A Travellerspoint blog

The Finale

The Best, Worst, and Most Memorable

sunny 12 °C
View Last hurrah!!! on csomera1's travel map.

Ok... so I'm recapping my adventure. And for all those who have loyally been reading my blog (Ron and Mom, thanks), this shouldn't be too much of a surprise. But hopefully, everyone else will tune into this one, rather than just for looking at how fat I've gotten in pictures of me in a bikini. Haha. (Don't worry, I'll be soon back in shape as I'm planning for another marathon and triathalon this year).

Me and all my possessions for the last 14 weeks...

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Remember that scene at the end of the movie, The Beach, with Leo DiCapprio? He's sitting in a cafe, looking around at people sipping their lattes, talking on their cell phones, and surfing away on Macs. He fit so easily back into the routine of things at home, as if his crazy Thailand adventure was just a dream.... until he opens up an email with a photo of the people he met on the beach in Thailand. Ironic, how I'm sitting away at my Mac, sipping on a tea and uploading pictures to put on my blog. Ron picked me up last night after a 22 hour journey from India to Moscow to Toronto to Chicago. Came home, jumped in my hot strong shower, watched some TV, lay in bed atop my soft sheets and plush pillows... it was so easy to slide right back into the comforts of home that the whole thing... 14 weeks of travel seemed like a dream.

But I have bad tan lines that remind of the warm sun I just basked in...

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Things I couldn't wait to do when I got home
Besides taking a shower with good water pressure and never ending hot water without wearing flip flops and sleeping in my own bed, I also wanted to...
Sleep in. There are only a handful of times where we've slept in until 9am. But there's always something in store for that day and we're always on the go. It would be nice to sleep in until noon, wake up, eat, and sleep some more without worrying about wasting the day away.
Hang out with friends while watching a Bears game. I know they're out of the running, but maybe I'll be home in time for a couple more games and see Grossman make a further ass of himself.
Here are the guys at my last Bears game before I left for my trip at State Bar...

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Food I Miss at Home
1. A salad, particularly a BBQ Chicken salad from CPK. Anything fresh, crunchy, cold, refreshing. Haven't had salad on my trip cuz we've been afraid of the water they may have washed the produce with.
2. A Fuji apple... another cold, refreshing, sweet, crunchy treat.
3. Dannon Light Vanilla Yogurt. Usually had this for breakfast with fruit at home and miss it. We've had some strange breakfasts out here...
4. Slices of Toro from Coast. I miss how it melts in my mouth and its cool and refreshing taste. Mmm...I'm salivating just thinking about it.
5. Buffalo Joes wings and cheese waffle fries. I know, I know... fatty. But I've been a vegetarian for the last month in Nepal and India that I need some meat.
6. For some reason, a whopper from Burger King. I don't know why it's that particular buger, but I want one.

Best Food
There are several places where we've had really good food... just depends on your taste. But every country had wonderful restaurants and dishes that we enjoyed and would recommend to anyone.
China: everywhere we had the Spicy Chicken Peanut. Available at almost every restaurant we went to... got sick of it then craved it wherever we went.
Macau: their infamous egg tarts... creamy egg custard in a buttery, flaky pastry shell.
Vietnam: dinner with Chi and friend in Ho Chi Minh city. Had some local Vietnamese cuisine other than the fishy pho. Delicious.
Laos: best coffee in Luang Prabang at Morning Glory. Very strong and sweetened with condensed milk.
Thailand: Massaman curry. Very rich and spicy curry with any type of meat you want.
Cambodia: Khmer Curry. An unexpected surprise. A curry with lots of fresh, crunchy vegetables, coconut milk, and fish. It was often served in a bowl made of banana leaves. Fragrant, sweet, spicy... freaking amazing. Is there a Cambodian restaurant in Chicago?

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Cambodia also gets the vote for Best Breakfast at Khmer Family Kitchen. A ham omelette, pineapple pancake, coffee, baguette, fruit with muesli, honey, and yogurt, potatoes and tomatoes... all for a whopping 2 USD.

Strangest Food
Dog in Datong, China. Yes, we ate dog. During a group outing, another adventurous American wanted to try it. So we joined in. It looked more appetizing than the "ox's sex organ in bamboo barrel" or the "depressing blood pressure peanut." Had one bite of the cold-cut type gray looking meat of an unidentifiable body part of a dog. I cringe just thinking about it.
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Food at Wanfunjing, China.... Crickets, scorpions, grubs, all crazy insects... nasty

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Hot Pot in Chongqing, China. Tried to order chicken, but the woman kept pointing at her feet. No, not chicken feet, we begged. So she took Lauren into the kitchen and there was a refrigerator of different meats, mostly brains and other innards. Lauren pointed out a dumpling looking meat that I don't even want to think about what body parts of whatever animal it was comprised of.

Best Sunset
Yeah I know it's the same sun we have at home that disappears somewhere over the horizon beyond the Brickyard Mall on the west side. But it's seriously the experience of seeing this amazing orb in a different setting.
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. While drinking a mango shake on Long Beach awaiting a twilight massage on the beach.

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Nagarkot, Nepal. 6 words: overlooking the Himalayas and Mount Everest.

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Phnom Bakheng Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. We had been out all day in abuot 90+ degree heat. The sun was blaring and here is where I got the worst tan lines. haha. The temples were spectacular. After a long tiring, sweaty, dirty day, we were driven to this temple that rested on a hill. The sun was quickly descending and we still had to climb this hill to the top. We couldn't see exactly if the sun had fallen yet because of all the trees, but we thought we were missing it. Then it started to rain, and yet we were still climbing. We finally got to the top, climbed up the temple and perched on a spot overlooking the valley and the sunset. It was drizzling still but the sun colored everything in an orange glow. Freaking spectacular! You work so hard to get there. You can't see where you're going. The elements, like the heat and the rain, were deterring you from your goal. But you made it and it was worth it. I remember standing on the top of that temple, marveling in the beauty of the sight, and thinking how worth it it was for me to be standing there... how everything in life, every path, every hardship, every accomplishment led me to view that magnificent sight at that moment. Cheesy, yes, I know... but it was seriously spiritual.

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Biggest Risks
Laos: Swimming in dark cold murky waters in a cave in Vang Vieng while holding a candle to see 2 feet in front of you and trying not to slip on the sharp jagged rocks beneath you. Don't even want to think if there was anything else under those waters.
China: ordering food at a restaurant... just point to something on the menu of Chinese characters and hope it's not dog.
India: eating raw vegetables... strike that... eating anything in India is a risk.
Macau: Bungy jumping the world's highest jump.

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Best Beaches
Long Beach in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. Was officially voted as one of the top 10 in the world. It had pure white soft sand. The water was so blue and warm and clear you could see the tropical fish swim next to you.

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Leela Beach in Koh Phangan, Thailand. Another white sand, warm watered beach on a private strip in front of CocoHut Resort.

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Worst Accommodations
Cambodia: Heart of Angkor. Good location, near the Old Market and Pub Street. But dirty and grimy. Had to use my sleeper sheet, kept the lights in the bathroom to deter the roaches and divert the mosquitos.
Thailand: 1. Leela Bungalows in Koh Phangan. Had a row of ants marching near Ellen's head. Had an outdoor toilet and shower where you could hear your neighbor take a shower and pass you a bar of soap if you wished.
2. Long Beach Divers in Koh Phi Phi: Everytime it rained, bugs like centipedes (who I named Bob) and strange beetles would find refuge in our room. It was dark and mildewy. Luckily we spent all day on the beach that we only went there to sleep.

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India: Hotel Namaskar in New Delhi. A Lonely Planet suggestion, which failed to mention that it was located in a small alley off the cow crap covered Main Bazaar and past a row of stinky public urinals.

Best Accommodations
1. CocoHut on Koh Phangan. By far the best place I'd stayed at on this whole trip. Great customer service. Friendly staff. Clean facilities. Pool. Spa. Two sitting areas to lay and lounge around while eating dinner and watching movies on huge LCD TVs. Pristine private white sand beach. Near Had Rin Beach for the Full Moon Party. Had a concierge named "John Connor" who could get anything for you... I mean ANYTHING. Splurged on a cliffside bungalow that had a huge bed, overlooked the beach through its private balcony, strong shower, tv, and computer. Pure luxury.

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2. Bam's Diving Resort in Koh Tao. Another beautiful bungalow style room, with DVD player, TV, 2 rooms, balcony overlooking the pool, great restaurant.

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3. Lovan Guesthouse in Vientiane, Laos. In a quiet neighborhood, small modest room... but the owner was so friendly and hospitable, and of course, really laid back. It's like we were staying over at someone's house.
4. Goverdhan Tourist Complex in Fatehpur Sikr, India. Another modest room. The shower wasn't so great and the power kept shutting down, but the food was excellent as was the customer service. Everyone was SOOO polite, which was an unexpected surprise in India.

Most Surreal Moments
Beijing: On the Great Wall of China, overlooking the valley and the expanse of the wall... looked like something out of a history book.
Macau: Standing at the edge of the platform about to bumgy jump looking onto the concrete beneath you and trying not to chicken out.
Cambodia: Sunset at Angkor Wat... seeing it change colors as the sun descended in the horizon opposite it.

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Thailand: Are my worries only really about what type of shake should I get while I watch the sunset? Mango or Coconut? Or if we should get a Singha or Chang Beer with dinner?

Massages
Best Massage: Bangkok, Thailand. Best strong massage. On our last night in Thailand, had a Thai Massage. They're known for bending you this way and that, cracking all your joints, and kneading every single muscle. A man walked in to do mine and was scared of his strength. But the massage was spectacular and he cracked several joints up and down my back. All for 180 baht, about 6USD. You can get them anywhere all over Bangkok.
Most relaxing: Luang Prabang, Laos. Had a neck and shoulder massage. We've been lugging aroung these heavy bags and needed some kneading to work out the knots in our upper traps. It was also the most relaxing atmosphere, with soothing music, dark lighting, private enclosures, and delicious tea at the end. 5USD.
Worst: Mumbai, India. Mr. Pai took us to his gym to enjoy a steam bath and a massage. The steam bath was a crazy 43C. So hot, I couldn't stand more than a couple of minutes at a time. Then in a small dingy room in the ladies locker room, I had oil (vegetable or canola, not sure) rubbed all over me. I could have done the same thing to myself. There was no massaging, just rubbing. I also felt violated as she rubbed my breasts as only I believe my doctor should.
Strangest: Goa, India. Another traveller recommended a place called Achu on the beach. We wanted an ayurvedic kerala massage. We knew it entailed using medicinal oils, but didn't know much else. It was an hour and a half long. Started with a head massage with mentholated oil that kept your head tingling the whole time. Then your full body, even your face. I don't think I relaxed very well and kept myself pretty tense... only cuz as I mentioned before verged on foreplay more than it did a massage... yikes.

Places to visit with your significant other... (Ronaldo, take notes.)
1. Beaches of Thailand. Koh Phi Phi, Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Koh Samui. It would be nice to explore other beaches, but the aforementioned Long Beach and Leela Beach are simply breathtaking.
2. Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It was built out of the love of a man for his wife. How romantic is that?
3. Trekking in Laos or in Nepal. I think I needed more of a porter than a boyfriend while trekking. Just kidding. It would be nice to sweat it out while climbing beautiful mountains with your loved one.
4. Lounging around in Vang Vieng, Laos... lying in a bed at a restaurant watching endless Friends episodes. Nothing different than what Ron and I do at home anyway.
5. India: might be nice to be here with a guy who can ward off all the unwanted stares and lewd comments of the men there.

Places to visit with your kids
Touchy subject, cuz in general, Asia is crowded, polluted, very, very busy. There aren't any Disney Worlds (except in Hong Kong, I believe). It's just dirty. You might not be able to find mac and cheese or fresh milk or anything your kid might crave while away. But if your kid is old enough... say 7 years or older... it would be a memorable experience. Simply to know how their counterparts live on the other side of the world. I've noticed, in general, that the children in Asia don't cry, don't whine, and don't complain. They have such humble existances that whatever lifestyle they live, they accept. They have no choice because there is no other alternative. They've never known what it's like to have a doll or a toy that's been taken away. They've never known the feeling of wearing cute colorful mary janes with their matching dress. So they can't cry or whine or complain for something they've never had. I don't know if a child from home can conceive what it's like for their impoverished peers. But maybe it'll put a little perspective when they actually see how humble these counterparts are without half the luxuries they have at home.
Vietnam: Children sold gum to tourists while they sat outside at restaurants in Ho Chi Minh. They'd poke their heads in through open restaurant windows in attempts to make a sale.
Cambodia: Children waited outside the local convenient store in the tourist areas and when a westerner went inside and tried to purchase something, the child or the mother would put a gallon of milk in with all the other groceries, in hopes that the westerner would be sympathetic enough to pay for it.
Nepal: several children obviously sniffing glue from small plastic bags were barefoot on the cold pavement asking for a few rupees outside guesthouses and grocery stores.
India: Mothers carrying their dirty, sad looking children would come up to your car at a stop light and just beg incessantly. Small children would run up to you while walking on the street and try to put a strand of fresh flowers around your wrist in exchange for a couple of rupees.

Best Shopping
Ahhh...One of my favorite categories.
Laos: Silk scarves and Beerlao shirts.
Nepal: fleeces and wool outeraware.
Thailand: bootleg CDs of house music.
Hoi An: custom, tailor made clothes... even shoes.

Glad I had these items:
The Sleeper: a sweatshirt from Burton. Its hoodie unravels to cover your eyes to block out light when you're trying to sleep on a plane, train, or automobile. It has a secret pocket in the hood to stash some money. Has a pocket in the inside for your passport. Has a special pocket for your IPod. It has zip up armpit vents if you get warm and thumb holes to help cover your arms if you get cold. It comes with ear plus in another little pocket... and the best thing, it has a blow up pillow piece in the neck to use when you wanna fall asleep. It was AMAZING! and the best invention ever!!!
Vicks: another traveler suggested to place Vicks vapor rub underneath your nose in India to divert the strange smells in the air.
Dramamine: for those dreadful catamaran rides in Thailand if you want to go island hopping.
Antibacterial hand sanitizer: pretty self explanatory.
Chain lock for bags: for trains to prevent thieves.
Large needle and thread: for those repairs to my poor backpack that has been stuffed with way too much crap.
Books: Middlesex (Euginedes), Honeymoon with my Brother (Wisner), Paula (Allende), Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns (Hosseini), Freakonomics (Dubner)... good reading for long train rides and endless hours of tanning on the beach.
IPOD: a godsend. There's nothing like listening to Diego Torres croon to you while trying to sleep at night or jamming to some Kenny Dope, Louie Vega, and Tribe while lying on the beach.

Wish I brought:
Febreeze. Sometimes you can't do laundry for a couple weeks... and sometimes you just need a fresh smelling t-shirt.
Aerosol Lysol disinfectant to spray my bag and shoes after walking through the dirty urine and feces covered streets of China and India.
Small soap bottle: no soap in the restrooms.

REGRETS:
None. Yeah... it's easy to say that in retrospect... but seriously, this was the trip of a lifetime. There were some moments when I wished we weren't staying here or eating that or "I wish I was doing something else" moments, but this trip wouldn't have been what it was without the unexpected and not always so pleasant surprises occurring. Even the most mundane thing... like staying at Hotel Namaskar made the shower Sachin let us take at his hotel, the Taj Palace, seem that much better. For a week while we stayed around Delhi, we appreciated a shower. For all the bad moments, getting ripped off with autorickshaws and taxis, the haggling over everything from souvenirs to accommodations to water, the roach motels (literally) etc... there's always been something to reward us. And the rewards have been sunsets, a beer, a few days on the beach, and especially a good story. Ellen and I constantly laugh about the monster roach she stepped on in Hong Kong when she went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, or the day I leaped over a table in Laos after I heard something explode and thought it was a bomb, or how we keep track of our BMs. So many great stories and experiences that may not have seemed so great when we were going through them. But freaking memorable as hell...

Posted by csomera1 10:48 Archived in USA Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Home Stretch... Happy New Year!!!!

Goa, India

sunny 30 °C
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My expected ETA back to Chicago was actually December 22... and throughout the whole trip, was convinced otherwise that it was sometime after the New Year. Haven't been home for the holidays in the last 3 years... Goa now, the Philippines last year, and Argentina the year before. I really wanted to be home and celebrate in the snowy Chicago scene like any proper wintery holiday, go ice skating on Skate on State, and ring in the NY at the Drake again. But let's face it, the snow in Chicago turns a disgusting gray, it's too freaking cold to skate outdoors, and the Drake will always be there as it has for the last 100 years. So Ellen and I laid out all day, trying to get back the golden tans we had back in Thailand. We ate at Dylan's, a seaside restaurant and had an amazing paneer korma and manchurian vegetable dish. India LOVES Chinese food and have their own take on it... slightly spicier but delicious. Great dinner. We then went to Dancing Shivas. a beachside club to drink, listen to music, meet some peeps and have some good conversation. We ran to the beach a few minutes before midnight to watch the fireworks... and before we knew it, it was 2008. They didn't have a countdown so Ellen and I had our own. So funny... we officially realized it when it was 12:02AM.

Superstition has it that whatever you do on New Year's Day is what you do the rest of the year. Well, Ellen and I spent it on the beach all day. So does that mean I'll be lazying around all year? Hope not... made some New Year's resolutions, and have been really good about upholding them each year... running another marathon, doing the triathalon, yoga, meditating, doing more cultural things, cooking and reading more... blah blah. But our Goa schedule has been 9am breakfast, 10:30am tan front side, 12noon roll over and tan back, 2pm lunch and lay out some more until 4pm. Today, to reward ourselves for doing absolutely nothing we got an ayurvedic deep tissue massage. 90 minutes at Achu Massage Center. Mentholated tingling oils for your head. Then he rubbed every part of my body in a warm oil. I mean every part... had to tell him to miss a few spots, otherwise I think it would've been called foreplay instead of massage. Had to wear my wedding ring for that one, just so he would'nt get any funny ideas. But it was nice and deep. I didn't realize how tight all my muscles were, even on my arms... the brachioradialis, which we learned in school was the "beer drinking muscle" Hmmm... I could see why that one was soar. Haha.

I start my journey home on January 3. Fly from Goa to Mumbai. Either wait around for 10 hours at the airport, or haul my crap to a nearby hotel, risking the Mumbai traffic and the taxi drivers that rip you off, and checking in somewhere for a few hours. Don't want to waste the money, but Ellen said whatever I spend on a hotel I'll probably end up spending at the Duty Free at the airport. Then a 22 hour journey from Mumbai to Moscow to Toronto to Chicago.

But here are some Goa pics...

Palolem. Cute little beach on the southern end of Goa. Cows roam the streets. Pigs running around. Small Tibetan and Nepali stores around. Hawkers selling drums and sarongs on the beach. Lots of Westerners and hippies. Has a real down to earth feel about it. Palolem is supposedly the most beautiful beach in Goa. Looks pretty, with its coconut trees lining the beach and cute little bungalows nearby. But there are lots of dogs that do their deeds right on the sand. The Arabian sea's water is really warm but didn't go in it past my knees cuz it's pretty murky. And there are lots of Indian men walking around just to take a look at you in your bikini. Gross. So our solution... eat breakfast at a restaurant with a nice scene and good food, lay out on their beach chairs, get served cold drinks all day, don't go in the water. And enjoy! If this is the best beach in all of Goa, I wonder what the rest of them look like.

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This is our bungalow hotel room. We were going to splurge a little bit and stay at the 7 star Intercontinental Resort. A couple hundred bucks a night wouldn't have been so bad between us. It was New Year's, after all... but the rates of the Intercontinental went up from the usual 200 USD to a whopping $650/ nite. So, we stayed at Shawnel's Beach Resort. A 2 minute walk to the beach. Cute colorful little bungalows with AC and a TV. Friendly staff. The power goes out at night sometimes when you're taking a shower and you have to keep a candle lit nearby. But that's India for ya.

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Here are some New Years pics. Getting ready for the New Years... not exactly our best dress, but New Years in India on the beach... you can wear anything you want. The fireworks and Dancing Shivas, the club we hung out at.

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Holiday decorations at our guesthouse.

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Beach pictures

What we did for 3 days straight... laying out.

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Indian woman on beach in Palolem. I was sweating profusely in my bikini. But the locals are dressed from head to toe in layers of fabric without a bead of sweat on their brow.

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Bittersweet to go home. The day my ticket was booked, I panicked a little. Holy crap, my adventure will be coming to an end. I'm not really looking forward to consolidating my student loans and starting the 541298 year process of paying them off. I'm excited for my career, but not too excited to start the job hunt. (I did get suits tailor made in Vietnam, though, for that specific purpose.) Not looking forward to the dead of winter when I get back, especially when our Bears are losing so horribly. And I feel that I've changed so much but everything at home will be the same. Comforting in a way, but... I don't know, can't explain it. Honestly, I can't bear the topics about, "look at my new car or condo" or "this is what's going on at work" or "I did absolutely nothing while you were away." Not that I'm not interested. Afterall, "to each his own." But I can't summarize my 3 1/2 month journey in a similar way. But now that the end of my trip is near, I'm kinda excited. To lie in my own bed. To wear my warm flannel pajamas. To drink a decent cup of coffee. To get a haircut. To go to dinner at Iberico with everyone. To watch a Bears game. Ahhh...

Posted by csomera1 06:02 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Hi from Mumbai

Mumbai (Bombay), India

sunny 29 °C
View Last hurrah!!! on csomera1's travel map.

In Mumbai right now. We had taken a train from Pune to Mumbai on Christmas Day and were picked up from the train station by Raj's (Ellen's friend in Chicago)dad, Mr. Pai. That night we had a late Christmas dinner, another delicious Indian meal, finished with something Mrs Pai, called "Christmas cake." They're the sweetest couple ever. Their own kids have been out of the house for a while and I think they just like taking care of kids again and are treating Ellen and I like their daughters... so cute. Mr. Pai likes details and explains things very thoroughly, step by step, how to turn the key in the door, how to turn on the hot water, how to pronounce Durga stop to tell the bus conductor when we need to get off. It's so cute. It's nice to be pampered especially after months of being on our own.

This city is world's away from all the other Indian cities we've been in. For the most part, the other ones fit the horror stories and descriptions we've heard... the pollution, the aggressive men, the rude people, the cows in the street. Mumbai seems like another bustling city like any other... still dirty, lots of traffic, only a couple of cows.... but the people seem nicer. I think we're also having a better experience having come out of that camp and being a little more optimistic and also because we've been spoiled by this wonderful family and Raj's friends.

We watched another Bollywood movie... not in a big theatre with a rowdy audience that dances and hoots, but in a regular movie theatre. We saw Om Shanti Om, supposedly Bollywood's biggest blockbuster. It was very entertaining... overly dramatic and overacted like most Bollywood movies, but because of this it was easy to understand despite it being in Hindi. The music is actually getting to be really catchy and last night, we bought the Om Shanti Om soundtrack hehehe. That night Yogesh, Raj's friend, had taken us out to Aryan, a cute little lounge that easily could've been somewhere out of Miami. We enjoyed some great cocktails, food and conversation. We met a few people who were in the film industry, mostly working on its business aspect, rather than being actors. But it was just a completely different world from the healthcare field that it was refreshing and interesting. We also met a girl, Tuli, who grew up in Mundelein, Illinois where my parents live. Small world. We'll definitely have to hook up back in Chicago.

Here's a picture of us at Aryan... Muhammad, Naima, Ellen, myself, Yogesh and Tuli.

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The next morning, we woke up bright and early to go to Elephanta, another World Heritage site. It's a series of caves built on this island with several carvings of Shiva, in different forms. Very interesting, but the journey took longer to get there and back than it did to actually visit the place.

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The Pais and I on Elephanta.

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Here are some other of Mumbai's famous sites. The Gate of India... another Arc de Triumph type monument that marks India's independence from Britain.

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The Gate of India and the famous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel... a super posh landmark hotel where we enjoyed some snacks...

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The Christmas tree in the lobby of the Taj Hotel... crazy, sometimes being away, you just forget it's the holidays until you're reminded when you see some decorations.

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That night, we hung out with Priya, another of Raj's friends. She owns an art gallery in the Worli area. What a crazy life she lives... always on the run, meeting artists, buyers, working the logistics of her business. And she took time to hang out with us and go shopping a little bit. So sweet. We ended up going to an art display opening for a while, drank some wine, looked at some art I didn't quite understand, and just enjoying... Then we went shopping in Colaba at the night market where we bought some shawls for gifts and of course, our prized Om Shanti Om soundtrack.

In the Bombay Times, we were mentioned in an article of the art show Priya had taken us to. It said, "...Priyasri Patodia, who has brought along a couple of friends from Chicago who were amazed by the exuberance in the Mumbai art scene..." So funny... we stop by for a few minutes to an art show in Mumbai and we're immortalized in their newspaper. Haha. Though anonymous, we know it's us.

We woke up this morning to go on a walk with Mr Pai at the jog park and run some errands. Such a sweet guy. He bought us groceries to take on our train ride to Goa tomorrow.

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Then Ellen and I went on a mission to buy more shawls. It was quite an effort, an hour bus ride, hoping we don't get ripped off, negotiating prices. We celebrated with a coffee at Barista. It was another one of those places that made you forget you were India and you could have easily been sitting in Chicago somewhere people watching, reading the paper (unfortunately, about the assassination of Pakistan's Benzanir Bhutto... how tragic), and sipping on a skim mocha.

Posted by csomera1 10:07 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

It's All Mental

Vipassana Meditation Course, Pune, India

sunny 29 °C
View Last hurrah!!! on csomera1's travel map.

Someone told me that the marathon is 26.2 miles long because at mile 20, you hit the mental "wall," and so the extra 6.2 miles is meant to see if you can break through that wall. Anybody can run the damn thing. If you train properly, you can condition your body to be physically able to run it. I didn't hit the wall during my 1st marathon. But my running buddy did... at about mile 17. We walked the rest of the way, not finishing with record time, but at least finishing. Still quite an accomplishment.

The year after that, I wanted to run the Chicago Marathon again. I hit the wall... at about -146 miles. I hit the wall while I was training halfway through the 5 month regimen. There was just too much stuff going on especially with finishing the last year up of grad school that it was hell on earth to get up at 5AM to run 6 miles or so. I remember the day I ran it. It was freezing. At about mile 5, I was like, "damn, I shouldn't have eaten that pizza last nite." And, "Damn, I shouldn't have eaten the left overs for breakfast." At about Mile 7, I saw a girl dressed up from head to toe as Catwoman, spandex, mask and all... and I remember wishing, "I hope you're chafing under that costume." I was miserable. Luckily, Ron ran the last 5 miles with me, with a sign, that read, "go Char go" so it got the whole crowd going and I just heard words of encouragement the rest of the way. I did it... cuz deep down inside, I knew that my body was ready. I trained for months, my body was physically able to do it. My mind wasn't.

But this 10 day Vipassana meditation thing makes a marathon look like a joke. We had to maintain "noble silence." No talking, no eye contact, no gesturing, no music, no reading, no writing. And that wasn't the hardest thing about it. It was the sitting and trying to concentrate, trying to bring your mind to focus on something other than the random thoughts going through your head. "What am I going to eat when I get home?" "Should I go to Miami again this year?" "What new movies are out at home?" "I wonder what everyone's doing for Christmas" I thought of everything under the sun. Who would've thought that sitting on your ass for 10 hours a day for 10 days would be so hard?

Here's the schedule:
4am: wake-up gong
4:30am-6:30am: Meditation in hall
6:30am-8am: Breakfast, bath time
8am-11am: Meditation in hall
11am-1pm: Lunch, laundry, exercise, rest
1-5pm: Meditation in hall
5pm: Tea and snack
6-7pm: Meditation in hall
7pm: video discourse
8:30-9pm: Meditation in hall
9:30pm: lights out

Everyday for 10 days... exhausting.

Vipassana roughly means "to be aware of the reality of now as your body experiences it." Abstract, I know. But it aims to teach us to stop being ignorant and to come out of misery. The whole purpose of the meditation is to sit there observing yourself from moment to moment, not trying to focus on the past or the future, which was one of the hardest things. It was SO hard to just focus on that moment and not let your mind wander from regrets in the past or to fantasizing about the future. The first couple of days, I sat thinking about what types of foods I craved when I got home, or what it would be like to drive again, or how I need a new pair of boots. My mind went everywhere, except to what was happening at that moment.

It took 10 days to teach us all the proper techniques about how to be more aware of our bodies and our feelings at the present moment. It takes account the concept that all things, even us humans, are simply matter; trillions of tiny subatomic particles that constantly change. So when we experience certain sensations, we develop feelings that may manifest themselves physically, but when completely broken down are just the everchanging subatomic particles. Then in response to the feelings, we react menatlly, vocally, or physically. For ex: anger may manifest itself as heart palpitations, flushing, faster breathing etc. Anger is unpleasant (duh) and thus we develop feelings of aversion of anger. And then we react by either vocally lashing out on someone or even hitting someone else. Why? You're miserable with the anger. And so are people around you. Through the course, we were given the methods to simply observe all the subtle and not so subtle changes our bodies were going through with the pain of sitting there (cuz that's what was happening at the present moment) and try not to develop feelings of aversion or craving for these sensations and thus not react in a negative way. A person isn't addicted to alcohol or nicotine. They're addicted to the sensation it gives them. So in theory, if you can observe the feelings these intoxicants give you, you won't develop the craving for the sensation, and thus, not need the alcohol or nicotine. When you observe something completely objectively (easier said than done) then the feeling goes away. So we sat there, knees hurt, back hurts, neck hurts, itch on my arm, cramp in my hip, foot fell asleep... and just tried to observe these feeling objectively... and they went away. It was weird, but it almost felt like I was observing my body like it didn't belong to me.

I came out of the experience feeling so refreshed. I was definitely mentally exhausted, but overall, I was just given the tools to "be happy." That was the main message... just be happy. This concept is so easy to intellectually understand... just so hard to practice. But I've been given the methods and so I have the chance to really try to stop being such a bitchy spoiled person, stop spreading misery with my own, and try to be happy... just takes some meditation.

On the last day of the camp, it was bittersweet. It felt so weird to talk. But almost like the whole experience could easily not have happened. You really have to keep up the practice of meditating to really feel balanced, cuz it's hard to get back to the real world and try not to be bothered by unwanted things happening and resorting to negatively reacting the way I had been acting for last 28 years to certain scenarios. Gotta break the habit.

This course also confirmed observations I've made about traveling. "It's easier to be ignorant, cuz with more knowledge, comes responsibility." It's hard to travel and realize that I've spent 200USD on a pair of Rock and Republics, but could have spent that probably feeding an entire town in the slums of India. If you pretend you never saw that beggar standing outside the restaurant, then you don't have to give them money, right? It's just easier to play stupid. How ignorant of me.

Also, "the more you plan and have expectations for someplace you visit, the more you'll get disappointed when those plans don't work out." Unwanted things happen all the time just as much as those things that you want to happen don't. So what to do? What can you do? Move on... don't dwell, don't regret, just be aware of that moment and how you can simply move on.

Does this make sense? I know it sounds like I'm a hippie believing in something completely New Age. (Don't worry Mom, I'm still a Catholic... just one who might be meditating at 4am every day). I've always been a skeptical person. Always studied the sciences and would have easily preferred a formula where you plug in numbers and data to receive a specific answer. Life's not so concrete and there isn't a formula to simply "be happy." I know I know I know.... easier said than done. But I've always been a person who hates saying things without doing them.

Here are some pics that I took of the camp...

The golden stupa of our meditation hall... our home for 10 hours of the day. We all sat on 2x2 foot pillows in neat rows. I also sat on a wool blanket for some extra cushion and had 2 small pillow supporting my knees so that my ligaments (don't ask me which ones, but I'm thinking the ITB) wouldn't overstretch.

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The cafeteria... men and women were separated. No contact with the opposite sex, they always had separate enterances to the hall, were isolated in the cafeteria and in residences, and in the meditation hall. The cafeteria looks like a prison, huh?

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My modest room a hard cot with a mosquito net. Had a private bath but had to take bucket showers, which I enjoyed... suprosed at how much water I waste taking showers at home. I night actually consider this bucket shower thing at home. Had a roomate, a lawyer from Mumbai. Didn't know her name or spoke to her one bit until the 10th day when the silence rule was lifted. Funny how I lived with her so peacefully and she was a complete stranger.

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Christmas lunch with Priya, a member of our camp, in Pune with her father. The day we left the camp, she drove us back to the main center and let us unwind at her parents house. They also took us to a delicious Indian lunch. It felt wonderful to celebrate Christmas... didn't go to church but spent the morning meditating.

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Posted by csomera1 03:11 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

My friend's friend's dad's best friend's son's wedding

New Delhi, Agra, Fatephur sikri, and Jaipur, India

overcast 18 °C
View Last hurrah!!! on csomera1's travel map.

So we had heard several horror stories about India from other backpackers prior to our arrival. I had been so excited to leave one country and get into another, ready to take on a new adventre and challenge. But I was dreading India.
Myth1: Cows roam the streets. So if they block traffic, they block traffic. The end.
True: Cows are sacred here and they roam the streets pooping and peeing everywhere. They can stand with their intimidating horns right next to you as you wait to cross the street. So beef is not on the menu here anywhere. Eating a cow is like eating your dog in the States.

Myth 2: Men stare and follow you down the street, especially if you are fair colored with blue eyes (like Ellen)
True. They hassle you even after you say "no" several times. They try to sell you things and constantly ask you random questions. "where are you from?" The only thing that worked really well was to say, "f#$@*k off!" ANother traveller told us this trick. Indian men hate to be embarrassed so if they hassle you, just yell at them and they'll bow their heads and sheepishly walk away.

Myth 3: It smells here.
True. With all the livestock in the streets, of course it smells. Like a zoo. There are public urinals everywhere, but men just randomly pee anywhere, on the sides of streets, wherever. Someone told us the trick is to smear Vicks vapor rub to mask the smells... Only a temporary reprieve, however.... very short lasting.

Myth 4: They slash your pockets in trains to steal your money.
??? We get on our 1st train tomorrow, but opted for a higher class with a security guard, so hopefully, that will deter any thieves.

Myth 5: Delhi Belly aka "the Both Ends Phonomenon." Hygiene is a joke here. People spit everywhere. They pee on the sides of the road, then go back to their street stall to serve you food. Ellen and I wish we could douse ourselves with Purell antibacterial gel. We brush our teeth using bottled water.
True. Haven't had it to us... knock on wood. But we've heard other travellers while after eating a slice of tomato (washed in their tap water) have 5 bouths of pooping and puking at the same time over a nasty squat toilet.

Myth 6: Men take their pictures with you, again if you're fair haired and light eye colored. So they can show your picture to someone at the Indian Embassy, calling you their girlfriend who is waiting for you in the States, in hopes to get a visa to America.
??? Don't know but Ellen's had to block several attempted photos of her on the streets. Who knows what they'll use the pics for.

Anyway, when we arrived, we went straight to our Hotel... recommended in the Lonely Planet. Hotel Namaskar. You had to walk through a bustling bazaar, passed the reeking urinals, down an alley to reach the hotel. The room is windowless and we can hear the conversation of the people next door via a hole in the wall. But the 2 brothers who own the place are so helpful and sweet.

We met up with Sachin, Elen's college friend, at the Taj Palace Hotel... a really posh hotel. We went to a wedding... as in the title of the blog. But everyone is invited to Indian weddings. We didn't have anything to wear, so Sachin's mom let us borrow some of her clothes, which was really nice. Then we proceeded to the wedding held at an outdoor farm house. I pictured sitting on haystacks with cows and goats. But this place was jut a huge piece of open land, decorated with thousands of lights, beautiful tents, a huge buffet spread, bonfires and heaters everywhere, and hot appetizers being erved by sheik dressed men. It was amazingly beautiful. The food was delicious, but it got really cold and the gas burners started diyng out by 1:30 am. That night, after stuffing ourselves, and watching the entertaining spectacle of an Indian wedding party, we made it back to our nasty hotel t 4am.

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The next night, we went to another wedding party for the same couple held at the Taj Palace. Being warm and full of food (again) we were actually able to enjoy the night and dance away.

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We did some sight seeing...
Humayun's Tomb... a mini Taj Mahal in Delhi

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India Gate: a mini Arc de Triumph (like in Paris)

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We took a 4 day, 3 night trip, hiring a personal driver (cuz we're flashpackers) that took us from Delhi to Agra to Fatephur Sikri to Jaipur and back to Delhi. Charlie, our driver drve us 4 hours away to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Another surreal moment. You hear about one of the 7 wonders of the world, but to actually see it with your own eyes, is simply spectacular. It a a hazy day, but it was still amazing. The white marble walls with intricate carvings and jewel work. Shah Jehan had built it in the 17th century as a tomb for his wife. She died while giving birth to their 14th child. He was so distraught, his hair turned white overnight. It took decaeds to build the Taj Mahal. He had the finest marble hauled all the way from Rajasthan 200 km away, jewels and precious stones from Asia and the Middle East. It is the largest monument built for love. How romantic.

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That night we drove into Fatephur Sikri, a small town a couple of hours away. We slept there that night and enjoyed some really hospitable people and good food. The next morning, we went to see the palace and fort of the town, which was conveniently across the street. A beautiful marble mausoleum of a holy man and the 2nd largest mosque in all of India were the main structures of the grounds.

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Then we drove into Jaipur late afternoon. Jaipur is called the pink city. There is an enclosed city within pink walls. All the buildings are pink. We wanted to watch a Bollywood movie and Raj Mandir cinema was the place to do it. Charlie said that if we paid for his ticket he would watch it with us and then drive us home. We did, it was only 2 USD. There were assigned seats, popcorn and chips, and a huge screen. The theater was packed. We saw Aaja Nachle. Supposedly the actress made several Bollywood movies and then disappeared for years to have children. This was her come-back film. The story was overly dramatic with lots of song and dance, which was really entertaining. We didn't need any translation, the dramatics made it easy to follow. The story line was pretty shallow and cheesy (an Indian woman who ran away with an American to New York, disgracing her family, then returning to India to find that the dance facility that she grew up in was being torn down for a shopping mall. She fought the "bad guy" by raising some awareness and creating a dance show to save the dance hall, then ends up hooking up with the "bad guy"). Always lots of dancing. Lots of singing. Lots of theatrics. Lots of music. Always a happy ending. That's Bollywood.

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We saw the sights of Jaipur the next day. The Amber Fort, Janter Manter (astrology center) and Hawa Mahal (Jaipur's most distinctive landmark, a palace built for women.)

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Then took a cycle rickshaw back to our hotel.

See the traffic on the streets of Jaipur.

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We stayed at the Hotel Pearl Palace that night. It's also in the Lonely Planet. It's known for its delicious food on their rooftop restaurant. The facilities were clean and comfortable. The people were so friendly. The internet was fast. They had hot showers and I slept comfortably (warm and quiet). I forgot I was in India for a night.

Now we're back in Delhi, sitting in an internet cafe in an alley. It's cold. It's crowded. It's dirty. I'm homesick.

Overall, India isn't so bad. In retrospect, I think I see clearer. It sucks as you're going through the motions of fighting the crowds, or ignoring the aggressive men, oo covering your nose as you walk past a urinal... but I survived. The people at most of the hotels we've stayed at have been so polite and nice. They've genuinely been helpful. And I always appreciate a little bit of hospitality in this crazy backpacker world.

We'll be in a 10 day meditation camp in Pune. We'll be taking a 27 hour train ride to get there, and since we're flashpackers, we upgraded to an upper class berth. But for 10 days, there is no talking, no eye contact, no gesturing, no music (holy crap), no reading, and no writing. I can't even wish Ellen a "merry Christmas." I'm really scared. We meditate all day, do chores, and can't eat past midday. No eating?!?! But hopefully, (again in retrospect) that I will become a more grounded, patient, and stronger person after this. I just want to learn a few meditation techniques to ease me back into the working world, the debts, the student loans, and the 401Ks.

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYBODY!!!

Posted by csomera1 05:13 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

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