It’s a strange feeling trying to acclimatize to a new culture, new meal times, new language, while also planning for our return to the states. For the past year, we’ve moved from one country to another and learned a new set of customs every month or so. Next week we’re returning to what we call our home, what is supposed to be normal, except it hasn’t been our home for a long time.
When traveling, you’re always planning the next step. In Indonesia, we were looking into how to get a SIM card in Nepal. In India, we were making plans for Turkey. You are booking flights and researching hostels, looking at exchange rates, local foods and significant cultural sights.
But planning for the next chapter of our lives is much different. Our planning involves researching health insurance, used car prices and reading profiles of cities in the US that might be our next home. We have been doing all of this from farms in Spain. In the morning we have been working outside harvesting beets, sorting dried beans, or cleaning out silos. But at lunchtime, I’m Skyping with Leticia at the Maryland Health Connection office and Zach is sending out applications for farm internships in North Carolina. We are returning to our country, but starting something new.
I have to admit, I have a whole boatload of feelings about coming home. I’m dying to see my sister and my niece that I haven’t yet met. I’m ready to have a living room again. There are bits of American culture that we haven’t seen (or eaten) in a year and a half: chicken wings and a Lagunitas IPA, Netflix and Midol and well paved highways. But every country has it’s pros and cons and spending time living with folks in other countries has helped me realize that there are more ways of living than the go get ‘em culture that is so common in the US. In New Zealand, we learned to slow down and have a chat with the neighbors. This often involves tea and cake. Nepal made me realize how easy and comfortable and clean we have it in the States, but also how many regulations we have (you’d never be allowed to take a sheep on a bus at home).
I’ve come to enjoy the small towns that we’ve stayed in and hope, as we transition out of our backpacks, to make our home in an adventurous place where kind people work hard and enjoy their lives. So though our trip abroad is coming to a close, our travels continue as we find a new hometown in the US of A.
2013 has been a year of spectrums, from long work hours to not working at all, from living where folks are comfortable to traveling extreme poverty, and from diving to the bottom of the ocean to trekking at the top of the world. We’ve had some of the most serene as well as the most trying situations that we’ve ever experienced together. It feels as though we ought to reflect on our travels and pull some sort of deep insight from our experiences. But instead, we’re going for superlatives. This is our year, in a bit more than bullet points.
Favorite City Moment
Zach: Arriving in Kathmandu, seeing nothing but Nepali signage and dust and realizing I’d entered another world.
Christina: I got my tattoo on our first day in Melbourne. That afternoon, we went to the Central Business District to explore the town, but got caught in a late afternoon downpour and ran from bar to bar on a map that our friends from New Zealand had made for us. The kind folks at Penny Blue beer bar let us in before they were actually open, where we dried off, enjoyed Aussie IPAs and started working on the guest list for our wedding.
Favorite Nature Moment
Both: Sitting on a rock at Annapurna Base Camp watching the goats that the shepherd in the Free Tibet t-shirt brought down from the mountain, listening to the glaciers crack in the background, and sitting in an amphitheater of 8,000 meter peaks.
Best Non Alcoholic Beverage
Z: Banana lassi, India
C: Super sweet chai from street vendors in the tiny cups, India
Both: Alternating turns in the bathroom while we both had food poisoning on Gili Trawangen in Indonesia.
Biggest Adrenaline Rush
Z: Third pitch of Turn on, Tune In, Drop Out in Wanaka, NZ
C: 3am in Bali, I was laying in bed, not sleeping because my two friends from NYC were on their way to come see us. Finally hearing their voices then staying up eating cashews and chatting with them, in the flesh, into the wee hours of the night.
Z: Drinking fancy scotch at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai
C: Having a lazy morning reading Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook and drinking a latte in the library at the Pen y Bryn Lodge in Oamaru, New Zealand with Zach’s dad and Janet.
Z: Day three of hiking Gunung Rinjani in Lombok, Indonesia; so much dust and human waste.
C: The three consecutive days we spent on overnight buses and in dusty bus stations from Pushkar to Hampi in India.
Worst Decision of the Year
Z: Telling the Bollywood casting tout to get lost. One of our friends accepted the offer and came back with amazing stories.
C: Diving into the shallow end of the pool in Bali.
Z: Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing
C: Michael Pollan’s Cooked or John Irving’s The Cider House Rules
Favorite Photo You’ve Taken
Z: Sliding down the icy Crown Range road between Queenstown and Wanaka, NZ in our 20 year old minivan with bald tires.
C: The public bus ride in Nepal. Specifically, when it tried to cross the landslide.
Z: Stumbling over a three meter python at 10:30pm on a dark trail in Hampi, India.
C: Cuddling the nice, chubby stray cats in Istanbul.
Z: The next one!
C: Tie. Either dinner at the Francesca’s Italian Kitchen Staff Party or breakfast at Privato Cafe in Istanbul. So different. Equally delicious.
Thing You’d Be Happy If You Never Did Again
Z: Take an overnight bus in India
C: Visit East Timor
Encounter With a Stranger That You’ll Remember Forever
Z: The guy on the street in Jaipur who asked us why westerners are so rude to Indians and then immediately tried to sell us something.
C: Sitting on a stoop in Kathmandu talking with a shop keeper for like an hour. He told me a story about his friends saving up for years to apply for a US visa, then the chances of actually receiving one being like winning the lottery.
Place to Which You Are Most Excited to Return
Both: Nepal Himalaya
The week before Christmas we traveled from India to Istanbul, the first stop on the European leg of our trip. But before we left Mumbai, there was some work to be done. We scrubbed off the scent of our last overnight bus, shoved our dingy, Indian traveler clothes in the trash can at the hostel, and went to the Levis store for some skinny jeans so that we didn’t feel like total urchins while dining at flashy restaurants in Istanbul and Spain. I forgot how good it feels to dress up and not be covered in a constant layer of dust!
When we landed in Istanbul, Zach’s cousin Joe welcomed us to his apartment in the center of town, where we indulged in a week of comforts: coffee, a warm bed with fluffy pillows, brunch, bars with atmosphere, street art, high speed wifi, and most of all, cheeseburgers. Visiting Istanbul was the most familiar experience we’ve had in the last 16 months. It was cold, people wore black, no one cared what we were doing, where we were going, and no one was trying to sell us anything. Folks just went about their business and we went about ours.
After so much sightseeing in India, we were a bit torn between Istanbul’s tempting sights or our own, more basic desires like wearing heels and drinking whiskey and going to a drawn out brunch that wastes half the day. The thing is though, you don’t have to choose. Istanbul is a young, modern city steeped in a history that is older than most and is predominantly Islamic, as opposed to most other historically Christian European cities.
In coming to a Muslim country, I was prepared to wear loose fitting, conservative clothes and to be thinking about not offending folks. That may be necessary in rural Turkey, but Istanbul was full of tight jeans and funky leggings. For some, that was jeans with a headscarf. For others, it was lots of layers of long clothing, but in any big city, you will find a variety of fashions influenced by everything from religion to pop culture. There were plenty of indicators, from style of dress to the call to prayer, that we were in a city where Islam is the dominant religion, but that was just one of the many characteristics of the largely secular city. In areas where conservative dress was important, like at a Mosque, there were signs written in English and assistants to help tourists feel comfortable and respect the customs.
We spent a Saturday morning at the organic farmer’s market in Sisli, took the metro home and after dropping our mandarins and olive oil (a half liter bottle for 7 bucks!) off at the apartment, went up the Galata Tower (built in 500 AD) and watched the sun set behind the dozens of minarets that pierce the city’s skyline. We spent a lazy morning Skyping friends, gorged ourselves on a traditional Turkish village breakfast, then had our minds blown by The Basilica Cistern from the 5th century and tasted Turkish wines at one of the city’s newly opened wine bars.
On Christmas Eve morning, I spent the morning at the Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, enjoying a traditional scrub in a gorgeous, renovated Hamam spa. After the exfoliating scrub, you lay in silence on a heated stone in the center of the room and gaze up at the light that comes streaming through the stars carved in the marble domed roof. Now this is the way to experience Islamic architecture. A trip to the Hamam was once a normal activity for Turks, but now is more of a touristy thing to do. A highly recommended touristy thing to do. At 130 Turkish Lira, or about $65, it is one of the more expensive activities in Istanbul, but it is worth every lira.
We lived like kings in Istanbul, a city that feels a bit like a young kid a with an old soul. There are endless historical sights to see, the nightlife is great, and their restaurant scene is well on it’s way. Even though most folks don’t speak English, the city was easy to navigate and people tried to help when we asked them (or had that lost look on our faces). I can’t recommend a trip to Istanbul highly enough.
Look, if you’re a maharaja and there’s no threat of imminent attack from desert raiders on elephants, you better find some way to use your time. Rather than sit around all day eating grapes and drinking chai, in 1721 Sawai Jai Singh decided to bring science to Rajasthan (now part of India) through the construction of Jantar Mantar, an observatory in Jaipur which also happens to be a pretty awesome name for a 70s prog-rock band.
Astrology is very important to Indian culture, with superstitions about everything from the time you’re born to the best day of the month to start a business. Visiting Jantar Mantar brought this to life. The work conducted here was some of the most advanced astronomy since the great ancient Greek and Roman thinkers and Jai Singh devoted considerable resources to accurate measurement of the sun, moon, and stars, in a time when most of his subjects led very simple existences.
Pretty much a playground for astronomy nerds, the observatory contains about a dozen giant measurement devices, one of which displays the accurate time down to two second intervals using only stone and the sun!
As you can see, the devices at Jantar Mantar aren’t just functional, they’re beautiful. Carved marble abounds, and huge gentle curves hug you from every direction. Jaipur is heavy on history, but even if you’re sick of palaces, temples, and forts (as we very much were) you can’t skip this unique and fascinating example of primitive science.
Oh, you’ve heard of the Taj Mahal?
We tried to skip visiting Agra, fearing the crush of tourists wielding massive zoom lenses, but everyone told us we were crazy to pass up a chance to see the most beautiful building in the world. They were right. It was pretty nice.
But you can read about the Taj anywhere. The real story here is the incredible contrast of its marble splendor with our cheap-ass hotel room in Agra, which I’m pretty sure is the shittiest place we’ve slept in a year and a half of traveling.
It was missing a few basic amenities: a table, chairs, even hooks to put wet towels on. As you can see from the photo to the left, it was just a bed in a room, and the room was so narrow that we had to awkwardly shuffle in from the foot of the bed.
Our window (or what was left of it) looked out onto the front steps of the neighborhood mosque. And this wasn’t just any mosque. They must have had tourist dollars flowing in from the Taj pilgrims, because they had the most advanced public address system in India.
Shortly after our daily dawn neighborhood wake-up call we were bound to be alert because the ceiling plaster above our bed was crumbling, and the early morning construction on the building shook it onto our heads, covering us in a thin film of white dust. GOOD MORNING!
Then there’s the door. I fought with the damn door each and every time I touched it. Locking it from the outside involved pulling it shut with all my weight, then twisting and prying the bent and rusty bolt to line up with the lock. This produced deafening screeching noises, making us very popular with other guests. Opening it from the inside was no picnic either, which made stumbling to the shared bathroom in the middle of the night especially convenient.
Oh, the bathroom. What a joy. A shared bathroom is bad enough, but when you’re sharing a single squat toilet with the popular hotel restaurant and the staff that are sleeping on the lobby couches, that’s a whole different ballgame. Because it got such heavy use and abuse, it was constantly in a shocking state. This was not helped by the fact that the shower drain seemed to only work in the wrong direction, not allowing waste water out, but letting used water from below back up in and flooding the floor with old soapy-grey scum. Yum! Thanks, Lonely Planet!
So yeah, much like our time in Delhi, Agra was about contrasts.
Our first day in Delhi captures India in a nutshell. We were up and out early, walking the streets and on the Metro while the city was still calm. The Delhi Metro is a newer, cleaner, more organized version of the NYC subway system. It was easy to navigate, air conditioned and featured a Women Only car, a great response to the city’s international reputation for being an unsafe place for women.
We followed the flow of traffic through the street from the train station to the Red Fort. Zach suggested that we move to the sidewalk instead of walking in the street with the rickshaws, bicycles, and cars. But as we squeezed between two rickshaws to get to the sidewalk, we were assaulted by the acrid smell of urine amidst a crowd of homeless people, waking up on from their night’s sleep against the buildings. We worked our way through the crowd of mats and sleeping bodies, which turned into an organized line of people sitting on the sidewalk, cradling bloodied limbs in dirty bandages. I tried not to look, but couldn’t escape the line as we were both headed in the direction of the Red Fort. Hundreds of people were waiting to see the man at the end of the block who was sitting on a cardboard box with a huge roll of gauze and a giant bottle of iodine next to him. My feet kept moving, but my mind was like a deer in headlights, absolutely stunned.
We crossed the street and stopped to breathe for a minute before continuing toward the Red Fort. The fort was big and old; but the fort as described by the audio tour was dazzling and majestic. Zach and I have developed a fondness for audio tours, as they bring back to life places that are skeletons of their former selves, ones whose fountains no longer work and that have been stripped of their mirrored ceilings and silk curtains.
We spent the afternoon exploring the side streets and spice market in Old Delhi until the internal fuel light went on. You are about to run out of gas, it said. At which point, we made our way back to the train, back to our comfort zone.
We got off the train in New Delhi and went window shopping for jewels. The jewelry collection at Mehrasons showroom was the most magnificent collection of bling I have ever laid eyes on. It beat the Diamond Exhibit at the Field Musuem, put Elizabeth Taylor’s collection to shame and made Tiffany’s look downright boring. Indian jewelry is a bit like Bollywood: a gaudy, dazzling affair. Earrings that look like peacock feathers, studded with emeralds, sapphires and diamonds and necklaces the size of a child’s bib sit next to necklaces made of gold strands woven to look like fabric, with jewels embroidered into them. For the second time that day, I was speechless. Well, almost speechless. “Could I see that?” I asked the salesman. “Sure. Why not?” He smiled as he lifted 50 grams of gold off of the mannequin. When I sighed at the price, he said “Don’t think about the money. It’s not about the money.”
But in Delhi, it is all about the money. You have heaps of it or you have none. I suppose this is the case in many places, but I’ve never seen the evidence in a more drastic way than our first day in Delhi, which will always be the day of amputees and diamonds.
You’ve probably heard that India is a budget traveler’s paradise. This is true, but there are a few things that make it expensive. Sure, you can splash out for a hundred dollar dinner in Delhi or Mumbai just like any city in the world. I’m talking about the unexpected expenses. If you let it, India will clean out your wallet faster than anywhere else.
We landed in Delhi a few weeks ago, and we’ve been scammed twice (as far as we know), and deflected a few other attempts. The first time was pretty minor; a taxi driver from the airport told us the meter had rolled over, and against our better judgement we paid him double the fare. Whatever. It was a mistake and a few bucks down the drain. SERIOUSLY, I’M OVER IT. Ok maybe not, but I’m working on it.
The second time happened just minutes after the first and will be much harder to recover from. Here’s how we were grifted out of more than $150:
The aforementioned scammer driver disgorged us and our three massive backpacks, duty free purchases, and other assorted hand luggage from his cab at New Delhi Railway Station. We needed tickets and had read that they can be difficult to get on the day of travel, so we were a little nervous about navigating the station.
As we approached, if was as if someone threw chum in the water. The sharks smelled eau d’traveler stink. We looked around for some kind of ticket office, and after the slightest of pauses he pounced.
“Tickets, please,” in a very official voice.
“Uh, no tickets. We need to buy tickets.” Looking back, I’m sure his face lit up at this moment. He pointed to sign that read ‘Ticket Holders Only,’ then to his map, and said “You need to go to this office: DTTDC.” Little did we know he was in cahoots with this “DTTDC.” I’d read that there was a special tourist bureau at the station and assumed this was it. It sounded bureaucratic enough.
He looked at our big bags. “I will get you rickshaw, you pay Indian price!” As if he was saving us money.
We thanked him for his help and piled into the rickshaw. The driver dropped us at the office that the helpful old gent had indicated, which was blazed with signs reading “Train Tickets” and even “Government of India Tourist Information.”
We were hustled into a comfortable office and then the real scam began. A well-dressed young man told us in perfect English that no trains were available for more than a week to our desired destination. After a few keystrokes on a computer that may or may not have been plugged in at all, he deduced that no tourist buses were available for a similar period of time, and local buses took “fifteen or sixteen hours” and were unsafe. The latter was probably true but the former certainly not, because on our way back from this trip we took the local bus and while it wasn’t comfortable, it took only about six hours.
“What are our options to get there today?” We asked. We were intimidated by staying in Delhi and wanted out of town as soon as possible.
“Well, you could take a taxi. It will be expensive.” He quoted us a price over US $250. This was way out of our $40 per day budget. We talked about maybe going somewhere else instead. But this would throw the rest of our schedule off and be more hassle and expense.
“Is there any other way to get there?” This was his signal to go in for the kill.
“Hmm, well you can take a private car.” And after a few more keystrokes in his magic box, “It will be $160.” After some deliberation and seen in light of the higher taxi price we decided to just bite the bullet and go for it, taking an expensive lesson about trying to buy train tickets on the day of travel.
A few days later, we discovered that this office wasn’t actually a government tourist representative but, as it seems obvious now, a tour operator/car hire company. How officials can allow such brazen disregard for their authority to continue under their noses I still have no idea. I suspect that there were train tickets available, and I know that the government run bus service was a viable option on the day of travel. Don’t make the same mistakes we did, kids! If it doesn’t seem legit, it probably isn’t.
Wait, there’s more. I’m writing this while en route to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and were just the targets of YET ANOTHER scam. Again, a helpful fella at the New Delhi train station saw us coming and insisted that we needed “boarding passes” in addition to our printed tickets to avoid fines of “over $200″ on the train. I was suspicious but listened to him because I’m a sucker and it’s not uncommon for foreigners to jump through some hoops in India. He took us on a little run-around intended to make us miss our train, in the hopes that we might hire him to drive us to our destination. Luckily we sniffed it out in time and told him to stuff his boarding passes. We had absolutely no problems on the train, and it’s a lovely way to travel.
Traveler scams are infuriating, but don’t let them get in your way of enjoying a place. India may be better at scamming you than you realize, but its a fantastic place to visit (more on this soon). Just remember to be cautious, the more we fall for the scams, the longer they’ll stick around. Sorry guys! We’ve learned our lesson.
Most of the time traveling is fun. But sometimes being away from home is really hard.
Like when you’re sick and don’t want to learn about a new place, you just want to lay in bed and watch Modern Family and snuggle with your obese cat, not the skinny cats who eat the garbage around here. But the power is out (like it is every day) and the laptop is dead. That’s when it’s hard. So then you just lay in your bed in your cheap hotel room, sweating and staring at the wall that is painted four colors of blue and has a hose sticking out of the corner, dripping water on the carpet.
Or when you have a Skype date and you spent the extra money on a cell phone plan with the guy in the tiny stall with the dusty cell phone parts and lots of flies who said everything would work once you give him the money. And then he made you feel crazy for double checking that it would work and asking for a receipt. Ha, a receipt! And then of course, it doesn’t work. And that’s the third time this Skype call didn’t work. And the person at home is frustrated. That’s when it’s hard.
When you’ve got your fifty pound backpack on and you explode into tears on a street corner in Kathmandu, even though you’re almost thirty years old, but thirty year olds have shit days, too. And some guy is trying to sell you a wooden flute and you wipe your snotty nose and say, “No thank you,” through your tears and he says, “Very nice flute, make a good and happy price, just for you,” and you clench your jaw and try very, very hard not to scream in his face that you never, ever want his stupid fucking flute for any price. And he just stands there, waiting.
It’s hard when friends are getting married and family members are going to the doctors and there is nothing you can do about it, but just sit there. Maybe write an email or “like” it on Facebook. I Facebook like that you had a baby. Sweet.
The world is big and beautiful and we’re grateful to get to see it, but not having a home can be challenging. Often one of those shit days is followed by an excellent one and all of the details work themselves out. The Skype conversation happens eventually, the flute man finds another tourist to prey on, and I go find a pizza and a beer or a stray cat to play with. I suppose getting homesick is just as much a part of traveling as that moment of excitement when you see a turtle while diving. If you don’t have lows, you won’t have highs.
That being said, I can’t wait for some blueberry pie, a Longtrail IPA and a big group of friends and family when we get home next summer.
We’ve just left Indonesia after spending a month touring around Bali, Lombok, and the surrounding islands. Along the way we’ve learned a few things that we would have liked to know before we went, and because we are nothing if not public servants, here they are:
- For travel between the islands of Bali, Lombok, and the Gilis, take Marina Srikandi boats. They’re priced the same as all the other fast boat operators, but they have the largest boats and don’t oversell them. Trust me, getting seasick is a great way to ruin a day of your trip.
- Like a lot of Asian tourist destinations, the tout system runs deep. To avoid paying the tax, go directly to the source for things like rooms, boat tickets, airport transfers, laundry, etc. If you ask someone to arrange anything for you or even point you in the right direction, be prepared to pay for the service. Free information is rare.
- That said, we found the security and open market competition of Agoda.com or Booking.com helpful for locking down rooms a few days in advance. Proprietors lower prices on empty rooms as the date approaches and the price-shopping power of the web is fully in your favor. You can probably get even cheaper rates if you wait until you get to a place and hit the streets, but you’ll spend a lot of time carrying around your luggage and sweating. Usually it’s worth the few extra bucks to just book in advance – even though it violates rule number two above.
- If you like spun out waiters offering you crystal meth after dessert, go to Gili Trawangan. If, not stick to the far more family-friendly Gili Air.
- We found the water in Nusa Lembongan and Penida clearest and best for diving, but the wreck of the USS Liberty near Amed was awesome as a historical relic and massive, easy to access wreck. If you’re in the Gilis, snorkeling is a must do.
- Don’t bother climbing Gunung Rinjani unless you really dig wading through trash and feces on your way up a miserable, dusty hike.
- Catch the Bali sunset at Tanah Lot. There are multiple temples there so you don’t necessarily need to stay at the first one you see.
- It’s crazy cheap to hire a driver for a day in Bali and see loads of stuff. Five of us shared a car for US$55 for ten hours and saw way more than we ever would have hoped for if we were on our own.
That’s it for now. I’m sure there are more, (share them in the comments!) but this should get you started on any trip to Bali.