Tag Archives: India

Wanderings: I have no weddings this summer/ Eat Pray Love is cliched and trite

(This is a picture of my friend Boris on the bike we rented in Goa, India – in reference to the way we “prayed” in India (or didn’t pray, just had fun like normal people)

It is an unbelievable summer: we have no travel plans! In fact, this is the first summer neither of us have weddings – which means every weekend is open, available, for adventure (we do have three for next year). The other reason we are entirely free is because I used up all my vacation time for China this past April, and partly because we decided maybe we should be grounded for summer after all the hubbub that’s been circulating our lives since December.

As a poor substitute, I sit around reading Food & Wine magazine for their latest recommendations in travel and watch bad TV on our new (and terribly serviced) Comcast. Last night I watched about 15 minutes of Eat Pray Love before I had to switch channels because she bothered me so much. Now, I like Julia Roberts, but the woman she was playing was particularly annoying (apparently the author of this memoir). Ooh, she’s tired of supporting her husband and wants to travel the world! She goes to Italy to – eat! No way! and then to India to – pray! Is she Hindu now? Does she think doing yoga makes her spiritual now? And then I don’t comprehend the Indonesia part to love – she wants to meet an Indonesian? Why does it have to be Indonesia? Hasn’t she been reading the State department warnings about traveling to Jakarta? It’s also incredibly expensive to do all this stuff. I don’t feel very sorry for her. In fact, I’m rather jealous that she got to travel the world for a year, although I would have taken Jon along because it’s more to explore things together. (To be fair, I only watched about 15 minutes, but that was all I could take).

That doesn’t mean that I don’t sit around dreaming of our next escape. For example: how can we go to Cuba legally? Should we go to Maui or Kauai over Thanksgiving? Maybe we can take a wine trip to Bordeaux for a week! Or what’s the latest we can go on an Alaskan cruise? And did you see -the Westin in Paris is on sale through Travelocity for 199 euros a night (a steal for that hotel – but I still prefer staying in a Parisian apartment with a kitchen so we can take advantage of the farmers markets).

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Getting Lost In: Goa!

Now that I’ve been snowbound at home here in Baltimore for six days straight, the only activity outside the house I’ve had is shoveling snow, eating burgers and going to hot yoga. Though I love snow, I really do, and I love having days off from work (thank you, federal government), I think the hot yoga is leaving me a little dehydrated and perhaps hallucinating of warmer places. After listening to yoga instructors pretend to speak Hindi and be Indian because they can hold themselves upside down on two pinkies, I’ve decided to transport myself to the birthplace of hippiedom, the grand poomba of American yogism, and the great center of full-moon parties: Goa, India.

 My first experience with Goa started with my best friend, Karen. She has dark hair and very tan skin.  Her mother, equally tan and dark-maned, speaks with an exotic accent and if you ask Karen about her background, she’ll tell you she’s Canadian (which does not explain anything you’re looking for). One day I pressed her about the un-Canadian features in her family, and she told me her mother’s side was Portugese. But then her mother made a lot of tasty Indian food and left it in Karen’s freezer, because apparently her Indian grandmother made these dishes. And then I was reading my Frommers’ Guide to India and learned about how the Portugese settled in Goa, and I looked up and said “Karen… are you Goan?

Yes, so Karen is part-Goan. She says it’s complicated to explain her whole background, so she just says Portugese. And that’s the quick history of Goa: Portugese missionaries came down to convert the Indians into Catholics and build churches and breed generations of exotic-looking people. Then around the 1960’s, another exotic-looking group of people descended upon the beaches of Goa and gave it the reputation it has today – a nirvana for flower children, floursack pant-wearing stoner hippies who dred their hair and party every night, full moon or not.

Whether you’re a modern-day hippie (i.e. one with a lot of financial independence so you can spend your time backpacking around the world without a care and buy all sorts of drugs. Oh, and the hemp clothes sold at the local markets are targeted exactly for people like you, so please support the local economy and buy them) or a traveling business school student like I was, Goa is a vacation spot for all. Some highlights:

Beaches. There are many. We rented a scooter and scooted along the coast to explore; many had shack-like hotels and restaurants right on the beach. The Baga-to-Calangute area north of Panjim is a ridiculously touristy section that, even if you’re not totally looking for Nirvana, takes away from any restful experience you might have been hoping for. Skip ahead towards the beaches north of that, and the farther north you go, the more rustic and secluded it will become.

Where to stay. In high season, it’s advisable to make a reservation, but if you’re okay with abandoning your original plan and checking out other places, you can. Many beaches come with little huts for very little. We stayed in Anjuna in some $6/day hotel on the beach (I can’t remember the name now but I would not really recommend it) that gave us our own little one-room, two-bed house with one bedsheet each but a full bathroom, even if it came with a frog and a giant cockroach. Though the room did not give me much sleep, the beachview balcony and menu of Indian-or-Chinese food did.

Old Goa. For some history and culture, check out Old Goa inland. It’s muggier and hot, but you can find refuge inside a cool stone church, which was my theory on how the Portugese managed to convert so many Indians (“we offer you our Lord and air conditioning”). Old Goa is a World Heritage site and a good walking tour of old churches and conversion sites from the 1500’s. In the Basilica of Bom, you can view the preserved body of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa.

Shopping. The Global Village market in Anjuna on Wednesdays sells great souvenirs and take-home items, but be warned that many of the same items (claimed to be hand-made in Goa) can be found in other markets around India and even in markets in Europe and South America. Haggle hard. Be aware of extremely aggressive women and young girls who will grab you and force you to look at their items for sale, though it’s okay to say no and walk away after looking at them.

Activities. People-watching is especially fun, from the man-in-tatters doing exercises on the beach to the European tourists who think they’ve turned Indian. Cow-watching is just as fun – they enjoy the beach as much as tourists do. If you must, there are yoga centers around the area, but don’t be surprised if classes cost the same as they do back home and are run by blond women from London or California. Eat delicious seafood in banana leaves and drink fruity lassi (shakes); be aware that during full moon parties, the “Magic lassi” contains items that are not necessarily yogurt and fruit. Full moon parties occur all the time on Anjuna, with drugged-out European backpackers swinging their dreds and braided hair to rave music all night long.

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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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Now Boarding: Low prices to India

Probably in an effort to lure tourists back to India in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, MakeMyTrip.com is offering a “Steal a Deal” package for as low as – get this – $410 roundtrip to India, between January 12 and March 31. MakeMyTrip.com is a big Indian online travel agent, with flights starting in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Boston and Philadelphia to Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Kolkata and Trivandrum. That is a $1300 difference from the ticket I paid. And once you’re there, you can find dirt-cheap hotels and food. For $12 a night, my friend and I got a ocean-front room in Goa. Granted we shared it with a little froggy and no extra sheets – this was a true no-frills room, but I spent my days parked at one of the hotel’s ocean-view tables watching the cows frolic on the beach and eating fried rice with Kingfisher beers. Similarly, in Cochin, we got a thatched roof room with mosquito net and air conditioning for $22, and a bed&breakfast in a former Dutch colonial home for $25.

Is $410 a good deal? I would say yes. Mumbai may have been recently attacked, but the country is huge. You could just skip Mumbai altogether – which I had to do, just because I was limited to, yes, two weeks.  Or, you could go anyway and participate in the festival of  Terrorism Can’t Stop Us. Of course, few people would run into a burning building, but the building has stopped burning and is in clean-up mode. India is a fascinating country with so many juxtapositions, to be covered in a future entry – and there’s probably equal chance of contracting malaria as to be trapped in some terrorist assault, or slipping on the marble floor of the Taj Mahal or taking out a shoulder doing a downward dog position. If you’re trying to burn some vacation days before the new year, and can borrow up a week on the other side in 2009, this isn’t a bad way to get your beach and culture into one memorable vacation.

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English as a second language

Tile Hill Wood School & Language College

source: Tile Hill Wood School & Language College

My husband Jon assumes that everyone who works in a city where numerous tourists flow through speak English, and he seems to think we will have no problem getting around Thailand. I then recounted my grand tour of Beijing, by cab, in the great hunt for my hotel because I didn’t have the written Chinese version address and was pronouncing it completely wrong (and I speak Chinese). Or when we were in a restaurant in Budapest, where written Hungarian looks like Lord of the Rings language, and were handed a menu in German, to help us out. We found that a game of charades and imitating different animals worked better.

In reality, English is the third most spoken language, at 322 million speakers – next to Spanish (332 million) and Mandarin Chinese (885 million). And even if those people do speak English, there’s the chance you won’t be able to understand them anyway. Even in English speaking countries, like India, or even England, where I have to say “what?” because they pronounced something funny or used some phrase like “that’s four quid” or “fancy a pint?”

My boss, who spent a vacation in Japan, gave me a similar suggestion for our 12-hour layover through Tokyo. Go to the tourist office and ask them to write the following on a piece of paper, in Japanese: Airport – Train – Hotel – Various tourist sites. Hand that piece of paper to a taxi driver, and said taxi driver will whisk you to your destination, unlike my Beijing incident. This advice is applicable to all countries.

I also find you win a few extra customer service points if you try to speak to your service representative in his or her language. Words like Hello, How Much? Thank you, Goodbye, Bathroom? and Where Is… seem to be enough to get me around the country. I like to visit the BBC Language page to pick up a few phrases prior to a trip and sometimes just for fun. The site features 36 languages for phrases, and seven languages for actually trying to learn a language. I tried out the Spanish one and learned to order food. I was all excited to try it out in Barcelona, except they speak Catalan there and actually didn’t really understand Spanish. On the Spanish page, you can also play these language games. My favorite is “Costa Amor” which is a cartoon soap opera. It is better than mooing for your dinner, at the very least.

BBC

source: BBC

 

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