May 21, 2013

Hurghada, Egypt


The ride from Aswan to Hurghada was different from what we had experienced so far. The city of Aswan soon gave way to tiny villages. The outskirts of the city were scattered with palm trees and the occasional farmer was tilling his land in the blistering heat. The Nile and its tributaries which fed these fields formed the basis of the economy in this vast arid desert country. Wherever you spot the Nile, greenery will not be far. It is said that 80% of Egypt's population lives around 5 miles from the Nile; thus highlighting the importance of the Nile river to Egypt's economy.

Hilton, Hurghada, Egypt
The paddy fields soon gave way to rugged surfaces with interspersed palm trees followed by swathes of barren desert. Sitting at the backseat of an air-conditioned sedan and looking at the expanse of the desert was a different experience. Though the heart always ached to experience this kind of voidness, the associated thoughts of the 'returning back to civilization and family' was the strong witholding force. With almost no one along this stretch of the road and with the moon-like surface on either sides of the road, driving was a breeze and a treat. We finally arrived in Hurghada around 6pm and soon checked into the Hilton beach resort. The lobby of the hotel was pretty crowded and we had our own inhibitions about the standard of Hilton in Egypt. But those inhibitions soon vanished when we had a look at the beautiful swimming pool and then our excellent sea-facing room. The long journey needed a quick shower and then to calm everything down, we went for a stroll along the beach. Though the beach waters were absolutely dark, the gentle chill in the air with the beautiful moon shining high in a starless sky was captivating.

Hurghada, once an unimposing fishing village has been given a massive facelift making it one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Egypt. It now lays claim to being a total resort destination overlooking the Red Sea, well connected with direct flights from several European cities to the Hurghada International Airport. Scores of hotels, including some of the top-end hotels line the shoreline. It’s a place where you can just decide to put your legs up and relax by reading a book or choose to indulge in the aquatic activities that the Red Sea has to offer. Activities include scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, windsurfing, para sailing and glass boating to see the breathtaking corals under the turquoise waters.


Promenade

The promenade dotted with luxury resorts and hotels on either side, is one of the quietest and cleanest stretches, making it a pleasure to go on a stroll in the evenings. The vehicles are then restricted to just one lane. The lane is filled with a motley of shops selling everything from souvenirs to garments to toys, roadside restaurants and peddlers. A little beyond the end of this lane is where the downtown begins. Bargaining is the key to buying here. Tourists are generally taken for a ride with the prices and hence, never settle for anything quoted without bargaining - be it a souvenir or the activities package. Some hotels arrange for a good package for their guests through some reputed operators depending on the activities that you decide to go for.

The Red Sea shoreline in this area is laced with deck chairs of the various resorts, where you will find some sun-bathing, some reading, some sleeping or just staring at the pristine blue waters in front. The Red Sea coast near Hurghada has a plethora of adventure activity centers, each willing to offer you the 'best deal'. You can haggle a lot on the price for each activity. Choosing multiple activities for many people helps you get a better deal. We finally settled for snorkeling (which also included the glass boat ride) and kayaking. We were taken by the speed boat to a place 20 minutes away, the boat slowing down at places for us to see the corals thru the glass bottom. The boat finally docked at a place in the shallow waters where we jumped off for snorkeling. Having taken our life jackets and the snorkeling paraphernalia, we were all set to experience the beauty of nature hidden under the crystal clear turquoise waters. The first sight under water makes you want to pinch yourself to reconfirm that you are in no dreamland. The corals and multicolored fishes take your breath away. The one thing that you do not want to do is get out of the waters onto the waiting boat after the scheduled 20 minute snorkeling act. Half-heartedly we get back onto the boat and are back at the shore for our kayaking jaunt.

Couple kayaking is fun when you take the kayak far away to the middle of the waters, steering clear of the deep and high tide area, and start your rants leaving your partner with no channel of escape. It’s the perfect escapade for synchronizing your paddle movements and also to sit back and relax at times while your partner takes over completely. Even to turn around your kayak requires both of you to be in tandem making it a good team building activity. After wading in the waters for close to an hour, we head back and decide to give the tired muscles a bit of rest before plunging into the temperature controlled swimming pool for a dip.


Red Sea

Hurghada is the place for a perfectly laid-back holiday or an adventure filled one. It’s totally up to you to switch modes and gears to get the best out of this vacation.

How to reach there: Hurghada is well connected by flights from Cairo or if you are flying in from some European city, there are direct flights to Hurghada International Airport as well.

What to eat: Most of the luxury resorts lined up serve the finest spread for breakfast making you forget lunch totally. Step out and try the roadside magnificent pizza at King's pizza without burning a hole in your pocket.

Tip: Red Sea makes a perfect destination for doing PADI certification as the waters are crystal clear and the corals are well preserved and beautiful.

[This article was published in Deccan Herald on 19-May-2013]

May 15, 2013

Sungei Road Thieves Market, Singapore


( This article was published in The Hindu Metro Plus dated May 11, 2013 )

The intense tropical climate was at its peak and it was as if balls of fire were being continuously thrown from the skies. Even though the body was sweating profusely, the soul wanted to wander amidst the concrete jungle with its air brushed facades. The world’s biggest fountain (aptly named ‘Fountain of Wealth’), which was surrounded by tall buildings, was missing its ceremonious dance. It was as if the water from it had been sucked by the buildings and the Sun.  The only respites were the air-conditioned malls and cars.

I preferred to take a cab and head onto Sungei road, the most uncharted destination in this city’s tourism landscape. The taxi driver asked me to take care of my wallet and then chuckled by saying that I can always find it again in the market in a few days if I took the trouble of visiting again. I bid him adieu and asked lady luck to be on my side and hid my wallet inside my vest.

The Sun was still going strong and I found a new God – God of Perspiration -- in this swarming metropolis. What looked to be the intersection of a few roads, morphed into a bustling market in a matter of few hours. Few people came trudging along with what looked like trolleys used in a super-market. And a few came with gunny sacks on their back. One of them spread a plastic sheet by the side of the road, laid the items cleanly into small heaps on the sheet, took a collapsible stool and hid himself and his items under the shade of an umbrella. The act was clean and fast and was as if he had perfected it after a thousand odd repetitions. Few more joined in and the same act was repeated by the other peddlers.


The intersection of Weld Road, Sungei Road and Pitt Street, now had 50-60 vendors, who seemed to belong to a clan perfecting their art. All this happened while I was sipping lemonade and trying to hide myself from the sweltering heat. I maintained my distance from their stalls and thereby avoiding leaking any of my curiosity. I felt like a cheetah lurking in the tall elephant grass.

In a matter of few minutes my curiosity got the better of me, or was it the heat, and I trudged forward after doing a status-check of my wallet. I perused through few of the stalls without stopping by. My eyes did a quick reconnaissance and found  broken toys, unopened bottles of soda, vintage records, watches, broken cell phones, key-chains, used sports equipment, old postcards, solitary shoes, pirated CDs and DVDs, library books that were never returned and loads of other knick-knacks. I came back to my recon post, and after a quick wallet check, and wiping the sweat off my forehead, trudged again.

One of the ‘spreads’ interested me, and I ducked below the umbrella to get some shade from the sun and also check the stamp-albums and old foreign currencies that were on sale by a vendor. I was surprised to see some really old postcards and some ancient porcelain chinaware that were waiting to narrate their histories. There was even a framed picture of a female yakuza that looked tempting to buy. I picked up a conversation with a fellow buyer who was also checking out a few vintage postage stamps with me under the umbrella. He told me that he was born and brought up in Singapore and has been a visitor to the flea market since early 1960s. He reminisced the days when the landscape looked more a surplus-market where you can find army gear and auto-parts which had either been stolen or were discarded from the factory as seconds. He also mentioned that there were a lot many peddlers then and the market spread over a few more neighboring streets. He also educated me that there have been a couple of attempts to close down this market in the past and reclaim it for residential and commercial developments. He personally knew of 10-20 vendors who have been selling items for the past 15-20 years. He later told me that he was a teacher in the school and always talks about this place and various other heritage sites in Singapore that are either obliterated or vanquished to make way for new developments and infrastructure.

A peddler need not pay any rent or any taxes nor apply for a license; he has to just spread his wares and wait for that prospective customer who might be interested in what he had to sell. Established since 1930s, what was once a haven of fenced goods has slowly changed its character with many of the peddlers selling items that they picked up from the city. Many of these peddlers are known as karung guni (means "rag and bone man" in Malay), but some are specialized in selling second-hand items, factory-surplus and illegally-obtained merchandise.



You will not find this place on your own neither will it be suggested to you. You will stumble on this only if you are on the lookout for flea markets and have researched well online. The odd camera wielding tourist may stumble on this by a sheer chance if he had to walk from the neighboring famous Bugis Market or Arab Street in the tropical heat.

Am not sure whether this vibrant marketplace is going to last the test of the times for a few more decades (or for that matter, years); am not sure whether its history will be engraved anywhere, but am sure that the indefinable wares from their indefatigable sellers will find its way into some of the most luxurious homes or probably end up as just spare-parts.

My wallet was still intact, but my heart cried for this place, yearning to return again. My mind continued to negate any possibilities of having stumbled on such a place in one of the cleanest and safest cities in the World. I prayed to my new found almighty, God of Perspiration, and left the scene silently without a cry.

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