Saturday, January 25, 2014

To Bait A Fish

"Stay in the present, honey," she said to me before a hug and a kiss and a wave with an "I love you guys" to boot and then she was gone, disappeared into the Hanoi traffic and we were headed back to the hotel. I had woken up that day with an ache in my heart. Not realizing how much I missed my friend but also how long it had been since Mike and I had a third party join us, a person who both knew us, loved us, and reminded us of who are inside this busy, bustling world - something you can lose sight of when changing scenery every three days.
"You always are focused outward," she said. "In New York you were always running from tutoring or some other job and commitment." She was right. "What about just spending time on you, with you. Just spend time asking yourself questions, but really spend the time."
It always boils down to the same question and traveling has made me grateful I have the luxury to ask myself it: What do I want?
I have what I need. I have a loving family and amazing friends and I married Mike. I wanted to travel the world, and I have and I am. I wanted to move to New York and I did, twice. I wanted to marry Mike and I did. But when it comes to the next frontier, my the landscape looks...exactly that. Dot, dot, dot. It's not bleak. It's not even foggy. It's just dot, dot, dot. Is it writing I want? More freelance work? Tutoring? Teaching? Social work? Motherhood? Is it to write a play or complete a book? Is it to volunteer in a field completely different? Is it to move or to return or to stay put?
Sitting in the water puppet theatre in Hanoi, when the lights dimmed, that same feeling returned...Ahhhhhh, the theatre. I wondered what happened to this? How I strayed so far from my first love? How I ended up at 32, ten years away from a world I once was completely consumed with. There was a time when there were no questions, only a goal. There was a time when it all was clear. What happened?
The show was sung in Vietnamese, but it didn't matter. Most of the characters were always chasing after something bigger than themselves. The two dragon fish chasing the bait that was bigger than them, The fisherman chasing the wild fish that pulls him into the water. It is not until the fish catches him by landing on his back that the fisherman is free to go behind the curtains. Is that our nature? To chase after this thing that will always be bigger than what we actually see? To want the big fish, even if it drags us under? Or what if it really is about the thing catching us? You can fish for a long time, but you can't force the catch.
Not sure what I'm saying anymore, and I certainly didn't expect to walk away from a visit with a friend so raw and I really didn't expect to be pondering philosophical life choices after watching a Vietnamese water puppet show. But, that's just it. I guess sometimes the fish catches us.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Path to Buddha: Crossing the India-Nepal Border

Zhong Hua Chinese Buddhist Monastery at Lumbini, Nepal
We left India through a series of trains, rickshaws and buses. After taking the overnight bus from Delhi to Gorakhpur, we were greeted by a swarm of 30 men, most of them taxi drivers, trying to sell us a taxi ride to the Nepal border. We made the mistake of hesitating which gathered a larger crowd. What we wanted to do was take a shared jeep ride but as the train station emptied it became clear that there were no other travelers with the same idea. We would have to wait for the jeep to fill which could have meant all afternoon and we didn't want to cross the border at night. So, instead we had a rickshaw driver take us to the bus station which

was only a stone's throw away but we were thankful we did this because there isn't really a bus station. There is a street with buses parked on the side and the destination are all written in Hindi. The rickshaw driver told us which bus was headed to Sunauli which we would have never found on our own. Before stepping on the bus, a tout tried to sell us seats on another bus that he said would get their quicker and was cheaper. But if there is one thing India has taught us, it is that anything that sounds too good to be true is.
We made it to Sunauli and followed two young men with loads of goods, figuring the must be headed to the border. There is only one main road to the border so no need to take a rickshaw if you follow the traffic. We got our exit visas stamped on the India side which took about ten minutes and then walked across the border. An India official asked us if we got our passports stamped and when we said yes, he wished us well and waved us through. On the Nepal side, we went straight to the visa office to the right, filled out our forms, paid for our visas and got our stamps. (If you do this, be sure to pack a passport photo and American dollars, although a couple people were able to pay in Indian rupees.)We took the locals bus to Sunauli and besides the piercing horn that the bus driver used every three seconds, the ride was pretty cool as we got to see parts of rural India and more of the country life. Unfortunately, much like the urban parts of India, there is no waste management system and the garbage sometimes eclipses the country's natural beauty.
New friends
Sunauli is lined with buses and we just ducked our heads into a few and asked which one was headed to Bhairawa, which is about 4 kilometers away. We paid 15 Nepalese rupees each and embarked on a crazy little bus adventure after that. In hindsight, taking a taxi straight from the border to Lumbini would have been worth it. They pack the buses so tight in Nepal, that you will have people on your shoulders, at your feet, and almost on your lap. No one spoke English and everyone knows when to get off. We asked one young man if one of the stops were at was Bhairawa and he said yes. We got out right in front of a bus station, feeling super proud might I add. But we soon learned by one of the few people hanging around that buses to Lumbini were two more kilometers down the road.
Mike turning a giant prayer wheel
We decided to walk it, also a choice that wasn't worth it. After walking two kilometers along a dusty road, we were still nowhere near the right place, so we hailed a cycle rickshaw and he took us another kilometer or two down the road and made a left turn to a huge gate that read Lumbini. (Don't be fooled, it's still 23 kilometers away) We jumped on a local bus and I think paid about 45 rupees each and had another crammed bus adventure. But the bus loaded up with all sorts of people, young and old, Hindu and Buddhist, merchants and school kids and it was kind of a fun ride despite the cramped space. Nightfall came quick and we asked one of the young men on the bus if we were at Lumbini. He promised to tell us when, but we also could have taken the cue by the clearing of the bus at the Lumbini Bazaar. The Bazaar is only one small street across from the road from the main temple complex. (Bring a flashlight if you do this because Nepal has regularly schedule and unscheduled black outs.
Mike gives a photography lesson
We found a room at Lumbini Village Lodge which was better than Lumbini Garden Lodge, but still left much to be desired. The bathroom had a small flood from the leaky sink and toilet and there were more mosquitoes in the room than outside the room, but after so much travel, a bed was all we really wanted.
The food in Lumbini was not great, but the service is so slow that by the time your food arrives, it is delicious. But we did find amazing egg and cheese sandwiches at the Lotus restaurant across from Lumbini Village Lodge. (Keep in mind if you go to Lumbini, there is malaria in the Terai region.)
The next day we rented bikes and had a blast. We rode around the temple complex and visited the Maya Devi Temple which sits on the birthplace of Buddha. The site has been excavated which reveals a sandstone carving from the 14th century displaying the nativity scene of Buddha's birth as well as stone behind bullet proof glass marking the exact spot. At the temple we met many school children eager to practice their English. We ended up taking lots of pictures of them and with them at the centuries old tree dripping with prayer flags at the Sacred Pond.

We then cruised around visiting all of the Buddhist monasteries and temples in the West Monastic Zone. At one point, we stopped for a snack near the Lumbini museum and one of the kids we had met earlier was in line with Mike. Mike ended up buying him a juice and just before we took off on our bikes he came up to Mike and handed him a small Buddha pendant on a necklace, an offer of friendship.

The next morning we boarded a bus (Golden Travels) to Pokhara and thus began the worst bus ride of our lives. (P.S. If you want to book your own bus ticket in Lumbini, the ticket stand is a little red booth to the left when you come out of the bazaar.) When people say the buses in Nepal are the worst, they mean it. While the tourist buses are nice, the roads are terrible, the bus drivers aggressive, the buses have no heat, and the constant rattling and winding up the mountain is brutal. When we arrived at Pokhara, we were both sick for a couple of days. But, much like Lumbini, getting to Pokhara was totally worth it.
Outside Maya Devi Temple

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

40 No-Bullshit Travel Tips for India

Old Delhi, India


After two months in India, and now two weeks into Nepal, I am still reeling from our time there. It was an experience I will forever be grateful for and an education that is priceless. Like I said before, there were spiritual highs bumping up against wretched lows (as quoted from a friend) but a wild ride indeed. For anyone stumbling on this blog, especially women preparing to take on the adventure India will surely guarantee, make no mistake, India is hard travel if you are doing it on a budget. I hold nothing back in these travel tips because if India taught me one thing, it was to be a straight shooter. I also found a little decompressing from this list, and I hope it is helpful in some way to someone else one day. Good luck!

1. Book your train tickets in advance. The population is too big and the wait lists too long to bank on last minute travel. This is why we ended up in Lucknow, India for a couple days at nightmare hotel, Hotel Raj.

Hotel Raj, Lucknow

2. Bring a lock of your own that is big enough to tie up two bags to a train seat but narrow enough to wind through two shudder handles to lock a window that may or may not have more than a screen instead of glass. Also, lock up your goods when you leave your hotel room.

3. Read Indian newspapers. It's important to know why that hotel manager said not to travel through Bihar on the overnight train.

4. If you can experience the Diwali Festival in Varanasi, you should. But pack earplugs and don't stay more than a couple days or you might start experiencing post traumatic stress disorder from the continuing fireworks and firecrackers warding off the dark along with your sleep, your nerves, and your resolve.

5. Ladies, cover up. Shoulders, cleavage, and legs. You think you can handle a few mad dog stares, but it only takes one really long, menacing one to unsettle you for good.

Ladies made of Broken Bangles, Chandigarh Rock Garden

6. Buy a solid guide book but also do your online research. Any restaurant or hotel printed in Lonely Planet has a high chance of a knock off near by with the exact same name. Case in point: The Brown Bread Bakery in Varanasi. (Go to the place with the rooftop terrace and the clothing shop on the first floor.)

7. Nothing is for free in India. Nobody is being nice just because. There is a sell behind every offer of help. If you accept the help be prepared for the sell.

8. Never go with the hotel touts or the silk touts or the rickshaw touts. If someone takes you to a hotel or a shop, they are getting commission and your rate will automatically be at least 30% higher, sometimes up to 60%.

9. Invest in comfort foods when you find them. Your tastebuds will need a break or at least a cozy reminder of food without cumin and chili pepper in it.

10. Stock up on probiotics before your trip, but also don't be afraid to drink the lassis.

11. When you have hit your threshold with overstimulation, acknowledge it and spend a day curled up with a book, drinking chai, or scanning Facebook just to remind you that just like weekends are needed in the work week, days in are needed in days out on the road.

12. Before booking a room, ask to see it and don't be shy about picking up the mattress. If you think you might see bed bug droppings, trust that instinct.

13. Pack a sink plug and detergent. The traffic in India causes for extreme amounts of pollution and just like you will definitely need to shower everyday, your clothing will also require more maintenance.

14. If you have to arrive in the dark at some destination, try to pick the morning instead of the night.

15. Know your price going into every situation and don't hesitate. I can't say it enough, but do your research and practice your poker face. That way, when you are bum rushed by 20 rickshaw drivers when you pull up at night in Khajuraho, you won't have to be escorted by policeman to a special booth just to gather your thoughts before being released back to the wolves. Also, if the other rickshaw drivers say the driver you did pick is drunk, he probably is. On that note, don't be afraid to stop the rickshaw and GET OUT.

Cremation Ghat, Varanasi

16. No matter how many times you read Number 15, you will still have to experience this the hard way. Sorry.

17. If someone asks you how long you have been in India and if it is your first time, they are trying to find out how green you are and what they can get away with. Tourism is bread and butter in India but the scam is the jam. You will not pay "Indian prices" as told to us by a rickshaw driver in Varanasi. But it is still important to haggle for something fair. That's how you get rid of that "greenness."

18. If you are a lady, just don't go out at night. If you do, you will notice that you are the only one.

19. Before you hand out money to the kids begging for money in Kolkata, know that every child in India is offered a place in school, but many do not accept because begging proves more lucrative or their parents are exploiting them.

20. Visiting The Golden Temple at Amritsar is totally worth it no matter what it takes to get you there. But if you plan on staying at the temple, you will be confronted with bed bugs (as told to us by an Australian traveler.) And while we are on the topic of hard to reach places that you must see, Darjeeling is totally worth it, too. These were two of our favorite destinations.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

21. Read The White Tiger.

22. People will cut you in every line possible unless you say something. It's just the way things are. Don't be confrontational, but stand your ground. However, when a woman cuts, it is actually acceptable.

23. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer- always have these.

24. Oranges and cashews make the best bus/train-friendly snacks. And while it is good to offer anyone in your berth some of your food, be mindful of accepting food from strangers.

25. Booking accommodation ahead of time saves you stress, but you will get a better deal if you just show up to a place and ask for the price you want to pay. On that note, be aware of cancellation fees particularly if you use Agoda. We got charged $45 once for a cancellation two weeks out!

26. Ladies, buy the Diva Cup or pack lots of tampons. I found zero in two months in India.

27. If you visit the Kalighat Temple in Kolkata, and you should, you will not understand what is going on unless you do take up one of the Hindu priest touts offering to take you around. This was an exception to our rule for us and we went into it knowing we would be donating money at the end. But when they ask you for 1,000 rupees, 100 is just fine, and in fact 10 times more generous than some of the guide books suggest. Also, don't be surprised if you see a small goat being sacrificed. AND, the cheapest and fastest way to get there is by Kolkata's very nice subway.

28. If you go to McLeod Ganj, volunteer in one of the conversational English classes. I highly recommend the one at Learning & Ideas for Tibet (LIT). You will get more out of this than you know and you will soon find yourself saying hello and having warm conversations with people wherever you go in town.

McLeod Ganj, India

29. If you plan on going for a safari in Bandhavgarh, it is best to try to book ahead now because you can no longer add yourself to a car. Your name has to be added to a permit and you will have to pay the exact same amount as if you were taking a private safari. HOWEVER, know that if you don't book ahead, you can still arrange a permit and a driver without a hotel's help (or commission fee) and that you will more likely get the Gate of your choice. It takes a little elbow grease to figure it out, but the town is tiny. Just go up to the permit counter at 5am or in the afternoon around 1pm and ask how to do it.

30. When you purchase a snack or water, look at the MRP (maximum retail price) printed on the item. That is what you should actually be paying for it. Sometimes cola cans (which usually have them on the bottom) are mysteriously missing these MRPs along with expiration dates. In that case, go to another shop.

31. If you are very sensitive to smells, a little tea tree oil under the nostrils is a good trick when your train seat is close to the toilet.

32. Before we left, an Indian-American friend said to me to only buy water products from Coca-Cola and it was a good tip. Not all of the packaged water is actually filtered and if you are buying lots of plastic water bottles, crush them when you dispose them so they cannot be "packaged" with unfiltered water and resold. On that note, ask your hotel if they have a filtered water fountain that you can refill your water bottle for 5-10 rupees to try to cut down on the plastic disposal in India.

Mt. Khangchendzonga, Darjeeling

33. If you suddenly find a clump of shit on your shoe and a shoeshiner magically appears to point it out to you and offers to clean your shoe for a fee, he's the guy that put it there.

34. If you show up at a hotel you booked online and the manager tells you that you are booked at his "other hotel," fight the good fight. This happened to us in Agra (on our anniversary, no less!) when we booked Hotel Sheela (Lonely Planet's top choice). When we arrived, the hotel owner said we were actually booked at his other hotel - Hotel Sheela Inn. We had just arrived on a long train ride and had to ward off a persistent tout who hopped in our pre-paid taxi to try to sell us his many tours and services, so we weren't thinking on our feet. We were driven in their "shuttle taxi" a kilometer further away from the Taj Mahal and then asked to pay 100 more rupees a night. We argued our way 200 rupees off the original cost for the bullshit trick and agreed to stay at the Hotel Sheela Inn.

35. Don't tell anyone where you are staying, not even a tourist policeman. We did this in Jaipur and found the rickshaw driver we shook off at the train station, waiting for us at our hotel still trying to sell us a half-day tour around the city. He had to have gotten the information from the policeman.

36. If something sounds too good to be true, it is. If a rickshaw driver offers you what seems to be an incredibly reasonable fare, be prepared to be taken to his friend's souvenir shop or his uncle's rug shop along the way. Insist to get where you are going or this can lead to an ugly expectation/exchange.

37. If you take a sunset boat ride to visit the cremation ghats in Varanasi - two things. Be respectful of photography. Only take pictures when your captain says it is okay. Also, be prepared for a man dressed as a priest to come aboard your ship and tell you all about the process and then ask you for money so that the families can buy the special expensive wood needed to burn the bodies of their love ones. It's a scam, same as the guys on the actual steps of the ghats offering to bring you to a spot with a better view. Your view is just fine.

38. If you have friends with family members in India who offer to host you, take them up on it. As a westerner it is almost impossible to penetrate the real India, but staying with an Indian family will be as close as you can get. You will learn more about the country and experience more about India's truly rich culture in a few days with a family than an entire month trying to figure it out on your own.

39. Ladies, if a man or group of young men ask to take a photo with you, insist your husband or any male traveling companion is in it with you. Or, it is totally okay to actually tell them they have to ask your husband's permission. But don't just jump into any picture and make it clear -no touching. No arms around you or shoulder squeezes. Also, it's okay to say no to photo requests.

40. Don't lose your cool. It's important to be firm but losing your temper is never good and much like road rage, you never know who you may be pissing off or who has had a bad day or a bad year. And to that degree, also don't take the hustle personal. Many of the touts and hassles are simply a way to pay the bills. As a Westerner, you cannot hide the fact that you are privileged, and if you think you can, the exchange rate signs around every town in India are spilling the beans. Take the hustle with a grain of salt, but try your best not to be a sucker, and remember that knowledge is power but confidence wins all.


Queen Victoria Memorial, Kolkata