formed in the shipyards of Gdańsk, Poland’s largest sea port.  Despite attempts by the government to curtail it, it spread until its cofounder Lech Wałęsa won the national election in 1990, ending the period of communist rule in Poland and leading to the eventual demise of communist regimes across Europe.
  • Many women in Poland try to dress in Western style, but the quality of the clothes and their fashion sense sometimes results in them looking cheap.  A lot of young women (and some older ones) prefer short, tight skirts, revealing tops, and platform heels to the point that they look like prostitutes.
  • In 2011 Poland elected the first transsexual Member of Parliament in European history.  Italy elected the first transgendered MP.
  • Poland seems to have whole-heartedly embraced capitalism.  Many of the big European chains are here (e.g. Lidl, Carrefour, Ikea, Mediamarkt) and there is advertising everywhere.
  • Overall, we were pleasantly surprised by Poland.  Diane described it as a “diamond in the rough”, with lots of potential as it develops.

Impressions of Luxembourg

We recently visited Luxembourg after leaving France.  It’s a small place, so it didn’t take long.  We visited the only major city, creatively called Luxembourg City, in this tiny country of just over 2500 square kilometers.  Here are some of our impressions.

  • Luxembourg is a landlocked country surrounded by France, Belgium, and German.  It only takes about 45 minutes to drive across the entire country.
  • Officially, it isn’t actually a country at all, but the world’s only remaining sovereign Grand Duchy.  It’s a constitutional democracy, but has a Duke as a monarch rather than a king or queen.
Flag with 3 stripes -- red over white over blue

Luxembourg’s Flag

  • Luxembourg has about half a million people, and the world’s 2nd highest GDP per person.  No wonder their motto is “We want to remain what we are”.
  • Luxembourg has historically been considered independent by the major nations of Europe, although it was invaded by Germany in both world wars.  With an army of only 800 people, it can’t really defend itself anyhow.
  • The people of Luxembourg are called “Luxembourgers” (‘bourgers’ is pronounced like the last part of ‘hamburgers’).  They speak 3 official languages – French, German, and Luxembourgish.   The first years of primary school are taught in Luxembourgish before switching to German.  Secondary school is taught in French.  Students must have proficiency in all three languages to graduate from high school.  In addition, English is also compulsory throughout school, so must Luxembourgers speak English also.  Why can’t Canadians learn just 2 official languages when Luxembourgers can master 4?
  • The large majority of Luxembourgers are Catholic, but over 20% are atheists.
  • Luxembourg sells the most alcohol in Europe per capita, but most of it is sold to people from other countries who shop here because Luxembourg has lower taxes. Of course, we bought our share to help keep their stats up.
  • Luxembourg City is a very attractive city on the top of a hill surrounded on several sides with steep cliffs to river valleys below.  We ate a picnic lunch on a bench at the top with a great view below.
Walls of Luxembourg City with river below

Walls of Luxembourg City

  • Luxembourg City was the sight of castle, one of the strongest fortifications in Europe for hundreds of years, and around which a city developed.  Luxembourg City is still extremely safe, ranking first in a 2011 Mercer survey of over 200 cities worldwide.
Luxembourg City walls with openings for cannons

Some of the many Casemates of Luxembourg City

  • The cliff walls around Luxembourg City are honeycombed with casemates (small rooms from which cannons could be fired).  We went on an unguided tour of the same, and it was easy to get lost in the many levels of twisting tunnels.  Thankfully we could always stick our head out an opening to get a sense of where we were.
Diane standing beside cannon in Luxembourg casemates

Diane standing beside cannon in Luxembourg casemates

Impressions of Germany

Germany has a lot of similarities to Austria.  After about a week in Germany, here are some of the things we’ve noticed.

  • Germany is a financial powerhouse of Europe, despite spending a fortune to re-integrate East Germany since 1989.  There are still considerable economic differences between the former East and West.
  • Germany is the most populous country in Europe excluding Russia.  It’s much smaller than Canada, but there is still lots of open countryside.  They have many immigrants including a large Turkish (Muslim) minority.
  • It seems that more people smoke in Germany than in Canada.  Smoking is still allowed in restaurants and on trains.  You can sometimes find a non-smoking area, except on patios where the fresh air is ironically limited.
  • Germans are quite open about their troubled history.  There are memorials everywhere.  As time passes and the population ages, fewer Germans have had a personal involvement in World War II.  The younger generation is well educated on Germany’s past, and most Germans will speak openly about their history.
  • Germans are more environmentally aware than Canadians.  They recycle.  There are wind turbines throughout the countryside.  They use more solar energy than in Vancouver, despite the fact that the weather is similarly variable.
  • A lot of people cycle here.  Almost none of them wear helmets, which presumably aren’t mandatory.  There are bicycle lanes beside many country roads and throughout the major cities.
  • People obey the traffic lights and pedestrian signals here (unlike much of the world), but you need to constantly be on the look out for bicycles which move rapidly and silently, even through crowds of people.  Often the only difference between the bike lane and the sidewalk for pedestrians is a different texture on the asphalt, so it’s important to be aware and not stray. A tour guide informed us that when confronted with a bicycle, the best thing to do is freeze and they will (hopefully) go around you.
  • Bavaria, in the south of Germany, is predominantly Catholic.  The church bells ring to call the faithful to prayer and throughout the day to chime the hours, a practice which has for the most part been eliminated in Canada (at least in the West).
  • The German language is full of very long words.  Germans often use one long concatenated word where we might use 3 or 4.  Street and place names are often 5 or 6 syllables, making them hard to pronounce and harder to remember.
  • A common German breakfast includes bread or rolls (not toasted), cheese, and some sort of cured meat.  They seem to eat a lot more pork than we do, particularly in the form of sausages and salami.  We have wholeheartedly adopted the bread, cheese, and pork diet, as part of our focused training plan for Oktoberfest.

Observations about India

  • Men where pants here, regardless of the temperature. Usually only boys (and tourists) wear shorts. Indian women typically wear a sari (a single piece of cloth that is wrapped without pins or buttons) or a salwar kameez (a long shirt and trouser combination). Younger people prefer jeans, despite the fact they must be baking in the heat.
  • India is a very religious/holy place. 82% of the people are Hindu and 12% Muslim. Christians and Sikhs are about 2% each. Like most of the world, religious has been a major source of conflict in India for over 1000 years.
  • Family is extremely important in India. Marriage and children are almost essential. Most marriages are arranged, but love marriages are becoming more common in urban areas. Divorce is rare, but its incidence is growing in urban areas.
  • Like in Africa, Diet Coke costs more here than regular Coke. Why would someone pay more for less?
  • It is common for men to show their friendship by holding hands. The other day on the train one man was sleeping with his head on his friend’s lap (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
  • About three weeks ago, the Supreme Court of India struck down the law (inherited from the British) making homosexuality between men illegal. Homosexuality between women was never illegal.
  • Cows are considered holy to Hindus, and so they are allowed to wander the streets aimlessly, causing a major hazard to navigation. Needless to say, it is impossible to get a steak here. The cows tend to hang out near Hindu temples where they get fed. At night, they rummage through garbage piles looking for food. Not a very graceful existence for a holy animal.
  • The caste system, though weakening, still has a major influence in India, especially in rural areas. In Hindu society, the caste you are born into (dictated by your parents’ caste), largely determines both your career and who you can marry. There are four main castes – Brahmin (priests and teachers), Kshatriya (warriors), Vaishya (merchants), and Shudra (labourers), with thousands of sub-casts. Beneath all of these castes are the Dalits (former known as ‘The Untouchables’) who perform undesirable tasks such as street sweeping and toilet cleaning.
  • Showing affection (e.g. kissing) in public is not acceptable. Men hold hands more commonly than men and women.
  • It is rude to touch a person on the head, or face the soles of one’s feet towards them.
  • The right hand is used for eating, and the left for unclean tasks such as removing one’s shoes, using the toilet, etc. This is a challenge for Diane who is left-handed. It is considered polite to wash ones hands both before and after a meal. Almost all restaurants have sinks outside the restrooms for this purpose.
  • The official currency of India is the Rupee (Rp). There are approximately 40 Rp to one Canadian dollar.
  • Things are generally inexpensive here. Our hotel rooms typically cost $10 – $17 a night. Breakfast is typically $3 and dinner $10 – $12 (including beer), and that’s for both of us. A bus trip of 5-7 hours typically costs $4. This is very welcome given that Africa was more expensive than planned.
  • Our hotel rooms almost always have an attached bathroom. Usually one of the toilet or shower doesn’t work properly. Sometimes the rooms have a TV, which almost certainly has bad reception. If we ask, they will usually include a top sheet and towels (sometimes only one). They’ll only include toilet paper about half of the time. Imagine bargaining for toilet paper!
  • There are about eight different classes on the trains here. Second Class, the cheapest, seems to be a free-for-all, with as many people sitting and standing in the available space as possible. In Sleeper Class we receive a reserved bunk with six bunks to a ‘compartment’ and two more across the passageway (compartment is in parentheses because it’s misleading to call it that given that it has no wall or door separating it from the passageway). For considerably more money, one can travel in an air-conditioned car, with AC1, AC2, and AC3 Classes having two, four, and six bunks per compartment (these ones have doors, but they don’t lock).
  • Child labour, AIDS, and poverty are all major issues here. An estimated 350 million Indians (the population of the United States) live below the poverty line, a division which is so low that it is similar to the Canadian poverty line in name only.
  • Indians love the game of cricket. It seems to be the only sport on television, other than American wrestling (which isn’t really a sport at all). Male cricket players are worshipped, and make big money in advertisements.
  • Environmental issues are very serious in India. Most of the cities and much of the countryside are polluted. Air pollution, water pollution, deforestation, and disposable waste are big problems. India’s most famous river, the Ganges, which is holy to Hindus, is toxic, which fecal colliform counts thousands of times the safe limit.
  • Indians do seem to care about environmental issues when it affects their pocketbook. Motorcycle and auto-rickshaw drivers often coast down hill to save fuel. Hotel rooms with air conditioners installed have two different prices – one if you use the AC, and the other without. Most hotel rooms have switches outside the door that allow the staff to turn off all power to the room when you exit it.
  • Indian food is delicious. It can be spicy, but we have found that this has been pretty rare. We’re going to start asking for them to make it hotter.
  • Indian tea (called ‘chai’) is drunk with milk, sugar, and sometimes other spices (cinnamon, cardamom, etc.) It often costs a bit more to get just black tea. Coffee, like in Africa, is normally instant. There are no Starbucks, but there is a chain called ‘Café Coffee Day’ in the larger cities.
  • Key sources of national pride are: India’s cricket team, the fact that India has atomic weapons, the fact that India is on track to become the world’s most populous nation by 2035, India’s outsourcing and IT industries, India’s size, and India’s rich history (probably in that order).
  • Most people in Indian cities have a mobile phone. In addition to the nice feature of a small light (handy when unlocking hotel room doors at night), a new annoying innovation seems to be the inclusion of a speaker, so that people can play their music out loud rather than using earplugs.
  • People (mainly women and children) ask to have their pictures taken with us, sometimes using their camera or mobile phone, but with ours if they don’t have one.
  • In cities with more tourists (like Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra, and Delhi), we are constantly being bombarded with calls and requests like “Hello, where are you going”, “Hello, rickshaw”, “Hello, come look my shop”. It can become frustrating and draining.
  • Young boys sell food and drinks on the buses. When we stop in smaller towns they seem fascinated by us, and appear confident that we’ll buy their stuff if they just stare at us for another 5 minutes, ask one more time, or rest the bottle on Patrick’s shoulder.
  • It is common to see people begging here. In addition to those with obvious physical challenges (the blind, amputees, etc.), there are also old women and young children. Some are quite insistent. A man got down on his knees and touched both of Patrick’s feet. Another boy was crawling through the train cars wiping the floor with his shirt and then requested that we give him money. Usually the people who are begging target tourists; we have only seen them request money from local people occasionally.
  • People seem to adhere to the concept of a line up (a queue) only loosely. Although they do line up, it is common for people to cut in front, especially at train stations (or anywhere there are a lot of people gathering). Many Indians seem to tolerate this. In a country with over a billion people, the various strategies to get to the head of the line are numerous (e.g. sending one’s wife in, or ‘I just have a question’ or ‘I just need a form’). We’re sure there are many techniques that we don’t realize because we don’t speak Hindi.
  • People seem concerned about cleanliness, but only in the very near vicinity of their home or shop. It is common to sweep one’s stoop, and even the dirt immediately beyond it, but only sufficiently to push the garbage into the street where it falls into line with everyone else’s. There are lovely tourist shops and hotels surrounded by piles of garbage. A common solution to this seems to be to build a wall around the property so the garbage isn’t visible from inside.
  • Most Indians carry a cloth to wipe the sweat off their faces.
  • The streets are filled with all manner of vehicles – trucks and buses, motorcycles and scooters (everywhere you look), auto-rickshaws (three-wheeled vehicles with a one-cylinder engine and room for two passengers, or eight if you want to squeeze in), ox and horse carts, camel carts (in Rajasthan), and wheeled carts and trolleys pulled or pushed by hand. It is treacherous for pedestrians (in our experience, second only to Cairo).
  • Indians love their sweets. There are sweet shops containing all manner of delicious looking sweets, most of which are not that delicious. Like Chinese sweets, they are an acquired taste.
  • There are advertisements everywhere for higher education. Indians place a high value on education for cultural and practical reasons. Our auto-rickshaw driver was proud to tell us the other day that his nineteen year old daughter was studying science.
  • Men often wear bandanas to protect them from the pollution while riding their motorcycles. They fold them into a triangle and wear them in the style of outlaws from the old west. Sometimes they wear them walking the streets, and it seems like they’re gonna to rob the stage.
  • In most places (except Delhi) only the motorcycle driver needs to wear a helmet. Why is the driver’s head more valuable than the passenger’s?
  • Women ride scooters, never motorcycles, because it isn’t possible to wear a dress on a motorcycle. They often wear long gloves, like in the 1950’s. We’re not sure why, but perhaps to protect their skin from the pollution or the sun.
  • Light skin is preferred over dark skin. Most of the Bollywood movie stars look almost white. Many moisturizers contain skin whiteners like citrus, Vitamin C, etc.
  • The alcoholic drink of choice here is scotch (they call it whiskey). Other than in the fancy hotels, you can choose from cheap local varieties or cheap imported brands.
  • People seem quite superstitious here. Part of this is likely due to the many complicated rituals of the Hindu religion, but it shows up in other ways. Astrology is very popular here. A horoscope is done at all major occasions like the birth of the child. An astrologer is consulted before weddings are arranged.
  • Indians frequently exhibit a head wobble. Although it may seem to the untrained eye to be a ‘no’, it often means ‘perhaps’, ‘okay’, or even ‘yes’.
  • India has had difficult relations with Pakistan since they both received independence from the British in 1947. The two countries were partitioned (by the British) along religious lines to create the primarily Muslim Pakistan and the primarily Hindu India. Of course, many people ended up on the side of the border they didn’t want, and even the boundary itself was disputed by the parties. This resulted in years of ethnic violence and mass migrations of people, and set the stage for the ongoing strained relationship and ongoing violence between the countries, both of which are now nuclear powers.

Observations about East and Southern Africa

  • People have a vague understanding of Canada, and a generally positive impression. Some think it is part of the US. Many know that it is cold there, and can quote the city names of ‘Toronto’ and ‘Vancouver’, even though they have no idea where these are.
  • The majority of the people are Christians, the result of a century of successful missionary activity that continues to this day.
  • Many of the businesses are controlled by South Asians, primary East Indians. They drive much of the economic activity, including import/export and retail. They often employ African people, and there appears to be a love-hate relationship between the two groups.
  • Women are generally not empowered. They do the majority of household and farming work, all while carrying a child on their back and with toddlers scrambling around their feet.
  • Education is highly prized. In most countries, elementary school education is free, but you usually must be able to afford the uniforms and school supplies, so many children do not attend.
  • HIV/AIDS is widespread. Funerals are common, and many children are raising their siblings.
  • Life expectancy is generally low. The combination of high infant mortality rates, HIV/AIDS, malnutrition, unclean water, and malaria mean that the average life expectancy in these countries is between 38 and 48 years.
  • African politics generally follows the approach of the British parliamentary system. However, in most countries corruption , partisanship, and patronage are widespread. The newspapers constantly report it, but there is rarely any information about perpetrators being punished. Governments and politicians will often go to extreme lengths to remain in office (e.g. by removing or extending term limits, or rigging elections). By the time an individual or party loses an election, or is otherwise thrown out or overthrown, they need to have feathered their nests enough that they don’t need to work again, and can leave the country if necessary, because the new government will likely not be fair to them.
  • The quest for money seems to dominate the lives of most African people. This is really no different than in Canada, but because the amounts of money are relatively much smaller, it is often surprising the extent to which they go to earn just a little bit of money. e.g. a woman with a small child will sit out in the hot sun all day selling peanuts, to earn a total of a dollar (or less). Sellers will wander around a bus depot all day trying to sell a single item like a pair of shoes or a flashlight (not one type of product, but one specific item).
  • Lack of capital is an issue. Many people have the work ethic and ingenuity, but lack the money to initiate an activity that would allow them to support themselves (e.g. buying hand tools or a pump to farm, a bicycle/motorcycle/car to operate as a taxi, or chickens to sell eggs). A variety of groups are working to filling this void by offering micro-financing.
  • Almost all the men love soccer, which they call ‘football’. Most boys and young men play football. In addition to their national team, they follow the English Premiership very closely. Many men wear the jersey of their favourite team and decorate their vehicle with stickers, etc. Most buses and mini-buses display the name or logo of a Premiership team. Manchester United and Arsenal are the most popular teams, and Patrick is often asked which team he supports.
  • The people of East and Southern Africa are generally friendly and pleasant. They appear to like foreigners and are usually willing to help out in any way they can. Sometimes they want so badly to be helpful and to not be rude, that they’ll give you information about things they’re not sure about.