Thursday, December 27, 2007


I've been to a few countries in the developing world at this point. Many of them have had beaches, rivers, etc in which to chill out.

However, up until Corn Island (as I understand it, mainland Nicaragua is not like this) - the local women have always dressed conservatively. In Laos, the women would bathe in the rivers wearing dresses that went from their ankles to their necks. No excess flesh was shown to us foreigners. The same in India, where holidaying big city women would run into the ocean wearing a full sari, even while their husbands got to wear underpants and t-shirts.

Corn island is not the same. The ladies here, be they latina or carribean, all tend to wear tiny tiny shorts and equally tiny tops. This was quite shocking for me at first, as it's usually the tourists who are the ones dressing like harlets.

Post Xmas

The weather has been rather crappy here. Christmas eve and Xmas day were both essentially write-offs, with non-stop wind, rain, etc. I spent both days in my room reading books - not so exciting really.

However, most of the other days have been fine, and so I've settled into a nice rhythm.

I try and wake as soon as possible (which for me, is later than 9), and shift from lying in bed to lying in my hammock outside. From the hammock, I have a great view of the ocean in front of me, and my neighbor's spider money, which is tied by a rope to a treehouse less than 2 meters from the hammock.

After a while, I'll put on my snorkel, fins, etc and go for a swim. Less than 10 meters from the beach in front of my home is a huge rock/coral structure with a bunch of fish.

If the perpetually drunken maintence guy has visited, I might be able to open a coconut or two. Otherwise, i'll relax, have a drink, and wait for the sunset.

I'm down to 2 unread books, with just 9 days to go.

Oh - and once I get back to the US - I'm not going to eat beans, rice or plaintain for months. No buts, no doubts. Lentils, perhaps, but no red beans.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


In hindsight, I should have brought a portable/camping kerosene stove, and a bunch of different spices. That would have saved me from the boredom of beans and rice every day. However, I didn't. I didn't even think to..

Even getting beans and rice in a reliable manner is proving to be somewhat difficult.

My landlady has the best beans and rice I've had yet, and at $1 for a plate including fried plantains, it's a steal. However, at random times, she'll decide that she won't make it. The price of beans has gone up, beans have run out, or some other bastard tourist has shown up before I get up (i.e. before 11AM), and eaten my food.

In an effort to avoid this, I prepaid. 100 cordobas ($5), for 5 meals worth. Given the ease of location, and quality when it's available, I asked her to do it twice a day.

It turns out that even when I prepay, it's still not reliable. Sunday night, no food, because everyone was drunk. Given that most of the people on the Island seem to drink every evening, I'm still not sure why sunday was any different.

However, I manage. My next door neighbor sharpened my machettee for me, to the point that I can now throw a coconut in the air, and chop it in half before it hits the ground. Ninja Skills!

I've got 3 weeks left here, and by the end of it, I don't know if I'm ever going to want to look at beans and rice for quite some time.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Good, The Good Enough, and the Youth Hostel/Betamax Connection

Fans (geeks) of tech history will remember that at one point, a war was waged bertween Betamax and VHS - two competing video tape standards. Betamax, a superior standard, lost out.. simply because VHS was cheaper, and had a better selection of movie titles (well, that, and the fact that all the ahem, adult content was on VHS).

The VHS/Betamax war is a good way, I suppose, to introduce the idea of the network effect, and to a lesser extent, the first mover advantage.

Essentially, a fax machine is useless when you are the only person that owns it. Facebook sucked when it had 10 people. However, when 20,000 businesses have a fax, it suddently becomes a useful device.

Hostels aimed at the youth/backpacker market are somewhat similar.

Ideally, you want a nice hostel, clean rooms, cheap.. but more importantly, you want to be where the other backpackers are. This gives you access to travel info from people who've recently been there, people to chat, flirt, drink, etc with. Books to exchange, chess partners, and people with whom you can split the cost of large expenditures (i.e. taxis).

Often times, the place that gets the backpacker crowd is not the nicest or cheapest hostel on the island. It's the one that the lonely planet or rough guide (travel books) recommend. And once a place has the backpacker crowd, it's very very tough for another hostel to steal them - even if that other hostel is cheaper, cleaner, or has a swimming pool.

Which is sorta where I find myself now. The lonely planet recommends that backpackers head to "little corn", a smaller island 70km away, where for $10 per day, I can have an unlocked bamboo hut on the beach, where each meal cost at least $7-10, and where I have to shower and shit into a bucket (not the same one, of course).

I've found myself a kickass spot on the beach, $10 per day, two huge beds, a fan, electricity, a cheap supply of beer and a reasonably reliable supply of beans and rice, coconuts, and even some bannanas on occasion. However, I have no other backpackers nearby.

My neighbors are, on one side, a fairly nice American 35 year old man here for 10 days, and on the other side, a 30 something totally crazy/borderline psychopathic English scuba-instructor and his israeli girlfriend, whom he seems to jealously suspect that every other male on the island is after. Thats it. No other foreigners.

As my supply of 8 books (3 read in one week) shrinks, I'm sorta wishing I had a few people my own age, who are sane, and preferably, play chess nearby.

I really don't want to have to lose my place, and move to a bucket toilet just to find someone to chat with.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Death of A Thousand Cuts (or bites, actually)

I'd been doing really well. DEET-thick cream applied to my feet, arms and other exposed bits well before nightfall, and again before bed. Vitamin B tablets (which are supposed to make you stink to the mosquitoes). However, the allure of my vegetarian, organic, and free range flesh proved to be too much - and so bit by bit, I've been getting attacked.

It's been slow so far, but day by day, I seem to be acquiring a new bite every morning. The little bastards are targetting the blood vessels on my ankles/feet, which prove to be insanely itchy. It's taking all the willpower I have not to scratch them, and the anti-itch stuff I brought with me is useless against their evil bites.

The foot situation has gotten better, much better.

My next door neighbors, a spanish-speaking couple with two adorable young daughters, sell home-made tamales - with just corn, no meat, or anything else. I can't do their flavor justice in attempting to describe it here.. but it is fantastic. My landlady does a killer fried rice and beans for breakfast, as well as sweet plantain chips. Another woman nearby bakes coconut bread and pumpkin cake every few days - it's hardly variety, with few veggies, but I won't starve at least.

The rum is very nice too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Reggae Skills

For a while as an undergrad, I had a roots reggae show on the college radio station. Much to the amusement of my friends and listeners, I'd often put on a fake jamaican accent when speaking on the air. Years later, the ability to parse and emulate thick patois is finally coming in handy.

The english speakers here actually converse in a dense form of creole. The many evenings I spent carefully trying to figure out what the hell people were saying in my favourite reggae songs is paying off - in that I can usually understand what people are saying. Best of all, I can respond back in my silly faux accent without anyone giving me a second look.

Things are settling in nicely now. I've finished one of my eight books, thanks to several hard hours spent relaxing in my hammock. My laundry line is currently heavy with dripping, freshly washed clothes, and I'm starting to acquire machette skills - I ate 4 coconuts in the space of about 30 mins, all chopped open/mauled with my own hands.

I think I'm finally catching up on the sleep I missed last week (4 days with barely a wink during exam week). I slept 14 hours last night!

I'll be taking it super easy from now on. Just reading, swimming, and relaxin.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Feelin Irie on the Corn Islands

A few general thoughts....

This place is not at all setup for tourism. The woman who's renting me my huge room had n't rented it out in a year. She doesn't advertise, and the guys who told me about her themselves had to essnetially go door-to-door to find out about the place.

I can't for the life of me get anyone to sell me coconuts or bannanas. There are coconut palm trees everywhere, and loads of bananas in the bush behind my house - but even with offers of cash, I can't get anyone to actually go and pick them for me. It's quite strange.

I was expecting an island paradise with bountiful fruits, but so far, it's been rather crappy in that area. There seems to be one citrus-type fruit that grows on the island, and depending on how big the fruit is, they either call it a lime, a lemon or an orange. In any case, it's very very bitter, and the locals drink their orange juice with lots of sugar.

In order to get my daily fruit, I went to the market today and bought a machette. Walking home, some of the more shady locals who usually eye me up (how much money vs. how easy to rob) seemed to be a bit more hesitant to eye my money belt. Such is the case when you're holding a foot long weapon.

I'm slowly learning a bit about the culture, or rather, the mix of cultures.

The latino/spanish men seem to treat all women like crap - pinching asses on the bus, whistling/shouting at women as they walk by, etc. The latina women seem to take it, or at least are too scared to shout back. The carribean/black women, on the other hand, will have none of it - and shout at any man who shows them disrespect. I've had to stop myself from smiling a few times when a woman started hitting a disrespectful man on the bus.

I went to town today, got my machettee, a bucket for laundry, etc. I've got all the required bits now for a reasonable life. Food is crappy, for the most part. Rice and Beans every meal, and fried plantain when I want a change. A place down the road does do a fantastic vegetable soup, but they charge through the nose for it... We'll see how often I'm willing to pay 80 cordoba (4 USD), or 5x the price of rice and beans for it...

Monday, December 10, 2007

Slowly Settling

Corn Island is very very chilled out. Like the rest of the atlantic coast in Nicaragua, it's majority population are black, and speak an english/creole. This is opposed to the spanish-heritage people in the rest of the country who speak spanish.

For years, I've wanted to go to Jamaica, but wouldn't go because it was too dangerous. Somehow, I ended up here instead...

The speakers out of every home, business, and the bus which slowly makes it way around the island blast a nice mix of salsa, reggaeton, reggae, and country. I'm not so sure how country managed to make its way into the mix, but no one seems to skip a beat and stop dancing when the genre changes.

My fist night, I stayed at casa blanca, a nice enough guest house not far off the main strip, yet still with a beach view. My tiny room, not more than 2 meter x 3 meters cost me $8 per night, included a fan, a light, a mosquito net, and use of a shared cold water shower/sit down toilet.

The main strip is ok enough, although it seems fairly sketchy at night. While eating dinner with a pair of american college kids, we noticed 2-3 different gentlmen going for their evening strolls carrying baseball bats.

After making the walk home from dinner last night fearing for my life and seriously beginning to regret coming here, I decided that I'd need to make a switch of location - if at least to be happy, but also to potentially save my life.

The plan was to wake up at 8AM this morning, change money at the bank, and catch the boat to little corn island.....

Problem 1: I slept in till 10AM (the same time as the morning boat), and
Problem 2: Changing cash at the bank took 1.5 hours in line.

However, two bits of good news happened:

1. I found out that the bank will do cash advances on a visa card at 2.5% comission. My guide book didn't mention this, and so I was seriously stressing about what I was going to do when the 300USD cash that I brought ran out.

2. I met an Israeli/Welsh couple in the street, who'd been staying here for a month. They advised me that my current guest house was crap and had a reputation for theft. I mentioned my interest in switching to little corn - to which they replied that i'd pay the same price, but be showering with a bucket and sleeping in a bamboo hut.

Most importantly, they told me that things were much nicer on the other side of the island, away from the sketchy "town center". If I was willing to haggle, I was told I could get a bargain deal.

30 mins later, I was standing at the home of Mrs. Victoria, who rents out huge apartments (2 beds, private indoor shower, etc) less than 20 meters from the beach. The snorkeling is top notch on this side of the island, and to top it all - since I agreed to pay for 2 weeks in advance, she gave me the place for $10 USD per night. It's a total steal, is at least 4x as big as my previous room, and I don't have to fear for my life or property at night.

I strung up a hammock this afternoon, I've got a bottle of 7-year old dark rum, a few limes, a stack of books, and i'm now determined to chill out and relax.

Internet is not too pricy here ($2USD per hour), but I need to take a bus to town to use it. I may stop by every few days, but don't expect it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Journey to Nicaragua

I left Bloomington at 8AM after sleeping perhaps an hour or two - about average for the past week. My journey to DC (bus, flight, flight, metro, bus) was approximately 9 hours traveling to fly to Washington DC (it woulda been faster to drive). I stayed with two fantastic friends, who wined and dined me. They let me sleep in, my first real opportunity to doze for more than 3 hours in one stretch for over a week.

The next morning, we went to Minerva, in Northern Virginia, for a totally fantastic and belt-destroying south-indian buffet. I got to say goodbye to civilization by eating idli, my favourite breakfast food in the world.. mmmm

That evening, I flew to Florida, hung out at the airport for 3 hours, and then caught a late night flight to Managua, Nicaragua, arriving at 12:30AM.

My flight to Corn Island didn't leave until 6:30AM, and so I had time to kill. A taxi to the town was $10 USD each way, and a hotel would run me at least $20. The five-star holiday inn (hah) at the airport wanted $100 per night.

I'd previously checked out, which gave Managua airport a pretty decent recommendation. It seems as though things have changed since then, as it was made perfectly clear that the security guards keeping the rif raff out also would not less me sleep. I could sit as long as I want, as long as my eyes didn't shut.

In the end, the hours went by, I caught my early morning flight on a 40+ year old propeller airplane (on which I was almost certain I would die), and landed on Corn Island.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Pre Nicaragua Malarial Meds

I leave for Nicaragua in just a few days. Between now and then, I have a mountain of schoolwork to get through. And unfortunately, I had to spend a few hours this week trying to sort out medication - time that would be much better spent writing papers.

I'm going to be on the Corn Islands off the coast of Nicaragua for an entire month. According to the Interwebs, I'm visiting a malaria zone.

There are essentially three malaria drugs on the market:
Larium = which gives you psychotic nightmares and has lead to suicide in a few travelers.
Doxycycline = a mild antibiotic which makes you highly sensitive to the sun.
Malarone = a newish-drug with few if any side effects, except for the fact that it'll cripple your wallet, at $6-10 per pill.

I live in the US, and so, I have to use private health insurance, which totally sucks, and refuses to cover anti-malarial drugs unless I'm already sick. They'll only pay for the meds if I've got a fever and am facing death. Lovely.

The purpose of this blog post is to document the steps I took this week to find my drugs on the cheap...

I don't want to have psychotic nightmares, and since I'm going to an island to sit on the beach, being sensitive to the sun is a really bad idea. That left me with Malarone, which for a 30 day trip + 8 days you're required to take the pill afterwards, would have cost me $190.

Glaxo, the drug company that makes Malarone, has a program to provide free/cheap drugs to people on a low income. As an underpaid graduate student, I instantly qualified. Using this program, I was able to get Glaxo to give me a 30 day supply of the meds for the cost of a $10 co-pay, and a $20 office visit to get the university's travel nurse to write me an rx, and call up Glaxo to register me.

Glaxo only lets you get 30 pills per year, which meant that I'd have to pay for 8 pills out of pocket.

To get the last 8, I called around to all the pharmacies in town, and found out that SAMS Club/Target would sell me the 8 pills for approx $46.

A bit of googling, and I found that CVS pharmacy will give customers a $25 gift card when they come in with a new prescription. It didn't take me more than 10 minutes of searching online to find a coupon that I had to print out and bring with me.

Even better than that, the pharmacies all seem to pricematch each other. CVS seemed to be quite willing to pricematch the SAMS Club price.

So, in the end, I paid:

$20 for the doctor's office visit.
$10 co-pay for the 30 pills which Glaxo gave me.
$46 for the 8 pills purchased at CVS, which matched SAMS Club
-$25 a gift card that CVS gave me.

Total price = $51
Price of not getting Malarial fever on holiday = priceless.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ciao India

I spent the day shopping - possibility the activity I hate more than anything else in the world. Haggling is fun, but picking out clothes is a god-awful experience. In any case - I now have a huge second bag filled with clothes, batik tapestries, sandals, bags, a chapati griddle, incense, cardamon pods, and a kickass pressure cooker that will mean no more 1.5 hours to cook lentils.

I sold my barebones Motorola mobile phone to a electronic shop for about $7USD, as I won't need it anymore. When I come back to India next time, I'm going to bring a GPRS/data phone so I can surf the web from anywhere.

I rewarded myself in the afternoon with a back/neck massage (which I've gotten quite a bit here in India). They're not as good as the mind-blowingly fantastic (yet sometimes painful) ones that you can get in Thailand, but at approx 30 rupees (less than 1USD) for half an hour, a massage from an Indian barber is dirt cheap, and quite relaxing. It's much much better than the 500 rupee, ayuverdic oil massages that are hawked to tourists here.

With that - I'm done. I've spent the evening catching up on emails, and in about 20 mins, I catch a taxi to the airport. At 2:25AM, If fly from Delhi->Munich, then to London, then to Washington DC, and finally to Indianapolis.. 20 hours of flying, and probably somewhere around 24 hours of total travel.

It'll be nice to have good internet, and escape the non-stop honking of horns in Delhi, but I'll miss India - a place where I can really relax, and not worry about things. Real Life kicks in again tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


This morning, I took an auto-rickshaw about 30km across town (at least that was what the meter said), and went to the super clean and impresive offices of Axiss Dental Clinic. I'd called the day before, and made a last minute reservation.

Its been twelve months, and I was expecting at least a filling or two - but no, for the most part, my teeth are fine. Total cost: 1200 rupes (slightly over 30 dollars), for a cleaning at a top notch private dental clinic. Medical Tourism is fantastic.

To celebrate my good luck at not having to spend my last two days getting a root canal, I decided to go for a bit of karmic payback.....

I spent an hour on the phone with the US and British embassies, trying to get a list of foreigners locked up in the delhi prison for drugs. I want to visit someone who speaks with an accent similar to mine, but who isn't locked up for pedophelia or murder. Due to privacy reasons, neither embassy would give me the names of anyone...

There has got to be a way to do this - so I'l try calling the jail tomorrow morning. I know it's not going to be pleasant to visit a prison, and see someone stuck behind bars - but... it must be even worse when you're stuck behind those bars. As someone who is leaving in a couple days, a free man, I think it's the least I can do.

Other than that - my last couple days will consist of shopping for the most part. Indian clothes are mostly crap quality - breaking, tearing or fading after one or two wears, so I don't know if I'll buy any of those. I did however, spend about $35 USD on a top end 3 liter steel pressure cooker, so that I won't have to spend hours cooking lentils anymore. I want to get a few more kitchen things, and then perhaps some fabrics and such for my home...

I've been regularly praying each evening that I don't get food poisoning again during my last couple days here. Hygine in delhi is beyond horrible, and so all I can do is hope. With 4 flights, approx 7000 miles, and about 18 hours of flights on Friday - I realy realy do not want to be crapping myself non stop.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Back in Delhi

It was supposed to be a 16 hour bus ride.

I'm getting ahead of myself slightly though. Yesterday, I packed up all my stuff, gave my last read book away, waved to the tourists openly smoking chillums at the bus-stop, and boarded a 1.5 hour local bus (bags, and some passengers on top, and lots and lots of other passengers inside). Due to the unwritten rules of decency, I had to stand for 1.5 hours, with my face close enough to a chap's armpit that I could see the individual hairs, all so that two scantily clad Israeli girls could sit down. Grrrr.

The local bus was insanely overpacked. There is always space for one more person, and while I usually feel bad for people who have to stand close to my stinking self, I can honestly say that some of the characters next to me must have come straight from handling cow shit. In addition to the armpit in my face, another gentleman stood very very closely behind me for about half an hour, muttering quietly, with what can best be described as a warm lump from somewhere in his crotch region pressed into my jeans-covered bottom. There honestly wasn't any room at all to move around, and so I spent most of the journey concentrating on not falling over, and on giving the seated Israeli girls the stink-eye.

The local bus dropped me off in Bhuntar, where I made my way to a private travel agency across the road from the airport (note to self, next time, fly to Kulu).

An hour and a half later, my deluxe VIP sleeper bus rolled up.

While the lying bastard of a travel agent who sold me the ticket insisted that I had a sleeper cabin in the middle of the bus, when the bus actually showed up, it turned out that I had the very last single sleeper at the back of the bus... which promised to make for a super bumpy ride....

The sleeper compartments of the bus were occupied by tourists, israelis for the most part - while the cheaper "push back" seats below us were occupied by a few Indians, and a whole lot of (what looked like) tibetian nuns.

The journey was supposed to take about 16 hours, putting us in to Delhi sometime in the morning.

At 9AM, we pulled up at a rest-stop approx 250KM from Delhi with a flat tire. I also found out that we spent about 4 hours during the night sitting in a traffic jam. This wasn't going to be pretty.

As the sun rose, the bus got hotter - and thus the entire bus soon smelled of body odor, farts and feet. No matter how holy the nuns may be - their sweaty stinking bodies still smelled as bad as the rest of ours.

I have to admit - that seeing a buddhist nun drinking a coke and eating a chocolate bar just doesn't seem quite right... although I suppose they have just as much a right to enjoy western corporate culture as the rest of us.

Eventually, at around 4PM, the bus pulled into Delhi, making it an approx 20 hour journey.

I've got a dentist apt. booked for 11:30AM. It'll give me 3 days to have whatever work needs to be done. I'll try and take care of a bit of shopping - although Indian clothes tend to fall apart, so there isn't much point in buying them.

I leave for the US on Thursday night.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

In Kasol/ Parvati Valley

Kasol is approx 4 hours from Manali. About one hour into the bumpy bus journey, you begin to notice the scenery change. Apple trees are everywhere, and during the long journey, I think we passed at least three wholesale markets where gigantic piles of apples lay on concrete while the farmers and buyers argued.

There is something even more plentiful here than apples: Cannabis. I was staring out of the bus window for ages - admiring the lush greenery, trees and rivers, a pleasant change after the baren moonscape of Leh - when I noticed that one particular plant kept appearing.. At first, it was every few meters, here and there, until we got to Kullu - at which point, it became the dominant plant on both sides of the road... Scrawny, but with its signature leaves that have been drawn on Bob Marley posters hung up in many a college dorm-room. It really is easy to see why it's called weed - I'd be telling a boldfaced lie if I called it a beautiful plant. It's ugly, stringy, and leaves behind a somewhat strong smell when you touch it.

Harvest, I'm told, is in about a month - a topic which usually results in the teller of the tale smiling and explaining how much they are looking forward to it. The area will be flush with tourists, prices for everything will rise slightly, and hundreds of backpackers, mostly Israelis decend upon the valley in search of the freshest and most potent hand rolled hashish - which is called charas.

And so - I'm here, in the Parvati Valley, in a town named Kasol. I have a nice enough hotel right next to a roaring river. My balcony gives me a perfect view of the mountains on both sides, and at night, the water is loud enough to prevent me from hearing the high-pitched war-cry of the mosquitos that ceaselessly attack me in my sleep. Each day, I wake scratching new places on my body, and cursing the entire gender of female mosquitos for their very existence.

I'm happy to be here. Most of the rest of India is hot as hell right now, or suffering with the monsoon rains. While we get a bit of a sprinkle now and again, for the most part, it's rain free. There is no humidity, and I can walk around with a t-shirt on all day without sweating. Indian food is available everywhere - real Indian food, that's spicy, and from restaurants where the staff won't give me a strange look when I ask for Okra.

As I mentioned before - this place is famous throughout India for the apples. I've been drinking about 2L of unsweetened, unfiltered apple juice every day - and it's sooooo good. They make alcoholic apple cider here, which I've tried to limit myself to one bottle every 2 days. It's not particularly tasty, but at 8%, its very potent.

The only problem - I suppose - is that with most of the town completely stoned, It's tough to find anyone to have an intelligent chat with. I've gotten completely thrashed in several games of chess - a skill that the many people who have beat me seem to maintain even when high, but actual intelligent conversation doesn't appear to be something that people have the energy for... Thus, I've spent the time catching up on my reading, and have filled a small-notebook with ideas for research projects that keep popping up in my now idle mind. I've also finally caught up on all the sleep I missed out on this summer, and my horrible chest infection/cough seems to have finally bitten the dust after two weeks of take-no-prisoners Indian antibiotics.

After Leh, where the altitude is high enough to keep away all insects - it's suddenly strange to find creepy crawlies in my room, and bed at night.

I was hoping that there wouldn't be Internet here... but there is. So instead of being able to cut myself off simply by going somewhere without access - I have instead resorted to willpower to give myself a break. My inbox is piling up, hundreds of unread blog posts - but they can wait.

The town is a typical backpacker place - although, vastly more Israeli infused than most other places. Many restaurants don't even bother to have english menus, and the local used bookshop has more hebrew books than English. The prices for things are cheap, restaurants with chillout music are on both sides of the main road, and all in all, things are surprisingly hassle free.

In a town whose very presence depends on the booming drug trade, where most tourists come here to pay seemly obscene prices (compared to the cost of living) for fresh and high quality hand-rolled hashish, I'm actually able to say no one has pestered me once to buy anything. The stereotypical figure of the drug-pusher is one that simply doesn't exist here. Sure, everyone you meet tries to -give- you a piece of charas - in the hope that you'll buy some from them later - but it's all very relaxed, and no one gives you a dirty look when (I at least) decline.

The police, for the most part, are nowhere to be found. Tourists happily toke away on joints in the restaurants and cafes, dreadlocked holy men (sadhus) puff away at clay chillum pipes while waiting at the bus-stop, and in the evenings, Israelis approximate the sadhu smoking ceremonies - although using $100 Italian marble chillums instead of the 2 rupee (4 US cent) - complete with the shouts of "Boom Shiva", albeit with strongly un-Indian accent.

As there so many israelis here, the charity/religious group Beth Shabbat has a house here where the israelis can get kosher food, free friday dinners, pray, and just relax in a non-jewish person free zone. I have to say, it's quite strange to see Israelis coming back from their Friday prayers at Beth Habbat, walk across the street to a cafe, pull out a chillum, and then shout out some of the many names of the Hindu god Shiva (Bohlinat, Shambu, Mahadev, etc) as they puff away.

With the entire town essentially focused on taking care of semi-comatose stoned westerners, it's not a complete surprise that nothing happens quickly here, if at all.

I'll be here for another couple days. I have a night bus ticket booked from Bhuntar (a little bit over an hour away) to Delhi. I arrive in Delhi on the morning of the 20th, will spend a couple days with the lovely private Dentists here, and will try and fill the rest of my last few days with shopping.

Expect regular internet access/blogging on the 20th or so. I fly back to the US on the night of the 23rd, and arrive in Indianpolis on the night of the 24th.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Journey from Hell

I now realize that many of my problems on this trip have been due to one thing: I've forgotten my travel-skills, yet think that I still have them.

Case in point: Eating nothing but street food on day one of the trip - assuming that my stomach was ready to deal with things, just as it was when I'd been here for 6 months on my last trip.

And so yesterday - two major mistakes were made. When the travel agent handed me my Leh->Manali mini-bus ticket, which clearly showed that I was in the back-row - I should have protested and arranged to leave a day later. It didn't occur to me.

Likewise, when getting ready for 22 hour bus-trip on the 2nd-highest highway in the world - it should have perhaps occured to me that it would be cold.. and thus maybe I should have worn more than a couple layers.

In the end.... I was in the back seat, in a non-reclining chair, freezing my ass off. There were 4 of us in the back row. 2 brits, a french tunisian, and me. The bus bumped non stop, to the point that I had to constantly keep adjusting my pants due to the non-stop wedgie inducing aspect of the seating arrangement. The Tunisian seemed to have some kind of bowel problems, and so at approximately 5 minute intervals, would release stomach-churning farts, which would very quickly make their way up my nose, upon which they would wreak havoc upon my senses.

The sad thing is - is that for the first 3-4 hours, as I was shivering away, curled up and trying to stay as warm as possible - with a cold window on one side, and a flattulent frenchman on the otehr side - I was in some way strangely glad each time one of his horrible gas attacks arrived. Sure, it was probably doing untold damage to the cells of my nose - but each of his farts also provided some small increase in heat.

Once the sun rose, I ceased to feel as positive about his contribution to the air-quality of the car.

And so, we bumped along, for approx 18 hours. The views were beautiful. Leh is a dry desert mountain area, but 10 hours in, as we started to get closer to HP, trees and bushes started to appear, with rivers, valleys, and birds... It really is much nicer in HP.

One very funny, and typically Indian thing happened along the way - at about 4PM into the journey. Our driver chatted with a truck-driver who slowed down as he passed us, and found out that the local magistrate had setup a checkpoint down the road. Neither our driver, or the other 2 driving the two other vans/jeeps in our semi-convoy seemed to have whatever paperwork the magistrate was after - and so our driver stopped, and announced that we were going to have a break.

Most of the other tourists in the bus didn't quite realize what was happening, and so they stood by the bus, waiting for us to get going again. The french guy and I realized what was happening, and so we followed the driver up to a chai-shop just up the hill, where we could wait in the shade.

30-40 minutes passed. The frenchman and I played cards, the bus-drivers sat around smoking bidi cigarettes, until, suddenly, the magistrate drives past us. All hell breaks loose, and our previously lazy drivers suddenly haul ass down the hill, to the vehicles and we zoom off. They later tell us that they needed to have uniforms or something like that. Rather than pay the 500 rupee bribe to the magistrate for not having the necessary items, they instead opted to wait him out - knowing that he;d knock off eventually.

We ended up arriving in Manalai at around 9PM, in darkness. The driver hauled ass the entire way - which is damn scary when you realize he hasn't slept for 24 hours, and that he's taking you around tight mountain turns, with fog everywhere and zero visibility.

I split a hotel room with an israeli lawyer - the two of us in one bed, each trying to get as far away from the other as possible - to the point that I nearly fell off the bed in the middle of the night.

I'm up now - it's 10AM. I'm off to Bhuntar - about 3 hours by local bus, and then to the Parvati Valley.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Leaving Leh Today

Things have solidified.

I leave from Leh at 2AM tonight, making what would normally be a two-day trip in one day. I've got a reserved seat in a mini-van which will hopefully get me to Manali by approx 6pm tomorrow evening.

It's going to be a long, bumpy ride. The Leh->Manali road is the 2nd highest highway in the world, and the views are supposed to be spectacular. I'll probably be asleep for much of it alas.

I've made a concerted effort today to lighten my bag. I finished one huge book yesterday, and gave it away shortly after that. I also gave away another fantastic book - although finding someone willing to take Zinn's "The People's History of the United States" can be somewhat difficult. I gave away the giant pot of honey that I couldn't bear to leave behind in Germany... I also have a huge pot of marmite that weighs a ton, but I can't in good conscience, as a british man, give away Marmite. It's just too good to leave behind.

Thus, my stuff should just about fit into one big bag now - phew.

The plan is to stay in old manali for one night. The next day, I plan to head off to the village of Kasol. I'll chill out for a bit, speak to the israelis, and find out the current situation re: safety, the murder, and what the police are doing.

If things are safe enough, I plan to hike to a village called Tosh, where I'd like to stay for a week or so. No internet, no phone - just a few guest houses, magnificiant views, and a good excuse to finish the remaining books that are weighing my bag down.

I expect to have internet in Manali, and probably in Kasol, but not in the remote villages.

I'll leave for Delhi I think on or around the 19th.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Outta Here Shortly

It's now the 5th. I've been here for just about a week, and, well, it's time to move on.

I'm still sick - coughing up all kinds of ugly things, and in a few days, will be moving from the current course of antibiotics to some kind of industrial grade disease killer. I've been in beautiful Leh for a while, and haven't done much more than read about 1000 pages of fiction, drink black tea, and personally destroy about 2 trees worth of tissues.

I don't see myself getting well in the next couple days, and so, there is no point in waiting to get well so I can go hiking and explore the mountains. Thus, I think I should be reasonable, accept the fact that I won't get to do any outdoor activites, and just move on.

I'm off to buy a bus ticket today - either a 22 hour minivan, or a 2 day bus ride - in either case, will take me to Manali... where it's raining, but at least, is where I want to be.

I've been stuck in Leh, a tourist destination, with 3 dollar per hour satellite internet, hugely overpriced tourist-friendly israeli/italian/spanish/korean food, and aging german hiking tourists everywhere. I want to leave. I've been stuck here, partially due to the fact that I did at least want to go hiking for a day or two, but also because some things came up in my personal life that necessitated me being near internet and a phone.

I think, for the most part, that I've sorted those out now - as best as is possible - and so now, I want to find a nice remote village, and spend the next 2 weeks doing nothing but chilling out, reading books, and playing card games and cultivating my hebrew profanity skills - without a phone, email, rss feeds, blogs, or the outside world.

I expect to be in the Parvati Valley area, which is not so far from Manali. There are lots of small villages around, with 3-4 guest-houses in each. While backpackers have gone missing before, I do not intend to go off wandering in the woods by myself, so I think I should be ok.

Israelis tend to be the ones who get killed - this may be because of the numbers (so many israelis there, thus any random killing is likely to be one of them) - or, the fact that the area is the epicenter of India's charas (hashish) production. Bad people are attracted to illegal businesses, and many israelis (or at least the ones in India) flock to charas like moths to a lightbulb. Bad people + israelis chasing after drugs = dead israelis.

The area is also one of the best sources in India for fantastic unfiltered natural apple juice, and pashmina shawls - but the types of people attracted to these industries won't hurt you...

I'll have my wits about me, and expect to be back in Delhi on or around the 19th of August or so - where, I predict, I'll spend my final few days in a Dentist's chair, making good use of my newly acquired ability to let hebrew profanities flow.

Until then ----

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Chickenhawks and common sense

As I said in a previous post, I spent much of yesterday shooting the breeze with a group of Israelis. In general, I find the Israelis in India to be really nice, friendly, and that they wield a dark sense of humor that is often aimed directly at themselves. British humor and Israeli humor have a lot in common.

So I'm at a table - with about half a dozen israelis, and an American girl - the girlfriend of one of the Israelis. She was president of her university pro-israeli orginization, went on multiple free trips to Israel, was closely involved with AIPAC, and then did a semester abroad in Israel. She is a jewish american, and proud of it. During conversations at the table, she would often let us know how she dispised the terrorists, the arabs, and wished Israel would be more forceful.

Clearly, I'm biased, but she'd definitely drank the pro-israel kool-aid. Just as new American citizens often hang flags outside of their homes and stores, she was more pro israel than the israelis.

War is hell. Even if your job consists of peeling potatos in the army kitchens, as a member of the armed forces for 2-3 years, you learn to hate war. I can honestly say that I've not met many, if any, pro-war israelis during my travels. It could be because only hippies come to India, but I suspect that being in the army lets you see how horrible war is.

On the other hand, if you haven't served in the army, and instead, have gotten free tickets to Israel, been showered in propaganda and shown how evil the arabs are, I suppose it can be quite easy to become pro-war - since, you haven't seen the horror.


Ok, that sets the context.

So we're all discussing the group's plan to head off to Srinigar in Kashmir tomorrow. Ms Chickenhawk has a silver star of david hanging from a chain, which is prominently displayed on her chest, outside her clothing. I advise her that in the interest of personal safety, and making her own life easier, she may want to either take it off, or at least tuck it under her clothes.

And thus begins a fairly lengthy discussion.

Essentially, she feels like she is under no obligation to change how she dresses when she travels. She stated that she was a feminist, and therefore also felt that she was under no obligation to cover her arms, legs or chest when traveling either.

I tried to be polite, I really did.

I'm a huge fan of women's rights. I can't wait for the day that we have a woman president in the US, and I strongly believe in complete equality (i.e. the Equal Rights Amendment that was never passed by all the states).

However, I also believe that there is a time and a place for things. In your own country, amongst your own people - you should feel free to dress however you wish to. But when you travel, you are a guest. Even if you pay for your room, and support the local economy, you are still a guest. I strongly feel that we as tourists have an obligation to be sensitive to the local cultural norms. That means, unfortunately for women, that they need to cover up their cleavage, their upper arms/shoulders, and their legs.

You don't -have- to do this, of course - but not doing so, will make it very easy for the locals to assume that you're just another western whore (an image that is repeatedly reinforced by import western movies). On the other hand, if you make an effort to adapt to local dress, cover up, and lie and tell them that your boyfriend is actually your husband, then it's much easier for them to see you as a proper respectable woman.

And thus - back to the star of David. She was under no obligation to take it off, or hide it. But - when you are traveling to a heavily muslim area, where bombs go off with some regularity, where religious and ethnic tensions are high - it does not make good sense to advertise the fact that you are a member of a religion who many of the locals do not look kindly upon.

I don't know what she'll end up doing. I hope she opts for safety vs. religious pride.


The food poisoning is now gone, thankfully. Although, I'd been left with one killer of a cold that has turned into an upper respiratory infection. I've spent the last few days trying to take care of things with vitamin C, paracetamol and heaps of water, but alas, it's not working.

Every time I've gone to the pharmacy to get something, he's offered me antibiotics. You see, antibiotics are the catch-all cure here in India. Students at my undergrad university used to joke that the health care center on campus treated all ailements with salt (to gargle with) and cough drops. It seems like no matter what the problem is, antibiotics are the solution here - which is very scary, as it must be dead easy for antibiotic resistant strains to develop here.

In any case - I succumbed to the pressure, and the fact that it's obvious that I'm sick beyond a common cold and picked up some antibiotics. With any luck, I'll be back on my feet in a few more days, and can actually take advantage of all the outdoor opportunties that Leh has to offer - mountain biking, hiking, rafting, etc.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Leh day 3

After taking care of a bit of critical business in town, I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in a rooftop cafe, drinking black tea, and hanging out with a wonderful crowd of israelis, playing cards, and shooting the breeze.

The Israelis have a fantastic word-of-mouth network, through which they seem to know what has happened where, which guesthouses are the best, what the cheapest prices you can pay with various merchants, etc.

From this network, I was able to learn something useful info about my two potential next destinations. There was recently a bomb attack in Srinigar that killed a bus-load of Indian tourists. My other option: Kulu/Parvati valley, had an israeli backpacker killed on a hike within the last few weeks.

So the question becomes - do I go to Kashmir, where bombs explode, and pakistani mujhadeen wait just across the border, or do I go to Parvati, where 2-3 backpackers vanish ever year. So many wonderful choices.

I also got to play one of my favorite games: Guess the ethnic makeup of an israeli. They have such a fantastic mix of different cultures, that it is really hard to figure it out. Best of all, they take no offense at it - and it's usually one of the first things they ask each other upon meeting.

I was batting about 50% during my guessing - although, at one point, I told a woman that I thought she looked like she was from Yemen, except for the fact that her nose was too small.... She replied that she had gotten a nose job. Normally, this could lead to some embarassment, but she laughed it off.

I managed to pick the brains of the group for the best protocol for bribing police when you get caught with something you shouldn't have. Likewise, the best practices for this have been handed down from seasoned backpacking Israelis to the newcomers.

The general consensus seems to be that whatever happens, you should ask to pay the "fine" on the spot as soon as possible. The more police arrive, the more expensive it gets, until someone high up arrives, at which point, it can be impossible to pay your way out.

Multiple people voiced the opinion that: "It's just money, and no matter the cost, it's better than an Indian jail."

Quite interesting. My experience with paying bribes is relatively minor (my taxi speeding for example), and so it was facinating to hear some of the stories the told...

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

AirTel signup redux

I now have a number in India.

I can be reached at +91 9906990639. Please respect the time difference (google for current time in delhi) and do not call before 9AM, or after 11PM.

In hindsight, it really wasn't as much of a chore as the Airtel sales reps made it out to be.

Required materials:
1 x photocopy of passport and visa page, 4 rupees
3 x passport photos, taken at photo shop in bazar. 40 rupees.
1 x SIM card + activation fee, 130 rupees.
1 x bribe to kashmiri dodgy guy to fill out reference form, 50 rupees.

Being a total scam artist, the Kashmiri guy wrote the name/address of someone else that he knew back in Srinigar, pocketed my money, and thus couldn't even be traced to the transaction.

I filled out a few forms in the airtel office at around noon-ish, and by 9PM, my phone had been activated and was working.

Considering all the stuff they told me about the difficulties of getting a sim card due to terrorism/security, I was expecting much worse.

Of course, if I turn out to be a bad guy, and use my sim card in some kind of IED bomb remote trigger, the sad bastard in Srinigar whose name is listed as my personal reference is going to get a personal visit from the Indian Security Services.....

Needless to say, I won't be selling on my sim card when I leave - i'll be destroying it.

Leh day 2

[Ed: this post is not for the sqemish]

I managed to get some sleep. I woke up at 7AM, the sun flooding my room, and the signs of a sore throat/cold coming quickly. A bit of vitamin C, and back to bed. I assume that was the 2 days of travel, the lack of sleep, the temperature difference, and the night of A/C + fan in Delhi.

2 hours later, I woke up with cold sweats, and the symptoms (which you never forget) of Delhi Belly. Moments later, I was clasping at the toilet seat under me, shivering, sweating, swearing profusely at India, any deity I could think of, and any of the food merchants whose tasty yet evil wares had put me in this state. A piping hot shower helped things, followed by paracetamol, vitamin C, and about a liter of water.

More than likely, i'll be repeating the scene tonight and tomorrow morning. How I love India.


It took a lot of work, but I finally have a SIM card for my phone. Due to the terrorism, SIM cards are a complete pain in the ass to get in this state. Just like gmail, and other web 2.0 services, you need to be invited by someone who already has the service. Since I've been here for one day, I don't really know anyone at all - let alone someone who has been an Airtel customer for 3 months.

Lucky for me, Leh is full of Kasmiri traders. Due to terrorism, Kashmir isn't getting much tourism, and so lots of them have come here to sell their wares to tourists. I'm generalizing somewhat here, but Kashmiris are natural born used car salesmen. They'll lie, cheat and sell their own grandmothers if it seals the deal.

Within a few minutes of asking random kashmiri traders, I was able to find someone who was willing to vouch for me, and state in writing that he knew me personally.

3 passport photos later, I now have a SIM card, which should hopefully be activated tomorrow.


I don't know how long I'll stay in Leh. It's beautiful for sure, but it's also very very touristy. It's impossible to eat at any restaurant/stall where the locals are eating. It's essentially a controlled environement for a captive audience. Shops everywhere, all offering trecking, hiking, trips, etc...

My options are to either go into Muslim Kashmir (in Srinigar), where there are beautiful house-boats on a lake, or to the Parvati Valley in HP. The only thing that will change my choice, is rain. I need to figure out where it is raining the least.

Due to the altitude, Leh is dry as a bone. Which is perfect. No humidity, no rain. Anywhere downhill will be wet, as it is monsoon season everywhere else in India.

More later...

Delhi to Leh

My evening in Delhi consisted of stuffing my face with all the food I'd missed, picking up bits and bobs that i'd need for my trip, and then attempting to catch some rest.

3 showers later, I was still hot and sweaty, and even with the A/C and fan going full blast, I couldn't get any sleep. I blame the jetlag at least partially.

A screwup with the taxi (essentially, I got swindled for about 50 rupees), meant that I had to pay retail for a taxi at 3AM - I woke up the taxi driver dozing in the rear seat, and paid him 220 rupees to take me to the domestic terminal.

I've briefly befriended an Australian hippy, who very kindly offered to take my gigantic pot of Marmite, a can of lebanese hummus (to be used in a trade with a desperate israeli), and a few other heavy items with her on her flight. Air Deccan, the low cost carrrier I was taking are very very strict in terms of weight - as they can charge you for every kg you go over. This of course gave me a large incentive to keep my eye on her, lest she run off with my Marmite once she got to Leh.

The flight: I can honestly say that it was the most fantastic flight I've ever taken. It didn't last much more than an hour, but the trip over so many snow-capped mountains made for a fantastic view - and in many cases, it seemed like we were just a few hundred meters over the mountains.

The decent into Leh, was...crazy. There is one short runway, with mountains on either end, and so the airplane had to make a series of decending circles, each time getting a bit and bit lower. It gave us a good chance to see the mountains - and also, the mega-ton of army vehicles, troops and airplanes in the area. Gun turrets and sandbag-protected soldiers lined the runway, and kept the eye on our plane the whole time as we landed.

It's ironic I suppose, in that both this place, and the Andaman Islands I went to last year - some of the most beautiful places I've been to in the world, and both are chock-a-block full of Indian Army/Navy. And in both those situations, the troops consider it to be a really horrible posting. No one likes getting sent to Leh - but thats probably because it's far below freezing 8 months of the year.

Once we landed, we both checked into two different rooms at a guest house about 15 mins outside of leh - and the majority of the rest of the day was spent snoozing. I was already feeling feint - either because of the altitude, or the lack of sleep, and so I really wanted to take it easy.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Back in India

15 months after I left, I'm back in India. Thus, starting today, farting is suddenly a very risky act - as you never know what will happen.

Delhi airport can be a crazy experience. I had breakfast this morning with a South African woman who got completely screwed over when she arrived last night - taxi drivers threatening to drop her off in the middle of nowhere, over-priced mold infested hotel rooms, threats of violence, etc... All because she opted to go with a taxi driver who walked upto her, and offered her a deal.

It's like so many of the horror stories you hear - in hindsight, it's easy to see where they went wrong.

My experience on the other hand, was painless this morning.

I walked out of the airport, got some cash from the ATM - 2500 rupees in my money belt, and 300 rupees in bills in my top pocket.

I walked straight to a policeman, and asked him where I could catch a bus to the city - he pointed me the right way, and a second policeman outside actually walked me to the bus. Police are your good friend in India - assuming of course, you're not an Israeli backpacker trying to smuggle hashish.

The bus cost me 50 rupees, and dropped me off in Connaught Place. A 20 rupee auto-rickshaw ride took me to the area where I'm staying. After a bit of brief haggling, I got a air-con room in a decent hotel for 450 rupees.

First thing I did, was go and get a shave. I haven't shaved for 3 months, and looked like some kind of cross between a goat and a mujhadeen. Cleanly shaved, I got my first paan in 15 months, a towel, a lungi (a sarong/skirt) - as it is damn humid here, and breakfast: Idli.. mmm, oh how i've missed it.

Sure, it's so humid my shirt is sticking to me - yes, cows roam the streets, and the mud in the streets certainly isn't mud... but it's India, and I feel strangely, at home.

I fly to Leh tomorrow morning at 6AM. Leh is an ethnically tibetian area, the highest in altitude in India. However, it's also in the state of Jammu/Kashmir. Kargil, the beginning of muslim Kashmir, is a few hours away - and the Kargil War nearly caused a nuclear war back in 2002. Thus, while Leh will be flush with backpackers, the security situation is still very tight. Permits required to see some sites, military everywhere, and getting a GSM card for my phone may be tough.

I expect to have solid internet in Leh - and will be there for at least a few days, as my body will need to get used to the altitude.

Until then.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Munich, Day 2

My first real day in Germany.

A beergarden near my house has free wifi, and so at 9AM, I am setup across the street, catching up on my overflowing inbox....

A rather cute, and multiplly face and lip pierced mail-woman passed by on her modified mail-carrying bike. Things are certainly different here.

No smiles, anywhere. I try, over and over, but my smiles to random people are met with blank looks.

Later, a trip to the town registration center, upstairs, to the foreigner registration office. They have very strange rules here. A machine gives out pieces of paper with numbers, yet select members of the populace do not seem to need such a number. Old people and women with little kids seem to be able to bypass the queue. I suppose its fair enough, apart from the fact that the place is teeming with old people.

Eventually, with my registration papers done, I head into the town center to try and find a bank account.

5 different banks, one after another, all reject me. The fact that I am staying for three months is a problem. Likewise, the fact that I have never earned money in germany is also an issue. I suppose this is what its like to be an immigrant in the US with no way to establish credit.

Eventually, I walk into a Deutche Bank. They have an in-house barista making free cappuccinos for waiting customers. A nice touch. I wait for 15 mins, and 3 coffees later, they tell me it shouldnt be a problem at all, and that as a student, they will waive all fees for me, as long as I am a student, or under 30. Germans pay monthly fees to bank, it seems.

They just need a proof of student status... which brings me to the subject of the ISIC card.

No one outside the US knows what an Indiana University ID card is. In countries where english is not read, it is practically useless. Even if they can read it, it will have been the first time that they have ever seen one. Instead, every museum, theatre, etc that gives out student discounts demands an ISIC card.

ISIC is a private org. that seems to have put themselves in the position of giving out student cards. They are not a governmentally backed group, nor do the cards carry any real weight. Therefore, I do not see why I should have to shell out $15 per year just so that I can get an ISIC card.

Which is why, last year, I picked up 5 blank fake ISIC cards on Bangkok´s Khao San Road. I turned one into a working ID a couple day before I came, hand-done with a felt tipped ink pen. It doesn´t look professional, but then, those sold by the ISIC people are often done in pen too.

Deutche Bank accepted my Bangkok ID card without any questions, and with that alone, agreed to waive all account fees for the next few years.

Yet another reason that most forms of ID checking are completely pointless.