Tuesday, April 30, 2013

RTW Trip: Day 61-62 (4/25-4/26) - Melbourne

Day 61-62: Down Under

I landed in Australia to a Prisoner’s Welcome, being hounded by the immigration people at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne, mostly because I am Indian and hadn’t shaved, and written down just ‘Melbourne’ under ‘Address in Australia’ (all of these reasons are conjecture). I was asked a series of questions that ranged from normal “What are you doing in Australia?” to weird “Why did you go to Malaysia and Thailand?” to just too inquisitive, “How did you pay for your ticket?”. Anyway, I neatly answered the questions without acting too nervous or annoyed, and left the airport and met my Aunt (my Dad’s sister) Rosita in the airport. Soon, her husband (my Uncle Jude) picked us up, and we departed the airport and started our one-hour drive back to their house.

I hadn’t seen my Aunt in 16 years. I hadn’t seen her son (my cousin) Gavan in the same time. I had seen Lisa, my other cousin, a couple years ago when she visited the US. But overall, this was kind of a reunion a long time coming. Because of Skype, I at least knew what they all looked and sounded like, but it was strange to even be near all of them at once, instead of a 15 hour flight away. I was quite tired by the time I reached their house, what with getting all of seven hours of sleep over the preceding 48 hours (the after effects of watching Les Miserables instead of sleeping didn’t make me miserably tired until today). Of course, as this was a holiday in Australia, the whole family was at home, making me feel a little more embarrassed to retire to a quick nap instead of stay up.

I got up a few hours later, in time to have lunch (my first home cooked meal in a while), and watch the Anzac Day tradition: Essendon take on Colingwood in a footy match. I am almost positive that that will be the most Australian sentence I will write in my time in Australia. I had a brief encounter with Australian Rules Football one night at 3AM on ESPN2. I had little idea what it was I was watching. I considered it something like rugby, but after watching Essendon take on Colingwood, I realized that Aussie Rules Football (or Footy, which is what they call it) shares little resemblance to rugby, and therefore even less to the NFL. What I grew to realize through my time watching this weird game was it really is most like soccer, as the goal is to kick the footy (the lower-case refers to the ball) through two football-style uprights (although it can be kicked on the ground), and to get it in that position, it either has to be bumped or kicked between players. The position and buildup of play is very much like soccer, but the rapturous hitting and tackling during play isn’t.

Footy doesn’t have the coordinated, exacting brilliance of the NFL, nor the elements, the hitting, and the strategy (at least for a newcomer, my cousin who loves Footy to about the same scary level I love Football seems to be pretty aware of some strategy going on). However, what it does have is the non-stop action that makes soccer so beautiful. I’ll honestly say that if I was given the option of following both in the US seven years ago, I’m not sure what I would have picked. I probably still would have gone with Football, but I can probably safely say that Footy would be my #2 sport would it have been played in the US.

This particular game is an Anzac Day tradition. Anzac Day is essentially the Australian version of Memorial Day, however the country seems to truly take it as a reason to remember those lost in battle, instead of using it as a proxy for the beginning of summer. The day in Australia starts with memorial services across the country at dawn, followed by a march and some daytime drinking (as everything in Australia should, in my mind), and comes to its best conclusion with a Footy match featuring Essendon (which happens to be the club my cousins ardently support) and Colingwood. These two always play the Anzac Day game, this year in front of 90,000+ at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground). Colingwood was the favorite, and for most of the game, they seemed to at least have a better flow to their game. There are two ways to advance the ball, as I mentioned. The first is to bump it to another player, but that player can be then tackled in hopes of the other team ending up with the ball. However, if it is kicked and the player catches it on the fly, they can pause, and get a free kick to advance or shoot the footy, known as a ‘mark’. Colingwood always seemed to have players in the right positions for marks, and generally seemed better prepared, but their shooting (or kicking) was awful, many times missing the central goal (6 points) for one of the side goals (1 point), keeping Essendon close.

Then, in the final quarter, Essendon, maybe after a plan of conservation, started flying around the pitch, easily controlling the quarter, ending the game on a ridiculous run to win going away. I think that some of my enjoyment of the game was the fact that the team that my household supported won the game. They were underdogs, so winning by that margin was surprising, but even them being close kept my cousins entranced in the game, and because of that, me as well. By the end, I was ready for more. I got my wish a night later, as I witnessed a cracker of a game.

Before that, I did my first bit of sightseeing in Australia. Because I am coming back to Melbourne for a full working week where my cousins and Aunt and Uncle won’t have as much free-time, I saved my days to roam around Melbourne for then, and we did the more lengthy trips for now. For my first full day in Australia, we decided to do the site that is furthest afield: driving the Great Ocean Road. The Great Ocean Road is actually an extremely long stretch of road along the Southern Coast of Victoria (the state that houses Melbourne), that stretches for hours and hours. We decided to go about two hours away from Melbourne, to stop at Lorne, a seaside town about an hour into the road. We chose this town for two reasons; first, because it served as a natural turn-around point for a half-day trip down the road, and second, because it served kangaroo meat.
The road to Lorne was paved with beautiful views of the vast Melbourne farmland, and then the beautiful Australian Coast. In many ways, it was reminiscent of South African. Part of this was also the weather. After struggling through over 50 days of oppressive heat and humidity (I’m pretty sure I had at least 40 days with a temperature over 30 celsius), I was back in livable temperature. The forecast for my four days in Melbourne was 20-22-25-20. Basically, between 65-75, with little to no rain. Now, this wasn’t as perfect as Cape Town, considering that was the dead of summer on the Western Cape, but this was about as perfect as I could ask for. Finally, after weeks of hiding my head in shame for being the sweatiest man in the room, I could hold my head high as the least cold man in the room.

We reached Lorne around 1:15, after leaving Melbourne around 11:00 (which was an hour after our planned departure, which is what happens when you have sleep deprived people trying to wake up on time). Lorne is really a beautiful little town at the base of a cliff on the Coast. It has the usual tourist traps with shopping even more expensive than the already expensive prices in Australia, but also has some great eating options with open-air seating overlooking the Southern Ocean (a new Ocean!). We ate at the Lorne Hotel restaurant, a place where my family in Australia took another cousin of ours, Ian, when he came to Melbourne last year, and a place that they assured me served Kangaroo meat.

I really had no idea that Kangaroos were used as food in Australia. I also had less idea of how Kangaroos taste. There isn’t really any animal I could compare it to that I had tasted because there really aren’t many animals like Kangaroo (I can’t say that I’ve tasted Wallaby, or Wombat). Thankfully, it was really good. It was maybe a smidge better than the Kudu I had in South Africa (boy, wasn’t it fun to have strange game meat again). It didn’t reach the ridiculous heights of the Crocodile Ribs, but it was pretty close. Kangaroo meat was really succulent, not at all like the tough game meat we are used to in the US.

After lunch, we took a walk back to the car along the Lorne beach, where I witnessed my first group of people surfing. I have no idea how anyone can surf. I’m not saying this about their psyche, but just pure geometry and physics, and I have no idea how It works. Anyway, it was quite a sight to see people actually successfully surf. We then headed back to the city. Instead of just seeing the same stuff from the other angle, Gavan drove us back in a slightly different way, going by the Port of Melbourne (to the Southeast of the city), by some nice houses and beautiful views of Melbourne from afar. Finally, he drove us by the houses of Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne, two of Australia’s most famous cricketers (or in Warne’s case, former cricketer). I was a little amazed that these houses were so easily accessible, but Gavan told me that in Australia, there aren’t any gated communities, that star atheletes live in normal areas, and from what I saw of their big, large houses planted right in the middle of the rest of the normal people of Brighton, a posh suburb of Melbourne.

Soon, we were back in the house after a long day, just in time to watch Port Adelaide play Fremantle in Friday Night Footy. These were two of the few teams in the AFL (Australian Footy League, I’m assuming) that aren’t located in Victoria, with Fremantle being near Perth out West, and Adelaide being near Adelaide. It was a far lower scoring game than Colingwood and Essendon, but a more captivating one. Port Adelaide is apparently a team predicted to be awful, but somehow 4-0. Fremantle is supposed to be decent. The game was a bit sloppy, but late in the match, Adelaide led by three or four with about two minutes to go, when Fremantle scored a great goal to take the lead. Then, with about a minute left, a loose ball was deftly scooped up and pounded through the goal by Port Adelaide to take the lead right back. And finally, with the clock expiring, a desperation kick by Fremantle was batted towards the goal, bouncing with a free patch of grass ahead, but slowed down and stopped about 10 meters away from goal (and a Freemantle win). It was everything the sport is supposed to be and everything I want sport to be. Footy probably shouldn’t define my time in Australia, but heck, this is a sports blog. Footy is awesome.

Monday, April 29, 2013

RTW Trip: Day 60 (4/24) - Singapore

Day 60: Sin-Ga-Po’

The one hidden trick in using United mileage tickets (or any tickets) is that any stop less than 24 hours is considered a layover, and therefore a free day off during flight. Because of the high connectivity and proximity between Southeast Asia cities, it is hard to get a real layover in any city. However, for some reason that is unknown to anyone, almost all international flights leave India late at night. How Late? Well, my Singapore Airlines flight out of India to Singapore left at 12:15 am, and that was probably the earliest flight out of India I’ve ever taken. Well, because of this, my flight in Singapore lands at 8:15 am local time, and because of the advantages of night flying, Singapore has a flight to Melbourne at 9:00, and a flight to New York (through Frankfurt) at 11:55. So, being a person who loves to maximize utility, and doesn’t mind the prospect of a total flight time (counting layovers) of 46 hours, I took the decision to have two extra days in Singapore. I wouldn’t get to experience Singapore at night, but Singapore during the day isn’t all that bad.

I arrived in Singapore at 7:40, about half an hour earlier than the expected arrival time, fresh off of a 4-and-a-half hour flight aboard Singapore Airlines’ beautiful Boeing 777-300ER (probably the most efficient plane in the world). This was my first experience aboard Singapore Airlines, known as probably the pinnacle of commercial aviation. I was still in economy, but it had all the trappings that most airlines pass over. They had menus (there were only two options, but still). They gave complimentary wine and beer at the start of the flight when we were on the ground. They had the largest movie selection that I’ve seen (I’m no longer really impressed at the depth of South African Airways’ movie collection, as I guess the 100 options is kind of standard). My one quibble is that their video screen wasn’t a touch screen, which is strange. Still, their food was very good (for airline food). Their beer was very cold (often a problem on planes). They had more drink services than any flight I’ve been on when adjusted for length. Their seats had more room than most. All in all, it was a great flight.

My only issue was that it was way too short. Obviously, this isn’t their fault, but the distance between Mumbai and Singapore isn’t long enough to get a good sleep, especially when one is determined to watch Les Miserables (I fast forwarded through the more boring parts). I arrived in Singapore off of essentially two hours of sleep, but surprisingly awake, ready to experience the most unique city in the world.

Butterfly Park in an Airpot? Well, Anything Goes in Changi

Since I arrived early in Singapore, I decided to take some time to explore Changi airport. Like most things in Singapore, the airport is just plain unique and brilliant. I was in Changi’s T3, the newest of the airport’s three main terminals, and while there are certainly more glamorous, grander terminals with larger glass facades, those terminals are mostly soulless and empty. This is the opposite. All around the terminal are fountains, rivers, greenery, and other subtle reminders of how nice this place is. One of the hidden treats of the airport is the garden walking tour, as the three terminals house an Orchid Garden, a Cactus Garden, a Rose Garden, a Butterfly Garden and a few other gardens I’m forgetting. Only two are in T3, and only the Butterfly Garden appealed to me, so I went there and had scores of butterflies flutter by me. Around 9:15, I finally decided to escape from my dream world inside Changi airport and head for my Dad’s cousin’s flat in the heart of Singapore. Because I waited a good hour from when I arrived to leave, I encountered one of the true rarities in air travel: no line at immigration. Seriously. Zero line. I’m not sure why those people were even there, waiting for passengers to come through immigration. After a quick hop, skip and jump (escalators, mostly) to Singapore’s Changi MRT station, I entered the clean, efficient and always punctual Singapore MRT, off to Orchard Street.

I would have loved to sleep on the MRT, but the Singapore one is mostly outdoors on the path from Changi, so I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to view Singapore. What immediately struck me about the city was just how damn clean it was. I knew this already, but you kind of make yourself forgot just how clean clean can be. About an hour after my trip started, I landed outside the Orchard Road station, greeted by the only bad part of Singapore: the heat. It may because I was expecting it, or it may be because I had been to hotter places on this trip, but I actually was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t seem as hot as last time. Certainly, I was already sweating greatly after the 15-minute (really 10-minute, but I was misdirected) walk to the apartment, and certainly I was already patting myself on the back for packing not one, but two, changes of clothes, but it really wasn’t as bad as last time.

By the time I finished catching up with my Dad’s cousin, enjoying the incredible view from their beautiful flat high above the heart of Singapore, and bathing the sweat away after she generously let me have a shower to clean off, it was around eleven. I was dismayed, because the amount of time between 8:15 (my estimated arrival in Singapore) and 9:00 (my scheduled departure) is never as much as it really seems. We made plans to meet up again at the flat around 4:45, to leave for a dinner on the East Coast Seafood Center, which gave me a good five and a half hours to play with. I had seen most of the main sites in Singapore last time I came, so I knew I could relax. There was just one major hole in the sites I had seen, and it was a big one. I hadn’t visited the Marina Bay Sands Resort and Casino, a stunning, sprawling hotel and entertainment center in the heart of Singapore’s Bay.

The Marina Bay Sands

I took the MRT to the ‘HarborFront’ station, which opens out to the Marina Bay complex. I first went to the Gardens by the Bay, a beautiful botanical garden complex featuring multiple sections of Asian flora. By the time I finished, it was nearly 1PM, and I was getting increasingly hungry. From the Marina Bay, I took a cab to Clarke Quay (or more accurately, Boat Quay – but no one’s really heard of Boat Quay), the riverside walk up the Bay. I went to lunch at Riverfront Grille, a restaurant overlooking the river, one of the many on either side of the river. I ordered Crispy Calamari, which was essentially dried calamari, which was very, very good, and a Scallop in XO sauce. I posit that ‘XO’ is just what they write when they don’t know or want to convey what the sauce really is. It was fine, but not as good as the Crispy Calamari. I had long dreamed of being back in Singapore, eating a meal overlooking the Quay, and while it was a bit hotter and more than a bit emptier than I remember it (I, as do most people, usually ventured that side at night) being, it was still good to be back.

From there, I went back to the Marina Bay. Thankfully, the cabs were a lot more affordable than I remember them being, because my zig-zagging wasn’t really the most economical way to see what I saw. I wanted to go to the casino, partly because as a foreigner, I could walk past the sad locals who had to pay a $100 fee to enter the casino floor. Of course, had I known the amount that is gambled by everyone in that casino, I would have realized that a $100 fee isn’t really that large. I wanted to play some poker, but unlike US casino’s there aren’t small tables. The smallest table had a $10 ante, which is kind of ridiculous. I decided to go with $250, with a rule that if I fell below $150, I would leave. This put me as short stack, which ended up being no disadvantage. However, it took me a while to realize this. Apparently, Texas Hold ‘Em in Singapore is played in a Blackjack style, where the players at the table play against, and only against, the dealer. Basically, it takes bluffing out of the game. I had no idea this was the case for the first three hands or so, which caused the other two older Asians at the table to ask me if I knew how to play. Of course, I didn’t show myself of knowing after the effing dealer Rivered me twice in a row. I left with about $175, which considering I didn’t know what the game was, wasn’t all that bad.

The sight of a strange version of Texas Hold 'Em, and also some of my money

After I finished losing money in the casino, I decided to go spend some more over at the hotel. I was smart, though, in foregoing the normal observatory deck experience for a drink at the rooftop bar instead. While it sounds extravagant, the $20 scotch isn’t that bad considering the view is included in the price, and considering it costs $15 to just go to the observatory deck on itself. So, basically, I was paying the view for $15, and getting my scotch for $5. After my Mom and I utilized a similar loophole at the Menara KL, I realized that this should be standard operating procedure at any observatory deck. The view from the top of the Marina Bay was quite stunning, giving me the best view of Singapore possible since the Marina Bay Sands is located across the Bay from the rest of downtown Singapore. I sipped my scotch slowly, knowing that this was about as good as I could have imagined my first day in Singapore going.

After I finished with the observatory tower, I decided to venture back over to the Clarke Quay area, to check out an old haunt from my last trip, the micro-brewery Brewerks, at the end of Clarke Quay. This time, I decided to take the MRT there as I had some time. The beers were nice, a great way to relax the afternoon away. I soon left and took a cab back to the flat, where I had another shower (again, despite it being less hot than normal, it was still way too hot for me to be totally comfortable). We soon left to pick up her husband on the way to the East Coast Seafood Center.

Good Ol' Clarke Quay

More than anything, I was looking forward to a meal at the East Coast Seafood Center, a string of seafood restaurants on the sea on the southeast side of Singapore. Being near Changi, it is a perfect place to go right before heading over to the airport, and serves as a great plane-spotting point, as the planes fly over the seafood center on their descent into Singapore.

We went to Jumbo seafood, one of the two main seafood restaurants in the center (the other is Long Beach Seafood – they both have essentially the same menu and about the same recognition and reviews), and we had a nice little feast. First was bean and tofu (much better than I expected), prawn curry and ginger fish. And finally, the main course, with two black-pepper crabs, the large crustaceans pasted with black-pepper sauce. Despite it seemingly being an easy to make dish, nowhere on earth is it as good as it is in Singapore. Nowhere on earth can you get that food, in that setting. There was no better way to end my day in Singapore than with a black pepper crab. Of course, as I went back to Changi airport and used their peerless wi-fi, I remembered that there was no better way to enter into the 1st World part of the trip (Singapore, Australia, Japan) than Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

RTW Trip: Day 56-59 (4/20-4/23) - Mumbai

Day 56-59: Let's Pause so I can Talk About Sports 

So, I really didn't do anything in Mumbai outside of eat, drink and be merry. The only sightseeing I did was take some requisite pictures of the beautiful VT station (if only there wasn't roughly 200,000 people circling the outside of the building), the Taj Hotel and the Gateway of India. I had two different Thali meals. The first was a fish thali, which was the strangest Thali I've eaten, because it barely had any non-meat  dishes, which is a foreign concept to what a Thali normally is. The restaurant was named 'Kurry Klub' which seemed odd, since both 'Kurry' and 'Klub' usually start with the letter 'C', so there didn't seem to be any reason to stylize them to 'K'. The fish thali was very good. The next day we were a little more adventurous, going to Samrat, and all veg restaurant, to have their noted Veg thali. Despite not being to fond of the idea of not having the option to have meat, their thali was very good. My favorite was the semi-sweet dhal with a well-fried puri, but nearly all of their late dishes were good. It was one of the first all-veg places that served alcohol (only beer), so my cousin and I ordered a bottle each. The waiter, probably not expecting anyone to order beer, just stared at us for like 30 seconds, seemingly unaware of what to do with that request. In the end, he realized what we were asking, gave us the beer and we enjoyed a nice Thali lunch.

In lieu of writing more about cavorting with my cousin, I'll take some time to write about sports, which I still do follow to some degree.

I was able to watch some NBA Playoffs, as they're "shown" on Sony Six (the channel most known for having the IPL rights). They advertised their having the playoffs heavily, but come Day one of the playoffs and the opening game of Celtics-Knicks, and come 12:30 AM in Mumbai (matching the 3:00 noon start time for the game), what did we see on Sony Six: cricket highlights.Apparently, them buying the rights doesn't precipitate them actually showing the games. Still, It is hard to really get into these playoffs, as the only real question is we have to answer is "how many games will Miami lose in the playoffs". As someone who still vehemently hates what LeBron James did that night, I laugh at the NBA being reduced to a formality. I laughed when all analysts were giving the Heat a pass for a mediocre (for them) start to the season, full with losses to good teams and close, lazy wins to bad ones. I laughed harder at the NBA when those analysts were proved correct when the Heat decided to play at their collective best and run off a 27-game win streak. And I laugh now when the playoffs has been reduced to wondering if a team will ever have to face a Game 6 on their way to a repeat. The whole 'not one, not two, not three....' thing was fun when they lost to the Mavericks, a team almost impossible to hate, in 2011. It isn't as fun now when it could be true.

Thankfully, the only team that I think can beat the Heat, the Spurs, have their mojo back. I don't know if they can beat the Thunder*, but I didn't think the Thunder could beat the Spurs last year, and it is poetic justice if the Spurs return the favor. The Spurs can do some of the things that work against the Heat. First, they space the floor and shoot and hit threes about as well as any other team in the NBA. Also, they have two big men that are good on both ends, including one that on a per-minute basis has probably been one of the 10 best players in the NBA this year (Tim Duncan). I'm not saying they would beat them, but that they have the best shot of any team to beat the Heat. They also are lucky that they'll face a slightly injured Denver team, and avoid Memphis until the WCF (if they get there). The only thing I care about in these playoffs is seeing the Spurs get to the finals, where they'll most likely lose. But they'll definitely go down swinging. Plus, we'll get to remember that beautiful Popovich vs. Stern thing back from November.

* I wrote this before the Westbrook injury. I think that injury just kills the Thunder's chances at getting back to the finals. And as an Heat-hating NBA nation, let's hope that is the case, because without Westbrook, the Thunder lost one of the few real advantages they had on the Heat (the PG position). The Spurs should beat them, if not the winner of the Clippers-Grizzlies in the previous round*


These things happened during my next Diary entry period, but let's talk about what just happened in the UCL. Both games happened when I was in the air, but because of the modern magic known as bittorrent, I was able to see most of both games. I'm not surprised that Bayern won, and I'm not surprised Dortmund won. Obviously, the scores are surprising, but even then, both Dortmund and Bayern were talented enough. I'm not ready to say that Germany is know the center of world football, that they're a shoo-in to go farther than Spain in the World Cup next summer. No, but I am ready to say that their brief rennaissance with back-to-back wins over Barca was as good as the 2012-2013 season was going to get for Real, and that Barca's many issues were finally exposed, all at the same time.

Barca even coming into that match had been decidedly average (by their standards) in UCL play. They had won just one of their four matches in the knockout rounds. It was a stirring match, a 4-0 win ober AC Milan in the Camp Nou after a sullen 0-2 loss in the San Siro, which allowed them to do something historic. In retrospect, that was nothing more than one last day in the sun, one last memorable moment. They were the better team against PSG, but they needed some good fortune to win on away goals. And now, they were, for maybe just the 2nd time in the Messi era at Barca, undressed. The only other game that comes close in my memory was their 1-3 loss in the 1st Leg of the 2010 UCL Semifinal to Inter Milan. That Mourinho led team easily could have won 5-1, as they gave Barca nothing (other than the one goal) and countered with ease. This was worse. Here, Bayern actually gave Barca nothing, and countered even better, as they easily could have won 6-0.

Barca still had their massive edge in possession (although 67-33 isn't as one-sided as it normally is), but for once there was no way for the commentators to say Barca had been the better team. No, they were the worst team. For years, Barca had started to care less and less about defense, and now, with Puyol and Mascherano (who was already out of place as a full-back) out, and Pique lost most of the night, they looked terrible. For years, they've gotten rid of players who don't fit their system besides their different but appreciable skill (Eto'o, Zlatan, Keita), instead going with a more of the same approach, but all that does is make Barca totally susceptible to injury concerns, which finally happened. For years, they've become increasingly more dependent on the play of Lionel Messi, and while Leo has been up to the challenge, he finally got hurt, and he was still clearly not 100% (and let's hope that is true, because if not, there isn't much explanation for his, in all honesty, bad play in the game) and the team just fizzled. Their passing game didn't work, with Bayern picking them out constantly. Their one-on-ones didn't work as Alaba and Dante and Boaten handled those with ease. Nothing worked for Barca. There is no way that they can turn this around.

Real has a shot, because a 3-0 win is doable. Very unlikely, but doable. Their loss was different, but no less important, as a final coronation for what Dortmund has done the past three years. One day after the news that Mario Goetze, their uber-talented young star, was sold to Bayern, he and the team went out and just dominated Madrid. This isn't surprising, because last year a better Madrid team was outplayed over 210 minutes by Bayern in the semifinal, but this was getting outplayed but also outplanned. Jose Mourinho once had this type of team, with Porto in 2004, that outplayed the big boys. The thing is, though, that Dortmund is not really a Porto, but more of a Chelsea (from the Mourinho era) without the money. These guys won the Bundesliga the last two seasons (lost it this year). They have many players that play for Germany. Robert Lewandowski isn't German, but he's a well-experienced International. This isn't a normal 'random UCL semifinalist', but a team that absolutely could win the title.

Although, to me, this is still Bayern's year. This is a dominant team, as well constructed as any I've seen since the first Barca team that won six trophies (the 2008-09 unit that featured Eto'o and Henry along with Messi up front). They have talent and toughness and tactical brilliant at all three levels. They still have nearly all of their players in their prime. I'm not sure who Mario Goetze is supposed to step in for, but with Pep Guardialo coming on board next year, we could be starting something special here in Bayern. This team already has been to the UCL Final in 2010 and 2012, losing one to just a better team (Inter), and choking away one to a worse team (Chelsea), but they rose to the occasion. The best way to do this whole thing would be to beat Barca at home as well. Barca's down on the mat. Bayern can finish them.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

RTW Trip: Day 51-55 (4/15-4/19) - Goa

Day 51-55: What Else Would You Do?

So, what did I do in Goa? As little as I probably could do without losing my sanity, which basically means I did what anyone does in Goa. It wasn’t as exciting as last time because back then Goa was new, an incredible change to anything else I’ve seen or experienced in India. Also, last time we were staying in Calangute, a beach in North Goa that is one of the most action packed, where things are open later and there are many more people around you enjoying the experience. In the high season, the crowd could be a nuisance, but when we were dining in the quieter South Goa, it became something I missed. I was upset at first, even, about the lack of people and the lack of shacks lining the beach outside our resort, but when I first felt that calm ocean breeze on my face as I sipped my 50 rupee pint beer and ate our 250 rupee Squid Masala, I kind of forgot about all of that. I was back in Goa doing exactly what I did last time, doing what everyone else does in Goa. What else would I do?

The only downside to our stay was that there was just one shack in the reachable proximity from the resort. There were a couple others, but they had closed for the season. We were staying at a Mahindra resort (an Indian resort company), and their patrons were roughly 95% Indian. This fact is the bane of the shacks near the resort, since, as one shack owner told us, ‘those Indians don’t eat at the shacks. We don’t serve a lot of Veg’ (before anyone claims racism, the shack owner was Indian). The one shack near the hotel was decent, but convenient, so I used it for my daily afternoon “tea” (beer and appetizer), but we ended up going to one of the other more exciting beaches in the nights for dinner. All the beaches we went to were still in South Goa, so they weren’t as full or as colorful as Calangute, but they served their purpose.

Out little Mangalore styled bungalow

Goa during the day is like most Coastal Indian towns, meaning it is way too hot and way too humid to do anything for ten minutes outside without getting incomfortable. The only place on the resort property that was cool was the second floor of the main building (overlooking the long path from the building to the beach, with rows of houses housing the rooms on the way, as well as two pools and a bar), who’s one face was open, and because of its elevated level, provided a nice breeze. My Mom called this place Mangalore (her hometown), as it reminded her of her house, with an elevated open-air area where the cool Mangalore breeze flew in. I soon joined in, as many parts of Goa reminded me of Mangalore. One of the stranger ones was a distinct smell that I used to get when walking back to the room at night outside the town-house. The smell was one I hadn’t smelled in 12 years (the last time I went to Mangalore when my Grandmother’s house was operable. It was the smell of the outdoor bath house (what we all called barn), a strange, burnt, beautiful smell.

The only complaint I have with the shack food is that almost all of the shacks share essentially the same menu, meaning the only differentiable quality is the ability of their cook, something very hard to tell ahead of time. If it was more crowded, we could have known by which was most popular, but at this time of year all the places either had no one or one or two groups, so it was really hard to know where to go. Luckily, not only are the menus largely the same, but so is the quality of the food, so we ended up eating at fine enough places.

The first night, we went to Colva Beach, a beach about 10 km north of Varca Beach (where our resort was). Colva had a row of shacks, all with one or two people. In the end, we went to the one that was closest to the parking lot, because when they’re all basically the same, it is such random factors that makes you choose one over another. There we were met with our first of many questions about what type of seafood to eat (one of the many fishes such as Kingfish, Pomfret, Sea Bass, Shark, Red Snapper, or Prawns, Squid, Mussels, Crab), and in what preparation (butter garlic, rawa fry, masala fry, stuffed). At least half of the permutations and combinations were tried by the time we left Goa. That first night I also enjoyed my first beer, one that was either 1 dollar for a pint or $1.75 for a 675ml. Decisions, decisions.

The next night we decided to try our luck with one of Goa’s more normal restaurants, as we went to the famous, reputable Martin’s Corner, an authentic Goan restaurant near Colva beach. Though it wasn’t sea-side or on the beach, it was close enough for the cool air to rush in. Martin’s Corner is a large open-air restaurant with live music, a more modern setting in an old part of Goa. The food is traditional Goan fare, so we ordered meat dishes, instead of the normal shack food that we were having like an IV morning, noon and night (not a total bad thing). We ordered Goan Sausage (as good as ever), Mutton Xacuti (very good), and Squid Vindaloo (also very good). The music was a little loud, but we expected it given that 80% of the reviews on Tripddvisor mentioned the loud music as the only real negative, but the singer had a decent voice. All in all, our one foray to a real restaurant was pleasantly good, but still not seeing the waves cascade onto the sand in front of you while you eat is a little sad.

The other meals out we ate at the same place, the same shack in a beach about 10 km south of Varca: Cavelossim. We decided to go there originally through some research that showed that there was a line of shacks near the Leela and Holiday Inn Resorts in Cavelossim. Well, we couldn’t go there because to get there we had to walk quite a distance, and it was still hot. Instead, we went to a line of shacks along the beach a bit further up North. It didn’t surround the lap of luxury in the Leela, but it did still share more similarities to what I remember Calangute to be than anything else I had seen in South Goa. There were about five shacks in a row, each with a few patrons, but the first had a lot. It was by far the busiest shack we had seen so far, and, as a sign of how popular it was, there were a lot of Russians.

Sure, it seems a bit racist to say Russians, but to anyone who has spent time in Goa, it makes total sense. Russians are as omnipresent in Goa as sand and cheap alcohol, fleeing cold Russia to beautiful Goa en masse in the winter months. This was the tail end of their winter season, but even then there were as many Russians in the shack as Goans. The restaurant even had a couple of their employees (co-owners, as most of the crowd-facing employees of the shacks are) converse with them in Russian. Some shacks even have Russian menus, and all have Russian signs under English. Goa is a strange, strange place, where Russian is the 2nd Language, and Catholicism is the 1st Religion. You really have to ask yourself, “is this India.” More so when the shacks closing at 12:00 in the offseason is seen as disappointingly early.

There’s really not much more to write about our time in Goa because we didn’t do anything else. We didn’t see any of the already limited sights. The best sight in Goa is the sun descending on the calm water as you walk along the palm-tree lined beach. The other best sight is seeing ‘Rs. 90’ next the line item of ‘Kingfisher 675ml’. There are a lot of churches and even old houses that belonged to ancestors of Goan families, but these things aren’t very close, and cabs in Goa seem to be the only thing more expensive there than it is in the rest of India. No, Goa isn’t about the sites. It isn’t about the churches and the houses. It is about the food, the beach, the alcohol, the late nights under a clear sky.

*****Top 20 Cities Update******

I’ll do a real update in a bit (because I don’t have too much to write about ‘Mumbai, Episode II’), but for now, I have to address how I now feel about ranking Goa #6 on my Top 20 International Cities list. I didn’t really think it could change, but it has. I will say that if I qualify ‘Goa’ to ‘Calangute’ or ‘North Goa’, then the #6 ranking is a little more applicable. I still think Goa makes a ridiculously good first impression. We went at the perfect time (January) and stayed in one of the more exciting, lively areas (Calangute) the first time around. Here, we went in a below average time (April) and stayed in a more picturesque, less crowded time. It allowed us to appreciate the natural beauty of Goa more, but it wasn’t the same experience for me. I do think ranking Goa at #6 was a bit of a high ranking on my part, but at its best, Goa is that good. This time it just wasn’t Goa at its best. Still, it was better than a whole ton of places that get a lot more publicity.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.