Monthly Archives: May 2009

Getting Lost In: the Backwaters of Kerala (India)

India 2007 231Through the years, India has developed quite a piece of stardom in the world’s stage, from its 1.1 billion rivaling China’s population, Indira Ghandi, Regular Ghandi, its colorful saris and spices, adopted oh-so-well by yoga teachers of the Western World. (Even the Indian guys we met there said, “Um, we don’t do ‘yoga’. We call it stretching.”) There lies this rose-colored version of a romantic India, ignoring the mosquitoes, malaria, garbage, slums and the scent of feet-and-curry at the Taj Mahal.

However, on my trip to India a couple years ago with my business school class, I took India for what it was – a developing nation thrust into the digital age, clashing classes and traditions, regular guys and girls our age kicking our asses in MBAs and engineering. That aside, I was able to overlook the garbage piling in Delhi and enjoy the cleanliness of Bangalore, the cow-strung beaches of Goa, but I believe my favorite was the backwaters of Kerala.

India 2007 180From Bangalore, my friend and classmate Boris and I flew Kingfisher Airlines (same company that makes the local beer) down to Cochin in the south. We were greeted with a waft of extremely humid air that settled onto our skin and didn’t leave. We had booked a houseboat to take us along these famous backwaters – a network of waterways from Cochin to Kollam, passing through different villages and towns that live and survive off these waters. It would give us a real look into southern Indian life, far from the frightening tuk-tuk traffic of Delhi.

There are several backwater houseboat tours, but we went through TourIndia (www.tourindiakerala.com) who booked us on a two-day, one night trip. For about $100, we got a private boat with a double bedroom equipped with mosquito net, full bathroom with shower, an upper sitting deck, a boat driver, a chef and a tour guide. Our guide even ran out to buy us beers that we requested.

India 2007 207It was all incredibly romantic, although Boris was engaged and Jon was back in L.A. Ironically, the night we took our boat tour, Boris’ fiance was hanging out with Jon for Jon’s birthday while Boris and I lay back on our rattan deck chairs watching the rivers go by in the sunset. For dinner, our chef prepared a seven-course meal served on plaintain leaves of local Kerala style. Now, for someone who can take about 2 days worth of Indian cuisine, I really enjoyed our dinner. Boris decided to eat it Kerala-style, which is with your fingers. India 2007 201

The backwater residents truly lived by this water – they did laundry in it, they bathed in it, they brushed their teeth in it, they washed their dishes out in it, they also used it as a toilet. Later I saw our chef cleaning out our dishes in the river as well, but fortunately and surprisingly, I never actually got sick in India. Being about 95 degrees and humid outside, Boris decided to go for a swim in it with the locals, and later sealed up his wet swimtrunks in a bag and packed it in his suitcase – later, when he unpacked in Goa, it created such a reeking stink in our hotel room that he had to hang it outside.

At night we parked along the side and listened to crickets and watched stars and lanterns glow in the houses like lamps on the water. Boris and I, already accustomed to random travel situations, tucked in our mosquito net and crawled into our double bed and gossiped about people in our business school class until we passed out. In the morning, the sun rose with a tiny bite of it missing – a sun eclipse, that is. The tour ended by noon, and a taxi took us back to Cochin- an hour ride, only $13. India 2007 195

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Getting Lost In: Southern Florida

I have to admit: after living in southern California, I could never quite extend the same warm fuzzy feeling to Florida. Particularly when it rains practically your entire trip. There I was flying into the coastline with the waves beating into the sand, gray clouds leering over the skies threatening to pour torrential rain on my friend’s wedding day (with a swimsuit and sunscreen in my carry-on). In our rental car we drove up the I-95 towards Jupiter Beach, about 35 miles north of West Palm Beach, marveling at how well the windshield wipers worked compared to on my own car. 

Anyway,  there is really very little to do except go to the beach. Well, on a rainy day, you’re stuck going to the mall or staying in the Best Western on US Highway 1 watching TV. Amy and I finally dragged ourselves out of the oddly comfortable down comforters of the BW and drove over to the Food Shack for lunch. Normally, a place called the Food Shack in Jupiter, Fla. might steer us back to Chili’s where we had lunch the day before. But since it was suggested by the wedding guide provided by the groom and bride, and then at the rave reviews of one bridesmaid, a British girl who proclaimed it “the best meal I’ve ever had in America”, we decided to take a chance.

Well, with that, it really was an incredible meal. Definitely the best I’ve ever had in Florida. It was a fish place, a specialist, with at least six varieties (three that were Florida-only), and a variety of preparations. It could be crusted in macademia nuts, or sweet potato crunchies, garlic, or tandoori. I went for the sweet potato crunchies on tile fish on top of a bed of greens with papaya, and sweet coconut rice on the side. We split the macademia-nut encrusted white chocolate creme brulee cheesecake. Amy was so transfixed by the restaurant that she would probably fly back specifically to dine there just one more time.

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Wanderings: Luggage

So here I am in rainy, stormy Florida, sitting on the floor of Ft. Lauderdale/ Hollywood International Airport next to a power outlet so my computer stays charged waiting for Amy to arrive from Chicago. In front of me are a random conglomeration of travelers, a nice cross-section slice of America if you will, toting their luggage to the self check-in terminals. Many of them, heading on vacation, perhaps, bring with them some of the most enormous suitcases I have ever seen.  My niece can fold herself into my 22-inch rollaboard, which is really cute, but I could probably fit myself and a weekend of clothes into some of the suitcases.

I also hate to stereotype, but many of these mega-cases are pulled by 1. large people (explanable, since their clothes are probably large), 2. ladies with spiky heels on, and 3. old people.

My theory behind the old people is that they probably go on extended vacations, thereby requiring half their belongings to go with them, particularly if they like to winter in Florida. My theory about the spiky-heeled ladies is that they just like to look good all the time so they change clothes as often as the characters in the Sex in the City movie did. That would require several suitcases.

Jon was spending two weeks in Barcelona back in the fall of 2007, so we flew together from Paris-Beauvais on Ryanair for a euro penny plus taxes. The catch: your luggage could weigh no more than 10 kilos and each extra kilo of luggage would cost 8 euros. So, before Jon was trained in packing correctly, he had gone over the 10-kilo limit by about 8 kilos, or 64 euros, or almost $100. The check-in lady let us step aside, and we unloaded Jon’s suitcase in the middle of the airport and started tossing items onto the luggage check-in scale: sweater, 1/2 kilo. Shoes, 1.5 kilos. Leather coat, 2 kilos. Four t-shirts, 1 kilo. I stuffed one of his MCAT books and a few t-shirts into my suitcase and carry-on, and Jon tied one jacket around his waist, put a shirt and sweater on, changed into the heavier shoes, wore his leather coat, and we went back to the check-in lady with Jon donning an entirely new outfit. He was over by 1 kilo, but I think we amused her enough with our creativity that she waived the extra kilo fee.

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On My Itinerary: Southern Florida

I’m headed to SOUTHERN FLORIDA this upcoming Memorial Day for the wedding of my dear friend, Karen. Karen and I went to college together, spent a summer in Loire Valley, France and voyaging around Europe on our weekends 0ff. Later we lived four blocks apart from each other in Manhattan and spent many a night on her Upper West Side rooftop cheering on the runners at the Reebok gym across the street. Today she lives in Miami; her wedding is in Jupiter Beach, a skip away from West Palm Beach and quiet beach getaway from the noise of Miami and Ft. Lauderdale.

And because Jon’s parents are in town for his graduation this weekend, I am going with my friend Amy, who is coming sans husband and baby too. We’re meeting in Ft. Lauderdale rather than the schedules of West Palm Beach airport; then drive up in our rental car along the ocean to Jupiter. It will be a nice, quaint celebrating weekend of sunshine (hopefully!) and a barefoot bride on the sand, seafood and scenery at the Jupiter Beach Resort.

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Now Boarding: Wi-Fi on all AirTran flights!

I couldn’t believe it when I received this announcement from AirTran, which I have flown perhaps twice in my life: Wi-Fi available on ALL of its flights and planes! This was about as great as the time I heard the BoltBus between New York and DC came with free Wi-Fi, except I don’t really like reading on buses, so I would end up getting motion sickness and not be able to take advantage of the Wi-Fi. However I don’t have that issue on planes, so I’m particularly excited about this.

Jon and I have developed a habit of pronouncing Wi-Fi the French way, which is like “Wee-Fee”, after living in Paris for those few months. Left on his own one day, Jon pulled out all the non food-related French words he knew and asked a cafe waiter if they had Wi-Fi. The version he told was, “Avez-vous wee-fee?” But he later admitted he just entered and blurted, “Wee-fee?” But I digress.

Back to AirTran. Through a partnership with Gogo in-flight Internet, Wi-Fi costs $9.95 for laptops for flights under three hours. For flights more than three, it’s $12.95. On all flights, regardless of time, handheld devices are $7.95, so you can get your Crackberry fix while in flight.

Currently, several airlines offer or are planning to offer Wi-Fi in some of its cabins and flights: American, Delta, Southwest, Virgin America and Alaska Airlines. American, for example, offers it on select cross-country flights between New York and Los Angeles, Los Angeles and Miami, and New York and San Francisco. AirTran, however, is the first to offer Wi-Fi on all its flights.

Downside: You will need extra battery to keep your laptop alive for the whole flight unless you’re in a powered seat. According to seatguru.com, not all seats are equipped with power to plug into. I’m not sure if AirTran is upgrading all its planes to accommodate the power demand, but it may just be a good time to replace your dying battery anyway (Jon).

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Cool Tool: Hotels on Priceline!

Most people have tried Priceline at some point or another. I bought plane tickets in 2000 for South America for $700 instead of $1,200, was assigned to that very middle seat of a 5-seater in the middle row of those larger planes with two men surrounding me, each asleep with their heads turned towards mine and breathing their bad breath in my direction. And I didn’t get any frequent flier miles. I used to buy groceries on there (you would bid on different products, pay online and then take the printout to the checkout at the store later) but Priceline got rid of that deal. I used to experiment to see if I could fly from St. Louis back to New York for $40, but the airlines never went for it. The price differences are not outrageously cost-effective, but sometimes they will give you quite a deal, especially “in today’s economy” which is my new favorite catch-phrase.

However, an excellent deal can be found if you book hotels on Priceline. My stepsister does this all the time. For example, we had reserved the Hyatt in Bethesda, Md. for our wedding guests. A $250 room was $139 a night with our wedding rate. My stepsister went to Priceline and got it for $50. $50!? Yes, $50.

How it works: Go to Priceline.com and click on the Hotels tab. Enter your city information and check-in/ check-out dates in the “Name Your Own Price” section. It will pull up a list of specific areas as well as a map, how luxurious you would like your hotel, and what price you’re willing to pay. For my stepsister, she scored a 3 1/2 star upscale hotel in downtown Bethesda for $50. My aunt, hearing of my stepsister’s success, tried the same but we think she entered her choice of locations wrong, because she was placed in a Radisson of some kind far away in Rockville. Well, not too far, but maybe a 15-minute drive farther than she would have liked, considering all the hotels around the Hyatt.

Priceline will alert you if there are no participating hotels in your star-rating range. Before you finally make the reservation, you’ll have to enter your credit card, and then whatever hotel in tha area accepts your bid, that hotel is yours whether you like it or not. But since you can narrow down by star rating and location, and you really don’t care that much about the hotel, you’ll likely get an excellent deal. Sleep tight!

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Getting Lost In: New York!

Summer vacation NY and DC 004Last week I drove up the I-95 for nearly six hours in the dumping rain to good ol’ homey New York. And granted, I am mostly a suburbanite with three years experience living in the big bad city, but I never get tired of driving around the bend past Newark and seeing the Manhattan skyline glowing in the distance beyond New Jersey. While living there in my early, poor 20’s, my friends and I would be walking around somewhere, and all at once we’d sigh and have “a New York moment”, where we just loved, LOVED the city with all our hearts. Enough to pour all our meager salaries into the ridiculous rents and hammer up drywall to build a separate bedroom out of the living room so we could split a one-bedroom apartment three or four ways. I admit in all the other cities I’ve ever lived in, and perhaps because I’ve since grown up and stopped watching the WB/ CW, I’ve never once had quite a heart-surging moment like those in New York.

Last week I went back for a few meetings with some editors of different publications to discuss freelance work, and re-discovered a few of my favorite New York things that used to give me those seizures. The grass is always greener, however, because there were plenty of things that drove me out of New York, but these are just a few, if ever in New York, that would tug me carefully back.

Pastrami on bagel. For the first time, I got a whole wheat bagel. I’m not sure I ever ate a whole wheat bagel in my whole life, but I ordered it on whole wheat only because my friend Deana did and it was incredible. I topped the lean pastrami with lettuce, tomato, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

The 4-5-6. Believe me, I used to despise the east side transit, but I never had to deal with its packedness as my other east-side friends did because I was a West sider. However, I always found the 4-5-6 train to be annoying for no particular reason other than there was no other way to get around the east side. For the first time this past trip, I took the 4 all the way to the end. I was staying with my aunt and uncle up in Westchester, but they live only 10 minutes from the Woodlawn station, so rather than hassle with Metro-North’s train schedules, I hopped on the subway for $2.00 and rode 35 minutes to Union Square. No mess at Grand Central, no fishing for my train ticket with the conductor hovering over me. I used to hate the subway, but now I really like it.

The West Village. I spent many a night exploring the bar scene with my NYU law school friends who lived down there, but rarely the daytime. I also always get lost whenever there are no numbered streets left. But there I was, wandering along by Sushi Samba (87 7th Ave. at Barrow St.) (another great memory of martini lunches and spider rolls on their eclectic rooftop) when I discovered just how adorable the West Village could be. There was a stretch of row houses, very DC and Baltimore-like, along Christopher Street. I later had dinner with my friends at a French Michelin-rated restaurant, Cafe Loup (105 W. 13th St at 6th Ave.), which has a prix-fixe menu with large portions.

Central Park. This was my saving grace when living in a very cement-and-asphalt concrete jungle. I always entered through the 72nd Street entrance on the west side, specifically, at Strawberry Fields with its tribute to John Lennon, towards the fountain where I ran my stairs and back by the theater shell where Paul confronts Doc Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. I spent many an afternoon crowding the grassy lawn at Sheep’s Meadow, so named because of all the roaming New Yorkers hunting for a patch of green space to flock.

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