Volunteering in Nepal: arrival

Finally I got around to writing a post for my weblog. I hoped to get a post out earlier, but I’ve had so much to do such as sightseeing and chatting with the other volunteers that I haven’t gotten around to it yet. In this post I’ll describe my arrival and what I did during the first days in Kathmandu. Later posts will follow, each with a specific subject: the food, the climate, the traffic, my host family along with the other volunteers, what I’ve been doing during the first week and the neighboorhood (Pepsi Cola) I’m in.

I arrived at Tribhuvan airport in Kathmandu on last Wednesday, the 23rd. I departed during the evening of Tuesday the 22nd from Schiphol airport near Amsterdam in the Nederlands, then flew to Frankfurt where I transferred to New Delhi. There I transferred on more time to a flight going to Kathmandu. Probably one meal was served for every one of the three flights, and the aircraft taking me to New Delhi had an entertainmaint system which allowed you to choose which film you wanted to see. It had an interesting selection of recent and classic films, and I chose Avatar. But I’m writing about Nepal now so films have to wait.

In summary, the air travel was a pleasant experience. Maybe Franfurt’s airport looked unattractive and old fashioned compared to Schiphol and New Delhi’s airport and it wasn’t very clear how I had to get to my flight there. I was surprised that I had to wait for an hour or so at Frankfurt before it was known from which gate my flight would depart. Of course Kathmandu’s airport is much more primitive, but that’s to be expected from a developing country.

All flights, including the return flight, set me back a little bit more than € 800. This is more than the fee the volunteer organization charged me for a ten week stay, which was approximately € 600. A low cost airline airline called Arkefly offers a direct flight to Kathmandu from Schiphol, at a cost which varies between € 500 and € 600, but unfortunately they would stop flying in April because of the monsoon season. I did not want to reduce the length of my stay, so I had to choose other airlines.

I did encounter a problem though, at Delhi I was informed that the flight to Kathmandu was delayed by more than an hour. I tried to contact Sugandha Shresta, my host in Kathmandu who was going to pick me up from the airport, to inform him that I was delayed, but the phone number didn’t work, nor did any other of the numbers of the Volunteer Society Nepal (VSN). Later I figured out that was because I got international calling code wrong, it wasn’t +977 as I noted it down in my agenda, but +977. I have a SIM-only calling plan for € 5 a month with Vodafone in the Netherlands, but I fear that the bill for Februari might be a lot higher since I was calling from India to Nepal, as foreign calls are not included in my plan. Or would they not charge anything if the call didn’t connect?

The flight arrived late at Kathmandu’s airport, and we were taken to the airport building with a bus after leaving the aircraft. There some forms had to be filled in for the visa application. Somehow everyone did that very fast and I was one of the last to apply for the visa while the airport was very quiet. A visa for 90 days costs approximately € 90. Affordable, but if I were the Nepalese government I’d waiver the fee for a visa if the applicant is a volunteer coming to help. Certainly if people from for example India and a few other nationalities don’t need to pay the fee. My volunteer card does give me free acces to several points of interest such as Pathan’s and Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. I don’t get why grating a visa, a procedure done by a single person doing administrative work in a few minutes, should be so expensive anyway,

After exchanging some money at the airport (shouldn’t have done it there because the exchange rates are unfavorable) I arrived at the baggage claim. Three people there, I don’t know if they were employees, asked if the bag next to them was mine. It was, no problems with delayed luggage for me. I asked if there was a phone somewhere in the vicinity so I could try calling Sugandha again. Instead one of them offered to call his number with his mobile phone. Somehow, even without the international calling code (I assume he didn’t enter it), he couldn’t reach Sugandha, nor did calls to the other numbers connect. I appreciated they were so helpful, I thanked them and told them I would proceed to the exit to see if I could find anyone there.

As I left through alone, at least three people approached me at once. Taxi drivers started asking me if I needed a taxi and some person behind an information desk told me he had a map for me, both asking me if I would come over to them. I was totally confused and I walked over to the information desk to look at the map, but another taxi driver pointed at a guy holding a paper which read ‘VSN’. It turned out that this guy wasn’t Sugandha, and probably just another taxi driver. With Sugandha nowhere in sight, I was getting nervous and asked them if anyone could take me to Pepsi Cola. Pepsi Cola is the neighboorhood in Kathmandu where VSN is active, and is named after the Pepsi Cola factory located there. Sure they could do so, and before I knew some guy took my bag and rolled it to a taxi. He didn’t ask me if I wanted it, he just said he was going to do it for me and I was too distracted and confused to realize that I should refuse that. I knew this was bad because I had read in advance on VSN’s website that they would ask ridiculous tips for their services.

Before I stepped in the taxi I did want to know how much the two guys were going to charge me for the ride, to prevent myself from getting ripped off later. They asked for a tip, and I asked how much they wanted. Of course that’s like asking a wolf how many sheep it wants for dinner. They said € 20 would be fine, and because I was getting desperate because I had no way to contact anyone from VSN and desired to get to VSN’s office at all cost I gave it to them. Later I figured out a reasonable price for a taxi to Pepsi Cola is more like € 3, maybe € 4 (€ 1 is 100 NPR, or Nepalese rupees) Then another guy took my attention and pointed at an entrance of the airport’s building where Sugandha emerged.

I finally met Sugandha, who had been waiting at the airport for hours and had apparently not been aware of the delay of my flight, and my immediate worries were over. I knew the taxi driver and the luggage carrier were not going to refund their tips to me, so I let it slide. I’m still ashamed I allowed them to take advantage of me so easily, but at least I made a good start with stimulating the local economy. Sugandha put my bag in his car and introduced me to his wife Sobha. Then we left the airfield and drove to Sugandha’s house in Pepsi Cola.

Along the way I didn’t have enough eyes to see what was going on along the road we were driving on. It was around five ’o clock and it was busy, lots of people of all kind walking past the road and a lot of traffic. It came as a great surprise to me, because this was not the Kathmandu I expected based on the photos I had seen on the Internet on websites like Flickr and Wikipedia. Most photos seem to portray the areas which are popular with tourists and focus on Nepal’s natural environment. What I was seeing in front of me was without question a developing country. There was waste lying around everywhere, the traffic was very busy, most buildings looked degraded, it was dusty and I could smell a lot of pollution in the air.

On the other hand, Sugandha is relatively well of and while the interior of his house might not look as good as I’m used to in the Netherlands, he does have a TV and DVD player. If I’m to believe a English language Nepali newspaper, there are youth here for whom it would be difficult to live without Facebook. Yet, make yourself no illusions. Pepsi Cola might not be a slum, but the people living here are poor. And I have actually seen slums near the riverside during a bus ride over a bridge between Kathmandu and Pathan.

I hope to post some amazing photos soon, but the Internet connection is not very fast, so no promises.

Volunteering in Nepal for ten weeks

It’s a long story, but I’ll give an executive summary for my English readers who can’t read my Dutch weblog. Knowing I would get my bachelor in History halfway this academic year, I started looking for options to spend the second half of the year in a foreign country because I wanted to experience living in culture totally different from my western culture. At first I started searching for an internship in a foreign country and applied to AIESEC. The interview went well, however the people running the local AIESEC comittee thought I lacked independence (probably because I told them that the year I had been living in Rotterdam to study there was a disappointment for me) and refused me their services in finding an internship. I applied for an internship as an assistent to a European Parliamentarian in Brussels, but for that I wasn’t chosen either, even though I was the second choice out of seven applicants. I applied for an internship at the Dutch embassy in Ankara in Turkey, but it turned out they have very high demands for applicants and I wasn’t selected either.

So I decided to do work as a volunteer instead of continuing to search for an internship. I wanted to experience living in a foreign country at all costs. After evaluating the offers of two travel agencies I decided to deal with volunteer organizations directly. After some searching on the Internet I found the Volunteer Society Nepal and decided to work with them because their website gave a very reliable impression. I could have chosen to go another country such as India and Thailand, but considering that Nepal ranks higher in poverty and is not as well known as those other countries, I thought Nepal was more interesting and my help more appreciated there. I’ll be departing today and return in the beginning of May, so I’ll be staying there for ten weeks. I’ll make sure to report my experiences on this weblog.

Visited Paris

Last weekend I visited Paris together with my father. Last time our attempt to do so had to be aborted because of striking Belgian railway personnel, but this time we decided to take the car. Not only does a return ticket for two adults cost € 398 from the nearest train station (Culemborg) to Paris Nord, it takes at least four hours or five hours at most. According Google Maps it would take the car four and half hours to drive from our home to the hotel. The train’s numbers are probably quite affected by the time the transfers add and the time spent on the low speed trains that would take us to the station where the high speed train departs, but as you can understand the train was far more expensive than using the car and didn’t have a noticeable advantage in speed.

So we left home around 8:30 hours on Friday 12 November. We figured out the integrated navigation system only had maps for the Benelux supplied, so we had the rely on the map. That wasn’t difficult at all because the route is straightforward, but we had to search for the hotel at the end because it was hard to notice the street name plates in Saint-Ouen, the suburb of Paris where our hotel was located. Three days (two nights) at this hotel cost us € 158 with parking and a tasty breakfast included. The only complaint I have with hotel is the signal quality of the TV, but we didn’t care much because we watched TV only during the night for a few minutes before going to sleep. The hotel was located close near the subway station Porte de Saint-Ouen, which was reachable in five minutes. When we arrived it was past twelve ’o clock. We dumped the luggage in the hotel room and went for the subway.

With one half remaining of the first day, we visited the following places of interest:

  1. Musée du Louvre
  2. Notre Dame de Paris
  3. Tour Montparnasse

View from the Tour Montparnasse at night

The Louvre was truly massive. You have three different entrances each leading to different collections. However, the museum is not separated in three parts, after the entrances the are routes to the other parts, unlike what I expected. It’s easy to get lost slightly, because there is no clear route to follow. We couldn’t afford to spend the entire day there (which was very well possible) because we also wanted to see other things, so we visited it for two, three hours or so. The collection on display is amazing both in quality and variation and offers both sculpture from ancient Persia to painting from nineteenth century. Yes, I did see the Mona Lisa, it certainly is a masterpiece, but to be honestly I don’t think it’s fame is disproportionate if compared to quality of the rest of the collection. I noticed one painting, The Raft of the Medusa, from a history book. If I’d visit Paris again I’d live to spend an entire day to see everything in this museum.

Then we went to see the Notre Dame. Actually we wanted to see Sainte-Chapelle first, but it was closed already before five ’o clock. All the days we spent in Paris were cloudy, with a sunny day we probably would have enjoyed the view on the Notre Dame’s architecture and certainly it’s interior more. The interior was quite dark. While it’s certainly a nice church when you look at architectural details, the issue I have with most churches (including the two others we visited in Paris) designed in the style of Gothic architecture is that they focus too much on being large and high and decoration of the interior, except for things like stained glass, isn’t very impressive. Most of the interior walls are a bland, functional. And as I mentioned before, the interior doesn’t receive much sunlight. Quite a difference with the Basilica of St. John Lateran, which positively surprised us in Rome. But that one is Renaissance style architecture, if I’m correct. Because stained glass is so far away I wished I had binoculars to take a better look at it. The Wikipedia article of the cathedral links to a collection of photo’s located on Wikimedia Commons, but the photos of the stained glass there are blurry, probably because they are difficult to capture by camera’s with all that dynamic range.

Then we boarded the subway again to find a restaurant. Wikitravel mentioned that the Rue de Faubourg-Saint-Denis east of Gare du Nord and south of the subway station La Chapelle, had an Indian neighborhood with a lot of Indian restaurants. Good and cheap Indian restaurants can’t be found in Utrecht, where I work, so I seized this opportunity. We went to the same neighborhood the next day. After dinner we had some time left, so we decided to visit the top of the Tour Montparnasse. Winds were very strong at the top and the view over Paris was awesome.

Day two:

  1. Basilique de Saint-Denis
  2. Musée Guimet
  3. Musée Jaquemart-André
  4. Cabinet des Medailles
  5. Église Saint-Eustache

We started by visiting the Basilique de Saint-Denis. This church was more interesting than the Notre Dame de Paris because it contains so many tombs with excellent sculptures. I should also note that – as the majority of the other museums we visited – I got a free ticket (entrance to the cathedral is free, but entrance to the tombs is not) because I could show a student ID, this is only possible for students of educational institutions in the European Union if I remember correctly. What I didn’t like is that most of the information and commentary on what you’re seeing is only French. I’m suspecting French chauvinism is to blame here, because they must know that many international visitors are present. Paid audio guides don’t count. Only Sainte-Chapelle and most notable the Musée de Cluny provided excellent textual information on the exhibits in English.

The Musée Guimet contains a collection of Asian art, but this was not as interesting as I expected. After the Louvre and visiting the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco the collection was a bit underwhelming, and wouldn’t have visited it in retrospect. The Musée Jaquemart-André was much more interesting, as you can see from the photos on Wikipedia, the building of the museum itself is at least as interesting as the beautiful paintings displayed there. Then we wanted to visit the Palais Garnier, a truly beautiful opera house judging from the photos on Wikipedia, but unfortunately access was not possible because a show was going on. We then went on the Cabinet des Medailles, which is a great example of bang for the buck, because they do not charge an entrance fee. They have a huge collection of Ancient Greek vases on display, which particularly interest me since I have done research on those vases for a course of my studies. They also have a very nice collection of coins from Classical Antiquity. Last stop was the Église Saint-Eustache, another nice church but not very remarkable after having seen the other two.

Day three:

  1. Musée de Cluny
  2. Versailles
  3. Sainte-Chapelle

The Musée de Cluny exceeded my expectations. It houses medieval art, it’s tapestries are most magnificent. Versailles can be reached easily by the subway, so no car was necessary other than traveling from the Netherlands to Paris. Unfortunately the lines at Versailles were quite long, so we didn’t get to see the famed Hall of Mirrors. The scale of the exterior and the surroundings of the palace were quite a sight as well.  Because we decided against joining the waiting lines ad Versailles we had some more time which allowed us to visit Sainte-Chapelle. There was quite a waiting line there to, because the access route to the chapel also provides access to the Palace of Justice, so every visitor was required to walk through a metal detector and to have their bag checked. The wait was well worth it, because Sainte-Chapelle probably has the most impressive amount and application of stained glass windows I’ve ever seen.

Of course there are other things in Paris which I have considered to visit, such as the Musée d’Orsay, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Pantheon and Les Invalides. I’m quite happy with what I managed to see in three (or two full) days. Considering the photos, I’m most satisfied with the night shot from the Tour Montparnasse, the photo of the stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle turned out better than expected, but still most of the details in the stained glass are absent (not visible in the scaled down version of the photo on this weblog, but visible in the original). I didn’t take much photo’s because the cloudy weather wasn’t inviting to do so as you can see, and most of the stuff we visited already had good photo’s displayed on Wikipedia.

Vacation in the USA’s west, the experience

One of the first things we noted when we arrived in the USA is the amount of gas guzzlers on the roads, starting with our own car which did 16,1 mpg (14,6 l/100km, or over three times the amount of a Toyota Prius). Sports cars like the Ford Mustang for example seem to be almost a commodity and you see a lot of SUV’s. Of course cars like those would be taxed to death in the Netherlands. Which I think is a good thing, because I live in close proximity to a highway. You see a lot of cars which are not available on the European market, and while in the Netherlands French and German cars are most popular, in the USA you see a lot of Japanese and American cars. In the USA cars cost a lot less as well, for example a Nissan 370Z starts at $30.410 (€ 23.521) while it starts at € 55.100 ($71.239) in the Netherlands. I wish some cars, like the Chevrolet HHR with it’s distinctive design, which appear only on the American market would be sold in Europe as well. Also of note are the customised license plates. While listening to the radio during trips with the car, you often hear commercials with voices speaking very fast, as if they desperately would want to save money by reducing the length of the commercial. Amusing.

I really appreciated that almost all hotels offer WiFi free of charge. Being able to use Google Maps gives you a good tool to look for restaurants in the vicinity of your hotel. We definitely would have missed some great restaurants if I wouldn’t have been able to use Google Maps. Concerning food, some hotels featured elaborate breakfast buffets, either included or for an extra charge, and some other hotels were a serious disappointment in that regard. I’m going to name and shame an example here, the Alpenhof Lodge in Mammoth Lakes. Decent hotel with a nice swimming pool, and breakfast was included. However, the breakfast turned out to be some doughnuts and muffins placed near the entrance of the hotel, they didn’t even serve bread. The hotels which did a good job served tasty breakfast. I liked baked/boiled egg and bacon, muffins and doughnuts were okay, baking your own waffles with a waffle iron was fun. Dutch stroopwafels win over American waffles though!

One thing we noticed in restaurants is that in some restaurants a gratuity is optional, at the discretion of the customer. In other restaurants, they include a gratuity of 15% or so on the bill! Wikipedia is my best friend here, telling me that a gratuity added by the restaurant without customer input, the so called autograt, is not unheard of in certain situations in the USA. The most common reason would be if a large group was served; we always were with five persons however. Even so, I think it’s odd you would charge extra if you had a large group of customers in your restaurant? More customers means more revenue, if I were a restaurant owner I certainly wouldn’t ‘punish’ them with an autograt and be grateful for more customers. It is uncommon for restaurants to place an autograt on every customer’s bill by default, and considered dishonest according to Wikipedia. I also read there that it’s considered normal to inform customers of an autograt in advance, but this was not the case in the restaurants we visited. Fortunately, and as I expected, customers have the right to refuse giving an autograt, even if they were informed of the autograt in advance. In the Netherlands this practice would probably be considered outrageous, gratuities are expected here but at the customer’s discretion. I voiced my opposition to giving in, but my father didn’t object and paid these autograts. It’s his money and he should do with it as he pleases, but I certainly would have flat out refused to pay an autograt. In the end, restaurants which were okay and charged an autograt received more gratuity than the restaurants we thought were above average and didn’t charge an autograt. There is a very suitable idiom for that in my language, ‘de brutalen hebben de halve wereld’. In other words, if you’re cheeky you receive more than you should. Funny to read in the Wikipedia article by the way that in some Asian countries tipping is not part of the culture at all, and could possibly even offend those receive it.

The air conditioning was often used unnecessary in many places in my opinion. For example in Bryce Canyon City it was turned on at breakfast and it was too cold, while the temperatures outside even in the afternoon were not too warm at all. Most of the time it was unnecessary during the night in the hotel rooms, but my family insisted on turning it on. Our own house doesn’t have air conditioning at all, even though we do have the occasional heat wave in a summer in the Netherlands. The only places where I appreciated air conditioning were Phoenix and other places with very high temperatures. It takes a few years to get accustomed to the heat in those places if you’re new we were told by hotel personnel, and another local told us you can sleep without air conditioning in Phoenix. Another aspect of environmental unfriendliness of my family were the frequent instances of buying bottled water, because ‘the tap water contained too much chlorine, which could make you sick’. Yes, the tap water in the USA didn’t taste very well, but buying bottled water is ridiculous and wasteful.

I’m careful not to generalise, but I the Americans we met were on average quite friendly. For example when we stopped in Zion National Park and met the snake there, two cars passed us in what was the middle of nowhere, and both of them stopped. The man in the first car noticed we were taking photos, so he offered to take our photo so all the five of us could be photographed. We accepted. The man in the second car stopped to ask us if we had any problems, if our car had broken down or something. I wouldn’t have seen that happening in the Netherlands. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much people who were obese, especially the amount of people I’ve seen which are morbidly obese is staggering. Not surprisingly, obesity rates in the USA are among the highest in the world.

I enjoyed this vacation, but if I hadn’t come along I wouldn’t have missed it, except for the Getty Villa. I enjoyed seeing so much, but I do not think it was worth all the long flights with their lack of leg space, the vying for space on the armrests, the car trips, and tiresome hotel switching. I do not think there is much added value to seeing things like the Grand Canyon, Death Valley with your own eyes while you are physically there. Most nature documentaries offer you a better view of those places, with cameras revealing what you can’t see if you only walk for a few miles across the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. If you search for ‘bryce canyon’ on Flickr you get 171.243 results, including impressions of the landscape in the winter, which I didn’t see with my own eyes. I’d rather take a look at what Flickr has to offer than go there myself so I can save a lot of time, effort and money. The sort of vacation I like best are intra-European city trips. Flights are short, or you can take the train, you don’t need 18 days and it’s more friendly to your budget. And with five people you’ve got to take account of a lot of different wishes, which makes planning more inflexible.

One more thing, the usage of the U.S. customary system instead of the metric system was very annoying for me as an inhabitant of the Netherlands. You constantly have to convert measurements made in units like gallons, miles, feet and Fahrenheit. Americans should be very proud that they, along with Burma and Liberia, have not yet officially adopted the metric system unlike the rest of the world. The U.S.A. should join the rest of the world and start the process of metrication instead of miring itself in backwardness.

Vacation in the USA’s west, diary with photos

Last Monday on 19 July I returned from a holiday in the USA’s west. We departed for the USA on the 1st of July, on a holiday paid for by my parents, probably the last one including my parents, brother and sister. This first post will contain a diary and photos of the vacation, a second post will follow with more general observations on the USA and my experience of the vacation. The plan for this vacation consisting of eighteen days was to ride through the states of Arizona, Utah, Nevada and California by car, stopping for the night at hotels and eating dinner at a restaurant for every day. I have mentioned the restaurants we thought were notable.

Day 1: Stranded at Washington Dulles airport

A delay at Amsterdam Schiphol airport caused us to miss our connection to Phoenix at Washington Dulles airport, Northwest Airlines provided us with rooms in a hotel near the airport. Even though they foresaw that there were passengers who would miss their connecting flights at Washington Dulles airport, they didn’t give those passengers priority for the immigration officers. It was a close call, and the waiting line for the immigration officers cost us just a few minutes too much time, making us miss the next flight.

Day 2: Arrival in Phoenix

We rose early this day at 3:00 so we wouldn’t miss our flight to Denver (Colorado) where we would transfer to a flight heading for Phoenix. The climate of Phoenix is very hot with temperatures near 45 ℃, walking around for the first time and feeling the breeze outside is like experiencing the hot air of an oven rising to your face after you open it. Fortunately temperatures would be more comfortable when we left Phoenix, until we arrived in Las Vegas. The next stop was at the car rental company, Hertz, where we would pick up our car we would use for the rest of the vacation, a Toyota Sienna. Even though we’d already arrived a day late, we were told a car wasn’t available right now and that we had to wait for a bit until one was ready. My parents complained, and got upgraded to a Nissan Armada for no extra charge. It’s a beast with its 360 hp, 5,6 L V8 engine. Unfortunately neither my brother nor I could drive because that would require extra costs. Not sure what the reason was again, if I recall correctly the reason was that we were under 25 years of age. The first stop was at a Walmart, which amazed us because of its huge size. Even in Dutch large cities supermarkets aren’t so large, maybe 1/4th or 1/3rd the size of a Walmart store. We had to skip a part of our journey to make up for the lost time, we headed to Tusayan and on the way we visited Montezuma Castle.

Day 3: Grand Canyon

On this day we walked for a few miles along the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. Interesting were the different types of stone displayed along the route, with accompanying explanations listing their age in millions of years, running in the three digits. The Grand Canyon is indeed a great view, with it being so huge. The rest of the day was spent driving to the next stop in Bryce Canyon City, stopping for a few times for other lookout points along Grand Canyon and Red Canyon in Utah.

Grand Canyon

Day 4: Bryce Canyon

I’m glad we went to see Bryce Canyon after Grand Canyon, because the latter displays more beauty than the former. Especially notable are the hoodoo’s, works of art created by erosion. The fact that I shot most of my photos here says a lot. Our next hotel was located in Cedar City. Most restaurant were closed down because it was Sunday, so we ate at a fast food chain we don’t know in the Netherlands, Taco Bell. They serve Mexican fast food, which was almost universally hated by us. Not to say that we didn’t like Mexican cuisine at all, but besides Taco Bell the Mexican restaurant we chose earlier was mediocre, unfortunately we didn’t choose to eat at another better Mexican restaurant later. Could anyone identify what species of lizard is on the first photo?

Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon

Day 5: Las Vegas

The next day we would visit Zion National Park along the way to Las Vegas. After missing some exits on the highway, which resulted from the absence of a built-in satellite navigation system in our car, my parent’s refusal to buy a separate satellite navigation system on my recommendation and inadequate signposts along the roads in the USA in general. And this wasn’t the first nor the last moment we would lose track of the route. The funny thing is that we later met other Dutch people who told my parents buying satellite navigation had been a good decision for them. At a stop we figured out we needed a permit to take a walk in the park (at that specific spot at least) and decided to drive some further distance into the park. When we had seen enough we decided to turn around and stop to enjoy the view before continuing the journey. After taking some photos, I discovered a snake had crept up to one of the front wheels of our car. It was quite large, and not aggressive. Fortunately we could move the car without flattening it, and the snake retreated into the grass when it could apparently no longer enjoy the car’s shadow. Hopefully someone can tell me what snake it is? I don’t want to spend much words on Las Vegas. It’s the most decadent, crowded, vulgar and fake city I’ve ever seen. The only positive points I can mention are the Indian restaurant we stumbled on by change at the Strip, the taxi driver with a good sense of humour. The most memorable phrase heard was definitely ‘water one dollar’.

Snake in Zion National Park

Day 6: Death Valley

During the night I was woken up a few times because of my brother had to vomit. My sister hadn’t been feeling well since a few days before that. I doubt it was food poisoning, because I and my parents had no problems. This day we would drive through Death Valley and end the journey in Lone Pine. We stopped at Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, then we started driving again. Temperatures were probably around 45 ℃ at Zabriskie Point, so it was hot but nothing new after we had experienced Phoenix. After arriving in Lone Pine, we ate in a Chinese restaurant which ranks as one of the best restaurants of the entire vacation.

Day 7: Mammoth Lakes

Mammoth Lakes is situated on a higher elevation (2,4 km, while Death Valley was below sea level). In the winter it’s a ski resort, quite a difference between this and Death Valley yesterday. We followed some of the hiking routes in the area. It was strange to see snow still lying around at some places, while the temperatures were probably hovering above 20 ℃.

Day 8: Yosemite National Park

On this day we visited Yosemite National Park. The view over the Yosemite Valley was magnificent. Bridalveil Fall was good. I like waterfalls, except for the water vapor covering the lens of my camera. When we drove further down the valley we were dismayed to discover that it was infested with tourists and campings. The hotel near the valley was the first one I encountered to charge a fee for WiFi, in all other hotels it was free of charge. As you can see on the photos, we received a replacement for our car which had broken down. That was remarkably quick service for such a relatively remote place.

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Valley

Day 9: Yosemite National Park

If almost everyone who has visited the eastern coast of the USA talks about seeing the giant sequoia, and you have seen them on TV but not with your own eyes, you can’t allow yourself to miss them. After a lengthy trip – someone thought that the apex of the tourist season was a good time to start road maintenance – we arrived at Mariposa Grove. The sequoias there aren’t the oldest or the largest, but they were impressive nevertheless. We noticed there had been fires in the forest recently, but these were allowed to go on. Apparently forest fires are good for the health of forests. We ended the trip in Sonora.

Mariposa Grove

Day 10: San Francisco

While I felt uncomfortable with the high temperatures in places on lower elevations in California and Arizona, San Franciso makes me complain because of the low temperatures in July, the frequent cloud cover and fog but most of all the strong winds. Check up the Wikipedia article on SF to learn about the specifics of it’s climate. My first thought is that it’s a nasty climate, even though the average lowest temperature is 8 ℃ in January, I wouldn’t want to live in SF instead of the Netherlands. I’d rather have a winter and a real summer than neither like in SF. After we arrived at the hotel and were charged an arm and a leg for parking the car at the hotel ($30 a day), we went to Fisherman’s Warf. After trials and tribulations with the public transport system in SF, partially because of the lack of preparation on the part of my parents, and partly because public transport doesn’t seem to be well organized and easy to understand in SF, we arrived at Pier 39. I experienced a dejá vu here, since Pier 39 is a hornet’s nest full of tourists just like Las Vegas, and because there’s nothing interesting to see there.

Day 11: San Francisco

This day started with splitting up, I visited the Asian Art Museum, while the rest of my family watched Spain defeat the Netherlands in the FIFA 2010 World Cup final. To the square just west of the museum, in the Civic Center, two large screen displays were set up for fans who wanted to watch the world cup. There were surprisingly much Dutch people around, which I also noticed in our hotel. It’s almost like Dutch people attract each other in foreign countries, like we are contagious, or we’re just a very adventurous people who love to travel. Even more surprising was that my brother and sister got sunburned in SF of all places, the city which is so frequently covered by clouds. Apparently there was more sunshine than I noticed. They told me they forgot to use a sunscreen, but given the tan my sister developed after all those hours of lying under the sun, I expected they wouldn’t get burned even without it. Anyway, the jade artwork on display in the museum was totally awesome, I can heartily recommend the museum. In the afternoon we boarded the Duck Tour, a tour of over the streets and the water of northern SF with an amphibious vehicle. We had a very good guide, she told us they had very few customers since the recession. In the evening we went to Thai restaurant which was just two blocks away from our hotel. The various Chinese and Thai restaurants we visited during this vacation certainly inspired me to try these cuisines at home. The only gripe I and my family members have, especially with the Thai cuisine, is that dishes are far more spicy or hot than in Indian or Chinese cuisine. Even the dishes which rated as moderately spicy make you spit fire. I should be careful not to generalize here because those cuisines can be extremely hot too, but on average most Thai dishes seem to win.

Day 12: Monterey

We visited a lookout point near the Golden Gate Bridge, and then followed the Pacific Coast Highway south to Monterey. There was much more I had wished to see in SF and especially the SF Bay Area, such as the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum, the Intel Museum and Silicon Valley, but unfortunately there was no time for that. In Monterey we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium there, which I can recommend. I never expected that tuna, the fish which frequently ends up on my pizza’s, would be so large.

Day 13: Ventura

When we continued driving south this day to Ventura, we stopped on a lookout point over a beach near the sea, where we saw elephant seals. In southern California the climate was much more palatable. The sea water was a bit cold, but after acclimatizing for bit it was acceptable for swimming. By chance we happened to discover a very good Italian restaurant.

Elephant seals

Day 14: Los Angeles

On the way to Los Angeles we would pass the Getty Villa, so we split up there when I was dropped off at the museum and the rest of my family went to the beach. The Getty Villa was the best thing I have seen during this vacation. It’s not the the ancient Greek, Roman and Etrurian artefacts exhibited in the museum which are remarkable, it is the museum itself. It’s modelled after a real Roman villa, the Villa of the Papyri from southern Italy, and many other Roman villas. Descriptions in the museum explain in detail the features of the villa, and which real Roman villas served as inspiration for them. I did notice some strange things though. Most obvious are of course the fountains, for example seen in the photo of main courtyard in the Wikipedia article of the Getty Villa. Why were these fountains placed there when there was such a great desire to recreate an authentic Roman villa? I also noticed wall paintings of columns on the inner sides of the walls surrounding the main courtyard. It seemed to me like they ran out of cash when they wanted to decorate the walls with real pilasters and instead chose to paint columns. Or are painted columns authentic as well? Also, I wonder how ancient Roman villas were isolated? In Mediterranean climates temperatures can get close to freezing in the winter, and having an open roof like in the Getty Villa doesn’t help isolating the villa then. Google doesn’t give me an answer to that question. What was notable in the collection of exhibited artefacts for me was ceramic pottery which was cleverly disguised as if metal was the material. Unfortunately I did not have enough time to see everything without hurrying. I had three hours, but because I like to read all descriptions completely and visually analyse all artefacts carefully, I had to rush after seeing the first half of the ground floor to see the rest of the ground floor and the upper floor. After we arrived in LA we went on a bus tour through Hollywood, West Hollywood and Beverly Hills. The bus tour was okay, the idolization of celebrities which was obvious from audio descriptions accompanying the tour was not, neither was the heat wave in LA at that moment. We ate at a Thai restaurant of wide acclaim. I had never seen such a large menu before. I ordered the mussels here because they were recommended, but I thought they were nothing special. Other dishes were good though.

Day 15: Palm Springs

After one of the longest distances we had to cover with the car, we took the Aerial Tramway near Palm Springs. While it was over 40 ℃ below, on the top of the mountain it was somewhere around 25 ℃ and there was a forest there instead of desert. This was a good place for walking a few miles, and the mountain top gave you a good view over Palm Springs. We ate at Chinese restaurant again, also highly recommended and one of the best during the entire vacation.

Day 16: Scottsdale

On the way to back to Phoenix were we would take our flight back to the Netherlands, we wanted to visit Joshua Tree National Park. The distance was too long for us, so we turned back at the park entrance. For this day we had a hotel in Scottsdale. Even though we were staying in the area near Phoenix and Scottsdale for two days, we had two different hotels, don’t ask me why. My sister and mother insisted on shopping – even though they didn’t buy anything which they couldn’t get in the Netherlands – so we visited a large shopping mall. It was huge, far greater than anything we have in the Netherlands. For a standard of comparison, Hoog Catharijne is a provincial backwater compared to that. I also noticed a lot of teenage girls who looked like walking fashion industry advertisements, apparently spoilt by their rich parents.

Day 17: Phoenix

On this last day we wanted to visit the Apache Trail. I haven’t seen much of it, because no one wanted to walk the trail in temperatures near 45 ℃, neither did I. On the way there we came across the Goldfield Ghost Town & Mine, which is a ghost town. A commercialised, renovated ghost town to be exact, so the term ‘ghost town’ could not really be justified. I thought it had been better to skip it, until I we noticed some sort of small museum displaying large (living) snakes, reptiles and spiders. The guy who ran the museum, the Superstition Live Reptile Exhibit, told us passionately about the animals on display. Even though it was a very small museum, what could be seen here and this persons interest in telling us about the creatures made it totally worth the money. We spoke about our previous encounter with a snake in Zion National Park. When he showed us a bloody photo of some nasty surgical procedure on a snakebite victim, I’m glad the snake we met wasn’t aggressive at all and that we didn’t accidentally provoke it! Unfortunately I forgot to show him my snake photo so he could identify the snake. After that we drove to our hotel, close to the airport.

Day 18: Departure

We had to rise early at 5:00 to catch the flight to Washington, and transfer there to a flight to Amsterdam. Of course United Airlines, with its boasting that they’re number one in on-time arrivals in it’s advertisements, had to fuck up at this point. The airliner was delayed by 45 minutes. Fortunately Amsterdam was our final destination. If UA really scores best on the lowest amount of delays, I don’t want to know what the other American airways are like.

Didn’t visit Paris

The plan was to leave for Paris on Thursday 5 November, and return on Sunday the 8th. However, the day before I and my father were planning to leave, we were informed at the last moment that Belgian railroad personnel decided out of the blue to go on strike. The Thalys which was supposed to take us to Paris from Rotterdam follows a route through Belgium, so it didn’t depart. Leaving on 6 November wasn’t a good idea because our stay would be too short, so we decided to postpone our travel to Paris to a date which is still unknown.

It could be expected that this would confirm the stereotypes of the Belgians among Dutch like me as is attributed to in the many Belgian-related Dutch jokes, and that I would be mad at the Belgian sabotage of my plans, but that is not the case. For me, it was ‘geluk bij een ongeluk’ or ‘luck in an accident’ if literally translated. I had to write a paper for a course on the Seleucid Empire, which I couldn’t finish if I left for Paris. Also, my throat hurt, and my father wasn’t in his best shape either. Another factor was the rainy weather. In short, the abandonment of our vacation plans didn’t displease us much, and we’re planning to go later.

Places to visit in Paris

Soon during the autumn I will visit Paris. Years ago I’ve visited Paris only superficially and climbed the Eiffel Tower and saw the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur, but of course there is much more to see which warrants a more thorough visit. I’ve been thinking what I wanted to see in Paris. That’s not easy, considering that there’s very much to see there according to the Wikipedia article of Paris. Wikitravel’s article on Paris is also a good read. I’m not sure if I can visit all this in a window of two or three days, but I’ve separated the following attractions in categories of high and lower priority:

High priority:

Normal priority:

Low priority:

I listed the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower under low priority because I’ve visited them before, but I might want to visit them again if time allows. Of course Versailles and Fontainebleau are not strictly in Paris itself, but they are close. This list is not definitive, please comment if you have any recommendations on what I should or should not see.

Photos taken during my visit to Rome

Finally, over two months after returning home, I got around to uploading some photos taken during my visit to Rome. Many photos didn’t turn out well, but here you can see the Colosseum, the Ara Pacis, and the oculus of the Pantheon.


Ara Pacis, front

Oculus of the Pantheon

The second photo of the Arch of Constantine and other photos which I deleted have an unnatural white sky instead of a blue one. I tried editing the RAW files of the last two with UFRaw to correct it, but I’m not satisfied with the result at all. I did some research on why my photos got mangled, apparantly the phenomenon is called blown highlights or clipping. The Wikipedia entry isn’t very informative on how this can be prevented, but fortunately searching a bit turned up this weblog post. It covers the Olympus E-510, but it should apply to the E-410 as well because they are quite similar. That seems to be very useful advice, and I’ll make sure to experiment with this knowledge to see if I’ll be able to effectively prevent blown highlights. I should read the manual thoroughly as well to get to know the E-410 better.

My short visit to Rome

Some time ago I was thinking how I could spend my time during vacation. My father made some suggestions for travel destinations, which included Rome, which he had visited years ago. Because I’m interested in the period of Classical Antiquity, and because it would give me the opportunity to visit the places in Rome I had heard about during my study, I accepted his offer. For this post, I created two maps with Google Maps for the first and second day of my visit of Rome.

Last Friday on the 27th June, I departed to visit Rome for two days together with my father. At Eindhoven Airport we boarded a flight of Ryanair to Rome Ciampiano Airport.

After we landed, we boarded a bus to travel to the nearest station of the Rome Metro, Anagnina. A bus ticket cost € 1,20 and the metro ticket which is valid for a certain amount of minutes (75 minutes AFAIK, there is no limit on the distance travelled) cost € 1,00. This is incredibly cheap. Unfortunately the metro system only consists of two lines, which is a pity. Most of the time we walked through Rome, we didn’t really bother to figure out how the bus worked. We exited at the station Repubblica.

From there on we went to our hotel, the Eurostars International Palace. We were really satisfied with the hotel. It probably was a bit expensive with four stars, but the costs were acceptable because our visit was short. We boarded the aircraft in The Netherlands at approximately 14:30 and we entered the hotel at approximately 18:00. Because it was already late we didn’t have much possibilities to visit attractions because most are closing soon after 18:00. We walked around the surroundings of the Roman Forum a bit, then we picked a restaurant for dinner. After that we visited the Trevi Fountain and then we went to sleep at our hotel.

On the first day we visited these attractions:

  1. Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore
  2. Ara Pacis
  3. St. Peter’s Basilica
  4. Vatican Museums
  5. Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II
  6. Church of the Gesu
  7. Sant’Ignazio
  8. Pantheon
  9. Piazza Navona
  10. Column of Marcus Aurelius
  11. Campo de’ Fiori

To get to the Ara Pacis we took the metro from Termini to Spagna. We passed the Mausoleum of Augustus, which is directly east of the Ara Pacis, but unfortunately it was closed for tourists. We chose to skip the St. Peter’s Basilica because the row was long, and we would visit it monday morning when there was no row at all. We never had to wait for longer than five minutes during our entire visit of Rome. During the morning I started to feel a bit sick, so we returned to the hotel after visiting the Vatican Museums. After lying on my back for a few minutes I felt fine again and we started moving. We were pleasantly surprised that the visit to the Vatican Museums also included the Sixtine Chapel. During this day I experienced that I can’t tolerate a temperature close to 35 °C as well as other people. I was sweating immensely, and needed a lot of water to remain standing.

We visited the following on the second day:

  1. National Museum of Rome
  2. Trajan’s Forum
  3. Capitoline Museums
  4. Roman Forum
  5. Colosseum
  6. Basilica of St. John Lateran
  7. Baths of Caracalla

We had already seen Trajan’s Forum from the outside on the day we arrived, but later we realized that it is accessible through a museum which has an entrance situated on the northern side. All three museums demanded most of our time on the second day, there was so much to see. The Roman forum has it’s entrance on the eastern side, which is important to remember because it’s a long walk if you walk around it to search the entrance. The Roman Forum and the Palatine hill were a bit of a disappointment for me, it consisted mostly of ruins and it wasn’t very interesting. The ticket for the Roman Forum included access to the Palatine hill and the Colosseum. This turned out to be an advantage, because we could later bypass the long row of people waiting to buy tickets at the Colosseum. The Colosseum didn’t interest me very much either. After all, it’s a simple structure made out of bricks, it’s nice to have seen it but nothing more. After the Colosseum we walked a long distance to the basilica of St. John Lateran. It was worth it, because this is the most impressive basilica I have seen after St. Peter’s basilica. One more attraction was on the schedule to be visited, the baths of Caracalla. Again this was a long walk, and when we arrived at 18:50 we were told that the baths of Caracalla closed at 18:30. That sucked because I really wanted to see it, the travel guide we read wasn’t specific because it mentions that the baths close one hour before sunset. The plan was to find a restaurant in Trastevere because the travel guide mentioned that some of the best restaurants were to be found there. The distance to Trastevere was too long for us, we were already spent, so we decided to take the metro from Circo Massimo to Termini. Finally we had dinner in a restaurant close to our hotel. The restaurant and the ice cream served there was good, but the pizza was terrible. The pizza bottom was so thin and hard that it broke as soon as I tried to spear it on my fork. And while public transport is very cheap in Rome, the restaurants are rather expensive.

One thing I regret is that I didn’t plan what attractions we would visit in advance. During the morning of the day of our departure, I read the travel guides and Wikipedia for a few hours to determine what I wanted to visit, but that was not enough. I composed a definite schedule of attractions to visit during the evening in Rome, but I missed a few things which I then unnecessarily had to visit a day later.

I brought my new Olympus E-410 DSLR camera along. I still need to write a post which covers this camera, but so far I’m quite pleased with the results, compared to a point-and-shoot camera. The photos I have taken during my visit of Rome will be uploaded soon.

To conclude this post, I’m quite satisfied with my visit to Rome. If I had the choice to do it again, I wouldn’t go during June, July or August. The climate of Rome features temperatures during these months which are too high for my liking. It was great to see the things you normally see in books or on Wikipedia in reality. I probably enjoyed visiting the museums the most.