Thursday, November 7, 2013


Two weeks ago we returned from a full week in Singapore.  Now that we've had some time to reflect, and
procrastinate, I felt it time to give an update on our trip there.

First of all, the cost to get there: flights from Hong Kong were very cheap, at $226 each for roundtrip tickets (the flight is a little over 3.5 hours, so it was a rather good deal).  We booked a private double room at a hostel for seven nights, which came out to SGD568, or about $460.  Not cheap for a hostel, but not bad, either, and it was two blocks from an MRT stop and a food hall.  All told, transportation and lodging came out to a little over $900 for two people for a week.  Not bad at all.

Singapore is an odd city in many respects.  Travel on the metro, by bus, or in a taxi is all fairly cheap--the MRT in Singapore was even cheaper than the MTR in Hong Kong, which is already one of the cheapest subway systems I've seen.  Food, depending on where one buys it, can be either absurdly cheap and delicious, or eye-rollingly expensive and delicious.  More on that later.

It's a very tourist-friendly city, with tons of museums, restaurants, events, and attractions (an opera, a casino, Universal Studios, dozens of museums and art galleries, food halls and celebrity restaurants, ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Little India... it goes on and on), and all fairly close together.  So it's a great place to be a tourist.  But it can also a very restrictive city.  You can't bring in chewing gum or tobacco products.  You can be fined for a number of things like spitting, littering, bringing the wrong fruit on the subway, eating or drinking on the subway, smoking in the wrong location (seriously, pay attention to the signs).  Americans worried about a "nanny state" should come here and realize how truly far from that the Democrats actually are; in singapore, people are required to visit their elderly parents in nursing homes.  By law.  Or be fined.  Also possession of even a small amount of illegal drugs is punishable by death.  So leave your pot brownies at home.

We walked our feet off nearly every day, and there were still a few things we didn't see (the Night Safari, Universal Studios, the new aquarium, a couple traditional villages...).  But we were happy with all the things we did get to see: Chinatown, Sentosa Island, Marina Bay, the Skypark, a river cruise, the amazing Singapore Zoo, the Museum of Asian Civilizations, a ton of other sights.  But I don't want to give the wrong impression; there's really one reason Nora and I wanted to go to Singapore so badly: the Food.

For food lovers, Singapore is one of those unbelievable, heavenly places that you thought only existed in dreams.  They have everything you ever wanted to eat here, and a whole lot of other things you never knew you wanted to eat before, but will leave wondering how you ever went your whole life without.

Singapore has a great natural harbor, and is positioned perfectly along the trade route between India and China, right on the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula.  This brought the British, and trade, and it became a wild mixture of cultures, mostly but not exclusively Asian cultures, who all brought their food with them.  There's Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Indonesian, and on and on and on.  And the best thing about Singapore is that most of those great culinary traditions evolved on the street; as Singapore modernized, the government sought to clear the clutter and centralize the food stalls, so they built what might be the greatest monuments to eating in the world: the famous Singapore food halls.  And not only is the food really good at the food halls, but it's cheap.  Really cheap.

For example, we bought chicken rice (at Tian Tian Hainan Chicken Rice, recommended by Anthony Bourdain), for about $3 a plate, and it was the best thing we ate our entire trip.  We also bought chili crab, the other very well known dish from Singapore, at Jumbo Seafood for a little over $80.  It was our second best meal there, but for all the work involved, not to mention the over-the-top mess, and the price tag, we were a little disappointed by it.  The chicken rice was much better.

We had soft boiled eggs with toast covered in coconut jam; ice cream in fun flavors like green tea chocolate chip and salted caramel, made with Hokkaido milk; fish ball soup (which sounds unappetizing, but is shockingly good, and a personal favorite of mine); dim sum; fresh baked buns stuffed with butter, cream cheese, coconut jam, or things like sausage, barbecued chicken, and pork; fresh fruit smoothies and milkshakes; noodle dishes, rice dishes, seafood dishes; and of course chicken rice (3 times).  We ate three times a day, and were sad that we just couldn't muster the appetite for more.  [I don't have many pictures of food; I was too busy stuffing it in my face.  For more, see Nora's Instagram. She has a good one of us prepping for the chili crab.]

Seriously: food mecca.

There is one downside to Singapore, however: Alcohol is very expensive (for the first time in my life, I paid $15 for a pint of draft beer).  We like to sample local beers wherever we go, but we cut back a lot here due to the expense.  Still, we managed to visit three microbreweries on our tour: Level33, a novelty kind of place on the 33rd floor of a financial tower in the business district; Red Dot, a cool, outdoorsy kind of place in a quiet, wooded area (with a really good oatmeal stout); and Brewerkz, Singapore's first and biggest microbrewery, right on the riverfront (and with a world gold medal winner in its XIPA).  Our favorite was Red Dot for the location, but in my opinion the beers at Brewerkz were a bit better.  They also had staggered (and staggering) pricing, so if you arrived between noon and 2pm you paid less than half the cost ($7) for the same beer as you would during peak hours ($16).  Needless to say, after visiting for the first time at night, we went back the next day for lunch to finish tasting all their offerings.

I've tallied up our all our charges and withdrawals throughout the week, and aside from lodging and flights, we spent approximately $1,220.  That puts the grand total--flights, lodging, food, drinks, souvenirs, sights, everything--for the entire week at just over $2,100 for two people.  Not bad at all.

Before we came to Singapore, we had several people tell us that it was a good place for a weekend trip, or just a few days, but that it would not be fun for anything longer than that. Certainly not a week, they claimed, and very knowledgeably we thought.

They were all wrong.  Singapore is awesome, and we wouldn't have regretted a few more days there to catch a few more sights and plates.

This one definitely gets our seal of approval.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Costs of Living in Hong Kong

We've been here for 2 1/2 months now, and have had an established weekly budget for the last 8 weeks, so I thought it time I shared how much it costs for the two of us to live in Hong Kong in a typical month.

First, here are the last four weeks of expenses in HK dollars:

This includes groceries, meals out, household items, snacks, etc.  It includes HK250 each for our monthly gym memberships.  It also includes several hundred dollars topping up our Octopus cards (used for the subway, buses, trolleys, and star ferry), as well as another hundred topping up Nora's prepaid phone.  It does not include utilities, our three day trip to Macau, or our rent.

On week 3, we went over our budget (HK1800), and I carried over the 293 to week 4.  With that in mind, you can see that our four week total is HK7,363, which is about US $950.  Or, to round up, about $250 per week for two people, including transportation costs, mobile phone bills, and gym memberships.  Considering how well we eat, and how often we go out to eat (usually twice during the work week, and then 4 or 5 times on weekends), I'd say that's pretty fantastic.

On to the next part: utilities.  Our monthly internet bill is HK168 (another fantastic price; for about US $22, we get 100MB service.  For comparison, 10MB service with Comcast back home is $60.).  Our water bill this month was HK45.  Our electric bill was HK434 (the government subsidizes electricity, and took HK120 off our bill). Our gas bill was HK61.  All told, our utilities come out to HK708, or ~US $92.

Last item of consideration, our rent.  We live in a nice place, with a balcony, a harbor view, and an in-house gym.  As such, our rent is a bit higher than most of our friends here in HK (for comparison, our friend K shares a two bedroom place with a roommate, and their total rent is about 15% cheaper than our 1 bedroom flat). Our monthly rent comes out to HK15,000, or a bit under US $2k.

Grand total for all expenses over the past month: just over HK23,000, or about US $3,000.

This is more than we were paying when we lived in Tennessee (our monthly expenses there were between $2,000 and $2,250).  On the other hand, we almost never went out to eat back home.  In addition, while I was making about $20k more a year there, Nora was unemployed and taking out student loans.  I'm making a lot less here, but we're no longer borrowing money, and Nora's job leaves us with about HK10k a month, or a bit less than a third of her salary, after all expenses.

Well, almost all expenses.  We do have this nasty habit of travelling.  Our 3 day weekend in Macau was very expensive--we went crazy and got this insanely nice room at at posh casino hotel.  In a week from now we'll be travelling to Singapore, where our lodging will be cheaper (a week in a hostel), but we won't be holding back on food and drinks--they're our favorite part of travelling.  Then in December we're going to Taiwan for 12 days, and in February we're going to Malaysia for a week.  There's another two week period in April that we haven't decided on yet, and a 6 week period in June and July that we'll be visiting the US.  All things considered, between what we're saving from Nora's salary and my online work, we don't anticipate to save a whole lot over the next year.  Perhaps US $5k.

But we will be paying off our student loans, eating some of the best food the world has to offer, and doing a lot of travelling.  More frugally minded people who don't have such a nice apartment or travel as frequently could easily save a lot more than $5k.  And couples who both work in HK would save even more still (an HK salary would be 3-5x what I'm making online, but we're forgoing that additional income for a year so I can concentrate on my writing).

So even though Nora's school doesn't pay for our housing, as our school in South Korea did, in the end Hong Kong offers an equivalent--or greater--opportunity to make and save money, enjoy life in Asia, and travel.  The biggest difference for us is that in SK we only got two weeks off the entire year, and the weeks couldn't occur back-to-back.  Here, between government holidays and school breaks, Nora has eleven weeks off throughout the year, during which she continues to receive a salary, making even the stresses of her job seem well worthwhile.

In other words, we couldn't be happier.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Living in Hong Kong

We've been here three weeks now, so I thought I'd share a few things.

First, you're perhaps wondering why we came.  We visited HK a few years ago during vacation from our teaching gigs in Seoul, South Korea.  While it was very hot and humid, pretty much everything else about Hong Kong excited us, and we pledged then that if we ever could live and work here we would.  Fast forward a few years.  Nora returned to school to get her teaching certification, realized that she wasn't all that jazzed about being a teacher halfway through, and settled on being a school librarian (these days they need teacher's certifications and a Masters in library science).  Nora took on both programs at the same time, which was a pretty astounding workload; I continued working online, and took on a lecturing position at MTSU because we were living about a mile away and it seemed like a good idea.  Long story short: we moved out of our apartment, I left my lecture position after three semesters, we went to India, Sri Lanka, and Ecuador, and meanwhile Nora applied to a lot of positions around the world.  Two in Hong Kong called her back, and a lot of paperwork later, we were all set to go.

(us at the Tian Tan Buddha on Lantau Island in 2010)

So we sold our car, our desktop computer, our Xbox, and my bicycle (the bicycle was the hardest to let go) and bought flights to Hong Kong.  We arrived the night of August 1st, got to our hotel, and slept.  When we woke up, it was my birthday, which I thought was a pretty good sign.  And aside from still very slowly recovering from the ankle I sprained in India, just about everything else has been a very positive experience.

(milk tea and Pearl dumplings in spicy sauce)

We gave ourselves 3 days to find an apartment, but thanks to Nora's research and emails in advance, we signed a lease on the first day and paid the deposit and rent on the 2nd and got the keys.  The building is relatively new, in a quieter (for HK) neighborhood, and has a gym on the 5th floor.  Across the street are two more buildings of the same complex, and they have a larger gym and a pool.  It's a 4 block walk to Nora's work, and so far I've visited four bakeries and six grocery stores within a ten minute walk.  Several major bus lines stop on the corner, from whence we can go downtown, to the subway station, or to the other side of HK island.

(rush hour at the Central subway station)

Within a 5 minute walk of us there are several cafes and bars, a public library, as well as restaurants specializing in Chinese (obviously), Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Spanish, Italian, French, American, and English pub foods.  We got a ridiculous amount of furniture delivered from Ikea and assembled for less than $200, and any of the above restaurants offer free delivery.  I've recently discovered that the grocery stores do, too, but to be honest grocery shopping is one of my favorite activities, so I'm not cutting it out anytime soon.

(Chinese breakfast: eggs, bun, noodles and soup, and milk tea)

Our apartment is on the 20th floor, and has a balcony with harbor views. We've got a kitchen with fridge, decent counter space, 2 sinks, 3 gas burners, and a washing machine.  We've got a table with two chairs, a chest of drawers, and a couch and coffee table in our living room.  the bedroom has a double bed and wardrobe.

(our apartment before we got furniture)

Potential downsides: we've got 410 square feet in our apartment, including the balcony. So it seems pretty small.  The weird thing is, after getting all our furniture moved in and our things stored properly, it actually seems larger.  It's plenty of space for us, though the shower could be a little larger.  It's difficult to turn around in for someone with arms as long as mine.  The washer is supposed to also be a dryer, but I can't get the drying function to work, and I broke the latch that opens it on the first day.  So I'm using a pair of scissors to open the washer, and we have to hang dry our clothes on the balcony, but these are minor inconveniences, and we hung all our clothes to dry the year we lived in Korea, too.

(light show from Kowloon)

Imagine, if you will, a city that is caught somewhere between the future and the past, a place where light shows illuminate skyscrapers to the sound of a symphony orchestra, and where bamboo scaffolding surrounds construction work on a traditional herbal dispensary.  Where you can buy 1 Gigabit internet service for the same price as 10Mb service in the States, and within a short walk also by dried shark fins.  Where ferries cruising above the waves on hydrofoils jostle for space with sampans, junks, and cargo vessels. There are tree everywhere, and from afar the buildings seem to rise up as if out of a forest.  The harbor on one side and the mountains on the other are omnipresent; no matter where you are, you can always orient yourself.  This, to me, is Hong Kong.

(walking along the harbor in Kennedy Town)

It's fast, loud, hot, and always humid.  It's a polyglot, gastronomical wonderland that encompasses the best of what big cities have to offer. The only thing it's missing is you.

(sunset over the harbor from our balcony)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

India: the Story You Never Want to Hear

This is a first for Wanderlust for Beginners, but I'm going to post excerpts and a link to an article written by someone else. In this case, it's from University of Chicago student Rose Chasm, and covers her experiences as a study abroad student for 3 months in India.

When people ask me about my experience studying abroad in India, I always face the same dilemma. How does one convey the contradiction....

“India was wonderful," I go with, "but extremely dangerous for women.” Part of me dreads the follow-up questions, and part of me hopes for more. I'm torn between believing in the efficacy of truth, and being wary of how much truth people want.

Do I tell them about bargaining at the bazaar for beautiful saris costing a few dollars a piece, and not mention the men who stood watching us, who would push by us, clawing at our breasts and groins?

When people compliment me on my Indian sandals, do I talk about the man who stalked me for forty-five minutes after I purchased them, until I yelled in his face in a busy crowd?

Do I describe the lovely hotel in Goa when my strongest memory of it was lying hunched in a fetal position, holding a pair of scissors with the door bolted shut, while the staff member of the hotel who had tried to rape my roommate called me over and over, and breathing into the phone?

All of this is to say, Rose, you aren't alone.  I read some of the comments at the end of her iReport, and many of them call her a racist, a biggot, a hatemonger, etc.  In my opinion, these people fall into one of several categories.  Either (a) they have never been to India; (b) they are Indian; (c) they are men; or (d) they are women who are not white.  Because every white female I know who has been to India has faced similar things to what Nora faced, or what Rose faced. 

In a weird way, I love that country: I love its food, I love its history, I love its geography, and I even love some of its people.  But I can't go back, because far too many men there treat my wife like an object on display, or, even worse, like an object that is available for taking. 

You can find Rose's full post by clicking here.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Overdue Ecuador Recap

Ecuador was our 5th South American country and 3rd South American trip, so we went into it with a certain amount of experience and expectations.  But it was our first trip with either of our parents; Nora's came for the entire 4 weeks, and my mother flew down for 8 days.  This made it a rather unique trip for us.

(Ecuador's flag flying over the presidential palace)

Ecuador is a beautiful country, with very diverse geographic regions thanks to the Andes.  We started our trip in Quito, which for an Andean city was a bit disappointing--it reminded us a lot of Lima, in that it had good food, good weather, and very friendly people, but didn't feel all that special or unique. We've found that most big cities end up feeling very similar to one another these days (in South America Cuzco is a notable exception, and Buenos Aires deserves honorable mention).  This is not to say we did not enjoy Quito; on the contrary, we had a lot of fun there, and would consider going back.

(a brother and sister waiting on the bus after school)

From Quito we took a day trip to Otavalo, where most of the region's handicrafts originate.  We went to see the market, but were unlucky as only a few vendors were open.  It rained, so we ducked inside a cafe for a few drinks, and Nora found a "green" beer--beer mixed with creme de menthe.

Leaving Quito, we stopped overnight in Banos, famous for its hot springs--which ranged from ice cold, to lukewarm, to a scalding 120 degrees F; no tolerable soaking pool there, but it was still very relaxing.

We journeyed on to Cuenca where we had rented an amazing apartment with a long balcony.  This was probably the nicest place Nora and I have ever stayed. The neighborhood was a couple km from the sights in the city, but as taxis are so cheap (about $1.50 for a 10 minute ride), it was not a problem at all. And there was a Chilean empanada place around the corner that was fantastic.

(Cuenca crafts market)

Cuenca we liked a lot, but for different reasons than Quito. It is still a big city, but it feels a little smaller, a little greener, and the weather is a little better--not withstanding the sudden rainstorm that Nora and her parents got caught out in. There's a reason so many Americans are retiring to Ecuador, and specifically locating in Cuenca.

(women in traditional dress, Cuenca)

(the central plaza in Sigsig)

From here we went to Salinas and spent a week on the beach, and from there to Puerto Lopez and spent another week on the beach.  Puerto Lopez was interesting for the place we stayed--Hosteria Mandala--and its host's whale obsession, as well as a boat trip we took to Isla de la Plata.  Otherwise, our time on the beach can be summed up as a lot of beer and wine, a lot of good food, and general relaxing fun all around.

(the porch of our cabana at Hosteria Mandala in Puerto Lopez)   


(a beach vendor selling cold coconuts in Salinas)

On back to Quito, and from there homeward.

The really exciting part of Ecuador was, like most trips we take, the food.  Ecuadorean food is generally very good, though you can get--and we certainly did on several occasions--garbage versions of it.  Beach towns don't seem to care about flavor or quality as much unless you're spending a lot more (notable exceptions: in Salinas there was a corner place that grilled over charcoal, and an English fish-and-chip shop; in PL a tiny Spanish restaurant run by a couple).  The Andean food was the best: secco de chivo (a thick stew of lamb or goat), llapingachos (cheesy potato griddle cakes), and locro de papas (a potato soup with chunks of queso fresco and avocado in it). The ingredients were familiar to the Peruvian food we've had before, but used in new and delicious ways.

 (locro de papas on the left, and llapingachos with lomito on the right)

(choclo con habbas -- large kernel corn with something like a lima bean)

(secco de chivo) 

Overall, I'd say if you can only take 2 weeks for South America, go to Peru or Argentina, depending on what you're hoping to find.  But if you have longer, or if you can take several trips, Ecuador will definitely reward your time and curiosity.

Happy travels.

 - A

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hong Kong

We've been lax in keeping up with the blog, but here's the long and short of it:

We returned to India from Sri Lanka, still did not enjoy ourselves, and so flew home early.

We spent a lovely 4 weeks in Ecuador.

We moved to Hong Kong, arriving just over a week ago.  We have a tiny, wonderful apartment in Kennedy Town overlooking the harbor, there are supermarkets and bakeries within walking distance, and we are very pleased with our decision to relocate here.

More details to follow in the coming days.  And pictures, naturally.

Hope your summer was as great as ours.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sri Lanka Update

We've been here four weeks now. We also skipped almost all the cultural, historical, and natural sites/sights that most people come to the country for (Adam's peak, the cultural triangle, World's Edge, safaris in the national parks, etc.).  What we did do was eat--a lot--get work done, and for the last week try to relax by the beach.

The food here is very good, and they always give you far too much.  The novelty of it wears off quicker than in India, though, because there isn't as much variety. Even rice and curry, with its half dozen side dishes, can begin to grow old when it is the same half dozen side dishes every night. We still love the food, we just want a little variety now and then, which is what drove us to KFC yesterday.  I swore off KFC over a decade ago, and here I found myself walking into one with thoughts of spicy fried chicken and no remorse. I suppose stranger things have happened, but that's up there.

We're heading to Negombo today, mostly because it is closer to the international airport and has a modest beach. We're also not looking forward to going back to India. We're trying to book things well in advance to avoid some of the headache of a month ago, but it's already a headache.  For one of the most visited places in the world, India is not tourist friendly at all. Our plan is to find somewhere quiet and cool up in the Himalayas and lay low for four weeks.  Fingers crossed.

Meanwhile, it's nearly time to say farewell to Sri Lanka.  There are a few things we missed: I would have liked to see some of the ancient cities, and would very  much have liked to have climbed Adam's Peak at sunrise; Nora would have very much liked to go on a blue whale watching tour, and eat tiger lobster (the last are out of season, unfortunately). But overall we're fairly well pleased with the country, and would recommend it.  It comes with its annoyances--mostly people trying to sell you something, take you on a tour, recommend a hotel, etc., and most of whom will brazenly lie to your face to try to convince you--but these don't seem as aggravating after a month in India.

I read Arthur C. Clarke's Fountains of Paradise while here, and the novel takes place between the future and a distant, only slightly re-imagined past on a Sri Lanka set closer to the equator.  I can see why Clarke loved this island so much and chose to make it his home, and reading his re-writing of history, and seeing how he weaved it into his vision of the future, was an interesting experience. I'm going to miss Sri Lanka somewhat, but convincing ourselves to come back will be a little harder than for many other countries we've been.  A re-visit, in other words, is not high on our list.

This trip has been fairly draining, overall. It feels as though we're always anticipating with dread our next move, because trains and buses and dealing with all the touts is a hassle--though not nearly as much as in India.  It's been a little more frustrating for Nora, who has had to (twice) step down from a moving bus and (once) jump off a moving train--no mean feats for someone with a movement disorder. There's also the stares, which again are not so bad as in India, but still make one uncomfortable. Sometimes it's hard not to feel very dispirited, but then other times we find somewhere we love and can relax and everything seems fine again. We're taking it a day at a time.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Early Impressions of Sri Lanka

It is nice here in the "undiscovered kingdom."

Lodging is comparably priced to India, but food is about twice as expensive.  Taxis and tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws) are slightly more expensive as well.  The food is very good, but they're keen on over-sized portions, which usually ends in us ordering two menu items for $5 each and then lamenting that we could have just split one.  Yet we never learn.

(Colombo seaside)

Colombo is a nice city.  It probably wouldn't be very fun to stay as a tourist for more than a couple nights, but it is a very livable city--the air is fresh and the sea breeze very nice, it has a beautiful, long coastline, a very nice sea walk, good roads, clean streets, lots of restaurants, etc.

(Colombo sea walk and pier, with the Sri Lankan flag flying above)

Another big factor in its favor is that the people are extremely nice.  We were helped by any number of people who went out of their way to assist us, without any thought of recompense.  (One woman in particular, an employee at a travel agency that we had not booked with and were not interested in booking with, spent 20 minutes making phone calls for us so we could find where we needed to go to validate a train ticket. She then made another employee accompany us to the place so we didn't get lost.  And not once did she try to sell a flight or bus pass or tour.  She just smiled and said she hoped we had a wonderful journey.)

(Lani's Place, a seaside restaurant in Dehiwala, Colombo)

In our experience, this kind of thing does not happen elsewhere in the world (and certainly not in India, where any request for assistance is either ignored or followed by an immediate appeal to a quorum of passersby until a small crowd has collected to discuss; the crowd will usually decide that it is unimportant, but occasionally they will provide conflicting instructions).

As it turns out, that kind of thing doesn't seem to happen elsewhere in Sri Lanka, either, for that matter.

Kandy is a lovely, hilly town overlooking a lake. It has a great climate, and even better views.  It also has one of the most sacred sights in all of Buddhism, the Temple of the Sacred Tooth.  But it is clearly a town that has grown accustomed to moneyed tourists. Every person we've run into who has wanted to talk to us has tried to convince us to go to a different hotel, or a different restaurant, or to a cultural show, or to buy something. 

For example, we met on the sidewalk a toothless old man who recommended we go see a cultural show (fire dancers, baby elephants, the President of Sri Lanka would be in attendance!).  It was $5 a piece, and we walked away thinking about it.  He caught up to us, told us if we bought tickets early we could get very good seats, and weren't we lucky the president would be there today of all days?  We followed him to a school (was it a school for teaching dancing?  a school for children?  a workhouse for children?  it might have been all of the above).  The man claimed to be a firedancing instructor, showed us an album of photos featuring a man who looked nothing like himself.  He saw Nora had allergies and found some green menthol stuff the consistency of glue (think of a really potent, soupy Vicks rub) and massaged it into her temples. For good measure, he put some on his fingertips and stuck it into her ears.  This, he claimed, would cure her allergies.  After all, his hand was very lucky, he assured us.  Then he began a 30 minute sell of the dyed wall hangings covering his office (made by schoolchildren, half the price of the tourist places, all the money goes back into the school, he can give us a very good price, how are Nora's allergies and would she like him to rub some more green stuff?).  He was very disappointed when we told him we just wanted the tickets to the cultural show and did not buy any $30 wall hangings.  Needless to say, the president was not in attendance at the show (nor were there any baby elephants).  

Many of the people who we pass by on the streets have the familiar staring/pointing/laughing complex we remember all too well from India. It's not as ubiquitous, and it's not as aggressive, but it's still uncomfortable and completely unnecessary. From what we have observed, older white people don't get this treatment here, either (they do attract the touts in droves, though).

Our hotel in Kandy is great, however.  It's outside of town, across the lake, on the hillside, and has a balcony that looks over the town.  The room is large, the hot water in the shower actually hot (too hot, as it turns out, but that's a small problem compared to the icy showers of India).  It gets noisy early, and we have to be up by 7:30 to get our included breakfast, but it is a large breakfast (plate of fruit each, choice of style of eggs, toast, a pot of Ceylon tea to share), and it is pleasantly cool on the terrace.  Walking down into town and around the lake is nice, but walking back up the hill is not very enjoyable.  Then there is the unfortunate problem that Nora is allergic to something in the room (we suspect dust; there is a horizontal concrete support beam that, when I stood on the bed to get a look, displayed several years worth of accumulated dust).

We have discovered there are two pubs in town (100,000 people live here) and both close at 11.  There is also one shop to buy beer/wine/liquor to take home.  Apparently a few restaurants also serve beer, but that's about it for nightlife.  We're not big drinkers, but after a long, hot day of walking up hills, a nice, cold lager can really hit the spot--it's just a rather difficult to actually find one.  It is the little things that count, as they say, and the difficulty to find a drink has joined the touts and the stairs and the midday sun in a cloudless sky to knock Kandy down from our list of must-visit places.  

We'll be here a few more days, then we're heading higher into the hills to a smaller town where, hopefully, there will be fewer people preying on tourists, less traffic, less noise, and a little more peace.  If we want to be really hopeful, there might even be a terrace with a frosted mug containing an ice-cold lager.  Keep your fingers crossed.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

India Break

3 weeks into our trip, and we've decided to quit India for awhile.  We've been to 7 different places (Mumbai, Nasik, Aurangabad, Pune, Panjim, and Anjuna) and 8 different hotels, and until the last two places and hotels we had the same opinion everywhere: this is not a very fun vacation.

Some of the reasons why I detailed below.  Suffice it to say that both of us were having to work very hard to enjoy ourselves, and we weren't very successful.  We had a long talk and both admitted we were trying to make it work, which is kind of the opposite of a vacation, so we decided to pick up and go somewhere else instead.  We thought about flying back to the States and renting a shack on the beach somewhere; we thought about going to Samoa or the Maldives; we even considered going to Israel.  In the end, we settled on the short trip to Sri Lanka.  

Of course, by the time we had made this decision, we found a place where we actually enjoyed ourselves a bit.  There are some downsides to being here in Goa: there are a lot of aged white hippies all around, the power goes out all the time, it is hot and humid constantly.  But it is much more relaxed, less conservative, and the people are more used to seeing white women, so not as many stare at Nora and for not as long.  It's the little things that really add up.  There are even more white people in Anjuna than Panjim, and the dress is even more relaxed (first place people regularly wear shorts), but most of those white people seem to either be 70 year old burned out hippies or young 20-somethings with a chip on their shoulder, out to prove how cool they are.  Still, aside from a very frustrating driver yesterday who refused to take us where we wanted to go, we mostly like it here. It's the most relaxation we've had so far, at any rate.

Beginning to have a good time once you've decided to give up: This is how things usually go in our world, but we're making the best of it. This guest house is well shaded by trees, and there's a pleasant breeze blowing, which also helps keep the mosquitoes away.  There are lots of places to sit outside and watch the sunburned tourists zip by on scooters. We've got a mini-fridge in our room now, and it's filled with beer and white white and cheese and other snacks.  In fact, that sounds like a good idea right now...

Monday, February 11, 2013

2 Week Update

It's been a little over 2 weeks now, and I thought I'd update everyone on where we've been and are, and what we're planning next.

After leaving Mumbai we went to Nasik via train.  We got a reserved seat in an A/C car, and it was pleasant enough, until we got off at the wrong station and had to pay a rickshaw driver the cost of one train ticket just to get to our hotel.  This seemed to set off a series of unfortunate events, as any number of things that could muck up a trip began to happen after this: rude hotel staff, crazy shower, no toilet paper, harassed by beggars and street sellers, stared at, laughed at, and had pictures taken by just about everyone else.

Then our train to Aurangabad was a 2nd class no A/C seat, and it was more than overcrowded.  We had to shift a family out of our two spots on the bench seat, and then stare at them for the next 5 hours (supposed to be 3 1/2) as 3-4 adults and 2 children sat on the opposite bench at any given time.  People were standing in the aisles, sitting in each other's laps, crawling over our legs, and we had to hold our luggage the entire time because there was no space in the racks above.

Aurangabad actually turned out somewhat nice, aside from the mothball and diesel smell of the room.  We took day trips in private cars to the caves at Ellora one day (side trip to Dautalabad and the mini Taj Mahal) and Ajanta another day.  These were the first, and so far only, instances of the awe-inspiring sights I had imagined India to be filled with.

From Aurangabad we came to Pune by bus (which left 45 minutes late and took 1 hour longer than the "maximum" time we were promised), also with no A/C.  In Pune we took the opportunity to get caught up on work, and stayed in our hotel room for nearly 3 days, only venturing out occasionally. There was nothing in Pune we wanted to see, and we had a lot of work to get caught up on. Plus the cheapest food options anywhere nearby were delivery food (our hotel was apparently in a posh neighborhood, with an internationally famous--and expensive--ashram nearby).  This suited us just fine.

Next we are going to Kolhapur by bus, then Panjim by bus, then a night in Madagao to catch the morning train to Hampi.

All in all, it has not been the most pleasant trip so far.  We still have hopes for things to look up, but we have no evidence thus far to support those hopes.  I'd also add that white female travelers should probably avoid this country, especially if they are alone.  It's not dangerous that we've seen, but it is frustrating and difficult and exasperating to always be stared at by everyone everywhere.  I mean people twisting completely around on motorbikes, chairs scooting in restaurants as people with stuffed faces follow your progress through the dining area--things like that.  Everywhere.  From what we've seen, older white people are mostly ignored, as are Asians.  Not sure how Africans fare, as we've only seen one or two.  I know they got similar treatment in Korea, but maybe it's different here since there are so many dark-skinned Indians.  We have friends who have traveled in India, and have gotten mixed responses: of the two white women we know who have gone, one loved her two week trip and the other had the same problems we're having over her longer trip; a woman of Asian descent loved it; most of the others were white men, most of whom loved it, but at least one of whom had a number of frustrations that have become familiar to us.  This isn't to say one shouldn't travel here, only be aware that who you are and what you look like makes a very big difference in how you will be responded to--and, obviously, how much you will enjoy your trip.

For example, I went out across town by myself once, and after dealing with two rickshaw drivers and four bus station personnel, had no real trouble with anyone.  People were polite or, when not, at least reasonable.  Nobody harassed me, nobody stared, nobody asked to take my picture.  This makes me suspect it is younger white women who face these problems.  It also allowed me to say to Nora, "It's not me, it's you."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Mumbai Wrap-Up

winding down our 7th day in Mumbai, and here are my overall thoughts on the city:

there are some cool looking buildings, if you can see them through the smog; there are some neat sights outside the city, if you can manage the crush of bodies on public transit; the food is very good, and cheap in most places; you can get really cheap clothes, too, in both quality and cost, if you don't mind the pushy touts;

it's very noisy, very dirty, and the number of kind people is far outweighed by the number of very rude people.

i've never been anywhere quite like this before, but the annoyances are hardly worth putting up with for the positives.  it's just so difficult to relax here.

overall, except to fly out at the end of our trip, this is one city i've no desire to return to.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Making a Comeback

Well, I figured a couple years was long enough; it's time to get back to posting.  2012 was a fun year for us: we went to Iceland, I got my K-6 teaching license, and we celebrated our first anniversary.  2013 is looking like it's going to be one of the more eventful years that we've had together: we leave for India in 4 days, we're going to Ecuador for the month of June, and then we're going to live in whatever country that I can get a job in starting in August.  Whew- makes me tired thinking about it. :) And a little bit excited.  

If you know me well, you probably know that Iceland has been a dream/obsession of mine for quite some time.  While living in S. Korea, I decided that it would be a good idea to brush up on my Icelandic, regardless of the fact that nobody else in Korea speaks it.  Hardly anyone else in the world speaks it, really, so who cares?  Needless to say, my expectations for the trip were a bit high.  Fortunately, they were fulfilled in every way.  Here are a few of my favorite things:

Lamb hot dogs on every corner

The best lobster soup in the world.

The awesome streets in Reykyavik.

Felix, our reliable friend.

Oh, just some scenery.

 Not my favorite thing.

A little more scenery.

Naturally heated swimming pools.

 Just some glaciers; NBD.

 Fred, the puffin.

The best blue mussels around.

 Beautiful nature.

Whale watching.

 Turf grass roofs.


 Volcanic Activity.

 Nuff said.

And that just touches on my favorite things.  If you ever get the chance to go to Iceland, do yourself a favor and go.  

My (late) New Years resolution is to post more on this here blog.  I hope to get at least one good post in during our three month trip to India.  I know, the whole one of you who reads this can barely sit still due to suppressed anticipation.