Thursday, September 21, 2017

Around the world in 20 days

If only we had 80 days. Unfortunately, we don’t have Jules Verne’s generous vacation allotment, but we do have nearly three weeks – more than enough time to take a short lap around the world. For our circumnavigation, we will visit four continents and touch down in five countries, one island city-state and a former British colony administered by China. For each destination, we will visit a landmark, eat a local dish and snap up a souvenir. And on the 21st day, we shall rest.

A woman glides down the stairs leading to the Tian Tan Buddha statue in Hong Kong, China. Photos: Jabin BotsfordA woman glides down the stairs leading to the Tian Tan Buddha statue in Hong Kong, China. Photos: Jabin Botsford

Day 1: Reykjavik, Iceland

About an hour after arriving on the red-eye, a nearly six-hour flight from Dulles International Airport, we were bouncing along toward the Golden Circle, the nearly 200-mile (322-kilometre) loop with geologic features that bubble, spew and spray. The route provides layover lubbers like us with an alternative to the 830-mile Ring Road, which demands at least a week of your devotion.

Gullfoss, the “Golden Waterfall,” froths into the Hvita River gorge in Iceland.Gullfoss, the “Golden Waterfall,” froths into the Hvita River gorge in Iceland.

With foggy heads and clear skies, we hiked down to the first attraction on the route, Kerio, a volcanic crater lake that is a mere baby at 3000 years old. The gravely path down to the caldera felt like shifting coffee grinds underfoot. I fell more on that short walk than I had over the past two winters. Fortunately, the landing was soft and silly. I also wasn’t the only tumbler in the crowd. A dad and mom created a human chain with their daughter and young son – who eventually lost to gravity. Thankfully, the sliding stopped just shy of the shore; one false step into the icy water and you’re an instant Popsicle.

Visitors enjoy a relaxing soak at the popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Iceland.Visitors enjoy a relaxing soak at the popular Blue Lagoon geothermal spa in Iceland.

At Gullfoss, or “Golden Waterfall”, the water thundered down the Hvita River gorge, releasing frothy white plumes high into the air. In the distance, the mountains wore snowy stoles around their shoulders. The wind started to kick up, and I had to resist invisible hands pushing against me. The force grew even stronger at Geysir Hot Springs, a site gurgling with geothermal activity.

We later visited one of the country’s most popular attractions, the Blue Lagoon. Guests of the geothermal spa follow a ritual that includes a pre-soak shower and the slathering of conditioner on one’s hair to protect locks from drying out. Once in the pool, which steamed like a witch’s cauldron, Jabin and I swam-walked to the bar, where he ordered a cider and I re-energised with a blend of orange juice, carrots and ginger.

Days 2-4: Stockholm

In Stockholm, Tyska Kyrkan, the German Church, rises above the city’s old town.In Stockholm, Tyska Kyrkan, the German Church, rises above the city’s old town.

Stockholm is a cosmopolitan city on par with other Western greats. Locals dress in the urban uniform of black-on-black and shame monolinguists by slipping seamlessly into English. But Swedes also embrace traditions that I had assumed were unsanctioned stereotypes but turned out to be truths.

“I eat Swedish meatballs at home,” our waiter at Slingerbulten told us. “We eat them any day of the week.”

We were interrupted by an eruption of singing from the front room. He explained the Swedish custom of belting out a song before each glass of aquavit. The table next to us dropped their utensils and chimed in.

For a souvenir, I had an idea in my head (keeping it a secret) but feared that no modern Swede would dare own the particular trinket I sought. At K&U, a clothing store on the island of Sodermalm, I plunked a pair of clogs on the counter and, while an employee rang them up, prodded staff members for ideas. The daughter of the shop owner pointed to the wooden shoes and said, “Those.”

The Vasa Museum, said to be the most-visited museum in Scandinavia, offers a cautionary tale about Swedish design – but, in the country’s defence, the Dutch were also to blame for the tragedy. In 1628, the 226-foot-long warship set sail, a move by King Gustav II Adolf, who was seeking Baltic domination. The vessel, which was built by a Dutch shipwright, sank less than a mile from the dock. The Vasa squatted on the seafloor for 333 years before it was salvaged, restored and lodged indoors, safe from unsteady seas and royal fancies.

On the street, I noticed a slow line of cars trailing behind officials riding high on horses and boxing in a carriage. I asked a resident about the processional. She said that King Carl XVI Gustaf was turning 70 the following day and was supposedly throwing himself a birthday bash nearby. This was all so new to me but was so old for the Swedes.

Day 5-7: Antananarivo, Madagascar

In Madagascar, a black-and-white ruffed lemur grabs some food.In Madagascar, a black-and-white ruffed lemur grabs some food.

How badly did we want to see lemurs?

So badly that we spent nearly 24 hours travelling from Stockholm to Madagascar. We clocked more than five hours in a car that corkscrewed along twisty roads crowded with trucks, parading children, crayfish vendors and carts drawn by zebu, the local cattle. We rose early for day hikes to view the diurnal lemurs and stayed up for night walks to see the nocturnal residents. (We snoozed during every car ride, no matter the length.) We also braved leeches, malarial mosquitoes and giant spider webs that hung like lace curtains in the rain forest.

But lemurs aren’t just any animal, and Madagascar isn’t just any African country. The island off the eastern coast is home to all of the wild lemurs in the world - 105 species. And they are nearly everywhere.

Our guide, Liva, was like a heavy dose of caffeine. He was deeply attuned to nature (birds actually answered his calls) and his enthusiasm for the local wildlife jolted us awake. We dived into the thick of Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, stepping high over roots and crouching low to avoid sticky webs. In the distance, we heard the cries of the black-and-white ruffed lemur, a sound that resembled a heavy metal band’s cover of whale song. Cocking his ear, Liva followed the vocals to the source. While we watched a family defend its territory against intruders (little ol’ us?), Liva darted off to scout for other species. He returned with a slew of finds: sleeping Eastern woolly lemurs (so jealous), the rare red-bellied lemur and the diademed sifaka, or dancing lemur, which seemed to be wearing orange leg warmers.

Back in the parking lot, exhausted but elated, I again heard the bellows of the indri.

“They are saying goodbye,” Liva said.

Days 8-11: Mahe, The Seychelles

Andrea Sachs looks out from an overlook near Victoria, the capital city of The Seychelles.Andrea Sachs looks out from an overlook near Victoria, the capital city of The Seychelles.

For the first three countries, we glided through our itinerary with the greatest of ease. And then we arrived in the Seychelles.

We had planned an outing from Mahe, the largest island in the East African archipelago and our home base, to Praslin, a nearby isle with a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The morning of our excursion, I was luxuriating in bed, gazing dreamily at the palm trees outside my window, when I heard a knock. I checked my phone – 7 am – and rushed to the front door to speak with the innkeeper. She said the plane was taking off shortly; we had to leave now.

The airport employee gave us incorrect details. But my phone was also to blame: It was still on Madagascar time, an hour behind. My punishment: no trip to Praslin that day. (We attempted the outing the next day, and succeeded.)

Instead of wallowing, we turned the mishap upside down. We drove (on the left side, a remnant of British rule) to Victoria (all hail Queen V), where we spent a sunny-rainy-sunny afternoon. The compact capital mixes the styles of past colonial powers with the colours and textures of the African culture. A symphony of English, French and Creole drifts through the streets.

Our traditional dish, which we sampled at the Bonbon Plume restaurant on Praslin, was chicken coconut curry. (Pass on the fruit bat.) For our landmark, we hiked around Vallée de Mai Nature Reserve, one of only two locations in the country where the coco de mer palm, the parent of that husky coconut, grows. I kicked around rugby-ball-size coconuts on the white-sand beaches and noticed coconut ice cream’s high placement on menus.

On the ferry back to Mahe, I watched the palm trees on the shoreline shrink to pencil height.

Days 12-14: Mumbai, India

An ancient Hindu stone carvings beckons at Elephanta Caves in India.An ancient Hindu stone carvings beckons at Elephanta Caves in India.

South Mumbai sits at the tip of the city and could easily dip a big toe into the Arabian Sea to cool off. Many of the precinct’s buildings remember the British Raj well, such as the Gateway of India archway, which was built in 1924 to mark a visit by King George V and Queen Mary. Crowds of tourists, many from around India, congregate around the landmark to snap photos of one another and the odd Westerner (I now appear in more than a dozen family photos, including one in which I am holding someone’s wiggly baby) to celebrate special moments such as weddings and anniversaries (look for the women in red) or to catch the ferry to the Elephanta Caves, an ancient stone gallery of carvings of Hindu gods, with real cows and monkeys in attendance.

Long ribbons of shops and stalls unfurl behind the Taj Mahal Palace, the stately hotel across the street from the archway. On the way to Shahid Bhagat Singh Road to buy jangly bangles, we met a feisty woman in an aquamarine sari who anointed herself our shopping guide. She led us to a closet-size store lined with bolts of fabric. Jabin selected a textile and a style, then stood as still as a mannequin while an assistant took his measurements. The proprietor told us to return for the shirt after 5 pm. We promenaded along Colaba Causeway, buying Kashmir shoes from this vendor, a cotton dress with its own ventilation system (butterfly sleeves) from that one, and a few outfits from Fabindia, a chain store that specialises in handcrafted creations.

Before heading back to the hotel with our packages, we took a seat at a beauty salon and held out our palms. An artist drew flowers, tendrils, paisleys and dewdrops on my wrist and hand. Per request, she inked a camera aimed at a bride on Jabin’s skin. She explained that mehndi is a traditional adornment for betrothed-to-bes, who will typically cover the area from their fingertips to their elbows and their toes to their calves. The plant-based dye also contains salubrious properties that can calm individuals about to embark on a stressful adventure, such as marriage or packing for the Singapore leg of a jaunt around the globe.

Day 15: Singapore

Visitors kneel to pray at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Singapore.Visitors kneel to pray at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Singapore.

After the aural jackhammer of Mumbai, the hush of the island city-state was as soothing as a pair of velvet noise-cancellation headphones. Riding in a cab after a 5.5-hour overnight flight from India, I eased into the back seat and listened to the soft-spoken driver point out attractions along the route (Botanic Gardens, the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple) and recommend activities (the theme parks on Sentosa Island, shopping on Orchard Road). After he took a wrong turn to the hotel, he pulled over and turned off the meter as an apology.

By now we were accustomed to bumbling around in a partial zombie state, and we knew exactly what we needed to rejoin the living: kaya toast. The breakfast food is seemingly found on every block and eaten at any hour. We sought out the most authentic version, returning to early-20th-century Singapore for a taste. (The pocket-size restaurant we chose resides in a mall at People’s Park Centre, so time travel required a fair bit of imagination.)

Ya Kun Kaya Toast, a chain with more than 50 outlets Asia-wide, was founded by Loi Ah Koo, an immigrant from China’s Hainan Island who worked at a coffee stall, serving the characters of the day: laborers, merchants, boat operators, money-lenders. In the spirit of entrepreneurship, he and his wife started selling a happier morning meal of grilled toast slathered with kaya jam, a spread of eggs, coconut milk, sugar and pandan leaf, with a cold pat of butter inserted in the middle. Two soft-boiled eggs and a cup of coffee or tea accompanied the short stack of slices.

On my stroll to the Singapore Flyer, the largest Ferris wheel outside the United States, I detoured at an open-air food court (the heat made me do it) and ordered a longan chin chow. The mound of shaved ice wore a cap of grass jelly cubes, tropical fruit and mystery beads that popped like candy caviar. The dish turned into a puddle, and I had to switch from spoon to slurp.

In our dwindling hours, Jabin and I squeezed in a visit to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum, which houses one of the spiritual teacher’s pearly whites in a solid gold stupa. I lit a stick of incense – and called on Tiger Balm to heal my health.

Days 16-19: Hong Kong

The autonomous territory off the southern coast of China pulsated like Manhattan or Bangkok. The gritty, textured city brimmed with discoveries, curiosities and dramatic vignettes. Shadowy alleyways appeared like film noir settings for a shootout or an illicit kiss. Breathing in the warm air felt like guzzling an energy drink spiked with something harder.

We rode the subway (public transportation, a first for us) to Lantau Island and boarded a cable car to Tian Tan Buddha, a giant bronze statue perched cross-legged atop Mount Muk Yue. I peered through the glass floor and noticed a lone hiker wobbling on the trail below. We shared the compartment with a family, and the couple’s child stomped on the trees, just missing the trekker’s head.

By the time we reached the top, Jabin was hungry, and I was still vegetarian. Our positions dovetailed at the Po Lin Monastery, which serves a multi-course lunch of vegetables, tofu and rice. Afterward, we scaled 260 steps to the Big Buddha, who gazed at us beneath drowsy lids. A woman asked Jabin to snap her photo. She held up two sheets of paper on which she had written “Hong” and “Kong”.

“I am travelling around Asia and Europe until my money runs out,” she said. “It should last for a year.” The adventurer, who hails from Vietnam, was sending the images to her father, who was undergoing dialysis and could travel with her only in spirit.

We stayed up late wandering around Mong Kok, a teeming commercial district that keeps insomniac’s hours and is illuminated like a Lite-Brite board. At the Ladies’ Market, a night bazaar with more than 100 stalls, we perused cheap trinkets that were most likely made in the motherland. Our last meal in Hong Kong, and for our entire round-the-world journey, almost didn’t happen. During our quest for dim sum, the first two restaurants we tried said they stopped serving the small plates at 4 pm. We rushed to another dining spot, arriving just in time to order six dishes.

“You are so excited,” a diner told us. “You are acting like you are going to a first-class restaurant.”

Day 20: Home

At New York’s JFK airport, freedom lay just after the customs line: freedom to eat a hamburger with fresh toppings at Shake Shack (pile on the produce), to drink a Diet Dr Pepper (none of that horrid Coke Lite) and to gulp down water with ice (no fear of gastro-wrenching bacteria). At the American Airlines gate, we couldn’t find the burger outlet or the soda pop but, while waiting for our flight to Washington, we chugged several tall glasses of cold water.
Welcome home, indeed.

– The Washington Post