30 June 2009

Ain't No Luck About It: A Guide to Saving Money for Long Term Travel

Extended travel is not about luck – I am not lucky to be here, I earned it!

So many people, upon hearing that S and I are traveling for over a year, ask me “How? Did you inherit loads of money? Did you engage in organized crime? Did you hibernate for 2 years?”
No. The answer is simply that we chose to do something and we set out to do it – and here's some tricks that we used. Nothing is revolutionary, just common sense – but used in combination everything listed really worked for us.

I honestly think that you can start at this point, with no savings, and in less than a year be lifting off toward an extended period of travel.

Part 1 – In the Beginning there was a Dream: Before you even start saving

1)Set your goal – IE: BOOK THE TICKET!

Yes. You heard me. Book the ticket before you have the money for the whole trip. Book the ticket if that is ALL the money you have to spare – you will save the rest before you leave. Airlines will allow you to book a ticket up to 330 days in advance, with the best deals usually available approximately 6 months out. What a better motivator to save the cash and turn down that extra 7 dollar pint than the Cathay Pacific E-Ticket sitting in your inbox? The average ticket to SE Asia is 1200.00, to India a bit more. You can get it cheaper if you book it creatively – play around online with seat sales or give a travel agent a strict budget to play with – look at flying from Seattle or Detroit.

I am not suggesting that you book a ticket if you are 10K in credit card debt with a low salary and car payments – but once you get to a better place financially you can save the money for a 6 month trip in JUST SIX MONTHS – I promise. Steps to get to that good place are similar to the following steps – if you are in a really bad place, head to a credit advisor or get a second job – you can do it!

2)Get a plan, Stan.

Where do you want to go? Europe is hella expensive. I still think you can do it....but you probably need some existing savings. Asia? No problem. Things in the developing world are shockingly cheap – a budget of 30 CAD per person a day gets you a nice lifestyle in most places – not including flights (although are dirt cheap on Air Asia.com). On this budget you will go over some days and under others – just keep track and make it even out when you can. So – 30 bucks times 180 days 5400.00
This is the minimum amount of money you will need for 6 months in Asia. You will of course need to add all of the irritating expenses from step 4, as well as a traveling costs (internal Asia flights, trains etc) and any expenses that will continue to accrue at home while you travel – so you can safely budget 8K for 6 months (perhaps more, depending on apartment sitch.)
It is so do-able. You can do it.

Planning your route – at least getting a rough idea – is important to do in advance, as you may want to avoid flying in and out of expensive cities like Singapore, Delhi and Kuala Lumpur if you think you might be tight on cash. Planning also helps you avoid any needless backtracking as it is money down the squat toilet.

3)Your Place or Mine...or your Mom's?

There are a lot of things you need to pay out for before you go – but lets get one out of the way first:
Your place. Are you gonna keep it or give it up? If you're keeping it, can you get someone to sublet for the price of the rent/mortgage you pay? There are websites dedicated to house swaps and house sitters – have a look. If not – you have to add that amount to your savings....so I say LET IT GO!

With your new Eastern enlightenment you will soon realize that things like a kickass apartment *sniff* mean less after you travel. Consider spending the last 2 months in Canada at your parent's place – even if you're thirty. No rent, free food (or for a small fee) - if you can hack it, do it. It can mean an extra 1-2 Grand in the bank.

You will also need a budget to move your crap into a storage space – about 100 bucks for a truck and pizzas – and you will need a storage locker. Hopefully you can leave it at your parent's house, or a kind friend's or uncle's or? It'll save you cash – like 500 bucks worth– so beg and plead for some space in someone's shed.

One more thing if you do move – remember to file a change of address with the post office (and contact your bank, federal gov't -for taxtime - etc to alert them of the changes) This does cost a wee bit of money – remember to do it.

4)The Practical...errrr.....boring details.

This is where shit gets annoying. You will have saved and planned and pleaded – and now here comes practicality to budge on in and bleed you dry before you've even wrapped your lips around a Chang beer. You will need money – and no small sum, for the following things:

a) A good backpack: count on 200 bones. Get a suitcase style zipper and not a top loading – you will thank me. Also, choose the size that you think you will need, and then make your friends tie your hands behind your back and force you to purchase the size smaller.

b)A few articles of travel clothing and toiletries: but remember, everything except for sunblock is wayyy cheaper in Asia, and you might as well wait until you get here to stock up.

c)Pricks and Pills: Surprisingly, if you have a good job your prescription plan will cover 80% of the cost of these – even if the travel clinic lady says that they won't. Submit the claim forms – what's the worst they'll say? In case you have no coverage, plan on about 400 bucks (ouch!) or higher if you go for the fancier malaria pills (which I say – don't do it!). Any other pills – IE: antibiotics, birth control, allergy pills – are available here, and for a tenth the cost, so just consider hitting up a Bangkok pharmacy.

d) A Years Supply of anything you cannot live without: Good face cream from Dermalogica? A special brand of contact lenses? MAC foundation in NW20? Better just buy it and bring it – but ONLY if it is small.

e) INSURANCE: No, your credit card will not cover you. No, you cannot afford the cost of an emergency airlift to Singapore. You need insurance. The cheapest price I could find was 1 buck a day, with BCAA. You have to do this.
Remember to cancel your BC Blue Cross to avoid being charged 50 bucks a month for the months that you are not here – that does add up.

f) You may want to consider leaving a small sum aside for your return – the week or two before you get that first paycheque when you get home. If you are not going back to your old job, that period may be longer. You can always 'seat of your pants' it when you get home – but if thats not your style, you'll need a bit of dough.

g)Other little but potentially costly things? Good trekking sandals, a camera, swiss army knife and a guidebook. Look here for other great backpacking goodies....

All together these annoying things can add up to over 2 Grand, but you will have saved and planned for them so they will not shock you at all. Make sure that you incorporate every other possible travel expense that you may have so that you can adjust accordingly.

Part 2 – Now for the Dirty Work – Saving the Cash.

1.Break out the Spreadsheets – Get a Budget.

Its not as daunting as it seems – and you have to do this. Excel is not a necessity, you can use pen and paper, but a spreadsheet really helps you to tinker with numbers and adjust them up and down. For instance, taking 10 bucks out of one column and adding 23 to another and eliminating another all together.....gets messy without a good computer program. Ask someone for help if you've never used it.

Look at what you have been spending your cash on until now, perhaps even track all of your spending for one month, and really re-evaluate what you can do without. DO NOT skimp on existing bill payments – but you may consider going to a lower monthly payment on student loans (but not your credit card – you have to CLEAR that sucker before you go.)

Our sample budget during the 6 months before we left:
1300 – rent
200 – Jess student loan
240 - on restaurants, lunches and coffees (30 per person per week) (this is DRAMATICALLY lower than it had been)
100 – bar/pub/entertainment
120 – phone bills
20 – cat food
20 – cabs/bus fare (this is DRAMATICALLY lower than it had been)
40 – personal hygiene products
350 – groceries (150 for a big shop every 2 weeks, plus 50 for our local produce store)
100 – alcohol
25 – gifts

And that was ALL we bought. If it was not in the budget, we didn't do it. No magazines. No dollar pizza slice. No cute pair of shoes that were on sale. Nothin'.
I know a lot of you drive cars – but if you can, walk or ride your bike to work. If you cannot, get a bus pass – you will save loads.

Play around with your numbers and find a combo that works for you – and STICK TO IT.

I don't want to give away exact salaries – but I think that you can all guess that this amount left a substantial amount leftover for us. Single peeps, I know that your expenses are a bit higher per person but you can make this work. If not – get a part time job. I am not joking – we met one woman in her 50s who worked 2 full time jobs and 1 part time job so that she could take a year off. If she can do it you can too. THERE IS NO EXCUSE! If you want it you can have it.

There is no magic secret to budgeting – you just have to suck it up and follow the plan.

2)Hey Good Lookin', Time to Get Cookin'!

This is the main way that we saved money – you can save up to 500+ a month just from eliminating restaurants and bought lunches. S and I discovered that we were wasting gobs and gobs of money on restaurants, lunches and weekend brunch. You HAVE to STOP this MADNESS. Stop it. Cook food. Cook delicious, extravagant food that will make you happy and satiated and quell your need for restaurant food. Here's how to turn the abstract into the reality – the Food Plan.

Every day of the week needs to be planned like an OCD soccer mum's weekly schedule. On a calendar, plan delicious menus for every day, including lunches and breakfasts on the weekends – even snacks. Now write your grocery list based on the meals you are planning on preparing, add a few extras for snacks (kept in your desk and the fridge at work) and STICK TO IT. Stick to it, not as a diet but as a budget plan that you cannot falter from. Look at work schedules, plans, events etc to make sure each day will work. This takes me about 90 minutes to do – and I have practice!

Love ordering pizza at 25 bucks a pop? Learn to dress a Boboli crust and make it exactly the way you want it.

Eggs Benny at the Reef? Grab a packet of “you cannot possibly fuck this up” Hollandaise powder and an egg poacher, spice it with some jerk sauce and there you go.

Even if you insist on picking up 2 rolls from your favourite sushi place, make your own miso and edamame, and eat it at home – with drinks you save over 10 bucks plus tip this way.

At the grocery store, try to save money everywhere possible, but make sure you buy wonderful ingredients and yummy things so that you are not tempted to stray. If you have Brie cheese and olives in the icebox what else could you need? Shop for two weeks using your lovely food plan and amazing grocery list based on that plan, and only stop at the local expensive market to pick up a few bucks of fresh veggies a few times a week. This saves you from the expense of food going bad in your fridge (wasted $$$$) and curbs impulse buys on a Tuesday after work.

Keep 2 or 3 microwave meals in the fridge at work and at home – they are more money that cooking your own, but cheaper than buying lunch out. Use them sparingly, but on those days that you are running out the door they will save your arse and keep you on budget.

Because you are human, give yourself 30 bucks a week to do with what you choose – go for brunch twice, once for sushi, buy lunch three times – I don't care. If your friends insist you come out to the new pricey Izakaya – ask them to pay. You have no shame! Potlucks are another great money saver – your friends will be totally understanding and it saves soooooo much money. But do not break down - think about fruity drinks on the beach in Borneo to sustain you in your times of need.

If your mum offers to take you out for supper, ask for the cash equivalent and make her some pasta, pocket the change and voila! Happy proud mum eating homecooked child food – her favourite – and an extra 40 bucks in your pocket!

3)Every Measly Buck Counts

You will not believe what 1 buck can buy you here – so whenever you can, pocket it. Save and roll change, return your empties, clip coupons, buy on sale and in bulk. Every penny should be thought about – and that includes late night cabs (walk or bus – you did it when you were younger!) and coffees. No more S'Buckies – you have to take your own coffee or tea, even leave some at work so you are not tempted to splurge. No movie rentals - download! Cancel the gym membership you don't use, cancel the paper subscription, no more magazines (read them online for free!) 8 dollars a day on coffee and a magazine can turn into 60 bucks a week in the bank – and that is two full days of travel. So get your priorities straight and your head outta your ass! I easily saved 50-100 dollars a week by cutting out all of the tiny splurges.

4)Pretty Painted Clothes Horse or Seasoned Travel Guru?

Well, which do you wanna be? You are about to travel to Asia and learn a ton about the world and yourself – you do not need that dress. You do not need those shoes. You do not need that handbag, tube of lipgloss, bathbomb or blowdry. I have slowly gotten rid of every single piece of clothing I brought with me and replaced it with cheap locally bought stuff – and the bursting closet of clothing I have at home seems silly and excessive (and will all be wayyyy too big. Yay!) In the 6 months before you set out, do not buy any DVDs, clothing, concert tickets, birthday gifts (your friends and family will understand.)
No more mani/pedis at 40 bucks a pop, no more 30 dollar blow outs, no more massages – pluck your own brows and paint your own toes!
Leave your debit card at home. I saved – gulp – 400 + (++++++) a month simply by not shopping or paying for beauty treatments, S just as much.

5)Yard Party!!!! (Or kitchen, living room.....)

Well, it's come to this. You have to invite people over – you can't go to the bar. If your friends want you to come out for some pints they are going to have to buy all but the 2 that are in your budget ( We gave ourselves 100 a month – for 2 of us – for an entertainment budget – including movies.) Have your peeps over, drink some Painted Turtle or Bowen Island (the cheap but good stuff....well, good-ish) buy some cheap snacks (homemade hummus with pita chips is pennies a serving and makes people happy) and play a boardgame – corny as it may seem now you are headed to parties beyond your imagination in SE Asia!
If you do go out, drink the special, and try to get your friends to return all the drinks that you bought them when you were free spendin' with your loads of cash. We saved, as a couple, at least 400 bucks a month (sometimes more) by not drinking in bars and clubs – I know some people whose savings would be over 1K/month.
Think about that. In 6 months that is their entire trip, less airfare and bits n bobs, just from bars, clubs and (partially) restaurants. What will you remember more on your deathbed?

6) The 3 R's – Use Them For Your Own Personal Gain!

Reduce, Reuse and Recycle – you are saving the planet (and you owe it for your long haul flight.)
Seriously – this is not just an 80's fad – you can save so much money this way.

Reduce – reduce all of the stupid spending! Cut back on packaged foods, scrape out that make-up container, stop buying new clothes, stop buying DVDs and stop consuming your weight in dranks at the bar! You can save sooo much money if you stop your gluttony. I know I did.

Reuse – Everything. It may sound icky, but rinsing out ziplocs, tinfoil and disposable containers saves you cash. Always carry a re-usable water bottle so that you never have to waste your money on something that is free.

Recycle – In the year that you are saving, need a new kettle? Or humidifier? Or..... anything? Forget buying new. You have a few choices – Value Village, Craig's List, and even better: Freecycle.org.
Life's not about fancy department store bags – used and free is better than new and....not free.

7) The Early Bird Stops the Panic?

Get as much of the packing (your backpack and apartment) done in advance, and get those small details on a list, and then start checking it off. Leaving shit til the last minute ends up costing you money as you panic and try to cram weeks of work into days.

8)Take advantage of 'em.

You heard me. If someone is willing to make you supper, take you out or buy you a drink you better get on that shit. Any free meal is a meal that doesn't come out of your food budget, and that is the most important thing that there is. Does your work offer per diems of taxi vouchers or any kind of expense account? Think long and hard about how you can use that (morally.)

Free calories are good calories – if someone brings goodies into the office you gotta grab some – even if you are just bringing them home for S. Leftover pizza at a pizza party? That should go home with you. Fixin' bars? Meant to be pilfered. Buffets too......

Part 3 – Motivational “Van Down By the River” Section

Anyone can do this – you can do this! Money is not some scary thing that gets away from you – you have the power and you control it, not the other way around. S and I were lucky enough to have good salaries and some extra wiggle room, but at any salary level a lot of this is possible. Take a second job where you can earn tips, or grab as much overtime as you can.

When you stop spending like crazy on the small things it is amazing how much money starts accumulating in your bank accounts – money that you can use toward a truly amazing life changing experience. I plan on using these ideas to save for everything in the future – after doing this once when I think of wasting 300 dollars in a single day on bars, restaurants, taxis and treats I feel ill.

I know that I am not the most authoritative voice on the matter, but if you have kids this is still all possible. You may need more time to save, but consider traveling before they are 2 years old ( at 20 or 22 months) so that their hotel and airfare is free! Up to 12 years old and they get substantial discounts on air, train and hotel. We see a lot of families with small kids traveling (hippies, expats and middle American types alike!) and they unanimously agree that it is really rewarding, fun and exciting.

Travel saving feels different from other savings – less like a chore - but that all said, is this feasible as a long term savings plan over a year in length? I personally don't think so – I would go squirrelly, but you could adapt it and pick and choose what works for you. The simple fact is that once you get used to re-using and making do, saving and scrimping – it actually becomes a fun challenge to see how much money you can save.

Ask me more in a year or so – I'll be saving for South America.....

Now I get "The Beach....."

Every backpacker wants to be the first to set foot on an island, in a medieval village, in a former communist stronghold – anywhere. We want to be able to tell you “Oh yeah. Minsk? I was there 8 years ago, y'know – before it got popular.” The more dire the conditions the more we wanna be there – we're willing to endure the primitive guesthouses and limited restaurant choice for the sheer glee of being there first, before your Grandma goes on a coach tour of it and your 18 year old Aussie cousin finds a way to debauch it. Backpackers are a greedy and jealous bunch.

And that is precisely what Alex Garland's cult classic “The Beach” is all about. A maudlin group of fed- up backpackers desperate to escape the Banana Pancake Trail1 and experience something real set up a camp on an uninhabited, unspoiled Southern Thai island and become very territorial when it is threatened. The desire and need to be a part of something untouched – to visit a place that no one has traveled proves to be a powerful thing – ultimately even a reason to kill.

And it is after a long foray into a less crowded traveling experience that we find ourselves in Southern Thailand, looking for that elusive perfect swath of sand. Along with the grandmothers and your 18 year old cousin. It is beautiful – stunning at times, and I am not willing to miss it on account of the crowds. It is low season, and we were able to find a deserted beach quite easily. But in order to see all of the amazing things nearby, we do run into the crowds. Often.

Today S and I booked a day tour to Phi Phi Leh, the island that was the set of film adaptation of “The Beach”. It is a craggy jutting rock that pokes out of the ocean covered in streaky rust and leafy trees, prehistoric in its untouched nature. Before Leo filmed 'the movie' (as it is known here) the hidden secret of Phi Phi Leh was only known to a few intrepid travelers and local fishermen – behind the rock walls and sheltered on all sides is a nearly circular bay with a pure white beach. Getting there requires a treacherous walk up a dodgy ladder while trying to avoid being crushed against the rocks every time the tide surges forward, and after half an hour of great snorkeling we decided to head over the barrier to the bay.

Ko Phi Phi Leh

Unfortunately at that moment dozens of board-shorted and string-bikined frat kids arrived, bee lining for the ladder and walking all over the coral reef in their attempts. Boobs threatened to burst forth from their tiny triangle holdings and dudes “whoa-ed” and high fived their way along the rope guides. The cacophony of British slang and vapid laughter followed us until we reached a cluster of tents in the trees. These were the evidence of the nightly “Maya Bay Camping Trip – Free Bucket2 Included!” organized in the youth oriented tourist land of Phi Phi town and sold at an exorbitant rate. Here the marble mouthed teens paused in a reverent hush, recognizing the sanctity of the hangovers of those within.

Surrounded by Nemos!

A loud American family came next, part of a charter package tour and shouting “Lynn. Lynn! Lotsa Photos – Lynn! Take lotsa pics baby doll! Lynn. Lynn!” their voices growing louder until Maya Bay was upon us. Despite the tacky tourists the view was amazing, well worth enduring the Brits faffing about in the water and the Americans snapping a photo album's worth of family snaps (Lynn!)

Once we made our way back to the boat our driver pulled around for one more snorkeling opportunity, this time on the opposite side of the island in a smaller bay. The coral and fish life were amazing – moray eels, clown and angel fish, 20 legged hairy purple starfish. I was pleasantly enjoying the cracking clicky underwater reef sounds when suddenly, over top of the gentle reef noises I could hear more British teenagers. This time it was a whole tour group of them, squealing and splashing away. More and more boats pulled up – some filled with excited snorkelers and others just filled with dozens of Japanese tourists with cameras snapping away hungrily. (I'm sure that many of those photos include my bum as I floated past....) We left Phi Phi Leh right as 3 huge yachts filled with hundreds of people were approaching – daytrippers all the way from Phuket eager to see but not experience anything.

What was extremely ironic about the whole experience is that The Beach, both the movie and the book, is about escaping exactly these people – these tacky shouting party animals and severe humourless upper middle class - all with no concept that they are the reason true backpackers move on from a place. Yet here were dozens, if not hundreds, of package tourists, trust fund babies and drunken frat guys ogling the stretch of pure sand so famous for its testament against them. It was kind of poetic.

I always need to remind myself that even though these people may be completely clueless and disregard Thai culture, disrespect nature and generally act like boors – they do not make the water any less blue. They do not make the snorkeling any less amazing or the beer any less icy afterward. They don't even succeed in ruining my vacation. They just irritate it. But sometimes the youngest ones grow up to be really good travelers after they realize that rather than memories of a rich cultural experience, their first trip to Thailand left them only with a hangover, a drained chequing account, 40 new facebook friends and the clap.

And what, you may ask, makes me so much better? Just ask Alex Garland. I believe he wrote about my kind in a book you may have read. :)

1.A term coined to describe the predictable circuit that backpackers make through Southeast Asia, named for the most common of all backpacker fare.

2.Buckets are a Thailand phenomena that has spread throughout Southeast Asia. Originally a mix of Sangsom whiskey, Redbull, coke and ice served in a child's sand pail, now you can get all manner or liquor and mixer combo.

29 June 2009

Let's Just Be Castaways, K?

Maybe I have been watching too much Lost, but the last few months I have become consumed with the idea of finding the perfect beach and just sitting there for weeks doing absolutely nothing. True enough, on Lost they are rarely doing nothing, instead always marching from one Dharma Station to another, drawing guns and going off to find Jack or Locke or Kate, but my favourite part of the show is when they just sit on their perfect beach and make food and hang out. This is what I am trying to achieve.

The perfect beach is a terrible thing to be looking for if you are on a budget. There is always a downfall to the beaches that we can afford, and the idyllic unspoiled ones are often monopolized by one resort at prices that would be scary to us even if we had jobs. So here we are, trying to find a balance.

We want:
a) no partying – I do not want to see another soul pounding back a bucket for as long as I live
b)quiet – no vendors or touts on the beach
c)a beautiful beach – clean, white sand and clear blue water
d)nothing to do – yes you heard me. Other than snorkeling and maybe a sea kayak I want to do nothing.

This is what happens. It's low season, so there is a lot to choose from at cheap prices – and it is for a reason. In the low season it rains heavily for a few hours each day, and that rain dredges up all of the silt in the water, muddying the normally crystal clear waters. Islands that are normally stunning revert to messy mudpuddles. Guesthouses normally sparkling with life become graveyards and close completely. Far flung islands shut down for the season, and old standbys like Lanta, Jum and Lipe are off the table.

So it was with a ton of research and stress that we finally agreed on an island – Ko Phi Phi Don.

I know what you're thinking – Ko Phi Phi? The crowded and outrageously expensive playground for the elite and cliched alike eager to set foot where Leo did in the Beach? For V and S? I know – it seems counterintuitive, but after a lot of searching we found Ao Toh Koh Bungalows. This little guesthouse is on a small beach located on the sparsely inhabited Eastern side of the island, accessible only by longtail boat. In the low season it is practically a private resort, famed for snorkeling, seclusion and the 'Summer Camp” feel amongst its guests. We were eager and excited to see our choice.

We left Phuket (my definition of hell) and 2 hours later reached the Phi Phi pier where the long tail boat sent by the guesthouse was waiting. The 30 minute ride took us past breathtaking karsts, long strips of pure white sand and clusters of beautiful bungalows nestled in the jungle- we were both giddy. And then we approached some kitschy looking huts atop a rock cliff. “Hey – those look cool!” S said. I elbowed him sharply.
“Yeah, but look at that disgusting beach.”

Moments later I felt the boat shift and slow down slightly. My eyes narrowed and I swung my head at S. “It's our beach. You. You made this happen.” I hissed. The boat slowly made its way to shore, which I could now see was bordered by a thick crust of barnacled rocks, dead coral and slimy little tidal pools. The beach itself was pure white sand, soft and powdery, but in the cloudy drizzle the water looked grey. Disappointment clouded my vision, and I could barely wai (a bow with hands held together at the heart) in return when meeting the proprietress.

Our bungalow was basic and tidy, and though was a steal for Phi Phi (500 Baht) something so simple would go for less than 300 on most islands, most likely with a discount due to the fact that it faced a jumbled pile of junk behind the restaurant. In a state of mopeyness, I drank 2 beers and ate some fries, watched 2 episodes of Lost and went to sleep, dreaming of their perfect Island beach.

Laying in bed the next morning, something amazing happened. “Get up.” S whispered from the door. After a few minutes of eye rubbing confusion, I popped my contacts in and went to the door. Through the tall palms I could make out the beach – which didn't look anything like it had the day before. The tide had come in and covered all of the muddy rocks, leaving just a narrow swath of bright white sand with achingly jewel blue water lapping at the shore. The shining sun covered the entire beach with golden rays, and the hammocks that had seemed unsightly and ill-placed the day before were now incredibly inviting.

A smile that threatened to split my cheeks crossed my face.

“Yay!!!” I said to S. Plans to find a better beach were put on hold, as we both decided that the gross state of the beach in the evenings was worth the amazing beach during the day. The plans to do nothing commenced.


Today I went for a swim in the warm sparkling ocean, drank 2 fruit shakes (and am about to have a beer), wrote, read a British Marie-Claire and a Rough Guide to the Philippines, ate some eggs and noodles, played about 20 games of Connect 4 with S and held a little puppy, unfortunately named Pu-Pu (S has had a field day with the combination of Pu Pu and Phi Phi). There are more things to do - a few Scandanavians and Germans athletically swam, sea kayaked and snorkeled around us, achieving their efficient Nordic vacation goals while I acomplished my lazy Canadian ones. There are 3 other people staying here – but our beach is so beautiful and the snorkeling is so good that a few small tour groups anchored here for a few hours. The food is good, and fruitshakes are plenty.

Most importantly – there is nothing that we can walk to from here. This is it. It feels nice to have escaped the tyranny of choice.

This is good.

But (and I always seem to have a but) there are some downfalls. For a place that charges up to 2000 Baht (50 bucks CAD) in high season there sure are a lot of junk and garbage piles around. It is pretty hard for my eyes to find calm tranquility when a scan of my surroundings reveals tarped up debris and empty buckets laying around (I am a big proponent of empty, clean surfaces in my house and yard– if there is junk – hide it! Construct a fence or area to store it. Put your clutter in cupboards or a shed– don't make me look at it.) Also not nice is the requisite high-tide run-off pond, which sits moldering and smelly for the 20 hours a day that the tide is not high enough to fill it. One last complaint, before I sound like the wanker to end all wankers? The longtail boats that parade past this beach every 20 minutes or so really seem to disrupt the reef and are LOUD.

But back to the bright side, we did change bungalows today, to one of the ones perched high on the cliff that S first saw when we were putting by. It has a lot of character, lots of stonework and hobbit-y bits inside and the view is unbelievable. There are even palms and bushes that obstruct the yuckiness of the beach when the tide goes out. How did we get an oceanview bungalow for the same price as the one we had yesterday?
It, erm, has no flushing toilet (you have to scoop water down the bowl because it has no tank) and no bathroom sink.

And that is the rub, I guess. If you plan and hope and envision too much, no destination will ever live up to your dreams (except for Paris and the Maldives. Seriously. Go to Paris. And the Maldives.) Building sky high expectations is fine, but don't be devastated when they are crushed by something as stupid as some barnacles and a self-flush toilet. Travel is about give and take – unless you pay huge bucks for a 5 star tranquil Balinese spa resort you are going to have to relent on something. Here, it is a rocky evening beach, bats swooping around my head in the restaurant (I didn't mention that part, did I?) and some junk piles. In Borneo maybe it will be rats, in Boracay maybe agressive bracelet sellers. And after all of the good things the bad stuff, I guess, is okay. It has to be.

We have 20 more days of beach laziness before heading to Brunei and I think a good 7 days of that will be spent here on Ao Toh Koh, and then maybe we will head to Railay and a few more islands. Which means that we will be back to the grind of research and stress trying to choose them. But this time I think we will be a bit more willing to give and take. I learned my lesson. Nothing is perfect – but some things come a bathroom sink's width of being damn close.

The cast of Lost never knew they had it so easy......

28 June 2009

My Thoughts on Michael Jackson's Death.

With the recent passing of the 'King of Pop', is it as simple as forgetting the personal foibles and troubles of Michael Jackson and focussing on the music? Is it as simple as saying “Yeah, he had problems, but so do a lot of people and we should remember him in his glory days!?” No. I don't believe that it is. And while as a child I adored the music of MJ and the Jackson 5, you won't hear me playing his albums and dabbing my eyes in sadness.

We know that paedophiles exist in the world. We are quick to jump and act the minute that any suspicion is placed upon a suspect, claiming that we would rather be safe than sorry. Due process and 'innocent until proven guilty' are great concepts, but the moment that a child becomes involved we as a society seem to have a slightly different code of conduct. We remove the children from the situation and get to the bottom of it before declaring everything okay.

When I volunteered at WAVAW's (Women Against Violence Against Women) rape crisis line, I remember the question being posed “How do we know that the woman is telling the truth?”
The gentle answer that was given was simple. “We take her word for it.” The facts and criminality of the situation would be figured out later by the police, but we were a support system for women and that was what we intended to do – support. There is so much social stigma and consequence wrapped around coming forward with an accusation of a sexual crime that to make it more difficult on the victim is abusive. And even if the courts find a sexual predator innocent, keep in mind that less than 1 percent of all rapists are ever brought to trial and found guilty.

Ask yourself what you would do/say/think if an average Joe moved into your neighbourhood and starting having sleepovers with pre-pubescent boys in a security guarded rooms? What if he surrounded himself with kids and decorated his home with desirable toys and games and all manner of things that children love? What if that man had two child molestation cases behind him and even more complaints to the media about his inappropriate behaviour with small boys? Would you jump so quickly to defend that man, that average balding fifty-something redneck who lives in the house one block over?

Or do you just really like Thriller and like to play devil's advocate?

I am touchy on the matter, because I have been the places where sexual exploitation of children is a rampant problem, places where children's poor economic status pushes them into the corner and holds them down and lets bad men prey on them.

If you haven't been to Thailand you cannot properly imagine the sheer openness with which the sex trade industry carries itself – a smorgasbord of nubile young women in skimpy clothing throwing themselves at old farang men and trying to drag them into their closet-sized bars so that they don't walk further and disappear into the fingers of the next block. Men come here to unabashedly flaunt their money of which so few dollars, pounds or euros can buy a woman's companionship – a girl who will stay the hour, the night or 2 whole weeks. Sure, it is sickening to see the economic disparity of the two cultures, play out in this seedy ballet of sex and pathetic loneliness, but we do not know the specifics of what brought these women here and it is foolish and paternalistic to think that they are all being exploited - but children are never complicit. In the sex trade they are always exploited. Yet you can buy one for less than a hundred dollars.

The sex trade in Asia is ugly and brutal and the neat and tidy bars of Bangkok and Phuket are not the real battleground – it is the small villages and poverty stricken towns of Laos, Burma and Cambodia where many of the children, boys and girls, are sold by their desperately poor parents to work as “shop aides” or “errand boys.” These same children are drugged to the point of addiction, isolated, gang raped and beaten for money, many ultimately contracting HIV.

With this going on in the world, with the rampant monetary trade of children's innocence a very real problem, shouldn't we be a bit slower to mourn a man accused over and over again of the very same thing, of using his advantaged financial and social status to damage children irreparably? Maybe, maybe he did not do it. But we all know he probably did. And orgiastic accolades and passionate eulogies about his music and career make what he did okay. It makes children out there who are being molested right now look at the media and say to themselves “Well if he can get away with it than what hope do I have of being believed?”

Charles Manson was a great songwriter, but we don't debate if his artistic merit deserves precedence over the crimes he masterminded. The moment Gary Glitter was found with child porn on his computer the hockey anthem “RocknRoll” was nixed from all major sporting events – but yet when we are treated to a litany of MJ's music it is completely socially acceptable. To me it smacks of a selfishness – that he couldn't possibly have done it because “He was my herrrrooo....”

I believe that Michael Jackson was a sexual predator toward children. People say “well, how do you know? Come on?! Maybe he didn't do it!” And I don't know.

But I take the children's word for it. It is as simple as that. I believe them, not a disturbed celebrity who can buy his way out of jail. I believe that if many separate, non-related incidents are reported about anything than something is awry and if 10 people say they smell smoke, there is probably a fire.

I believe the children. Why doesn't everyone? What is the motivation to choose to believe and support a grown man with an obvious mental sickness over a child?

I'll be the first to admit that connecting these two issues is a stretch, but sometimes it just feels so crazy to hold up and worship celebrities who have raped, murdered and molested and forgive them everything when they die. Death does not mean you get forgiven for all of the terrible things you did when you were alive – especially not when you harm a child.

If you need to hear some great pop music put on some Sly and the Family Stone.

One way to know that you have been traveling for too long.....

“Ewwww. There are ants in my toothbrush.” I said to S, holding the brush to my eye for closer inspection. I began to wiggle the bristles around in an effort to dislodge the tiny ants, succeeding in getting rid of all but one. “Pass me the swiss army knife.” I called to him, “I need something pointier....” At that moment the lights went out and the bathroom was plunged into complete darkness– a typical Burmese power failure.

S responded from the other room. “How many ants are in it?”

“There's just one.” I answered back. I could practically see him shrugging.

“Just one ant? I think it's fine.”

I paused for a moment and then shrugged myself as I fumbled in the dark for the toothpaste.

It turned out that one ant in my mouth really wasn't that big a deal.

26 June 2009

Need some help with travel questions?

In an effort to drum up readership, from now until December 30 (when I start school again) I am offering to answer any travel questions that anyone has - in detail. As a former travel agent and a world traveler I have a lot of knowledge - and it can benefit you! For plane ticket help, itineraries, accomodation and culture questions asking me is wayyy better than posting on a forum and hoping someone answers. Let me know if I can help!

If I answer your question I only ask one favour in return....that you become a "follower" of my blog and post the link on your facebook and twitter page. :D

22 June 2009

Snapshots - Images of Burma

  1. In Rangoon, a woman sits cross legged on a tiled bench recessed into the wall twenty feet before the Sule Paya stupa, nearly swaying in meditation. All around her loud Burmese temple life shrieks– vendors selling goods both religious and secular, monks and laity chatting and walking clockwise around the base of the stupa, the honking traffic of a city of 6 million just steps away. She is unwavering in her prayer. On her lap is a huge orange cat, it's body so large that it's chin barely hangs onto the edge of her knee. As she moves her index finger and thumb over each 108 of the rudrakshra beads the cat stretches luxuriously, toes spread apart and pointing toward the two gossiping women on the same bench. Both the cat's and the woman's eyes remain closed for as long as I am in the temple, and I pass them three times.

  1. Our blue-taxi wheezes and rolls to a stop every time that we drive over bumps in the road on our way from the ancient teak bridge at Amarapura back to Mandalay, which means that we are stopping often. Toom-Toom, our guide, gets out of the tiny front seat and comes to the back of the miniature pick-up truck where we are squished together and worriedly explains the situation. “In Burma now, military government only rations 2 gallons of gasoline per day. This not enough, so we buy gas on black market. This black market gas, umm, sometimes bad peoples are mixing in some stuff and it not working. Maybe 5 minutes and we fix? Sorry, sorry!” As we assure him that it is OK, I notice that there is a 1 litre water bottle full of yellow liquid suspended from the cab's roof. A thick tube snakes from the mouth of the bottle to the underside of the dashboard, and with horror and stifled laughter I realize that this is the gas tank.

  1. As I climb the 200 steps up a monolithic pile of bricks, a small boy of about 10 wearing a crisp green and white school uniform approaches me and begins to quietly recite facts. “This largest stupa base in world. Earthquake destroy in 1831. Careful, slowly slowly.” The top of the structure is a topsy turvy mess of huge fissures, sloping surfaces and a huge wall where half of the stupa slid down into the earth. He scrambles to the top and points to each of the jutting bricks I am meant to climb to get to the top. “This way, this way to see Mingun Bell – largest uncracked bell in the world.” While I take in my aerial view of the gigantic bell and the dozens of golden spires rising in the surrounding jungle I am joined by four goats munching on the grass growing through the rubble. “This way now Miss, to see 2 big lions.” Guarding the stupa are 2 massive crumbled lions perched on the river, and my small guide makes me pose as he expertly snaps a photo with my camera. Every time we come to a wide chasm he extends his small brown hand to mine with a serious face and ferries me safely across – as though if I slipped I wouldn't pull him down with me.

  1. We sit on small plastic stools that look like upended buckets and eat off of tables 2 feet from the ground with discarded napkins and plops of curry and rice at our feet. The kitchen is made up of a series of tables, open flames and barbecues under sopping tarps that line the sidewalk. The dining area is the side of the street, and motorbikes and tri-shaws pull up regularly, depositing a mix of Muslims, Hindus, Burmese and backpackers and collecting those who have finished eating. The chapatis and dal arrive less than one minute after we order, so hot that they burn our soft fingertips as we impatiently pull them apart. Moments later our vegetable curry is delivered to the table by one of the pre-pubescent waiters. Moans and Mmmms escape our lips as we scoop and dip and finish with slurps of Chinese tea from a communal pot on the table. We are finished our meal less than fifteen minutes after arriving, and the bill is 90 cents.

  1. So So grabs my hand and leads me around the temple, the largest in Bagan. “In your language my name mean not good/not bad. What is your name? Where do you come from?” Her kindness is partially a front for the fact she wants me to buy her overpriced postcards. “You so beautiful. You eyes so nice. He your friend? He very handsome.” She squeezes my hand.“I like your thanakha.” I say to her, gesturing to the smears of white sandalwood paste she has on the apples of her cheeks and the bridge of her nose. Her eyes light up.“You like thanakha? I make for you! Come with me!” She leads me to a cool alcove in front of a chubby neckless Buddha. She produces a small white block and gestures for my water. Splashing some on the stone step she rubs the thanaka block into the water until it makes a paste, and then swiftly applies it to my face. The small crowd of women and girls who have gathered to watch the Western girl get a Burmese make-over cluck and nod their approval. “Very nice thanakha. Now you more beautiful. Maybe now you get married.” In the end, I buy the postcards.

  1. The bank of the river is lined with tarpaulin shanties built on the muddy silt, the acrid smell of pig shit and ripe garbage hanging in the air. As we walk through the slum looking to hire a boat to Mingun we pass a young woman holding a small baby sitting in their precarious home. She is shocked to see us, and her smile contains uncertainty and embarrassment. The baby is much too small to be out of a hospital and has the tiny feline features of a premature birth and she clutches it to her chest tightly as we pass. A few steps away we are swarmed by children, all shouting Hello! and Bye Bye! One girl asks frantically, “Sharpie? Sharpie?” and waves a capless felt pen at us. The German couple we are traveling with produce a red clown nose, and when it will not stay on her nose the little girl pops it onto her Sharpie. She is gleeful but wears a smile of unease and fascination. Her panicked happiness and desperation to be chosen by us makes me feel very, very guilty.

  1. We approach the Nga Hpe Kyaung (Jumping Cat) Monastery on our long tail boat, the bow slicing through the muddy red water of Inle Lake. The tiered tin roofs of the building resemble a Chinese pagoda,There are 2 small docks with steps leading into the building, and the one on the left is inhabited by 10 lazing cats with their bellies up, snoozing in the hot sun. We alight and make our way into the cool teak building where we are greeted by more cats – tiny kittens, slim nursing females and one big tom with torn ears. On the other side of a partition a monk prepares the cat's meal while two small kittens stand on a table and crane their necks to watch him. The monk's deep crimson robes leave one shoulder bare and he is standing at the window, shafts of light beaming over him.

21 June 2009

Past, Present, Future - Thoughts while Traveling Burma

I have been to many cities that have survived unspeakable atrocities: Auschwitz in Poland, Dachau in Germany, Phnom Penh in Cambodia. I have backpacked through countries formerly stifled and beaten under brutal regimes: Czech Republic, Hungary, Laos. Places whose very names are synonymous with the wars that rocked them and nearly bled them dry: Vietnam, Punjab, Northern France. Though the horrors and devastation are mostly over, hints of it remain permanently etched onto the faces of the old, the sick and the poor.

The main thing that these places have in common is that their brutal dictatorial regimes and crippling wars are things of the past. Sure there is strife in Laos, crooked politicking in India and some forms of free speech repression in Thailand and Vietnam, but on the whole things are improving. People have a way out - something to look forward to, better lives for their children - opportunity. I travel to those places, the places with haunted pasts and talk to locals who have smiles and hope. I visit monuments to the “Never Again.” No matter how terrible and bleak and evil it all was – now it's safely in the past, tucked away in the realm of implausibility.

This, Myanmar, is different.


After my one day trip to the tribally administered region of Myawaddy eight months ago, I arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) expecting Soviet-era expressions of hopelessness and despair, bleak grey faces with downcast eyes. Screaming babies wrapped in rags held by weaving drunk mothers. Dreadlocked children pawing at my taxi window for a few kyat - a depressing mix of Mumbai and Moscow. But it's not like that at all – people are smiling broadly, children are in clean school uniforms, and though the streets are dirty they are friendly - absolutely everyone wants to say “Hello!” It seems so....happy. To a point.

Things get weird almost instantly, and you realize where you are and that you are standing in a country that is presently mired in the same type of hellish political system that Cambodia was in under Pol Pot, Yugoslavia under Milosevic. Currently happening in military junta-controlled Myanmar, right now as I type this: militarily enforced rape, genocides against tribal people, forced work camps, human de-mining of landmine fields, and suppression of all free speech. Of course, what the tourists see is beautiful and pleasant – but the knowledge of what is happening to these earnest, friendly people hits you in the chest sometimes.

“This was University, now - not now.” We were in a van making our way to the Motherland Guesthouse in Yangon, having just landed in Myanmar. So-So, the guesthouse representative,was pointing out sights along the way.

“Why not now?” Someone at the back of the van enquired.

“2 Years ago, when government shoots the monks, then they shut down all Universities in Yangon. No more.” That means that Yangon is a city of 6 million - and there are no Universities. That is bewildering. (The next day Sean and I passed a beautiful colonial building that once was a college. It was ringed with 2 barbed wire fences.)

For a city of its size, Yangon's streets are quiet and traffic free.“Very little traffic jam. Very expensive to have car – 45,000 US dollars.” So So announced. I could not believe my ears.

“45,000 US?!” I repeated. This is a country with an average annual income of 1900 USD (mean).

“Yes,” So So confirmed sadly, “and now no more bicycles or motorbikes in Yangon. Very hard to get around.” Bikes of all kinds, the basic mode of transportation in Asia, have recently been banned unless you are a government crony – and they all just drive SUVs. Clearly, average people here are not meant to have the means to organize or congregate. Even a Sim card for a mobile phone costs 1500 USD. The Generals are a canny bunch – they are making it harder and harder to stage more protests.


The crazy thing to me is how the Generals don't care that there is a fundamental problem with the country, and if they do care, why are they are not racked with terrible guilt? Everywhere in Yangon things are crumbling, pre-1948 British buildings sagging and rotting, sidewalks a checkerboard of neglect with all of their huge cement blocks topsy turvy. Even government offices and buildings are not exempt – with their broken windows and uneven foundations they are still in use. Not that this upsets or inconveniences the Generals too much - Yangon is no longer technically the capital. Three years ago, on the advice of astrologers, Than Shwe's junta picked up and moved the capital officially to Nay Pyi Daw, a backwater in a highly inaccessible region. They then spent 250 million bucks making it a modern city with wide boulevards, luxurious highrises and 24 hour electricity (despite the huge amount of oil that Myanmar produces, its citizens must have expensive generators or live in the dark; the oil is sold to China and India, at no benefit to the people). This is in a country where many people do not have food to eat and can only travel a maximum of 25 km/hr on the atrociously pothole-cratered roads. I know I have complained about India's space program (a colossal waste of funds in a country where 100,000 children die from hunger each year) but come on. This is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.

And I'm sure that the Generals sleep soundly at night, like the psychopathic babies that they are.

The fucked up thing is that like most regimes, we in the West are kind of letting this happen by giving our tacit non-condemnation. While there are EU and US sanctions on Myanmar that has not stopped China or Thailand from sopping up all of their cheap timber and oil and turning a blind eye to the trafficking of opium and women over their borders. The UN, not wanting to pick small battles with China, refuses to do anything about the problems here.

The UN Security Council has no formal opinion on the matter.

I would like to think that I live in a world where the most powerful International policing force can give a fucking public condemnation to a country that rapes minority women as policy. Maybe I am naïve.

Like most things in life, screaming and shouting won't solve anything – yelling at the Burmese elite certainly isn't going to make them say “hmm, you're right, strange White Lady.” If you go to the very root of it, Western colonization got Burma into this situation – I don't purport to have the answers to get them out, and to claim I do would just be another form of “White Man's Burden” mentality. At the very least, jumping up and down with a placard on the streets of Yangon is just going to get me arrested and thrown in a Myanmar jail for 6 months.

I was asked, on this trip, by a fellow traveller, “Is it really so bad here? The people seem so happy – maybe it's better than you think?” And he had a point – the people are so, so kind and always keen to have a laugh and share a tea. Are we imposing our own Western need for 'democracy' on people that may not want it?

No, I don't think we are. They do want it. The kind people of Myanmar may not want exactly the kinds of democracy that we have in the West, but the do want their legally elected president, Aung San Suu Kyi to be released from jail (her crime was getting elected) and allowed to take office. They want to share in the profits that their natural resources rake in. They want NOT TO BE RAPED BY THE MILITARY, forcibly resettled or used as brute slave labour. They keep protesting, and keep getting shot at and imprisoned and even escaping as refugees to Thailand and Bangladesh (if you are escaping to Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries on the planet, you know there is a problem.) To quote Sean and his thoughts on Tibet, “People do not flee their ancestral homelands for no reason.” It's true – there have got to be some pretty major problems to get you to walk away from everything you love and risk your life for nothing more than freedom.

So that is the difference. When I was in Laos, Vietnam, Poland, and even Cambodia I was sheltered from the grim realities of the past by a thin curtain of time and its wound healing abilities. I was aware of the painful histories, but often amazed by the many wonderful things that have happened since due to the people's unbreakable spirit. But now, here in Myanmar I have come full circle and I am literally standing in that grim past, but this is not history – this is the present. If it is up to the all powerful Generals, it will also be the future. Having this perspective is a nauseating feeling.

I can only imagine how it feels to the Burmese.

40 tips for a first-time trip to India... UPDATED!

Namaste and good luck!
  1. Sometimes, you just gotta give up. See, many small scenarios are going to irritate, anger and frustrate you – and your instinct will be to raise your voice or question the bizarre information or instructions you are getting.  If it is a big deal – well, you should stand up for yourself. But remember that getting in an argument may seem satisfying now, but you'll usually feel shitty about it later. So give up. Pay a bit more. If someone in charge is asking you to do something stupid, just do it. It's easier, it'll save you a headache and your pulse rate will remain normal, which, on a 40 degree day, is worth it.

  2. Do not let people in busy places (train stations etc) see that you are intimidated, afraid, confused or overwhelmed. Even if you're pissed, don't raise your voice or have a hissy - just use your best acting skills and remain mellow. People will undoubtedly be confused as to why you are making angry faces at what to them is a normal situation. They will pity you for being so uptight, and not connect your irritation to anything that they are doing to cause said irritation. So you gotta be chill!

  3. Most of the typical scams found in movies and detailed in Lonely Planet do not occur anymore. Therefore, your shoes will not get stolen at monuments, no one is refilling old water bottles with tap water and re-selling them, the shoeshine kids don't squirt crap on your shoes only to offer to clean them. Despite this – ALWAYS decide on a price for everything in advance – tuktuks (called auto rickshaws here), a shoeshine, fruit, whatever. Never hammer it out later – people will try to rip you off an unimaginable amount.
  1. Learn as much Hindi as you can. Wobble your head from side to side to indicate yes and maybe. Learn about cricket and Bollywood. Call people “didi” (older sister) and “bhai” (older brother) and say “Accha!” to indicate good or okay. Play in the street with children. Be calm and amiable (see number 2). It's more fun this way, people will like you, and your experience will be much better..
  1. Trains are pretty easy - a monkey could navigate them (and many probably have, judging by the huge populations living at the stations). Book online – there are 2 websites, but you can only book on one irctc.com. You need to know the station names and select the specific class you want - you will get you an error if there is no through train – ie: if you have to connect and take a different train at a midpoint, and also if there is no “AC chair car”. There might still be a train – play around with classes. Try indiamike.com for detailed info – the message board is a life-saver. 

    At a glance Night Trains:
    • 1st Class Sleeper– does not exist on most trains, but it is more like the Darjeeling Limited with private cabins and a server
    • 2nd class Sleeper: Both 2 and 3 berth (means 3 tiers or 2 tiers when converted at night– most backpackers take 3AC – not to be confused with 3rd class) - solid options, but 3AC can be REALLY loud. Both have clean sheets and blankets, but there are cockroaches and mice on some routes (Varanasi – Agra is a badddd one). 2AC is better for a more restful sleep – you get a curtain and it is much less crowded.
    • Sleeper – same as 3AC, but with no AC. The lack of AC means that the windows are open, and that can mean that it is either wayyy too hot in the Summer, or wayyy too cold in the Winter. This class will be pretty crowded – see below. No blankets or sheets provided.
    • 3rd Class – see entry below, hippie.

    At a Glance Day Trains:
    • AC Chair Car- As close to a Western train as you're gonna get. For day trips it is even cheaper than sitting in 2AC/3AC – and it includes a meal (ack) and a bottle of water. Really good.
    • Chair Car – Same as above, no AC and no meal.
    • 2AC and 3AC - On trains that do not have Chair Cars, this is the nicest option.
    • Sleeper - If you don't need AC, this is a better price.
    • 3rd Class – This is the Indian train you have seen in movies, with people hanging off the sides. It has no assigned seating and is only good if you are really committed to having the most authentic experience possible. If you are that much of a hippie ( I kid! I love you guys. Ish) do remember that you will not have anywhere to put your bag, and you probably won't get a seat. This is also available at night.... but don't.

  2. On trains, bring food – you can only get unhealthy deep fried stuff and sweet white bread sandwiches, and the chai wallah (seller) will wake you up at 5am. (And 5:05, 5:10 and so on.) Sleep with your passport etc under your head, and bring earplugs or ipod. Some people even bike-lock their bags to the bottom of the bunk, but keep valuables on your bunk with you no matter what. A lot of folks in India are used to the volume of life in general being a lot louder than in the West – some people they talk loudly the whole night if they are not tired or are squished 4 to a berth (not technically allowed, but happens when trains are overbooked). It's important to remember that they and don't consider it rude – sometimes they even sing. So try to be chill about it, even when you are exhausted!

  3. You will be stared at. Let's just be honest about that.  Like, epic staring. Open mouthed, crowd around you, intense staring. There is nothing you can do about it. Just remember that it is not rude here, so don't get offended. You're just a neat novelty! That is my mantra about many things in India “It is not rude here, it is not rude here, it is not rude here.....”

  4. If you are a dude, do not get too friendly, smiley etc with any women until you really know them – you could really offend their modesty. Prostitutes dress just like other women, but they can be identified because they hold eye contact, so trying to make eye contact with all women can be problematic.

  5. An average tip for a porter, beggar, etc is 10 rupees. They sometimes call this “baksheesh,” although that can also mean a bribe. (So can 'Tea Money” - if you get asked for a bribe, pay it. Just pay it. Give up. See number 1.)You do not need to tip auto rickshaw drivers. At touristy restaurants tip 10% or just round up a bit.
  1. Many Indians WILL NOT tell you no. They will tell you “5 minutes” “Maybe” or “Soon” instead (the only exception is at restaurants, which often are out of more than half of the menu's dishes.) This is a major problem when asking for directions – they will make stuff up rather than admit they don't know and potentially disappoint you. Do not point and ask “Is it this way?” because the answer will be yes. Ask “Which way is it?” instead. Its not foolproof, but you have a better chance of getting a correct answer.

  2. Some of the religious men offering you a flower and red bracelet on the street (especially in Varanasi, Pushkar, and also in Kathmandu, Nepal) are trying to cheat you. Do not take the flower. (They do this prayer thing for the happiness of your relatives in heaven and then demand up to 1000 rupees.) Say you already did the ceremony in Varanasi. You can get this genuine prayer inside a temple or ashram if you want it.

  3. If someone is dressed as a god, animal, or in fancy costume in any way – and you take a photo – you will owe them 10 rupees. Sometimes its totally worth it, just remember this before snapping away.

  4. Spend 2 to 3 weeks in Rasjastan. It is the most magical part of India (not necessarily the most beautiful). Jasailmer, Pushkar, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Bundi are all amazing – in my opinion you can skip Jaipur. I suggest heading straight to Jasailmer (it's the farthest away) on a night train from Delhi and have it be your first city. Its amazing – do a camel safari. Drink a lot of masala chai in Rajasthan -its the best in India. Thalis are also good here – a selection of foods served on a metal tray.

  5. Delhi is awesome, but you might hate it at first - like, really hate it. It may seem dirty, insane, charmless and intolerable! BUT - if you go back a second time it will seem completely modern, clean and pleasant compared to most of India. Take a cycle rickshaw around Old Delhi – the madness and chaos made it one of my favourite things I did in India. Other highlights are the Gandhi Smrti, Q'Tub Minar, Hamayan's Tomb and the Jama Masjid.

  6. Try to engage in some spiritual activities – yoga at an ashram, Ganga Aarti ( night prayer ceremony on the Ganges) Tibetan Buddhist meditation in Dharamsala. I mean, don't be a douche about it ;) and get all serious, but try some of it out. After all, when in Rome! (Or, like, Udaipur...)

  7. Stay away from meat. Just don't even touch it – other than seafood in Goa and Kerala (Keralan fried fish is one of my favourite meals ever – you have to try it!) Many people who get sick get sick from the meat. I suggest hand sanitizing a lot until your stomach gets used to India....keep some ciprofloxin on hand in case you get an attack of traveler's stomach. Lassi (yoghurt shakes) are safe – just ask if they use mineral water for the ice. I personally think that street food is safe – veg stuff. If its a busy stall it should be fine – sweets, samosas and kachooris are all good! Food at hotels is invariably bland and overpriced – get out of the hotel! Western food is uniformly terrible unless it is from a restaurant that only serves that one type of cuisine...

  8. Malaria, typhoid, dengue and Japanese encephalitis are all here – do not get bitten by mosquitoes. Rabies is also a problem – the biggest culprits are dogs, monkeys and bats, and there are a lot of those – especially at train stations.

  9. It is up to you if you give money to kids, but I never, ever do.  I usually give to disabled people and the elderly, but not kids – they are often being controlled by little slave owners who keep their earnings. Even if this is not the case, they are being kept from school to do this, and they make more than you think they do.

  10. Read Shantaram. Everyone does, and it's for a reason. Other Indian fiction that I love includes:
    • A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
    • A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
    • The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai
    • White Tiger – Aravind Adega
    • The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roi
    • Midnight's Children – Salman Rushdie
    Reading about Indian culture, religion and history will also get you prepared – you will notice the small things that are easily missed, and your experience will be much richer for it.

  11. Don't eat cut fruit from the street – it has been sprayed with dirty water from a bucket to make it look fresh and appealing – hello dysentery! Use your swiss army knife to peel and cut your own fruit.

  12. They will not understand your accent – try shortening the vowel sounds. (Our English overemphasizes vowels, their English overemphasizes consonants). You can also try a Hindi accent – it works! Therefore, Aarey Colony (where we lived in Mumbai) became Ahdie Chllonny. Use British terms whenever they exist – ie: capsicum instead of green pepper, lift instead of elevator, torch instead of flashlight, plasters instead of band-aids etc.

  13. No, dudes are not getting gay everywhere you look. Men here hold hands, cuddle, spoon and vacation together without women – and its totally hetero. I still giggle, but it is totally normal here. Conversely, no PDAs at all for hetero couples, including hand holding.

  14. Do not listen to drivers when they claim that the hotel you are interested in is full/closed/bad/exploded – they just want to take you to a hotel that will pay them commission. Insist on going to the hotel you want to go to.

  15. Swastikas are everywhere – no one is a Nazi! Its a Hindu/Jain/Buddhist symbol meaning peace.

  16. If you take a local bus (ie: not a tourist “AC luxury bus”) there will be a narrow compartment of people squished in above you, and even more people on the roof. Because some rurally based people don't travel in vehicles very often they can get motion sick quite easily and then puke out the windows (if you're lucky they puke OUT and not IN.) Just keep your window shut, because they also spit water, paan (tobacco stuff) and actual spit out the windows as well, and if you are on the bottom it will swing back in and land all over you. I know this from experience. *Shudder*

  17. Spitting. It happens. In public. A LOT. Giant lung clearing hoarking spitting. And its not considered rude, so it happens in a lot of places that would be unimaginable at home. Restaurants have sinks in the middle of the dining area – though they is meant to be for washing your hands, people use it more for spitting, so there are often bit gobs sitting there. I suggest that you use a hand wipe and refrain from the sink until AFTER you eat, so that you do not lose your appetite. (....it's not rude here, it's not rude here.....)

  18. Only use your right hand to eat and shake hands with. The left hand is considered dirty and for bathroom duties. Always wash your hands before you eat, or at least use a handiwipe – some restaurants will give you a fork and spoon, and some will not, so it is best to be prepared to use your hands.

  19. Get your leftover food packed up and take it to go, and then peel the plastic off and leave it in the street where a dog or cow will eat it - they depend on garbage to live. But make sure you remove the plastic – cows are dumb guys and will eat it if it smells like food and it twists up their guts and they just kind of die on the street. Sad.

  20. Check your sheets and bathrooms when you check in – hotels employ young men and they are invariably not used to domestic work because the women in their families have always done it for them. Therefore – they will often just make the bed instead of changing the sheets. Ick.

  21. Ladies, no shoulders or knees unless you are in Goa, or unless you want to be like a stupid insensitive European hippie. *Shakes fist* You will get used to the heat – I promise! A thin gauzy scarf can be used as a shoulder covering – and helps keep a sunburn at bay. Spaghetti straps, tank tops, skirts above the knee, shorts, tube tops – well, you can wear them if you want. But keep in mind that you are offending everyone around you, people are laughing and pointing when your back is turned and you are also propagating the stereotype that Western women are easy, cheap and inappropriate. Thanks for that. The exceptions are touristy restaurants and nightclubs/pubs. When swimming in places other than Goa's beaches or a hotel pool, you need to wear capris and a tee shirt – no bikinis.

  22. You can eat free meals, and even stay for free, at every Sikh Gurudwara (temple.) The most famous is the Golden Temple, in Amritsar where they even have dorms specifically for Westerners. It is an amazing place, a must–see. If you do stay or eat, make sure to offer a donation and be respectful of the worshipers. The Gurudwara is one of the only places where if someone approaches you to show you around they are not trying to get money out of you – so feel free to listen! The dude will probably be from Delta or Abbotsford – no kidding.

  23. Beer. Kingfisher is delicious (to a point – I'll explain) with a spicy curry or a samosa snack – but good luck getting it. First of all – any restaurant that is “Family” or “Pure Vegetarian” has no booze, and people will look at you like you are an unsavoury lout if you ask for some (there is a slightly seedy, shameful opinion of people who drink in India). Finding a bar can be really difficult – we have had to resort to Ruby Tuesdays and TGI Friday's (both ridonkulously expensive) a few times. Secondly, there are dozens of random “No Alcohol” days in India: Gandhi-ji's birthday, state holidays, Nehru's death date – and they always manage to fall on a day that you were planning on going on the piss. It sucks.

    Finally, you might not want to drink all that much beer – in India all beer sold (including imports like Bud and Fosters that are actually made in India under license) must have a glycerol based additive. We can't figure out exactly why, but apparently it is a preservative? The additive gives the beer a dirty pennies taste, and gives MASSIVE hangovers after only 2 or 3 brewsks. There is a sneaky way to get around it (I learned this from Lonely Planet.) Take the beer and a glass of cold water. Open the beer and upend the bottle into the glass for a few minutes, and watch in horror as all of this weird oily stuff comes out and swirls around in the water – it is heavier than the beer and therefore will come out first, leaving 95% of your actual beer still in the bottle. The remainder will be fresher tasting and won't beat your head in the next day. Ta-da!
  24. Homestays are amazing – seek them out whenever possible. This is often the only place where you can get real homecooked Indian food made by a woman (women in the North do not work outside the home except in Delhi and Punjab) The food, the atmosphere, engaging people in conversation, participating in daily life – this is what traveling is all about. Forgo fancy hotels - I recommend as many homestays as you can do. My 2 favourites were Orchard Huts (ask for Nitin) in the Chamba Valley, and Green Palm Home (ask for Thomas) near Alleppey.

  25. When you take buses, make sure that your valuables are with you in a smaller bag at all times, and if you have a few small locks affix them to the outer zippers of your big pack. Your bag with most likely be tied to the roof of the bus, where up to 20 young men will be riding. It is not uncommon for people to have their bags rifled through. This comes more from curiosity about what weirdo backpackers have in their packs than from people actually wanting to steal, but that does happen occasionally. It is better not to tempt people by leaving cameras, Ipods, laptops and money in your big pack. Also, make sure that the ropes attaching your bag to the bus are secure – you do not want your bag flying down the highway and getting run over by a tractor and a herd of water buffaloes.

  26. Women, if a man grabs you or is leering too much – YELL. The boob grabbing stems from the stereotypes about Western women that 40 years of stupid hippies and Western media have helped to spread (see point 28), so men will try to pull shit with you that they would never ever dream of doing to an local woman. This is the one time that yelling is effective – he will be shamed and yelled at by the people around. While it is rare, when it does happen the most common time is in an auto rickshaw – either by passersby or the driver himself(We know 2 women that have had their boobs grabbed in Jaipur). Like I said – Yell.

  27. Don't let people give you back ripped or otherwise damaged bills – at many places they will not accept them, and the only way they get moved around as currency is in the pockets of gullible backpackers. Hand the Rupees back if they are even torn slightly and ask for new ones.

  28. Try not to need the doctor. Private practices do not seem to exist – you must go to a crowded hospital for all care. The hospital I went to was supposed to be a swanky one that Bollywood stars choose, but we waited for 4 hours in a dirty, crowded, noisy waiting room filled with queue jumpers and starey-pantses. If it is not an emergency, just wait til Thailand. Or Singapore. Or anywhere else in the world.

  29. The exteriors and common spaces of pretty much all buildings are decrepit and dirty – but inside the flats some are really nice! I apologized continuously for the feral dog and garbage-filled lobby and halls of our building (which I had described as “Baghdad Hospital Chic” when I first saw them) to some Indian friends. They looked around, genuinely confused and said it was 'fine' and 'normal.' There seems to be no way to tell if the apartment you are about to enter will be nice or not – so don't panic if you feel like you are entering a charnel house. Chances are the flat itself will be decent and clean.

  30. Shoes off in all temples, most small shops, some guesthouses and all people's homes. You can tell if it is expected of you if there is a pile of flip flops (they call them chappals or slippers) by the entrance.

  31. If food or drink is offered to you in a private home or shop, it is extremely rude to turn it down (unless you are vegetarian and the food is 'non-veg,' my favourite Indianism.) Even if it is not to your taste, try to eat/drink some.
You might spend most of your time in India wishing it was over, and when you leave you will start planning ways to get back. I promise.
I can give more specific advice on itineraries, guesthouses and trains – just leave a comment with your question and I will try to answer it.

20 June 2009

Some much needed vanity,

Traveling is a filthy, greasy business, and it looks like it may get messier in the coming months, with Borneo, Indonesia and the Philippines all on the agenda. I decided to post this photo just as a reminder to myself that I am not always a “daggy Bogan” (thanks to all of the Aussies that I have met along the way for that term – essentially meaning “gross redneck.”)

On an average day I am coated in a thick shellac of sweat, it's salt stinging my eyes, making my sun induced squint even more prominent and undoubtedly causing more future crow's feet. My hair is dull and frizzed in a halo around my head, and my face doesn't have a speck of make-up trying to pretty it up, because at 7am in the morning on a 40 degree day make-up seems like it would be an exercise in futility. Did I mention how sweaty I am?

My clothes have grown huge as my waist and ass have shrunk and they look like bizarre cotton sacks, misshapen and stained and utilitarian in purpose, meant to conceal my figure, chest, tattoos and knees. They are constantly dirty, oily and covered in the residue from stray animals I insist on petting.

I sat in a puddle of monkey pee 3 days ago. And I had to wear those pants for 2 more days while we trekked through steamy terrain from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

Today, I was walking through downtown Rangoon and was doused with slimy, stinking puddle water when a car raced by. That puddle was next to men cleaning the sewers by hand, but I wore that skirt for 3 more hours.

Showers are often cold, sometimes just scoops of water fished out of a slimy tank and dumped over various body parts. In the private refuge of the washroom some toilets are indescribably terrible, their stench leaving me feeling more squalid than when I still had to pee, and even the rooms I sleep in, the blankets I swath myself in and the towels I dry myself with are all sometimes dirtier than not. And while I used to smell of Narciso Rodriguez, Jean Paul Gaultier, Pink Sugar and Lush products, now I smell like sweat, DEET and well, yes - monkey pee.

While Sean declares his attraction to me, claims that I am still the vision that I once was (to him, at least) clearly I am not the manicured, hair-did, make-upped lady I once was. My jeans sag in the ass. I have unattended roots. My nails are dirty. Hell, most of the time I'm not even dry.

So that is why I have to look at nice photos of myself, photos where I am clean and pretty and in nice clothing. That way I can cling to the fact that while I am having my life-changing, travel-around-Asia, amazing year (or more) away there is a version of me still tucked away in Vancouver that I can return to, and that girl is in heels and wearing lipgloss. Lots of it.