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Rediscovering Our Travel Style

16 Oct

Over the last two weeks, between bouts of lazing around on a variety of Indonesian beaches, I’ve had an overwhelming feeling of needing to do something.   Something we can’t do back home.  Something that will capture the essence of the foreign land we are in. The problem was that I couldn’t figure out quite what the something was.

photo by Jaymis on Flickr

Getting sucked into yet another guidebook…

In the last 6 months our travel has been faster paced than we are used to.  We’ve focused on visiting some really historical places, some of which we probably won’t get the opportunity to visit again, and we wanted to make sure we really used our time well.  The problem with this that we lost track of how we usually like to travel, which is slowly.  When I imagine a perfect day I see myself sitting at an outdoor café all afternoon just people-watching.  Or perhaps I’m wandering through the neighborhoods, checking out the houses, peeking into the local restaurants, or drifting around in the market.  This doesn’t mean I don’t also want to take a walking tour in a new city, or check out the museums and galleries, or hit up the famous towers and temples and churches, but I need there to be a balance between these different kinds of days.   Unfortunately, somewhere between dashing around to ancient holy places in Israel to making our way all over India by train and then being hospitalized in Nepal, we let ourselves get pretty unbalanced.

By the time we got to Thailand I was feeling some serious burnout.  Yes, that’s right, I was burned out on travelling, which is something I never really thought I’d say.  I’ve read about other long-term travelers having this problem, and I figured it would just take a few weeks of lazing around to get myself back together.  Having already been to Bangkok a few times, I didn’t feel too much pressure to go sightseeing, though there are a few sights I’d missed in my previous trips and we figured we’d hit up one or two of those so as not to seem like lazy travelers.  We ended up seeing none of them.  Instead, we spent our days eating absurd amounts of Pad Thai, having massages, and going to the huge and fancy movie theaters at the top of the big malls in the downtown area. Once or twice I’d feel a pang of guilt at not being motivated enough to do something more, but I justified it by reminding myself that it had only been two weeks since I had been released from the hospital so I really should just be taking it easy still.

As we made our way out of Thailand and into Cambodia, then back into Thailand and down to Indonesia, we felt a bit like we were on a huge pendulum, swinging back and forth between bouts of frantic ‘tourist stuff’ and complete sloth.  The thing is, with the exception of Angkor Wat, none of the ‘tourist’ stuff was really impressing us anymore.  There comes a point when you just get so templed and museumed out that you can’t imagine having to go to yet one more of them.  I know, these are not pressing issues compared to most of life’s problems, but it was unsettling because we felt like we should be enjoying ourselves more.  One of our problems was that the cost/interest level wasn’t balancing out.  In Cambodia we had paid something like $35 to go see a village built on stilts, but we both walked away feeling like we had totally wasted our time and our money.  $35 isn’t much by Western standards, but keep in mind that for us, that’s one half day’s allotment of our expenses.  We paid this to essentially be scooted along in a boat for 30 minutes through this village which, while interesting to see, just wasn’t $35 for 30 minutes interesting.

For nearly a month we tried really hard to figure this out because time and time again we simply weren’t feeling the love with our sightseeing choices.  What could we see that might re-energize us?  What could we do that would make us feel like we were getting our money’s worth out of the visit?

Eventually we gave up and just went to the beach.  I kept arguing with myself that we are all the way across the world, in this place that’s nothing like where we live usually, and we can’t find anything better to do than lay around at the beach?

Who wouldn’t want to lounge about here?!?!?

There are plenty of things you can do as a tourist here, but what we kept running into was that pesky cost/pleasure problem.  Do we really want to pay $200 to hike up a mountain at three in the morning to see the sunrise with 35 other people?  Do we want to pay $80 EACH to ride an elephant for 30 minutes (especially when the same thing costs $20 in Thailand where we just were)?  We neither dive, nor surf, so that takes away another chunk of options.  I get wildly seasick, so the boat trip to Komodo and Flores is a no-go.  We intended to go to Sulawesi, but that island is huge and we’d only have a few days there, which would definitely make us feel frantic and rushed.

I felt like I was losing my mind.  Here we have the trip of our lives and I already felt like we’d been lazy travelers in Thailand so I didn’t want to just waste time while we were in Indonesia.  Then, finally, it hit me.  This was the trip of OUR lives.  Ours.  Who said a ‘good’ trip is filled with non-stop sightseeing, especially if that’s not what you want to do?  There are other ways to experience a place, and they don’t all involve a tour guide or a rushed itinerary.  We totally knew this, but had somehow lost track of it along the way.  We started looking at our options through a different lens.

Why were we beating ourselves up over lounging on the beach when that’s something we love?  Colorado doesn’t have beaches with fabulous turquoise water, so it’s not like this is something we can do back home.  We decided to give ourselves 5 more days to explore the beaches around southern Lombok.  When we’re done with that we’re heading back to Ubud, in Bali, where we’ll take 5 or 6 days of introductory yoga classes and at least one cooking class.  In our spare time perhaps we’ll rent bikes and ride through the rice terraces, or maybe we’ll just find a lovely café and read.

It was incredible how much better we felt after that shift in perspective.  Making these decisions served to remind us, as we head into the next few months of travel, that this trip is for us and we will only be making the most of this time if we do things because we are interested in doing them, not just because they are in the guidebook under someone else’s list of ‘must see’ items to check off a list.

What are your favorite things to do when you travel to far away lands?
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The Nepal Curveball

5 Sep

We went to Nepal to get away from the cities and the pollution and the general chaos of constant travel.  We knew that hiking the Annapurna Circuit would be both challenging and rewarding, and our entire trip to this lovely country revolved around the hike.  That is, until I got sick.

We had just finished our 150 kilometer trek and we were incredibly sore, but feeling really good about successfully carrying our own gear and still making it all the way through on our original schedule.  I went to bed that night dreaming of relaxing back in Kathmandu with a giant burger and a beer.

The next morning I woke up feeling, off. It was cloudy and we suspected our flight out of Jomsom would be cancelled, but we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6am and headed to the airport anyways.  By 8am it was crystal clear that not only was the flight not going to happen, but also that I was getting sick.  I spent the next 20 hours attempting to fight off a fever and shivering uncontrollably despite being buried in both of our sleeping bags AND two huge blankets.  I figured this was my body’s way of getting back at me for all the long and punishing days of hiking.

The next morning I still felt unwell, but our flight was set to go so I rallied myself and managed to survive both the flight as well as the very long and bumpy bus ride back to Kathmandu.  I figured once I had a good shower and some clean clothes I would be feeling much better.

I was wrong.

Justin kindly took a photo of me feeling quite ill. In retrospect, I don’t look nearly as bad as I felt at this point.

I woke up in the middle of the night, feverish again, and started to worry that something was really wrong.  By the next afternoon I still had the fever and it seemed to be getting worse.  We started to think I might have gotten malaria, despite taking anti-malarial meds all through India.  Justin called the US Embassy to get a recommendation for a doctor and we were directed to the CIWEC clinic, which caters mostly to foreigners and expats.

A few hours and many vials full of blood later I was informed that I would not be going back to the hotel that day.  The good news is that I didn’t have Malaria.  The not so good news is that they thought I had Typhoid Fever, though they sent out some blood cultures just to be sure.

Typhoid Fever is typically transmitted to travelers by an infected person who does not wash up properly after using the toilet, and then prepares food.   I had gotten the vaccine but the doctor said that while it’s ok to have, it’s really not much more protection than having an umbrella with a huge hole in it during a thunderstorm.

I was started on a series of both oral and IV antibiotics and told that the fever would likely not be getting any better until the infection was cleared.  They were right. I had a raging fever, reaching 102.5 – 103 degrees most days, for a total of 10 days.  The fever was accompanied by stomach pain, a complete inability to eat more than a few bites of toast at a time, and some of the worst headaches I’ve ever had.

During one of my better moments I manage to use the hospital’s wi-fi to break up the monotony of the day.

After a few days the blood tests came back, but they were all negative.  After that I had to give blood samples every few days so that they could test for other types of bacteria and viruses, and in the meantime they added two more antibiotics to the mix just to cover all the bacterial bases.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity in the hospital, though it was really just about a week, the fever broke and stayed away for 24 hours.  Armed with baggies full of the rest of the antibiotics, I was released from the clinic, even though there was never a definitive diagnosis as to what I had.  The medical records I was given when we left the hospital state that it was a case of “possible Typhoid” since the blood tests apparently often come back negative when up to 50% of the time they should be positive.  It’s been 5 days, I’ve finished the antibiotics, and am finally feeling more like myself again.

After all our time preparing for the Annapurna trek, it’s frustrating that we didn’t have any time to revel in the accomplishment immediately after completing the journey.  The illness came on so fast, and so strong, that it seems like that’s the only thing that happened in Nepal.  We’ve finally managed to pull the hundreds of photos of the hike off our memory cards and now we need to sit down and make a point to go through them and focus on those 12 days of struggle and success so that the better memories can rise up to the surface and overtake the blur that the fever created.

In the meantime, we are hanging out in Thailand, re-acquainting ourselves with our old friend ‘beer’, and making plans to go visit my brother, who lives a life full of awesome on a little island in the Gulf of Thailand.

The Jordan Roundup

14 Aug

*Right now we should be somewhere around Upper Pisang on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal*

The Statistics

Number of days spent in country –  5

Cities/towns visited – Wadi Musa (Petra), Wadi Rum

Number of different lodgings – 2

Flights – 0

Bus journeys – 3

Boat rides – 0

Combi/collective/taxi  journeys – 5

Days of rain – 0

The Budget

Total US dollar amount spent – $603.57

Average cost per day, per person -$60.36

Average lodging cost per night, per person – $14.29  We only stayed in one hotel (3 nights) and our 4th night was spent in the desert outside of Wadi Rum as part of a Bedouin overnight trip.  We had our own room/bathroom with just a fan in Wadi Musa (Petra), which was totally fine since the temperature drops significantly at night.  Breakfast was included.

Average food/drink cost per day, per person – $12.50.  Breakfast was included at the hotel, and they offered a great packed lunch service for about $5 which we took with us every day to Petra, and on the day we left since we had such a long bus ride to get to Amman for our flight. During our desert trip, dinner and breakfast were included.  We ate dinner out the other nights, at local budget restaurants.

The Best

Petra.  It’s just awesome.  This was the main reason we came to Jordan, and we were not disappointed by these ruins.  It’s got a hefty price tag, but it was worth it.  Do yourself a favor and spend at least 2 days exploring the site, but skip the ‘Petra by Night’.

The Treasury at Petra

The Worst

Wadi Rum and the Bedouin Meditation Camp.  We kept hearing about how great a trip to Wadi Rum was, and how we just had to go and spend a night in a Bedoiun camp.  I believe the words “magical” were used.  Yeah, well, we didn’t get it.  The deal is you take a fairly standard jeep tour of the area, then you kick back for the evening at a Bedouin style camp, have dinner, and sleep under the stars.  These trips don’t come cheap. The desert was nice enough, but not much different from some of the other desert landscapes we’ve seen.  Our guide was less than interactive, which was a huge bummer, and the camp itself was filthy with leftover food from the last trip rotting on the tables and counters, half-drunk water bottles strewn about in the sand, and used tissues littering the seating area.

The best part was sleeping out under the stars, which really is pretty awesome and on a clear night you can see basically the entire universe.  For the price, nearly $60 per person for less than 24 hours, we just didn’t think it was worth it.

To be perfectly honest, the other major problem we had, even in the very short 5 days, was the way I (Ashley) was treated by many of the men we encountered.  In the 110 degree heat, I wore long pants, and a long sleeve button up shirt the entire time.  Despite this, I was leered at nearly constantly, with the exception of when we were inside Petra.  In addition, many men did things like wink and lick their lips at me, or made mildly obscene comments as they passed me.  All of this was done right in front of Justin, who was angered, but didn’t really know what to do to stop it.  I want to point out that not EVERY man we crossed paths with behaved this way, but it was enough that I was ready to leave on day 3.

On the first day, we shared a taxi from the border of Israel, to Wadi Musa (a 3 hour drive into the desert where Petra is located) with two single girls, one of whom chose to sit in the front seat for the long ride since she is prone to motion-sickness.  At one point the driver reached over to her and began to stroke her hair and her neck, and we had to ask him to pull over so she could switch seats with Justin who was with me in the back.  She too was in a long skirt and long sleeved shirt.  It was wildly inappropriate, and I found it very bold that he would behave this way with all of us, including Justin, in the car.  We would have gotten a new taxi if we hadn’t been out in the middle of nowhere.

I was disappointed by these situations and felt a bit defeated, especially since we’d heard so many lovely things about Jordan.

Being Careful in India

31 Jul

Our mantra whenever we get off a bus or a train in India has been,

“Nobody here is trying to help us.  Nobody here is our friend.”

Do I like this mantra?  No, not at all.  Is it true? Yes. Absolutely.

We’ve had to be cautious upon arriving in new cities all around the world, but it’s really been taken to a whole new level in India.  We’ve never been so absolutely inundated by touts and scam artists as we have been here.  From the second we step off the platform, and in some cases even before we’ve done that, we are bombarded with cries of “Where you go?  You have a hotel?  You are going the wrong way! This way sir! Madame! Over here! You need taxi? Come with me! You need rickshaw? Exit this way!”

Rickshaw and taxi drivers will claim your hotel is full, roach-infested or burned down just to get you to go to a place of their choosing.  If you insist on your original destination, they often refuse to take you or double their prices.  On the occasions that we aren’t swarmed by drivers wanting to take us somewhere other than where we intend, we are quoted absurd prices for travel.  We once had a team of men attempting to get us to take a rickshaw to our hotel for 150 rupees.  After a few minutes of searching around, we found a driver willing to take us and use the meter for the rate.  The cost was 21.

At the New Delhi train station, one of India’s major transport hubs that has a fantastic foreign tourist ticketing office, the scams are so thick that the tourist office has signs all over the place warning you to not pay attention to those who attempt to lead you astray.

Scammers will attempt to steer you away from the tourist office and into a travel agency where you will be bamboozled into buying train tickets for far more than the actual ticket cost.  If you are particularly uninformed they may convince you that there is no train to your destination and you might wind up handing over absurd amounts of money for flights, luxury bus services, or totally unnecessary private car transport.  Another common scheme is to try to stop tourists at the security checkpoints and tell them that their train tickets need to be ‘validated’ for a hefty fee or you won’t be allowed to board.  There are dozens more tales of travelers being manipulated as they attempt to board trains – your train has been cancelled, your train is not longer going to this stop, your train is delayed 22 hours…come with me, I can help you make other arrangements!

Recently we had two separate sets of people attempt to tell us we were headed towards the ‘wrong’ exit for the train station upon arriving in Jodhpur, despite the enormous “EXIT” signs we were following, and the fact that literally everyone was headed the same direction.  Justin laughed heartily in the faces of these touts and we kept going our own way.

In another instance, we had gotten off a bus at a fairly large terminal, and I needed to use the bathroom.  As I walked up to the clearly marked women’s restroom, a man ran in front of me carrying a table.  He put it down right in front of me and demanded I pay him to go in.  I refused and walked away.  We’ve had to pay numerous times to use restrooms, but this time just seemed like extortion.  I really did need to go, so I went to the station manager’s office, asked where the bathroom was, and asked if there was a charge.  I was directed back to the bathroom I originally tried to use, and told that no, there was not a charge.  When I went back, the guy was nowhere to be seen so I went in.  As I was closing the stall door the man ran in after me and tried to come into the stall, demanding I pay him.  I yelled “NO! GET OUT!” and pushed back on the door harder than he expected, causing it to slam in his face. Justin came storming in as this was happening and dragged the guy out of there to the station managers office where he confirmed, no, we didn’t have to pay.

*I wrote this post and the next day we went to visit the Amber Fort near Jaipur and the bathroom thing happened AGAIN!  This time though, there was a huge sign right in front that announced it as a free bathroom, and a woman inside still tried to insist I had to pay her to go in.  Unreal. *

This kind of thing is both exhausting, and infuriating.

Hence our mantra.

One way to avoid the hassle of haggling with rickshaw or taxi drivers is to go to the pre-paid stands that are just outside most airports and trains stations.  Even then, you need to stay on your toes as we learned just minutes after arriving in Mumbai.  We had gone to the pre-paid taxi stand at the airport, where we were told it would be 480 Rupees to get where we needed.  It wasn’t until we were out of the terminal and into the taxi that we looked more closely at the receipt and realized it should have been 430.  The woman at the counter had written the ‘3’ so it looked sort of like an 8, and when we added up the charges, sure enough, it was 430.  Lesson learned – pre-paid services can be handy, but check the receipt CAREFULLY before you hand over your cash.

At this point, we try to always have a plan for where we are going before we even begin the journey to our next stop.  We contact local hotels and ask what we should be paying in a taxi or rickshaw to get to them.  When we’re in doubt or need help the ONLY place we go is to the police or the tourist office.  If someone tries to check our tickets, or charge an entrance fee for something, we only allow them to do so if they are in uniform, in an official booth, or if the guidebook says there is a fee.  If those things aren’t in place, we ask a security guard, police officer, or station manager if we should be paying extra.

It can be extremely aggravating, but by following these steps we think we’ve managed to avoid the worst of the scams, at least so far.

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