Tag Archives: mishaps

How to Awkwardly Ride an Ostrich

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Weather-permitting, many of the ostrich show farms in Oudtshoorn will allow visitors ride an ostrich as part of the tour.

If you want to see how to do this awkwardly, check out the video below:

 

An Ode to Hermanus – My Favorite Mistake

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I’m a planner. The minute I confirmed my South Africa trip, I immediately purchased a guide book to research and get organized. But one of the best things about travel is that you can’t plan everything. And oftentimes, it’s the unexpected which makes for the most memorable experiences.

Like Hermanus. Hermanus is a small coastal town outside of Cape Town, on the way to, but not quite on the Garden Route. I had stumbled upon it in my reading as the South African destination to whale watch. Unfortunate for my whale-loving heart, I was several months off-season. On the other hand – there was one other sea-related aspect of Hermanus that caught my attention: shark cage diving.

Shark cage diving is fairly unique experience limited to only a handful of locations throughout the world. The excursion involves taking a boat out into the ocean, being lowered in a cage a few feet under water and watching as sharks attempt to eat the chum located just outside the cage. You know, a few feet from your head.

Now, aside from the random bungee-jump excursion, adventure tourism is really not my thing. And while I liked the idea of being able to have said “I was sort of almost eaten by a shark,” my fish-phobic self didn’t know if this was something I’d actually have the courage to do. Additionally, time was limited, and my friends wanted to head straight to the Garden Route. It was looking like I’d have to give it a miss.

But somehow after a couple days in Cape Town, this voice in the back of my head saying “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” got louder. The morning of our scheduled departure date I made a snap decision: I was going to Hermanus. And as my companions didn’t share my adventurous sentiments, I was going to approach these sea predators alone.

I said goodbye to my friends, rented a car and headed east to the Hermanus Backpackers Hostel to await my sea fate. Nervous, I went to check in and book my excursion. I had come all this way, damn it, this was going to happen. I knew not to expect whales, but it didn’t dawn on me that the sharks would be anything but excited to meet me as well.

To my dismay, I learned that not only were there no whales, but there no sharks. In fact, there had been no sharks for weeks, despite it being a year-round occurrence and “why didn’t you call ahead?”. Since the trip cost about $100 and was only exchangeable for another trip if there were no shark sightings, the hostel recommended I explore something else in Hermanus.

No whales, no sharks and no time to catch up with my friends, I looked at my options: a visit to the local township and a wine tour. While not my original plan, I signed up anyway for the next day and headed to town for dinner.

Despite being in a coastal town, the hostel was not actually located on the coast or even visibly close to it. Nestled in a quiet residential street, the same was true for its visible proximity to the downtown. As I followed their map to the city, I really had no idea what I was in for.

And then I saw it.

Straight ahead, green and blue ocean that stretched for miles with white waves crashing against faded orange cliffs all along the shore. To my left a sleepy yet charming seaside town full of restaurants and shops. A small green mountain guarded over everything.

I was in love.

Hermanus 20

The day was fading, so I quickly found a lovely seaside restaurant featuring fresh seafood, local wine and stunning views. The restaurant itself was mostly full, so I opted to dine alone outside and enjoy the view in the cold. As I sat down, I was greeted with a complimentary glass of local sherry and a blanket and immediately began to relax. I ordered the shrimp meal and a glass of pinot grigio, something Hermanus is famous for, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful, delicious and relaxing meals I’d ever had.

Hermanus 6

The next day proved to be equally as incredible as my first impression to the city, with the disjointing experience of a South African slum on the one end, followed by an afternoon of wine tasting and fine dining on the other, a fascinating experience showing both ends of life in South Africa. (Stay tuned for more on that).

As I returned to the hostel, relaxed, slightly tipsy and ready to leave for the Garden Route in the morning, I heard the morning sea report from the staff: they had seen sharks after all.

While I didn’t have the time to wait another day, I decided I didn’t care. Stunning views, incredible food and an eye-opening look at South African life, my spontaneous trip to Hermanus ended up being one of the best mistakes I ever made.

For the sea life, I’ll just have to return :).

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The Long Way Home

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My journey to Asia wasn’t an easy one, so it was fitting that my journey home from Asia wouldn’t be easy either. Saying good-bye to friends and family, uprooting your life and moving to another part of the world with a completely different culture is never easy, but somehow both times I managed to find myself with a few extra obstacles to overcome.

After living off my savings for nearly a year (and running out), I was grateful that one of my relatives was a former flight attendant and offered me one of her buddy passes for the trip home. The buddy passes allow you to purchase standby tickets at a significant discount. Standby tickets allow travelers to fill any open seats on the plane, but there are no guarantees. The process involves showing up at the airport as normal and waiting until boarding time has passed to see if any open spots are left. If there is an open space, you get on. If not, you wait to try again another day.

While I had never flown standby before, planes always seemed to have open seats, and I thought this would be no big deal. Additionally, the flight I was looking at flew out of Mumbai, providing me a reason to return to the city and spend a few days with my friends there before going home. It sounded perfect to me.

I made plans to stay with Naren in Mumbai for a few days and then head home. For the first few days, things were great. Naren and I went out on the town, met up with my friends Geeta and Suresh, and I made a new friend, Leah. We also squeezed in some yoga with my new-found yoga teaching skills :).

Leah, Naren and I hanging out in Mumbai before my departure

Leah, Naren and I hanging out in Mumbai before my departure

When it came time to make my final trip home, I prepared myself accordingly. By this point, my backpack was well over 30 pounds and bursting at the seams with months of accumulated clothes, books, toiletries, medicine and souvenirs. While a necessary burden (of love?), my poor back was looking forward to the day I would no longer need to carry all of my belongings with me every place I went. I decided it was time to minimize in order to take home more of the essentials: the souvenirs, of course!

Naren assisted in the process, convincing me this faded yellow shirt could be let go (“But it was a gift from Malaysia!”) and that I no longer needed the three brick-sized Lonely Planets that, alone, made up half of the weight of my backpack (“But I have hand-written notes and memories in there! What if I come back to Asia?”). Eventually I paired down my items to my souvenirs, select clothing and one guidebook, with a promise from Naren he would keep the books and ship them to me if I discovered, in fact, I could not live without them after arriving home.

I put on my favorite purple t-shirt and lone pair of jeans (my designated “going home” outfit), hauled my (slightly) lighter backpacks into Naren’s car, and off we went to the Mumbai airport.

I was in good spirits. At this point, I had been overseas for more than two years. I had spent a year living and working in Malaysia, getting to know the country and its people in depth and making some great friendships. I had explored India and China and Southeast Asia and traveled continuously for nearly a year, a pipe dream I never knew I would actually achieve. And I had recently completed my yoga teacher training course. I had accomplished everything I had set out to do and more, and frankly, I was tired.

We reached the airport, and Naren helped me with my bags and gave me one of those “goodbye forever” hugs you give someone when you don’t know if or when you’ll ever see them again.

I walked into the airport and was ushered into this awkward open space near one of the ticket lines to await my destiny. As I sat on the floor next to my bags, I tried to read to distract myself from the excitement and anxiety of going home after such a long time. As the minutes passed by, I noticed the group of people around me get larger and started to get a little worried. Buddy passes are based on a hierarchy with current airline employees getting priority for the open seats, while those who are friends or family of the airline employees ranked further down. When I met a couple of women who told me they’d already tried and failed three times to get on this flight, I started to get even more worried. To make matters worse, the Indian airport authorities were not forthcoming with information and seemed annoyed when I asked them if there would be seats available.

Sure enough, a couple hours later we were sent home.

While disappointed, I knew there was a chance this could happen and figured I’d have better luck the next night. Fortunately, Naren had waited for me in the parking lot in the chance I didn’t make my flight, and we drove back to the city to wait another day.

The next day, Naren, Leah and I spent another day together, just hanging out watching movies and enjoying each other’s company. I made an effort to follow the standby website more closely and saw the plane was overbooked by about 10 seats, but I was number six on the wait list and still remained optimistic. People miss flights all the time, right?

The next night, yet again, Naren and I headed out to the airport for round two of my attempt to return home. This time, we had a more of a “see you later, maybe” kind of hug.

Again, I was directed to the open space near the ticket line. Again, I watched the waiting group grow around me, this time, with some familiar faces. Again, I watched the Indian airline employees ignore us as we waited for information.

As the night wore on, it became increasingly clear that I would not make this plane either, and I began to panic. I was staying with friends and living off their hospitality, but I could not expect them to keep hosting me and driving me to the airport day after day on the off chance I’d make this flight home. And the stress of mentally preparing to go home and then having it torn away was proving to be too much. This time when Naren came to pick me up, I burst into tears.

Naren was very supportive. We made a plan to look at the standby schedule and determine whether or not my chances of making any of the upcoming planes were realistic before driving out again. After hanging out and watching the overbooked and standby lists get longer and longer over the next two days (not even bothering to drive to the airport), I decided to bite the bullet and buy a full-priced ticket home.

Almost.

The original plan included a stopover in Amsterdam since there were no direct flights from Mumbai to Detroit. I decided I would purchase a full-priced flight to Europe to a city that then had a long list of open seats for a direct flight to Detroit and try my buddy pass there. Luckily, I was able to find a “cheap” flight to Frankfurt that then had a subsequent direct flight to Detroit with a wide open list of seats available. Additionally, I had a day layover in the city, which would give me one last trip before coming home.

The next day, I packed again for my trip home and we drove to the airport one last time. This time when Naren hugged me good-bye, it was a long one.

As I headed directly for the ticket counter, a rush of relief flooded through me as they took my ticket without question and ushered me to the boarding gate. This was it.

The following day was a bit of a blur. After a brief stop in Beirut, I arrived in Frankfurt to enjoy a day of Europe after having been awake continuously for about 15 hours. When I entered the airport, I was amazed at all the white people around me. After being in Asia for so long, it was strange to blend in.

Frankfurt was beautiful. The day was warm and sunny, and I enjoyed myself walking around the city, taking in the quaint architecture, drinking Apfelwein (yum!) and trying German frankfurters (disappointing). When I finally made it back to the airport that night, I collapsed into a deep sleep on one of benches, the last sleep before coming home.

A glimpse of my day in Frankfurt

A glimpse of my day in Frankfurt

The next morning I headed to the ticket line to wait standby for my final flight home. My sleep on the airport benches had been surprisingly refreshing, and the standby list still looked wide open. To my delight, the German airline employees were very friendly and told me there should be no problem for me to make this flight. I was even more delighted when they called my name to board first class. Not only was I finally going home, I was going home in style.

I had never flown first class before, and the cushy, spacious seats were welcome after days of stress and travel. As I sipped my complimentary orange juice while waiting to take off, I sat back and sighed in relief. Five days of false starts, little sleep and traveling cross-continent, I was finally going home. Two years, one month and 24 days after my first arrival to Asia, I was finally going home.

The final flight home was fairly uneventful. The blue cheese steak and warm cookies were amazing, though the fully-reclining seats and eye-mask did nothing to ease my excitement. I watched “The Five Year Engagement” and teared up at scenes of my beloved Ann Arbor, now only a few mere hours away.

I was nervous too. I hadn’t seen most of my family and almost none of my old friends during the time I was gone. I had no idea how I would fit in back into their lives. I also had no job lined up and no idea what my next plans would be. Re-adjustment to life back home would be a different kind of adventure.

As the flight attendant announced our final descent into Detroit’s Metro Airport, I was grateful to give up my futile attempt at sleeping and sat up in my chair, anxious as ever to get home.

The plane landed smoothly, but the wait to exit the aircraft and retrieve my luggage seemed to last for an eternity.

When I finally arrived at immigration, I was relieved to find a short line. I looked up at the “U.S. Citizens” sign and smiled. After more than two years of going in and out of the “foreigner” line at airports, it felt nice to belong. The immigration officer was unusually friendly. He flipped through my passport, handed it back to me and said “Welcome home.”

I looked through to the arrival hall and grinned. Two years before, I had left from this very same terminal to move to Malaysia, with only a vague idea of what I was getting myself into or how long I would last. Two years later, I was coming home safe and triumphant, no regrets.

I entered the arrival gate and instantly began looking around for a glimpse at someone from my family. Rows of benches ran throughout a narrow waiting area. I wasn’t actually sure if anyone would be there. After days of stop and go, I had not actually had a chance to confirm with my mom that I had made my flight from Germany. And sure enough, the arrival gate was all but empty.

I sat around for a few minutes, anxious as ever if they were just late or waiting for me to contact them. Finally, I walked to a pay phone (yes, they still exist!) and called my aunt’s house. My nana answered worried. Apparently my mother and brother were on their way and just hadn’t arrived yet. She was happy to hear from me, and I was grateful that they would be there soon.

I sat on the bench and waited. The arrival gate to my back, I stared ahead at the revolving doors and large windows ahead, revealing a parking structure behind a road that led out of the airport and into the rest of the state, my state.

Finally, out of the corner of my eye, I see two figures approaching from the right.

When I saw my mom and brother my grin got even wider. It had been more than two full years since we’d seen each other in person. This was a long hug too.

Me and Mom after my airport arrival from Asia

Me and Mom after my airport arrival from Asia

As we drove back to my aunt’s house, I relished being back home for a Michigan summer. The day was warm, not hot. Lush, sturdy trees dotted the flat Midwestern landscape, broken up with familiar shops, strip malls and houses, which I had never before found endearing. To my delight, the cars stayed in their lanes.

We made it home, and I carried my backpacks one last time. I set my bags on the floor of my bedroom, the same bedroom I’d had for more than two and a half decades, and breathed a sigh of relief. After living like a nomad for nearly a year, this place belonged to me.

As I unpacked, carelessly spreading my clothes, books and souvenirs around the floor, every layer was like unburdening years’ worth of toughness, caution, aggression, self-sufficiency and a general all-around guard that had naturally developed as form of self-protection. While I still had no idea what I would do with my new life at home, I didn’t care. I took my backpacks and placed them in the closet. They weren’t needed any longer. I was home.

Critter Control and the Adventure of Yoga Crab

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I’ve always been drawn to animals, and I’m usually excited when they seem drawn to me too. But not all the time.

During my training at the Association for Yoga and Meditation, I was always delighted to watch the langur monkeys playing in the ashram trees.

Does your yoga class include monkeys?

Does your yoga class include monkeys?

I was even more excited when they would occasionally make an appearance in yoga class itself.

"Downward dog!"

“Downward dog!”

While the monkeys mostly kept their distance, a few other creatures decided they wanted to visit with me personally.

During my time at the ashram, I stayed in a small bedroom on the main floor, half-way between the bustling village outside and the holy Ganges River down the stairs in the backyard.

My mornings were fairly routine. My alarm rang around 5:45 a.m., I would then drag myself out of bed, pull on my yoga clothes, grab a snack and walk sleepily across the hall to 6 a.m. pranayama (breathing) practice.

One day I got up as usual, grabbed my yoga pants off the chair and got dressed. But as I continued getting ready, I noticed a slight scratching sensation in my pants between my legs. In my half-awake state, I didn’t think much of it. But as I continued, pulling on my t-shirt, putting my hair up and grabbing a handful of the trail mix I usually kept on my nightstand, the scratching did too.

Finally, I put my hand below to “adjust” and was surprised to find a strange lump under my pants. In my groggy state, it took me a few seconds to realize what was going on. And when I did, I screamed, yanking my pants off as quickly as possible. My jaw dropped in disbelief as I watched a quarter-sized cockroach scurry away.

Let me tell you, nothing wakes you up quite as effectively as discovering a cockroach in your pants!

The very next day, I got up as usual, checking carefully inside all my clothes making sure there were no additional new friends creeping around. Luckily, the morning went smoothly.

It wasn’t until after breakfast when I went back to my room that I discovered this next to my bed:

Hello.

Hello.

Yes inches away from my pillow, less than a foot from where I rest my head at night, stood a six-inch wide crab, about the size of one of my hands. How long he had been in my room and what he planned to do now that he was there was beyond me, (though I think my snacks may have had something to do with it).

This time, I didn’t scream. I did, however, request help. The next thing I know, one of the AYM staff is chasing the little critter around my room with a broom stick, in a fairly entertaining cat-and-mouse routine. Finally, my classmate Janica stepped in to personally return the crab to his home, presumably back to the Ganges.

You can follow his journey here:

Playing catch

Playing catch

Gotcha!

Gotcha!

The journey to the Ganges

The journey to the Ganges

Almost home

Almost home

Bye-bye

Bye-bye

In hindsight, perhaps keeping snacks exposed in a hot, crowded climate near water was not one of my smarter decisions. Though, honestly, I think I’m lucky I faced the smaller critters instead of the monkeys ;).

An Unexpected Journey

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If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – especially when it comes to booking train tickets in India. In my four months in India, I got to understand the train system fairly well and always managed to get where I needed to go, albeit sometimes creatively. Like my trip to Rishikesh.

When I re-entered India in Gorakhpur after leaving Nepal, my next destination was Rishikesh where I had signed up to take a month-long yoga teacher training course.

In India you have several ways to book your train ticket. The first, obviously, is to reserve it in person at the train station. This option often involves standing in long, crowded “lines” where you must literally push and shove to get to the front. If the train station is distant from where you are staying, it can also require extra time and costs to reach the station.

The next way to book train tickets, and my preferred option, is to book online via Cleartrip. This choice clearly shows you your options for times and availability to reach the destination you want, and if the train is full, it allows you to add yourself to the waiting list and monitor said list easily. This option, however, got changed during my trip making it extra difficult for foreigners to book tickets themselves.

Another way to book train tickets is to use a travel agent, of whom there are many located in popular traveler destinations. These agencies will give you your travel options and personally book your trips for you, for a small charge (often using Cleartrip). Sometimes agencies are allotted a certain amount of seats for trips, which can be beneficial if the train you want is “booked.”

Additionally, services like “tatkal” reserve last-minute seats for travelers who book within two days of the scheduled trip, also for an extra cost. And special seats designated just for tourists allow foreign travelers the chance to get on popular train routes, although it does require booking the ticket personally at the station and making copies of your passport.

And when all else fails, you have one last option: to get on anyway.

In this instance, you jump on the train you want and take any vacant seat you can in the hope of finding a cancelled ticket. When the conductor comes around to check tickets, you simply purchase the seat you want and enjoy the ride.

When I first arrived in Gorakhpur, it had already been more than six months said I last set foot in India, but luckily my Indian friend Naren, who had been traveling with me in Nepal, was there to help me re-navigate the country.

The train I wanted was a 14.5-hour night train from Gorakhpur to Haridwar, which would then allow me to take a 45-minute bus to Rishikesh. Since I usually managed to get the trains I wanted, I did not think this would be an issue, but just in case (and at Naren’s nagging), I decided to book my ticket more than a week in advance. What I didn’t realize was that my Rishikesh trip coincided with the Kawadia pilgrimage, during which THOUSANDS of Hindus travel to Rishikesh to bathe in its holy waters at the mouth of the Ganges River.

Naren and I tried all the options.

Cleartrip had me wait-listed somewhere in the 80s, a number I was sure would go down before the date of my actual trip. When that didn’t happen, we visited the station the day of in hopes of a better deal. There were no tourist options for this trip, and again, I purchased a ticket with a waiting list in the 60s.

As Naren and I were headed to different parts of the country, this was a train I would board alone. But after already having done more than a dozen trains in India already, I wasn’t worried. I always made my trains.

Naren’s train had left later that morning, and I chilled out in the station waiting room, hoping to receive a message on my phone that I was officially booked before my train left that evening. When evening came and that still didn’t happen, I prepared for my last resort – to get on anyway and hope for the best.

I hauled on my backpacks, headed to the platform and hopped on to the second-class A/C cabin – the class for which I had purchased my waiting list ticket – found an empty seat and began to relax.

Soon after, I didn’t feel so relaxed. Turns out that vacant seat wasn’t so vacant after all – and neither were any of the others.

I stood by the end of the cabin waiting to speak with the conductor about purchasing a ticket, and when he finally talked to me, he was not happy. He told me I was not supposed to be on this train and that I had to get off and go to the sleeper class cabin – the lowest class of seating – to try to get a seat there.

I understood this as, “There are no vacant seats here, but there are vacant seats in the sleeper class.”

So at the next stop, I jumped off, ran down a few cabins and hopped on to the sleeper-class cabin.

Now, I’d done lots of sleeper-class trains before, but they are definitely not my favorite. They are by far the most crowded, dirty and uncomfortable and where you’re most likely (as a foreigner/female) to be stared at and harassed. But as I didn’t really have other options, I didn’t really care.

So I began to walk from cabin to cabin – the only foreigner around – looking for spaces. In vain. I finally asked the conductor where I was supposed to go – naively assuming there had been a space available for me – to which I was gruffly rebuffed again. He told me I was not supposed to be on this train and had to get off.

This point I started to get nervous. I had only been in the country for a couple days and was still getting my “India legs.” I began to fight back the tears as I retreated to the end of the cabin to figure out what to do.

Situated near the open doors and bathroom stall, I sat on the floor with my guidebook in an attempt to find a solution.

It was pitch black outside, and I had no idea where I was at this point. Other passengers rattled off the names of the passing cities, but Lonely Planet did not have sections for these places and stopping in the middle of the night to find a guest house in the middle of nowhere seemed quite dangerous. On the other hand, I was constantly having to move for the people who were frequently coming in and out of my cabin to use the bathroom or get on and off the train, and I couldn’t very well spend the night here either, especially if the conductors came by. I really didn’t know what to do.

And then, like an angel from heaven, I made a friend.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one desperate to get on this train and soon found myself chatting with a young Indian man who was also traveling from cabin to cabin in search of a space.

He was relaxed about the whole situation and told me to make myself a bed on the floor in between one of the rows of three-stacked sleeper seats that filled up both sides of the cabin.

I was not entirely comfortable with this idea either. Aside from the fact that these floors were nasty, I worried I’d put myself in a vulnerable situation for theft (or worse), lying between rows of strangers, most of whom were men.

Seeing my apprehension, my new friend led to me to a row with a man and a woman on the bottom levels and proceeded to make me a “bed” of newspapers on the floor and told me not to worry, that he would keep watch sitting at the end.

Though I was putting a lot of trust in this random stranger, I decided this was probably the best option I had at this point. I thanked him, shoved my big backpack under the seat next to me, placed my little backpack (with my valuables) under my head as a pillow, covered myself with my sarong and took out my iPod. As I lay there throughout the night – definitely NOT sleeping – I found myself in this little happy place listening to my music, letting my thoughts wander lazily and blocking out the fact I was sleeping on a bed of newspapers on the floor of a dirty train among strangers.

The next morning when my train arrived, my guardian angel was nowhere to be found, but the worst had passed. I was safe, my belongings were safe, and I had survived my less-than-ideal journey. Though semi-disgusted, part of me was quite proud to have “roughed” it, rightfully earning the “backpacker” title held so dearly by those determined not to be called “tourists.” On the other hand, I was grateful this was one of the last legs of my trip and the experience, though valuable, was not likely to be repeated.

And I can still say I’ve made it to every single destination I wanted on time :).

Gravity.

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As any traveler will tell you, protecting your passport and valuables is crucial while traveling. Finding yourself stranded with no money, no cards and, worse, no passport, is a travel nightmare, so precautions must be taken.

For me, my money belt was molded into my skin, ensuring any prospective thief would have to get up close and personal in order to take my passport, spare credit card and cash. My purse, my beloved Thai green floral, multi-compartmental mini-luggage, held my phone, wallet, main cards, cash, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and other necessities. My purse was my new appendage, and it went everywhere with me.

For the last leg of our Nepal trip, Naren and I were heading from Pokhara to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, and embarked on six-hour+ bus journey.

As I had grown accustomed to, the bus was filled to the max with passengers, and as its only female passenger and its only Western passenger, I didn’t quite blend in. While the bus provided the standard stuffy, aggressive, bumpy ride I was getting used to, the mountain views were lovely, and it was a fairly enjoyable ride.

A few hours in the bus made its first pit stop, and to my disappointment, this one would take place in the great outdoors. While I usually tried to avoid taking advantage of these sorts of stops, I could not in this instance, so I grabbed my purse and disembarked with the rest of the passengers.

Now, as I mentioned before, I was the only woman on the bus and a foreigner as well – I did not need more attention. I was not just going to go outside and pee on a tree. So I did my best to walk along the road in search of some privacy.

A little ways down I found a couple trees blocking the view from the road and decided this was as good as it was going to get. I set my purse down on the small rock and began to sit and, to my horror, watched it tumble down the mountain side.

My jaw dropped as I watched my purse, with all my cash, cards and phone, bounce round and round through the leaves and trees, finally settling about 30 feet down. Though this wasn’t exactly a sheer drop, it was certainly steep enough for me to decide retrieving it would not be a wise move.

By this point, I had been gone quite a long time, and I knew the bus driver would be annoyed with me. I got back on the road and ran to find Naren, ignoring the driver and other passengers trying to urge me on to the bus. Naren explained the situation to them, and the next thing I know, he and about 10 Nepali men were following me back to my little clearing.

I really thought my purse was a goner, but to my surprise, Naren and my new retrieval team scrambled on down without a second’s hesitation, returning my lifeline in about three minutes.

I’ve been told before that things always have a way of working out for me, and like my memory card mishap before, I really am one lucky girl.

The moral of this story: if you must squat by the side of a mountain to pee, make sure you place you place your purse on a flat rock :).

Why You Shouldn’t Drink on Trains…

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The drinking culture of different countries is usually pretty interesting.

In China, the ability to consume massive amounts of alcohol when pressured by friends or making a business deal is necessary in order to “save face” and maintain your reputation (ah, binge drinking, always a healthy habit). With the words “gan bei,” one must down the drink without question, often the ever-terrible and ever-potent “baijiu,” a distilled liquor usually made from rice, wheat or barley that can only be compared to drinking rubbing alcohol. Repeat this procedure throughout the night and you can get some interesting events.

Like when taking a night train in the seated class.

With our last-minute planning, my travel buddies Kaleb and Wade and I found ourselves forced to spend the night in the chair-only section of the train on our way to Pingyao. While Kaleb had his own seat in the section behind us, Wade and I found ourselves sitting across a table from a Chinese woman and a Chinese man who spoke no English but seemed pleasant enough. As I leaned against the window to attempt to sleep, I heard the words “gan bei”, as the Chinese man and his buddies across the aisle attempted to engage Wade in their drinking game. Always a good sport, Wade happily obliged, and as I glanced at the silver bottle containing the nasty baijiu, I was grateful to be a woman and, therefore, usually left alone in the drinking games.

As I continued to doze, I heard laughter as the men delighted in Wade’s participation and their own progressive inebriation. Awhile later, further into my sleep, I felt something shoving against my leg and was forced to awaken fully to discover our neighbor passed out, slumped across from us, trying to stretch his legs under the entire length of the table. The woman, who had originally sat across from me, had been displaced. I looked at Wade at what to do and together (or really, Wade), moved the man to lay on his back with his legs away from us and into the aisle.

Chinese drinking

Again, I attempted to sleep.

A short time later, I awoke to a gurgling noise to find that our Chinese neighbor had begun to vomit on himself. Quite disgusted, I waited in vain for one of this man’s buddies to take care of him. The guys across the aisle from us made no attempt to help this man, and in fact, found the situation pretty funny. Though I’ll admit I was part annoyed, part amused by the circumstances, I did not want this guy to choke and die on us and called the attention of one of the train attendants.

Chinese drinking

I have little experience taking care of drunk people, but I thought the SOP of these situations was to turn the person over so they don’t choke. To my surprise, the train attendant, finally dawdling over to us, simply wiped off the man’s face before covering it with newspaper. No joke.

I looked to Wade for help on this on to whether or not I was overly worried. He said that he was not planning on sleeping that night and would keep an eye on our drunken neighbor and make sure he kept breathing.

Semi-relaxed, again, I tried to sleep.

A short time later, I was woken up again to the feeling of someone pulling my backpack out from underneath my legs and seat. My sleepy instinct was to fight to hold my bag with my feet, and then I realized it was Wade “stealing” my bag and asked what was going on.

He said that our “friend” had begun to wet his pants and he was trying to save my bag so it didn’t get peed on.

Now I was annoyed.

As Wade tried to find a place to store my backpack on the already-full train, a distinct smell of urine filled the air as a pool of liquid began to form on the ground beneath the table.

I decided that I had had enough.

Like the woman before me, I found myself displaced and was lucky to find the one open seat remaining a few seats down.

Returning to my original seat in the morning, I was pleased to find the man sitting up, alive, relaxed in his chair, carrying on as if nothing had happened the night before. As I stared at the dried vomit on his face and the newspapers on the ground, I wondered what was going through his mind. Was there any sense of shame or remorse to the previous night’s activities or was this just another evening for him? If one was required to drink excessively to prove himself to his friends, was alcohol tolerance a factor or were these drunken and seemingly expected occurrences all part of the game?

I never did get my answer to that one. I’m just glad he didn’t piss on my bag :).

Bridge Over Troubled Water

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Bridge Over Troubled Water

A close friend of mine always says no matter how stressed out I get, things always have a tendency to work out for me. Sometimes I think he’s right.

After having spent an incredible few days in Kyaukme, a small Shan town in northern Myanmar, I headed to Mandalay to meet up with some friends. As Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay is noisy, dirty and, frankly, one of my least favorite places in Myanmar. It’s real draw, however, are the ancient cities surrounding it, especially Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura, home of U Bein’s Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge.

My friends James and Tom and I decided to share a taxi for the day and hit all three cities together, ending with a spectacular sunset viewing off the bridge.

We hiked up the endless stairs of Sagaing Hill and viewed the stunning interconnected monasteries below. Then we took a boat and headed to Inwa, my favorite, where we took a horse-drawn carriage past endless sunflower fields to view the town’s ancient temples. Unfortunately, as I stood poised to capture a particularly beautiful temple, I heard my camera beep and watched my lens sink back to the base in exhaustion. I had forgotten to charge my battery the night before.

Inwa

Inwa

While I kicked myself for my mistake, James and Tom graciously shared their cameras with me, allowing me to use my memory card so I could take my own pictures. Though it wasn’t a super easy situation, I thought it was a pretty neat trick.

After a busy day climbing steps and walking around villages, our exhausted bodies were ready for a relaxing evening in Amarapura where we could enjoy a peaceful sunset off the bridge.

“Peaceful” ended up being the least accurate word I could use to describe that evening.

Upon arrival in Amarapura, James and Tom headed off to travel the length of the bridge, while I decided to grab a snack before sunset. As I sat down to a steaming plate of deep fried corn (snack options were limited), I met Marcus, a solo traveler from Toronto and struck up a conversation.

When sunset approached, Marcus and I headed for the bridge together, making our way down the 1.2 km bridge to join the hundreds of other tourists who had also come to watch the sunset. I had told Marcus about my camera battery situation, and he generously offered to share his photos with me via email later on.

U Bein's Bridge

U Bein's Bridge, the world's longest teak bridge

But as I looked around at the boats, the people, the water and the sinking sun, I didn’t want someone else’s pictures. I wanted my own. So I asked Marcus if he would mind if I borrowed his camera for a few minutes just to take some photos with my own memory card, and he agreed.

Despite the fact we were standing over a wooden bridge amidst a moving crowd, neither one of us thought perhaps exchanging 32mm x 24mm memory cards might be a bad idea. And sure enough, the second I removed the card from the camera a man bumped into me, and it dropped from my fingers.

As I watched the card slip through the wood cracks, I saw every single non-backed up memory of my incredible experiences in Kyaukme and the Shan villages slip away into the green waters below. Unlike all of my other Myanmar adventures, my trip to the north had been solo.

I’m pretty sure my heart stopped for a full minute, which is especially bad when the whole scene appeared to be in slow motion.

In my shock, I turned to Marcus for confirmation that this horrible stupid thing did happen.

“Did you see that? That old man bumped into me. It’s gone now, right? Like, I can’t get it back, right?”

As he stared back at me, equally shocked, my heart sank. My card, though in itself was relatively worthless, contained all the evidence I had of my experience in Kyaukme. And it was a goner.

I stood there, eyes popped in disbelief when suddenly, a beacon of hope: a monk.

“Excuse me, Miss, I help you?”

The monk had seen everything, and though his English was limited, told me the water below was relatively shallow, and I might be able to fish the card out.

I jumped up excitedly, “Yes, yes!”

As I looked around for the best way to get down, I heard the monk speak to a local boatman below about the situation, and he too agreed to help.

I instantly went into super focus mode. By the look of the sun, I had about 15 minutes left until sundown, when all would be lost. Even if the card was retrievable, this was a race against the clock.

I immediately shot off, gaining an incredible second wind that allowed me to dodge people, leap over obstacles and round off back handspring back to land (more or less ;)). Once there, I realized how far along the bridge I had been and began the awkward walk through the dried plants back in the direction I’d come from to find the closest place from which to wade.

When I finally reached the location (luckily Marcus had stayed to mark the place where I had dropped the card), I was relieved to find the boatman was already in the water scooping with his fingers in the muck below.

As much as I’d like to say I jumped right out there and joined him, I must admit, I had a moment of princess, er, I mean panic… That water looked nasty, and I began to wonder about diseases, infection and any unwanted surprises in general. But I couldn’t let a random stranger remedy my bad judgment without me, so I hiked up my pants, dropped off my purse (my protective traveler instinct wondering if my bag was safe on shore) and waded in.

I kept my memory card in focus while I walked through the unnaturally green, toxic-looking lake. As I sunk my hands into the mud below, pulling up mostly shells, I gritted my teeth and prayed these would be the worst of my findings.

But as my friend predicted, just a few minutes later, my luck returned. The boatman had succeeded and stood, holding out my tiny blue card for me to retrieve.

Memory Card Saved

Memory Card Saved!

I don’t know if I was more elated to have found the card or shocked that we had actually managed to rescue it. All I know is I began jumping up and down and threw my arms around the boatman in a big, awkward thank you hug, which was quickly rescinded seeing his discomfort (cultural barriers, whoops :/).

Memory Card Rescuers

Me and My Heroes!

When asked what they would save if their house was on fire, people almost always say they’d grab their photo albums. I suppose memory cards, hard drives and CDs are our modern day equivalent, and it’s not until these things are in jeopardy that we realize just how precious they are.

I think now, I’m always going to back up ;).

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Big Girls Do Cry: Disaster in Southern Laos

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When traveling through foreign countries, there’s always an element of risk. Communication barriers are expected, though bigger concerns like theft, accidents or illness are always in the back of your mind. But somehow, being stranded in the middle of nowhere with no money, no friends and no idea how to get out was never a concern…

After having spent a day and a half in the Four Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don) at the tip of Laos, I was determined to squeeze in a quick visit to Champasak to see the town’s famous temple before racing to Pakse in time to catch a 15-hour bus to Bangkok where my flight to Myanmar awaited me. With Laos’ unreliable infrastructure and time restrictions, many said the trip couldn’t be done, but I was determined.

After discussing the situation with a travel agent, I worked out with the bus company to pick me up directly from my day-long kayaking trip in the Four Thousand Islands to take me to the boat jetty across from Champasak. The plan was to arrive in to the town in the evening, then rise early the next morning to view the temple before taking the two-hour journey to Pakse from where my bus would leave at 3 p.m.

Perhaps as a warning, my arrival in Champasak started off pretty bad. I reached the small village right after sunset and soon discovered how remote of an area I was in. No one spoke English, and though my guidebook had listed a series of guesthouses “near the fountain,” I saw no evidence of this anywhere. In fact, there were a few things my guidebook forgot to mention…

As I walked along the town’s main road in the dark, people just kept pointing further along, and I was beginning to think these guest houses were a myth. With my large pack on my back plus a smaller (and breaking) backpack in front, I would have gladly paid good money for a cab to a hotel, but there was no public transportation around. And as I walked about 10 minutes in, I discovered another problem: food poisoning.

Let me tell you, lost in the middle of nowhere carrying two large bags on either side of you is not the time you want to be running to the toilet.

Luckily, I soon found a hotel that, despite being pricier than what I had hoped for, was the best I could do given the circumstances. Since I only had 50,000 kip ($6.30) left on me, the hotel lady said I could just pay for the room and dinner the next day after I had reached the town’s only ATM in the morning.

When I awoke the next morning I had a very precise itinerary in mind: reach the ATM by 8 a.m., grab a quick breakfast, then spend two to three hours at the temple before heading back to the hotel to check out and grab the 12 p.m. bus to Pakse. If all went according to plan, I’d reach the city by 2 p.m., a solid hour before my bus departure. Ambitious? Yes. Impossible? No.

But as the machine returned my ATM card to me sans cash, I noticed the sign on the wall: “Foreign Cards Not Accepted.”

Ok, no big deal. The bank was due to open any minute and maybe they could work out something with me. As the clock continued to tick, 8:05, 8:10, 8:15, I began to wonder where the bankers were at. I knew things were more laid back in Laos, but geez, this was a bank and it was a Wednesday morning!

Soon I met another traveler, a German guy who was also disappointed (though much calmer) to find his ATM card didn’t work either. As the bank continued to remain closed, he remembered that today was Women’s Day, and therefore no women had to work that day.

Apparently all the people who worked at the bank in Champasak were women, because no one came to work that day.

At this point, my stress level began to rise. Apparently, the nearest ATM was in Pakse, anywhere from a half hour to a two-hour bus ride/boat ride away and also where I had to catch a bus later that afternoon. As I slowly accepted the fact that I did not have the time or the money to see the Champasak temple after all, I began to worry how I was going to get out. All I had on me was 50,000 kip, exactly the amount needed to take the bus to Pakse. The problem was, I still owed my hotel about $10 for my room and dinner, and there was no way I would be able to leave and return and still make my bus to Bangkok.

Luckily, the German guy had an idea. He too had to head to the ATM that day, and since he still planned to spend another couple days in Champasak, he agreed to return to my hotel to pay my bill for me, leaving his passport as a deposit. As it was still mid-morning, we thought we’d have plenty of time to reach Pakse before my bus, so we decided to try to hitch a ride.

As we walked along the road with our packs, the sun beating down mercilessly through the thick, sticky air, no one was stopping. We waited for more than an hour before the German guy had the idea to rent a motorbike and told me to wait at the shop for him to return with the bike. As he began to walk away, he suddenly turned around and told me that, if a bus comes along while he’s gone, I should take it anyway and not worry about paying him back for the hotel.

I waited nearly an hour and, not only did the bus not come, neither did he. As it was nearly reaching 12, the only guaranteed time I knew there was a bus, I decided I could not wait any longer. I had just enough money to leave and somehow I had to make it.

But as I headed back into town, I realized that I was back at the start near the boat jetty in the mysterious land of no English and no guest houses. No one seemed to know (or understand) anything about how or where to get the bus from Pakse, and it appeared my only hope was to reach one of the hotels on the other side of town.

As I looked down the road ahead, I began to panic. After not having eaten anything all day, I was feeling weak, and I was not looking forward to another long, sweltering, heavy walk. But as I looked at the time, I didn’t think I’d make it anyway. My German friend was nowhere to be found, and I honestly did not know what to do.

So, I did the only thing I could do, I sat down and cried.

This was definitely not one of my finer moments, but we all have our bad days, and this one was turning out to be pretty bad.

As I sat there, defeated, a Laos lady came over to me to ask me what was wrong. Though she could only speak a little English, I somehow communicated to her that I was stranded and needed to get to the other side of town to catch a bus to Pakse. The next thing I know, I’m on the back of a motorbike headed to the hotel area.

With only 15 minutes to go, I managed to book my bus just in time, relinquishing the last of the cash I had.

Nearly three hours later I reached my bus with just 10 minutes to go, enough time to reach the ATM (finally!), buy my ticket and run on board, honestly, desperately thankful to finally be leaving Laos.

I learned a very valuable lesson that day: always carry extra cash and never assume anywhere in Asia will have an ATM.

In retrospect, things could have been a lot worse, and I’m eternally grateful to the German guy and the Laos women who helped me on my way. Despite all the bad, it’s good to know that kind people exist everywhere.

The 18-Hour Train Ride From Hell

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One of my worst fears in preparing for India was getting sick. Alone. On a train.

Everyone hears the horror stories of travelers getting sick before going to India: diarrhea (a given), sometimes vomiting and, worst of all, some bad tropical illness like malaria or dengue fever that leaves one incapacitated for days, sometimes forcing the person to return home, or worse.

And then there are the trains. Though not consistently bad, you never know what you’re going to get. Air conditioned classes are exponentially better. Aside from the cleaner, softer cushions, freshly laundered sheets, blankets and pillows are a guarantee for every traveler, and the fewer number of passengers provides at least a little privacy, at least fewer creepy stares.

A particularly crowded train during Diwali

The sleeper class, on the other hand, is a different story. Being significantly cheaper than the A/C classes, these compartments are usually chock full of passengers, entire families of seven crammed onto one berth in a space meant for three or four. Creepy men also tend to fill these compartments, sometimes lounging on the top berths, gawking intently at the random white women, no sense of shame when caught in the stare. The constant layer of grime (no sheets) that covers the berths, combined with the sight of an occasional cockroach or mouse, makes the sleeper class the most uncomfortable traveling class by far, second only to the general standing ticket or the equally bad non-A/C’d “chair “class. (Side note: nearly all train compartments carry “sleeping berths” unless otherwise stated, “sleeper” denotes the lowest class while first, second and third class A/C are the higher ones).

But fairly universally, all Indian train bathrooms are pretty bad (to be fair, I never traveled in first class). I’m not exactly sure how Western train toilets work, but in Indian train bathrooms, the excrement goes directly from the toilet to the tracks below. In fact, signs reading “Do not use toilets while train is stopped” are meant to prevent massive loads of crap from piling up at the train stations. Add that to the fact they’re rarely cleaned (especially the lower classes), and you’ve got yourself a pretty unpleasant situation.

Throughout my three months in India, I took at least a dozen train rides, and while I generally preferred the third class A/C, often took the sleeper class when I was with others, feeling particularly budget-conscious or there were no other options available.

So when planning my last-minute trip to Mumbai, I was lucky to land a seat in the third class A/C that should have made the 18-hour, mostly night journey from Jodphur fairly comfortable.

After mostly good health luck in my first six weeks in India, I wasn’t too worried. I’d taken tons of night trains before and was actually looking forward to a long, relaxing train journey alone before meeting up with my friend Geeta, an Indian woman who I met at the beginning of my trip, who had offered to host me during my stay in Mumbai.

I spent my last day in Rajastan enjoying a day-long cooking course with my two friends, Gloria and Tom, and together, we stuffed ourselves as we learned to make biryani, chapati, naan and two types of curries. It wasn’t until the course was over and my stomachache turned to general aches and a fever that I started to get concerned… Still, as I forced myself to run to catch my 6 p.m. train, I figured I’d pop a couple paracetamol, go to bed early and be fully recovered in 18 hours.

Me before the train ride: happy and proud after finishing a cooking class with Tom and Gloria

My body had other plans.

Soon after I got on the train, I climbed up to the top berth, made up my bed and attempted to sleep. But the longer I lay there the more I began to ache, and my first aid kit and medicine were buried deep in my backpack, which lay chained underneath the lowest berth, six feet down. As the pain continued, I felt helpless, lonely and scared, and I began to cry. Luckily, the kind Indian family below me gave me some paracetamol and, again, I tried to sleep.

A few hours later, I woke from my doze to find the rest of the train had also gone to bed, but the cramping in my stomach told me I’d need to be awake real soon. I groaned at the prospect of getting down. The three bars that made up the ladder that led to my berth were far from adequate for providing an easy way up and down. Additionally, I had been wearing my bulky, Keen sandals (instead of flip flops) and the dirty train corridors required I take the time to put on my shoes before any venture into the bathroom. And the fact that I was alone meant there was no extra pair of eyes to guard my purse, my most valuable and necessary possession in India, while I dashed to the loo. But in the end I had no choice but to go. I shoved my purse in the corner behind my pillow, pulled on my shoes and awkwardly shimmied down the ladder in a move I would come to perfect throughout the night.

As I ran to the bathroom, just making it, I was grateful the toilet and the sink were located right next to each other. Almost immediately, whatever poison that was in my body began making its way out, using every orifice it could find.

As I sat there after the first round, too exhausted to be disgusted, I was thankful I had had the sense to buy both water and wet wipes before the train ride, two tools that would keep me somewhat clean and hydrated throughout the rest of the night.

When I headed back to my berth, I thought the exhaustion from being sick would let me sleep the rest of the night. And though I felt weak, I found I could still use my arms to push off the bars and jump (yes jump) back on the ladder before collapsing on my bed.

But sure enough, a couple hours later, I felt that uncomfortable cramping in my stomach and found myself, once again, doing the diarrhea dash as I rammed on my shoes, shimmied down the ladder and ran to the bathroom, a routine that would repeat itself at least a half a dozen times throughout the night. But despite my body expunging everything in both my stomach and my intestines, I somehow managed to find the strength to jump back up to my berth.

Somewhere around 5 a.m., however, the jumping stopped. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I looked up longingly at my berth, my bed, my temporary little safe haven, but I just had no further strength to jump. So I did the only thing I could do. I sat. In the middle of the corridor.

Shortly after, the conductor came by and asked what I was doing. After explaining that I was sick and could no longer jump back to my seat, he pointed to a side berth that had recently been vacated. I immediately collapsed, grateful to have an easier trek to the bathroom, no longer caring about my hidden purse, which was no longer accessible to me.

By mid-morning, the trips to the bathroom were becoming less frequent, but by this point I was so weak I could barely sit up. The train was scheduled to arrive at 11 a.m., but every time I set my alarm to wake up in time to gather my things, I found myself forcing myself up for about a minute, before groaning, hitting snooze and laying back again, thankful the train was running late.

At this point, more people were noticing the random blond girl, even whiter than normal, laying helplessly in the side berth alone, and several helped me to retrieve my things from the top berth and unlock my backpack (luckily, my purse had also survived the night).

I had originally told Geeta I would take a rickshaw to her house, but given the fact that I could barely sit up, I finally called her and asked if she could come and get me. When we finally arrived at the train station, it took every ounce of willpower I had to haul my 30-pound bag on my back and get off the train, where I immediately collapsed onto an empty platform seat and waited.

But even sheer willpower couldn’t help me once I arrived on the platform. When Geeta found me, she barely recognized the pale, half-dead creature weakly waving at her and soon found a porter to carry my bag for me. But as I got up to walk, quickly falling back on my platform seat, determined to try again in a few minutes, I hear her speak to the porter in Hindi. The next thing I know, I’m seated in the trolley, being pulled with my backpack by the porter to Geeta’s car. I’m sure the sickly blond girl being carried on a trolley throughout the Bandra railway train station must have been quite a sight, but I was so exhausted I didn’t care and grateful to not be on that train alone anymore.

Me after the train ride: feeling half dead

In the end, the doctor said it was not necessarily one instance of food poisoning that caused my illness, but rather, an accumulation of bacteria from multiple sources that were probably triggered during all the food in my cooking class (In fact, neither Tom nor Gloria had any reports of food poisoning). Whatever it was, it took me nine days and two courses of antibiotics before I fully recovered.

Despite having been alone and sick on that train, I was lucky enough to spend my recovery time staying with Geeta, her husband Suresh and her daughter Ananyah, who not only gave me a place to stay, but took care of me, making sure I went to my doctor check-ups, rested up and avoided all of the delicious deep fried, sugared or cheese-loaded Western food I so desperately longed for in Mumbai (the doctor had put me on a strict diet of rice, yogurt, dahl and fruit, in what I coined my “food prison”).

In an ironic twist, after weeks of drinking only bottled water, avoiding raw fruits and vegetables and eating only carefully examined restaurant food, it was my own cooking that essentially brought me down :).