Friday, May 14, 2010

Travel Permit for the Tibet Autonomous Region

We're planning a trip to Tibet in June. Here's an excerpt from the travel permit we must sign to keep the Chinese government happy. My favorite part is that I'm not allowed to "disrupt the peace and prosperity of Tibet."
  • All foreign tourists receiving a permit for the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) through SnowLion Tours and our Lhasa partners must read and agree to the clauses provided in this agreement before applying for a permit.We cannot process permits for diplomats, press agents, Tibetan expatriates, or individuals involved in Free Tibet organizations or activities.
  • Travelers to Tibet cannot apply for the Travel Permit or other necessary documents by themselves. Only Travel Agencies in Tibet (TAR) can apply for and handle these permits and documents.
  • Individual travel outside of Lhasa is an illegal activity. All travelers outside of Lhasa must be part of a guided tour from a government approved agency.
  • The TAR is NOT a fully open area. There are some places that are closed to travelers. Check with the travel agency in Lhasa for the current policies in the areas to which you wish to travel. They will help you to legally enter the areas you desire, if possible.
  • Train tickets in the summer are very difficult to get and we cannot guarantee that we will be able to get your tickets. We will do everything we can, but sometimes we are unable to get the tickets for your preferred date of departure.
  • All foreign tourists in Tibet (TAR) must follow all local laws and regulations. Do not participate in any activity that would disrupt the peace and prosperity of Tibet or do anything that would destroy the Tibetan way of life or their cultural heritage. You will take full responsibility in accordance with Chinese law for any illegal actions you participate in.
  • Understand that any illegal activities will also bring repercussions on the local agencies through which you have obtained your permits. Please consider how your actions affect not just yourself, but also the local Tibetan community!
  • We are not responsible for policy changes. We do everything possible to operate the trip as planned, but policies regarding foreign travel to Tibet may change at any time. We are not responsible for the cost of cancellation, change, or delay due to policy changes.
  • By booking with SnowLion Tours, the purchaser acknowledges that travel in Tibetan regions is remote and unpredictable. Given that these conditions are inherent to travel in the region, SnowLion Tours is not responsible for travel disruption, safety, injury incurred during transportation, or healthcare emergencies. We recommend that you apply for travel insurance in your home country before traveling in Tibet.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

An Interesting Taxi Ride in Cairo

My family went to the sound & light show at the Giza pyramids, which was a rather cheesy but somewhat interesting tourist trap – but that’s not the subject of this post. After the show, we exited through the gate and were immediately approached by a man who asked “Taxi?” We had indeed planned on taking a taxi back to the hotel, and we knew how much the taxi ride should cost, so Amy replied by telling him where we wanted to go and that we would pay 40 Egyptian pounds (about $8). He agreed to the price, which Amy confirmed the price once again, adding “No baksheesh!” (baksheesh is the tips and small “bribes” that are all too common.) “Ok, no baksheesh.”

He now led us past the parking lot packed with huge tour buses to a dark side street where we found an ancient Fiat waiting for us. It looked almost as old as the pyramids, and in much worse condition. He opened the back door first, then reached forward to open the front passenger door from the inside – presumably the outside handle was broken. Turning the key in the ignition resulted only in silence. “No problem!” he exclaimed, and then he push started the car. He pulsed his headlights on but then turned them off again. Inexplicably, many people here drive at night without headlights.

A few minutes later, we found ourselves wandering down narrow, dark, dirt alleyways, barely wide enough for the ancient fiat and a passing horse cart. At this point I noticed that the odor of exhaust, one that I thought might pass shortly after the car started, still persists. To my relief we reached the main road, and shortly afterward, the elevated expressway. Cars and buses were flying by us as the little car struggled to accelerate – still with no headlights on. We reached the Fiat’s terminal velocity – approximately 60 km/hr (38 MPH) – 5 minutes later, about the same time we reach our exit. After several more miles on city streets, we safely reached our hotel. Miraculous! I felt like I had done my good deed for the day; this guy needed the $8 much more than I did.

Egyptian hustlers and touts

As a tourist in Egypt, be prepared: anytime you leave the pampered confines of your five-star hotel, five-star cruise ship, or air-conditioned tour bus, you will be hassled and hustled by anyone and everyone who has any kind of product or service to sell. My friend David Schutt warned me that any time any Egyptian talks to you for any reason, they're trying to get your money. I thought he was exaggerating but now I realize my naive optimism. On our first full day in Cairo, while walking with the family toward the Egyptian museum, we were approached by a seemingly friendly and harmless looking local. I don't know his name, but I'll call him "Ahmed". The conversation went something like this.

Ahmed: "Where are you from?"

Me: "America."

Ahmed: "Ahh, I was just in Hawaii. My son lives there."

Could be true, I think to myself. He speaks English well.

Ahmed: "Are you going to the museum? Well, it's not open til noon, but let me show you how to get there. Here, come with me. Don't worry, I'm not trying to sell you anything, I'm a doctor."

Now my BS detector is flashing red. "It's ok, we know how to get there, but thanks anyway."

Ahmed: "Since the museum is closed, I know a place where you can see how papyrus is made."

After I said no about eight times and three different ways, he finally gave up.

Here's an example that shows just how hard the touts will work. My family was sitting in a taxi driving down a busy street toward Giza and the Sphinx, when a man runs up to the moving taxi and starts a conversation with the driver in Arabic - all while the taxi is still moving. He then runs ahead and around the corner, while the taxi follows and eventually slows. "Excuse me madam," the running man says to Amy who is in the front passenger seat.
"No!" is Amy's immediate response. At this point, we're battle scarred from more than a week of fighting off husslers.
"But," he starts again.
"No!" Amy insists yet again.
"Please, just let me say a few words. Then you can tell me yes or no."
This time Amy graciously lets him speak. "Would you like to ride horses or camels past the pyramids at sunset? I can give you a very good price."
Amy replies, "No, no thank you."
With a dejected look, the man responds, "Ok, thank you madam," and our driver resumed the ride toward the fabled Sphinx.

Another friend of mine, Ian Jones, who is a seasoned world traveler, told us that while in India and Morocco, he dealt with the touts by yelling angrily at them before they even had a chance to speak. You may find this tactic bit extreme, but after you’ve been here for a few weeks, I bet you’d change your opinion.
With 80 million people, most of them poor, and a terrible economy with high inflation, I sympathize with Egyptian and respect how hard they have to work to make a living. Terrorist attacks in years past have been devastating to the economy and even more so to the millions here who directly depend on tourism for income. The constant hassling can be a huge frustration and emotional drain. To keep your sanity, you have to prepare yourself mentally before each excursion from the hotel – and plan a sufficient number of respites from the hassle back in your overpriced tourist accommodations.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Carnival in Patra, Greece

Last weekend Patra hosted it's famous Carnival celebration which, after Rio's Carnival and Mardi Gras in New Orleans is supposedly the world's third largest Carnival. It's a chance to indulge before the sacrifices of Lent take hold. They do throw a big party! Thankfully we had a break in the rain Saturday night so we didn't get soaked. We've had rain almost every day since I arrived three weeks earlier.

The manager of my client's Patra office, Dionyssis Kantas, arranged for us to join one of the groups that marches through the streets of Patra in costume for Saturday night's parade. This involves wearing custom-made costume; our was called "Every Which Way". Hundreds of groups, some with over a thousand people and each with it's own distinct and elaborate costume, marches through the city with music blaring and revelers watching, blowing whistles, drinking wine, and throwing confetti.

After the parade Dionyssis invited us to his flat in Patra where we sampled his homemade wine while waiting for after-parade party to begin at a bar called the Beer Society. Apparently it's called by it's English name even by the Greeks. It started at 11:30 pm. That's right - it started - at 11:30. It was fun, and several of my colleagues joined us there. Amy and I ducked out around 2:30 am to avoid turning into pumpkins, but Dionyssis partied til 5 am. I'm too old for that, I'm afraid.

On another parade on Sunday afternoon includes floats, many of them overtly political satires, although the political humor was lost on us. We brought the kids for this parade and joined our friend Dawn Lawrence and her three boys to watch. On Sunday the adults skipped the costumes but Dionyssis generously loaned the kids costumes for the day, which made it much more fun for them.



Sunday's parade lasts all afternoon and past dark, and the Carnival festivities end with fireworks and the burning of the "king of the carnival" on a barge in the bay. The King is a large paper mache' bust of a king figure. The rain was steady most of the evening -- so much that the King refused to burn properly, and kind of fizzled out. We watched the rainy climax from the comfort of our apartment rather than joining the thousands of drunk revelers under their umbrellas.

Fortunately Monday is a National Holiday - Ash Monday - so everyone can sleep off their hangovers. It's a tradition to fly kites and eat salt bread and a special kind of cake.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Monastery of Mega Spileou

Last weekend I visited the Monastery of Mega Spileou (Great Cave) in the mountains southeast of Patras with my colleague Bob Sarni and his wife Kari. The whole place is being remodeled but a very old chapel is intact with faded frescoes on the ceiling and an icon of the Virgin Mary supposedly created by St. Luke. The setting is spectacular, and the drive into the mountains is scenic, passing olive orchards, vineyards and small hillside villages.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Egio, Greece

Along with Bob and Kari Sarni and the Lawrence family, I spent some time on Saturday morning in the small port city of Egio, Greece (sometimes spelled Aigio) while waiting for a ferry to take us across the Gulf of Corinth en route to Delphi.

The Greeks seem to be fond of building churches into cliff faces, and I took some photos of one such church in Egio.

Greece - Chapter One

I landed at the Athens airport on January 24 along with five of my colleagues and some of their family members, and proceeded to drive our convoy of three rented Ford Focus cars westward for two and half hours to the seaside village of Longos (sometimes spelled Logos or Loggos). Thankfully, National rent-a-car upgraded us all to a larger class of car, or the eleven of us and our luggage wouldn't have fit. In Greece, a Ford Focus is pretty spacious.

Longos is a sleepy village, especially in winter. It consists of an orthodox church, two tavernas, a few mini markets, and a bar, plus a smattering of nearby vacation homes (all vacant this time of year) and mostly shuttered hotels. We're staying at the Harmony Hotel Apartments, a nice place - recently constructed - about 150 meters from the beach. They filled the pool for us, but water temperature is still shockingly cold.
Brad with Kieran (my colleague's son)

The village looks a bit run down, with many half-built and shabby buildings, plenty of graffiti and litter - I would say it's nice from far, but far from nice. The place does manage to retain a bit of charm, though. Kari Sarni and Dawn Lawrence, who are wives of my colleagues, have made friends with the local baker and butcher (but no candlestick maker that we've found yet), demostrating the Greek's well-founded reputation for hospitality.
An odd fisherman's cottage with a tree growing through the roof

Greece is suprisingly mountainous, and the mountain ranges rise up straight from the Mediterranean coast, so their elevation is quite impressive. Mt. Hermos, about 30 km away and home of Kalavrita ski area, rises to 2340 meters (7800 feet). Yes, there is snow in Greece. A fair amount of it recently. We've had rain on the coast all but two of the twelve days I've been here so far, which translates to snow above about 1000 meters. At our apartment on the coast, I've had to scrape ice off the windshield twice this week.

Our first night our hotel host introduced us all to the best of the villages' two tavernas, a tongue-twisting place called Metexetasteoi (using the closest Latin equivalent of the Greek letters). The taverna's chef (and I presume owner) is a flamboyant fellow named Evangelis. We asked him to bring us an assortment of appetizers and main courses. We quickly learned that Greek tavernas are very generous with their servings, and we stuffed ourselves silly with food and wine, but not before starting the evening with a round of honey-sweetened warm Ouzo, which is surprisingly tasty.

The Metexetasteoi taverna in Longos

Driving in Greece is a contact sport, and the pesky traffic laws are merely mild suggestions. The shoulder on the main highway - two lanes only - has been adapted to serve as an extra lane in each direction. Passing on blind curves is expected. If you're driving any less than double the speed limit you'll likely find someone riding your bumper - until they pass you on a blind curve and play chicken with oncoming traffic.

This week a bunch of Greek farmers decided to protest government plans to reduce or eliminate farm subsidies by blocking the main freeway out of Patras, where we work, which bumped our evening commute from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. It seems the Greek police couldn't control the situation so it went on for three days. Thankfully all is back to normal now. It seems the Greeks may have fudged the numbers a bit to join the EU and it turns out their public debt exceeds EU limits so now the government is proposing a variety of austerity measures. The silver lining for American visitors is that the turmoil is strengthening the dollar against the Euro - even if only slightly.

I have just six weeks to go in my temporary Greek home. I'll try to make the most of it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Four freezing days in Berlin

I'm startgin a contract with the German company Agile42, who is consulting with a telecommunications company to help them transition to agile software development methods. Agile42 has recruited a fantastic team of nine consultants to coach the client over a four-month period. The nine of us met for the first time in Berlin last week to prepare.

I arrived on Wednesday afternoon in a cold and snow-blanketed Berlin. Everyone tells us it's been unusally cold here for the past weeks - maybe the coldest in decades. Our gracious hosts, Marion Eickmann and Andrea Tomasini, invited us for Prosecco (which I had to look up - it's the Italian version of Champagne) at their flat, just a few blocks from the hotel. The 'Prosecco' turned into quite an ample feast, starting with Prosecco, of course, plus a delicious sampling of appetizers. Soon the wine and beer was flowing and a variety of hot pizzas arrived from nearby Al Vecchio Trattoria - also delicious. Marion, who is a generous as she is gregarious, soon brought out bottles of Scotch and Grappa, which I unwisely decided to sample on top of the wine and prosecco I'd had.

Hungover and jet-lagged is not a good combination. I learned this lesson first thing Thursday morning, when our team got down to business, but I made it through day. The sun made a brief appearance in the morning, but the mercury never climbed above 20 F, and we collected a dusting of snow on our jackets walking back from lunch. Per our request, Marion arranged a German meal for us all on Thursday evening - Wienerschnitzel with potato salad. Sehr gut!

Friday was another work day and another day below freezing, with the typical depressing overcast skies. The festivities continued Friday evening with an Italian feast for the whole team, spouses and families. Our camped out at the Al Vecchio Trattoria for almost five hours of food, drink, and great company.

Saturday was a brutally cold sightseeing day, with daytime temperatures around -11 C (about 15 F). Our first stop was Potsdammer Platz, a former checkpoint on the wall which has been completely razed and rebuilt, now home of the Sony center - shops, cinema, restaurants. We didn't linger outside long due to the cold so we soon enjoyed a great German meal - and of course beer - at a local Hofbrauhaus (brewery). As the sun was setting we took the subway to the Brandenburg gate, and walked along one of the few sections of the wall that is still standing. After the wall fell in 1989, the east side was completely covered in artwork -- first rough graffiti and later much finer paintings -- which have since been restored and made into a sort of outdoor museum.

We also passed by an anarchists march - about 100 anarchists marching to protest police repression. Ironically, they were being escorted by probably 300 German police in dozens of police vans. Just as frostbite began to set in, we arrived back at Marion's flat in east Berlin where she prepared us a home-cooked German meal - this time a tasty potato dish called 'green sauce'.

I must say 'vielen dank' to Marion and Andrea for their exceptional hospitality toward us all!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Off to Greece via Berlin

I'm at Denver International Airport right now waiting to board a flight to Berlin. About a month ago I signed up for a contract to work with a European telecom company, training and coaching them on agile software development. The company Agile42, based in Berlin, is leading the project and they subcontracted much of the work to independent consultants such as myself. Besides getting over the jet lag, I'll spend Thursday and Friday preparing with the team of consultants at Agile42's office in Berlin. On Sunday, we all fly to Athens, and then from there it's a few hours' ride West to the city of Patra, on the west coast of the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece. On Monday, the two-month first phase starts. Yep, I'll be living in Patra for 2 months. Amy and the kids will be joining me on February 10, but not until they've enjoyed a week-long vacation in Cozumel - a vacation that I had to cancel when I snagged this gig.

But wait, there's more! After two months in Greece, we have two weeks off. We're planning to do some traveling, and we're leaning toward Egypt since it's a short flight from Greece. I'd also like to see some of the Greek islands if we have time. Anyone have suggestions on sights to see in the region?

After our two-week tour, we all fly to Shanghai, where I'll start phase 2 of the contract - another two months. I'm looking forward to the adventure!