Thursday, June 30, 2011

Crossing the street


(PICTURE: Our first brush with crossing the street/death by vehicle.)

I'd like to think that living in Vietnam has given me some unique skill sets. For example, I'm pretty confident nobody can cross a ridiculously busy street better than me. It's like I've mastered the real life game of Froggert. However, everything I learned about dodging speeding bikes/cars/buses/carts in Vietnam went out the window in Kolkata as it was by far the scariest place ever to cross the street. How scary was it? Well, even my wife was terrified. Heck, she was even more terrified than me. In fact, more than a few times I had to turn back (the cardinal sin when crossing the street) because Huyen had chickened-out and escaped the sweaty grasp of my hand. I'd like to say that after four weeks we mastered crossing the street in India but that just wouldn't be true.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

You can take the girl out of Vietnam...

...but you can't take Vietnam out of the girl:

(PICTURE: Huyen on Ho Chi Minh street.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

First Tastes of India


(PICTURE: The first restaurant we went to.)

Kolkata was our first chance to taste authentic Indian food and it definitely didn't disappoint. West Bengal is known for its cuisine (especially sweets) so we aimed at only eating at Bengali restaurants.

(PICTURE: Our first dinner.)

Lonely Planet had a few recommendations which we tried over the first couple of days. Like most LP recs, the prices at the restaurant were probably double the cost that the book quoted. This is a common phenomenon with guide books I find. As soon as they write about a great bargain restaurant, it become an okay expensive one!

(PICTURE: This was the first and last seafood I ate in India. Notice, the black and white drawings on the wall. They're sketches by the father of a famous Bollywood director.)

I had read that the food in India was very cheap but our first three meals or so were far from that. In fact, I started to get worried that we didn't budget well enough for the trip. However, once we stopped going to the guide book places and just asked locals for good places to eat, we found the food even better and cheaper. Lonely Planet did have one great call though: Hot Kati Rolls. This thing was like shwarma on crack:

(PICTURE: I'm sweating profusely from the weather, not the spicy goat sandwich in my hand.)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Scams


(PICTURE: Us at the Victoria Monument. This was scheme #3.)

Going along with yesterday's blog, my biggest complaint in India was that you couldn't go ten feet without someone trying to scam you. You know, entrepreneurs. Here's the first ten scams that come to mind:

1. Fare Scheme. We would often take tuk-tuk's around different places in the cities we were in. Before getting in a tuk-tuk we would agree to a price with a driver. For example in Agra, we wanted to go to two different sites and then back to the hotel. We told the driver exactly where we wanted to go and then came up with a number which was a little higher then how much our guide book said it would be. However, when we eventually came back to the hotel, the driver tried to charge us double because he said he had to wait at the sites. The ironic part about this was I had given the guy a tip and thought I was doing a nice thing...and then he wanted double.

2. I collect money scheme. This one is not unique to India as I've seen it in Vietnam a couple of times. However, it just kept occuring over and over in India. When we were staying in Agra (the scam capital of the world), there was a devoutly dressed Muslim man who worked/owned the hotel we were at. At some point he came up to me with a smile and said, "Hello, I collect money from around the world. Can I show you my collection?". As soon as he said this I knew it was a scam since I'd seen/heard this before. However, I had to wait at the front desk for something which allowed time for the guy to grab his money album. He proceeded to show me some pages and then said, "I don't have any US dollars. Do you have one you can give me for my collection?" Now first off, every traveler has US dollars. Secondly, the hotel has a money exchange for US Dollars. Thirdly, fuck him. I said to the guy, "Yeah, I have US Dollars. The bank exchange rate is 45 Rubies (the hotel was offering 42). I'll tell you what, you give me 45 Rubies and I'll give you a dollar for your collection." Shockingly he didn't go for this deal. I told Huyen about this guy's scam and of course he tried it on her too. She told him that she was from Vietnam and he said, "I have Vietnamese money. Do you have dollars?". She asked to see the Vietnamese money but he didn't show any to her. He then said he'd take Vietnamese Dong but first asked what the exchange rate was from Dong to Dollar.

3. My Daughters Collect Money Scam. This is very similar to #2. While Huyen and I were at the Victoria Monument in Kolkata, a man came up to us and offered to take our picture together. After taking the picture he made small talk which quickly turned into, "I have three daughters. They collect money. Do you have any you can give them?". Nice try.

4. The Freelance Photographer Scam. Sometimes you'll just be taking a picture (similar to #3) and a seemingly nice, well dressed, citizen will come up to you and offer to take your picture and all of a sudden turn into Ansel Adams. For example, in -- yes you guessed it -- Agra, a man offered to take a picture of us. The guy came out of the blue and seemed like a tourist so I thought he was just a nice guy. As soon as the camera was in his hands he started giving us directions: "stand this way", "raise your hand", "show that you love the camera", etc. After he reeled off 100 pictures in 30 seconds, I took back my camera and thanked him. Instead of saying, "You're welcome" he extended his hand and said, "Something for me?".

5. Kidnapping Scam. Okay, we didn't really get kidnapped...only sort of. At the end of our trip, I had a heat rash in a sensitive spot and didn't want to walk very far. Huyen and I wanted to check out a famous shopping area to buy souvenirs for people and started to walk to where we knew it was. However, as we were walking we got bombarded with cyclos and tuk-tuks trying to drive us down the road. I knew that the place was a ten minute walk MAX, but finally succumbed to a tuk-tuk driver (and his tag-a-long-friend) who seemed to be going in that direction and offered to drive us for a quarter. A quarter was worth not irritating my groin. Well, as soon as we got in the tuk-tuk (which he basically shoved me into) the guy pulled a u-turn and went in totally the wrong direction. After a few minutes, I tapped the guy on the arm and said "Where are you going?!" He said, "First we go to the gold market." He then tried to ignore me as I said "no" until I lightly gave him a dead-arm and said stop. The driver stopped and we hopped out. The great news was that we were safe from being kidnapped (and I've read that often people get bullied and strong armed at the gold market). The bad news was that we were now a 45 minute walk from where we wanted to go.

6. The Market Is Closed Scam. This one was written about in Lonely Planet so I was prepared for it. It actually happened right after #5. As we were walking to the market we wanted to go to, a seemingly nice citizen came up to us and asked where we were going. At this point we were pretty close to the shopping area again so it was clear we were walking there. We told the guy where we wanted to go and he said, "Oh, that's impossible. They're doing construction on that bazaar now." I looked at the guy and said, "Really?". He said, "Yeah, it's closed for a few months. But there's a great market right around the corner. Want me to show it to you?". Clearly being scammed, I said that we would just go to the bazaar and see for ourselves. This guy immediately got annoyed and started repeating, "It's closed! Go to the other market. Trust me!". Yeah....

7. Ticket Office Scam. When you get into a tuk-tuk you tell the driver where you want to go. Well if you're going to the train station then sometimes they ask you a follow-up question like, "Are you going to buy tickets?". When you answer, "Yes" they say, "Oh, you should buy tickets at the tourist office, not the station. It's much better." Uh, no. This is a huge scam in Delhi where people try to take you to a shop where they charge commission.

8. I Work Here Scam. This one happened to us at -- you guessed it -- Agra. We woke up early and went to the Taj Mahal and there was nobody in line. A well dressed guy with a badge on came up to us as we went to the ticket window. He gave us some instructions and seemed to be working for the Taj Mahal office. In fact, he was chatting with the ticket seller behind the counter. AND the ticket seller gave him our tickets when I bought them. The guy then told us we were entitled to a free bottle of water and shoe covers. He then began to lead us into the Taj Mahal where he handed our tickets to the guards and went right in for free. Huyen was on to this scam before I was but the guy was so smooth so it was quite deceptive. As soon as we walked into the Taj I said straight up to the guy, "Do you work here?". The guy said, "Yes, I'm a tour guide." I said, "We don't want a tour guide" which the guy replied, "It is no problem, just give me whatever you like at the end." We declined the offer and watched him go back to the ticket office to try and get another paying customer.

9. The Fruit Scam. Shockingly, no fruit sellers have Shoprite quality digital scales. Everyone uses scales in which they balance the fruit with weights. Well, not every fruit seller is honest and lets just say that we had vastly different amounts of fruit weighting 1kg.

10. The Hotel Scam. After dealing with people trying to scam you all day long on the streets and at sights, all you want is a safe refugee when you get back to your hotel. However, even there you often deal with people trying to scam you. For example, on our last night in India, we booked a nice hotel on Agoda for a very cheap price. We booked the place because we wanted a comfortable place to stay before flying and because the hotel said it had free wifi and an airport transfer. Well, when I asked for the wifi password they said it cost 200 Rubies. I said that our room booking said it was free. They disagreed. I agreed to pay for the password and then logged right onto the website where we booked the room. I showed the page to the front desk worker where it said, "Complimentary Wifi." The guy couldn't look me in they eye as he nodded and said they wouldn't charge us. Worse, the manager of the hotel told us that the "airport transfer" was only for pick-ups. I told him that the site said "one way" and didn't say which way. The manager told us he would see what he could do and would get back to us the next day with a "special package." Whatever the fuck that meant. I went back to Agoda and read some reviews of the hotel and was very amused when I saw that one British guy had commented that he was told the "pick up wasn't included." Clearly the hotel tries to shove it to their guests on both ends. In the end, we got the free ride.

These are only 11 of the typical scams we dealt with. There were A LOT more, some of which I'll be including in funny anecdotes in other blogs.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The White Tiger



I always like to read books about the country I'm traveling in. My Aunt Ronny suggested that I read THE WHITE TIGER, which was also Lonely Planet's top choice for Indian fiction. I picked the book up at a shop in the book quarter of Kolkata and read it in just a couple of days. Aravind Adiga, the author, has a great writing style and an extremely acute eye for societal observations; I guess it helps that he's Indian.

To me, the greatest line in the book came on the second page and it's something I thought about throughout my time in India. Here's what he wrote:

"...our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs."

For me, this is India in a nutshell. There are so many problem in India, but everyone is trying to make a dollar for themselves. And to me, this was the biggest problem of all...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mangoes


(PICTURE: Picking mangoes...before the article we just read.)

As I was typing that last blog, Huyen interrupted me with a look of disgust on her face. She began to read me an article from THE TIMES OF INDIA. Here's what the article says:

SUBJECT: Toxic mangoes: Traders asked to clean up act.

New Delhi: It's a well known fact that mangoes are ripened with calcium carbide by traders and this can prove to be toxic. The chemical is banned in section 44A of the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act but is being used across the capital, a fact that Delhi government has suddenly woken up to. It is now preparing the ground for a crackdown.

That's the opening paragraph. On a nice sidebar it lists some facts including: "Calcium carbide can damage kidney, heart and liver and cause ulcer." I bolded the same words that were bolded in the sidebar.

So here's why Huyen had a look on her face -- we've eaten and drank mangoes every single day that we've bee in India. Furthermore, we're currently in Delhi and ate two mangoes last night! Well, who needs a kidney, heart and liver, right?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Fist Fights


(PICTURE: The animals here imitate the humans.)

Think for a second: When was the last time you saw two grown up men in a fist fight. Okay, now think harder, when was the last time you saw two grown up SOBER men in a fist fight? Personally, I don't think I've ever seen that (I'm assuming at a sporting event the combatants were drunk), or at least not in the last decade.

Well, today I saw my THIRD and FOURTH fist fight between two Indian men. Okay, technically they all weren't fist fights but they did all at least have one person grabbing the other and shoving them with a finger in the face and voices raised to a threatening level. Here's the four situations as best as I could interpret them:

FIGHT 1: This occurred on a bus between two passengers. I believe they were vying for some standing space. They started to yell at each other and grabbed one another on a crowded bus. Finally the bus ticket collector threw them both off...except one then jumped back on and I think said, "I'm cool" in Hindi.

FIGHT 2: This was the scariest one. Huyen and I were at the train station when a huge crowd started to form around two men. One guy was jacked (mom, that's slang for very strong) and had the other guy by the belt buckle and was basically dragging him with his other finger in the guy's face. The other guy looked petrified and was waving his hands as if to say, "Sooo sorry for trying to pick pocket you. I don't know what I was thinking." Well, who knows what he was saying but the imaginary conversation went something like that. Huyen and I jetted before the crowd turned more raucous.

FIGHT 3: This morning two guys on the street were wrestling with each other. They weirdly had both their hands clasped like they were doing a WWF test of strength. I'm pretty sure one of them had bumped his rickshaw into the other.

FIGHT 4: Just now two other guys on the street were in each other's face. One guy was holding the other guy's undershirt and jabbing his finger at him. There were no context clues to this fight so I can only imagine they are ex-lovers who bumped into each other and still aren't over one cheating with Bengali sweet shop owner.

One time on a bus, I saw a guy reading a book called "The Argumentative Indian." I have no idea what that book is about but I plan on checking it out of the library when I get home. Just from the title though, I can only hope it explains why Indian men are so confrontational.

As far as the picture above, one day while we were walking in Agra we had to jump back about twenty feet because two holy bulls started to tussle in the street. At first it was sort of amusing as they locked horns, but it turned pretty ugly when one bull kicked the crap out of the other one. I'm no vet but I'm fairly sure the bull broke the other bull's leg because the other bull limped away, gushing blood. It was pretty nasty. Huyen and I stood sort of in shock as about a dozen Indian guys laughed their asses off next to us.

Oh, India.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Taxi Math

I'm not good at math. In fact, it gives me the sweats. One place that I don't like to do math is in a taxi cab. I like to look at the meter, pay the fare and give the driver a couple bucks tip. In Kolkata though, you need to do some math to figure out the correct cost of your far. There's two types of math problems:

TAXI MATH PROBLEM #1: To get the correct cost of your taxi, you need to DOUBLE the fare on the meter and then add two rubies. Yes, whatever the meter says you should then double it. For example, if you ride to the Memorial Monument and it says 23 Rubies, the correct cost is 46 Rubies plus 2 Rubies extra. I know this sounds like a scam (DRIVER: "Yeah, so, uh, you actually need to pay double what the meter says) but it's truly how it works. My Lonely Planet warned me about this and so did the concierge guy at our hotel.

TAXI MATH PROBLEM #2: This is the math that really pisses me off. Here's the problem: If you take a taxi from A to B and it costs 70 Rubies, then how much should a taxi from B to A cost? If you're like me, you're thinking 70 Rubies, duh! Well, not so much in a country where everyone is trying to rip you off. Huyen and I took a taxi to a part of town where there was no subway (we took the subway everywhere else which was actually pretty great, albeit crowded). The fare there cost 70 Rubies. After dinner, we approached a cab and asked him to take us back to our hotel. The cab driver wanted 300 Rubies. In fact, every driver we asked wanted something ludicrous and refused to turn on the meter. Finally, we found a guy who would drive us for 100 Rubies. We found him about 1/4 of the way back to our hotel since we had started to walk. In my math world it should have cost us ____ (whatever 1/4 of 70 is).

Besides math problems, there's also sometimes geography problems. Luckily, I was always good at geography...although that doesn't apply in India I guess.

Here's the geography problem: we had to take another taxi one afternoon and the driver dropped us off at the WRONG part of town. We knew it was the wrong part of town but the guy wouldn't stop arguing with us that it was exactly where our hotel's business card said it was. He kept pointing at the card and then pointing to where we were. Well, the guy was clearly illiterate (an English problem) because he had dropped us as some point in town FURTHER away from where we had started. In his defense, both parts of town started with the letter "R". Luckily there was a subway nearby so we jumped on it and got back to our place thirty minutes later.

Oh, India.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Beggars


(PICTURE: A pretty common scene in India.)

I hope I don't come off as completely insensitive and as a total a-hole by writing this blog because well, that's how I feel a lot out here. As most people know, poverty is a huge issue in India. Like in most Indian movies you've seen, there are street beggars everywhere. It seems that you can't go more than ten feet on a sidewalk without someone asking you for money or rattling their can at you.

My heart goes out for the kids who are on the street because god knows how the hell they ended up in their situation. The thing is, there's millions of kids begging in this country and after a while you start to almost become desensitized to them -- and well, that's terrible and makes you feel rotten.

More than a few times, I've had kids and other beggars latch onto my arm. Coming from the states (or I would think almost any developed country), having homeless people grab you is something that is way beyond our code or acceptable conduct. Frankly, you feel violated. But worse than that is when you end up feeling like the bad guy because you have to yell at a homeless ten year old to get off your arm.

But then, the cynic is me starts to think: Are these kids trying to scam me like half the people in the country (another blog coming up)? For example, the other day Huyen and I were walking down the street and some kid (probably around ten) starts asking us for money. The kid was filthy, very skinny and walking with a limp. After I told him no about six times, he grabbed me by the bicep and basically had me drag him along with me for ten feet. I finally stopped, gave him an evil look and said, "No!". I clearly scared the kid and he let go. I then watched him walk away WITH NO LIMP.

The point is, the begging here is a double whammy. First you feel horrible that so many people have to beg. Second you feel like a jerk for getting mad at people for the way they beg.

Oh, and then there are stories like this (where I got the picture from)...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

First Impressions


(PICTURE: At night, men just gather on the street and play chess.)

Crazy. That's the world I would use to describe my first impressions of Kolkata. I would say "overwhelmed" but really I found myself laughing and staring in the relative safety of our Ambassador taxi. Huyen and I kept on pointing at things and saying, "Whoah, did you see that?" or simply, "Oh my god."

There doesn't seem to be an inch of space wasted in Kolkata. There's something going on seemingly everywhere. There were tons of people standing/squatting/sitting on the sides of roads or hanging out of cars/rickshaws/bicycles/buses. There were animals which seemed to be out on joy walks, enjoying the garbage buffet that lined the streets. There were posters and advertisements that covered every wall from the airport to our hotel.

There was the nonsensical. Coming from Hanoi, I thought driving couldn't be worse. I was wrong. Nearly dead wrong. We'll get into this in a later blog but people had barely any grasp/care for safe driving. Either that, or as I suspect, people just can't afford new brakes.

And then there was the poverty. As we drove in, you could see the squalor everywhere. There were cardboard and scarp metal homes anywhere there wasn't a concrete and brick one. On the streets, there were people begging on nearly every corner. At one point, we stopped at a red light (yes, we actually stopped) and a kid (probably 8) came up to my window holding his sibling (probably two) begging for money. The kid reached in and grabbed my arm. This would be the first of many times this would happen.

At the end of our one and a half hour trip to our hotel (which if the roads were empty would probably have taken fifteen minutes max) our taxi pulled up to a street which was totally under construction. The driver signaled that he couldn't go down the street and told us to walk. Frankly, we had no clue if this was where our hotel was (it turned out to be about a five minute walk down the alley) or if he was just tired of driving us. After grabbing our bags we gave him a little tip. He then started to complain that we should give him a lot more. Really? A lot more of a tip for you not dropping us off not at our hotel (he clearly could have gone one block up and circled around to our hotel)?

In the end, we got to our hotel which was a sanctuary of peacefulness compared to the rest of the city. These first impressions though would last and only become cemented over the coming weeks. We'll delve into lots of these things in upcoming blogs.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Kolkata: Airport Pick-Up

(PICTURE: An Ambassador cab.)

My friend Kevin scared the crap out of me when I told him that I was going to Kolkata. You see, he and his wife Beth went to India for their honeymoon and spent their first couple of days in Kolkata. When I asked Kevin for some advice, he told me to fly in and get the heck out. This scared me because I consider Kevin to be one of the best travelers I know. If this warning wasn't enough, he and Beth insisted that we allow them to treat us to a night at a 5 star hotel when we arrived. It took a lot of arguing but finally I convinced Kevin that it wasn't necessary. Kevin relented and said that he at least wanted to get us a driver to pick us up at the airport because we shouldn't be winging it when we first arrive since he was sure Kolkata would be unlike anything we'd ever experienced. I agreed and Kevin attempted to arrange a driver. After a few days, Kevin told me that he was having trouble getting us a ride because "things are never easy in India." Wiser words were never spoken.

I told Kevin not to worry and arrainged a pick-up with the hotel I booked (for the record, we stayed at a really awesome boutique hotel/art gallery). The hotel sent me a confirmation email and told me that a driver would be waiting at the exit gate with a placard. Naturally, nobody was there when we came. Huyen and I waited for about twenty minutes before we decided to give up on the pick-up. The problem was though that we didn't have a phone to call the hotel and the pre-paid taxi booth was inside the airport. This was a problem because we were now outside the airport and you needed a ticket to get back in. Luckily, the pretty-face-rule works in India too and Huyen sweet talked an army guy with a machine gun to let her into the airport. Huyen paid for a taxi and came back outside.

We took our prepaid taxi receipt to the taxi line and told a circle of drivers where we wanted to go. Not one driver actually knew the spot and they debated on it for about 10 minutes. Finally one guy said to follow him and led us to his taxi which was not in the taxi line. Two other guys grabbed our bags and escorted us to the taxi. The two other guys apparently were homeless men who took our bags to get a tip. Heck, I respect that since they're not just sitting on the street begging for money (I don't mean to sound heartless but when you can't go twenty feet without someone asking for money you don't mind giving something to someone whose going that extra mile) . The problem is we didn't have any small denominations so we ended up giving them our leftover Thai Baht...which they seemed happy to get. Our taxi driver got into the car and shewd off the beggars. He then turned on the Ambassador cab, which rattled to life, rolled down the windows and we sped off into Kolkata...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Flight to Kolkata

Our first real taste of India came on the flight to Kolkata. The plane was filled with probably 95% Indians which made for an interesting couple of hours. One of the things I had heard about Indian culture is that personal space isn't something they're really into. This became quickly apparent as the lady next to Huyen more or less cuddle up next to her and went to sleep. No kidding, she ended up taking up about 25% of Huyen's chair. Behind us, about four Indian guys crammed into the three seats once the plane took off (although I don't think before the unfasten seat belt sign went off). The guys played cards behind us and weren't exactly not kicking my chair every thirty seconds.

However, the most telling example of how Indians aren't into following rules (blogs on littering, driving, etc. coming soon) came when the plane landed. Seemingly as soon as the plane touched down, nearly every Indian person jumped to their feet and began grabbing their bags from the overhead compartments. The Air Asia flight attendants got on the loud speakers and told everyone to sit down until we got to the gate. However, nobody listened. The flight attendants than basically went through the aisle and pushed people back into their seats. I really felt for this one flight attendant who looked completely dumbfounded and frustrated as she tried to get people to sit down; clearly this was a daily experience for her.

And with that, we begin the blogs on India...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Airport Scare


(PICTURE: Imagine me sprinting down those moving escalators.)

After checking in at the airport, we had about an hour and a half to kill...which left me just enough time to drop a Phuket curry off in the Bangkok airport bathroom. While I went to use the facilities, Huyen went to spend our remaining Thai Baht on some snacks for the airplane. We made a plan to meet at a very recognizable point in ten minutes. Well, after ten minutes I came back and Huyen wasn't there yet. I figured maybe she was in the bathroom or was really trying to stretch our remaining Thai money so I took a seat, opened my computer and watched a live stream of the Boston Bruins in the conference finals. After a couple of minutes of Huyen not showing up, I started to get nervous. However, the Bruins were on so my nerves were able to stay somewhat in check. After thirty minutes, I full started to panic.

If you've ever been to the Bangkok Airport, it's quite a gigantic place. I figured the worst thing I could do was to run around looking for Huyen considering there's probably 10,000 people in the International terminal at any one time. I decided the smartest thing to do was to go to our gate, thinking perhaps Huyen had gone there. Our gate though was the farthest one in the international terminal. I'd say it was a solid half mile from where we were supposed to meet. I got there pretty fast though since there were moving sidewalks all the way to the gate. However, of course Huyen wasn't there. I took a deep breath, maintained my composure and started jogging back to the point we said we would meet. Going back was harder since none of the moving sidewalks went in that direction. Just when I had gotten almost back to our meeting point, I saw Huyen. Initially I had been angry at her for not meeting where we said we would but that immediately went away when I saw how scared she was. It turns out, she went the wrong way in the airport and was waiting in section F, not section E. Huyen, who has never had the best sense of direction, got turned around when purchasing our snacks. Lets just say it was quite scary for both of us!

While waiting for Huyen/watching the Boston Bruins, I had checked my email. My friend Alex had emailed me a couple of times asking for help with our friend Brett's wedding speech. I told him that I didn't have time at the moment because I lost Huyen at the airport and our flight was leaving pretty soon. He wrote back, "Is this how the screenplay ends?" I thought that was pretty hilarious as it did feel like a very cinematic moment. Luckily, it had a happy ending as we found each other and got on our plane in time.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Check In Weirdo


(PICTURE: Air Asia flight attendants.)

If you've flown Air Asia before, you know that they are famous for having very beautiful flight attendants. In fact, I'm pretty sure they hire girls from modeling agencies to just walk around the Bangkok airport in Air Asia uniforms. I kid you not, there were a dozen Air Asia girls walking around the check-in area like runway models. Anyway, the girl who checked us in for our India flight was not one of those girls. She could have been very attractive but she was wearing a clown-level amount of make-up (I guess it is easy to get a complex when all your coworkers are hot). For me, paint-level amounts of make-up is an immediate sign that someone has some issues, probably not so hidden. This was confirmed when Huyen and I checked in. The girl took our passports and examined them for like five minutes. She did this in not so much a this-is-my-job way but rather a I'm-stoned-out-of-my-mind way. With bug eyes she looked over each page and after a couple of minutes said, "Your name should be Benjamin April because you're born in April." I smiled at her and I think said, "Well my father is born in August." Then she began to stare at our passports again and said, "You're going to India?". We nodded. She then looked completely perplexed, as if contemplating the creation of the universe, and added, "What's there to see in India?" I thought about handing her my guide book or a copy of Slumdog Millionaire (which I still think is over rated) but instead said, "I'll tell you next time I see you." To this she added a, "Yeahhhhhhhhhh."

After another couple of minutes she handed us our boarding passes and we backed away from the counter. Huyen and I both immediately turned to each other and started to giggle and slightly mock the girl. Well, perhaps we shouldn't have mocked her because for the first two weeks or so of our trip we basically hated India. Sure we had fun because we're together but both of us keep thinking that maybe we should have taken the clownish Air Asia girl more seriously.

I'm writing this post at the halfway point of our trip and my fingers are crossed that things will get better. For now though, bare with me on some slightly negative (and hopefully funny) posts.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Late Taxi



To be able to be on time for our flight to India, we had to take the earliest flight out of Phuket. Our flight was around 6:50AM so we had arrainged for a taxi to pick us up at 4:45. Huyen and I left our hotel room at 4:30 and walked to the lobby. As we were walking, a Thai hooker came out of the hotel room a couple of doors down from ours and walked a few feet behind us. She clearly wasn't a rookie as it seemed like the guy behind the front desk knew her well. Oh, Thailand.

Anyway, per usual, I was early for an appointment. However, the taxi driver was no August and showed up a solid 25 minutes late. Naturally I started to panic that we were gonna miss our flight since the airport was 50 minutes away. The front desk called the taxi company and they said the guy was on his way. Clearly we woke the guy up because he showed up in a wife-beater, looking like he had gone to bed within the hour. Yeah, not exactly the guy you want driving you to the airport...especially when he now has to speed/run red lights to get you there on time.

Luckily, we made it to the airport on time, checked-in were able to eat a quick breakfast (which the nice 4 star hotel had packed for us) and then jump on the plane and say goodbye to Phuket.

Huyen and I had fun on the island but it's definitely not my favorite spot in Thailand. If for some reason you're reading my blog and trying to decide which Thai island to go to, I'd skip Phuket and head to Ko Phanang.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Agoda


(PICTURE: Sunset at a Karon Beach.)

Before arriving in Phuket, I had emailed the owner and asked if he had wifi. He said no but that we could use the wifi from the resort next door. When we arrived, I asked him again about the wifi and he told me the only place to use it was in the shower house (the bungalows had shared bathrooms).

So after being totally screwed over by the owner/restaurant we immediately headed to the bathroom to search the web for a new hotel. F irst I should mention that the wifi was very very weak. At most, I had one bar -- more on this later. While doing my research on Phuket I came upon the hotel website Agoda. If you're not familiar with it, check it out. It's awesome. Immediately upon doing a search, we found out that the 4 star resort next door was offering a deal which made it just $5 more than our zero star bungalow. We thought about just moving next door but then we'd end up having to use the same dangerous/dirty beach. Instead, we decided to look for a place at one of the more famous Phuket beaches. We ended up finding a deal at a 4 star hotel called Diamond Cottages Spa and Resort. With tax, we paid $35 a night. That was over and 80% discount from what the hotel is listed as. Yeah, it was a steal. I tried to reserve the room just as a huge thunderstorm swept in and messed up the wifi. After spending nearly an hour and a half searching, we couldn't book our hotel.


(PICTURE: This gecko was next to us while we stole a resort's wifi signal.)

The next morning we awoke early and basically sat in front of the neighboring resort's entrance to use their wifi again. The signal was much stronger and we booked the hotel in about five minutes. We then had breakfast at our garbage site and ordered a taxi to take us to our new place. The taxi cost as much as the hotel since it was about an hour's drive. However, it was worth every penny.

Our new hotel was AWESOME. We had a gorgeous room (with AC) and were right between two nicer beaches. On top of that, the hotel had two fantastic pools. If you read my blog the other day, Huyen and I were now Category 1 travelers. We spent the next 48 hours as happy as could be. We went swimming in both beaches and pools and enjoyed lots of food that was overpriced but still tasty. Changing hotels, yeah, it was a great decision.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thai Food



(PICTURE: Huyen on our isolated beach.)

I love Thai Food and couldn't wait to have some in Phuket. One of the features of the bungalow was that it had a supposedly pretty good restaurant. After going for a walk on the beach, Huyen and I had an evening meal. The food though was just okay. I've been to Thailand a few times (and Thai restaurants hundreds of times) and this place just wasn't anything special. I really wanted to love it, especially since it cost more than you would expect a bungalow's restaurant to cost.

Because of this, the next day Huyen and I went out in search of some better and cheaper food. We found just the spot about a ten minute walk from our bungalow. You see, as we had driven in the day before, we saw a handful of food stands by a construction site (they're building a new Holiday Inn near the bungalows). We went to the stands and ended up eating breakfast and lunch there. The food was quite good and totally authentic. The only problem was that it was next to a construction site and more or less a garbage dump. You know, besides the garbage it was great.

Here's the thing though, I felt a little guilty not eating at the bungalow especially since we were the only people staying there! There was another couple the night before but they checked out on our first full day. The restaurant was staffed with three girls who clearly had nothing to do except to cook for us...and we chose to eat elsewhere.

In the afternoon, we decided to have a little picnic and took our papaya salad, chicken skewers and Thai iced tea to the beach. I think the owner was a little peeved that we weren't eating at the restaurant because as soon as we sat down, three of his dogs basically jumped on us. We ended up having to walk quite far down the beach before the dogs would let us eat in peace.

Now all that said, we had planned on eating dinner again at the bungalow restaurant that night. I had specifically asked the owner what time the restaurant serves until and he said just to place our order before 9PM. Well, at 8PM we went to the restaurant and it was totally boarded up. This was a problem since we were starving and the construction site was closed. I wasn't too happy about this turn of events and wanted to say something to the owner who lives in a bungalow next to the restaurant. As we got close to the bungalow though his dogs starting to bark quite fiercely at us. The light was on inside his bungalow so we started yelling his name. And yup, he ignored us.

This was quite stupid on his part because we had planned on paying for two more nights and instead decided to check out the next morning...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Mai Kao Beach


(PICTURE: This was about as close to the water as I got.)

After doing a bunch of research, I found a place on Mai Kao beach that was supposedly the last beach side bungalows on Phuket. This wasn't exactly true considering that there was another beach side bungalow place down the beach; besides that though, we didn't see any others. The place was called Seaside Cottages and is run by a British expat named Malcolm. The place definitely lived up to its billing as bungalows by the beach and was exactly what we wanted..except for one thing -- the beach.

We arrived around 4PM and immediately dropped off our stuff in our bungalow and headed down to the water. I had planned on taking a nice sunset swim but was put off by how violently the waves were crashing at the shore. I went up to my thighs and could feel a very strong undertow. Where we were was very isolated but we could see quite far down the beach where there are four and five star resorts. There were a handful of people out and about down the way but NOBODY was in the water. Frankly the water was too scary to swim in for me, let alone Huyen. We ended up spending two nights at this place and didn't go into the ocean once. Upon leaving, I asked the owner when the best time to swim is. He said, "I don't know. I can't swim." I shit you not, the owner of a beachside "resort" can't swim.

The second problem with the beach was that it was FILTHY. It was as dirty as any Vietnamese beach I've ever been to. I asked Malcolm if this was because of debris from the tsunami a few years back and he said no, it was always like that.


(PICTURE: Beach trash.)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Long Way Home


(PICTURE: Sunset in Phuket on our first night.)

Huyen and I decided that instead of flying directly to America, we would continue our honeymoon. You see, it was basically the same price to fly one-way from Hanoi to NY as it was to do a couple of one way flights to some places we had never been. Originally, we had planned on doing two weeks in Sri Lanka, two weeks in India and then two weeks in France. However, getting visas was a pain in the butt so we decided to just go to India. While booking our flight there, we saw some super cheap flights on Air Asia that we could pass up. Basically for both of us to fly from Hanoi to Bangkok, Bangkok to Phuket, Phuket to Bangkok and Bangkok to Kolkata cost us less than $450. We had absolutely no intention of going to Phuket until a deal flashed on my computer screen as we booked our plans. It cost us about $50 each to fly round trip to the island.

As I hit the purchase button on Air Asia's website, I started to immediately have second thoughts. I didn't know much about Phuket but the things I had heard all were not so good. Mainly, I read/heard that Phuket was now just an island of 4 and 5 star resorts and not a place for backpackers. And yes, I'm 32 and still consider myself a backpacker. As I see it, travelers fall into two categories:

Category 1: People who can only take 1-2 week vacations a year and want to spend every moment in luxury.

Category 2: People who have lots of time on their hands and don't mind sacrificing luxury to be able to travel for months to years.

In total, Huyen and I will have been traveling for more than 3 months when we land in the USA. Considering that we don't have jobs, we thought it would be wise to pinch a few pennies along the way. And hence, my nervousness going to Phuket where supposedly nothing is cheap...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Airport Party


(PICTURE: We found our own quiet corner in the airport.)

I've got a lot of blogging to make-up for. However, I'm going to skip our final days in Vietnam as I personally feel those stories should come before landing in America, albeit out of chronological order. However, I will give you a quick snippet:

After spending two weeks with Huyen's family, we headed to the airport. Most of Huyen's family had never been to the airport so they decided to come with us to check the place out and to say goodbye. But really, just to check the place out since they left two hours before we took off! Almost all of Huyen's immediate family were there except for her mother who was too sad to make the trip. Needless to say, there were a lot of tears that day. We'll get into this at a later date.

On a happy note though, we had quite a party at the airport. We ate a whole chicken (killed/prepared the night before), sticky rice (which Huyen's mom prepared at midnight), corn and a bunch of refreshments...including lots of Hanoi beer. Frankly, it was a great way to leave the country!


(PICTURE: A sample of the feast.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Hiatus...

Dear Loyal Readers,

Take a deep breath...

Huyen and I are currently backpacking around India. Despite this country having 600,000,000 IT jobs, it's been a pain in the ass to find internet and nearly impossible to find WIFI. This is the reason my blogs have been so half-ass the last week or so. I promise that as soon as I get good internet I'll throw up some new posts. Thanks for your patience!

Ben

Saturday, June 4, 2011

An Amazing Trip...

Without a doubt, there was no better way to say goodbye to Vietnam than to travel from Hanoi to HCMC on our Honda Wave. What an amazing trip:



video

Friday, June 3, 2011

Snakes on a train

Ryan sent me this great article. Classic Vietnam:

Snakes on a train in Vietnam cause panic

Many highly venomous king cobras found in 100-pound bags on a Vietnamese train, most likely bound for the dinner table

Like this Story? Share it:

  • A king cobra
(CBS/AP)

HANOI, Vietnam — Panic ensued after railroad staff found snakes on a train in Vietnam.

Railway officials discovered the snakes — highly venomous king cobras — in bags under a seat.

Railroad official Pham Quynh says passengers were terrified when four cloth bags containing the writhing cobras were spotted Friday. The snakes were alive but had their mouths stitched shut.

Quynh says the exact number of snakes was unclear but the bags weighed 100 pounds.

Security staff removed the cobras, which were likely destined for restaurants in Hanoi. Their owner apparently escaped in the chaos.

Snake meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam, but cobras are protected by law.

Quynh says the cobras were given to forest rangers who released them into the wild Saturday after no one claimed them.

Of the species, National Geographic writes: "King cobras can reach 18 feet in length, making them the longest of all venomous snakes. Their venom is not the most potent among venomous snakes, but the amount of neurotoxin they can deliver in a single bite--up to two-tenths of a fluid ounce --is enough to kill 20 people, or even an elephant. Fortunately, king cobras are shy and will avoid humans whenever possible, but they are fiercely aggressive when cornered."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Sunrise

Back to the motorbike trip:


(PICTURE: Sunrise.)

On our last morning before heading to the HCM area, we woke up early to check out sunrise. Unfortunately, the sun didn't rise over the ocean (like the guest house told us it would) and instead came up in a tough to see place. However, the beach was absolutely empty and the environment couldn't have been more peaceful. After walking along the beach, we decided to go for a "swim" in the water. The water was perfectly calm, so much so that I took my camera into the sea:


(PICTURE: Huyen can tread water with just her feet!)

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Vietnamese Big Foot

Ryan sent me this wikipedia link. Apparently every country has a Big Foot:


The Batutut or Ujit, sometimes also known as "forest people", is a proposed hominid cryptid, reputedly similar to the bigfoot, thought to inhabit the Vu Quang nature reserve and other wilderness areas of Vietnam, Laos and northern Borneo. The Vu Quang has been the source of a number of newly discovered mammals by Dr. John MacKinnon. Mackinnon claims to have first observed tracks in 1970 that led him to believe that a hominid similar to the Meganthropus lives there (instead, cryptozoologist Loren Coleman believes that the Batutut are a surviving population of Homo erectus or Neanderthal.[1]). Mackinnon's 1975 book In Search Of The Red Ape describes his experiences and findings.[2] A 1947 sighting by a French colonist refers to the animal as a L'Homme Sauvage (wild man).[3] Vietnamese scholars refer to the animal as the Người Rừng ("forest man").[4]

It is described as being approximately 1.8 m (6 ft) tall and covered with hair except in the knees, the soles of the feet, the hands, and the face. The hair ranges in color from gray to brown to black. The creature walks on two legs and has been reported both solitary and moving in small groups. The creature is most often sighted foraging for food from fruits and leaves to langers and even flying foxes.

I can report (thankfully) that Huyen and I never saw Batutut on our trip.