Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Homesick List

Recently I've been homesick, and dreaming of things from back home.  So to the future me (who might be sick of being at home), and anyone else who may be wishing that they were traveling around the world, here's a list of things about home that I'm thankful for:

Clean water.  This has especially been brought into focus by our bought of amoebic dystentery.  Everywhere we've been with the exception of Japan has had undrinkable water.  We used to take it for granted that we can drink from the tap.  In many many places, water is either untreated or unavailable, and forecasts predict it will become less available as time goes on.

Having the basic necessities covered.  While we have enough money (though many others don't), to always be able to find a guesthouse or a (hopefully but not always) clean source of food, it's a real pain to spend an hour going around looking for one while carrying around a huge pack.  Plus, once we find one, it's usually kinda dirty.  There's a lot to be said for clean and comfortable surroundings that include reliable hot showers.

Being able to make my own food.  OK, I'm especially picky about what I eat.  But that said, I like being able to control how clean my food is, how much oil goes into it, whether or not the grains are brown, etc.  I like being able to make my own tea when I'm sick.  I like being able to eat raw vegetables and unpeeled fruit.  I like having cuisine made by someone who's actually eaten it before and not just copied it off the internet.  It makes a difference.

Having a washing machine.  It's really annoying having to give all your clothes to a stranger and hoping they give them back un-ruined the next day.  Plus, half the time they come back with little marks on them, like some yarn tied to the hem or a black mark on the tag.  Cutting all those off annoys me, and what if I need to read that tag in the future?

Being able to walk into a store and ask for help.  Back home, I already know where the hardware store is.  I know where I can find some yarn and knitting needles.  I don't have to wander all around town consulting maps and locals about where to go and how much it should cost to get there.  I don't have to avoid mud, trash fires, rogue trucks, and touts along the way.  And once I get there, if I need help, I can ask someone in plain English.  I can read the labels and ingredients.  I can read the instructions on things after I buy them.

Flannel pajamas and slippers.  They're very comfortable, and I don't have them with me.

Soft sheets and most definitely clean blankets.

Almost any kind of quality food from anywhere.  OK, American stores are like mega-churches to consumerism.  They're really really huge.  I don't think there's anything in town here as big as a typical Big Bear, let alone a Home Depot.   You can find anything you want in them.  Bizarre-o health supplements?  Check.  Thai spices?  Check.  Hundreds of kinds of cereal?  Check.  25 varieties of soy milk?  Check.  Non-toxic body lotion?  OK, you have to look around a bit, but it's there.  This is truly unheard in most parts of the world.  When I was in middle school, one of my teachers told me a story about some women they brought over from Russia after the Soviet Union fell.  When they first saw an American grocery store, they fell to their knees and cried.  I understand this story now.  It must have seemed like a dream compared to what they knew.

People who know how to do stuff, and can tell me about it in English.  It was really hard learning to knit from a book in Japan.  In the US, they have these knowledgeable ladies at the yarn store who can help you.  They have those in Japan too, but they don't speak English and can't read my pattern.

Central heating.

Family and Friends (including Bela).

Internet at my command.

My own plants.
Walking down clean streets and through nice parks.

Knowing what to do with my recycling.  Sometimes it's harder than it should be to figure out.  Sometimes it just doesn't exist.  And we have to keep buying plastic bottles of water.

Knowing exactly how to navigate the culture.  I know how to tip in the U.S.  I know what's considered rude.  I know when someone's being appropriate or not so and how to respond.

Being able to throw toliet paper in the toliet and not the trash.  Also, I like having soap and sink to wash my hands in.

Not having to bargain for everything.  It's seriously annoying sometimes.  I don't really know how much things should cost.  Plus, it's this whole drama.  I have to pretend I'm not interested, or else they'll jack the price up.  I'm not a good actor. 

Not being openly stared at.

Clean air, relatively free from pollution and honking.

Sidewalks.  Really, they're really nice.  And pedestrians have the right of way, cows not included.

No stray dogs.  Often they're friendly, but sometimes they're dangerous.  And also very dirty.

Having a variety of clothing to choose from.  Although sometimes this is stressful, since I get racked with indecision. 

Celebrating U.S. holidays.  I wanted to dress up for Halloween, but it would have been pretty weird since I'd be the only one.  I'm also a big fan of Thanksgiving.

That's all I can think of now.  I'll probably add more later (in the comments or something.)  If you would like to do the same, please feel free.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Got Worms

Actually, they're not worms.  They're amoebas.  But we do have parasites.

For about a month now, we've been having off and on Delhi-belly.  We thought we just kept catching different bugs everywhere we went, but it turns out that the bugs have been traveling with us.  (Actually, we did catch another bug also, but it was just a run-of-the-mill bacteria.)  I could catalog our symptoms, but you might be eating.  It was in our stomachs and it made us miserable.  Use your imagination.

It's been particularly bad for the last week, so we finally went to the doctor.  After a consult and a stool sample given in a comically small cup, we were diagnosed with amoebic dysentery.  Christin also has a bacterial infection, but that's par for the course.  We got a 5-day course of meds to take care of the acute amoebas and a 10-day course to take before we leave the country to eliminate them completely.

Once again, the grand total for all this medicine, doctorly expertise, and peace of mind was about 300 rupees or $6.50.  For both of us. 

K&C's Patented Travel Wisdom:  If you're in a tropical country and you get a weird disease, especially malaria, don't go home.  Doctors in India, Thailand, etc. know how to treat these diseases, in many cases better than doctors back home who never see them.  And it's also way cheaper.

So don't worry moms and dad.  Amoebic dysentery isn't as scary as it sounds.  We've got medicine and we'll be better before you know it.

Monday, November 1, 2010

It Ain’t All Sunsets and Touching Moments With Poor Kids

This blog was actually written on October 19th, 2010 but we’re only uploading it now to keep our blog posts in chronological order.  The previous posts were delayed due to Chinese censorship. For more info, see The Great Firewall.

It doesn’t look that far on a map—and really it isn’t—but it took us 76 hours to get from Kathmandu to Delhi.  Here’s how it went:

We got to the bus station in Kathmandu just before 8am on October 16th.  We wanted to go to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha, because we didn’t want to get stuck spending the night in some crappy border town or railway junction.  We found the bus very easily with the help of some Bluto looking guy (as in Popeye’s arch nemesis).  I was slightly suspicious of him, which unfortunately you have to be of almost everyone who helps you when you’re traveling.  It also didn’t help when one of the other bus station touts yelled to me “That bus not going to Lumbini!” as I was getting on.  But everything has to be taken with a grain of salt.  That guy probably just wanted me to get on his bus.

The bus ride went OK, but as we should have expected it took a lot longer than advertised, so we didn’t reach our destination until after 4pm, too late to leisurely bike around Lumbini.  And, as we also should have expected, our destination wasn’t Lumbini.  It was Bhairawa, the crappy border town we were trying to avoid.  Bluto was trying to quickly and confusingly usher us onto another bus when he pulled Christin’s pack out and it was soaked in water and mud.  Keep in mind too that her pack contains about half of everything we have with us (but thankfully not the laptop, which we just happened to luckily store in the drier half of the storage compartment), so that’s pretty significant.  She was extremely upset and yelling at him and he was being a general dick about it.  Then he just hopped back on his bus and rode away smiling.

Christin was also unhappy with me because I under reacted to the whole thing (as I usually do) so we got in a fight and decided not to get on the bus to Lumbini.  The whole time we were fighting a group of Nepali guys gathered around and stared at us.  You get used to being stared at when you’re the only white guy in town (or especially when you're the only blond girl), but sometimes you’re just not in the f-ing mood.

Trash along the side of the road, very common all throughout this part of the world
For some reason that baffles me now I thought it would be a good idea to just go five kilometers down the road and find a guest house right next to the border.  First, we got on a bicycle rickshaw.  After about a kilometer, his bike broke down and we had to get off.  Then, a minibus driver offered us 10 rupees each to get to the border.  When we got to the border I gave him a 100 rupee note and he gave me 60 rupees change.  As I argued for the other 20 rupees he owed me (Purely on principle.  20 Nepali rupees is about 25 cents.), he tried to tell me that there was a tax.  I politely told him that that was bullshit because we both knew he wasn’t paying any tax and either way the tax rate is not 100 percent.  Finally, after way too much discussion, his partner gave me my money, a tiny and unsatisfying victory.

We spent the night in the shittiest guesthouse we’ve seen since Vientiane.  Please heed this advice:  NEVER SLEEP IN A BORDER TOWN.  We did, however, find a restaurant with a TV that was showing The Simpsons, so we had a one-hour respite.

The next morning, the 17th, we woke up and leisurely crossed the border into India at Sunauli.  Then we entered into negotiations for a shared taxi to Gorakhpur, where we could catch a train to Delhi.  First, the guy quoted us 1200 Indian rupees for the whole car.  Way too much.  We started to walk away and he told us we could get into a shared car for 150 rupees each.  That was reasonable so we checked it out.  We walked over to the car and then suddenly they wanted 200 each.  We objected and they said that if we paid 200 each they would give us the whole back seat and we could leave immediately.  We begrudgingly agreed even though we hate dealing with clear swindlers like this.  We just wanted some comfort after the rough time we had the day before (A share car would have been 8-10 people plus bags in one SUV).

Then, when we got in the car and paid the 400 rupees, they said we couldn’t leave yet because they were waiting for another person to put in the back seat.  When we strenuously objected and reminded them of the deal we had just made not even 60 seconds earlier, they asked for another 100 rupees to leave right away.  We got pissed, asked for our money back, and started to get out of the car.  But then, the very nice Indian man who had purchased the front seat paid the extra 100 and convinced us to get back in.  I guess he had the money and really wanted to leave immediately.  He said, “It can’t be helped, these men cheat.”

I must say, though, after the way these guys showed that they were clearly willing to do anything to squeeze more money out of us except for honor the agreements they had just made, I didn’t feel good about rewarding them with my business.  But sometimes you just give up and sit back for the ride, which was pretty smooth except for when it started to rain and the windshield wipers didn’t work.

We got to Gorakhpur and went straight to the train station to buy tickets.  A travel agent in Kathmandu explained to me how the Indian train ticketing system works for foreigners.  Indian trains are always full so Indian people have to book tickets days in advance.  But, they keep a “tourist quota” which means that a foreigner can walk up to a special window and buy a ticket the same day of their trip and always get on.  I think this causes an Indian person to lose their seat, which isn’t fair, but I still didn’t hesitate to use it when I had the chance.

After wandering through crowds of families camping out on the platform and a dog suckling a litter of puppies, I went up to a random ticket window.  The girl there didn’t seem to excited about dealing with me and she gave me vague directions to the “reservation office” down the street.  When we finally found our way there it was 2:05pm and the guy at the foreign tourist window told me that the office closed at 2, so I couldn’t get a ticket today.

View from our hotel in Gorakhpur
Cow in the train station
We went to four different hotels and picked the least dirty one, took one of those “hit the hot spots” sink baths in cold water and went to eat at the surprisingly good open-air restaurant downstairs.  Right after we sat down a cow came up and started licking the clean glasses.

The next day, the 18th, we bought a ticket for the Vaishalli Express leaving Gorakhpur at 5:05pm and arriving in New Delhi at 6:30am the following day.  The finish line was in sight, but the trainathalon had yet to begin.

We bought tickets for the sleeper class because we hate air conditioning (It’s always too cold) and it was really cheap.  Plus, it was perfectly comfortable in China.  It turns out that India is a different country than China. 

The sleeper class has 3-tiered compartments with six bunks and during the day everyone sits on the lower bunks like they’re a couch.  Same as China.  But when the train pulled into the station we looked into the windows and there were way more than 6 people sitting in each compartment.  Did we do the math wrong?

It turns out that the train companies just keep selling tickets for “standing room” in the sleeper cars and regardless of confirmed tickets and seat numbers, things are just a big free-for-all.  Shortly after we settled in three big railway cops plopped down in our compartment and packed us all right in.  At one point, a man who had a ticket for one of our seats demanded that one of the police officers get up.  Things got heated and the cop grabbed for his beating stick but luckily his friend held it back from him.  The guy eventually had to give up and let the cop sit in his seat.

The guy sitting next to us explained that the guy did technically have the right to the seat, but he rudely approached the cop and didn’t show him the proper respect.  Also, the cop was a cop and the man was poor so he didn’t have much power in this situation.  If the cop had beat him for his rudeness, nothing would have happened because the man was poor and the cop was a cop.  In India, the rules are vague and everything is a compromise.

A bunch of people lingered in our seats until about 11pm when we ticket holders finally decided we wanted to go to bed.  Christin got into her middle bunk and I laid out on the lower bunk.  One of the standing room guys was sitting on the corner of my bed and I didn’t say anything because he didn’t have anywhere to go and I could spare the space.  I fell asleep and when I woke up he was sleeping head to toe with me.

We woke up at about 6:30 in the morning on the 19th to the sun rising over some beautiful Indian countryside.  We did not, however, wake up at 6:30 in New Delhi station as planned.  We finally arrived in New Delhi after noon, six hours late and 76 hours after leaving Kathmandu.

Sometimes there's beauty in even the awfulest of situations
We caught an auto rickshaw (or tuk-tuk for those of you familiar with the Thai system) to the apartment of Indu Jaggi, our couch surfing host and the mother of the world famous Sid from Hong Kong.  She so far she has treated us to a nice homemade vegetarian Indian lunch, a hot shower, our first Hindu temple, a giant statue of Hanuman, an Indian-Chinese dinner (quite a unique cuisine indeed), and plenty of conversation and good humor.  It’s almost midnight now and I’m looking forward to sleeping in a clean bed.