Friday, February 29, 2008

Walking with Ghosts

Posted from Delhi, India

One story we haven't told yet is from over a month ago. When we were in Vietnam, we stopped in Hue for a few days. Although we had passed through the DMZ during the night, there wasn't much to see. Mostly because it was pitch black. Oh, and we were asleep. So while we were in Hue, we took a tour of the DMZ, and you know what? There's not a whole to see. Just rice paddies and farmers and lots of green. Pretty much what I imagined it looked like almost 40 years ago. In fact, I swear I could almost see American Marines in olive drab fatigues slogging through the rice paddies. But that may just be the ghosts playing tricks on my eyes. To say that there are ghosts roaming the paddy fields is an understatement. I believe in ghosts, and I have ever since I saw the irrefutable evidence in Ghostbusters. But there really are ghosts in those soggy fields. How can there not be? So many people died in such a small piece of land. Forty years after the fact, the scars are still there: our tour guide stated that farmers use the bomb craters to collect rain water for their cattle.

Speaking of bombs and their effects, did you know that after 40 years a bomb crater is still a giant hole in the ground? Sure, flowers now grow at the bottom of it and water buffalo chew on the tall grass around its rim, but the hole is still there. And did you know that even after 40 years you can tell the difference between a 500-lb bomb crater and a 2000-lb bomb crater? The crater from the bigger bomb is, well, bigger, but somehow it seems a little more than four times bigger.

In my short life, I've visited many battlefields. Most in the U.S., but those are hundreds of years old. The scars have healed, and nature has taken its course. Some in Europe, but even those are approaching their Medicare years, and many of them have been sanitized for our use. Moreover, the axes that were ground have been put away in their sheds. But to see these battlefields surrounded by farms and jungle, it is clear that nature is moving on, but it's taking its time; these scars are faded but by no means healed. And it makes me wonder about the battlefields I've had a hand in creating. What are they going to look like in 40 years?

bomb crater

Fittingly the weather on our day in the DMZ was cold, misty, and overcast. It matched our sadness; it was the only appropriate weather for our day with ghosts.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Ground Control to Major Tata**

Written from the Cochin Airport, Kerala, India
Posted from Delhi, India

We're sitting in yet another airport terminal right now, waiting to board our flight to Delhi (via Cochin and Mumbai). We got here right on time, no hassle with the 30 km taxi ride to the airport (though it took an hour and involved much honking). We checked our bags, took the battery out of our alarm clock as instructed by the ubiquitous mean security lady (wha? I don't get it either) and set out to find some tea. And then the power went out. Yes, in an airport. Yes, in a place where, just beyond that security door over there, they fly planes. All is well, however, because there is a generator. Or at least, I'm assuming there's a generator, because we were still able to get our hot tea, complete with warmed milk. Woe to the traveler who can't get their tea before boarding a plane that may or may not be able to take off because of a power failure at ground control! That is just SO India!

** For those of you not familiar with TATA, they're the ubiquitous and enormous private sector group in India. You see their logo everywhere -- on cars, buses, trucks, telecom, utilities, construction equipment, etc. You get the feeling that they are big brother and they are watching you because they seriously own everything. Their newest acquisition? Jaguar and Land Rover. Right.

Packing Protection

Posted from India

Lizzi and I aren't the only ones getting sick on this trip. Unfortunately, our laptop gets a nasty bug every once in a while too. It's really our own fault. Wireless internet has been available in some of the guesthouses we've stayed in but not many. All of our photos and blog posts are composed on the laptop and then transferred to a flash drive, which we connect to a computer in an internet cafe. This is the computer equivalent of shaking the hand of someone who has just sneezed and then licking it. Sometimes you're going to get sick. So far, the flash drive has contracted at least one virus and a couple of gnarly bits of adware. As best as I can figure, the adware is from Thailand (looks to be something Google Toolbar coughed up), and the virus came from a dirty machine in Goa.

Viruses and adware are just a few of the bugs for which there is no vaccine. If you're going to take a laptop, which I recommend, be sure to turn on the antivirus software, download and run Ad-Aware regularly, and just be smart about what you connect to your machine, even indirectly. Just like people, your computer has a history. If you plug your flash drive (this goes for cameras too) into a different computer and then stick it in yours, your computer will be infected with everything the other computer has. The old adage holds true: wrap it before you tap it.

A Few Thoughts on India, So Far

Written from Cochin, Kerala, India
Posted from Delhi, India

We've been in India for over two weeks now, and I haven't really written anything substantive on our actual travels here. Sure, I've written about other backpackers, and Matt told you about our seaside and bus experiences, but I haven't written anything about what it's like to actually BE here in this place. And I'm not sure why I haven't written about it, because it's not like I'm not thinking about it. On the contrary, I'm thinking about it all the time. It's practically all I can think about. The very word "India" just rolls around in my head, over and over and over again. It's often coupled with images I expected to see here, images that collide with things that I am actually seeing here. And there are bits and pieces of stories that I've stolen from friends who have either visited India or still call India home. Those roll around in my head too. So although I'm sure that it won't be even a little bit eloquent, I want to try to get some of these thoughts down for you, just in case you're still bumbling along on this journey with us and you want to know.

From the stories I'd heard about Goa, I expected to land smack in the middle of an enormous beach rave. I expected something a la Phi Phi Island, Thailand, complete with hippie-like tourists and buckets filled to the brim with vodka and red bull. But because we stayed off the beaten track in a non-backpacker area, there were no buckets, no hippies to speak of, and certainly no raves. In the end, even though we thought we were looking for some way to inebriate ourselves in our early days in the subcontinent, it ended up being a good thing that Colva Beach wasn't the party mecca we were looking for. In its own quiet, ocean-observing way, Colva gave us the opportunity to settle in to India.

And as quickly as we could settle in to Goa, we were off for our whirlwind tour of Kerala. I expected things to be quiet here, quiet like the people who urged us to visit their home, who aren't really quiet at all, so I'm not sure why I thought that. I figured that the pace of Kerala would suit us, that we would move effortlessly from place to place and see what we could see. But I am now convinced that there is no such thing as effortless movement in India. Instead, we were bumped and hurried and hustled from place to place, over windy, vomit-inducing roads, and through dusty towns. We ate good food and we ate bad food. At first it seemed like everyone wanted to sell us something, something that looked a lot like something we didn't even think about wanting, but in the end it turned out that everyone just wanted us to love Kerala, to love this place, the way that they do.

And what a place it is. Goa, Kerala, India. It is an incredible, amazing place. Amazing in that it causes constant amazement, and amazes us, constantly. Before we came to India people told us that we would either love it or hate it. And we knew people who fell into both camps. Heather loves it. Her fiance Andrew (yay, Heather got engaged!) hates it. Jane loved it. Megan hated it. Nitin and Uma call it home, and tell us stories about India with the love of someone whose dreams still bring them back here. But then there were those kids from our first go-round at CMU who would ask us WHY we'd want to be a tourist in a place like India. But I've always wanted to visit India, always, for as long as I can remember, even way back in my youngest years on Copper Beech Drive when I'd spend my summer days playing hide-and-go-seek with Zarine and Kekki, and I'd walk into their house for lemonade and smell that unfamiliar and mezmorizing smell. (Incidentally, it's a smell I can now correctly identify as cooked basmati rice, ginger, and cardamom.)

So here we are now, day by day, moment by moment, trying to figure out which camp we fall into. Love it or hate it? And for some reason, I'm having a hard time coming up with a visceral reaction. I can't collect my thoughts around what I spend my day seeing, and certainly not in a way that's cogent enough to come to any conclusions. So I will give you things that I see, instead, so that you may draw your own: I see a truck full of cows, crammed head to head, riding on the windy roads of Perriyar; I see tea plantations as far as I could look, greener than any green I've ever seen; I see women washing clothes by beating them against washing stones; I see little children with kohl on their eyes like eyeliner; I see sarees and sarees and sarees; I see men fidgeting with the ends of their lungis, which basically look like a skirt; I see beautiful fruit and vegetable stands, the likes of which we don't have at home in the US; I see trash burning on the side of the road, on the side of the river, on the side of someone's house; I see tea stalls and tea stalls and tea stalls; I see brightly-colored fried desserts that make my eyes scrunch, they're so sweet; I see women and children who are hungry and begging. I see all of these things, and I don't have the slightest clue how I absorb them all, soak them into my mind and my skin so that they're part of me, part of what I'm doing in this place, after all.

We're ending our time in South India tomorrow and heading to Delhi. We'll be there for about three weeks before we head off again, this time to Nepal. And there isn't time, there just isn't enough time, to love or hate this place. So for now I will work on experiencing it and taking pictures with my camera and with my mind's eye, so that when I am home, and someone says the word "India" to me, I can see where my inner eye takes me and where my stomach pulls me and where my heart lies.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

This Time Last Year

Written in Kerala, India
Posted from Delhi, India

Geoff, Julie, Katy, Matt and I sit in a bar and order a drink called "Scooby Snacks." It's bright green and has milk in it, and I think it's delicious but it makes Julie kind of dry heave. We're all exhausted, it being 6am on the east coast, but we're happy to be together and we're yammering on about I don't even know what. Katy is wearing these really cute red shoes and her hair is very very long. Geoff's phone rings, "it's Jason!" and we learn that the birthday boy, the reason we were all in Vegas and drinking at 6am east coast time, is at the airport, is at that very moment being told to hang up his phone so he can go through security and get on a plane.

It is one year later. Katy's hair is short again, instead of being together we're scattered to the four corners of the earth, Adam has a new dog, J and Cris have a new baby. But today is still Jason's birthday! Some good things have a way of coming back, year after year. And thank god for that, because Jason is a person to celebrate.

Many of you out there reading this blog know Jason. Rather, you think you know him. But to know the real J is to know that there are, believe it or not, a few people in the world that Jason actively dislikes. And to know the real J is to have many an incriminating photograph of him on your hard drive, just waiting for the day when you need to blackmail him. Except, of course, to know the real J is to also know that you'll never need to blackmail him, because he is the kind of friend who eats all of your food and actually wants to know how you made it, the kind of friend who asks you questions about your law degree when no one else even pretends to be curious, the kind of friend who picks you up at the airport when you could have taken the T, the kind of friend who comes to school with you for a day and gets along so well with everyone he meets that you wish you could have gone to grad school with him and not just college.

Jason was one of the first people I actually trusted at Carnegie Mellon, all those long years ago when I was still trying to decide whether I loved or hated the place. Jason is one of the reasons that I stayed. And I'm so glad that I did, not only because of all of the things that might not have happened if I'd left CMU, but also because of the fact that over the course of all of these long years, J and I have grown up, just a little bit more, together.

So J, on your birthday, I'm sorry that we're all scattered to the four corners, but I can honestly tell you that I can't wait to see what your 40th brings, even if it's still another 9 years away.

<<The authors are sad to report that they didn't get this post up on or before Jason's actual birthday. But they are happy to be the first to share that in his honor, they found a Pizza Hut right in the middle of Cochin (where you can get pizza topped with such items as chicken tikka or paneer). We know that Jason is smiling somewhere, knowing that on his birthday, even though there was nary a sausage in sight, we ate some greasy pizza.>>

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Posted from New Delhi, India

Over the course of the past two months, we've developed something of a love-hate relationship with our guidebooks. Right up front, the book tells you that it is a) not all-inclusive and b) things may have changed. We get that, and honestly, we would expect no less. The guidebook even proved exceptionally helpful in navigating our first scoop flush toilets, although I have to tell you that the mechanics of going No. 2 on a squat toilet are still way beyond me.

However, one critical daily task that the guidebook conveniently overlooks is bathing. Just as there are myriad permutations of toilets (sit-down flush, sit-down scoop, sit-down flush but no paper, squat, etc...), there are just as many variations of bathing arrangements. In Thailand and Laos, hot showers meant a tiny external water heater bolted behind the showerhead. Although the heater appears to work in an intuitive manner, actually getting hot water to come out is something of a black art. Before running to the management, dripping wet and wrapped in a towel (I kid you not, we saw it happen), here's the trick: don't turn the water on full blast. If you do open the faucet all the way, the water won't circulate through the heater enough to actually heat up, resulting in a measly change in water temperature from polar to the "luke"-side of lukewarm.

Another variation of the hot shower is the bucket hot shower, which we encountered in India. Bucket hot showers can be readily identified by the presence of a large bucket with a smaller pail and a pair of water faucets: one hot and one cold. So far, we've found them in conjunction with a showerhead connected to a single knob. Don't use this knob! You will be drenched in icy water. A bucket shower is a lot like drawing a bath. Except without the place to sit and actually bathe. Instead, you stand and bathe. Simply place the large bucket under the twin faucets and open them both to fill the bucket. Use the small bucket to DOUSE yourself. Figure out that you cannot, actually, hold the soap and pour the small bucket over yourself. Watch for the water you'll get in your ears. Marvel at the fact that you actually prefer a bucket shower to a "French" shower. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

One other important tidbit about showering is that you're probably not going to find hot water showers everywhere in southern India, especially along the coast. So here's the final variation: the bucket cold shower. Don't freak to the management and demand a hot shower -- it's not worth it. This type of shower works the same as the bucket hot shower, but there's only one water temperature. The best thing to do is wait until the end of the day when you're all hot and sweaty, then fill the bucket and rinse the day away. After a steamy day of sight-seeing, you'll be surprised how refreshing a cold bucket shower can be. And since the cold bucket showers often occur in the hottest cities, you'll find that the steam from your body heats up the bathroom quite nicely.

Whatever you do, where bucket showers are concerned, do NOT let the small bucket actually touch your skin. It's likely that it has touched the skin of others who have bathed before you. Do not think about this as you grab for the handle, otherwise, you'll find yourself trying to bathe in Purell.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Another Pisces Heard From

Today is Julie's 29th birthday. Hi Jules! Happy Birthday! I'm sad that we can't be there to celebrate with you. But we're eating all of your favorite foods over here, I promise. If I could get my hands on a bowl of cheerios to eat in your honor, I SO would.

Julie's birthday post is and isn't the hardest birthday post to write. See, it's hard to cram into a few paragraphs just exactly why I'm so glad that this woman was born. But at the same time, I could regale you with countless instances of times when my life would have just sucked a lot more without her in it. There's a balance to be struck here, people, and I'm the girl to do it. Even if that means I will be verbose. Oh, don't act so surprised. When am I NOT verbose?

A long, long time ago, back when Julie and I were newly becoming friends, I found out that this guy I'd liked for a long time liked me back (incidentally NOT the guy I married), and that he liked me so much that he wanted to make out with me in my dorm room, which we quickly got down to doing. I hadn't told anyone about it because the relationship was the kind that was (a) doomed from the start, and (b) not even off the ground yet, but I'd casually mentioned it to Julie because she was a new friend, and therefore a safe person with whom to share this most important piece of information. That, and I was so happy about it that I wanted to rent an airplane and fly a banner from the sky, so I HAD to tell SOMEONE.

I was home from school on Christmas break, and I was sitting at our wee little Macintosh computer, trying to interest myself in something other than starting yet another fight with my dad (I was 19, remember?). When all of a sudden, bling! went my Inbox (remember those old AOL noises?) and there was a message from Julie. We were friends, sure, and I had told her about my little hook-up, but up until that moment, I hadn't realized we were EMAIL friends, the kind of friends who emailed each other in that 4 weeks we weren't at school. But, as it happened, we were. So I opened up my email from her and right there, in the very first line, was a statement that went something like this: "You sound so excited! I'm so HAPPY for you!" And that was it. I mean, there was more to the email -- I'm sure she talked about the state of her life (which, at that time, was unreasonably hard and incredibly unfair, and I mean that) -- but it was those two little opening lines that opened the window onto what I knew was going to be a huge, groundbreaking, life-altering friendship. See, in that briefest little moment, sent across wires and cables and all the way from the midwest, I got a glimpse of the person that Julie is. And she's the type of person who, when her life is really especially shitty, still manages to get excited about another person's excitement. Especially if that person is me. Which basically makes me the luckiest woman ever.

See, a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, our friendship existed in a different space and time. We were sisters, friends, fellow-gatherers, whatever. But there's not a doubt in my mind that over history and through the ages, Julie and I have seen a LOT. And importantly, we've seen that lot together, and together we've made things easier for each other, gentler, better. Most people don't understand our friendship. And that's mainly because most people don't have a friend like the one that we have in each other. But for those out there who do understand our friendship, especially for those women out there who helped to show me how to be especially grateful for what I have in Julie, you know that being several continents and oceans away on her birthday is kind of sad, the kind of thing that makes you homesick and longing for that time when you'd share a pint of Phishfood Frozen Yogurt together on your couch. On the other hand, you also know that with a friendship like ours, oceans and continents really don't get in the way of sending her heartfelt birthday wishes, full of things like good karma and certainty of all the happy things that will come her way this year, and that when she wakes up on the morning of her birthday, I'll know it all the way over here, and I'll silently send a little prayer in the direction of her parents, for having the good sense to bring her into this world and into my life.

Happy Birthday, Julabelle. My life wouldn't be as good as it is if you weren't a part of it.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Pisces in the Hizzouse!

Written and Posted from Kerala, India

We know a lot of people with birthdays who are of this particular aquatic zodiac sign. Seriously. Out of our 5 friends, about 4 of them have birthdays coming up. Since I know that the birthday posts are probably only interesting for the people who are having the birthday, or the people who know the person having the birthday, I'm going to spread them out over the course of the lunar month. And to start things off, I'd like to say a transatlantic happy birthday to Becca. Happy Birthday, Becs!

Becca and I met, oh, 15 years ago. Which isn't true. See, we met 16 years ago when we were both freshman at Central High School (255!) but we didn't become friends until we we re-met sophomore year. In advisory. Which the rest of the world knows as "homeroom." That was way back when my last name started with an "M" and Becca's started with an "N." Which none of you care about, so I'll move on. And also, that might be a lie because I can't really remember whether we had advisory together sophomore year or not until junior year, in which case we re-met sophomore year in a class we had together. ANYWAY. When Becca and I re-met our sophomore year, it was as though we were friends instantaneously. Like we were the friend that the other was waiting around to meet, the real purpose of going to high school in the first place.

When I look back on that time in my life, specifically sophomore year of high school, I think that Becca was the one bright spot of the whole mess of that year. And the biggest bright spot of all of high school, actually. She was the friend who was there for me, day in and day out, when I most needed someone to be there for me day in and day out. You cannot thank a person for that kind of love, dedication, and loyalty. There are no words.

I can still conjure the feel of Becca's kitchen table under my fingers, as we sat at it, hour after hour, lighting candle after candle and talking, picking off the pools of molten wax with our fingernails. I can still remember when she got her new stereo, and how she introduced me to REM and the Indigo Girls in the same year. I know exactly how her face lit up when I gave her a tent and how we set it up in her bedroom and she hugged and kissed it. I still can't walk into a Roy Rogers without thinking of the one not far from her house, where we'd go and order water and steal pickles from the fixin's bar. Same with IHOP. Except without the fixin's bar and with the coffee and those wee little creamers instead. I could keep going and going with this list, but then you'd all know, for real this time, what a huge DORK I was in high school, so I'll stop. Suffice it to say that most of my best memories from my teenage years were spent in Becca's company, and I'm so excited that we'll finally be living in the same city again, because even though she's just about the most brilliant doctor I know, and even though that means she's working 110% of the time, I feel really grateful for the chance to make more best memories with her in her 29th year. So Becs, I hope you have a happy, happy birthday and we'll see you in a few months!

Because You Asked

Posted from Alleppey, Kerala, India

Q: What about the strangest person you've met?
A: I think it's important that both Lizzi and I take a stab at this one, because I think we'd have different answers. Luckily, I met my strangest person yesterday on the bus from Kumily to Alleppey. He was a middle-aged Indian man, who sat in the seat directly behind us and immediately started up a conversation. As soon as he opened his mouth, the rank smell of liquor washed over both of us. I knew this wasn't going anywhere good.

The conversation started pleasantly enough, the same as any other conversation we have had in India: "What country are you from? How long have you been here? What do you think of [insert name of town/city/state/country]? Where are you going next? What is your job?" Next, there was a brief quiz about whether we were Christian or not, which is NOT a conversation we expected to have in India. Then came a whole dissertation on the virtues of Kerala people. Somewhere in the middle of his rambling Lizzi had decided that I was going to take one for the team, and politely readjusted her seat to look straight ahead. But as he wrapped up, he posed a final question to us: "You know what the worst problem in Kerala today is?"

I could think of any number of responses, but clearly, it was a rhetorical question. I waited a beat, and he filled in his answer, "sexual anarchy." Yep, that's right, folks, the problem facing Kerala today is sexual anarchy. From here, the conversation could only go one direction -- downhill...and fast. Thankfully, we weren't disappointed. "Kerala has gone to the deviants," he exclaimed. "They are morally wrong," he continued, politely adding, "not like you." Of course not. And so it went until we arrived in a small town outside of Alleppey, where he got off the bus, and we breathed a collective sigh of relief.

We Interrupt This Broadcast

Posted from Alleppey, Kerala, India

Q: do you ever watch tv? i can't imagine there is usually a set in you room, but i was curious as to the local programming...

A: There have been a few occasions when we've been lucky enough to have a TV in our room. In Southeast Asia, the TVs were usually hooked up to a satellite service, and we could watch CNN, BBC, Animal Planet, Cartoon Network, and a couple of English-language movie channels. When we were in Siem Reap around my birthday, we couldn't bring ourselves to leave the air-conditioned, posh comforts of our hotel room, so we turned on the movie channel and watched some lame Ray Liotta chick-flick. Totally worth it!

Of course, now that we are in India with a thriving local media, the televisions are no longer connected to satellite systems, and most programs are in one of the innumerable local languages. But that doesn't mean that we haven't tried to wring at least a modicum of entertainment from them. Unfortunately, there's only so much not-getting-it that we can take. From what we've seen, Indian TV seems to be comprised of cricket matches, which are even more boring than golf, and Hindi Pop request shows, where you send in your long-distance dedications via text message. Somehow, "im srry i skrud ur sis, luv u so much" doesn't have the same heartfelt apology behind it as hearing it from Casey Kasem. Oh, and, of course, there's Dora the Explorer. In Hindi.

Needless to say, we couldn't be happier that we brought a laptop and bought all 10 seasons of Friends from some shady guy in Vietnam.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Pause for Station Identification

It's been a while, but there are new pics up on flickr. We've added a few photos from Laos and Vietnam.


Posted from Kumily, Kerala, India

I could soooo go for one (or a dozen) of these right now!

my dog

And Now for the News from Washington

Written and Posted from Kerala, India

I don't know if you guys over in the States have noticed this or not, but there's a HUGE election coming up in the next year. Really? You noticed? You mean you can't open the paper or read a magazine or check a blog without someone mentioning it? You mean that opinions on the candidates are everwhere? And that people have opinions about the opinions? And that there are other people who have opinions about the opinions about the opinions? Huh. How strange. Over here in India, no one even cares that the US is having an election. No one even talks about it.

Except that I'm totally lying. Because people DO talk about it. All the time. News of the election is in every single newspaper we've seen, and we've had conversations about it with everyone from tuk-tuk drivers to hotel operators to other travelers. And every single person has an opinion. I'm proud to be the first to tell you that the opinion is universal: George Bush is an asshat. Oh yeah, you probably knew that, seeing as that is in the paper, too.

But here's something you may not have known: every single person we've talked to thinks that Barack Obama is the man for the job. Not only are they incredibly grateful for the fact that our presidents get booted after they serve two terms, they also think that Obama is just the man to fill the gaping holes left by the Bush administration. And so do we.

Those of you who have talked politics with me and Matt know that we view politics from different angles. Matt sees everything through the filter of foreign policy, a "we should lead by example" approach. I see things through the filter of domestic policy, a "what about the starving children in DC?" view of my world. We make a good team that way. He can field questions about the fallout of US Cold War politics, and I can make a very compelling argument as to why raising a public teacher's salary could change the face of education as we know it. To the democratic party, we're a dream come true. He sees the Presidency as a means to alter the course of US history with respect to other nations, I see it as a means to alther the course of a gay couple's future with respect to marriage. It works for us. We also tend to agree with the other one, which is why I always defer to and support Matt's opinion on issues of foreign policy and he does the same for me. From that perspective alone, it is a testament to Obama's message that we both unilaterally and unequivocally support him to be the next President of the United States.

But it took leaving the United States to see, exactly, just how important the role of the President really is. When I say that we've heard pro-Obama opinions from tuk-tuk drivers and hotel operators, I should stress that these are people who live in Vietnam and India. These are people who live with poverty knocking at their door EVERY SINGLE DAY. These are people who are often the first in their family to know how to read, or who, in some cases, don't know how to read, but who are sending their children to private school because they understand the importance of an education. These are people who were directly affected by the fallout of US Cold War politics, who, in fact, continue to be affected by it. Really.

The thing that comes up, again and again, is that for at least the last eight years, America has been a nation of division. It has taken its power and its stronghold in the global economy and it has abused it. It disavowed the promises that it effectively made to the tuk-tuk drivers of the world. And for some reason, those same tuk-tuk drivers are hearing Obama's message and it is resonating with them. They are hearing that there is a man, a man who is a person of color like they are, who really WANTS to bring the world back together. They are hearing that this man, who actually lived in urban poverty in Indonesia, a nation not so far from where they live, maybe not so different from where they live, who believes that America is supposed to unite, rather than divide, and that to unite means to think not only of the citizens within its borders, but also of the citizens of other nations.

When someone asks me why I support Barack Obama for President, I am still likely to rush to an answer with my thoughts on welfare, healthcare, and education. But I am also just as likely to remember how surprised I was when that taxi driver in Sri Lanka, the taxi driver who woke up at 2am in order to start off his day with some money in his pocket, told us that he thought that Obama was the best candidate. That a man who lives on the other side of the world, whose taxes won't be increased or decreased based on the outcome of the election, who probably doesn't care whether or not the US stays in Iraq or pulls out, that this man thinks that "President Obama" has a really nice ring to it, that says something to me. It says that in terms of foreign policy, Obama has the ability to bring the world closer together, even before he's seen the inside of the oval office. This is the type of President we've been looking for.

Leaving Munnar on the Vomit Comet

Posted from Kumily, Kerala, India

Apparently going up to Munnar is a breeze compared to coming down. Despite my earlier description of the bus ride to Munnar, I have to say that the ride from Munnar to Kumily is downright scary at some points. This time our driver seemed to have graduated directly from those arcade games with the fake motorcycles that you steer by leaning side to side to a bus full of people careening through 180-degree switchbacks on tracks of road that might make a mountain goat squeamish. I thought for sure that we were going to die, tumbling over the side of the road and straight down. The fall would smell vaguely of tea and eucalyptus and, oh yeah, people dying. But we made it. Thank god, we made it.

Even though we arrived in Kumily completely intact, the conditions of the roads also made the ride feel like being on a roller coaster stuck inside a popcorn machine. We were bounced, jolted, and thrown around, as we sped along. For the family sitting directly behind us, it was too much. When we stopped in town to let a few passengers off, mom, dad, and baby stuck their heads out of the window and barfed into the street.

From now on, this is the bus ride by which I will judge all other bus rides. How does that saying go: "Any wreck you can walk away from..."

The Backpacker Beat

Written and Posted from Kumily, Kerala, India

Over the course of the past couple of months, we have had the opportunity to meet people just like us. They're doing the backpacker thing just like we are, going here and there, seeing what there is to see. Most of them either quit their jobs at home, have delayed starting work until that inevitable day when they run out of money, or are on a perpetual backpacker circuit where they work until they save enough to travel and then travel until they run out of money. We have yet to meet the independently wealthy trustafarian, though we are sure he or she is out there, staying in much posher hotels than the ones we frequent.

By and large, backpackers fall into two big groups: the young kids and the old kids. The young kids are the ones that are just out of college, or are even in college and doing a study abroad/run away from college thing. They tend to stay in dorm-style rooms, eight to twelve kids to a space, and they're loud and they drink a lot of beer. They watch their budget so tightly that instead of spending $1 on an actual meal, they'll make a meal out of bread and chutney. They almost never splurge on things, but they do find a way to buy tshirts and pashminas, and they always look sunkissed and happy, if not a little bit tired. We've enjoyed meeting them because they make us laugh and they make us feel wise. We, however, do not fall into this category. We're the old kids. (Of course, there's still a set of even OLDER kids and those are the ones I admire very much. They're the people who actually DO what they said they were going to do when they retired. And while they often hang out in big tour groups or sit in big buses with tinted windows, we've met the occasional older kid who just straps on a backpack and some walking shoes and checks out India, FINALLY.) The old kids like us tend to stay in places that are just one step up from the dorm room, and when we eat a meal, it's okay to spend $4, even $5 dollars. We occasionally splurge on things like air conditioning and dessert, and we don't feel TOO guilty if we spend money on a beautiful bedspread (cough, cough). Some of the old kids even travel with their own kids (and props to them, right?) and while lots of the old kids are couples traveling together, many of them are also flying solo, or traveling in groups of two and three friends who decided that they'd prefer to trade their spot in a cube farm for a view of a cardamom plantation.

But the funny thing about backpackers, and here I mean ALL backpackers, is that we all have a tendency to want our experience to be the BEST experience. Though we have been very lucky to have met a few other travelers who are just as excited as we are to be traveling, and who seem like the type of people we would be friends with in our real lives, by and large, when we meet other backpackers, we start off conversations the same way, and then proceed towards a general dissertation of why our trip is the best possible trip ever. By way of example, here is a typical conversation:

Us: Hello, where are you from?
Them: We're from the US/UK/Australia/Sweden/New Zealand
Us: Cool. How long are you traveling?
Them: Oh, just 1 month/three months/a whole year.
Us: Wow, that's great! Where are you going?
Them: Just Thailand/All of Southeast Asia/Southeast Asia, India, Indonesia, Australia, Africa, and New Zealand.
Us: Awesome. We're doing Southeast Asia and Thailand in 3.5 months, so we're on kind of a whirlwind tour.
Them: I'll say! That IS quick. Where have you been so far?
Us: Well, we just got to India about a week ago, and we've already been to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka.
Them: Oh, didn't you just LOVE Thailand/Laos/Vietnam/Cambodia?
Us: Yeah, we did. We feel really lucky to have--
Them: When you were in Cambodia, did you get out to that really remote temple that no one's even heard of? Because we did, and it was SOOOO much better than Angkor Wat or Bayon.
Us: Um, no, we didn't even know about that. But we loved--
Them: And wasn't Hanoi amazing? We thought the hubub was fantastic there.
Us: Actually, it was a little overwhelming to us.
Them: Really? Hmm... well then you better be careful in Delhi, because if Hanoi freaked you out then you're going to have a really tough time in Northern India.
Us (walking away): Um, thanks for the advice. Have a good trip!

And see, when I type it out like that, it doesn't quite convey how annoying it can be to have this kind of conversation with someone. But the conversation usually occurs when we're standing around waiting for a bus or a train, and really, we're all sort of lost, otherwise, WHY would we be halfway around the world when there are perfectly acceptable things for us to be doing in our countries of origin? But practicalities aside, is there really any NEED for that kind of conversation? Do I really CARE that I missed out on the really remote temple that no one's even heard of, particularly considering that I really enjoyed seeing the temples that I did see? Well no. Except that yes, sort of, I DO care.

At least, I care until I remember that in the end, this trip isn't about comparing ourselves to anyone else, or hearing about anyone else's experiences. In the end, this trip is about our experiences and our journey. This trip is about the fact that lately, when I find myself with time to sit and think, I find my mind drifting to happy things like an old friend's upcoming wedding, or how excited I am to live in Boston, or how cute all my nieces and nephews will be. I sit around and smile to myself, which is basically the reason I went halfway around the world. And then there's also the fact that I know myself well enough to know that in a few months, if I run into someone traveling to Saigon, I'll be quick to offer them my opinion about how much cooler Saigon was than Hanoi. You know, just in case they're curious.

Sixty-Day Status Report

Written in Cochin, Posted from Kumily, Kerala, India

In case you're curious, and even if you're not, we wanted to let you know how we're doing now that we're over halfway into this journey. So we categorized some of the top-priority items and wrote up our thoughts on them. Basically, it's a list of all of the things we had concerns about, most of which we shared with you, and how we're dealing with them so far. Without further ado, our status report:

Accomodations: After our disgusting four-nights-stay at Big John's Backpacker Hostel in Bangkok, Thailand, our standards increased considerably. We decided that we don't need to be hardcore backpackers and that we outgrew dorm rooms sometime around the day we graduated from college (and actually before, but we were RAs, so we couldn't really knock them). Dorms are fine for single travelers, but hard for couples. When we can't sleep near each other, we're not as nice to each other the next day. And then there's the fact that in a dorm room, we're 10-12 years older than our bunkmates. We now pay an average of $18 a night for a room. Sometimes that gets us AC, sometimes it doesn't. We are loathe to pay more than $20 a night and when we do, we are splurging. That $25 per night room better have AC and sheets so clean we can sleep on them without wearing pajamas!

Water: Still not drinking it

Vegetables and Fruit: We TRIED not eating raw vegetables. We really did. But we can't. So we are. So far, we haven't eaten any that were grown in someone's poop. And in fact, the vegetables we've eaten are delicious -- they actually taste like actual homegrown vegetables. And fruit? Did you know that there are over 150 types of bananas? Neither did we. We've eaten about 8 different kinds and so far, they're all delicious.

Cravings for American Food: The cravings are high but not presently as high as they were in Southeast Asia. Which is in part due to the fact that we caved and ate McDonald's when we were in Bangkok that second time (a cheeseburger never tasted so good). Since we love Indian food and we've eaten it loads of times before now, it tastes a little bit more like home than Beef Noodle Soup with Fish Balls tasted. On the other hand, when we're watching an episode of Friends, we occasionally drool when we see what they're eating. Especially if it's pizza. Oh, pizza.

Mosquito Bites: I have about 32 visible bites. Matt has about 10. But the ants love him and stay away from me. We use DEET to try to scare away the bugs, but really using it is more about the psychological factor of feeling like we're DOING something, since the bugs don't seem to care whether we're DEETed or not. Thank goodness for Malarone.

Tummies: For the most part, our tummies are fine. We both suffered a bit in Southeast Asia and for that period of time, neither one of us could handle the local cuisine. But we got through it and so far, India has been kinder than we expected. Though the mantra "if it's spicy on the way in, it will be spicy on the way out, too" still holds. And is repeated often. Except for Matt's current aversion to rice, we're loving the food. And when he's sick of rice, there are a host of breads to make up for it.

Crohn's: So far, so food. When my stomach was bothering me in Cambodia, I had that feeling of "here it is, this is it, my intestines hate me so much that we're going to have to go home so I can go back on steroids or something." But then I remembered the combined wisdom of Andy and my GI doctor: sometimes an upset stomach is an upset stomach. I concluded that mine was a classic case of "you've been in Southeast Asia for a month" and took it easy and listened to my body and made no rash decisions to change our itinerary. I ate a lot of sandwiches. By the time we got back to Bangkok, I was ready to eat street meat again.

Traveling as a Couple: Sometimes it's harder, but most of the time, it's easier. A lot easier. There are times when we bicker, but just like at home, 99.9% of the time, it's because we're tired or hungry. We've had an actual fight on two occasions, both while we were in Vietnam, and both within a day of each other. But both times we had the time to actually talk it out which is something that's actually easier here, given that we HAVE to spend 24/7 together. In fact, I think that's been the biggest gift of the whole trip -- the time we've had together. We realize that those opportunities will get harder to find as we get older. We're doing our best to savor it now. And I think that's makig it so that we're a little gentler with each other. For the first time in a long time, we have a chance to actually understand where the other is coming from.

That Thing you Don't Talk about with your Parents: Which is why I'm not going to talk about it here either, since our parents read this blog. Suffice it to say that when you have the time to actually understand where the other is coming from, when you know exactly what their day was like because it was your day too, and when at the end of that day you're still excited to hear their perspective on something you both experienced, well, then you have time to... you know.

Grooming and Beauty: We're generally dirtier here than we are at home. We shower every day (though much faster than we do at home, particularly when there's no hot water) but Matt shaves about once a week and even though I shopped diligently for the perfect all-in-one makeup pallette, I have yet to use it. When it's too hot to wear my hair down, it's too hot for mascara. Our hair! It's long, so very long! And my hair gel totally hates me -- it's the one thing that keeps exploding.

And if you're still reading, then you're probably the only person interested in our superlatives list, which is here:

Lowest Price for a Decent Room: $6, Julie Guesthouse in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Cheapest Big Meal: $3 for two, an all-veg place in Munnar, Kerala, India
Best Tea: Toss-up between the black tea in Sri Lanka and the Chai in India
Best Night Train: Thailand (Bangkok to Chiang Mai)
Cheapest Laundry: 10,000 kip/kilogram in Laos
Cheapest Western Food: Two Cheeseburgers, Two fries, Two Cokes = $5 in Saigon, Vietnam
Best Coffee: Toss-up between Sri Lanka and Vietnam
Best Pool: The Angkor Palace Resort in Cambodia
Best Rickshaw Driver: Manish in Munnar, Kerala, India
Best Night Market, So Far: Luang Prabang, Laos

And if you've gotten this far, then WOW, do you love us. Is there anything else you're just burning to know? Anything you wish I would have written about but didn't? If there is, let us know in the comments section and we'll write it up specially for you with love.

Getting to Munnar

Posted from Kumily, Kerala, India

We took the bus from Cochin to Munnar a few days ago. The trip was long, dusty, and loud. But the lack of windows, which made it dusty and loud, also meant that it was pleasantly cool for the nearly five hour ride into the mountains of Kerala, near the Tamil Nadu border. Typically, our travel days are our worst days. They are the days when we are hot, tired, cranky, and impatient, especially with each other. They are also the days when we learn a little bit about how a place works. For instance, India moves at its own pace. There's no hurrying it, and no slowing it down. It has an inertia and momentum all its own, and two kids from America aren't going to change it. We'd initially discovered this inertia when we took the night train from Goa to Cochin, but taking the bus from Cochin to Munnar is a much better example.

The day before leaving we asked around to find out exactly when and how often buses leave Cochin for Munnar. Luckily, they leave pretty often. According to everyone we asked, including travel agents and guesthouse owners, the buses leave every hour between 6AM and 1PM. Comfortable that we could get an early (for us) start, we left our guesthouse just before 8AM, arriving at the bus station shortly before 9AM. However, when we reached the desk to find out which bus was headed to Munnar, the station master politely informed us that the previous bus (first one of the day) left at 8:30AM, and the next one wouldn't leave until 11AM, and if we missed that one, we could take the 1:30PM bus, but after that we would have to wait until Monday. Huh? We asked no less than five people, and they all agreed that there would be plenty of buses. Maybe the three-bus schedule yesterday was the result of a reduced schedule on weekends. Oh well, we weren't in any rush, so we just enjoyed the ride.

After leaving the long, wide stretches of roads outside of Cochin, we started to climb. The higher we went, the roads became much narrower, as the switchbacks snaked up the mountains. I think our bus driver thought he'd entered the Pike's Peak Rally after taking driving lessons from an arcade game, because he whipped our bus through the hairpin turns at surprising speeds, somehow narrowly missing the large tourist buses hurtling toward us from the opposite direction. The ride was nerve-wracking, but we managed to get to Munnar in one piece.

Standing Room Only

Written about Colva Beach, Goa, India
Posted from Kumily, Kerala, India

When we were looking for a beach on which to relax away our first few days in India, we wanted something, well, relaxing. Nothing too crazy. Just sun, sand, and waves, the ability to sleep late and eat well. In reading the guidebook, we found tons of options in Goa. The northern beaches are the centers of the wild party scene, as well as package tour destinations. The southern beaches are much more laid back and better for swimming with a smathering of package tourism to boot. As we sat in the baggage claim area of the Goa airport, we decided that we wanted to go south, and we further narrowed our choices to Colva and Palolem. We weighed our options: Rs 360 to Colva vs Rs 1000 to Palolem, local tourists vs a backpacker haven, close enough to explore Old Goa vs pretty remote; ultimately, we settled on Colva.

By the time we arrived, caught a shower and a quick nap, we were ready to see what the beach had to offer. It was late in the afternoon, around 4:30, when we set foot on the sand. The guidebook was correct, plenty of local tourists (mostly from Punjab, we later discovered) and very few Westerners (mostly from Russia). It was like a picture perfect beach, except that there were no towels laid out with beach bags tacking down the corners, no boogie boards, and really no one in the water at all or even SITTING on the beach. Nope, everyone was standing in saris, in pants and collared shirts, in leather shoes. They were all standing and looking at the ocean. Although we thought it was a bit strange, we dismissed it because it was late, the wind had picked up, and it was beginning to get chilly.

The next day we hit the beach just after noon. The beach was packed. Kids were building sandcastles. Teenagers were batting cricket balls around. Touts shouted offers for parasailing. After just a few minutes, Lizzi, who was wearing a tanktop and skirt over her bikini, noticed that she was getting lingering stares from the men around us. We took another look around. Just like the night before, it was like an ad for saris and Dockers threw up on the beach. No one was in the water. No one was laying on the beach. Towels, beach bags, umbrellas were all unmistakably absent from the scene. Everyone was just standing and staring at the water. The beach looked like a business convention where the most exciting event was a discussion of the steady price of locally grown rice rather than a holiday. They stood there with their arms clasped behind their backs, eyes turned toward the water, quietly, politely regarding the open sea in front of them.

respectfully regard the sea

A day or so later, we took a trip down to Palolem, just to see if we could find a beach where people actually went into the water. Sure enough, there it was with its gap-year backpacker crowd (mostly from Russia and Israel). There were bikinis, beach towels, and beer. The water was beautiful and warm, and people were actually playing in it! After the sun went down, we dreamed up elaborate schemes for staying at Palolem while our bags remained in Colva. But none of them made any sense and often included some unlikely event, such as winning the lottery back home, so we said our good-byes to the beach of our dreams and went back to Colva. If we had to do it over again, we would head to Palolem in a heartbeat. Of course, if we had gone to Palolem first, we wouldn't have this burning desire to go back to Goa as soon as we possibly can.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Helpful Hints: Laos Edition

We're just over halfway through this marvelous adventure, and although we've posted some great stories (more to come, I promise), we haven't really contributed much in the way of lessons learned on the road. So here are a few helpful hints for traveling in and around Luang Prabang.

Forget the guidebook.
So you've decided to take the slow boat from Thailand, good for you. Unless you've made reservations ahead of time, you're going to be one of hundreds of people trying to find a room at the same time. While on the boat, you may have noticed everyone reading a copy of their (and your) favorite Laos guidebook. Unfortunately, they are planning the same thing you are: the backpacker shuffle from one guesthouse to the next. This is a time when a little bit of an adventurous spirit goes a long way. Skip the guesthouses in the Lonely Planet, because that's where everyone who got off the boat first is headed too. Keep your eyes open for guesthouse signs; they are on the main road that parallels the river. You may be surprised at what you'll find.

Timing is everything.
After returning from our trek in the hills around Luang Prabang, we needed a place to stay. It was early afternoon, a couple of hours before the slow boat was scheduled to arrive. We started the backpacker shuffle, dragging a poor tuk-tuk driver along with us, instead of schlepping our bags from place to place. Unfortunately, the guesthouses in the guidebook were booked or way too expensive (another example of what LP doesn't always tell you). After our third guesthouse and another shrug and serious eye-roll from our tuk-tuk driver, we welcomed the tout who roared up on his motorbike. He directed us to a guesthouse. After Lizzi conducted a quick white-glove inspection of the digs, we agreed on a price and settled in.

Ok, so what did we learn from this. First, we haggled on the price. We actually got a nightly rate that was $10 less than the published rate. We probably could have gotten more, but it was technically high season. Second, timing was everything. The slow boat hadn't arrived yet, so we were able to haggle. When we left our room to forage for food, the slow boaters arriving at the door were greeted with a firm price equal to the published nightly rate. These lessons go hand-in-hand. Good timing leads to a good price.

Early to rise, early to bed...
One of the interesting things about traveling to Luang Prabang is the government-mandated curfew. Technically speaking, the curfew is 11PM, but many guesthouses close their doors up to an hour before. Believe me, our host was not a happy camper when we came banging on the door at 11:15PM. He'd gone to bed an hour earlier.

The curfew means that most of the nightlife happens long before 11PM. Except one bar on the back side of Phu Si. Don't worry, all the tuk-tuk drivers know exactly where it is. But if your guesthouse won't open the door, imbibing until midnight may be a moot point.

Despite the curfew, you can still tie one on pretty easily. They have these things called "Happy Hours", and unlike the U.S., they actually want you to show up and drink freely. Beerlao is cheap and goes down easy. Beerlao is definitely one of the highlights of our trip thus far. I even bought the T-shirt!

Oh, The Drama

Written and posted from Kerala, India

By far the most stressful point in our travels occurs in the few minutes after we first arrive in a new city. We step out of the train station/bus station/airport, with our packs strapped to our backs and our assorted other bags over our shoulders or in our hands, and stand, bewildered and hot (Cochin) or cold (Vietnam), wondering what we do now that we're where we intend to be. We usually stand in that spot, turning ourselves first towards the exit, then towards each other, before one of us pipes up with A Plan. A Plan is always a good idea to have BEFORE you set out on a journey, we have noticed this, and yet, time and time again, city after city, we arrive without one. And until one of us happens upon the ever-elusive Plan, we are lost, strangers in a strange land. And as you might guess, when you are traveling as a duo and you arrive in a new place, hot (or cold), tired, hungry, and bewildered, you are inclined to like each other just a little less, to find the other's Plan just a little less brilliant than you were hoping for.

Which brings me to yesterday. We arrived in Cochin after a 14.5 hour night train from Goa. The train ride itself was unremarkable except for the fact that it was long and that after 14.5 hours anything with human beings in it eventually starts to smell more like human beings and less like something that is clean. We were especially dirty when we arrived because we spent the better part of the day on a bus "tour" of old Goa. That's "tour" and not simply tour because it was less of a tour and more of guided tutorial, in Hindi mind you, of all that Goa has to offer, should you have the time and inclination to look around. Which is what we thought we were doing, but whatever. The air conditioning on the bus was less air conditioning and more "this bus has no windows so when we drive there's a nice breeze." It wasn't a bad "tour" so much as it was a waste of time, but mainly it was annoying because the open-air bus ride made us seriously dirty, covered in a fine film of red dust. And if you've never spent 14.5 hours on a night train when you're dirty, then boy, you have no idea how dirty you'll feel 14.5 hours later. But bus "tours" aside, we arrived in Cochin 14.5 hours after we set out.

Cochin is a much bigger city than our last home in Colva Beach, Goa. For starters, it's a city as opposed to a beach town. We'd made a reservation at a guesthouse while we were still in Goa, but because Lonely Planet India leaves a lot to be desired in the way of little things like, oh, information, we had no idea how to get to said guesthouse. Taxi? Tuk-tuk? Ferry? See, our guesthouse is on the island of Fort Cochin and the map in the book conveniently fails to connect island to mainland. So we stood in the Cochin train station, packs strapped to our backs, hungry, hot, and bewildered. We decided to take a tuk-tuk and just deal with however much it cost us.

Of course, the other thing that accompanies than unique mood of hunger/heat/bewilderment is a classic case of mistrust. And here, too, I fault the Lonely Planet. At every turn, the book warns backpackers against people who are trying to hustle you. And of course, there are people at every turn who ARE trying to hustle you, so the warning isn't entirely unfounded. Except that if you're not an idiot, and you're not stoned, and you have a general sense of when things are shady, you can TELL when someone is trying to hustle you. The guy putting our bags on top of the tuk-tuk WE hired? Not trying to hustle us. But did that stop us from shouting "no, we're married!" at him when he took our bags off of his tuk-tuk and wanted to put them on another, different tuk-tuk? We thought he was trying to hustle us into taking two separate tuk-tuks. He thought we were total weirdos who, totally unprompted, wanted strangers to know that we are married. Instead, he just wanted us to ride in his brother's tuk-tuk rather than his. Ten minutes later, feeling like an idiot, we were speeding through the streets of Cochin, and our driver was pointing things out to us. Things like the river, and the current, and other islands surrounding the city. There were children waving at us from the backseats of their own tuk-tuks, there were beautiful women in sarees, and there were those ever-present fruit stands. Feeling once again like traveling is, in fact, a fun thing to do, I silently resolved that when we get to the next city, the next new place, we'll find A Plan before we go, knowing that despite my best intentions, we will not, and that in a few days time, we'll be staring at each other again, waiting for the other to come up with something brilliant. At least I can comfort myself that after 8 weeks of travel, I know that brilliance really is just around the next corner.

No. More. Rice.

Posted from Cochin, Kerala, India

I can't do it. I can't take another bite. It's everywhere, comes with every meal. Rice. I love it, but today I hate it. I love Indian food, but I can't take another bite of rice. I need meat. I need fresh vegetables. I'm sorry, India, my mouth will be a rice-free zone for at least the next 24 hours.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Have Toilet Paper, Will Travel

The View from Halfway In
Written and Posted from Goa, India

When we started this journey, 54 days ago now, I didn't really have any thoughts on toilet paper. I mean, if someone would have asked me my thoughts on the subject, I would have told them that I prefer soft to scratchy, 2-ply to single, maybe ridges to smooth if I was being really picky. But that would have been about it. I would have offered no dissertations on the importance of the mere presence of toilet paper, nor would I have expressed profound affection for flush rather than scoop toilets and the effect that the later have on toilet paper. But 54 days later, walking around city after city with a half-used roll in the same over-the-shoulder bag that carries my ever-important camera and journal, I'll tell you that toilet paper is an essential part of THIS traveler's experience in the world, that men have it easy with their ability to use the facilities, at least half of the time, without the stuff, and that those little trashcans residing next to a scoop toilet don't gross me out as much as they did, say 53 days ago.

I feel confident that when I look back on this trip in the weeks, months, and years after we return, I won't often think of my bathroom experiences. In fact, I think my eyes will glaze over as I remember how I felt when I was standing under Buddha's gaze at Wat Po, my stomach will rumble when I think of those spring rolls on the beach in Koh Lanta, my fingers will tingle as I remember how much I wanted to tickle the tummies of those kids in Laos, my ears will ring with the sounds of horns honking and roosters crowing, and my mouth will water every time I taste a lime, wishing that it was drinking down a refreshing lime soda like the ones in Sri Lanka. Yes, I think I will sense all of those things again when I get home, that I will privately re-live those experiences whenever someone is bold enough (and probably bored enough) to ask me about this trip. But I also have a feeling that every so often, walking into a bathroom somewhere unpleasant, I will be reminded that once upon a time, I walked into a bathroom in an airport in Goa, and every single stall was devoid of toilet paper, each instead sporting a faucet-like nozzle attached to a hose.

In a way, it's all of these things together that make up a trip like the one that we're on. It's the feeling of quietly studying another statute of Buddha, while also calculating in the back of your mind just how many other people stood there in that same spot, as barefoot as you are, and wondering, silently, if any of them suffered from athlete's foot. Before we left, some people who had traveled more than we had told us that at some point, we would get used to it. It's like Europe, they told us. After a while, a church is a church is a church. Except that so far, I haven't felt that way at all. Every Wat or Temple we see, even the ones that don't feel particularly spiritual to me, are amazing. There's always a child to watch, or a woman in prayer, or a particularly interesting plaque to read. Every single day I experience a moment where I think to myself, "holyshit you are in Thailand!" or "Laos!" or "India!" Every single day I have a moment where I catch my breath, feel my stomach clench, and think, "you are so lucky to be here, experiencing this." And I'm not even exaggerating when I say that it happens every day. Even on the days that I don't like, the days when I'm feeling particularly lonely for home, or the days when every thing I eat makes me want to puke. Yes, even on those days I feel lucky. Lucky to say to myself that I will be so GLAD to go home and get a hug from Julie or my Dad, or so GLAD to drink water right from the faucet. Even on the days when it's hard, I feel lucky to be in a place that reminds me of how happy I am in the familiarity of home, just as happy, even, as I am when a child in Vietnam points at me and giggles, calling my hair "noodle hair" and laughs out loud when I laugh out loud too and shake my hair at her for fun.

If the next 54 days are anything like the past 54 days, they will fly by. They will be filled with colors and noises the sights and sounds of which I have never really seen or listened to. There will be days when I think that I could remain in that one spot forever, and other days when I wish that there were magic planes that could transport me home in an instant. If the next 54 days are anything like the past 54 days, I will check my bag before I head out the door, taking care that I have enough toilet paper to get me through the day, and double-checking that my camera battery is charged enough to record all of these experiences. If the next 54 days are anything like the past 54 days, I will be lucky enough to experience a few more bits and pieces of the world, I will feel how lucky I am at some point every single day, I will turn to Matt and smile at our good fortune at having found the one person with whom I want to share this expeirence, and I will go to sleep excited to see what the next day will bring, good or bad, clean or gross, spiritual or commonplace.

The Half-time Show

Posted from Colva Beach, Goa, India

Before Lizzi and I first met, I had already visited well over half of the states in the U.S., and I was excited to see the remaining few on my list. Simply put, I loved the adventure of the national parks, the hub-bub of big cities, and hospitality of small towns. Like a kid staring at a plate of food, you could say that I had eyes only for the macaroni and cheese. But then I met Lizzi and we talked of travel and adventure worldwide, and it was as if someone had just revealed the largest dessert cart ever! My eyes grew huge at all of the possibilities. And here we are in India, having traveled through a good portion of southeast Asia along the way. I can comfortably say that ten years ago, I would never have imagined a trip like this.

But even with my newfound appetite for the tastes of the world, I find that I still miss the flavors of home. Not just the feeling of being someplace I know with a language I understand, but literally the tastes I've grown to know and love: the food! Being an adventurous eater, I never realized that I could miss food from home the way I have in the past few days. On the long bus ride from Margao to Palolem yesterday, I found myself drifting through daydreams of mouth-watering barbecue, whether Texas-, Oklahoma-, Memphis-, Virignia-, or Carolina-style; pizza with real pizza sauce bursting with garlic and oregano; and, of course, sandwiches, piled high with cured salami, rare roast beef, and juicy turkey.

Although I'm excited for the next 54 days and the tastes I haven't even imagined yet, I also can't wait to get home to some of my favorite foods that I've missed terribly over the past two months. Cheese steaks from Vino's in Philly, lobster rolls and spicy Bloody Marys from J's Oyster Bar in Portland, the Roma hoagie from the Italian Shoppe in Arlington, slow-roasted pork barbecue from Jammin' Joes on Route 29, a kielbasa sandwich with cole slaw and fries from Primanti Bros. in Strip. Oh, and salad! A fresh Greek salad full of red onions, feta, and ripe kalamata olives from any pizza joint worth its salt on the east coast.

But I digress. Being in India so far has been a great experience; we couldn't have picked a better halfway point. The food is familiar and delicious, a reminder of the many times we sought comfort in a tangy curry when schoolwork threatened to bog us down. We have 54 days remaining, which is not nearly enough time, but we will make do. There's plenty of new food to try, and as for traveling, my eyes are only growing wider.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Getting Lay'd

One of the unanticipated benefits of traveling around the world is discovering new and unexpectedly amazing tastes in the strangest places. At home, I don't really eat potato chips. Growing up, my parents kept chips in the house, but they were a lunchtime snack exclusively, a mere accompaniment to my daily bologna sandwich. But over the past few weeks, I've become something of a chip connoisseur. Why? In part, because chips are a tiny reminder of home and all of the wondrous junk food available there.

Perhaps in a greater amount, my newfound enjoyment of chips comes from the variety of enticing flavors now available to us. Long gone are the days when barbecue, sour cream & onion, and nacho cheese were the best chips flavors Lay's could offer. What would you think of Spicy Seafood chips? Or maybe Squid & Chili? Or Crab Curry, Nori Seaweed, or even Barbecue Spare Rib? I've tried them all, and they are tasty! Maybe even better than the simple barbecue back home. But I daresay that my favorite flavor so far is Pork Bulgogi. Don't ask me how Lay's gets all those flavors packed into a crispy potato wafer, but they do.

India is no exception. Although we haven't tried them yet, we've spotted Mint Mischief and Masala Something-or-Other in the convenience stores around the beach. You can bet we'll have plenty more Getting Lay'd stories by the time we get home.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Odds and Ends from India

Written and Posted from Goa, India

Now where were we? That's right, we were in Sri Lanka. Except that was yesterday. Today, today we are in India. Another day, another country! Oh, but we'll be in India for almost the next six weeks, so no new countries until then. You'll have to bear with us while we explore this place in the meantime.

Some words on our first day in Goa: the day started off bright and early because we had to wake up at 2:30am in order to catch our flight. We made it to the airport with plenty of time to walk around duty free and buy some Arrack, which is a seriously strong coconut whisky. So strong, in fact, that the people at the Icebear Hotel put it in a drink they call the "Lady Wong." It's aptly named. Then we boarded our flight, settled into our seats and a breakfast of curry and rotti. And I cannot even BEGIN to express my delight over the creamer-container filled with pickle! Pickle! I took a picture of it because it delighted me so much. It will be forthcoming.

After we landed in Goa, we floundered around for a little while trying to figure out where to stay. We ended up south of the airport, south of Old Goa, in a beach town called Colva (which, for those of you with a passion for Lafayette Hill, PA, reminded my so fondly of Kolvas that just writing the word Colva makes me want soft-serve ice cream in a cone with sprinkles). We woke up from a well-deserved nap in time to make it to the beach for a few hours before sunset. Here is a list of things I didn't expect to see but did: women and men playing in the ocean, fully clothed; cows hanging out on the beach; teenagers playing cricket; and saris, oh the saris. Our plan is to spend the next 4 days here, re-grouping after the past 52 days of traveling, energizing ourselves for the next 56 days ahead. Judging by the food and the atmosphere, I think we picked a good spot.

And now for those closing thoughts on Sri Lanka that I'm sure you've all be waiting for. The only problem with Sri Lanka is that we didn't give ourselves enough time there. For a small island, there is Just.So.Much. to see there. I can't even really do a description of it any justice, because it's really hard to explain the affection that I developed for the country. Every single person that we met was nice. At the hotel we stayed in while we were in Kandy (the Kandy View Hotel for those of you who are interested -- stay there!), the owner went out of his way to DRIVE us around the town, showing us the sites. When we didn't have time to make it to an ATM before our massages, he fronted us the money and put the massages on our hotel bill. It was just so unbelievably above and beyond general hospitality, that I found myself full of affection for the whole country.

I mentioned the Sri Lankan conflict in an earlier post. I don't understand the conflict myself, so to try to explain it to you would just make me sound stupid. Every time we ask someone about it, they go all the way back to Alexander the Great, and if that doesn't give you any indication of how little I know about it, suffice it to say that I can't even remember when Alexander WAS Great. But the interesting thing about the conflict is that I really just didn't feel its presence while I was there. Sure, we avoided taking public transportation. And there was that one time when we were surrounded by busses and all felt a bit nervous. But by and large, the conflict felt far away, almost in another, less-peaceful island. The island that I was on was just beautiful -- beautiful people, beautiful food, beautiful history and religion, beautiful land. Really, I would have stayed another week if we didn't already have these tickets to Goa.

There were a few other things other than the fact of Sri Lanka that made Sri Lanka so wonderful for us. The first was that we got to have a lovely meal with a lovely family. The family is our friend Upeka's family (hi Bert!), and they invited us to share a meal with them. We drove from Negombo to Colombo to meet up with them for lunch and just had a really nice afternoon. It was so good, especially for Matt and I, to be in the company of another person's family. It made us feel cared for and well-fed! We can't thank Upeka and her family enough for being so kind and gracious.

lunch with upeka's family

The other thing that made Sri Lanka so incredible was the fact that we got to share it with Chris and Amanda. Though it had been a few years since we saw them last, the four of us picked right back up where we'd left off, as though time and distance meant nothing. In between the last time we saw them and now, Chris and Amanda had a beautiful little girl, and one of the highlights of spending time with them was getting to learn all about her. I don't know if everyone has a couple like this in their lives, but Chris and Amanda are the couple that we've always looked up to. They're like our older-sib couple. They do big life things before we do them, and they do those things so well that they make us want to work harder at what we have, because they make it look so great and so effortless. In short, they inspire and energize us. So seeing them in this amazing country was inspiring and energizing. We certainly wouldn't have had the same experiences if we'd gone to Sri Lanka without them, and we DEFINITELY wouldn't have navigated the ass-roads without them. In short, they really just made our week there, and we're going to miss them. For all you Tinker folks who read this blog: seriously, LET'S HAVE A REUNION! LOOK how much fun we have when we're together:

Saucy Lasses
(That's an old picture, but it really does show how much fun we have when we're together. I mean, aren't we hilarious?)

Wow. I've rambled on a long time. If you're still reading this, you're probably ready for me to stop typing and get on with my trip to India. Well, so am I! We're safe and sound in this new and interesting place, and there are colors and experiences out there to soak up. Off we go.

Sorry, No Happy Endings Here

Posted from Colva Beach, Goa, India

After Lizzi's post about the girls' experience with the Ayurvedic massage, I think it's only fair that I present the guys' story. Much of it is the same. Chris and I walked into a room with two tables, two chairs, and two, strapping, young Sri Lankan men ready to oil us down. Having enjoyed massages in Thailand and Laos where you are required to keep your clothes on, I was a little surprised when our masseurs (the correct term for a male masseuse) told us to drop trou. But having spent several years in the military, we knew better than to ask questions. We kept our boxers on, because let's face it, Chris and I are close, but not quite that close, and at this point, maintaining at least a shred of dignity felt like a major victory. They directed us to the chairs, and we sat down. And the dude poured oil on my head.

At that point I closed my eyes, hummed silently to myself, and desperately searched for my happy place. The rest of the massage proceeded without incident. Of course, until Chris's masseur told him, "Now, up, and look up." So Chris did as he was told. He stood up and stared at the ceiling, thinking it was all part of the massage experience. His masseur politely corrected him that "up" meant "stand up and lie down on the table next to you", and "look up" meant "lay on your back". Frankly, I could see how Chris was confused.

Nearly an hour later the massage ended. Chris stood, wobbly-legged, and went to the shower. I followed a few minutes later. Unlike the girls, there was no awkward moment of having to shoo our masseurs out of the shower. Moreover, there were no happy endings (sorry, Go and Andy). We each took a shower, got dressed, and waited for the girls in the lobby.

Clearly, our story is less harrowing and has a paucity of "what do you do with your bits?" moments, but for the sake of completeness, I thought it would be nice to share.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Lot of Thai

Written in Thailand, Posted from Sri Lanka

A couple of weeks ago now, back when we were still in Chiang Mai, I took an AMAZING cooking class. Those of you following along have already heard about the class, but up until now, I haven't had the time or the energy to write about it. Sometimes, when you do something you've been waiting a long time to do, it's hard to find the words to write about it. And while it may seem silly to say it, I've been waiting a long time to take a cooking class. That I took my first cooking class in Thailand is awesome. But that I took my first cooking class with one of the sweetest women I've ever met, in a class with just three other people, where we cooked no less than 6 different Thai dishes, AND we got to wander around a market with our teacher? Well that's the kind of thing that makes a girl dream about cooking for the rest of her life. (Don't worry Daddy, I'm still interested in the law thing. For now anyway.)

I Fry Spring Rolls

I heard about this cooking class via the Internet, of course. But then I heard about it from everyone I talked to in Chiang Mai. "You want to take a cooking class? Go to A lot of Thai." So I did. I signed up for the all day, 7-hour lesson. It came to a whopping $30. And a whopping 6 pounds -- which is how much weight I felt like I gained from all of the food that I ate. Because here's the best part about the class: everything I made was tasty! SUPER tasty.

Like I said, we made six different dishes -- pad thai, green curry chicken, tom yum soup, fried spring rolls, and stir-fried chicken with vegetables. We also ate some sticky rice with cocounut milk and mango for dessert, but our teacher, Yui, did most of the prep work for that. I just had to find room to stuff it in. Since the rice was purple and the mango was amazing, I managed just fine.

Here are a few things you should know about Thai cooking:
1) Each dish uses the fewest and freshest ingredients possible. Everyone, even people who hate cooking, knows that this makes for the tastiest food.

2) The following ingredients are in just about everthing you make: palm sugar, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, tamarind sauce, cilantro, chilis, and purple basil (otherwise known as holy basil or Thai basil).

3) This is what you didn't know about the above ingredients: kaffir lime leaves come from a lime that's all knobbly and wounded-looking. The wee little limes that are everywhere in Thailand are just plain old regular limes, but they're amazing. You can use dried kaffir lime leaves if you can't find fresh ones. Palm sugar is made from the palm coconut tree. It has the consistency of maple sugar, and I could eat it by the fistful. At home, cook with brown sugar instead. Fish sauce is really salty. If you want to cut the salt, use half fish sauce, and half low-salt soy sauce. Tamarind sauce in Thailand isn't nearly as sour as the tamarind sauce we get in the US. Since the point of the Tamarind sauce is to make things a little more sour, just use what you need to in order to balance the flavors. Balancing the flavors! That's the point of Thai cooking. So you can do a lot of things by feel and taste, rather than by recipe. I love that in a meal. Most of the garlic that they use in Thailand is grown in Thailand, and the skin on the garlic is so thin that when you saute it in oil, the skin kind of crisps up nicely. So you can LEAVE IT ON FOR FLAVOR! That's brilliant because it saves time AND adds flavor! Most of the garlic we get at home is big and the skin is thick and coarse. So you have to take it off, which is kind of a pain in the ass, but whatever, we're used to it. The firmer the chili is to the touch, the spicier it is likely to be. If it yields a lot when you squeeze it, it's probably fairly mild.

4) In order to make a really decent fish stock, you use shrimp heads. Seriously. Shrimp. HEADS. If you're a vegetarian or vegan, you make your decent stock by using garlic skins, the really tough lemongrass stalks, and the bottom tough part of a green onion.

5) Oyster sauce has some sugar in it. So if you're making a dish that calls for oyster sauce, you can reduce the amount of palm sugar you use.

6) You can add holy basil to taste. This is music to my ears, since I love the stuff and can't eat enough. You can also add cilantro to taste, which is also music to my ears, since I truly can't stand cilantro and it's perfectly acceptable to leave it out.

I took a bunch of pictures from the class, partly because I'm a dork, but also because there was this really sweet father-son duo in my class who forgot to bring their camera. So when you look at the pictures, say hello to Ben and Jim! Ben's a teacher in Chiang Mai and his dad came to visit him. How cool is that?

I wanted to post the recipe for Pad Thai, courtesy of the cookbook that Yui provided. But I accidentally sent the cookbook home in the last box we sent back to the States. So you're just going to have to wait until we get back. In the meantime, you should go out there and find a good recipe for pad thai. But if yours doesn't taste quite as spectacular as you want it to, don't blame me. There was magic in Yui's kitchen (which, incidentally, was outside), and there was magic in Chiang Mai. But I'm hoping that those of you who are feeling adventurous enough to venture out to an Asian grocery store and throw this simple noodle dish together get even a bit of the magic I experienced under Yui's tutelage. And in case you don't, well, then that's just one more reason to hop on a plane and visit Thailand.

Long Live the King!

Written about Phnom Penh
Posted from Negombo, Sri Lanka

When we left our guest house next to the river in Phnom Penh heading for the Royal Palace and its Silver Pagoda, we noticed that the activity on the street seemed...a little off. Tuk-tuks, which had nearly crashed into us the night before, were mysteriously missing from the road paralleling the river. In fact, the more we observed we noticed that they were no cars on the street and that police officers were posted at every intersection with handheld radios. Having spent a few years living in D.C., we immediately recognized the preparations for a motorcade. Sure enough, moments later, we heard a siren coming up fast behind us. The two security guards standing next to us politely instructed us to wave at the oncoming vehicles. And there he was. The King of Cambodia, his head sticking out of the open window of his Lexus SUV, waving to the people in the street. Lizzi and I just stared at each other after he passed from view, and then I said, "Dude, we just saw the king!"

India Is Really Big

Posted from Negombo, Sri Lanka

Of our entire trip, we have done the least amount of planning for India. We know when we're going to be there, and we have a general outline of what we want to do (thank you Nitin, Uma, and Vishal). But we have no clue about what it takes to actually find accommodations or get from Point A to Point B. That bit of nail-biting started last night. We've emailed some guesthouses, and I'm certain that we will have to call them all to follow up later today. But the biggest question mark is how to get from one place to the next. Believe it or not, it's not as simple as I'd first hoped it to be. With that in mind, I've added a section to the sidebar called "India". Its purpose is to keep track of some helpful quick links or other bits of information. In particular, I've added the list of popular station codes for India's vast railway system. I couldn't believe how difficult this was to find. So here it is for your enjoyment and for our sanity.

India Railway: Popular Stations

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Long Way Around

Written in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Posted from Negombo, Sri Lanka

Lizzi's already mentioned why we wanted to go to Laos, but you don't get to meet Hmong villagers in the city. No, they still live in the hills and mountains as they have for many, many years. So the only way to really meet them is to go to them, which is exactly what we did. Shortly after arriving in Luang Prabang, we booked ourselves on a two-day trek through the hills east of Luang Prabang. We ate lunch in a Hmong village, stayed overnight with the Khmu, and played with all of the kids along the way.

We went with Lizzy and Tom, who we met on the drive from Chiang Mai to the Laos border. That night in the Khmu village, we met a couple from London on their honeymoon, Tom and Jan. Although they had biked to the village earlier in the day, they were taking the same route back to town, so we joined our trekking parties and sallied forth.

We visited three Khmu villages along the way. These villages are small, less than 100 households each. For the most part, they are subsistence farmers, but they also make whisky, which is distilled and then poured into a bottle containing a snake or scorpion. These bottles of nasty-looking yellow liquid are sold all around Laos. We even spotted a bunch in Luang Prabang. Our guide told us that men will drink the snake-infused whisky to be more potent, and old folks will drink the scorpion-infused stuff to gain energy and strength.

Our trekking company, Tiger Trails, participates in "Fair Treks". Proceeds from our tourist dollars go directly to each village. In fact, in the first village we stopped in, we visited a primary school that was paid for entirely by funds from these "Fair Treks". Fair treks also ensure a level of sustainable tourism for these villages. Tourists only visit a few villages among the "Fair Trek" network to ensure that the villages don't become dependent on tourists and ruin a traditional way of life. That said, it means that trekking parties are kept very small, less than 7 people per group.

In the Hmong villages, we only met women and yound children. School-age kids live in the city, near the school, Monday through Friday. Men were hunting, working with the livestock, or tending to the fields.

The trek itself started gently, but just over an hour into it, the going got tough. In fact, the going went vertical. Simple footpaths used for generations meander through the steep hills. We found ourselves drenched in sweat in the heat, fighting to catch our breath as we ascended the muddy, boulder-strewn paths of the hills. There are shortcuts, our guide tells us, but they are much more grueling. By the end of the day, we were exhausted, ready to wash the trail dust off and relax for the evening.

Our guide prepared us dinner, while we wandered the village. Just before we set off to explore the small hamlet, the guide walked past us with a live duck. A real live duck with wings and feathers and it quacked. We didn't actually watch him kill it, but we did watch him boil it. While it was still twitching. Needless to say, none of us were terribly hungry that night. Even less so, when our guide interrupts the meal to fish the boiled duck head out of Jan's bowl of soup.

After dinner, we drank. Our guides supplied the lao-lao (Lao whiskey) and some of the local crop. Lizzy and Tom had a tiny bottle of Scotch that we worked through as well. The results of this episode have already been explained.

The next day proved to be much easier going. Mostly downhill with a few bumps along the way. We reached another village, where we played with the kids and Tom (of Tom and Jan) tried to impress a few with his juggling abilities. One little boy carried a chicken under his arm, the way Linus would carry his security blanket; both he and the chicken seemed quite content with this situation. By early afternoon, we reached the river and took a long-tail boat to a spectacular waterfall, where the water was deep blue and crystal clear. We splashed around and swam in the frigid water for a while, thankful to have something vaguely resembling a bath. Then our guide rounded us up and we headed back to Luang Prabang.

The trek was excellent. Afterwards, I felt less slothful than I'd been feeling before hand. Somehow it also made our trip feel less like a vacation and more like we had actually learned and experienced something. I was also deeply impressed with the children we met along the way. Some of them were going to school, and some were probably working to help their families and the village. But most of the kids were just being kids. They laughed and smiled and generally appeared to be happy. With no television, no X-Box, no Gap. These kids were happy with a simple wooden top or even just a bunch of sticks. Even an empty water bottle provided hours of amusement. But they laughed and giggled and smiled. At the end of the trek, this was the single most important point that I kept coming back to. Despite the oppressive poverty and the abundant discrimination against the hill tribes, kids can still be kids.

"Lizzi, What are you doing with your boobs?" Musings on an Ayurvedic Massage

Written from Kandy, Sri Lanka

After contemplating the map of Sri Lanka, we decided to spend a second night in Kandy. Despite the fact that Sri Lanka has a population of nearly 20 million, and is roughly the size of Ohio, the roads are surprisingly, well, shitty. And I know this because we rented a car. And some of you may be reading this and thinking, "you rented a CAR? To DRIVE?! Are you crazy?!" Yes and no. On the crazy, I mean. We DID rent a car.

Our thinking went something like this: we have a lot to see, there are only a few days to see it in, there will be four of us, and recent events in this tiny island country make traveling via public transportation slightly undesirable. So we asked a friend, and he made driving sound do-able, and we asked the internet, which made driving sound affordable, so we went for it. But then there were those aformentioned shitty roads to contend with. And I'm not talking run-of-the-mill they-really-need-to-fix-these-potholes shitty. I mean, full-on ass-roads shitty. These roads are the black diamonds of ass-roads. Which isn't to say that all of them are like that. Some of them are quite nice with paving and enough room for cars to pass each other going the opposite direction. The problem occurs when you add in tuk-tuks, motorbikes, dogs, and pedestrians. THEN the road, even the best road, seems narrow. And when you're doing it while driving on the wrong side of the street, sitting on the wrong side of the car, accidentally turning on the windshield wipers when you meant to turn on your turn signal? Well, it's all very exhausting. So in order to minimize our driving time, we decided to stay in Kandy another night. And because I haven't gotten sidetracked enough in this post (WHY did I mention my boobs in the title?!) I should tell you that the original title for this post was going to be "Sorry Buddha, I Almost Ran Over A Monk" because a day or so ago, when we were driving from Colombo to Dambulla, we DID almost run over a monk who was sitting on the back of a motorbike that cut us off. We decided that would be the ultimate in bad karma. But I digress.

So with another day in Kandy, that meant that we could slow our pace a little bit. It meant that we didn't have to catch the elephant orphanage, the botanical gardens, and the holy site all in one day. No, we could spread the activities out, leaving ourselves time for an ayurvedic massage and a trip to the local fruit market. Of course, this being us, and it being Sri Lanka, we ended up being somewhat pressed for time, as we spent longer than we intended to spend picking out gifts for friends, and then longer than we meant to at the fruit market, and then whoops! a bit longer than we thought we would at the holy site. So we dashed into our spa appointments a wee bit breathless, anxious for some relaxation. And I should really back up here and say that "spa" isn't a totally appropriate title. It's not entirely off, as it's a place where someone does massage and generally works to make you feel more relaxed, but it's not entirely correct either, as the word "spa" typically connotes a clean place, with maybe with a little Enya playing softly in the background. This place was clean enough, but everyone knows there's a difference between spa clean and clean enough. Also? There was no Enya. But I decided I was there for the experience, and I was GOING to have it.

The experience started off by separating guys from girls. Chris and Matt one way, me and Amanda another. Okey-dokey. Then, Amanda and I were instructed to take all of our clothes off right in the middle of the room. WHAT? Yes, take your clothes off, get totally naked, not in that little room that looks suspiciously like a changing room, but right here, where your two massage-ladies are waiting for your nudity with a "sheet" that was roughly 12 inches long. After a deep breath and a measured decision to keep my underwear on, I tugged the sheet across my body, glanced at Amanda, and made my way over to the chair that the massage-lady was gesturing for me to sit in. I tried to relax as she massaged my temples with oil. And I tried to relax as she massaged my earlobes with oil. But then she parted my hair and poured oil on my scalp and that was it, there was no relaxation to be had. A woman just poured oil on my hair. My HAIR! After about 15 minutes my hair was apparently sufficiently oiled and my head sufficiently massaged. Or so I'm guessing, because that's when I was instructed to lie down on the table, first on my stomach, where massage-lady pounded and pulled at my calves and thighs, and then on my back, where she tugged off that sheet. WHAT? Yes, tugged off the sheet. Prompting me to tug the sheet back up. Which prompted her to tug it back down. Me: up. Her: down. Amanda: "Lizzi, what are you doing with your breasts?" Me: finally succumbing to hysterical laughter, pulling up the sheet, gesticulating that I wasn't letting it go, saying, "I'm holding them firmly in place with the sheet on top." "Oh good," she said, "me too."

The rest of the massage was basically uneventful. I'm incredibly ticklish so it tickled, which was embarassing. Amanda and I passed the time in a compromising but amused position. I was rubbed, head to toe, in oil, and I smelled a lot like food. I mostly hated it, counting down the minutes until I could wash the food smell off of myself. But I was also highly entertained by the whole thing -- lying on a massage table in Sri Lanka, smelling of a decent meal, near enough to touch a good friend who I never intended to see naked, while rebels are detonating bombs around this otherwise utterly peaceful and beautiful country. Oh, if my grandmother could see me now! I can't even begin to imagine what she would say, and can only guess that it would begin with "Liz, dear..."

At the very end of the massage experience, Amanda and I were led to (thankfully separate) showers so that we could rinse off. We had the exact same experience. Thinking that our massage-lady had already been a little closer to our lady parts than we intended, we both guessed that the odds of our respective massage-ladies actually staying around to wash us were quite high. Still wearing underwear, I quickly surmised that I could not bathe nor be bathed while wearing cotton panties. So with a deep breath, I took them off. At which point massage-lady respectfully stepped out of the shower and walked down the hall. Um, DUH. Why on EARTH would massage-lady bathe me? I have no idea. At the time, it didn't seem like it was outside the realm of possibility. In retrospect, she must have been thinking, "Now? NOW you're okay with being naked? Weird white girl." Yes, yes indeed.

So here I am, back at the hotel, full off a meal that smelled surprisingly like my face did just a few hours ago. Two showers later, I'm mostly clean and no longer have cardamom oil in my ears. And thank god for that, right? You were worried, I can tell.

Tomorrow we're leaving Kandy and hoping to see some elephants. More elephants! And then it's a quick drive back to Negombo, which is north of Colombo, to hopefully get to the beach. Cross your fingers that the roads will cooperate, that the rebels will stay away from wherever we want to be, and that the next person who asks me to get naked is not a perfect stranger.