Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oktoberfest Munich Tips (No Reservations Needed!)

Oktoberfest Munich: Paulaner Tent
Its 7am. The crisp September morning air contrasts with the stifling crowd that is starting to build. For breakfast, I’ve had a half liter of beer, picked up along the way while walking towards these hallowed grounds. It was only appropriate since I was standing with throngs of revelers, waiting patiently for the Schottenhamel Spatenbrau beer tent to open. Yes, it is Oktoberfest season in Munich, it is a Saturday, and my friends and I have no reservations.

Making it to Oktoberfest in Munich has been on my travel list, and fortunately for me, 2011 shaped up to be the year that I would fulfill this wish. Last fall, I had the opportunity to study abroad in the western Swiss town of St Gallen, which happens to be a quick 3-hour train ride from Munich.

By 8am, a large crowd has formed around the entry we were at. My friends and I were about 15 meters from the “gate”, where a line of bouncers had formed, holding a rope along the entire entryway. By 8:20am, the crowd was getting restless. We were pressed against each other, and to the people around us.
Crowds waiting to enter the Schottenhamel tent
A little after 8:30am, the bouncers started letting people in one at a time. If you were standing along the rope, the bouncers would point at you. When given that signal, you were allowed to dip under the rope, and enter the tent. Try jumping across before you are given the signal, and you will be sternly yelled at, and pushed back.

I was among the first of my friends to be let in, and I immediately ran inside looking for a table. Even though I was among the first couple of hundred people to be let in, all of the open tables had already been taken. I had no choice but to secure a table that was reserved from 4pm onwards.
Interior view of the Schottenhamel tent
The rest I guess is history…or should I say debauchery! If you are considering visiting Munich during Oktoberfest, I highly recommend visiting the fair grounds, and experiencing this historical tradition first hand. Even without reservations, you can still have a great time. Here are some tips for first timers.

Tips for attending Oktoberfest Without a Reservation:

  • Arrive early! Know which tent you want to be in, and head straight to that tent and get in line. (On a weekend, you probably want to be in line by 7:30am or earlier!!)
  • Some of the larger tents have multiple entry points (usually along the side and back of the tent). It might be worthwhile to walk around your tent of choice to find the entrance with the shortest line.
  • Have a plan to find each other once inside the tent. The first person through the guards should rush in to secure a table. Don’t waste time waiting for your friends behind you.
  • Go for the open tables first (tables without a paper taped to the top). Usually, they are located in the middle of the tent right around the stage.
  • If all open tables are full, go to the nearest “reserved” table and secure it. You can tell a table is reserved by a piece of paper taped to the top with the reservation on it.
  • Read the reservation. Often, the table is reserved from 12PM or 4PM onwards. Either of those options still gives you free reign to use the table for 3 or 7 hours before you need to vacate it!!!
  • Be friendly to and tip your waitress. By the 2nd round, our waitress volunteered to ask her manager to let us have our (reserved from 4pm onwards) table for the entire day. If this is not offered, it never hurts to ask!!!
  • Once you have a table, make friends with the people on the tables adjacent to yours. If there is room on your table, allow others who don’t have a table to share it with you. What goes around…comes around.
  • Raise a glass and enjoy!!! Ein Prosit…ein Prosit…Der Gemütlichkeit!
First Round!
Its not even 9am yet!!!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The World We Travel In

Children on the Streets of Aleppo Syria
What a difference a year makes! Just a little over 12 months ago, I was concluding a trip that took me through a spiritual roller coaster in India, an archeological tour in Egypt and Jordan, a pilgrimage along the silk route in Syria and Lebanon, and reliving the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Back then, one chapter of my life had ended, and the next one – as a graduate student in Los Angeles – was just beginning.

Today, a new chapter beckons once again. I am about to move to Switzerland for the next four months as an exchange student. Without any doubt, I will be taking this opportunity to visit parts of the European continent that I have yet to set foot on. Poland, Romania, Serbia and perhaps Bulgaria. I also hope to visit some of the many friends I have sprinkled throughout the continent. 


But as I write this blog entry, the world is again is a very different place from what it was just a year ago. Back then, I recall standing on a knoll on the far western reaches of the Egyptian desert at the Siwa Oasis, looking over palm trees and the endless expanse of sand towards Libya. Today, reports in the news indicate that the government of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya is on the verge of collapse, with rebel forces moving triumphantly into the capital Tripoli. Siwa was also in Egypt, an Egypt that was under the rule of Hosni Mubarak at the time. 


Most shocking for me has been the news that is trickling out of Syria. Last year, I reported how Syria boasts architectural and archeological wonders unlike any I have seen, people that were both welcoming and friendly. Early this week, I listened with disbelief as the news on the radio reports that the Syrian military is plummeting gunfire and rockets on the city of Latakia, the same city of Latakia that I spent four whole days at – relaxing and chatting with students and professionals at a literary café, while listening to live jazz music; the city with beautiful expanses of golden beaches along the sun soaked Mediterranean coastline. 


So much has changed, and I often wonder about the many wonderful people I met throughout that trip. How are they doing? Are they even still alive? My trip through Egypt and the Middle East last year had been well timed. Given the situation in the region right now, I would not have been able to make that same trip this year. Throughout that journey, I learned the virtues of patience and tolerance. I learned that we are all, no matter what we are doing right now, on a journey of a lifetime! It is really up to us to make the most of it! If there is a place that you have always wanted to visit, do it now, because it might not be there if you wait. Keep dreaming and happy traveling!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

STAMPED

It has been awhile, since I have updated this blog, and I apologize for the tardiness. After a whirlwind journey through India and the Middle East, I found myself back at home in Singapore for barely a month, before starting on another adventure...this time, it is back to school at the University of Southern California (USC) for a Masters in Business Administration (MBA).

On the side however, I have also been moonlighting as a Producer for a brand new Adventure Travel Television Show titled STAMPED! This is a show for young travelers, by young travelers, and especially for the backpackers around the world!

Do support us, by visiting our website: www.stampedtv.com, as well as "Like" our Facebook Page

The website and blog is our way of connecting with you, the audience. Check back often for updates and developments, and follow along as we take this project from concept to fruition. Expect frequent updates from the production team, crew, and our host Jessica Felice, as they blog about their experiences. We will also take you behind the scenes with exclusive video and pictures from our destinations.

Happy Travels!!!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Hiking in the Qadisha Valley Lebanon

Overlooking the town of Bucharre, Qadisha Valley Lebanon 
“I have to stop and adjust my bag. It is unbalanced and there is something hard poking my back!”
Rummaging through my day-pack, I find the culprit: a bag of cucumbers I brought along as part of a picnic lunch spread.
“Hahahahaha!” Laurence bursts out laughing hysterically. “Now that you are no longer being raped by a cucumber, can we move on?”

After almost two months traveling through the arid deserts from Egypt to Syria, a few days of hiking in the Qadisha Valley of Lebanon is a welcome change! Here the area is covered by lush green forests, and the air feels fresher. All along the valley are thundering waterfalls and serene monasteries, set among fruit and olive groves. As this is a predominantly Maronite Christian area of Lebanon, the towering minarets and frequent Islamic call to prayers, typical in the rest of the middle-east, are replaced by soaring steeples and church bells. Red-roofed villages with quaint squares and outdoor cafes line the rim of a deep valley, giving the whole area the look and feel of a European alpine resort.

Staying in the town of Bcharré, most of the main sights of the valley, including the highest peak in Lebanon, trails to the valley floor, and one of the last remaining strands of old growth cedars, are all easily accessible. The best (and sometimes only) way to travel between the villages is by hitchhiking, and many of the friendly locals are more than happy to oblige by picking up hitchhikers. Some memorable hitchhiking experiences here involve squeezing two people into the front passenger seat of a peanut seller's station wagon, whose rear seats and trunk were completely filled with all kinds of nuts and dried fruits, and riding with a painter whose truck reeked of leaking gasolene..all the while watching him attempt to light a cigarette and thinking we could go “Boom!” at any minute! 



After two grueling days of mostly uphill trekking, including a failed attempt to hike up to the highest peak in Lebanon (due to an unreliable hand drawn map), I am starting to discover muscles in my butt and calf area that I never knew I had. None of the trails in the area are marked, and some are overgrown with weeds.

The entire Qadisha Valley region still feels somewhat rustic, somewhat untouched. Maybe it is because we were off the main tourist trail, and the only foreign travelers I've seen in the area are backpackers. Maybe it is the relaxed village atmosphere, or the solitude of the mountains where goatherds and their herds roam free. Standing high on the peaks looking down into the valley below, the late afternoon sun slowly descends and low clouds roll in engulfing the lowlands in a thick fog, one cannot help but imagine why some consider this area to be one of the most beautiful places in all of Lebanon.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Another Cup of Tea

Waterwheels in Hama, Syria
“Is salaam 'alaykim!”, I greet two men sitting on their front porch with the commonly used Middle-eastern greeting of “peace be with you” as I walk by. Nodding and a waving back, they smile and respond, “Wa 'alaykum is salaam”, and all of a sudden, I find myself being invited in for another cup of tea. This would be my fourth glass, all with strangers who I had just met, and I have only been wandering around the city of Hama for just a little over 3 hours.


Some of my most memorable experiences while traveling through the middle-east have been meeting and interacting with the hospitable and friendly people of the region. Earlier in day, while walking along the Orontes River, photographing the ancient norias or water wheels that dot its banks, I am drawn to the voice of a little child screaming “heeello”. Turning around, I see a young boy, peering curiously at me from behind an iron fence. Returning the greeting, I wave back at him,which only prompts him to scream “heeello” a few more times. Behind him, his grandfather is lounging on a plastic chair in front of a little hut along the water's edge, and he is waving at me to come on in and sit with him. Not wanting to be rude, I oblige, and I am offered a cup of tea.


Although the grandfather spoke no English at all, we were still able to exchange greetings and a few basic niceties with each other. I found out that he is a carpenter, and the little hut that we were at is his workshop. His job is to repair and restore the ancient waterwheels in Hama. Soon his sons, who also work there joins us, and through a mix of basic English and Arabic, I learn further that his family has been performing this task of repairing and restoring the waterwheels for generations. And in the past, the wood used to come from the forests of Syria, but due to deforestation, the wood now mostly comes from China.



I sat chatting with this family for over an hour, trading stories of my family with theirs, and even going as far as discussing politics, religion and how tourism in Syria is affected by global economics – all the while using only a simple mix of English and Arabic. Being invited to a cup of tea and having the opportunity to interact in such an intimate setting with a Syrian family that could not be more different from my background was indeed fascinating. This is the reason why I enjoy traveling, to have the opportunity to expand my global perspective through encounters like these. As I got up to leave, the grandfather takes my hand, and tells me that if I ever returned to Hama, I must find him right here at this same spot again, and instead of paying for a hotel, I must stay with him and meet the rest of the family. Truly remarkable.

Waterwheels in Hama Syria

However, occasionally my attempt to speak Arabic goes horribly wrong, often leading to confusion or down right hilarity. When arriving into Damascus, Syria from Amman, Jordan, Laurence and I shared a service taxi with two middle aged Syrian women. They didn't speak any English, nor we Arabic, and conversing was next to impossible. Pulling out the Arabic phrase book that Laurence carried with him wherever he goes, I attempted to break the ice by asking them a few common civilities like “How are you?” in Arabic. After I had exhausted all the questions in the chapter titled “First Encounters”, I moved on to the chapter on “Family” and asked the two ladies casually, “Inti mitgawwiza? (Are you married?)” - knowing full well that I probably butchered the pronunciation.

After starting at us blankly for a few seconds, the ladies started pointing at both Laurence and I and proceed to giggle amongst themselves, speaking rapidly in Arabic. Turning to me, Laurence narrows his eyes in a state of realization and whispers quietly to me, “I think you just told them that we are married...to each other!”

Monday, May 31, 2010

Hitchhiking to Mesopotamia

It is Friday, a bad day for traveling, and in particular hitchhiking as it is the traditional day of rest in Islamic Syria. Not only are there fewer buses and public transportation running because all offices and shops are shuttered, most of the local population are also staying home with their families.

Sticking our thumbs out horizontally, making the internationally recognized (or so we thought) sign for hitchhiking, Laurence, Helen and I are walking along a deserted stretch of country road, about 10km northwest from the town of Abu Kamal along the border of Syria and Iraq. We had just left the ruins of Mari, and we heading west towards Dura Europos. The occasional car or truck going by are speeding past us at breakneck speed, showing no indication that they had seen us, or had any intention to stop. It was mid-day, and the sun was beating down hard. Suddenly, a tractor with several women on board appears out from the fields on the south side of the road. We wave frantically and catch their attention. The women smile and wave back, but they were just crossing the road and heading to the fields on the other side.

It would be another 10 minutes before we finally flag down a truck, by waving up and down with the palm of our hand (which is the customary way to hitchhike in Syria). Running up to the cab, we shout out the name of the town we were heading to in Arabic, and the elderly driver nods and waves us up into the cab.

The ruins of Mari contain some of the oldest and most significant archeological finds of our time. Dating back some 5000 years old, over 25,000 clay tablets have been found here, unlocking the history of the earliest of human civilization. Still an active archeological site, the main ruins are covered under a protective tent, and significant artifacts are still being unearthed.


Sitting high on a desert plateau, the Roman fortress city of Dura Europos, with its imposing gate, overlooks the Euphrates river. From the top of the cliffs, the ruins offer commanding views over the Euphrates, as it meanders gently through the plains below. Beyond the river on the other side, stretching out as far as the eye can see is the fertile valley between the Euphrates and the Tigris – the ancient land of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization!



As it has been since the earliest of human civilization, farms line the Euphrates on both sides of its fertile banks. With the urging of farmers down in the valley waving at us, we climb down a set of cliffs to the fields below. The cool clear waters of the river seem so inviting under the sweltering heat of the Syrian desert, but our intention to strip down and jump in was cut short when the caretaker of the ruins (who had been following us) shows up suddenly and sternly instructs us to get back up as tourists were not allowed down on the farms.
How the whole incident played out was a little odd, and we were practically escorted back to the gate by the caretaker. My assumption is that with the border of central Iraq (that is closed to foreigners) just over 20km away, they did not want foreigners wandering off the beaten path and interacting with the local farmers in the area.
 
 
The area around eastern Syria is well off the main tourist path, and aside from a few backpackers, there are not a whole lot of foreigners in the area. This is also the area where the United States government have alleged that the Syrian authorities have been supplying insurgents in Iraq with weapons and ammunition. My travels through eastern Syria and along the Euphrates however have only been met with the open arms of Syrian hospitality – from the friendly men at the coffee shops, to the farmers, and especially the truck drivers who picked us up and brought three hitchhikers safely to our destination.
 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Palmyra

The end was near, and she could smell it in the air. Most of her men – men who went into battle with her, who fought and won in the conquest against Rome and the capital of the Province of Arabia – now lay dead or dying. With the army of Roman emperor Aurelian now encircling the city, the once great city of Palmyra lay desolate. Most of its population have fled into the hills and desert, leaving only its defiant Queen, Zenobia and a few hundred men holding off the advancing Roman cavalry. In a last ditch act of willful defiance, Zenobia, refusing a generous surrender offer from the Romans, rides off in the dead of night on a camel, heading west towards Persia to seek military aid.

Palmyra, mentioned in ancient texts dating back to the 2nd millennium BC, grew in prominence and prosperity during the 1st and 2nd Centuries AD, during the time when the Romans were expanding their empire. Due in large part to its unique location set between two mighty empires, the Romans in the west and the Persians in the east, Palmyra grew to be a major stopping point in the old Silk Route, commandeering all trade between Europe, Mesopotamia and the Far East. By levying taxes on the traveling caravans, the city accumulated untold riches, and built bigger and grander temples, with a great colonnaded avenue running through the center of the city.


The city's colorful history reached a peak when its sitting ruler, Odainat was assassinated, and his second wife, Zenobia (who some believe killed her husband) ascended to the throne. When Rome refused to recognize her as the rightful ruler and sent an army to dethrone her, she met the Romans in battle and defeated them! She went on to lead her army against the capital of the Province of Arabia in Bosra, even going as far as Egypt, conquering and putting all of Syria, Palestine and large swaths of Egypt under her rule!


Unable to stand such outright defiance, the Roman Emperor Aurelian sent a battalion towards Palmyra, this time defeating Zenobia's troops and laying siege on the city. With Zenobia on the run, the once great city was torched to the ground. Zenobia was later captured by Roman forces along the Euphrates river, and carted off to Rome to be put on trial.
  
Arriving into Palmyra on a bus from Damascus, the final few kilometers from the bus station to the center of town required some creative hitchhiking. First, on the back of an ice truck to a small ice factory, where the friendly owner invited me into his home for a cup of tea, and then hanging off the back of a tomato truck for the journey to the edge of town. Walking the final kilometer or so to the hotel through several neighborhood blocks, friendly locals constantly waved 'hellos' and 'welcomes', as kids of all ages swarmed around me, eager and excited to have their picture taken.

The massive ruins in Palmyra, Syria stretches for over 2 square kilometers! 
Having been captivated by the history of Palmyra and in particular the story of Zenobia, I woke up early the next morning to catch the ruins at sunrise – a wonderful time of the day when the low hanging sun casts long shadows between the standing columns and bathe the crumbled buildings in a warm orange glow. Most striking about the ruins for me, was how large of an area they covered, consisting of an entire Roman city stretched out over several square kilometers. Anchored by a hilltop castle on one end, and the Temple of Bel on the other, the city in between hosts structures of everyday Roman life, including public squares, fountains, baths, residences, tombs and temples.



Walking down the grand colonnaded avenue, it wasn't hard to imagine how this once great city might have looked like during Zenobia's reign. In my opinion, with a little Hollywood magic, the story of the rebel queen with a remarkable plot line involving valor, action, drama, murder and love, will no doubt make a successful summer blockbuster, casting Angelina Jolie in the title role. In the end, as Palmyra falls and the city lay in smothering heaps, Zenobia is trialed and paraded down the streets of Rome, bound in gold chains. Later freed, she remarries a Roman Senator and lived out her days happily ever after.

 

 

Monday, May 24, 2010

Through the Lens in Damascus

View of Damascus, Syria from atop Jebel (Mt) Qassioun. It is believed that when the prophet Mohammed gazed down upon Damascus from this mountain, he declared that he only wanted to enter paradise only once – when he died – and so refused to enter into the city. Vying for the title of the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, the Damascus of today is a modern metropolis, cohabiting happily with an ancient old city. From ultra modern venues developing a young, bustling and vibrant art and music scene, to the labyrinth alleys and fragrant bazaars selling anything that can be traded and sold, this is a city that has outlived civilizations and outlasted empires.

The souqs or bazaars in the Old Town are a maze of alleyways that stretches for kilometers. Here, you will find shops selling everything from clothes to jewelery to toys to spices. This picture was taken in the Islamic quarter of Old Town, as evident by the way the women are dressed.

Man selling teas and other spices.

One of the many spice and herbal shops in the old souq. Oblivious to international law and the endangered species act, you can find everything from dried starfishes, turtles and even the skins of wolves and tigers with their heads intact!

A butcher working on a lamb carcass while his shoppers look on.

Right after snapping the previous picture, I turn around to see these two butchers waving at me from the next store. After the customary hellos, they ask me to take their picture. All around the souqs, friendly locals will constantly try to talk to me in the few words of English that they know, and invite me in for a cup of tea. I've had more people say “hello” and “welcome” to me than any other country I have visited.

Right around the corner from my hotel, a lone VW Beetle parked in an alley. All around town there are hundreds of narrow alleys that you can wander around and get lost in. And as one of the safest and friendliest countries I have ever visited, wandering these alleys was something I felt very comfortable doing.

With 36% of its population under 15, there are a lot of children in Syria, and you cannot escape them whenever you are wandering through the neighborhoods. While hiking up Jebel (Mt) Qassioun, swarms of kids would run up to me, wave, and say hello. I caught these two, who I assume to be siblings, sitting on the front steps of their house.

One of my favorite pictures. Also while hiking up Jebel (Mt) Qassioun, I hear footsteps coming up behind me. With my camera hanging around my neck, I turned around and snapped this picture without looking through the viewfinder. Only later when looking at my pictures on my computer, did I realize I caught this kid in mid-stride and in mid-air as he was skipping towards me!

While visiting the Umayyad Mosque, I was waved over by three elderly gentlemen and invited to join them while they were relaxing under the shade along the arches flanking the courtyard. One of them spoke perfect English, and I ended up spending about twenty minutes with them. In this picture, the oldest of the three is turning over to his friend, listening to him translate what I was saying.

The Storyteller. Almost a dying trade, the art of storytelling can still be found in the old quarters in Damascus. Here, Abo Shadi, the resident hakawati (storyteller) at the Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop reaches a climax in his story, picking up his walking stick, swinging it around and smacking it down on the side table for dramatic effect. Although the whole story is recited in Arabic, just hearing the rise and fall of his voice as he retells the story, his big expressions and animated gestures, was enough to make it an entertaining hour!

The Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop packed with people enjoying a late night tea or coffee while puffing on a nargileh (water pipe).


The courtyard at the Al Rabie Hotel, where I stayed at in Damascus. Converted from an old Damascene  house, courtyards such as this were a central part of the house, where the families would sit and relax, often by fountains or pools. Here, fellow travelers that I met are having breakfast together.

Outside of the Old Town, Damascus is faced with the same traffic congestion as any other city. However, the city is well organized with wide clean streets and modern infrastructure befitting of the modern global city that it is.

Damascus has a thriving art and music scene. This picture is from the opening night of a Salvador Dali exhibition at a local gallery. While I was in Damascus, an European Film Festival was also going on, and I was able to catch a free screening of an award winning Polish film.

This picture of colorful fruit, vegetables and pickled items laid out on display at the local fruit and vegetable market sums up my experience in Damascus. A colorful city full of surprises! A burgeoning  youthful population that is adding a fresh new vibe to a city that has preserved its heritage (by some accounts) for over 5000 years.

“To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.”
                            -Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869