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Saturday, November 27, 2010

Odd Beach Sightings

We have been scolding ourselves for the lack of blogging taking place in Mandrem, but dude, it's the beach! And after a few weeks of fast paced village hopping it was time to put the bum in beach-bum. So in an attempt to add some content for our followers I thought I would tell you about some of weird stuff we have seen during out daily beach walks.

The beach was really interesting and unlike any other we have visited. It was definitely the widest and flattest beach we had seen but that made for great running and morning/afternoon walks. Wooden fishing boats lined the water and it seemed that everyone who wasn't constructing temporary beach hotels were busy putting their nets to sea.

We happened upon a pretty interesting fishing phenomenon which I was later told was a lunar based event. For a period of 2-3 days fisherman were pulling in some pretty insane catches and it took upwards of 20 people to drag the nets up the beach and get the booty sorted. Probably the oddest part of the catch was the "school" of leopard rays. There were hundreds of them and everyone seemed really excited--I suppose this was the Indian equivalent of skate? The rays weren’t the only unfortunate critters being pulled from the sea. There were piles of small fish, prawns, and shrimp all being inspected and sold right off of the beach. The locals were all ecstatic and coming in droves to load up baskets of sea food haul them back home atop there heads. We even saw one guy tie a leopard ray to his scooter so he could drag it behind him. The beach side market lasted for the duration of the three days until one morning it had completely disappeared. Personally, I just hope they actually ate all of those rays.

Other fun sights included cows (duh, it's India), dogs, thousands of hermit crabs, and six armed starfish. We especially enjoyed the dogs who ran in packs and seemed to be running the beach. Their favorite activities included herding the cows on the beach and randomly picking "owners" on the beach to dutifully guard during their walk, yoga practice, or sun bathing.

Anjuna Market

Mandrem was just what we were looking for--slow, sleepy, beachy, and walking distance to yoga classes. We had lucked out finding our very reasonably priced room and were loving the view. The sunsets were great and it felt heavenly falling asleep to the sound of the surf each night. Our days were slow but followed a schedule that ensured we both got in some much needed exercise and were able to plow through some beach reading.

As relaxing as our environment was I did find myself with a bit of cabin fever and told Catherine she should accompany me (by scooter) to check out the Anjuna market. The market takes place every Wednesday and is apparently a Goan institution—it’s been going on since the 60’s! Although a bit reluctant to brave the Indian roads on the back of a scooter she agreed to join my field trip. I found the newest scooter I could find in the village which just happened to be bright purple with a large logo on the front “Jesus Loves You.” Sold! For about $4 we had our own transportation and could meander our way south to the market.

It took about an hour to make the trip and I was surprised at how easy it was to find. As we pulled into Anjuna it quickly became apparent that this was no small event. It was the largest assembly of tourist taxis and scooters we had seen since arriving in Goa and everyone had come ready to shop. The market was huge with literally hundreds of stalls and stretched several hundred meters inland from the beach. It was a souvenir supermarket packed full of carvings, clothing, spices, and jewelry. We wandered through the maze of shops for about an hour and Catherine honed her negotiation skills over some new earrings. It was steaming hot and very crowded so we decided to retreat to shade and a cold beverage.

We rode back late in the afternoon dodging cows, trucks, potholes and other fun road obstacles. It was a good break, but we decided our slow life on the beach was perfectly sufficient for the remainder of our trip.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Reasons the Platinum American Express Card is a Huge Ripoff for International Travel

When we started this trip, we thought we would mainly use our American Express card. In fact, we upgraded to platinum, thinking that all of the benefits would more than offset the $300 upgrade cost and we'd really rack up the points on our trip around the globe. Now I'm sure that Amex did nothing untoward and that we probably misunderstood a lot of benefits and just didn't read the fine print.

However, here are the reasons the American Express Platinum Card is a complete ripoff for international travel:

* We thought it would be widely accepted, but American Express was our most rejected credit card. First of all, you usually have to pay cash in developing countries. Even if they did accept credit cards, apparently Amex's fees are so high, everyone prefers Visa or Mastercard.

* They have an international collect number where you can call them 24/7 for any problems or fraud issues at no charge to you. Not once have we been able to connect to an operator to make a collect call.

* Their fraud protection program extremely overbearing. I am not exaggerating when I say that every single time I have tried to purchase plane tickets online, the charge would not go through the first time. I would have to call them to have the fraud alert cleared and the card unfrozen. Making these calls is really inconvenient, not to mention expensive, since the collect call thing doesn't actually work.

* Supposedly, we would be able to access all of the airlines' executive lounges--convenient for layovers and just a general perk when flying. We have not been let into a *single* lounge when traveling internationally. Nope, not even one! There are two problems with this. One is that it's only good for Sky Team airlines, so it doesn't work for United and all of its partners, which we fly often. Two, even when we have happened to fly a Sky Team airline, we've been turned away because our card is American. [Interestingly enough, the *domestic* terminal in the Delhi airport has a lounge for Platinum American Express members. We stopped in there for about three minutes just because we could, but didn't have enough time to check out any of the perks.]

* We thought for every first class ticket we purchased, we'd get a free companion ticket. (not that we planned on doing this often, but maybe for some longer flights) This is only true in flights originating out the United States. Very convenient when you're on international travel!

* Using their travel concierge is basically impossible since all of their suggested arrangements are prohibitively expensive. Definitely a perk for those on a corporate account or the extremely wealthy--not for mere mortals!

I've used Amex since college when I used my Dad's account to buy plane tickets home and we'll still use them in the future. But we'll definitely downgrade from platinum!

News Flash: We are Not Backpackers!

I know I know, you're all shocked. You thought we were backpackers and it turns out that we're just regular yuppies who quit our jobs to not really backpack around the world.

Part of my trouble on this trip was definitely trying to figure out what exactly we were supposed to *do*. Yann kept telling me that we were supposed to be "traveling the world," "learning about other cultures," and other vague and nondescript sorts of things. Does that mean that we're supposed to sightsee all day, every day? I hope not, because that gets really exhausting. But since we don't have jobs and we aren't freelance writers, how are we supposed to fill our time?

We're sort of a weird genre of traveler, too. Most people we meet are either much younger or much older. We meet a lot of twenty-two-year-old Australians taking a year off and moving from grubby hostel to grubby hostel. We also meet a lot of retirees who are "so inspired" by us. But we don't really have much in common with either. And to be honest, I always sort of figured we'd morph into the former category.

It just never really worked out. We have not stayed in one single hostel. We almost did in Cape Town, but in the end, it was kind of expensive. And for an extra $30/night, we could have our own apartment with its own kitchen, not have to share a bathroom, not be kept up all night with partying twenty-two-year-olds.... We figured the lower cost of cooking our own food alone justified the cost.

Maybe that was part of it, too. We weren't on our year off trying to stretch our graduation money as far as it would go. We'd budgeted for this trip and when it came down to financial decisions, we were usually willing to spend just a little bit more money in order to be more comfortable. And if we ran out of money, we'd just cut the trip short. Sleeping in a twin bed in a dorm room with five other people and sharing a bathroom just seemed so far out of the realm of possibilities for us.

I found it really frustrating that we never could seem to get into the whole "backpackers" thing. And what did they *do* all day? We always felt like we needed to justify our existence--have something to blog about and let everyone back home know that we didn't take a year off to do nothing.

Yann finally explained it to me in a way that made sense. Basically, they just sort of "hung out". I looked at him blankly. He said, "don't you remember college? How you lived in a dorm and shared a bathroom with a whole floor of people and whenever you weren't in class, you just hung out, doing nothing?"

Right! I do remember that. I definitely did a *lot* of nothing! And I started looking around. There was one guy from Cranbrook, AB who sat in the restaurant where we had breakfast all day long--chain-smoking and waiting for people to show up so he could chitchat. There were people who sat on the beach for ten-hour stretches playing their guitars, braiding each others hair, and chilling with the stray dogs.

Okay, well I didn't feel that bad anymore. I'm glad I've moved on from being able to waste such unbelievable amounts of time. And even if we are able to relax far more than when we were at home and needed to feel productive at all times (even if we were productively socializing), we didn't need to relax *that* much. We're 32 and 34, not 22! And once you have had a real job and paid your own bills, it's kind of hard to go back to just "hanging out".

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Indian Yoga

When we first started planning the Indian leg of the trip, I was going through a really lazy phase (and there have been many) and just wanted to find an ashram where I could scrub floors, do yoga, chant, and hang out for a month. However, I sent out a few emails to some people who are from or have visited India and they all said the same thing—-that there was a lot more to India than just yoga. Plus, I also had Charlie’s voice in the back of my head saying, “what, Catherine, you’re going to do the Eat, Pray, Love version of traveling around the world?” Anyway, we compromised and decided we’d see a bunch of sights in the beginning. Then, if I wanted to just find somewhere to do yoga until our visas ran out, I was allowed.

Goa had appealed to us for many reasons: the beach, the laid back vibe, and, the LP promised, there was yoga everywhere. When we arrived in Mandrem, we’d taken three yoga classes, all of which were very basic. The third one, in Palolem, Yann said was too basic even for him!

I found a place that did twice daily classes that was right around the corner from our hotel. By Indian standards, it was pretty pricy. However, at less than ten bucks per class, it was a bargain compared to back home. And it was WAY cheaper than actually staying at the mosquito-infested retreat that hosted the classes.

I’ve really enjoyed the classes, despite the mosquitoes (which really are that awful—I wear DEET to every class and still get bitten). They’ve rotated six instructors in the past two weeks, so there’s a variety of different styles and paces. All of the instructors are foreigners, but there’s definitely been more of a focus on the mindfulness and less on the exercise than any classes I’d taken back home (and the only other place I’ve ever taken classes, in Egypt). They also have a month-long teacher training class that’s currently in session and I’ve seen their schedule—-it’s a *lot* of meditation! [I’d actually considered taking the training, but our visas run out about half-way through.]

There’s another place down the road that also offers twice daily classes and they seem to have perpetual teacher training sessions as well. It looks about the same—-a bunch of youngish white women!

Maybe it’s different if you head up north to Rishikesh (where George Harrison tried to push the rest of the Beatles to seek enlightenment) or actually commit to an ashram, but it doesn’t seem like Indians do yoga down here. It appears to be something marketed to tourists who came to India to cleanse their minds and bodies… And since that’s how we’ve been treating it (hell, we’ve even been on the wagon for more than four weeks), I’ll take it. It just doesn’t feel very “authentic”. : )

Sunday, October 31, 2010

On to Mandrem

We arrived in Mandrem on Saturday. As we drew closer, I started to get more nervous. I just really wanted not to hate it and to be settled for a few days if not longer! We drove down a very sleepy road with a few restaurants and one clothing shop. At the end was Vila River Cat—-highly recommended by the LP and TripAdvisor.

Rinoo welcomed us effusively and sat us down to coffee and a sandwich while he proceeded to talk our ears off for over an hour. From the snippets I caught, Mandrem sounded pretty sleepy and perfect. There was even yoga at the hotel right across the river. Now if only he would shut up long enough for us to check out the beach!

Finally, we settled into our room and headed out to explore. First, we went across the river where the yoga classes were. The evening class was already underway, but I confirmed that they had yoga every day at 8:00 AM and 4:00 PM—-perfect. It turned out to be a yoga retreat center, so, while we were there, we checked out a couple of the eco-lodges. A couple seemed to have roaches and the whole place was mosquito-infested, presumably from being situated on the river. And then there was the exorbitant price—-no thanks!

We walked out to the beach and it was absolutely gorgeous! Perfect, really—-wide, flat, firm, and clean. It was also pretty deserted. Then we walked around “town” a little bit. The only thing that was really lacking was internet. However, that had been the case in Palolem (and, surprisingly, so many other places in India—-we’d really expected decent, if not awesome, internet here), so we figured we’d just deal with having to go to the internet cafĂ©. We decided we could see staying in Mandrem for a couple of weeks.

The next day, we looked at the place next door to our hotel and they had a room right on the beach for about half the price. Like Palolem, there were tons of huts in Mandrem, but our new place had to be the best bargain on the beach—-solid construction, oceanfront, and reasonable price! (And, in my opinion, another major bonus was not listening to Rinoo every time we came and went.) We went ahead and reserved it for sixteen days once our stay next door was over.

[The one drawback to leaving Rinoo was leaving the cutest kittens ever. There’s a reason it’s called Vila River Cat—-they feed quite a few strays and one had month-old kittens!]

We also walked up the beach about forty-five minutes to Arambol-—what appeared to be a backpackers’ haven. It was nice that there was somewhere else to walk to, but we were pretty psyched to be where we were.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Arrival in Goa--Palolem

We’d probably hyped Goa up a bit too much in our minds. Between the fact that it was supposed to be one of the more laidback parts of India and the fact that we’d be on our own schedule, we were *so* excited to get down there.

Even though it’s a fairly small state, we had a hard time picking where we wanted to go. We were looking for somewhere to stay (potentially) for up to three weeks. I basically wanted to find somewhere really quiet that offered yoga twice a day. And after our hotel in Varanasi, I really wanted a hotel with clean sheets. Yann wanted somewhere that he could run every day. If he wanted to go diving for the day (India’s best diving is supposed to be in the Andaman and Lakshadweep Islands and getting there sounded very expensive), everything seemed close enough. Otherwise, we didn’t care a whole lot as long as we could chill out and not have anyone telling us what to do.

With the help of the trusty LP, we narrowed it down to three places. Mandrem was way up in the north and supposed to be very quiet with beautiful beaches. We wondered if it would be too quiet. Palolem was way down in the south and also supposed to be quiet, but maybe not as much so. The LP said it was the place to be if you wanted to yoga, tai chi, reiki, or massage the days away… And in the middle were the fancy resorts. That sounded pretty nice for a couple of days. However, since we didn’t want to pay those prices for three weeks, we wondered if we ought to go ahead and get settled elsewhere. In the end, we decided on Palolem.

Like a lot of Goa, most of Palolem’s accommodation was supposed to be beach huts. Every year, these huts are torn down at the end of the season and then rebuilt at the beginning of the next after the monsoons have subsided. We decided to book a solid hotel for a couple of nights and then we’d find somewhere else to move over the following couple of days.

We arrived pretty late on Thursday night—-it was almost 10:00 PM. We were greeted by the security guy who handed us a bottle of water and told us the restaurant only did breakfast. We’d eaten a little on the plane and didn’t really know what our options were or if anything was open. So we decided to head to bed. Our room was huge and seemed pretty clean, but it was really simple and sterile…maybe we’d needed a couple of days at the fancy resort after all. Neither of us were that excited, but figured there was nothing to be done at that point anyway.

In the morning, everything looked better without the glow of fluorescent bulbs. We had some breakfast and took off towards the beach in search of the one hotel we knew of with yoga. We finally found it, confirmed that they had classes every morning and evening and even looked at some of the rooms. They seemed expensive for what they were.

Then we found the beach. It wasn’t bad exactly. It just wasn’t what we were all excited about. And to be honest, we’ve probably gotten a bit spoiled with spending so much time in the Bahamas and the gorgeous clear water and white sands. But we walked all the way up the beach, checking out a few huts along the way. A lot of them were still under construction since it was still right before the season officially started. As much as the Palolem was supposed to be sleepy, it seemed pretty crowded to us.

However, the LP told us that if even Palolem seemed too happening, we could head further south to Patnem. In the Palolem, the beach had been fairly clean, despite the numerous cows that wandered it and the odd bit of garbage here and there. Patnem was certainly quieter—-and with reason! The beach was absolutely filthy. There was no way that would be relaxing for a couple of weeks!

We decided we’d leave the next day and try Mandrem. If that didn’t work out, we’d check into a fancy place in the middle for about five to seven days to relax, finalize our plans for Nepal, and just accept that it was time to move on from India.