Home Sweet Home

July 31st, 2008

Well, our trip is over. And being with our families and catching up on six months’ worth of events, stories, and mail (not to mention planning a wedding) has left us without much time to think about blogging during the last two weeks. For this reason, my account of our last three destinations will be (severely) summarized. I hope no one minds.

Sydney was an awesome city, everything we hoped it would be. Downtown is filled with modern skyscrapers, trendy restaurants, and cozy pubs. In its heart, there are some much older stone buildings that contrast spectacularly with the metal and glass surrounding them. It’s much like London in that way. There’s a huge park, and walking through it to the harbor provides perfect views of the city’s skyline and the famous Opera House.

After walking around and discovering all of this ourselves, we noticed a large crowd on the opposite side of the harbor. Heading over, we found the Sydney Aroma Festival, an annual event showcasing coffee, chocolate, tea, and spices. We got some good food and coffee and wandered through the booths. There was a showcase of espresso machines inside one of the ferry terminals, and it was the best part of the festival. Experienced baristas demonstrated how to make the perfect cup of espresso in $3,000-$5,000 machines (and gave out lots of samples). We learned a lot and got very jittery.Our second day in the city was dreary, and we went to the Australian Museum and the National Gallery. On our third day, we took a trip out to the Royal National Park, the second oldest national park in the world (after Yellowstone). That night we went to a one-man comedy show at the opera house, Possessed by Frank Woodley. It was a really unique, hilarious performance.

We left early the next morning for New Zealand. Our flight home included a stopover in Auckland, which we extended to three days. We purchased a budget flight from Auckland to Christchurch so that we could see the South Island, which we were told was even more lovely than the north. Even from the plane, we could tell that New Zealand was beautiful: rolling hills covered with green grass like you’ve never seen. We got to Christchurch in the middle of the night, and the reservation we had made with Thrifty car rental had been lost. There was no car waiting for us. Luckily, Europcar still had a cheap vehicle available (every other company was booked solid). We had originally planned to do some driving that night, but by the time it was all settled we just got in the car and slept in the airport parking lot.

The next day we set out, driving north from Christchurch along the coast and then cutting inland to cross the mountains which span the South Island. We continued all the way to Nelson, on the northern coast. It was absolutely spectacular. It was like nothing else we had seen on the trip so far. Every time the road turned we would stare out the car windows and utter “wow.” The scenery was gorgeous. First, fields of grapes. Then rolling green hills coated with the softest, thickest-looking grass you’ve ever seen, all dotted with fat, fuzzy Murano sheep. Snowcapped peaks became visible, and soon we were climbing into the mountains. We rode through a beautiful river valley, past quaint and charming towns, past hotsprings that filled the riverbed with steam, and up into the snow. We pulled over to play in it a little before carrying on. As we descended, tendrils of fog crept into the plains, casting everything in an eerie light as the sun filtered through it.

We were getting tired by the time we got close to Nelson, but a sign caught our eye: “Rutherford Birthplace.” We stopped, very excited. Ernst Rutherford was a New Zealander, and is well known for his work in atomic physics, especially in working out the structure of the atom. There was a (somewhat funny looking) statue of him as a boy and a nice monument that took you through the events of his life.We arrived in Nelson after dark. It’s one of the larger cities in New Zealand, but its center still looks like a charming small town. Our hostel, the Green Monkey, was one of the most welcoming places we’ve been yet. Looking through a booklet we picked up at the airport, our hostel choice was contingent upon the presence of two things: a fireplace and hot chocolate. This place had both (and marshmallows and lemon cake besides). The other guests were nice, the kitchen was so beautiful and well-equipped that we found ourselves hoping our future kitchen would be as good, and the owners were a married couple who had settled down into running the hostel after a youth spent traveling the world. We went to the grocery store to pick up fixings for pizza, and then took a chilly nighttime walk around town before returning for dinner.

The next day, we planned to get a very early start, but when we awoke to the sounds of a howling storm, we decided to roll over and go back to sleep. It was almost midday by the time the weather cleared and we started out. It was windy and rainy, and we went very slowly along the mountain roads. Tommy was nervous driving on the dizzying roads and took extra care while driving; we were surprised when we saw a police car’s flashing lights behind us, signaling for us to pull over. The very friendly policeman cheerfully explained to us that we had been in fact driving too slowly. We looked so stunned when he told us this that he then asked us if we understood English. It ended well, no ticket, just a New Zealand Highway Patrol postcard and a smile. “A souvenir from your holiday! Ta ta!”

This might be a good time to mention how friendly New Zealanders were. You hear talk about friendly people in different places in the world, but none of the people we encountered anywhere else we have been on this trip could possibly compare to New Zealanders. Of course, the lack of a language barrier is a big help–we may have missed out on some really friendly countries due to our limited fluency. But in New Zealand, everyone we met went out of their way to help us or guide us, even when it wasn’t asked for. When you dealt with people, whether it was behind the rental car desk at the airport or behind the grocery store counter, you felt like they were really listening, really caring, and really thinking about you as an individual person, not just another customer. I strongly suspect that being constantly surrounded by the beautiful scenery of New Zealand would make anyone friendly, given enough time. What a wonderful country.

We drove around the sounds along the northern coast, but couldn’t see much. The weather cleared as we drove down the east coast back to Christchurch. It was an interesting contrast: blue-green water as beautiful as that on any Thai beach, rolling green hills like the Italian countryside, and snow-capped mountains to rival the Alps, all in a single glance along the coastal highway. We pulled over to see some seal colonies on the rocks at the shore’s edge, and someone else, either a local or an Australian visitor, told us we should hike ten minutes up a nearby trail, and we would find a group of baby seals playing in a waterfall pool. We followed his advice, and there they were, adorable baby seals hidden in a little forest pool. Seals are surely a wonder of the animal kingdom: all the adults seem to do is sit, and all these babies seemed to do was play. Someone had thrown some balls in the pool that they were happily pushing around, and when Tommy threw a stick into the water, they turned it into a toy as well. They came very close as we tried to snap pictures in the dim light.It was later than we expected when we finally arrived in Christchurch. Our hostel pamphlet helped us find another good place to spend the night. We cooked a pasta dinner and went to sleep–our last night on foreign soil!

The next day, we had the morning to do a little more sightseeing. We drove towards Akaroa, out on a small peninsula south of Christchurch. After only twenty minutes’ drive out of the city, we came to some of the nicest scenery we’d seen yet. There are some bays that cut into the hilly terrain and just create the most lovely view as you look down from the road. We were sorry to turn around at noon.

We flew from Christchurch to Auckland, where we had a six hour layover before our flight to Los Angeles. Auckland Airport wins the Gold Medal of Security Excellence from katieandtommy.com: ever since we were in Bangkok nearly two months prior and had found that one of our souvenirs had broken while packed in our checked luggage, we had started carrying our bag of souvenirs with us onto airplanes. They were mostly breakable, and so were wrapped up carefully. This time, in Auckland, security saw something suspicious, and began rooting through my bag. They would take a few items out and run it through again. They repeated this multiple times, and the table became strewn with odds and ends from everywhere between Morocco and Australia. Finally, the security guard found what she was looking for: the khanjar we bought in Oman. A knife, with a three-inch blade! And we had taken it on no less than twelve flights without it being caught by security (making us even more resentful of one self-important security guard in Darwin who had haughtily informed us that our duct tape was a dangerous item). Obviously we knew we should not have the knife on the plane, but we begged them to let us check it because of its sentimental value. Because we had already cleared customs, we could not return to the check in (a precaution taken so people do not test security). It took a lot of complaining, a lot of rule clarification, and a little begging, but we managed to get the khanjar checked in Tommy’s backpack. And we’ve never felt so safe boarding a plane before!

A thirteen hour flight sounds like an awful, boring ordeal, but not these days. We immediately turned on our personal TV screens and selected which movies we would watch on the flight home. We enjoyed them while eating dinner and drinking multiple glasses of New Zealand wine. Not a painful journey!

We arrived in LA, feeling strange to be back home in the states. The immigration officers were impressed with the number of stamps in our passports. My brother Joey picked us up at the airport and brought us back to his place just outside of downtown LA. We went out to dinner and then saw some of LA’s best attractions–the shopping malls!

The next day we went to mass at the Cathedral of the Angels. Then we went to Universal Studios for some good old-fashioned American fun. We finished the day with an improv comedy performance by the Upright Citizens Brigade. We met some of Joey’s friends and hung out for a while after the show.

On our last day, Joey had work–at Warner Brothers Studios. Being the awesome brother that he is, he got us visitor passes and showed us around a bit. Among other things, we saw George Clooney’s parking space, the set from ER, and Matthew Perry (thus fulfilling our Los Angeles goal of seeing someone famous).  Joey dropped us off at the subway, and we did some sightseeing. We went to Hollywood Boulevard, of course. We also went to the Walt Disney Opera House and did the free self-guided tour, which was particularly well-done and informative. The Opera House was designed by Frank Gehry (like the Dancing House in Prague). We went to the Grand Central Market for fish tacos, and then took a bus to Rodeo Drive. Our last stop was the lovely Santa Monica pier. Getting back from there took longer than we expected, but we made it back in time for some Mexican food with Joey.

The next morning, he brought us to the airport and we boarded our last two planes. We stared out the window in awe as we descended into New Orleans. The man in the row ahead of us had a GPS and helped us figure out where we were as we flew over Lafayette and continued east. We marveled at the sight of the swampy land surrounding New Orleans. It truly is a landscape like nothing else we have seen on this trip.

Our parents were at the airport, eagerly awaiting our return. It was so good to see them again. We went back to our house in Mandeville and had a big dinner. We had a great time recounting the trip and hearing more about everything that had happened during the three months since we had seen them last. We had called, emailed, and even videoconferenced, but nothing is the same as talking face to face.And so we’re home. And it’s really nice to wear different clothes, to sleep in our own beds, to be with our families, and to not have to unpack and re-pack every few days. But every now and then our minds wander back to one of the wonderful places we have been to and we hope that we will have the opportunity to travel there again. But for now, we are just thankful that we have been privileged enough to take this trip. We have been gifted with understanding and encouraging families, and we have also been lucky enough to have found the perfect lifelong traveling companions in each other. When people ask, “How was it?” there is no easy answer. It was, quite frankly, the best six months of our lives.

Photos from SydneyPhotos from New Zealand

Photos from Los Angeles

Photos from New Orleans 

Time away: 6 months and 3 days

Continents visited: 5

Countries visited: 28

Cities visited: 68

Different languages spoken: 20

Different currencies: 24

Flights taken: 42

Airports visited: 48

Trains taken: 27

Busses taken: 27

Hostels stayed at: 74

Rental cars: 7

Hospital stays: 1

Bags lost: 0

“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”  -Henry Miller

A Land Down Under

July 10th, 2008

When we arrived in Cairns, we were a bit disappointed that our arranged hostel pickup was not waiting for us. It was yet another small, though meaningful contrast to one of the many differences between traveling in the first and third world– staying at a hostel in a third world country might mean the difference between the owner’s employees getting paid that day or not, whereas in the first world, you’re hardly more than just another line on a spreadsheet titled “credit”. In the third world, we felt as though pickups (when arranged for) were never late, largely I think because the income we would bring to the hostel was far too important for them to risk us possibly going with one of the many hawkers waiting for foreign tourists. Well, when we called the Cairns hostel to see if they would come get us (as was promised) we were asked if we had landed in the international or domestic terminal. I froze. I frankly didn’t know how to respond! We had come from Darwin, one state over, but yet we had to pass through immigration and customs! Traveling in Australia has been a bit unusual, I must say. Nevertheless, the pickup did arrive and we made it to the hostel in one piece and $15 richer at that. The hostel stay ended up being more or less satisfactory. In another irony, it was much dirtier than really most of the hostels we have stayed in on this trip (sans, of course, India). We had expected perhaps the opposite, considering how wealthy Australia is; in the rest of the world, hostels usually just mean shared facilities, not dirty rooms or anything.

Since we had woken up that day at 03:30 so that we could catch our cheap budget flight, we just ate a small breakfast and then napped till the afternoon to try and make up for some of our lost energy. Katie and I both had some big activities planned for our stay here in Cairns. The next day, she was scheduled to take a professional birding tour and I was hoping to go scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. Finding a dive boat was also an interesting contrast to how things operated in Asia. When I asked the hostel for suggestions, I was first given fancy brochures for huge, luxurious yachts that charged as much as $100-150 per dive (keep in mind that my dives on this trip have cost between $30-45 each so far). In fact, it seemed as though most of the diving operations worked this way. In the end, I found a company that charged a somewhat reasonable $60/dive. Katie got a break too when she received an email later that day informing her that another person had signed up to go on a birding tour the same day so she was going to get 30% off.

Later, we went to a nearby mall to purchase some groceries so that we could eat for the upcoming days; for dinner our first night, we had a bag of ready-to-serve Indian curry which we cooked several squids in and we accompanied the wonderful meal with the second cheapest bottle of Shiraz available from the (drive-through) “bottle shop.” The hostel has a bit of a tradition of doing a nightly movie and that night’s one was The Simpsons Movie. It ended up being a nice, restful way to conclude the day. Still a bit off from the odd sleep patterns, we went to bed early that night in anticipation of the early starts we would each have the next day.

Scuba diving for me ended up being a tremendous success. The Great Barrier Reef was as stunning as its reputation suggested. I had been a bit nervous as I had read from various sources that the GBR isn’t as “great as it used to be.” But as I quickly realized, that is an incredibly unqualifiable statement- the GBR extends for over 2000 km along the northeastern Australian seaboard; I’m willing to bet that there are hundreds of square miles never even explored before. To say the least, the day ended up being a great success. Though the water was not quite as clear and blue as it was in Sipidan, the coral was just as stunning. I wonder if the tide was low towards the end of our day because big chunks of the reef would stick out of the water like islands. One other thing that made the dive contrast with the other dives I’ve taken in the past 6 months was what I thought of as the “Western” sense of safety and regulation. In addition to sitting through a safety briefing while we were still pulling out of harbor, every diver was required to “sign in/out” before they entered or exited the boat, as a system of keeping track of everyone. Though I do not think in any way that the boats I took elsewhere were any less safe than here (a Tanzanian, Thai, Malay, etc. crew certainly doesn’t want to drown or risk sinking their boat as much as anyone else) but it is almost as if there is a greater assumption in the West that people have less common sense, or are not as well-equipped to take care of themselves as crafty, resourceful foreigners often seem to be. (I think it will be a while before one will see a warning in an Asian coffee shop, for example, that the coffee you’re about to drink is hot.)

Katie also had a fantastic day birding in the surrounding mountains. The mountains around Cairns have the interesting topographic feature of containing flat grasslands on the tops of them. The so called “Table Lands” have spectacular natural crater lakes, rain forest, and other beautiful vistas. We would end up returning there on our own two days later. When I reached port back in Cairns, the dive shop invited me to stop by a local bar that night for free pizza and beer, which Katie and I were of course were psyched about because we were having to pay so much for food everywhere in Australia. Over the course of the late evening as we discussed what else we wanted to see and do while in Cairns, we decided to rent a car for a day so that I could see the Table Lands for myself and we’d spend the other day just walking around the pleasant, gentrified downtown area or maybe go visit one of the beaches.

The following day, we had some difficulty finding a rental company because they were nearly all out of compacts (we’re visiting in the middle of the winter holiday season for Australian students). We finally got lucky when we found a very small company run by a middle-aged couple. The car we got certainly wasn’t pretty or new and changing gears took a certain amount of strength but it would get us exactly where we wanted to go. We agreed to pick it up early the next morning. For the rest of that day, we decided to go checkout some of Cairns’ famous beaches. Though we should have known better, we ended up being quite disappointed. As a result of spending so much time on so many amazing, beautiful beaches all over the world, our expectations have become quite high and anything short of crystal, blue water just looks dirty!

Aside from some more wanderings later in the town’s downtown area, we did little more that day. We woke up early our final day so that we could get an early start on our rental car. The highlight of the day was stopping at a lakeside restaurant and ordering tea and scones as a midday snack. Katie and I still talk about the Afternoon Tea we had at the Kensington Palace Orangery. (We are already planning to have our very own “Boston Tea Parties” during some lovely New England fall afternoons). Since this restaurant only served sweet scones with their midday tea, we made some fresh cucumber sandwiches that morning so we could have something to munch on as the day went on.

We arrived back to Cairns in the early evening. I was certainly happy to see that we didn’t have to pay nearly as much for gas as we had to in Darwin (gas is a slightly more reasonable $6.00 here, rather than nearly $6.80). We cooked a dinner of spaghetti with a garlic red sauce with a bottle of Shiraz and went to bed early in anticipation of our 3:40 wake up for our flight to Sydney!

Photos from Cairns

Going Bush

July 8th, 2008

Our first impressions of Australia were not what we expected. Tommy already wrote about their strict customs inspections upon arrival. We were also shocked at the number of rules and fines posted all over the airport. Our impression of the Australians we had met around the world was that they were cool, laid-back people; arriving at the Darwin airport, however, we felt like we had never seen a country so uptight.

Or expensive. We rented a Subaru Forrester for our excursion into Kakadu National Park, and with all the fees tacked on at the airport, it ended up being a bit more pricey than we expected. We arrived at our hostel late at night, and when we woke up we thought we would get some breakfast, but choked a bit when we saw the prices. Pancakes for $8? Eggs for $7? Coffee for $4? We were suddenly homesick for Asia. Grocery shopping proved to be no cheaper; in fact, we started to wonder if we had the exchange rate wrong. Unfortunately, we didn’t. Although when we left in January, the rate was 1 Australian dollar to about 85 US cents, now it is pretty much 1 to 1. We found the prices in Darwin more comprable to those in London than anywhere else. It was an unfortunate blow to our wallets.

Still, we were excited to have an SUV full of supplies and hit the road to Kakadu. No amount of expensive groceries could keep away the charm of being in Australia. We drove along to “Down Under” by Men at Work and admired the fun signs we passed (our favorite near Darwin marked the area of Humptydoo). We eventually stopped passing buildings and the landscape became drier and more like the stereotypical outback. I was especially excited to be in Australia because it had long been one of my dream birding destinations. Due to its isolation, Australia has an extremely unique flora and fauna, and so nearly everything on the continent was new to me. When I spotted a big white bird in a tree on the side of the road, I screamed to Tommy to stop and back up, and got my first sighting of a Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. They would end up being quite common in the park, but I was still ridiculously excited.

Darwin is surrounded by National Parks, and Kakadu is probably the largest and most famous. It’s mostly dry, scrubby forest, but it is bordered by a steep escarpment, on which the Aboriginees have made beautiful rock art. But there are also rivers, wetlands, waterfalls, and even rainforest. It took us about four hours to get out to the park, and it was getting on to late afternoon when we pulled over at our first stop, the Mamukala wetlands. It was an unexpected treat for our first day on the continent. Not only did we spot wallabies, but we kept seeing bird after bird as we walked the circuit trail. I was frantically trying to look them all up. It was a wonderful introduction to the park.

Since the sun was setting when we left, we drove to the nearest campsite and parked our car. We didn’t have any camping equipment with us. While it would have come in handy at several times on this trip, for the most part it would have been an unnecassary hindrance, so we don’t regret leaving it out. We managed to make three days’ worth of meals without needing a stove. That night we enjoyed bread and cheese and our first bottle of Australian wine. However, sleeping in the car wasn’t as comfortable as we expected. At some single, unspecified hour, the air thickened with mosquitos. I mean multiple species of big, scary, blood-sucking bugs. We rushed into the car and resolved not to leave it if possible. It was pretty cool at night in the park, but we couldn’t roll down the windows, lest we be devoured, and it got pretty warm in the car. We decided we would need to figure out something else for the following night.

When we woke up, we went for a morning walk around the Burdulba billabong and broke into the 800 gram box of Milo cereal we had purchased for breakfast. America has yet to catch on to the advantages of heat-treated, long shelf life milk, but it’s pretty popular throughout the rest of the world, and allowed us to eat milk and cereal every morning without refrigeration. After breakfast we headed to Jabiru, the town at the center of the park. We stopped at the visitor’s center to get some maps and information, and ducked into the supermarket to purchase some mosquito netting. Then we drove south to Nourlangie, one of the Aboriginal rock art sights.

The Aboriginees have been inhabiting the lands of Kakadu for tens of thousands of years, and of course when the first white settlers came to Australia, their way of life was severely disrupted. Now Australia is doing some things to try and make amends, including putting the Aboriginees back in charge of land management in Kakadu. They refer to them as “traditional landowners.”

After a short hike, we reached the rock art at Nourlangie. Much of the art at this site is relatively modern, and some of the artists are known. In addition to traditional themes, there are depictions of Europeans and ships. Hands are a recurring theme, and some of the ones shown at Nourlangie are wearing European-style gloves.

From Nourlangie we drove north for some time, to the Manngarre rainforest walk. This patch of monsoon rainforest provided a great spot for more birding and an afternoon walk. We even saw a crocodile sunning itself on the side of the river nearby. We ate a dinner of tuna and veggies and watched the sun set over the river valley from the Ubirr lookout. Since the only campsite in the northern part of the park was a pay site with showers and running water, we instead slept in the rainforest walk parking lot. We had bought a small mosquito net actually made to cover a hat, and cut it up into a square so that we could roll down one window and tape the netting over it. It worked fairly well, although we ran out of duct tape so it wasn’t well secured, and we found a few stray mosquitos in the morning.

We went for another brief rainforest walk, during which we spotted Flying Foxes hanging in the trees. We went back to Ubirr to see the view during the daytime and to look at the rock art on some of the cliff faces. Some of this art was much older. One outcropping of rock in particular has protected the paintings made below it in all their detail and vivid color, and it was a spectacular sight.

We drove south next, and took a dirt road to Jim Jim Falls. After several kilometers, the road becomes limited to 4WD vehicles, one of the reasons we opted for the Forrester. Still, it’s a smaller SUV than the many Toyota Land Cruisers we were seeing, and when we came to an area where the road was flooded with fairly deep water, we balked and weren’t sure if we should risk the rental car. We watched several big SUVs with their exhaust pipes extended to their rooves make it across without problem, but it wasn’t until one brave little Kia fearlessly drove right through that we decided to risk it. Although one big bump at the end sent red muddy water splashing onto our windshield, we made it through without a hitch. It was worth it, too. After a hike down a river gorge filled with lovely forest, we came to Jim Jim falls, a tall dual stream of water falling into a lovely grotto of blue-green water. People were swimming and picnicing all around. The water was quite cold, but Tommy took a brief dip.

That night, we drove further south to our chosen campsite. We had stopped in Jabiru for gas and to purchase more duct tape, and rigged up a beautiful setting with two windows netted over. We slept very comfortably and mosquito-free. We did a morning hike and then drove south out of the park to try and get gas, but the only station was out. Luckily we had enough to do our planned excursion to Gunlom falls and make it back to a gas station in the park. Gunlom wasn’t as nice as Jim Jim, but the campsite nearby had showers, so we both cleaned off before moving on. We visited the Aboriginal cultural center, which was very interesting. The most striking thing was that it is part of Aboriginal culture that the name of a person who has died should not be spoken or written for some years after their death. Images also should not be displayed. So many of the names and photos on the displays were covered, with an explanation of this custom on top.

After getting gas and one more stop at the Mamukala wetlands, we headed out of the park. It had been a really nice few days. Renting a car is always one of our favorite ways to travel, because of the independence it gives us. We enjoyed seeing the lovely sights in the park. I saw some really spectacular birds, including four species of cockatoo.

After three days of canned fish and crackers (and lots of Milo cereal), we had been looking forward to a real meal. We found a street in Darwin positively lined with restaurants, but we couldn’t afford a single one. Finally we found one with entrees in the $12-15 range instead of $18-25: the Hog’s Breath Cafe. It was clearly a chain, but it wasn’t until we were already seated and looking carefully at the menu that we realized what it really was: an “American” restaurant the way Outback Steakhouse is an “Australian” restaurant. They had burgers, tex-mex, a few “Cajun” dishes, and even a Mississippi Mud Pie for dessert. The walls were lined with baseball memorabilia, NASA photos, and American license plates. It had been a long time since we had been in a restaurant like this. In Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, the restaurants we would eat at were usually small, family-owned places where you were immediately seated, your order was taken as soon as you were ready, the food came out surprisingly fast, and was usually cheap and absolutely delicious. Here we waited in a line to even be seated, and then were left staring at our picture-filled menus for a good twenty minutes or half hour. When our overly-excited waiter did come to introduce himself, give a prepared speech about the menu, and say he would be “taking care” of us tonight, along with an assistant of some sort who was in training, the generic nature of the whole thing completely turned us off. We forgot what it was like to eat at these places. We never did see our waiter again, although we did wait a good forty-five minutes for our mediocre burgers. It was all show and not much substance, whereas in the rest of the world we had been struck by the lack of ambiance but real quality of food and service we encountered. It’s one thing we’ll miss when we get home.

We drove to the airport and slept in the rental return parking lot until 4 am, when we stumbled inside to catch our flight to Cairns.

Photos from Singapore

Photos from Kakadu

Singapore Fling

July 5th, 2008

We were sad to be leaving Ko Tao, not only because it marked the end of our paradise beach stay but because we had to repeat the long and painstaking boat and bus trip back to Krabi, and then follow it with a long travel day to Singapore. Fortunately, it ended up going much smoother this time and we arrived in Krabi late at night and decided to just stay with one of the hostel touts fishing for people at the bus station. Our flight plan to Singapore wasn’t too fun; we had to switch planes in Kuala Lumpur over a 5 hour layover. It ended up going by a bit faster than expected because we spent a significant amount of time talking to baggage claim services- my leatherman pocketknife was stolen and my bottle of Armani cologne had been smashed. The latter must have been endured an especially impressive hit. I’ve dropped that glass bottle several times. It is quite thick and was also packed inside multiple bags-short of someone telling me the bag got nailed with a crowbar, I have no idea what could have happened to it. Nevertheless, the backpack smells a lot better now and our travel insurance is supposed to cover 80% of the cost of our stuff due to damage/loss by the airline so hopefully this will end just being a minor inconvenience. We loved our arrival into Singapore. On the plane we read the accompanying wikitravel article we had. A comedian had apparently coined Singapore as “Disney World with the death penalty;” another deemed it “the world’s only shopping mall with a seat in the UN.” In some ways, both of these sentiments proved to be true. Singapore is a tiny city-state, about 3.5x the size of Washingon DC. According to the CIA Factbook, its GDP per capita is ranked the 8th highest in the world (the US comes in at 9th). In the old days, customs officials would force dirty looking backpackers to have a haircut or take a shower before entering the country. Many of these seemingly martinet restrictions have since disappeared but chewing gum and pornography are still illegal (as are publications by Jehovah Witnesses); being caught trafficking drugs results in a mandatory death sentence. As we took the subway from the airport to our hostel, I couldn’t help but liken Singapore to being something like an Asian London. The city struck us as being very safe, somewhat expensive, and very clean. The humidity made it a bit sticky (this was actually the closest we have ever been to the equator) but like living in Louisiana, you can spend most of your day in the air conditioning and hardly get affected by the heat.

We were a bit exhausted from the long day so we did little that night except eat dinner and fall sleep. We found a nice Indian place to satiate our hunger. As always, it was superbly delicious. To recover from our flight from the day before, we decided to sleep in a bit our first day. Most of our hostels on this trip have supplied breakfast quite generically, ie Western-style breakfasts, such as eggs and toast. But now and then, we’ve been able to get a little something extra. This time it was “kaya,” a delicious coconut jam that comes in unfortunate green color. We were also served dragon fruit, but somewhat to our disappointment, no durian. Being an obviously very urban city we spent most of our days walking around town. We first went to go see the legendary Raffles Hotel, so that we can imagine where we would be staying on our next trip to Singapore. Afterwards, we found ourselves stumbling down Orchard Street, the miles long home of innumerable shopping malls. We stopped into one that also had a cinema and we went to go see Get Smart! The sun had set and everyone had left work for the mall by the time we were let out of the cinema. We decided to spend a little bit of time looking for anything interesting that we could also find on sale- we both found a few things but being hungry, we decided to return tomorrow instead. We had been craving, though hesitant, to eat sushi over the past few weeks. Seeing as we were in a country whose hygienic standards are likely stricter than that US’s, we sought out to find the perfect sushi restaurant, which we eventually succeeded in another mall down Orchard Street. We enjoyed an after-dinner street-side snack of ice cream sandwiches as we strolled down Orchard looking for yet another mall, this one known to contain a huge Border’s store. We found this as well, but we were dismayed by the prices that were sometimes double the US prices. We had hoped that the multinational chain would have lower prices than some of the local shops we had peering into earlier in the day but we were a bit disappointed to find that this wasn’t the case. We returned back home close to midnight with the intent of waking up a bit earlier the following day.

The next day we set out to try to take advantage of the month-along summer annual “Great Singapore Sale,” where retailers evidently discount their wares. We ended up both buying enough clothes to realize we would have some problems on our next flight with its 15kg/person weight limit. I also bought durian flavored ice cream sandwich. Durian has often been described as smelling like “sewage” or decay. Officially, it is an offense to carry it on public transport or bring it into a hotel room, the smell is so bad. The best way I can describe its taste is to say that it is something close to the “warm” sweetness of a fruit that is about to go bad. It didn’t leave the nicest aftertaste in my mouth and Katie deplored the way it made my breath smell so we decided that we likely wouldn’t need to try the real thing. Interesting enough though, it made us realize that the awful smell we often perceived in fruit markets all over the tropics was nothing more than durian (and that all the fruits for sale were not rotting, as the overlaying stench suggested)!

We had been needing to finish up some blogging as well as submit a scholarship application so we returned to the hostel during the hottest part of the day to take advantage of their free internet. For dinner that night we found a small food court where Katie got half a barbequed fish and I was able to satiate my rekindled Indian food craving.
We spent our final, half-day doing nothing more than wrapping up a few loose ends. Having spent the previous few weeks with unreliable Internet, we video conferenced with our parents in the morning. After that, we picked up a copy of Jane Austen’s Emma (We enjoyed Persuasion so much we decided to keep reading the Austen series, albeit backwards). After getting our final Asian noodle dishes for lunch but before having to take the subway to the airport, we went to go take some pictures of the Raffles Hotel, something we neglected the day prior.

Aside from having to both carry on an additional bag of “stuff” so as to avoid the overweight baggage fees, we were stunned to discover that Australia requires a visa for all nationalities. Though we have no idea how we missed this, as we checked and rechecked visa requirements for all the countries we were visiting, as Americans we qualified for an “e-visa” which the airline took care of for us in less than 15 minutes by just making some mouse clicks over the Internet. Though a bit annoyed by what was essentially hardly anything more than a governmental tax, we were grateful that we had no other surprises till our arrival in Australia. (I tried to use my Polish passport as I am a bit low on free visa pages in my American one, but I was told that Poles don’t qualify for an e-visa.) One thing that we did encounter when we landed in Darwin, almost 4 hours later, was how incredibly strict the custom agents were. Many people were having their luggage hand-inspected and a number of items which are typically not a problem in other countries were highly scrutinised by the agents. We were nervous about our wooden nativity scene we purchased in Bethlehem. Though sealed with lacquer, we were afraid of problems as one particularly macho looking agent gave an Asian fellow hell, as he hand-inspected his luggage one pair of undies at a time, for having a wooden elephant statue with him. Deciding to act a little more sheepish and naive than perhaps we really are, we guiltily declared our can of Nescafe as food being brought into the country. We had a cordial chat with a young officer, during which we continually expressed concern about the Nescafe. A bit charmed and likely annoyed, he checked with a superior and said it would be okay. After a pass through an X-ray machine and not having to endure a moment more of further scrutiny we passed through with our souvenirs not earning a second’s more attention.

Island Hopping

July 1st, 2008

We left Kota Kinabalu bracing ourselves for a long day in transit. First was our Air Asia flight in the early morning from KK to Kuala Lumpur, an airport we had been through once already and will see one more time before the trip is over. It’s not a terrible airport to have a layover in. The food selection isn’t the best in the budget terminal, though, so we spent our two hours at The Coffee Bean enjoying two things we had missed in Sabah: good coffee and dairy products. When we went to check our bags for our second Air Asia flight, the scale read that they were three kilos overweight. Try as we might to show our luggage tags from KK with the lower weights printed on them and insist that we had not touched the bags since retrieving them from the last flight, they would have none of it. We proceeded to empty anything we could fit into our carryons out of our packs once again, and managed to make the weight limit.

Things went seamlessly once we were back in Thailand–at first. A bus from the airport in Krabi took us straight into town, where a bus to Surat Thani was waiting. They promised to take us to the ferry pier. Instead, however, they dropped us off at a tourism office somewhere in town, telling us that they would sell us tickets to the island of Ko Tao, our final destination. We had been told by our hotel that the only way to get there would be the night ferry, which would arrive the next morning. However, this travel office told us the night ferry was not running that night, but that they could sell us a ticket to Ko Phangan, where we could buy a ticket to Ko Tao. They assured us that, since the full moon party was going on at Ko Phangan, there would be frequent ferries to Ko Tao, and one should leave an hour after we arrived. We were very suspicious, since what we was saying went against what we had been told. We suspected that the night ferry was running, but that he was lying to us because he did not sell night ferry tickets. However, we were nervous about risking it. Plus, he was saying we could get to the island that night, rather than spending the night on an uncomfortable boat. There was another couple there who had already paid and seemed confident. And finally, no one had tried to rip us off in Thailand so far. So we opted to trust the guy.

As you might suspect, this turned out to be a mistake. Everything we paid him for, we got, that is true–a bus came and brought us to the pier, where a ferry took us to Ko Phangan. But when we arrived, we found that there were no ferries to Ko Tao until morning. The latest one was 1:30 pm. Needless to say, we were pretty angry. After we finished spouting expletives, we knew we needed to find somewhere to sleep. We bought ferry tickets for the 8:30 am boat and went to a hotel close to the dock. They assured us, however, that they had no room and neither would anyone else on the island, because of the full moon party. Luckily, as we were walking away contemplating the wisdom of setting up our hammock somewhere and sleeping in it, a lady called to us from next door and offered us a room for only 400 baht (rougly $13). To our surprise, it was a nice room too, albeit with no AC.

Knowing we had better make the best of a bad situation, we decided to go to the full moon party. This is a blowout of mythical proportions, occuring for a few days once a month on the beaches of Ko Phangan, a mecca for the sort of backpackers we have come to dislike on this trip, who consider any night spent sober a night wasted. It was really just like we pictured: a string of bars and booths along a beach packed with crowds of people in bathing suits, covered in glow paint, dancing and drinking. Locals (and sometimes drunk tourists too) spun firey batons and hawkers sold the drink of choice, the “bucket”– a plastic pail filled with your choice of liquor, mixer, and Thai Red Bull (the original). We considered it a cultural experience akin to our time with a tribe in the Amazon–an opportunity to observe and briefly participate in a very foreign custom! We bought ourselves a bucket, pocketing the Red Bull so we could sleep that night, and wove our way through the crowds, screaming to each other over the pounding music, watching the party unfold. When we got back to the hotel, we found ourselves covered in smeared glow paint where we had brushed up against the revelers.

Catching the ferry the next morning was an even more entertaining experience. Shuffling onto it with us were crowds of hung-over, paint-covered backpackers looking, quite frankly, really bad. The ferry company gave everyone a sticker with their final destintion on it, and we joked that this was because everyone passed out as soon as they got on board, and the employees need to know who to wake up where. Others still hadn’t gone to bed and weren’t slowing down, as they drank beer after beer from the ferry snack bar. We watched as one paint-covered individual with his pants falling down stumbled on deck with a half-finished bottle of rum in one hand to light a cigarette with the other. Suddenly we realized why the locals in Surat Thani didn’t have much of a problem ripping off westerners, if this was what they usually saw.

Our arrival in Ko Tao was beautiful and smooth after everything we had been through the night before. We were picked up at the dock and brought to our gorgeous beachfront accomodation. There weren’t any hostels on Ko Tao that we could find, but most of the hotels and beachside bungalows were quite cheap, and we were very happy with ours. It was like paradise. Our resort was situated on a bay in the south part of the island. In the morning the sparkling turquoise water was so shallow you could walk nearly to the edge of the bay and still be knee-deep. In the afternoon the tide would come in, turning the whole thing a deep, lovely blue. We took a walk out into the water as soon as we got there. We spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and in the pool. Later we rented a kayak and explored the bay some more. It rained in the evening, so we ate dinner at the restaurant there. It was all so peaceful and wonderful.

The next morning, Tommy went scuba diving while I stayed around the resort. He said there were some spectacular fish, better even then in Sipidan, although the coral was not as good. I spent my time walking along the beach and out in the shallow water, and playing around in the pool with a snorkel mask like a six-year-old (and enjoying every minute of it). When Tommy got back we swam for a while and then walked to Freedom Beach a little ways down the coast. When we got back, we got drinks and played chess by the pool. (It was a rough day, I know.) For dinner we met up with an Israeli physician who Tommy had met while diving and his fiancee. We went to one of the many Italian restaurants near the pier, which turned out to be really good, and had a great time talking with them.

On our last day, we booked a snorkel trip. People we met told us we could snorkel right off the pier and Freedom Beach, but we wanted to do it right. We didn’t regret it. The first site was pretty empty except for small fish and dead-looking coral, but it was the place to see black-tipped reef sharks, and we spotted three. The remaining sites were shallow coral reefs that were positively breathtaking. At Sipidan, we had to hold our breath and dive down to get close looks at the fish and coral–here, it was all right in front of our faces. We risked hitting the coral with our fins or scraping our stomachs. The water was crystal clear and the fish were spectacular. I’ve never seen anything like it. The trip also took us to Ko Nangyuan, a small island off the northwest coast of Ko Tao. It’s very controlled, with a landing fee and restrictions on plastic bottles and aluminum cans, but it has kept the place looking beautiful. There are two islands connected by a narrow strip of sand, cutting through the most gorgeous blue water you have ever seen. We hiked to the top of one to get a good view. Then we rested in the shade, since we were already sunburnt from snorkeling. We got back around 4:30 and played some more chess by the pool. For dinner we sought out a highly recommended and very cheap local place calld Tukta, with fabulous Thai food. The next morning, we were terribly sad to leave Ko Tao. It had been like three days in paradise. One thing is for sure, we’ll be coming back!

Photos from Crocker Range NP, Sabah

Photos from Mt. Kinabalu NP, Sabah

Photos from Ko Tao

Our Malaysian Paradise

June 26th, 2008

Landing at the Kuala Lumpur airport, one of the major cultural differences between Thailand/Cambodia and Malaysia became readily apparent to us. Whereas the Thai and Khmer population is overwhelmingly Buddhist, the majority of Malaysia is Islamic. Though we had certainly grown accustomed to seeing veiled women a few weeks ago, the sharp transition between these two nations made it feel like something new all over again. We had to spend a few hours waiting at the airport in Kuala Lumpur for our flight to Tawau, a small city in the southern part of the state of Sabah, on the island of Borneo. We didn’t really know what to expect coming to Borneo. Though it wasn’t originally on our itinerary, we ended up being spurred to come as a result of Dr. Fred Sheldon’s encouragement. Dr. Sheldon, who is the director of the LSU Museum of Natural Science, invited us to spend some time with him at his field site. I was particularly excited about getting to see a real ornithology camp as well as the prospect of diving off Sipidan Island, widely acclaimed to be the world’s greatest dive spot. So, several weeks ago, we adjusted our itinerary so that we would be able to spend about 10 days on the island of Borneo. We were expecting things to be a bit primitive, but once again, Southeast Asia has surprised us. Either we are becoming quite comfortable with traveling and thus our standards are decreasing, or Asia really is just much more developed than our preconceptions had led us to believe, but we have truly enjoyed our time here and haven’t really felt homesick for “western comforts.”

Once we landed in Tawau, we had to take an hour long taxi ride to Semporna, the coastal village that is the gateway to Sipidan Island. The quality of the roads and the sub-tropical flora and fauna really made us think of Louisiana. We had planned to stay in a hostel operated by a dive operator, but when I made reservations over the phone, I apparently did not understand them when they told me that their hostel was on the island of Mabul (about 3 nautical miles from Sipidan, which is about an hour from the coastal village of Semporna). Long story short, we arrived in Semporna late at night to nothing more than a closed dive shop. We checked into another hostel down the road and planned to figure out everything in the morning. When we arrived at the dive shop the following morning, we ended up opting not to stay at their Mabul Island hostel because they only shuttle people back and forth twice a day, which would interfere with Katie’s planned day trip to Tawau Hills National Park as well as make us miss our next bus ride. So, we decided to go snorkeling that day together and I would go scuba diving the next alone. We ended up being quite happy with our decision; the hostel on Mabul was really ugly and we had heard stories later about large rats cuddling up to sleeping backpackers in the middle of the night. It was also really crowded with local buildings. The overcrowding, and the huge amounts of trash, kind of ruined the otherwise idealistic tropical island. We later learned that a very classy (and private) 5 star resort exists on the opposite side of the island. In another interesting twist, an old oil rig nearby has been repainted and turned into a very fashionable boutique hotel for scuba divers.

Years ago, resorts were permitted on Sipidan island, which is just a few miles from Mabul. They’ve since closed due to “environmental concerns.” Little did I know until I arrived in Sabah though, this island has actually been the center of many recent confrontations. Nearly 4 years ago, Indonesia, which compromises the bottom half of Borneo, effectively “sued” Malaysia for control of the island – – the ICJ ruled in Malaysia’s favor. (Scuba divers must pay a fee to scuba dive the sites around Sipidan. I’m sure Indonesia wouldn’t mind having a chunk of this revenue.) Additionally, a decade ago the entire eastern side of Sabah, which is only 50 miles from the Filipino border, suffered from a number of acts of piracy, Sipidan notwithstanding. Though I made jokes about the Malay soldiers who were mostly playing cards on the small base that has been established on Sipidan, about 10 years ago, a few tourists were kidnapped by Filipino pirates. The nearby town of Lahud Datu was literally raped and pillaged by a pirate gang around the same time. Since tourism is a major industry in Sabah, a stepped up naval presence has all but eliminated any present real danger, but it is interesting how recently the area was a source of conflict. On a much more upbeat note, however, the snorkeling ended up being amazing. We saw countless turtles, all varieties of fish, and just the most stunningly colorful coral at depths of less than 10 feet. The day was a bit overcast, so the colors were probably not as vivid as they could have been, but it still was probably the best snorkeling either of us have ever done.

We got totally soaked on our ride in and during the day. It worked out well, though, because we had just run out of sunscreen so we got spared the brunt of the suns’ rays. At the end of the day, we were dropped off in Semporna by the boat and got a wonderful dinner of pizza and beer from a pub in town. The next day Katie and I parted; I went diving and she caught a bus to Tawau to visit the National Park. Fortunately, it was a beautiful, blue-skied day and it gave me the chance to see the coral in an even more striking light. The one bad side about diving here, at the world’s greatest diving spot is that at 22, is I think in some ways everywhere else I dive may be a disappointment in comparison to Sipidan. We also started to joke that the sea turtles were “getting in our way.” I saw dozens of huge, beautiful turtles as well as hundreds of baracudas and schools of small black tipped sharks. Katie’s day proved to be a bit less successful because much of Tawau Hills was dense forest, with little areas of broad clearance, so though she heard birds quite a bit, actually seeing them was a more difficult in the thick overgrown canopy. We rendezvoused back at the hostel in the afternoon and after a quick dinner of some delicious Malay food, we collapsed asleep around 9:00 PM that evening.

We woke up early the next day so that we could catch a bus to Sandakan, about 300 km away. We were hoping to go out with a tour operator for a few days into the jungle so that we could observe some wildlife. The operator, Uncle Tan’s, had told us originally that we would not be able to arrive from Semporna in time enough to leave for the jungle tour on the same day. Fortuitously, they ended up being wrong so we were able to leave a day early and more importantly, add a day to independant travel plan around the Crocker Range with Dr. Sheldon and Mt. Kinabalu park. Our tour was just about 48 hours. We were taken an hour away by truck to the Kinabatangan River, where we then spent another hour on speedboats to the lodge at which we were staying. It was fairly primitive with no running water or electricity; sleeping under the mosquito netting at night felt much like sleeping at Camp Avondale in the dead of the summer, I must say. The tour itself was a little bit disappointing because we didn’t feel like the staff was all that professional but we still nevertheless saw tremendously more wildlife than we could have otherwise. On a nightboat ride we took, the guide would shine a spotlight at Kingfishers, stunning them I presume like a deer in headlights, and we could pull up the boat and observe them from only a meter or two away. We also went on a few (very muddy) treks through the swampy forest where we saw some neat reptiles and insects, as well as a nightmarishly scary looking scorpion. We also saw several types of monkeys (including one orangutan!), hornbills, and some huge lizards (2-3 meters!). With no running water, we were understandably quite dirty by the end of our stay. But when we arrived in Kota Kinabalu via an overland bus on the third day, we had become so used to being dirty, we felt like we almost could go another week longer more and not even notice the difference. Fortunately, the hostel had very nice showers though! Though we had arrived late at night, the hostel had a contract with a very reasonable car rental company that was able to drop off a very nice Viva shortly before midnight so that we could leave early the next morning.

We took off for the Crocker Range the next day. The weather here has been so chaotic. Our driving cycled twice through basking sunshine and torrential downpours as we drove up the coast on the way to the Crocker Range Substation where we were scheduled to meet up with Drs. Shedlon and Moyle, a former student of Dr. Sheldon’s and now assistant curator of birds at University of Kansas. We ended up getting a bit lost along the way, taking our small compact car over roads we likely shouldn’t have, but after a few hours we finally found the station, almost by accident! The ranger substation was a bit of a surprise for me, even though Katie had warned me that the museum’s expeditions are rarely as rough or romantic as they sound. That certainly seemed to hold true with what I saw! This station was equipped with brand new furniture, gas stoves, electricity, and running water. Perched up on a hill, there was a gorgeous view of Palau Tiga Island (site of the first Survivor series) and the sandy coast. Unfortunately, at an elevation of about 400 m and surrounded by rainforest and mountains, the station got the brunt of the rain for the rest of the day. We spent most of it reading our books and watching Drs. Sheldon and Moyle skin the birds that they had already caught in mist nets (guns are illegal in Malaysia so researchers stick to the nets almost entirely). By late afternoon the rain let up so Katie and I got to hike a bit on the trails that surrounded the shelter. We also saw what was in my opinion, likely one of the most beautiful sunsets of my life.

The following morning we got a small personalized birding tour in the jungle around the station and helped collect birds from the mist nets. After having a small breakfast, we took off in our car for Mount Kinabalu National Park. Along the way, we stopped in a small town Dr. Sheldon recommended to us for lunch. The island is not very densely populated (I still keep thinking about the fact that when flying or driving through India, you always saw human habitation) and the parts that have been are kept quite clean and free of litter. It has reminded me a lot of Hawaii; the previous day we saw spectacular, beautiful beaches and today, driving through the most beautiful, lush green mountains. We arrived in the afternoon to the National Park, but our timing also coincided with the start of the afternoon, montane showers. Eventually the rains subsided and we managed to do about an hour of hiking in the cloudy woods. Governmental tour buses drop off backpackers inside the park by its headquarters. Unfortunately for the independent traveler, hostels beds inside the park cost upwards of $40, a huge sum for Malaysia. We drove our car just a few kilometers down the road and managed to pay only a quarter of the park’s cost. We had been a bit unsure what kind of accommodation or facilities we could have expected with Dr. Sheldon the night before, so we had bought cans of sardines, crackers, and other sundries en route to the Crocker Range. Since Dr. Sheldon’s hired Malaysian help cooked dinner for us the night before, we decided to eat our humble provisions in the hostel.

We rose with dawn the next day so that we could bird early in Kinabalu Park. It is a huge birding destination spot for many well-to-doers around SE Asia; we saw a lot of groups with very pricey binoculars and huge tripod-mounted telephoto lens. By 9:30, the heat was starting to set in, so we decided to leave and go about 40 kilometers to the other side of the mountain and check out the Poring Hot Springs. The hot springs area was quite more developed than we had expected. The “hot springs” consisted of copper faucets positioned over individual bath tubs that one can sit in. A little weary of their cleanliness, I only ended up jumping down a slide into a freezing cold swimming pool. Rain cut our time here a little short once again, but we did manage to go walk across a really spectacular canopy walk, some 200 feet off the ground.

Driving back to Kota Kinabalu in the rain, on winding mountainous roads wasn’t too much fun, but we managed to arrive in one piece. Dr. Sheldon had given us the name of a delicious Pakistani restaurant in town, so we went there that evening. Our flight the next morning was at 7 :00 AM so we went to bed a bit early in preparation for our 24 hr journey to our next adventure, the island of Ko Tao off the eastern coast of Thailand!

Pictures from Semporna

Pictures from Sandakan

Pictures from Crocker and Kinabalu are coming!

The Temples of Angkor

June 22nd, 2008

Cambodia was, overall, a hugely pleasant surprise. When planning the trip, we both agreed we wanted to go to Angkor Wat. Prior to all this travel, my geographic knowledge was pretty lacking; I asked Tommy where it was located. When he said Cambodia, I thought we would have to skip it. I didn’t know much about the country, but it had definitely negative connotations in my mind: poverty and genocide. Not exactly a prime vacation spot. For anyone who has wanted to go to Angkor Wat but has held back for similar reasons, I unhesitatingly recommend going. Even if my mental picture had been correct, Angkor Wat would have been worth the trek–and I’m happy to report that my impressions were pretty far off.

One thing that makes a visit to Cambodia easy for someone from the States is that you won’t have to change any money. The US dollar is pretty much the official currency. Cambodian Riel are basically used as small change instead of US coins. Prices are quoted in Riel, but it is understood that you will pay one dollar for every 4000 Riel. It was really odd to go to an ATM and have it spit out dollars… it’s a currency Tommy and I haven’t really looked at in months.

We got a prepaid taxi from the airport to our centrally-located hostel, which doubles as an Irish Pub. A quick walk around revealed that it was not the only foreign restaurant. Phnom Penh has every niche filled for tourists, including a Spanish tapas bar and a Mexican cantina. The restaurants are clustered along the river, where in the evening you pass lots of tourists sitting outside sipping drinks. We were both really foggy after our extremely short sleep the night before and paused for some breakfast or lunch, whichever it should properly be called at that time of midmorning. We found the food a little expensive. Looking at prices in dollars makes it seem worse, of course, but we would convert them into Baht or Rupees for a quick comparison, and found them still high for what we considered a poor country. Phnom Penh was looking more like a popular, slightly overpriced tourist destination than the foreign and untouched city we expected.

It was not at all evident that, just over thirty years ago, Phnom Penh had been a ghost town. The Khmer Rouge, an oppressive communist regime, took power in Cambodia in 1975. Their exact motivations and philosophy are still a little foggy to Tommy and I, even after several tries to understand it. Tommy brought along a book by Ben Kiernan on the Pol Pot regime and had read through most of it by the time we reached Phnom Penh; still, many of the policies of the Khmer Rouge seem so senseless and cruel that it is hard to divine much logic from them. They believed that the foundation of their new country would be in agriculture, and that the perfect citizens would be the village workers. They forced everyone to evacuate Phnom Penh and other cities, and herded them out into the country in a cruel death march during which many people died. The years that followed were filled with suffering and death for the Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone who had been affiliated with the government or military of the old regime, as well as academics and other professionals. They deplored foreigners and anyone with familial connections to them. Outside of Phnom Penh and other cities, there are killing fields where executions took place, and huge mass graves have been unearthed. Estimates of how many people died vary, but Kiernan believes it was around 1.5 million. Pol Pot’s reign ended in 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded, but Cambodia still languished in destruction and internal conflict until 1993, when they regained their independence.

We visited the killing fields on our first day in Phnom Penh. There is a large stupa in the center that is filled with human skulls to commemorate how many people lost their lives there. As you wander around the area, there are signs to mark the sites of mass graves and terrible killings. It is a sobering thing, like visiting Auschwitz. We went next to the school which had been turned into a prison, Toul Sleng. Many of its rooms were filled with stories photographs of prisoners who had suffered and died within its walls, and more still gave information on the Khmer Rouge and the genocide. It was enlightening but, as the prison’s brochure pointed out, they desperately need money to keep up and improve the museum.

After some time in an internet cafe, Tommy and I were pooped. We decided to eat an early dinner and head to bed. We walked along the river, where all of the restaurants advertised western food and tacked on a few Cambodian dishes to the end of their menus. In the end we opted for the Mexican cantina to try something different, as we’d been eating strictly spicy Indian and Thai food for the last three weeks or so. Afterwards we went to the Foreign Correspondents Club, a rooftop restaurant known for its journalist clientele, for dessert. Then we went to bed and slept for nearly twelve hours to make up for the night before.

The next day, our bus to Siem Reap left at 12:30. It is worth noting that the State Department says on its website that foreigners should “exercise caution” when using intercity buses and recommends flying. However, the bus that we took was luxurious compared with those we rode in India (which I doubt the State Department has listed any qualms about). It was air conditioned, had plush seats, left from an actual bus station at a pre-ordained time, and issued actual tickets with seat numbers. As in India, we pulled over at rest stops, which are built along the same vein as those in the US, but look quite different. This one had a small open restaurant with a thatched roof and lots of people selling snacks. As we got closer to one woman, we realized exactly what she was selling: bugs. Roasted crickets and tarantulas. The man sitting across from us on the bus bought a big bag of crickets and ate them as we drove, munching on their meaty thoraxes and tossing legs and heads on the floor of the bus. Ick.

We arrived in Siem Reap without incident and took a rickshaw to our hostel. It was a nice, cozy place with a pub downstairs. It promoted several projects to help the Cambodians get back on their feet. In fact, everywhere we looked in Siem Reap there was an advertisement for one project or another. In this tourism hub, the effort to recover was blatant and genuine.

The next day we ate breakfast on the hostel’s open veranda, where multiple rickshaw drivers stopped and asked us if we were going to see the temples. For a fairly standard rate, rickshaw drivers are hired for the day and will take you on a typical tourist’s circuit of Angkor. It’s actually a large complex that would require several kilometers of walking to see everything once you are there. We eventually said yes to one of the drivers, and he waited while we got our things.

The first stop on the ride is the ticket booth, situated well before any of the temples. We were very impressed with the operation. They even take digital photos of you and print them on the passes. The tickets aren’t exactly cheap (about $20 if we remember correctly), but we would soon realize that they were well worth the cost. We continued on after obtaining ours. The road curved along a reservoir, across which we could see an ancient stone bridge stretching across to the entry way of the most famous of Angkor’s temples, Angkor Wat. We pulled up across the reservoir from the temple, where we were bombarded with children offering souvenirs and cold water. Trying our best to wave them off, we headed for the bridge.

It was nothing short of magical walking across it towards the wall on the other side. We went through one of the passageways and were suddenly standing in front of a wide green courtyard, with a stone walkway leading straight across it to the massive temple of Angkor Wat. We made the scorching walk to the temple (the day was particularly hot), pausing to see the two small structures on either side of the walkway (the libraries). Rules apparently keep the hawkers and restaurants confined to a small portion of the courtyard hidden by trees, so we were free to explore without bother or interference.

The temple is spectacularly preserved, especially in comparison to the other temples we later saw. A covered walkway runs along its outer edge, protecting walls covered in elaborate murals depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Venturing in, we stepped carefully around one of many Buddhist shrines in the temple, where people were lighting incense and praying. There are more corridors and rooms inside, all lined with beautifully preserved relief sculptures of devatas, or nymphs. The inner courtyard is made of stone and surrounds the tall towers in the center. There are stairs to enter each one, but they are roped off. Behind the temple is a long road leading to a small, crumbling building and another reservoir. We explored it all, enchanted by its size and preservation. It was truly spectacular.

Our driver took us next to the complex of Angkor Thom, where the other temples are located. We stopped at Bayon, and our first glance at it positively took our breath away. Its intermediate state of disrepair has given it a characteristic, elaborately crumbling appearance that is strangely beautiful. The courtyard, rather than being immaculately clean as at Angkor Wat, was filled with fallen stones we had to climb over to reach the temple. Inside was a maze of dark, narrow corridors periodically opening to the light and offering glances of the towers above, which were adorned with giant human faces. Angkor Wat had been a beautiful and intriguing tourist attraction, but this was far more fascinating and fun. There were few other people there, and as we climbed through the ruin, exploring where we wished, we likened it to being in a video game or movie. I half expected to stumble upon a pitfall or spear trap. It had an unmistakably genuine feel that was exciting and wonderful.

We climbed a narrow metal staircase that had been installed over some crumbling stone steps in order to reach the upper part of the temple. Here was a flat roof from which the towers ascended. There were no ropes or guards here; we could climb and investigate where we wished. Many of the little rooms harbored by the towers contained Buddhist shrines. The sky became increasingly dark and stormy, and we thought we had better head on. We briefly visited the Royal Palace next door before the rain began to fall.

It was a substantial downpour, surely meant to remind us of the meaning of “monsoon season.” We took shelter in one of the many tourist restaurants set up nearby, watching as the souvenir shop owners closed up their tents to protect their merchandise, while the occasional rat ran from one to the other to keep dry. We sat and munched on spring rolls while children came up trying to sell souvenirs.

We waited it out because we were really excited about seeing our last temple of the day, Ta Prohm. It is the least well-preserved of the three, and its crumbling walls overtaken by huge trees with their roots dripping over the sides have produced some of the most evocative images of Angkor. (We also understand it is one of the temples used in the Tomb Raider movie, but neither of us have seen it.) If Bayon could be imagined as a treacherous place fraught with danger and challenges, Ta Prohm actually was. The pouring rain had surrounded it with a substantial moat. We had to make it across by balancing precariously on tree roots and loose stones. That brought us to the temple’s outer wall, which is surrounded by piles of rock, all pieces which have crumbled off the temple over time. Ordinarily the route for visitors would be to walk around the temple to the back side entrance, but the entire courtyard was flooded, meaning in order to keep our feet dry we had to clamber over the rocks to reach it. Inside was no less exciting. The crumbling ruin made for an even more dramatic and exciting setting. We had to navigate several more substantial moats and once came upon a small passage so dark we had to briefly illuminate it with our camera flash to make sure it wasn’t a deep puddle or bottomless pit. Comparing Angkor to the other sites we’ve seen, like Petra or the Pyramids, is difficult because it is so dynamic. None of the other “new world wonders” we’ve seen has allowed for so much exploration. And the complex is big–there is much more hat we didn’t see. A proper visit would allot several days for the whole thing. It was a genuinely magical experience wandering through those temples. Definitely a site well worth a visit, even if it does require a plane ride half around the world.

We came back wet with rain and sweat and pretty exhausted. We had dinner at a more upscale Cambodian restaurant called Viroth, and it was really delicious and still very cheap. Our hostel had lots of DVDs available, so we watched a couple of episodes of the British series The Office before we went to sleep.

Air Asia was a good deal more strict when flying out of the small Siem Reap airport than out of Bangkok. Whereas they let about three kilograms slide for us on our way to Phnom Penh, this time the lady checking us in was not going to budge on weight restrictions. Rather than pay $5 for every additional kilogram over 30 total, we ransacked our bags for everything that added significant weight and put it all in our carry ons. Tommy changed out of his shorts into his jeans and belt. Despite the heat, I put on a jacket and hat. We filled our bookbags until they were difficult to zip. We ended up checking in with one bag at 13.75 kg and the other at 16.25 kg. Perfect. There is a superficially enforced 7.5 kg limit for each carry on, but all of the Air Asia employees must know full well that all the passengers violate it. People show up with huge, heavy bags, trying to cram them into the overhead compartments. Our carry-ons weighed far more than 30 kg combined. The important thing was, we got on the plane, and were soon flying towards Borneo.

Photos from Phnom Penh

Photos from Angkor

Video of Bayon

Don’t Bother Us, We’re Sunbathing

June 19th, 2008

We’re currently on the island of Koh Tao, in Thailand. Since we changed some of our plans for the last few weeks of the trip, the map doesn’t match right now. However, our listed itinerary should be right. It’s like paradise here, except the internet is quite pricey! So we’ll be back in touch in a few days.

The Land of Smiles

June 11th, 2008

Arriving in Bangkok from Delhi could not have provided a greater contrast. We were amazed at how stunningly beautiful the Bangkok airport was. Though we wish it hadn’t been the case, we felt as though most people we had interactions with in Delhi were not particularly welcoming. Imagine our excitement when upon landing, we discover that the unofficial slogan of Thailand is “The Land of Smiles.” After a seamless transit through immigration and the baggage check line, we took a taxi to our very fashionable and ultra-modern hostel, Take a Nap. Having not gotten any real sleep in almost 24 hours, we ate breakfast at the hostel and quickly crashed into our beds, whose sheets had been washed to a shade of brilliant white that we had never seen in India. Waking up in the middle of the afternoon, we breathed in a deep breath of centrally air conditioned air with enormous relief. We had made it to Thailand.

One of our favorite restaurants (and one that will cater at our December wedding) is Rama in Baton Rouge. This Thai restaurant, run by an awfully sweet Thai woman, was our first introduction to genuine Thai food. One of the reasons why we were so excited to come to Thailand was to sample the food! In preparation for the trip, I had read that Thai people are fairly meticulous about cleanliness, so we decided to seek out our first Thai meal in the form of some delicious street food. We certainly didn’t have to venture far– dozens of vendors were just down the street from our hostel. We were so excited, and shocked, to see how many vendors had their arms elbow deep in basins, washing used dishes in soapy water! Much of the food we found in Bangkok was like this– served in settings that can better be described as street restaurants than just simply “street food” per se.

We slurped down two huge, hot bowls of soup. Full, but a bit more sweaty after it, we caught a taxi to a Thai inspired Catholic Church for mass. After mass, we video conferenced with our parents and tried to finalize a few more last minute details regarding our upcoming trips to Sabah and Ko Tao. With our sense of time a bit warped from our early night flight and late afternoon nap, we decided to go see the new Indiana Jones at a nearby cinema, since we had not been able to in Delhi.

An interesting twist to our movie viewing experience occurred before the feature film was projected. Everyone in the theater rose and a “music video” of the Thai king doing ordinary, everyday tasks (like he was running for reelection or something) was played to the accompaniment of the national anthem. Afterwards, everyone sat down and the fourth Indiana Jones movie began! While watching the movie, I had the sense that the crew must have had a lot of fun making it; it was a bit sillier than what I was expecting so I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I had hoped. A bit hungry after the movie, we went on a midnight quest to find pad thai, likely one of our most favorite Thai dishes. Though it is likely Thailand’s most well known culinary export, we couldn’t find a restaurant serving it! Evidently, its status in modern Thailand is a bit like America’s hamburger- a bit too “junk food” to find its way into most restaurants. Fortunately, after catching a taxi to our hostel, we found some street vendors serving some, along with huge bottles of beer. Entirely satiated, we slept deeper that night than we had in quite a while.

Everyone had told us about how fabulous shopping in Bangkok was. So, our first activity of the day was to go checkout Siam Square, home to several shopping malls and countless stalls in a market area. We suspect that some dual pricing takes place there because though there were lots of Thais shopping as well, the prices we were quoted were so similar to the costs at home, we opted not to get anything. Many of the fake Polos and Lacostes that I saw were a bit too obvious, so although they were actually well made, it would have been a little embarrassing to wear such an obviously counterfeit name-brand shirt. Better to just shop at Target.

We had lunch at a noodle shop in the square, but unfortunately, Katie’s was so spicy that it made her feel a bit ill for the rest of the day. Weeks ago, I had also heard that Thailand is a great place to get custom tailored suits at a fraction of their cost. I figured that since I will need to upgrade my wardrobe from t-shirts and flip flops to something more dignified for medical school, I decided that I wanted to get several shirts and pants made. I explored several shops in the Sukhumvit area. Some were too expensive, some were too pushy, but I ended up settling on one that had a beautiful store front, a very pleasant staff, and quite reasonable prices. I decided to sleep on it, but had a good idea that I would be returning the following day. Our final activity of the night was a trip to the Suan Lum Night bazaar where all sorts of fun trinkets and things can be bought.

The next morning, we decided over breakfast to go ahead with the tailor. $25 a shirt and $40 per pants is hard to come by in the States. Here, I had full control over detail and it would fit perfectly- color, texture, collar shape, if I wanted French or barrel cuffs, chest pockets, you name it! It was wonderfully fun getting to pick everything. I decided to have a special suit made for the wedding. Considering I scoured Baton Rouge for a suit for under $250 a few years ago, I considered the $220 suit I got made from Italian Merino Wool to be quite the steal. Fortunately, they will also hold my measurements for the next 10 years, so just in case I can not come back to Bangkok anytime in the next decade, I can request to have fabric swatches sent and then “my tailor” can make it and send it via DHL within the week.

We had also hoped to obtain a wedding dress for Katie as well while we were in Bangkok. Based on a few pictures we had seen, plus a few ideas of our own, we went to go see one particular dressmaker on the opposite side of town that had been particularly well recommended to us by a friend of Mrs. Faust’s that travels abroad, and to Bangkok specifically, quite often. Unfortunately, the amount she wanted for it was almost double the US retail price so we decided that it made better fiscal sense to just wait till we returned home. Not to mention that she’ll actually get to see herself in it at home, whereas in Bangkok we were a bit limited to imagination and sketches. We had heard that “backpacker central” was this pedestrian street in Bangkok called Khao San Road. Our hostel actually wasn’t located there; it is more in the CBD. We nearly laughed when we got there, though. It looks almost like Bourbon street. It was just filled with Americans sitting at bars promoting cheesy happy hour specials or shopping at “trendy” t-shirt shops. We couldn’t tell if it was really cool, or just lame, but we left with the impression that we basically weren’t missing all that much.

We each needed to make some calls to Boston so after a pleasant beer and pad thai dinner, we ducked into an internet cafe for some time. The previous day, we had actually arrived too late to really appreciate the night bazaar– many stalls were closed or closing when we finally got there. So, from Khao San Road we caught a taxi back there. What has been interesting in Bangkok has been how closely integrated the taxis are to what one could consider “traditional” public transportation. Because we often need to transfer from the subway to the monorail to go to those areas that interest us most, it has usually been cheaper to simply take a taxi. We have felt like we’re in a Seinfeld episode- we have had lots of conversations in the back of a taxi! We got dinner at the market, bought a few things, but decided to just think about a few other ones before we bought anything else.

Bangkok doesn’t have too many sights you normally would think of as being “touristy.” It’s mostly a place you come to eat, play, and shop I think. Well, on our fourth day here, we felt as though we had to go see some kind of cultural site so we decided to go see a few temples and the Grand Palace. Thailand has had a king for the last several hundred years. The one now, Rama IX, has mostly a figurehead role, but it is amazing how much the Thai people adore him. His portrait is everywhere. (Interestingly, he is technically an American citizen; he was born in Mount Auburn Hospital in Boston because his father, who was not Rama VIII, was at the time finishing up his final year of medical school at Harvard.) Unfortunately we were not able to see either the Wat Po temple or the palace because we had taken a bit too long that morning and but were nearing their mid-afternoon closing time.

Since, I was scheduled to see the tailor at 5:30, we took off first to Bangkok’s Chinatown in search of a restaurant that I had read about in a New York Times travel article. Though we ended up sampling lots of snacks along the way, we weren’t able to find the specific restaurant. The hour was getting late so we returned to the tailor. It was so exciting putting on one of my newly tailored shirts. We checked out how flexibly I could move in it, tucked in a few baggy parts and gave my suit jacket a try. It was nothing more than a vest full of white threads at this stage, but I could tell that it was going to fit beautifully– it was tapered in a very flattering way on my torso, but at the same time, not at all restrictive or uncomfortable. I know now that I’m going to have to stay in shape during med school! After we were done at the tailor, we were fortunate enough to find a nearby internet cafe where we solved our restaurant riddle. The place we ate at was wonderful, as NPR and NYT told us it would be. I can also add that though it was better than Rama’s in Baton Rouge, it wasn’t by much. They really know how to cook! We ordered mee krob, a sweet fried noodle dish, a sauteed eggplant dish, a whole fried fish, and tom yum soup. Full and happy, we decided to spend our third night at the night bazaar one last time where I was able to buy cheaply a few very nice silk ties as well as get a few other things for our future home.

We got up early on our final day to ensure that we could visit the Grand Palace. It’s name certainly didn’t disappoint. Part of the extensive self-tour you can take is visiting the temples that are part of the palace. Never before had we ever seen such elaborate and painstaking work on a building. Millions of small glass tiles, all laid by hand, covered the temples. I was hoping we could visit the king’s mansion, but it wasn’t part of the tour unfortunately. Another part of the palace was closed for a lying-in-state ceremony. Despite the closed parts, we still believe that this was one of the most impressive palaces that we’ve seen on the trip; I’d put it second only to the Hapsburg in Vienna or maybe the sultan’s Haram in Istanbul. On the way to Wat Po, we got some bubble tea and a few snacks to hold us over through lunch. Wat Po was quite impressive; it contains the world’s largest reclining Budda, and gilded in gold at that!

On the way to pick up my shirts and suit, we stopped by Siam Square one last time to make sure that we weren’t forgetting anything that we had intended to buy. Unable to find anything, we just went over to the tailor. It felt great to put on my suit. It fits wonderfully and my name is even embroidered on the inside breast pocket. The shirts all came out well, too. It was a bit risky because it was difficult to predict how a shirt color would look on by only putting fabric up to one’s body, but they all turned out to be great. We had intended to go to bed early that night so that we could get some rest before our 07:00 flight, but between using the internet, eating dinner, and packing, we only managed to get little more than a “nap” before our alarm clock woke us up at 03:30.

I had intended to carefully pack my suit and take it along with me till we got back in July. Well, when checking into our flight for Phnom Penh, we discovered that we were nearly 9 kilograms (almost 20 lbs) over the tiny budget airline weight limit! At the rate they would charge us for oversize luggage over the next few flights, we could just mail the suit home. Fortunately, a post office was open at the airport and we were able to mail it with insurance back home. After repacking our bags a bit more, we returned to the counter only to find we were still 3 kilograms over the 15 kilogram limit! But right when Katie and I began visibly stressing about if we should pay for the surcharge with a credit card or cash, the airline employee, who by now was beginning to blush a bright shade of red, gave us our boarding passes and activated the conveyor belt. We smiled back, thanked her as discreetly as we could and headed off to passport control. Shortly after a delicious light breakfast of gourmet chocolate muffins and coffee, we took off for Cambodia!

Photos from Bangkok 

Wild India

June 8th, 2008

India and I just ended our two-week relationship. It was not an amicable parting. I think we just need some time apart.

Tommy probably described India better than I ever could. I think he captured the contradictions well. Now it is my unfortunate task to describe the frustrations. For while we encountered many of India’s backwards ways during our first week there, it was in our second week that they actually began to affect us in a way we could not ignore.

I should mention also, one person’s experience is not going to be the same as another’s, especially coming from different backgrounds. We would hate to offend anyone from India with our description of our time in the country. We have lots of Indian friends who have told us great things about their homeland, and we were looking forward to experiencing this ourselves. The fact that we were left a little disappointed may have stemmed from the fact that we were obviously tourists. The stares we received, the many times we were heckled or overcharged, and the misunderstandings caused by the language barrier would of course not be problems encountered by someone who is Indian themselves. We are not trying to be overly critical, only honest. If anyone feels we have misrepresented India, then perhaps we were simply unlucky. But we think we have traveled to enough places that could be considered “rough” to not overreact about little inconveniences. What we experienced in India was unlike anything we had been through before.

It began when we tried to leave Agra. Most tourists apparently do Agra as a day trip from Delhi, and there is a quick, clean, and expensive express train that will bring them there in the morning and return them in the evening. That may be why we saw so few foreigners at the Taj Mahal; we went in the evening when they were probably all heading to the railway station already. Anyone who does not take this tourist train is at the mercy of the highly complicated Indian Railway system.

Tommy’s friend Michael, who we met in Varanasi, was nearing the end of his time in India, so he gave us his copy of the rail timetable book. You would be hard-pressed to find a more complicated volume. Trying to determine how we would reach Amritsar had almost been a task beyond our abilities. Getting to Corbett National Park, our new destination, was a little easier. There is an express train from Delhi to Ramnagar, the gateway town to the park. So all we had to do was get to Delhi in time to make this train.

Since the railway book was so complicated, the train station so far away, and the internet so accessible, we decided to book our tickets online. This was our first mistake. There must be a disclaimer somewhere which states that online reservations are not actually guaranteed reservations, but if there is, we didn’t find one. After booking tickets to and from Ramnagar, we saw that they had a big “WL” on them. This, we found, indicated that we were “waitlisted.”

We went to the train station to try to determine exactly what this meant, but had a little trouble. There were lots of helpful people, actually, but the problem came again with that word “why.” It was all that was left to ask when we finally clarified that, although we had paid with a credit card online, we did not actually have seats yet. That, and how we were going to get seats.

Everyone directed us to a single window at the reservation counter, behind which was a stern man who seemed completely disinterested in helping us at all. Next to us, we heard two tourists in similar straights arguing with another railway worker. At least we weren’t the only ones who were confused. We saw a well-dressed man coming out of an office, and begged for his help. He checked something on a computer and informed us that one of us had a seat but the other didn’t yet. He seemed optimistic that we would both get on the train.

We suspect now, looking back, that no one who books online actually gets a ticket, and that the day of the train these large “charts” are drawn up with all the passengers. We think they fill in the online reservations on this chart until they run out of room, and then everyone else has to apply for a refund somehow. It seems strange, but the India Rail website is also the only site I have ever seen which closes–you can’t make bookings between 11:30 pm and 5:30 am. Everyone kept telling us not to worry, and that we would get our money back. We couldn’t seem to explain to them that we were only in India for a few days, and couldn’t wait around at a train station for most of them.

Then there was the matter of getting to Delhi. Trains can run chronically late in India. The reason for this, and the very complicated timetable book, is that one train will run for days, meaning that every delay on day 1 accumulates until, by day 3, the schedule is several hours off. It was for this reason that we knew we had better leave a good three or four hours of buffer time in order to make our train to Ramnagar, just in case. But none of this mattered. Every train, every class, for the entire day, was booked. This is one thing we can’t blame on India– we should have gotten tickets much earlier. But until we knew whether or not we had tickets to Ramnagar, it seemed silly to buy tickets to Delhi.

We hurried back to the hostel to ask their advice, and they were very helpful in getting us to the bus station to catch a 12:00 air-conditioned bus to Delhi. The bus station employees assured us it was coming. We waited. At 12:30 they said it would be a half hour late. Then they said an hour. At 1:30, we asked again and were told that it was cancelled. So was the 2:00 bus, but they assured us that a 4:00 bus would arrive.

Luckily, there is also a “regular” bus for non-tourists to Delhi which leaves very frequently. It was old, a bit dirty, and not air-conditioned, but it was just fine to us. We hopped on and were moving within a half an hour. Five hours after that, we were in Delhi, 120 miles away from Agra. We had enough time to check our bags at the train station and take the subway a couple of stops away to get some dinner. When we boarded our train to Ramnagar, we were really thankful we had gotten the air-conditioned class this time. It was so much cleaner, so much cooler, and they even provided sheets and pillows.

We arrived in Ramnagar feeling pretty well-rested. After a couple of cups of masala chai from a stand at the station (the tea in India is just always delicious), we took a rickshaw to the Corbett NP reception center in town.

“The only train into town, the Corbett Express, arrives at 5 am,” Tommy said. “Knowing India, what time do you think the Corbett reception center opens?”

“10 am?” I guessed. I was wrong–8:30. And we found a long line of people already there waiting, all Indian. Someone informed us that they were waiting for day passes, which are issued beginning at 6 am, and that overnight passes would be issued starting at 8:30. When the doors opened at 6, we snuck in after the initial onrush of people and procured a price list. It outlined not only permit costs, but also accommodation and some activities. We knew we needed a driver to get there and for safaris, and we knew a guide was required as well. But no one at the reception center seemed interested in helping us to understand how to procure either. We decided to get some breakfast, buy our permits, and then hopefully hire a driver near the reception center and a guide at the park.

We walked down the street with our bags and into the first restaurant we saw, a place called Govind. Over our pancake and porridge, the owner provided us with two books filled with comments from tourists who had booked safaris with him. Thankful for someone actually offering safaris, we talked with him about prices. He explained how it worked–everything was standardized by the park except for driver costs. Just to check, we returned to the reception center. We found one other person offering to hire a driver, for slightly less, but we felt much more comfortable with Govind. And we met two other travelers from the Netherlands who also wanted to do three days in the park. Together we booked a driver with Govind. By midday we were heading to Corbett.

The park is pretty spectacular. It’s made up of about 200 square miles, and boasts an impressive list of birds and other animal species. Of biggest interest to most tourists are the tigers, and Corbett is doing good things to take care of theirs. While tiger numbers are dropping in most of India, in Corbett the number of tigers has actually increased in the last few years. Some say it’s the highest density of tigers in India. Even considering this, most people are lucky to see one on their visit, but we were hoping.

Corbett has a lot of rules and regulations, but this probably adds to its success. Only a small fraction of the park is open to visitors, and this fraction is divided into three separate zones. Two are open to day visitors, but the largest, the Dhikala zone, is only available to overnight visitors. Even within it, visitors must stay within the Dhikala campsite, which is surrounded by electric fence, except when on safari with an official guide. Safaris are only allowed in the morning and evening; between 11 am and 3 pm, everyone stays at the camp.

We met our driver, Imran, at the park gate. He was really nice, and very knowledgeable. Even thought it was 1 pm, we had to drive to Dhikala, and Imran saw this as an opportunity for an impromptu safari. We saw baboons and black-faced monkeys, and three of the four species of deer found in the park: Spotted Deer, Sambar Deer, and Barking Deer. We also saw lots of birds, including a Crested Serpent Eagle and two Brown Fish Owls. Imran knew all of the English names of the birds, which was really impressive. Our safari guide in Africa couldn’t tell us much more except that male antelope were the ones with horns. The park is really lovely. We followed a river to the campsite, which was pretty dried up. It’s the beginning of monsoon season, so in a few weeks the park will be closed and heavy rains will begin to fill the river for next season’s visitors. The forest looked more temperate than we expected from the Jungle Book-inspired descriptions we had read, but it was beautiful.

We reached Dhikala some time later. It’s like a little compound which includes park offices, a buffet restaurant and a canteen, and several grades of accomodation from fancy bungalows to the log cabin dorm. We were staying in the latter, of course. It was pretty basic, just several bunks with rubber matresses. They gave us each one sheet and a pillow at night. There was nothing to keep mosquitos out, but Tommy and I bought a mosquito coil that seemed to do the trick. There were enough other bugs to keep us from recommending the cabin to subsequent visitors, but it was an okay place to sleep for the two nights we were there. Bathrooms were in separate buildings, and there were no working showers, so we were only able to do a quick rinse that night. The whole place looked like it had been really nice when it was first built, and had fallen into a bit of disrepair.

We got some stuffed parantha (flatbread) for lunch at the canteen, which was thankfully very reasonably priced. Then it was time for our afternoon safari. We were joined by an official guide who would stay with us for all our safaris. He too was very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the park. They took us on a road that went through the jungle along the river. We saw lots of birds, and the fourth species of deer in the park, Hog Deer. Along the road there were thick stands of wild marijuana plants. We heard an elephant crashing through the brush on the hill above us, and soon a small herd walked across the road. The Indian elephants look a little different from African elephants (you can famously tell by their ear shape–the African elephants have ears shaped like Africa, the Indian elephants have ears shaped like India). We thought the Indian elephants looked like they had perpetual smiles on their faces.

Another safari group came up the road and reported that they had just seen a tiger cross the road and head into the jungle. Our guide diverted us back to the main road in hopes that the tiger would cross on its way from the river. We waited there a while but didn’t see it, so we continued. We drove now into some high grass plains which flood during the wet season. There were more deer, elephants, and birds. As evening fell, the plains filled with Green Bee-Eaters catching bugs–I’ve never seen so many at once.

At night they show a wildlife video on an old film projector in an open building at the back of the camp. It was about tigers, and was in English. We watched most of it before getting dinner at the canteen and getting to sleep.

The next morning, our safari began at 5:30 am. We went along the same road, still spotting new species of birds at every turn. When stopped to see the sun rise over the river, our guide spotted a tiger moving in the grass. We all watched with bated breath as it emerged from the brush and swam across the river. It was quite far away, but even without binoculars it was a sight to behold. Unfortunately we were not the only safari vehicle on the road, and others beat us to where the tiger climbed up the bank and crossed the road right in front of them. We saw his tail disappear into the brush. We went up to the main road to try to intersect him again, but to no avail. However, we were all quite happy with what we had seen. We also went down to the river and saw the two species of crocodile in the park, Freshwater Crocodiles (huge!) and Gharials, which have very narrow snouts.

We went on a midmorning safari and an evening safari, but neither yielded much. We did see some tiger and bear scratches on trees, and we found a large porcupine quill on the road which Tommy and I kept. In between we ate lunch and set up our travel hammock between two trees for an afternoon nap. We’ve been carrying it with us for nearly five months and haven’t used it once, but it was worth it. The evening movie was in Hindi, so we got to bed even earlier.

On our last morning, we got to go on an elephant ride safari. It was something we had particularly been looking forward to, but when we arrived at the park we found out it’s actually hard to get one. There are only four elephants which can carry four people each, and Indian visitors receive priority. But we suspect Imran helped us, and we were able to do a safari. The elephant wears a saddle with a big cushion, and we climbed on with the help of a special concrete “elephant mount” with stairs. His lumbering gait made us sway back and forth, making it hard to take pictures or look through the binoculars while he was moving, but we were able to get closer to the animals than we would have in a car. Our guide spotted tiger tracks in the mud, and we followed them to where a monkey far above in the trees was making an alarm call. The guide was convinced the tiger was nearby, but combing the area produced nothing, so we headed on. It was okay, though–one tiger was all we had hoped to see!

After that, we returned to Ramnagar. Tommy and I wanted to catch a bus to Nainital, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas. Everyone seemed to agree that the bus was at 1:30, but nobody seemed able to agree where. Most people indicated spots along the main road, so we sat down to wait. Then a helpful fellow came along and told us it would come to the bus station, and insisted we should follow him. When we got there, while some people said it would arrive in a few minutes, most agreed that it stopped on the main road and not at the station. We went back in time to see it pulling up, thankfully marked in English. It was an old bus, with no air conditioning and an engine humming away beneath a metal cover next to the driver. We got to see it ourselves when the bus stalled about two hours later. A little tinkering and fluid exchange, however, and we were running again. We climbed higher and higher into the hills, with some lovely views of lakes and mountainsides.

Nainital was even more charming than we expected. Dubbed the “Switzerland of India,” it has a much more temperate climate and lots of European-style houses dotting the hills around a picturesque lake. It reminded Tommy and I more of Gatlinburg back in the States, however, with attractions like horseback riding and small theme parks and the endless rows of souvenir shops lining the lake selling mountain products like honey, candles, and wood carvings. We checked into our somewhat questionable hostel and went for an evening walk along the lake. We went in a small restaurant with lots of locals dining and had one of the best Indian meals of the trip so far. It was really delicious.

The next day, we didn’t have much time. We thought boating out on the lake would be nice, as we had seen many rowboats and swan-shaped paddle boats out the day before. Tommy was pushing for the more dignified rowboat, but they came with an Indian rower and a much higher price attached, so we opted for a white swan boat, to my delight and his disappointment. Sure, paddling along wasn’t too fast or efficient, but we were able to enjoy the lovely views and the peace the lake afforded, Indian families in passing boats taking photos of us aside. That is actually something we have forgotten to mention. Here in India, and nowhere else we have been on this trip, people want to take photos with you. We have had people beg to take pictures with us, and when we acquiesce, they will shoot off half a roll of film to get different combinations of them and their friends of family in the photos.

From the lake, we spotted the Swiss-made cablecar going up the hill. When we got back to the bank, we followed it to its origin and ticket booth. Because the cars can only fit six people each, there was a two-hour wait to go up, longer than we could afford. The top was called “Snow View,” and both of us loved the idea of seeing the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. So we took a taxi up the hill for the same price. We were more than a little disappointed when Snow View turned out to be nothing but a circle of touristy restaurants with hawkers aplenty and a view of more tree-covered hills as far as the eye could see. Perhaps there is snow in the winter there.

After that we had to pick up our bags and get to the bus station. Prior to renting our swan boat, we had spent some time asking around about what time buses ran to Ramnagar. The man at our hostel thought they ran at 11:30 and 1:30. To double check, we asked at another hotel, where we were told noon and 5:00. Subsequent inquiries yielded answers of 1, 2, 3, and 4 o’clock, as well as a couple of people who assured us there was no bus to Ramnagar at all. Everyone seemed to agree that there were very frequent buses to another town located halfway, from where we could catch a bus to Ramnagar. So we decided we had best just head to the station when we were ready and hope for the best.

We’re used to this by now, but by “station” we don’t mean a building–it’s more of an area where the busses happen to congregate. Our taxi driver helped point out one to Ramnagar, which was leaving at 3:00. We got a quick lunch and some masala chai at a nearby restaurant and then got on. It was much quicker going downhill. We were stopped just outside of Ramnagar at a bridge where construction was going on. Someone informed us that it could be “one hour, maybe two, maybe more” before we would be able to cross. So we hiked the last bit with a friendly Indian couple who showed us the way.

Still nervous about our waitlisted train tickets, we went first to the railway station. They told us we were waitlisted 2 and 3, but that we did not have train tickets yet. We saw them drawing up the large, complicated “charts” behind us, which list the different passengers on the train. We kept asking whether they thought we would get a seat, but they didn’t seem to understand the question.

We returned to Govind very nervous. We had to get to Delhi. We knew there was a bus which could be our backup, but we weren’t too keen on spending the night in a cramped, non-A/C bus. The owner of the restaurant said sometimes there are train tickets that can be purchased for a little extra baksheesh (about 50% more). He took Tommy back to the station on his scooter to check, but even those tickets were gone. It was the bus or a very long walk. We got some samosas and snacks and headed straight to the bus station. It was a long night. We both managed to catch a little sleep.

When we arrived in Delhi, the door of the bus was filled with eager rickshaw drivers. They ignored the Indians getting off the bus and followed us, each trying to get us to ride with them. We always try to avoid over-eager drivers, who are apt to overcharge, so we kept telling them no and walked over to a man who was just sitting in his car. When we got in, one of the more forceful rickshaw drivers got angry and began arguing with the man. We couldn’t understand it, but he seemed to gesture back at us and say, “They chose me.” The other driver became even more angry and attacked our driver. Some of the other drivers actually tried to pull our bags out of the rickshaw. It was one of our scarier travel moments. Our driver got out and disappeared, and then all the other drivers began gesturing at the rickshaw’s wheels and telling us it was broken. We had heard this ploy before, when people say a train is canceled so you will take their tour bus, or a sight is closed so they can take you to another. We didn’t believe it. But our driver was gone so we got out. We walked far down the road, far enough that we lost the bulk of the crowd. Suddenly our chosen driver pulled up and gestured for us to get in. We hopped in and began speeding away, thankful to be escaping. It was 4:30 am after a sleepless night and we were exhausted.

But then, after only a few feet, the driver stops, gets out, and begins fixing his wheels! He got angry when we got out to catch another rickshaw, but he seemed to be making substantial repairs (or worse rigging the meter), and we didn’t want to wait. Just when we selected another rickshaw, a police car pulls up, preventing us from driving away. Suddenly all the other drivers are there, talking and pointing, at us, at the other driver, at the rickshaw we are in. We are completely bewildered. We tell the police, we are tired, can we leave? We’re still not sure to this day exactly what went on and why the police were involved. But when they let us go, our rickshaw driver proceeded to take us on an unrequested tour of Delhi to run up the meter. We might not have realized except he made the mistake of passing certain landmarks twice. By the time we finally arrived at our hostel, we were so exhausted and angry we could barely function. We were, however, cognizant enough to refuse him the additional night surcharge; he had driven us around so long it was already morning. The fare would have been the same had he not driven around in circles so we felt that our justice was fair. It was wonderful to go to sleep.

We slept until well into the afternoon. After a quick breakfast, we went into one of the many “saloons” in the area so Tommy could get a much-needed haircut. He decided to also get a professional shave. It was really nice, and very cheap–only 50 rupees, slightly more than a dollar. We thought for once we were getting a good, honest deal. But the hairdresser decided to throw in a 500-rupee “facial.” We were able to argue him down to 300.

Disgruntled, we headed to the subway, where we were charged 13 rupees each for tokens by the worker there, only to insert them into the machine and find out they were worth 8, and he had pocketed the extra change. We took the subway to Connaught Place, one of the major centers in Delhi for shopping and eating. We found a cinema and thought we might go see the new Indiana Jones movie, but they did not allow cameras inside, and there was nowhere to check a bag, so we could not go in. We visited a recommended bookstore and ordered a couple of drinks in the cafe, but after waiting 20 minutes we were told that they could not make our drinks, but we would have to order something of equal value because they had “already made the bill.” We had to argue a while before we could get our money back and leave. As Tommy mentioned, inquiring “why” doesn’t do much good in these situations. Even though this part of Delhi was probably one of the nicest in town, we still passed enough people urinating openly in the street to convince us that it was time to leave India. We got some dinner and hurried back to the hostel.

The next day we wanted to check out some of the markets in town. We went to the State Emporium, where prices are regulated by the government, but everything was very expensive. So we went to Chandi Chowk, a market area in the older part of town. There we were able to find masala for both tea and cooking to bring home with us. Our two favorite things about India were definitely the tea and the food!

When we headed to the airport that night, we both felt relieved to be leaving the confusion that was India. However, it wasn’t over. The Delhi airport was like two weeks in India summed up in one crowded, inefficiently-run building. First we panicked when our flight was not on the electronic board. All we had was a paper ticket we had booked months ago with India Air, and we were terrified that they had canceled it. We waited in line to check in and check on this, but were turned away to have our bags security screened first. Tommy waited in the immense line to have this done while I ran frantically to and from the help desk, trying to make sure we still had a flight. They would point me in one direction and then another. Finally I gave our tickets to someone who seemed to know what he was doing. He typed some things in a computer, disappeared for a while to check, and then directed me correctly to the check-in desk (across the terminal from the other India Air desks, incidentally). Tommy met me there. There were only three groups ahead of us, but it took an hour for us to get to the front and check in. India Air is one of only two airlines we have used on this trip which required us to have paper tickets with us that had been mailed to the travel agent back home. We think the man at the desk re-typed every single thing on the tickets into the computer.

Once we were finally finished checking in, there was immigration: a long, curving line that snaked through two forests of turnstiles and then doubled back on itself three times before it ended. We forlornly fell in step at the end.

We made it through immigration about 25 minutes before our flight was supposed to depart, and it was still on time according to the boards. Security was surprisingly quick. We made it on board, only to wait on the tarmac for about an hour and forty minutes before finally taking off. We suspect at least some of the waiting was for the remaining passengers–we were at the front of the check-in line, so no doubt others behind us were even later than we were stepping on the plane. It was with no small amount of relief that we took off for Bangkok.

Photos from Corbett National Park

Photos from Delhi

Video of a Rickshaw Ride in Varanasi