Saturday, October 11, 2014

Common Cents 2: Banks and Credit Cards

For the budget traveller, or those just wanting to save money, a little wisdom in selecting your bank and credit cards for travel can save you some money. Years ago, on my first jaunt to S.E. Asia, the bank I was using charged ATM fees for withdrawals made at any ATM machines outside their system. Before my second trip to India, I created some new bank accounts. At the time, I did my research on "flyer talk/wiki", a site that seems to be currently out of date. But, thankfully, you can check out the best ATM cards/banks for travelers, as well as credit cards, by doing a simple internet search for something like "best ATM cards for travellers". When I was researching banks and ATM cards back then, I learned that credit cards also vary in their fees for foreign transactions.

Back then I found that Charles Schwab provide a free checking account with interest when you open a brokerage account. The checking account has no minimums and no fees for regular use (of course, they do have fees for insufficient funds, wire transfers, etc.) On top of that, they reimburse any ATM fees for up to six withdrawals per month! Their checking account interest is not the greatest, but basically, you can enjoy free banking with them! Even for overseas ATM withdrawals! I have it on good word that they also provide excellent customer service.

Back then I learned that Capital One offered one of the few credit cards that did not charge a percentage for foreign transactions.

So, by choosing your ATM card and credit card well, you can save a lot of money!

Things are changing all the time. I recently discovered that Bank Of America offers credit cards with no extra fees for foreign transactions. I also discovered that Capital One 360 offers ATM cards (*) for which they charge no additional fees to the ones charges by the ATM provider. That's perhaps not as good as Schwab, but it's still pretty good compared to the bank I used years ago that charged me $4-5 per foreign ATM use.

So, before you set off on travel about the world, look into your banks, ATM cards and credit cards. Credit unions also are worth looking into. Not only can you keep your money local, but they often have less fees on their cards. With prudence, you can save a bunch of money.

Please do your own research... because things do change. As far as ATM cards and banking fees, Schwab and Capital One 360 seem to be good at the time I am writing this, but things change and other banks and cards may be as good. Currently Capital One and Bank of America offer credit cards that do not charge extra fees for foreign purchases.

As far as money on the road, it's always to balance your risks. US dollars in cash, US dollar American Express Traveller's checks, ATM cards, and credit cards (for credit or cash advance) are ways to balance your risk. Also having both a Visa and Mastercard ATM/credit card is wise. In some places, ATM machines are few and far between. And, they may not be functioning.

Once I was in a Himalayan town in India with two ATM machines, neither of which was working for foreigners. There were lines every day as people went desperate for cash. I finally got a small cash advance on my credit card from money changer and paid nearly 10% in fees to tide me over until the next town.

I will also admit, I am a bit of a fan of traveller's checks. In S.E. Asia (Thailand, Laos), Nepal, and India you can generally cash them at banks and money changers. Cash a week or months worth at a time, and it's as easy if not easier than an ATM machine.

In any case, having a few on hand, along with some US dollars, will cover you for emergencies, when your plastic is not working. Another thing to note, is that if you have American Express traveller's checks, you can receive mail at an American Express office. A handy thing to have, if you happen to need a replacement ATM card mailed to you!  Not that I know by experience. Which reminds me, a month before you travel, you might check the expiration dates of the cards you plan to travel with and make sure they don't expire during your period of travel. You should be able to get your card provider to send you a new one before you go.

Happy travels!

(*) note that Capital One currently has a friend referral link which provides the referrer with cash rewards. If you sign up via this link and meet the requirements, then I will receive a bonus.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Common Cents: Risk Distribution and Money on the Road

So, yesterday, one of my friends, left his wallet on a public bus in Bangkok. Well, allegedly. He couldn't find it after we got off the bus, and we were sure he had it on the bus. Likely, he laid on his lap after paying the bus fare and forgot about it. We actually caught up with the same bus looking for the wallet, but we weren't sure it was the same bus and didn't thoroughly search it. We tracked down the bus company, but no one had turned it in.

The good news was he only had a few hundred Baht in it. The bad news was that his credit cards, ATM card, passport card, US drivers license, and entry card for the condo were all in it. I'm sorry for his loss. It could happen to anyone. But I realized that some of my common sense practices could have saved him a lot of hassle.

Never Carry What You Don't Need

First of all, never carry what you don't need. And this applies to your home country or abroad. When I am in the US, I usually only leave the house with my Driver's License and cash. If I am short on cash, I take my ATM card. Unless I am planning a purchase, the credit card stays home. Why risk losing what you don't need to carry? Unless I am going to the library, the library card stays home. You get the idea.

When, I travel abroad, I use similar thinking. There is no need for me to carry credit cards, nor my US driver's license, etc in my day to day outings. I have a practice of having a "day wallet" which houses the budgeted cash for the day. That way I am never flashing about wads of cash. The remainder, along with my passport, stays in my money belt. And, depending on the type of day, the money belt may stay in the hotel safe.

Living in Bangkok, I have a variety of other cards: the entry card for my apartment building, subway and skytrain passes, a supermarket point card. I only take what is needed when I leave the house. For one, I don't like cluttering my pockets unnecessarily, and, for seconds I don't like a bulging wallet. For that matter, my wallet only holds my day cash. A button shirt pocket or cloth purse houses excess cash, ATM card, etc.

I think how my practices could have saved my friend some grief. Had I lost my wallet on the bus, I would have only lost the cash that was in it. My driver's license would have been safely at home. My key card for the apartment would have been in my other pocket along with my ATM card (if I had even brought my ATM card). My US driver's license would be sitting safely in my apartment along with my credit cards. Not that I couldn't lose the other stuff, but my risks are distributed.

So, before you walk out the door for the day, consider your risks and consider:
1) taking only what you need for the day or outing.
2) distributing what you take with you in different pockets.
3) and always check your pockets and the area you are leaving before leaving.

There are some caveats. Hotel rooms are not always secure. (Oddly enough, I find that cheaper guesthouses with hasps on the door for my own combination lock seem more secure than higher priced lodging with merely a locking doorknob.) Legally, you may be required to carry your passport with you in a foreign country. You have to weigh your risks. If you are going out drinking, it may be wiser to leave your money belt at home, and carry a photocopy of your passport. Likewise, if you are going to the local swimming hole...unless you have a waterproof money belt, or a a friend who is going to sit on the bank with your bag of valuables. If you carry your money belt, try to keep your immediate needs elsewhere so you are not flashing your money belt. If you do need to access it, consider doing so in a bathroom stall (alone!). Typically, my money belt stays below my belt except at the airport kiosk, or at the hotel reception counter where I retrieve my passport.

Broader Issues: How to Access Your Travel Money

On broader notes, for travel, I subscribe to again balancing your risks between cash, ATM, and traveler's checks. ATMs are pretty available nowadays, but not reliably so. I have been in towns where the three ATM machines have been down. For days. US dollars are pretty much traded everywhere. So having some spare cash to exchange in emergency is a good plan. Traveler's checks are also easily cashed.... no, not at a restaurant for your evening meal, but at a money changer, a hundred dollars at a time. If your long term travel money is distributed among the three sources, you will always have a way to get local currency. I have generally exchanged a week to a months worth of currency at at time, depending on my itinerary.

As far as credit cards and ATM cards, I suggest carrying perhaps three distributed between Visa and Mastercard and their networks. You might find yourself in a one ATM town and you want to have a card of the appropriate network. I highly recommend Flyer Talk's Wiki where you will find people in the airline industry have put together tables of banks, ATM cards, and credit cards and their charges. You might find that a Charles Schwab free checking account will provide you with a ATM card for which fees are reimbursed for like 6-9 times per month; and, you might find that Capital One credit cards do not charge additional fees for foreign transactions. That's what I found when I researched a few years ago. I ditched my fee heavy bank and have had "free" bank services since then. It is also worth checking your local credit union.

How to Carry Your Stuff

As far as carrying all this stuff. Again balance your risks wisely. I often keep a credit card, photocopy of my passport, and a twenty or hundred dollar bill stashed in my luggage. That way, if I lose my money belt and wallet, I have an emergency fund. I often carry two money belts and a wallet. The wallet, is for the day cash. The main money belt under my waistband has the passport, cash and travelers checks reserves. Another pocket or pouch, has a credit or ATM card along with the traveler's check receipts. My family has a copy of my credit card numbers, ID numbers, etc. And sometimes I find an electronic "corner" to store that information in as well.

Be sure to research your destination. For instance, in India and Thailand, I have been able to cash traveler's checks at money changers. In larger cities, there is no shortage of ATMs. But in small towns, and Himalayan villages, a working ATM machine is not always accessible. In the city, it might make sense to only withdraw a few days of cash at an ATM. In less populated areas, I might need to obtain all my local currency in advance. One time I was in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India, and the ATMs were down for nearly a week. Travelers were broke and running out of money. Luckily, I discovered my predicament before running out of cash. I chose to get a few days cash with a cash advance on my credit card from a money changer. I could have also traded some US dollars or a travelers check. That brings up another point, plan a few days ahead, especially in small towns.

To sum things up:

1) Research and know your territory.

2) Assess your risks.

3) Carry only what you need.

4) Diversify your risks.

Overall, use some common sense. Be aware. Be proactive. Have fun, and enjoy your travels.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Looking into Teaching English (TEFL) in Thailand and Korea

So seven weeks ago, I prayed for guidance about my highest path and channeling some abundance. A few days later in the Golden Temple in Amritsar India, I met a young man from the US who was teaching English in Seoul. He highly recommended it. And I knew that was the answer to my prayers. I still don't understand all the why's of that path. It's the first time I've ever physically used my diploma (yes, they want to see the real thing!). It's the first time I've felt like I've sold my body (no visible piercings and your told that you represent the school for the term of your contract... so behave!). Actually, I am starting with a TEFL certificate program in Thailand that includes 4-5mos paid work afterwards. I'd love to be heading to Korea now, but the process takes time. And years ago I vowed I wanted to live in Thailand... so this will give me a taste and prepare me for Korea next March.

Anyways, I wrote the following up talking with another faerie interested in TEFL...and you might all enjoy.

Compared to Thailand (starts at about $800/mo up to $1800/mo), Korea pays much better (starting at $1800USD/mo including housing, plane tickets, vacation, health bene's, and one month bonus at completion of one year). I was told as far as pay in S.E.Asia region, it's S. Korea, followed by Japan (higher cost of living), and then China. I've heard that Malaysia is about to implement having a native English speaker in every school.

TEFL certificates run about $300 online, and, in Thailand around $1600. In the US, more like $2000+. The certificates do not seem to be standardized. In Thailand, the best programs from a quality standpoint, imo, are SIT TESOL, Chichester University's TESOL, and CELTA programs. In the US, St. Giles seems pretty high end. CELTA seems to be a more rigorous and standardized program than TEFL/TESOL.

I'm doing a program which is only $950 including accommodation, and includes a 4-5 month work placement at 30,000bht/month with housing provided. They obviously make their money by taking a chunk off the top of the salary. But it seems an easier process, commitment, and payment option than paying more for a class and then searching for a job and getting locked into a year commitment. It means I won't have to go into debt. I suspect they are more of a business than an academic program, but I visited their office, they seemed nice, and it felt ok. If I'd had the luxury of more money to tide me over, I'd likely have signed up for the SIT program, or maybe the Chichester or CELTA.

As far as Korea, the demand is so high, that it's probably possible to get a job w/out a Tefl certificate, but the job I am aiming for in a public school with decent hours/pay/bene's... the certificate will give me a bit of credential, a higher pay. The Korean schools seem to only demand that the TEFL certificate is for a 100 hr plus class. But one of my friends who worked there said that a CELTA certificate would make me stand out. I read something that China as a rule does not recognize online certificates.

The main times for public schools and universities in Korea is March or Sept start dates, and starting the application process 3-4 mos before that is recommended. For the Korean work visa, one needs apostilled copies of diplomas, a criminal background check, etc. Private schools (hogwans) higher throughout the year, and it looks like some public schools may also. But you have to do your research. The program I am aiming for, btw, is SMOE (a Seoul Metropolitan school district). It was recommended to me as being relatively easy (less than 22 hr/week in the classroom; and I think that is alongside of a Korean teacher, so you are just talking in English), and a secure place to work (not some fly by night operation).

That's my download from a month of research!

Oh, useful sites: dave's esl cafe, worknplayconsulting, english spectrum,

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Back In Bagsu

I left Vashisht for Bagsu, which is about 2 km from Macloed Ganj, the seat of the Tibetan Gov't in Exile, hmm... well, must be about 3 weeks ago. I took the overnight bus and we arrived in Dharamshala at 4am.. a bit earlier than I hoped, but an Isreali couple asked if I wanted to share a taxi to Bagsu and they led me to the guest house where they've been coming for eight years.. a small family place on the edge of the village of Bagsu which is over run with guesthouses.

I stayed 3 nights... long enough to rendevous with a friend from San Francisco who's been in India 8 months. Then we journeyed to Delhi together to meet a couple of other friends from San Francisco who are on a 6 week round the world trip. They had only five days in Delhi before heading to Bhutan for a 2 week trek. We enjoyed a couple of days of touring about Delhi together.

I spent another 5 days or so in Delhi enjoying the madness of the multitudes there. Then I got picked up by a "talent scout" looking for extras for a Hollywood film, "Love, Pray, Eat" with Julia Roberts which was being filmed about 1.5 hours south of Delhi.

It was a nice break from the chaos to visit the ashram where a scene was being filmed. The scene was in an ashram temple with a group of people chanting. After passing through wardrobe and being left in the clothes I wore... see, I do have good tastes! (and an odd moment where an Indian "extra" came up to me and asked if my beard was real and if he could touch it), we waited a few hours before being seated in the ashram for the scene. They apparently didn't want anyone to upstage Julia Roberts, and so I and about 8 others got pulled out. So I ended up getting paid (1000Rs) and fed for a day for nothing.

The buffet meals were delicious, though I would later pay the price. The relatively smooth day, which started at 4 am when the scout buzzed me in the hotel room, ended up turning into a bit of subcontinent madness, which one would normally expect. First the filming crew didn't release us until later than expected. Then they apparently ran out of cash and so our jeepfull of nine foreign extras had to meet the payor at an ATM. Our driver was an idiot. Traffic was horrible, and it took us 2.5 hours to get home to the Paharaganj. The windows were down and the driver was drinking and gargling with water, which he spit out the front window and it came in the back window. The Canadian next to me, who got the free shower luckily broke out into laughter. We then determined that this was not Julia Robert's driver. The Canadian monitored the driver's drinking with his hand on the window handle... ready to roll up or hold depending on whether the driver spit or swallowed.

The driver was on his phone screaming in a cell phone voice trying to get directions to the ATM, and then our talent scout got someone "in the know" on his cell phone and made me hand his phone to the driver, who took it with his other hand, leaving no hands on the steering wheel and our jeep of now screaming people drifting to the side of the road.

Luckily this was in India where such things happen in the 6 lanes of traffic packed into 2 lanes of road and no harm came to us. We eventually got to the ATM and got our money. A Russian couple who had been promised by the driver that they would be back "home" by 7:30 pm now started screaming at our talent scout. It was really beyond his control. But somehow they wanted blood. Their angry outbursts would pop up occasionally on the remaining 1.25 hours of our journey.

The driver still didn't know his way or where he was, but managed to get us 2 metro stops from our destination.... I knew because here the Metro was overhead and I had been hear a couple days prior with our San Francisco entourage. I breathed a sigh of relief and thought "we'll be home in a few minutes". The next thing I know we are no where near the overhead metro tracks and the driver is stopping to ask for directions. He gets directions from a motorcyclist, then doesn't follow them, drives a kilometer, and asks someone else. He asks four different people directions that he doesn't follow before we end up near the Lakshmi Temple, a place I recognize and had walked to. He gets back to the Metro tracks where by now the whole carload of us recognize as the place to "turn right"... and he starts to balk and wonder which way to go. It takes the whole carload of us screaming "turn right" to get him to do it and we finally reach "home" a few minutes later.

Me and the Canadian fellow are slaphappy in hysterics over the sublime humor in it all. This is India, and if you have an ego, it will be dashed to shreds. Anything that can happen to ruin your expectations, will. That is part of the thrill of it. The poor Russian couple was having their egos smashed. And when we arrived, they let into our talent scout again. He even gave them each an extra 200rs for being late.

The next day the second "mishap" in the otherwise perfect day on the Hollywood set, occurred. "Delhi Belly" hit me. Funny after all the local water I've drank with no ill effect, it was the apparently pristine food in the buffet that got me. Charcoal tablets and curd got me well enough for the overnight train/bus ride back to Bagsu. In fact I thought I was over it, until I got hit again once I got here. I had two rough days, then turned around yesterday thanks to Reiki, Ayurvedic medicine, curd and enough rice to clog a sewer pipe.

The village here has been in full harvest and I helped a bit digging potatoes, until my left hand blistered... I realized that it was too soft from the foot cream I apply with my left hand to my feet. Today I helped plant garlic. The small terraced "fields" were turned by oxen and a one shovel plow. The rest of the work is done by heavy hoe/mattock and sickle. No shovels, forks, or other tools... it's a lot of hand work done by husband, wife, and grandmother at an easy pace with lots of chatting. Manure was distributed by the basket full, perched on top of the head. Then the piles distributed by bare hand. Furrows for garlic, coriander, and spinach were made by mattock, the seeds planted, then the furrows broken by hand to cover the seeds. The toddler "helping" us grew tired of it all, wanting his papa who had wandered off back... and so the toddler took full belly dives to cover the crops instead of using his hands!

Corn and beans lay drying on the patio of the house. Shocks of corn stalks adorn the fields. Today we planted garlic, coriander, spinach, and fava beans. The garlic will be harvested in May. So I guess the winter is short here... Jan -March ... even though we are in the foothills of the Himalaya at 2000 m elevation.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Trekking Escapades: Ladakh: Dha, Lamayuru to Alchi, Likir to Temisgram

My excursions were wonderful. First I spent a couple of days in Dha, on the narrow Indus river gorge, only 20 km from Pakistan. The gorge looks like the end of the world with steep desert mountainsides, but tucked away on small terraces are gardens of Eden where communities have been sustaining themselves for hundreds of years. The people there are Aryan and of a different heritage than the Ladakhi's who settled from nomadic herders. The terraces are full of apricots, grape arbors, tomato fields and more, but step out side the lush terraces fed by irrigation channels, and it's a harsh desert. In 1999 Pakistani troups attacked and the wife of the owner of the guesthouse where I stayed was killed by a bomb. There was a memorial stupa outside the guesthouse for her. Quite sad that these people who have peacefully farmed and sustained themselves for ages are caught in the politics of borders.

I heard that the Chinese have staged lots of troops on the border of Ladakh near Pangong Lake in recent days. I'm not sure what their point would be in claiming this harsh land and robbing the Ladakhis of their traditions. I hope that the rumors and fears are unfounded.

After Dha, I went to Lamayuru. I spend two days there. I ended up providing a senior meal to the local senior center. I was searching out some "yos" for my trekking. Yos is popped barley. The village was in full harvest of it's hay crop and I asked a passing donkey man, his donkey loaded with hay, where I might find some yos. I held the remains of my bag of yos that I procured in Leh as an example, since I didn't trust my pronunciation. He pointed to a building a few meters away where a few elderly woman sat crosslegged passing the time where their handheld prayer wheels. I tried to pantomime to them that I wished to buy some yos, and they held out their hands to partake of some of my dwindling supply of yos. So I gave them each a handful. Then I shared some yos with a slightly younger woman, 69yo, who was resting on her way up the hill with a load of hay on her back and offered to carry her load for her. It was not such a big load, maybe 30 pounds, and I followed her up the hill to her adobe rooftop, where we spread out the hay to cure a bit more. I returned towards my guesthouse by the large Lamayuru Gompa, where the manager was coming down the hill. He said that I had just helped his mother! He was grateful. He was on his way to portage some more hay, so I deposited my daypack in my room and helped him. Luckily it was only one more load a piece. AT 11,500 ft, and having spent two days in Dha at 9,500 ft, one big load (45 lbs) was enough for me... the field was maybe half a mile below the house, and probably 2-300 ft lower in elevation. So that was a good accimitization workout for me. Their home had been in the family 800 years!

I trekked from Lamayuru to Alchi, via Wanla, Urshi, Tar, and Mangyu. I met a Frenchman in Wanla who was going that way, so we trekked together. I learned the hard way why I was advised in Lamayuru by the locals, not to trek to Alchi, but rather to Chilling. The Tar La (pass) at 5250m entailed four hours of hard ascent and four hours of hard descent. That was my birtday. I was exhausted by the time we got to Tar, and didn't much appreciate my birthday dinner of poorly cooked rice and vegetables in a tiny kitchen full of kerosene fumes from the burner... no guesthouse, this was a "homestay" where you just stay with a family in a village. And "homestays" were where I stayed for the nine days I trekked from Lamayuru to Alchi, then Likir to Temisgram. Perhaps next year, I'll stage my birtday for a beach!

Many of the villages along the way were in full harvest mode, gathering their barley crop. In Mangyu, the night we were there, they finished and the men were drunkenly singing in celebration, well into the night... well until about 8:30pm, that is! I helped a family there, and they invited me to stay, but the Frenchman, "G", and I had already booked a paying homestay. In Urshi, we stayed in a home inhabitied by only mother and daughter, the father off working in Leh, and the other siblings off to schools in other towns. We helped the woman thresh by carring the sheaves of barley into a clay circle, while 7 donkeys lashed together were chased around in a circle for 3 hours.

In Alchi, a rather touristy place with a remarkable Buddhist Temple, G and I parted as he headed off to Leh, and I to Likir. I took a bus part of the way to Likir, having to walk out to the highway from Alchi to get it, then having to walk from the highway into Likir. The dropoff point was like the middle of nowhere... a high mountain dusty desert... but a 30 min walk brought me to the oasis of Likir, a stretched out village with a snow capped mountain backdrop. I wandered into the alleyways of the village and found a group of women carrying loads of barley on their back. So I offered to carry the eldest ones load, assuming she was the mother. One of the woman had a guesthouse where I stashed my pack, and helped them carry a couple more loads till the field was finished. Then we ate lunch and, by hand, plucked a third of an acre of barley by the guesthouse. No sickle was used, but just pulling the plants up. My hands were rough and raw by the end, but I discovered my foot cream for dry cracked feet, worked wonders on my hands.

The next day I set off for the gompa above town for a quick visit before trekking to Yangtang. Here I regretted my cockiness in thinking I had passed the stress test of climbing the Tar La for my 45th birthday. First the gompa turned out to be more like a 60-90 min walk up from the village... it appears closer. I tried to take a shortcut and failed... the bridge leading into a maze of stone walled terraces. Here I discovered my fatique as my mind couldn't cope with the challenge. I soon found the right path up the steep hillside, but found my energy failing. I continued up thinking I could maybe lay down and rest at the gompa. I finally encountered a monk, who's advice was "you go upside". So I ended up at the top of the gompa admiring the huge gold buddha statue. No one came by. So I sat for well over an hour until a British college student showed up. I asked if I might walk down to the village with him. I discovered the rest had done me well, and I felt good enough to walk back. I spent the afternoon in bed resting and realized that I needed more food than I'd been eating, and also that I'd been working hard trekking, hauling barley, etc for 4-8 hours per day at high altitudes the past week. The women were working in the field again, but I declined the urge to help.

The work on a sustainable farm such as this is somewhat ongoing, but not particularly hard. It's at a human pace, not a machine pace. It's nothing like unloading and stacking in the barn a load of baled hay at the pace of the chattering conveyor. The woman chatted as they worked, laughed. Tea was taken at regular intervals.

Another Frenchman, Benoit, showed up at the guest house that afternoon. The next day I set out with him trekking to Yangtang where we enjoyed a delightful homestay with Tashi, Durkha, and their three children. The children walk two hours to and from school each day... the same route we would take to Hemis S. the next day. The youngest boy happily packed his own lunch of tsampa (roasted barley flour) eaten plain, or in tea. Several cups in a bag, put a grin on his face. No gym needed, the night before while dinner was prepared he worked a while on the butter churn, while his siblings and parents rested, made dinner, and/or studied in the large kitchen. His mom took over on the churn for a while after making dinner. "Butter, no butter", she said in dismay. It apparently takes three hours of churning to make butter. All I could think of is the commercial for imitation butter... "I can't believe it's not butter!". The churn was big, holding several gallons I would think, and a strap around a pillar, made the churning action like rowing. It occurred to me how we have consumerized even our excersize in the "developed world". Tashi's family was smiling and full of good heart and spending quality time together.

The next day, Benoit and I trekked to Temisgram. It was not a good day... at first we were in good spirits, making great time, and feeling pretty energetic. But it turned out we misread the map... there were two passes to cross not one. After resting on the first pass for a good long time, we heading down the wrong vally. That cost us some time and elevation. Luckily Benoit realized our mistake. We then planned to stay in Ang, but after 30 minutes roaming the village found no homestay and so headed to Temisgram which stretches out for several miles. In contrast to Yangtang and Hemis S, where every house was a homestay and villagers sought us out, Temisgram seemed to have few places to stay, many closed. Several even turned us away. Our five hour day turned into seven and a half before a woman that spoke no English made it clear that she had a homestay and wanted us.

The next day it was back to Leh... yesterday. I'm both glad and sad to be in the "big city." It's nice to have my own room, and restaurants and stores were I can find food to eat as much as I want and need. But I miss the carless trekking life and quiet villages of traditional life.

I expect to leave in a day or two, but yesterday learned the Leh Manali road was closed due to weather... snow or landslides or both... maybe it will open in a few days. I overheard some tourists planning to leave in a jeep tonight so I am guessing maybe it is open already. The other land route out is via Sringar (Kashmir)... a bit longer. And apparently the buses along that route have been on strike for ten days. Leh is much emptier of tourist than two weeks ago, and many restaurant and shops are closed.

I think it's probably good for me to rest a couple days before taking the 20 plus hour journey out of Ladakh. Not sure if I will stop in Spiti on the way, or go directly to Manali and the hot springs of Vashisht. Or if the road that way proves impassable, through Sringar. My "ultimate" destination for the next leg is Dharamsala.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pilgrimage '09: India: The First Week in Vashisht

Just a week ago today I flew from Bangkok to New Delhi, a four or five hour flight on Indian Airlines. The plane ride foreshadowed India well. The stewardesses wore long, elegant sari's and I wondered how they kept their footing amidst the turbulence. Towards the end of the flight, I ventured to the onboard restroom and it was a mess of papers and water on the floor, with a sink half full of water and no apparent way to activate the drain. The different hygenic standards of India made their appearance even on the plane. I noted that there was no instructional video like on my Biman Bangladesh flight several years ago which showed how to use a western style toilet and toilet paper... things that are not the norm in India where squat toilets are the norm along with water and the left hand instead of toilet paper.

The pilot said it was 37 deg Celsius in New Delhi as we approached the landing. My reality was about to change drastically from the more tempered heat and mannerisms of Thailand to the blatant heat and chaos of the Indian subcontinent. Just like my last visit to S.E. Asia, I wondered why I was leaving the easy joy of Thailand for India. Yet I remembered how last time, once I landed in Kolkata and roamed the streets, I knew I was in the right place. So this time I trusted I would feel the same when I landed in India.

I breezed through customs and the swine flu questionnaire/interrogation by doctors. I noticed that unlike the Thai's, the Indians weren't buying into the false hope of safety of a paper mask against a virus. I avoided the touts for this and that, looked in vain for a legitimate information booth and ended up following a sign out of the terminal for “buses”, where I found only the airport bus. I asked a couple of official looking people before getting my answer from a policeman about the E.A.T.S. bus to Connaught Place for 50 rs. My strategy was to get to the government bus station and get on a bus to Manali in the mountains and thus sidestep the chaos of Delhi. Thanks to my trusty Lonely Planet, I new that there were many government buses leaving until 10 pm, while I had likely missed the tourist buses that leave between 5 and 7pm. The local bus suited me as I new it would be cheaper, likely have a better driver, and be a more interesting taste of culture.

The bus actually took me all the way to the government bus station beyond Connaught Place, a nice surprise from the Lonely Planet information. A nice young man in his twenties helped me sort that out and did his best to point me to the right counter at the bus station. I was still accosted by several touts for tourist/AC (airconditioned buses) to Manali. I might have followed them if they had quoted me a price. I persevered to counter number seven where I encountered my first Indian queue, or rather lack of one. Proper Indian custom is to just push push push your way to the counter not minding any semblance of a queue. From a country of multitudes where there is not always enough to go around, this makes some sense. I got to the counter to be told to come back in ten minutes at 7pm for the 7:30pm bus to Manali. The bus conductor was already barking out “Kullu Manali” in accent that I could just barely make out. He smiled at me and said “yes, get a ticket at the window first.” I love the Indian bus conductors and often find them great allies in my journeys. I remember one who took me by hand to the ticket window for the next bus in my journey when I traveled to Rajasthan thee years ago.

Soon I was on the bus. It was sweltering hot. My back stuck against the seat; my knees pressed into the seat in front of me. Five seats across in each row of the bus seating in a two /three split. A young woman from Harayana in the seat in front of me spoke a bit of English. She said I would arrive in Manali at 4 am… this was counter to the information of my guidebook which said it would be a 16 hour ride. And I didn’t relish getting into Manali at such an hour before the guesthouse owners were up. I might have known her information was incorrect when she said an AC bus would cost five times as much, when my experience was it would cost maybe one third more. Such is information in India… you will always get an answer, usually several answers to the same question.

As the hours went by I began to regret not getting an AC bus… not for the AC, but for a bigger seat. My seat was firm and the seat back ended at my neck. It was built for a smaller person. Roads in India are rarely smooth and needless to say I got little sleep. When we boarded in Delhi, several men loaded huge burlap bales into the back seats of the bus. About 5 am, this somehow became a problem at a roadside stop. Some sort of official had words to say, and soon the conductor was yelling at the men and their baggage. They were handing over money seemingly demanded of them as an afterthought for excess baggage. Finally the conductor started pushing and trying to get the bales out of their wedged in position between the backseat and the back door handrail. I thought he’d strain his back. Finally the bags and men were off the bus, I assume not where they wanted to be. It might have been helpful if this business had been sorted out earlier for the numerous passengers that had stood in the aisle ways for hours on end between midpoint destinations.

Dawn brought sights of the foothills of the Himalaya in Himachal Pradesch. It soon became clear that we were not arriving in Manali at 4am, nor 6 am, nor 8am, and I realized that none of the people I had asked about our arrival time really knew. Somewhere in their, our conductor and driver stepped off into a village and a new team came on the scene. At 8:30am we arrived in Mandi and I learned we were still 110 km from Manali. Finally we arrived at 10:30 am and I started my 3 km walk up the hill to Vashisht where I ended up in the same guesthouse as 4 years ago.

It felt invigorating to be here. There is something amazing about India… I’m not sure why but it invokes passions and excitement. I felt glad I had come even after my enjoyable time in Thailand, another place I love in a different way. Thailand is a mellow love, sweet and easy. India is a passionate love full of excitement and fire, that will leave you exhilarated one moment and wiped out the next.
If you have an ego, India will dash it to pieces. If you don’t have an ego, India will build one for you, then dash it to pieces.
I’m just wrapping up my first week in India, for the most part, exhilarated, and yet the last 24 hours I’ve been feeling a bit raw. I’ve been relaxing and enjoying the hot springs in this mountain village of Vashist. There are public hot baths from natural sulfur water. The waters feel so good and the scene is something very interesting as the baths are public. Inside the temple there is a women’s and a separate men’s bath. I don’t know what the women’s bath is like, but the men’s is maybe a twelve by twelve foot pool , three feet deep along with another trough where four pipes pour out water. Bathing with soap is done by the pipes and soaking is done in the tub.

The water is nearly scalding. It’s an act of faith to plunge in. But you realize that nearly every man in the village does this daily, and no one has been scalded yet. You scarcely believe that when you put your feet in and they feel like they are burning. It’s a bit of a tourist place for Indians as well as foreigners. The Indian tourist come in droves and families and take pictures galore. It feels a bit rude. The woman’s bath has a sign saying “no photography” outside… the men’s bath I guess has no such sign. Men of all ages partake of the baths wearing their underwear; the youngest boys go nude.

I feel like local as the Indian tourists come and loudly exclaim that the water is too hot and make a big commotion about getting in. It can be amusing. It can be annoying. Yesterday I watched a man change outside the doorway to the men’s bath. Normally, a towel is used to drape yourself so that as you change from wet to dry underwear, you are never nude. The man in the doorway bared all. And the hallway he bared it in went straight to the coed public temple courtyard! Meanwhile a sadhu changed holy chants and did some amazing yoga postures.

A couple of days ago, I was enjoying the baths when a father son motorcycle team walked in, complete in motorcycle garb that made them look straight out of Hell’s Angels. It was early in the morning, yet they’d just completed a long dirty ride by the looks of things. The son was probably 25 and a lean, blue-eyed Adonis, while his father appeared a very weathered 50 yo, scarred and well weathered by the sun. Yet they knew the ropes of bath etiquette and even prayed appropriately at the bath temple diety/shrine.

The past day or so, I’m felling the ebb of excitement. A Kashmiri shopkeeper got on me interested in buying my mp3 player and camera, and I can’t go by his shop without him pestering about it. I nearly sold them to him and his Uncle when they offered me some quite good money. I’d been debating whether I wanted to carry them around anyway, but kind of wanted to at least get some good photos of Ladakh. My social contact has been limited to locals mainly, and communication limited to the basics. I haven’t really connected with any tourists here, and most that I’ve met have been Russian.

It’s one of the thrills and hardships of travel, being left to one’s own thoughts and conversations for long lengths of time… to not have the accessibility of deep, meaningful, understood conversation. It can be hard to find someone to share the adventures with, that will understand them. This is also an excitement, to be in a strange land, and not sure what is going on… and yet at times it can become wearing.
And yesterday it became wearing. On top of that, I cut my foot a few days ago and, though it is healing fine, walking any length doesn’t promote the healing.
A few days ago I was bathing in the evening at the outside men’s bath when it closed at 9pm. I was inside with four others and the attendant locked us in. So I climbed the fence to get out and as I cleared the top, my left foot grazed one of the pointed metal bars. I thought I had just grazed it and with the absence of bright lighting it wasn’t until the next day, I discovered I had gashed it. In spite of my attempts to miraculously heal it with Reiki, it seems to heal very slowly. Actually, I suppose it’s quite a miracle that it is not infected.

India is not my Mother’s house. Hygenic standards are different here. It’s an exc ellent place to build your immune system, if you get my drift. My guest house is along a narrow path up the hillside behind the main street. When it rains, it smells like a cowyard. Cows, dogs, sheep, and people use the path. Assorted types of dung, most often cow, are found along the path. And so walking in sandals, one is lucky to keep one’s feet any manner of appearing clean. Indian toilets are not built to withstand toilet paper. Nor are they scoured with any regularity. The cobwebs lay thick in the corners of my guesthouse toilet. The toilet brushes lay on the floor. There are small rubbish bins for used toilet paper. The bins look like they have been well used. The door way to my room is next to a stairway leading to the roof, and a couple of such rubbish bins sit empty on the steps by my doorway. When it rains, water drips down the stairway and through the rubbish bins and the water soaks into my doormat. Now it doesn’t smell, so it’s “not that bad.” And yet you might understand if my left foot, the cut one doesn’t step on that doormat. And you might just think that the Reiki is working in that my foot is not infected.
Today was one of those quintessential bad days in India. I guess it started yesterday, maybe even the day before with the Kashmiri guy hounding me about my camera. Then the onslaught of feeling emotionally alone. Yesterday afternoon, I thought I’d treat myself to an expensive meal at the Yeti G.H. next to mine, with it’s nice patio. My idea of a quiet time on the patio was dashed by a group of maybe twelve English men and women trying to make some sort of film. I thought I ordered a veg (as opposed to a non-veg) club sandwich, but when I went to pay the waiter said it was non-veg and charged me the extra 20 rs… I didn’t have proper change, so he said I could pay him the balance 10 rs today. Today I stopped by and ordered eggs and a veg sandwich. It was the same waiter and he brought me eggs and toast, which I thought were separate items on the menu. I inquired about it and with his broken English thought he was giving me toast or that it came with the eggs. My veg sandwich tasted very similar to the veg club sandwich that I had yesterday. When I went to settle the bill he said the toast was extra and that it was indeed the veg club sandwich. I asserted that I had ordered eggs and the veg sandwich… why had he brought something else. We had words for a while. He said I should have returned the toast if I didn’t want it. I asserted that I had ordered eggs and a veg sandwich. At one point he said gruffly, “fine, eat for free.” I should have left at this point, but had no problem paying for what I ordered. Then he said I owed him 15 rs from yesterday. I ended up not paying for the mistaken club sandwich, but paying him for the toast and supposed 15 rs from yesterday. Oh I was furious, as I noted that every mistake he made in taking his ordered was a monetary benefit for him. I will not be eating there again, at least not when he is serving.

I was fuming as I went “home” and did some laundry. I ran into the owner of my Guest House, who asked to see my passport so I could properly sign in. I decided to pay up to current, as I’d paid nothing since I’d been here. I checked in last Wednesday and today was Monday, so I figured six days would settle us up, in case I leave tomorrow. When I went to pay, he insisted it was seven days. I couldn’t seem to make him understand that I ought to only pay for the nights stayed. I finally paid for the seven days accepting the loss, then went back to my room. I fumed over the waiter. Then I fumed over the guest house bill and finally decided to go back to the manager and show him that we should only count nights. I went back to the restaurant he runs and appealed to him, and he appealed to some Western customers. It was then I learned that today was Tuesday, not Monday! I felt very sheepish. And we laughed. I noted that I neither have been drinking nor partaking of the hashish growing on the hillsides… and that maybe I ought to start!

It’s hard to believe a week has gone by. I spent 3 days walking to Manali every day waiting for the ATM to work. There are three ATMS in town and by the third day there were a lot of people going through ATM stress. I make a mental note to refresh my cash supply before running out. And I make a mental note that indeed it is good to have a balance of Traveler’s Checks, Cash, and ATM funds.

In the meantime, the mountains are amazing… the green steep hillsides of terraced corn and apples. And the people overall smile and are friendly. A little toddler of a girl plays with empty water bottles using them as bats to bat around a horseapple; another day she plays happily rolling a five gallon bucket.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Bless the Children

Sometimes I am so amazed by the younger generations.

This video shows a well spoken girl doing her best to dumbfound the U.N. and give us all cause to stop and think about what values we teach, and which ones we actually live.

It brings to my mind the things we teach, but do not follow.

Sharing, peace, avoiding conflict, working together, etc are all things taught in school, but not followed by adults and governments.

I often laugh at how we are taught to admire our country's freedoms and democracy, yet political actions and protests are stigmatized. I laugh that most of us are immigrants in this country, in that only a few hundred years ago, yet we pass judgments on newer immigrants. I laugh when we give lip service to world democracy, yet we do not behave democratically in the world. I laugh, only because it is more fun than crying. World democracy is made by being democratic in the world; peace, by being peaceful; health, by being healthy; sustainability, by being sustainable.

What has amazed me by my travels are there are many realities and truths to live by, often no better, nor worse, just different. As humans, we tend to live egocentrically. It's like Mark Twain's "War Prayer", in which a group of parishoners are praying for their sons to win in the war. The "Dark Angel" comes and shows them the other side of the world where the enemy's families are praying for their soldiers. Both sides, equally convinced in their God and righteousness. It's like that on many levels. We are so caught up in our own reality we don't have any perspective.

I just read that the majority of people in India still excrete in open fields. They don't even have outhouses or composting toilets. While on the subject, most of the world doesn't even have toilet paper. That I am grateful for, because it likely saves a lot of trees! And frankly, cleaning with water is a lot better system, where water is available.

We often here that much of the world lives on only a few US dollars per day, and think, "poor them". What that statistic doesn't show is that in much of the world, one can afford to live on much less because things cost much less there, and people don't necessarily collect material stuff. For instance, in India, I once bought a weeks worth of antibiotics, plus probiotics for less than $2 USD. The dollar figure doesn't show standard of living, it shows exchange rates. Granted, we would be amazed at most of the world's standard of living. And, that being said, standard of living doesn't necessarily relate to quality of life. Inner peace, loving friends and family cost nothing.

What excites me in all of this, is how far money from "wealthy" nations could go in "less wealthy" nations. If we took the money that we spent on a few plastic things doomed for the landfill... we could feed a family for a day (the per ca pita yearly income in India is under $500 USD). And what really excites me is what if we took the money it costs to make a bomb, and instead put that towards good will gifts with our neighbors? Especially in dealing with terrorists... I mean... take Afghanistan and 9/11. Well, admittedly, I'm assuming that Bush was correct and that Afghani terrorists were responsible, even though it was apparently Saudi's on the planes. So we all know that even in our own country, a democracy, the government's and military's actions do not reflect all the citizens. Consider, that terrorists are even less representative of their home populations. So what if we had sent gifts of food or other necessities to Afghanistan in 2001, and worked on making friends there. When you live in a neighborhood, don't you make gifts and try to make friends with your neighbors.

That's what really excites me about all this, is how much opportunity and hope there is for change. I believe all nations have their gifts. In the USA we have the gift of individuality and personal freedom, which has it's pluses and minuses. It's great that people can be themselves, but we have also lost a lot of family and community structure. In India, family and community are very strong, yet it is hard for individuals to be themselves. Another gift from India is inner peace in spite of hardship and lack of material stuff. In the US, we have "stuff", but also a lot of discontent. I've seen kids in India joyfully and exuberantly kicking an old plastic water bottle around... the best toy ever.

The world is growing,changing and we are all learning together. Things have changed drastically, quickly. Only a few hundred years ago, world trade happened along the silk route. There were wars over the spice islands. Now we have wars over oil, and world trade happens on the internet. The only wars over spices are corporate. Now, for better or worse, small villages in Nepal and Laos, for example, have satellite TV and cell phones.

Never has the opportunity to share on all levels been so great. Never has there been such a global forum for the children to come together, so that we might come together for future children.