goingplaceslivinglife

Travel, Food, and Slices of Life


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High Value Travel: Private Tour Guides

Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.                                                                                                           Warren Buffet 1930- , American Investment Entrepreneur

 

I met Carol through the internet in 1996. She was a travel agent in California and soon began to provide service for my boss who flew somewhere just about every month. He was surprised I was using a resource located so far from Nashville and had me switch to the agency used by Vanderbilt.  However, when they overnighted a changed ticket instead of messengering it the two blocks, he learned the definition of value. Carol cared about him and providing her service for his monthly travel, and so she was responsive and easy to get along with. He agreed to switch back to Carol and she provided all his travel arrangements for the five years he and I worked together. I got to know her quite well over that time and visited her in California on two separate trips. 

She retired seven years ago and moved to Croatia. Although her parents had emigrated to the U.S. before she was born, she had been there to visit family several times and it felt right to her. Her hope was to provide individual tour guide service to people visiting Dubrovnik  but found many of the cruisers who didn’t already feel they could just see the place on their own opted to purchase a land tour arranged by the ship. It takes some work to find an alternative to a package someone hands you. And at first comparison, the price may not seem advantageous.

So I want to talk just for a bit about the way hiring a private tour guide can make a tremendous difference in the quality of a visit in a new place or as a way to explore areas of a place that are “off the beaten path.”

Just recently my daughter Lisa and I enjoyed a week in India on a group tour. As soon as I learned the itinerary I hired a private guide for some “free time”. It cost $225 for two guides and a car and driver and I was the one who finally called it quits after 8 hours. What a wonderful time we had getting to see non-tourist areas. If you have been reading my blog (if not, just go back about a month in the postings)  you already learned about how they listened to what we wanted and immediately figured out how to show us the real side of what living in India looks like. DSCF6128

About seven years ago, on a circle tour of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, my family visited Mesa Verde National Park. We stayed in a bed and breakfast that hosted Elder Hostel programs. Elder Hostel, now called Road Scholar, is an educational tour program geared mostly to people over the age of 50. I was intrigued by this b&b’s affiliation because it offered private educational programs as well.????????????

We hired a delightful archaeologist who took us on a 3 hour hike on BLM land. With her expertise we walked among ruins and learned more about the Anasazi people who lived in the area than anything the National Park Ranger told us later when we went into the park. I paid $150 for the five of us and it was worth every penny in the new appreciation each of us took from the experience.honeymoon 234

Three years ago one of my sisters presented my daughter and me with a surprise 4 night trip to Paris. She had found a steal of a deal (I’ve shared how to find those types of travel opportunities in a prior post) and was happy to take us. I decided that we needed to really get a feel for back street Paris and searched the web looking for tour offerings. When I found Richard, I knew I had what we wanted.

Shopping in a market in the Marais with Richard

Shopping in a market in the Marais with Richard

cooking_class_mushrooms_cookingRichard Nahem grew up in New York City but moved to Paris when he fell in love with it on a visit. His sense of adventure, eye for detail and love for the unexpected is what prompted me to hire him. Read through his blog to see what I mean.

We paid him 195 euros for 3 hours of back street tours 2 of the 3 full days we were there. In addition, Richard can arrange for cooking classes and also day tours outside of the city, especially to the nearby champagne wine growing area. Please go to his blog to his website about his tour service. Marais Palace family

Finally, Carol Sosa is available for walking tours of Dubrovnik. This town, called the Pearl of the Adriatic, is on the itinerary for many cruise ships. Visitors have between 4 and 10 hours there and yet, it was interesting to watch the kind of activity many chose the nine days I was there. I saw lots of people walking the main street eating gelato and going into the tourist shops and I saw long lines of tourists following a leader holding an electronic microphone. The sound quality was so poor that only the first ten people could probably hear and understand. However, there were easily 25-40 people trailing behind the guide. These tours usually cost between $25 and $40 per person and lasts maybe an hour.

Cruise ship tour group crowds around guide

Cruise ship tour group crowds around guide

In contrast, here are some things we did with Carol taking us on a private tour.green market2

Ivo working as a guide at the Fortress.

Ivo working as a guide at the Fortress.

Dubrovnik back streets3

old city pharmacyCarol has spent the past six plus years getting to know the secrets she can show to a small party. She has found out the shops that have authentic items made in Croatia, not tourist trap purchases found in some of the main street shops. She charges 70 euros per person for 3-4 hours and your tour is tailored to your specific interests. Read her blog to learn more about her.art

In a nutshell, a personal tour guide can customize the trip for YOU. While you can find tour programs that will give you great overviews (several years ago we enjoyed the boat trip on the Thames in London), and a group walking tour can give you tremendous value usually in one hour (like the Ghost Tour we joined in Oxford on that same trip), only a private tour for you and your immediate group can be geared to your interests and specifically address issues you have.

For example, when my camera died on our walk in Paris, Richard was able to take us to an electronics shop that had great prices, and we not only felt assured we were safe making a purchase there, the experience became part of the “getting to see how real Parisians live” experience.

So, consider hiring a personal tour guide, maybe not every day or every place you visit on a trip, but at least once to expand your awareness of what makes that location, the place that interested you enough to plan the trip, so very special.

 


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Crisis Brewing

Throughout our trip to India I heard again and again about the shortage of water. We were told not to drink the tap water even in the Western hotels.  The water was safe, we were told, but the pipes were decaying and the water contained all kinds of “minerals” that would be unhealthy. In other words, the infrastructure of even the modernized areas of the large cities is getting old.

Water cisterns on top of buildings get regular deliveries of trucked in water.rooftop water The city of Fatephur Sikri where the new center of government had to be abandoned after only ten years because of the lack of water gets its water trucked in.DSCF6281 Water tables are falling, making farming resort back to dry methods; the Green Revolution was not the answer to feed the nation because of the lack of available water.DSCF6547

Election-2014-Card-6Meanwhile, the elections for the new government are now over and we wait for the count.  The nation is clamoring for a change, hoping replacing the longtime Ghandi leadership will result in wonderful improvements.

obama chnageI think back to our own experience when Barack Obama offered the concept of change and won handily.  We were all so hopeful, and look what has been happening here in our own country over the past six years. We seem to be more divisive, more argumentative, more angry over everything.

There was a sense of calm in India. It could be as a short time visitor I was insulated and did not truly understand any unrest I may have witnessed, but I got the impression that the religious practices there give the people a feeling about life that is different than what we have. With the Hindu and Buddhist concepts of reincarnation, there is a surety that this lifetime is only one of many.  Perhaps this provides a sense of calm facing what we would consider considerable frustration.Unity-in-Diversity

My visit to the Muslim family in Agra also provided some insight.  As we left and headed back to the market area I asked our guides where that family was in the spectrum of lower and middle class. For sure it would be poverty here in the US. He said it was lower middle class. I’ve reconsidered all I saw in their home that day. Despite the lack of personal space, no television or computer or other toys typically found in our homes, the tiny kitchen space, they appeared to be clean, well fed and all had places to sleep.  The fact that an extended family was living together in what we would consider a small space is a cultural difference not really related to economic status.DSCF6148

We Americans are used to so much more. Out attachment to television and movies shows us products and lifestyles of the rich and famous, causing us to want more, to expect more, to demand more.  We want what we want and we want it now. Deferred gratification is something that has been forgotten.

DSCF6072Perhaps the Indians know better that to acquire more they must work. Because they do work. Oh sure, we saw some people with their hands out. But we saw more, many many more people hawking their wares. Annoying bunch of people. But they were working. So were the people who were sweeping the pavement. The people cutting the grass. All the many many people doing what we consider menial labor so they could earn a living.

So, I started writing this blog thinking that if the new Indian government does not make some improvements there will be trouble. Particularly, I am concerned about water shortages in India.

But now, as I wind this short essay down, I am more concerned about us here in the US. We have so much and we do not know how to live with less. And yet, that day is coming. We all feel it.


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Massage Envy

About 17 years ago my coworkers in the Vanderbilt Laser Sight Center presented me with a gift certificate to a local spa for my birthday. It took me almost a full year to work up the courage to redeem it and when I went into work the next day I demanded a raise so I could enjoy massages on a regular basis. That didn’t happen but they gave me another gift certificate for the next birthday and after that I managed to squeak out the funds from my budget.

I was going through a rough time in my life.  My husband Dave had been diagnosed with brain cancer and I was slowly losing him. Sam was a baby and Dave had charged me with the instruction to keep life as normal as possible. Balancing the needs of a small child, a dying husband, work and my own health was a challenge and the monthly massage was the only time that was ME ME ME. I treasured it.

And so, massage has remained a part of my health regimen ever since. I have been fortunate to find practitioners who had great hands and wonderful technique wherever I have lived.

When travelling it can be tempting to take advantage of the spa, especially when prices are so much lower than here in the States. On the India trip several people who were part of the SmarTours group enjoyed massages at our first hotel in Delhi and told about the experience in glowing terms. So when Lisa and I checked into the next hotel in Agra and learned we could have an in-room massage for about $20, we scheduled one each!

It had been a long hot day so we each jumped in the shower to present less sweaty bodies. The husband and wife team arrived as I was just finishing, and laughingly told us it was not necessary to be clean. That should have given us a clue we were in for a slightly different experience.

My massage therapist here in Oregon no longer works at a spa but comes to our house with his portable table. Lisa and I were surprised they didn’t carry anything….and they at first suggested we would lie on the floor.  They grabbed the towels from our bathroom and spread them on the beds, though and soon the massages started.

There are several schools of massage and the one I am most familiar with is Swedish Deep Tissue.  The technique, Indian Ayurvedic, seemed to involve a lot of short fast strokes that were only on the surface. I have no idea if there are long term benefits of this method but other than getting very lubed up with the massage oil, I can’t say there was any “ahhhhhhh” feeling after.massage

In fact, after they left the room, Lisa and I looked at each other and   laughed for about ten minutes. The joke was on us, but we were only out about $50 total.

 


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Faces of India

Take a look at the people of India……their faces, their pride…their lives.

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Street food vendor in Agra market

 

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Volunteer in Delhi Sikh Temple kitchen preparing food for 1100 people a day

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School girls leaving Ghandi shrine in Delhi

 

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Snake charmer in Amber Fort in Jaipur

 

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Little girl who started following us in Jaipur

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Craftsman in Agra inserting semi-precious stones into marble

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School boys, courtesy of Nancy Leung

 

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Sikhs at Temple in Delhi

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Doorman, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Jaipur woman, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Receiving the blessing, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Guard at Unknown Soldier, India Gate, Delhi

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kids on a team, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Shop by the road, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Street food vendor, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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On a motorcycle, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Climbing up, courtesy of Nancy Leung (I think this is the winner of the being ready at the right time prize!!)

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Wedding guests, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Groom, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Little girl, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Sweeper, Amber Palace

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Roadside hangout, courtesy of Nancy Leung

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Philosophical discussion, Sikh Temple, Delhi

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Mother and son at wedding

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Nancy Leung and her husband Richard on an elephant at Amber Fort, Jaiput

With special thanks to Nancy Leung who was on the SmarTours trip with her husband Michael. Her superior camera and eye captured many of the shots here and as noted in other places in my blog.  After spending hours editing, she graciously shared them with all of us, to use as we would like.


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Animals Everywhere!!

As highly populated as India is with dense urban areas, it is primarily a rural country. While driving between cities, several types of birds were noticed.  These egrets found a safe haven near a farm area. egrets Nancy

We spotted our first monkeys when we drove into Delhi.moneky Nancy Arvind laughed at our excited reaction and assured us we would have a chance to see more monkeys later.  monkeyOn our drive back to Delhi he had the driver stop at an area where monkeys were being relocated from the city.

DSCF6479He told us that the vendor offering bananas and other foods for the animals gave a whole new meaning to the term “monkey business.”   DSCF6520

Lisa purchased some feed to entice some of the monkeys closer, but they remained pretty elusive.DSCF6514

There we also saw a nilgai, a native antelope of India.DSCF6505

I heard peacocks in several areas but it was Nancy Leung, with her superior camera, who caught sight of this one near the Birla Temple in Jaipur.peacock Nancy

Her camera also captured these parrots at the Taj Mahal.parrots Nancy

The bus also reacted with enthusiasm when we noticed our first camel.  camels-NancyThe area west of Jaipur is desert so there were more in that region that further east, but we noticed them working everywhere.DSCF6473

And the elephants!!! elephants-NancyWe got to ride some up the hill at the Amber Fort (more on that later) in Jaipur, but that is a nice touch at a tourist area. elephants-NancybGovernment regulations limit the elephants to four trips up the hill per day.elephants-Nancyc The handlers then ride them into town to find other locations where tourists might want a short ride or photo opportunity. DSCF6424We saw most elephants just as a part of everyday working life along the roadways.wind palacecb


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Hindu Temple Visit

An optional tour one evening in Jaipur, enjoyed by about half the SmarTours group, was to the Birla Hindu temple built a few years ago by a well-to-d0 family.nancyb Designed to show how Hinduism encompasses both Islam and Buddhism with their symbolic rooflines, the white marble structure is surrounded with a white plaza. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi, Arvind told us the ceremony we would witness takes place after sundown.DSCF6463 It usually takes about 10 minutes and includes a chant that is repeated several times. Arvind did warn us that the chanting could go on for a half hour or even longer, but it was a short ceremony after all.

He told us that symbolically he leaves his troubles outside on the steps leading up to the entrance, to be picked up again upon exiting. He told us that the chanting makes him feel very calm.

Arvind made sure we were positioned at the very front of the open room. People filed in behind us and what happened next was interesting.  As soon as the curtains opened and the ceremony began, the crowd pushed forward, as if eager to be as close as possible.

source: Lisa Garmat after the ceremony and people left the temple, from outside

source: Lisa Garmat after the ceremony and people left the temple, from outside

The ceremony actually began when the curtains were still closed. The priests sounded a conch shell, and the tones reminded my of the shofar blown in a Jewish Temple at the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kipur. The curtains opened and before us were two statutes of Vishnu and Lakshmi, beautifully dressed in bright colors. The chanting began, one priest ringing some bells, as done in the Episcopal mass to draw attention to an important  prayer, and the other priest slowly making a circular motion with a candelabra. Candles are lit in Christianity and Judaism as well.

In a few minutes, the chanting ended, the curtains remained open. The crowd circled around behind the curtained area to receive a blessing from the priests in the form of a spicy sweet mixture to eat, one more symbolic similarity to Christianity.nancya

Once again, we are more alike than different. Love one another.


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Leadership Issues

He is running the treasury down, supporting a pet project, spending way too much money on that instead of running the government and taking care of the programs that will help the people.

Sound familiar?

Well, I think this proves it is a perennial issue with leaders because specifically, I am talking about the Emperor Akbar (1556-1605).   As for the Emperor, there was no room for discussion in that kind of government; what he decided was done, regardless of cost.  At least we have a voice, no matter how much it may seem to be muzzled at times.

Fatehpur Sikri, the “City of Victory”, sits 35 kilometers from Agra on a low hill of the Vindhya mountain range. Before Akbar, the site of the future city had already been the site of an important battle won by Akbar’s grandfather.  In gratitude he named the area Shukri, which means “thanks”. In Akbar’s time the site was occupied by a small village of stonecutters and was the home of Shaikh Salim Chishti, a Muslim astrologer and Sufi Saint.DSCF6236

In 1568 Akbar visited the Shaikh to ask for the birth of an heir which was promised soon. Sure enough, Akbar’s wife gave birth to a boy on August 30, 1569. In gratitude, Akbar named the boy Salim after the astrologer, and, two years later decided to move the capital there.DSCF6220

As a strategic location protecting inland routes, Fatehpur Sikri was completed in 1573 but served as the seat of government for only ten years.

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The first planned cities of the Moghuls,  the throne room has an intricate carved red stone platform.  DSCF6227

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although only the palace and mosque sections of the expansive city remain, the architectural details throughout the complex are eye catching.

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The city has a series of rain water channels and large pools to capture any precipitation.DSCF6224DSCF6235 pool NancyHowever, it turned out there was not enough water available in the area to support the court and all the services it needed there. The Emperor was soon distracted by an invasion of Afghans to the north and the Mughal capital was moved to Delhi in 1586.

Excavations of the ancient city started in 1892 and it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. Today the buildings and grounds that are preserved are a small portion of the extensive city that existed in 1585.