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We Got Got: Scammed in Delhi

Agra Bazaar

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.

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Annapurna Base Camp: Best Trek Ever.

Annapurna- Group shot-6635

We found an older copy of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in Nepal while staying at Alobar 1000, our hostel in Thamel, a touristy district of Kathmandu. After flicking through different treks, we settled on the trek to Annapurna Base Camp because it was longer than anything we had done, but had guest houses where we could sleep and eat. There was a significant elevation gain and the base camp itself was an exciting destination. While planning, we went back and forth on whether or not to take a guide. We had read on So Many Places’s blog that it was not necessary, but we decided to go for it anyway. We liked the idea of supporting the local economy and it made us feel safe as we were trekking higher and longer than we had been before. Our guide, Pradeep, is a nephew of a friend of a friend, which is typical of Nepali business. If I can’t help you, I’ll find you someone who can. Pradeep took care of all of the details: obtaining our permits, renting gear, booking bus tickets, and choosing guest houses. All we had to do was walk, snap pics and decide what to eat at meal time. The following are a few excerpts from our trekking journal to Annapurna Base Camp.

Day 1 | 5pm | Landruk

Zach: Lunch at Pothana (1890m) after 90 minutes of walking up stone steps and trails. Very hot at times, but great in the shade. Cooler than Pokhara, but definitely still summer. It’s great to walk to villages rather than campsites. Paying a few bucks for fried noodles and veg versus eating in the dirt makes life a lot more enjoyable. No, it doesn’t feel like a backcountry adventure, but it’s great in its own way. We thought New Zealand did it best with their hut system, but Nepal has it beat!

Christina: I just pulled my big toe nails off. They had been dead for awhile and one day of hiking was enough for them. Wrote some post cards and am trying not to write all of my them, but it is hard because it is so beautiful and exciting. We have views of the Himilayas to the north and rice terraces to the south. Tried a glass of roksi, the local wine made from millet. It was horrific. Smelled like rubbing alcohol and I couldn’t finish the glass. Also had our first dal baht experience, which was a solid meal: lentil soup, rice, greens and pickled veg.

Day 2 | 3:30pm | Chhomrong

Christina: Zach’s muesli this morning was so good. Served with warm, sweet milk. I had Tibetan bread with honey, which wasn’t enough for a meal, but tasty and I supplemented it with peanuts from my backpack. Highlight: Nepalese tea (similar to chai). Amazing. Hiking today was killer. Stairs for hours, but passed the time learning Nepalese from Pradeep. It is really challenging to learn just by sound. We were walking single file. Pradeep would say a word, I repeated it, then passed it back to Zach.

Day 3 | 4pm | Bamboo

Zach: Great morning walking. Day began with a steep descent out of Chhomrong and steep ascent to Sinuwa. Long break there, then a few hours of awesome forest walking while white gibbons jumped from tree to tree around us. They are very photogenic animals. I was particularly struck with the beauty of the wild forest. Theres a special kind of order to the completely unordered chaos of old growth. This walk has everything. Pheri betew-la (See you later!)

Day 4 | 1pm | Machhapuchhre Base Camp

Christina: It has been on and off raining all day. The clothes we washed yesterday are soaking wet because of the rain and heavy fog. Not a huge deal, except that I have no dry underwear. After hiking for four hours, we decided to stay at Machhapuchhre Base Camp instead of continuing to ABC. Everyone going out into the rain looked miserable. Lunch was amazing- a huge pile of fried potatoes, egg, greens and yak cheese, followed by a Snickers and pot of masala tea.Didn’t even realize how hungry I was, which is a sign of altitude sickness, so even better that we chill here. Side note: Even though this is the Annapurna Base Camp trek, I think I prefer  looking at Machhapuchhre. It is so steep and so fierce. Not as tall, but that’s ok by me. We can still be friends.

Zach: We’ve met a lot of awesome people on this trek. David and Eva from Australia, Andy and Sam from England, Lindsey and Cody from Chicago via Mongolia. Just caught a glimpse of Annapurna South, Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) and surrounding peaks for about 15 min before the fog rolled in again. Some people have been waiting three days to get a glimpse of the mountains. All the more reason not to rush. Go slowly. Soak it in.

 

Day 5 | 6pm| Annapurna Base Camp

Christina: This morning was SPECTACULAR. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. We hiked a whopping 90 minutes to Annapurna Base Camp. We had a great photo sesh with Eva, David, Pradeep and Lok. Just as we snapped our last picture, the clouds and heavy fog crept back in. We considered hiking down to Duerali this afternoon, but decided to stay, play cards and enjoy the rest day. It’s not like we’re going to have a chance to come back to this amazing camp in the sky.

Zach:We were just visited by a herd of sheep and goats at Annapurna Base Camp. The shepherds are coming down from the hills for the winter They trek up in the spring and by the time they head down (with help from the monsoon) the grass has regrown in their steps as they return. Pretty cool to see exactly how these shepherds are mimicking nature. Bucks and rams are mixed in with the herd, they “rotationally graze” the valley, and live amongst the herd for months at a time. They don’t own the land, but they use it and manage it. Simple. Why does it have to be so complicated?

Day 6 | 4pm | Himilaya

Zach: It’s amazing how much shorter this trail feels heading down. Knees and toes hurt, but we’re both holding up really well for six days in. This was the first day in awhile that I felt like I earned my dal bhat at lunchtime. Not complaining, the short days were great and we avoided AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).

Day 7 | 7:30pm | Chiule

Zach: Harder day agin into Chiule. When we reached town, cheers of joy were shouted. I’m so glad we hired Pradeep. Having a guide basically means not having to worry about any of the little details or decisions that would be difficult or create tension between Christina and me. Everything from the bus tickets to where we eat lunch is already settled. On top of that, Pradeep is knowledgable, patient and so kind that his attitude inspires the same behavior in the rest of us. It’s been great sitting around the table with David, Eva, Pradeep and Lok trading stories about traveling and trekking. At ABC we sat around for hours spinning a yarn and laughing. That has been a huge and unexpected benefit of this trek.

Day 8 | 8:30pm | Ghorepani

Christina: What started off as a really challenging day turned out to be a really fun one. Early on, I was ready to throw in the towel. The trekking was uphill all morning in the humid jungle, stopping every 15 minutes to check for leeches (I found 3 and freaked out each time). The day turned around though when we stopped for a break and saw a newborn mountain goat, wobbling around on its 10 minute old legs. From there, the day just got better. We hiked along a ridge covered in wildflowers, through gorgeous groves of trees into Ghorepani and got in just as the rain started. We ordered beers and chips, our first of the trek, we splurged on some wifi, I skyped mom and dad and posted a few pics. Mom met Pradeep and Lok on Skype. They said “Namaste from Nepal,” and “You are always welcome to come visit our Himilayas,” which was really heartwarming. It sounds silly to miss wifi after just a week, but makes a huge difference to be able to share and be in touch. Especially when you can Skype from the middle of the Himalayas.

Day 9 | 3:30pm | Uleri

Thank you Pradeep!

Zach: Beautiful trail from Ghorepani to Uleri. Lovely undulating countours along the riverside with a gradual descent. The trail was well formed and wide enough to walk two abreast; a trail made for chatting. Among other conversations, Christina and I discussed the similarities between Nepali trekking trails and Kiwi tramping tracks. The consensus was that they both get an A, but Kiwis have a decidedly more hands-off approach. Where in Nepal, there are bridges and stairs, in NZ there would be fords and scree slopes. I think I prefer the heavy hand.

Day 10 | 4pm | Pohkara

Christina: Our morning trek from Uleri to Birethanti was easy, light hearted, and calm. We sailed down steps as fresh faced trekkers going the other way were experiencing their first dose of steep stone stairs. Our “Namastes!” were cheery even though we were a leaving mountains that I knew we would not see again for a long time. 10 days was the perfect length of time to be in the mountains. From Birethanti, we took the most harrowing taxi ride I have ever experienced back to Pokhara.

 

Zach and I decided that we want to spend as much of the rest of our time in Nepal in the mountains as possible. After a few rest days, we are going to go to the Langtang region and headed out on another trek, this one for just a week. Zach and I looked at our budget last night. We are over what we expected to spend in Nepal, but kind of said the hell with it. The trek will cost us each an extra $300, which is nothing for another amazing, big mountain experience. We also decided to hire Pradeep again. Bring on round 2!

480

Know When to Fold: East Timor

Timor Microlet

Last week Zach and I went on our first visa run. We flew from Bali to East Timor so we could come back to Indonesia and stay longer. We booked a one way ticket and thought we might do some exploring. If we liked East Timor, we would stay a week. If not, we’d come back. Spoiler alert: by the end of our first day, we had flights booked back to Indonesia.

The internet told us that there had been a war that ended around 2002 and that the country was a budding tourist destination or an “Adventure Travel New Frontier,” as Outside Magazine boasted, with “Edenic beaches, soaring mountains, and dense forest. It was cheap, gorgeous, authentic.” (March, 2013) East Timor is host to the Tour de Timor bike race and is a spectacular, secluded dive destination. We couldn’t find much information on the internet detailing restaurants and accommodation and assumed that there would be plenty to choose from once we got there, just like in Indonesia. “Maybe they’re just not on the internet,” we thought. It didn’t really occur to us that there wasn’t much on the internet because there isn’t much there.

The most important thing that we didn’t know is that Dili, the capital, is prohibitively expensive. The United Nations was present until last December and because many people staying and working there were on the company bill, the cost of living is high. Our hot, dingy room in a hotel surrounded by barbed wire cost us a gobsmacking $60 USD for one night. To put this in some context, we have been paying $20 per night in Indonesia for an airy room with an outdoor shower, surrounded by palms, breakfast included. We couldn’t afford to stay in Dili, nor could we afford to rent a car and get out of Dili, taking the chance that the next city, 120km away, would be cheaper. We were stuck. I was sick. It was hot, dilapidated and expensive. And it was the only place I’d ever been where my smile was only returned half of the time. Dili was weird and I didn’t like it.

 

We stayed in the center of the downtown area and walked for 30 minutes looking for a place to eat. “It doesn’t really matter where we eat, let’s just go to the first place we see,” Zach said as we walked over gaping holes in the sewer system and dodged waist high pieces of rebar protruding from the ground. The city is poor and recovering from years of war. Buildings and sidewalks are crumbling, but nothing is being rebuilt.

They need the tourist dollar, but I wasn’t about to spend my hard earned dollar on something that wasn’t worth it. I worked hard to save. I want to see the world, but I also want to enjoy it.

East Timor may be an “Adventure Travel New Frontier”, but new frontiers are a totally different kind of travel, a kind that we didn’t expect. If you get out of Dili and into the countryside, I’ve heard it is gorgeous, raw, and secluded. But we didn’t. I couldn’t muster the spirit to go on adventures with a fever and we decided it wasn’t worth the dent in our budget to stick around. So we came back to Bali, where we can live comfortably for a price that works for us and that supports the local economy.

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What it Costs

If you have been following along with our adventures (we love all of you who are!), you can see that we split our time between working on farms and traveling in our tres chic van, Ms. Serena Williams. You may also know that our plan is to be here in New Zealand for about a year, with no income other than the occasional odd jobs here and there. One thing we are constantly minding is how we spend our time and money. There are endless opportunities to spend money on really enticing looking adventures like rafting, zip lining, jet boating, zorbing, and alpine climbing expeditions, but we would be flat broke after a week of that. We didn’t save for that. We saved enough to live very simply and to see the country by exploring on our own. This post is a break down of how we are making it work without an income.

By balancing our time between working and travel, we get different benefits and can live fairly inexpensively. WWOOFing (working on farms) gives us the opportunity to learn valuable skills, get to know people, and our meals and lodging is provided in exchange for 4-5 hours of work. We have been lucky enough to stay with farmers who want the work to be something that we are interested in, while also being of use to them. They ask questions like, “What do you want to learn and do while you are here?”

While WWOOFing, we spend most of our time on or very close to the farm. We get to know the surrounding area well, taking occasional afternoon trips to the mountains or the beach. Our only expenses are on extras, which are usually just wine and cookies. Except that our current hosts provide plenty of both. (Thank you L&S!) Who needs packaged cookies when Lyndal made mousse au chocolate on a Tuesday night?

In the last two weeks of WWOOFing, our expenses totaled $74.50:

  • $50.00 Doctor’s visit and antibiotics for my foot (which is slowly, but surely on the mend)
  • $20 Torlesse Vineyards Pinot Gris
  • $4.50 Foccacia from the Farmer’s market

While traveling in the van, our costs are higher, but we have the freedom to make our own schedule, to sleep late, to spend the morning sitting on the beach, wearing my straw hat and sewing up the holes in the armpit of my denim shirt, or to keep going on a dirt road just to see what is at the end of it. With that freedom also comes the challenge of stretching the dollar by buying day old bread and brownish bananas and finding activities that are free. (Hello, hiking and biking!)

Our costs for one week of living in the van and exploring come to around $600.

  • $400 gas
  • $50 campsite fees (Freedom camping when possible and shelling out for a Dept. of Conservation campsite when we really need a shower)
  • $100 camping food (box of wine, pb&j supplies, oats, nuts, canned beans, lentils, farm stand veggies)
  • $20 entry to Lake Tekapo Thermal Pools (50% off thanks to bookme.com, kinda like a Groupon)
  • $25 breakfast at a farm stand cafe.

It is the balance of these two ways of living that makes our long term travel work financially possible and rewarding. Balance between time spent with new people and time alone. Balance between boxed wine and vineyard tastings. Balance between sleeping in the van and in a bed. It all evens out to make it work pretty well so far.

 

Oh, and the money we save by eating canned beans will allow us to afford a few splurges like bungee jumping and knife making :D

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Rethinking Seasonally

In New York, eating seasonally is cool. It is a choice that food enthusiasts, myself included, make. Sometimes. When we feel like it. But when the only thing at the farmers market is turnips, cabbages, and onion, it is off to Whole Foods to get the rest of what is on the list. In New Zealand, eating out of season is a luxury. I first noticed this when we were grocery shopping in Auckland, and two red peppers rang up as $9.98. WTF?! I begrudgingly asked the cashier to take one of the peppers out of my bag, while I  had silent adult tantrum in my head: But I waaaaant it.

I really should have removed both from my bag, but I was caught off guard and being stubborn, so I kept one. One stupid, $5 capsicum. However, this was more than just red peppers being expensive. This was cramping my dinner stye. I, like many people, express myself through food. I like to make good food for other people to say “thank you,” or “I like you, let’s be friends.” And most of us who enjoy making food have our go-to recipes and ingredients that are relatively inexpensive, easy to prepare and taste delicious. Red peppers, specifically roasted red peppers, are one of my staple ingredients. They make my dinner distinct. And now, I had to make dinner without them. (Wah.)

Well, we are on an island. Everything here is expensive. Especially things that are not grown or made here. And as it turns out, red peppers are summer vegetables and it is winter here. If you want them, you are going to have to pay for them to come over from Mexico. Or wherever they come from.

Which is how it should be, isn’t it? There is plenty of produce that I buy year round from Whole Foods and it doesn’t even dawn on me that it isn’t the season. I mean, strawberries are obvious because there is no replicating a perfectly sweet June strawberry. But how about eggplant? Or Spinach? Or bananas? They are amongst my staples, yet I am unaware of their growing season because I can get them for the same price and they have about the same taste, year round.

Until I came here and found that I can’t afford to cook the way I did in New York.

Another curve ball came when we found out that our WWOOF hosts only provide us breakfast and lunch. Usually 3 meals are provided, but we are only doing about a half a days work each day and therefore are only provided 2 meals. This makes sense, and the details of the work trade agreement do vary from host to host. However, making dinner each night was an unexpected expense.

We hit the local grocery store in search of ingredients that are equal parts healthy, hearty, tasty and inexpensive.  In New York, I would find recipes and make my grocery list before heading off to the store, whereas here we are going sans list and searching for ingredients that fit our criteria. Our first haul included onions, bean sprouts, garlic, carrots, broccoli, white button mushrooms, pasta, pasta sauce, parmesean cheese, a pineapple, Tim Tams and a bottle of wine, all for $45. We have supplemented that with rocket (a variety of arugula), lemons and rosemary from the garden and the occasional butter, sausage or eggs left over from breakfast and stretched it for 5 meals.

Big pasta dinner for us and our host family. Can’t go wrong with bacon and lemon!

$45/5 dinners= $9 per dinner, $9/2= $4.50 per person. Not bad.

Cooking here is a real lesson in back to the basics. No spices other than salt and what is in the garden. No fancy ingredients, just what’s in season and what’s cheap. The challenge then is to make it taste good. We have lucked out so far, with some hearty salads and pasta with veggies, with just one flop when I tried to incorporate some baked beans into a stir fry and wound up with barbecue sauce flavored bean sprouts, but we don’t need to dwell on that one.

So while it is taking some adjusting, shopping and eating what is in season, and what is affordable, feels a bit like an experiment, or a challenge. A challenge that we are totally dominating.

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Preparing for the Slow Life

Don’t get me wrong — I’m beyond excited to GTFO of New York City and start adventurin’ (patent pending), but as the date of our departure approaches (August 1) I’ve come to dread the inevitable shock of not being able to drop $50 on dinner if we don’t feel like firing up the stove on a particularly sweltering evening (like today in NYC).  We’ve been fortunate; with no kids and steady gigs, we’ve rarely had to sacrifice a fun time for the sake of saving a sawbuck here and there.  But soon, when the paychecks stop coming in, we’ll have to make some tough choices about what we can and can’t spend our money on.

At least initially, the plan is to live frugally and find free and fun things to do.  Our expenses should be pretty minimal, considering we’ll be WWOOFing in exchange for room and board.  Fixed monthly costs should be limited to cell phones and student loans (student bailout, anyone?). At least, I think so.  It’ll be interesting to revisit this after a few months in NZ, to see what our real monthly costs are. No doubt I’ve forgotten something already.

Transportation is obviously another consideration, but that’s closely tied to entertainment.  My grand vision is that we’ll be within a stone’s throw of awesome beaches and hikes and just hang out, write, talk, read, and enjoy the slow life for a while. Sounds…perfect! Right? RIGHT?!

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