Place Taken: Tisey Reserve, near Esteli
Date Taken: October 27, 2008
During Nicaragua’s rainy season, the forests surrounding the city of Esteli get pretty wet. We were determined, however, not to let a little (or a lot) of rain keep us from seeing this beautiful part of the country. So we made two trips—one to the Miraflor Nature Preserve (which turned out to be a muddy disaster as we wrote about at the time) and one to the Tisey Reserve. Though the evening and night brought a lion’s share of rain, the day had breaks of sunshine, which we took advantage of, hiking up a nearby mountain for a 10-mile view and then walking to a nearby village where we were told they make excellent goat cheese.
By the time we arrived at the village our mouth was nearly watering as we thought about the creamy, white, spreadable goat cheese that we know and love. But that’s not what we found when we got to the goat farm; what we found was hard rounds of rinded cheese. We went for it anyway. It turned out that we didn’t like it as much as the creamy stuff, but it wasn’t bad. Right after we purchased it, the rain began to come, so we enjoyed the cheese with some bread while tucked away in the village general store, where the friendly owner provided us with a cutting board and knife. The rain would last the rest of our time in Tisey, but it wouldn’t ruin the trip. We could still lay in the hammock on the porch of our cabin and listen to the frogs, and that evening we met another couple also visiting the reserve. The guy was from Nicaragua, the girl from Spain, and our entire conversation was in Spanish, a major accomplishment for me as I’d just finished my first and only week of Spanish lessons.
While visiting the Si a la Vida kids to deliver the goods we brought from the US for them, we got the “grand tour” of their facility to see how they lived. They were amazing kids with such spirit, creativity and charm. Compared to their previous lives of glue sniffing and homelessness, they must’ve thought their shared rooms and single shared sink were fantastic, but two days out of the US, it was a bit shocking to us. Their row of toothbrushes lined up on the courtyard wall next to their shared sink was emblematic of that for us and made for a really colorful picture.
Place Taken: Leon, Nicaragua
Date Taken: October 31, 2008
We entered a cultural center in the university town of Leon, checking out the various artworks hanging on the wall, including a very anti-American depiction of Ronald Reagan from the Contra era. We browsed through the collection of craft items for sale and read a few fliers for music and poetry events. Then we walked out the backdoor into a courtyard. As we enjoyed the little oasis, local kids began to drift in, entering a room open to the courtyard where karate lessons were about to begin. While waiting for the class to start, two of the kids wandered out in their white outfits and yellow belts and made their way over to a large, brightly colored mural on the courtyard wall. As they stared, seemingly contemplatively at the mural—a common feature throughout Leon—, we snapped their photo.
Don’t you just hate it when a website disappears or without warning no new posts appear? We do. I get attached. I then feel abandoned. But have no fear, we won’t be doing the same to you. Now that we’re back, we’re not going to have day in and day out travel tales to tell, but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to share. Lives of Wander will not fade gently into that good night.
First of all, we still have some information to share. I need to finish up our country summaries from Asia. I also need to finish our budget summaries and then write a post on the final numbers. We’ll probably throw up a review of some of the gear we took. We might do a few more “Top Ten” type lists. We’re also happy to answer any questions you readers might have. If there’s something you want to know that we haven’t answered or addressed, leave your question in the comments and we’ll get to it.
But what will happen once we’ve tied up all the lose ends? Well, we didn’t take 19,677 photos just for our own viewing pleasure. No, friends, we took them to share with you. And so far, we’ve only shared through our posts a tiny, tiny fraction of them. So over the next year, we plan to dig through the photos and share some of our favorites with you. Our idea is that we’ll post photos that correspond to where we were at the same time last year. We’ll throw up the photo and then underneath tell the “story” of that photo. Jeff seems to think that we can manage to do one a day (weekdays only); I think he fell off his rocker somewhere along the way this past year, and I’m thinking three posts a week is more realistic. You’ll have to just check back frequently to see what happens.
If that’s not enough and you just can’t bear to live without knowing what it is that we’re up to now, don’t worry. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviving Spargel, the personal blog I’ve kept since 2003. Our adventures in moving to NC, my attempts at being a full-time writer, and the many rants and raves that you long time readers must be missing by now, will be documented in full color. So dust off the old bookmark or add a new one and come by and say hello. We’re not disappearing on you, so please don’t go disappearing on us. We’re all friends now, and the door’s always open.
Though narrowing a year’s adventure down to pick out our top ten experiences is a nearly impossible task, we tried to do it anyhow. After all, it seems to be what everyone most wants to know. So here it is, the ten experiences we most loved, ordered not by rank but in the order in which we did them.
1. Hiking Torres del Paine
Of all the landscapes we saw on our trip, I think the mountains of Torres del Paine were the most majestic. The sheer beauty of this place was breathtaking for each and every moment of the four days we spent hiking the W.
2. Traveling the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu itself is mindboggling and not just because of the altitude. The amazing architecture and well-preserved state of this city in the sky wowed us. But what made seeing it really special was the intense three days of hiking through the Andes that we had to do to reach it. We also got to enjoy the company of my brother Gregory on this part of the adventure.
3. Cruising the Galapagos
This was eight days of pure bliss. From swimming with sea lions, sharks, and penguins, to laughing at the antics of blue-footed boobies, to marveling at the beauty of the natural landscape, to watching the stars rise from the deck chairs of our catamaran, our experience in the Galapagos was top-notch. It was far and away the most budget blowing of our adventures, but it was worth every single penny.
4. Living it Up in Buenos Aires
An apartment in a nice neighborhood, big steak dinners, ice cream every day (at least once), and a visit from my parents…our stay in Buenos Aires was like a vacation within a vacation. The city is vibrant and easy to get around with great architecture and atmosphere and tons to do.
5. Going on Safari in southern Africa
We saw our first lion in Kruger, got up close and personal with rhinos in Hluhluwe Imfolozi, encountered more elephants than we could count in Addo, found a few new species at Mountain Zebra, and became king of cheetah spotting in Etosha. We did a lot of safari-ing and never once got tired of it. In fact, I’m ready to go again.
6. Seeing the Surreal Landscapes of Namibia
Namibia might not have many inhabitants but they sure do have impressive landscapes. At Fish River Canyon, in the Quiver Tree Forest, atop the red dunes of Sossusvlei, in the forests of Naukluft, or along the Caprivi Strip, we were pretty much constantly snapping photos.
7. Meeting the Lovely People of Likoma Island
Until we ended up there, Likoma Island was never even on our radar. Malawi was supposed to be more of a pitstop on our way up east Africa, but it turned into one of our favorite spots. There’s not a lot to do on Likoma Island besides lounge on the beach and enjoy the turquoise waters of Lake Malawi, but the people are among the most friendly, welcoming, and fun loving that we met on our journey. I think we wore a constant smile the entire week we were there.
8. Trekking with Uganda’s Mountain Gorillas
Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is not a misnomer as trekking through the dense forest is not easy, but every step is worth it for the opportunity to spend one hour in the presence of mountain gorillas. These magnificent creatures left us all awestruck. They are impressive in size, in expressiveness, in the way they reflect so much of us and we of them. Another pricey experience, but again worth every penny. Plus we had the good fortune to get to share the experience with Jeff’s parents and sister.
9. Learning to Scuba Dive
Experienced scuba divers claim that once you start, you can’t stop, and they know what they’re talking about. We’re already addicted and can’t stop thinking about when and where we can next dive. Take any of the underwater shows you’ve ever seen and multiply the magic quotient by 100. It’s that good.
10. Exploring Rajasthan
India was tough, but we did greatly enjoy our foray into Rajasthan. The forts, palaces, and heritage hotels preserved fantastic architecture and the feeling of glory days now gone. Though hassle was still present, it was low in comparison to other parts of the country, and we met some very friendly and interesting locals. This seemed to be the India of lore.
363 days ago, we sat in the Houston Airport and shared with you all this post. We were excited, nervous and anxious about the year ahead. Today,we share with you the same image of us in the Seoul Airport, waiting to go home.
All those things we were so anxious about are now memories. It’s been more exciting than we could possibly have imagined. It’s been a magnificent year, but now, we are ready to come home! See you all very soon!
In a year of traveling around the world, we’ve met a lot of people, many of whom are fellow travelers. We’ve found the majority of them to be fun, interesting people. We’ve shared some good times with them and, in some cases, exchanged info in the hopes of one day meeting up again. But every once in a while, you meet a bad egg. There’s lots of things that can spoil a person in my opinion, but there’s one thing, above all, that I can’t stand: a superiority complex. Just a tad too often for my tastes I find that long-term travelers develop this notion that they are somehow superior to the family and friends they left back at home.
To paraphrase them: “I’m out seeing the world. Every day is a challenge. I’m learning so much, doing so much, growing so much. They’re all just sitting at home, their lives the same today as they were yesterday as they will be tomorrow. They’re not changing at all.” To my never-ending amusement, I usually hear this sentiment uttered by a person sitting at a hostel watching television and drinking beer.
Most of the time I don’t waste my breath with such people, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to tell them off. Yes, Jeff and I have had an amazing year. Yes, we have learned all kinds of things—about places, about people, about ourselves. We’ve challenged ourselves physically and emotionally. We’ve grown. But so have the people we left at home.
Sometimes when we answer people who ask how long we’ve been traveling, we’re told that we’re “brave.” I usually just smile and feel awkward. We could probably just as easy be called “selfish” for saying screw it to everyone and everything and disappearing into the world, or “stupid” for giving up good jobs just as the economy crashed. We obviously don’t think it was selfish or stupid, but we also don’t think it was brave.
Brave, I’d say, is choosing to bring a new life into the world, something many of our friends and family have done this year. Brave is going back to school in your thirties to completely change careers. Brave is saying that your dream job is no longer going to be just a dream. Brave is giving up a job you love and a salary you very much like to stay at home with the kids you love more. Brave is giving everything you have to a relationship but knowing when enough is enough. Brave is promising to spend the rest of your life with the person you love.
No, our friends’ and families’ lives have been anything but boring, static. They have completed degrees and taken first jobs. They have moved to new cities, and they have bought homes. They’ve been promoted at jobs they love and left jobs they didn’t like. They have said, “I will” to the question of “Will you marry me?” and “I do” to the question of “Do you take?” They have become moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas. They too have traveled, some acquiring a passport for the first time, some going to places that we dream of one day visiting. They have grown and changed and been challenged, just as we have.
When our plane lands back in the States and we again get to see our family and friends, I hope that they ask about our trip. I hope that they want to hear about our year. But I also hope that they will tell us about theirs, that they too will have stories they want to share with us and pictures to show us. Because if this year has taught us only one thing, it is that our world is an interesting place because of our differences. How boring the world would be if we all chose to walk down the same road.
If you’ve traveled anywhere outside the developed world, you know that for you there is always a “special” tourist price, and by special I don’t mean discounted. If locals pay $5 for a taxi ride, you pay $10, though you’re probably quoted at least $15. Walk into a hotel and the rate you’re quoted is probably not the same rate quoted to the person in front of you or person behind you. You’re constantly being sized up. How much money do you look like you have? How much money do you look like you’ll pay? How big of a sucker do you appear to be?
Most things don’t come with a price tag in the developing world. You have to figure out what something is worth to you and then bargain with the person offering said item until you reach a point where you are happy with the price or you just have to walk away. It’s all a part of the game. Some people take it too far, fussing over the equivalent of pennies, while others hand over whatever is asked the first time around. Neither is good…for you, for other travelers, or for the local economy.
Most of the time I don’t mind it. But sometimes, like when a guy selling fake sunglasses asks $30 for them when even in the U.S. you wouldn’t pay more than $5, it bothers me. Do I really look like I found the tree from which money freely falls? I’ve accepted the fact I’ll pay more; I’m not willing to be extorted.
In Asia more than anywhere else we have been, “special” prices for tourists are the norm. And here tourist rates aren’t just for taxi rides, market purchases, hotel rooms, and the like; they’re also for admission to attractions. On one hand, I understand this. The citizens of developing nations usually don’t have loads of extra cash to spend on visits to museums, historical sites, and the like. You can also argue that through taxes and the like, locals are already paying for these places.
On the other hand, why can’t there just be a set value for things? In the U.S., if I want to visit the Grand Canyon, I have to pay the same as someone from Europe as someone from India as someone from Mexico. We have determined that the seeing the Grand Canyon is worth a certain amount, and if you want to visit it, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you have to pay the price. Some of my taxes are already going to support the national parks, but I’m not given reduced admission because of that. Perhaps using the U.S. as an example is not fair considering they’re not going to let you in to the country in the first place unless you can prove you have a good bit of money, but the idea remains…there is a firm and fixed value for things irregardless of circumstances.
Most of the time, I just roll with it, pay what I have to pay and move on. And sometimes it seems like it’s not a bad deal. For instance, to visit the forts and palaces in Rajasthan, India, we had to pay about 250-300 rupees ($5-6) each while locals paid around 10. It’s a big difference, but for their 10 rupees locals were given nothing but admission; those paying the foreign price received nice brochures as well as very well-done and interesting audio guides. Additionally, the notices that said the admission fees were going toward restoration work didn’t seem like BS, as the buildings were all in rather remarkable shape and were well tended to.
In Uttar Pradesh, it was a completely different story. At Fatehpur Sikri and Orchha, we again paid about 25 times the local price, but this time got nothing in return, not even a sketch map of the site. Additionally, the sites were not very well-maintained, so it felt as all the extra money we paid was just going right into the lining of someone’s pocket (which I have no doubt it was).
At the Taj Mahal, foreigners pay 750 rupees, 75 times the local price. But don’t worry you do get something extra here: a 500 ml bottle of water valued at 6 rupees and a pair of shoe covers so you can walk around the Taj without removing your shoes worth about 10 rupees. Definitely worth it, don’t you think? And while paying approximately $15 to visit a world famous site like the Taj Mahal isn’t in itself unreasonable, what makes the price so hard to swallow is knowing that just five years ago, admission was 15 rupees, or $0.30. And no, the price didn’t rise with inflation or go up each year; it was actually increased from 15 to 750 in one fell swoop. I don’t know, but to me that feels like they’re not charging what they consider a fair price but are instead trying to see just how much us crazy foreigners will hand over before we call the bluff.
What do you think? Should foreigners have to pay more to visit sites than locals? Should the U.S. and Europe implement a similar policy? If it is fair to charge more to foreigners, how much more? I’m curious as to what you all think.
For some people, there’s nothing more emblematic of India than the Taj Mahal. For others, including myself, the most iconic image is of the pilgrims of Varanasi bathing in the Ganges. In our last week in India, we took in both of these sights.
First off was the Taj. According to pretty much everyone, you can’t go to India and not see the Taj, so we braved Agra, a city with really no redeeming qualities beyond the fact that it’s home to the Taj Mahal, to see this monument to love.
I’m not creative enough to add any descriptor to the long list people have already created when waxing about the Taj Mahal. It’s beautiful. The fact that there’s nothing behind it, no background noise to take away from it, magnifies its beauty. It’s a wonder to gaze on (and we were lucky enough to get a $10 hotel room with a million dollar view of the Taj Mahal from our window). But I have to say, if you die without seeing the Taj Mahal, I think you’ll be okay.
Maybe it’s because I’m not a romantic, but I wasn’t overwhelmed with awe at the Taj. I thought it was a beautiful building, one of a number I’ve been lucky enough to see in my lifetime, but after an hour I was pretty much done with it. We ended up staying and staring at it for three hours though, because it cost $15 to enter (a pretty damn high price for India) and we were determined to get our money’s worth. Plus there wasn’t anything else in Agra we cared to see.
Anyhow, seeing as I have nothing new to add to the conversation of the Taj Mahal, I’ll just put up some photos. Judge for yourself where it comes on your list of the world’s most beautiful places.
Then it was on to Varanasi, the one city that I’d been determined to see since India made it on to our itinerary. As it was the city we arrived in just after my purse was stolen, I didn’t reach it in the greatest mood, and the filth of the alleyways we had to wander to get to our hotel almost sent me back to the train station. Much of India is dirty, filthy. It was nothing new. But when the alleys are barely as wide as two people standing next to each other, the filth is impossible to miss. Cow shit, dog shit, probably human shit, food waste, plastic garbage, and who knows what else literally fill the alleys. I wanted to burn my shoes when we left; I refused to put them back in my bag.
But if you can look past the filth, there’s more to Varanasi. We woke early the morning after we arrived and went down to the Ganges, where we boarded a boat for a sunrise ride past the ghats lining the river. And while I was unwilling to touch the river with more than my pinky (which, thank God, hasn’t rotted off), Indians find this river to be holy. (Unfortunately that also means that they “give” all kinds of things to the river including dead bodies, cows, and all manners of offerings.)
The ride along the river was fascinating. We watched men, women, and children bathe in the waters.
We watched people raise up handfuls of water and mumble prayers as it flowed back into the water.
We saw dhobis washing laundry in the Ganges, pounding it clean on the stone steps.
We saw the effigies of the goddess “Durga,” who was being celebrated while we were there in huge festive parades that ended with the image of the goddess being submerged in the river.
And we saw bodies being cremated in pyres at the river’s edge. For Hindus, there is no better place to die than in Varanasi because they believe that if you die there you will skip the cycles of reincarnation and enter directly into nirvana.
India is not an easy place. I think it might be one of the basest places I’ve ever been. Though it’s teeming with humanity, it is for so, so, so many people impossibly inhumane. The desperate level at which so many people live is devastating. The disparities are despicable. But it’s also interesting. The north, where the Himalayas provide constant backdrop, was so beautiful. The history so well preserved in Rajasthan was magical. The spirituality of the faithful along the Ganges was moving. India is not for the faint of heart. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back. But I think I’m glad I went. For all the good and all the bad, there’s simply nowhere else in the world quite like India.
We’re quite happily back in Thailand now, enjoying the last week of our trip at the beach before heading home. We didn’t, however, keep you updated on our whirlwind tour of India, with all of its ups and downs. So with that, I’ll pick up where we left off and finish off our tour of Rajasthan with visits to Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer.
Jaipur, dubbed the Pink City, was not as pink as you would think. The shops along the bazaar were painted in more of a peach color, which was at least uniform if not particularly “pink,” but everything else was painted however the tenants wanted. Suffice it to say that was a variety of colors.
Nevertheless, the city was teeming with fantastic Indian architecture. Without even counting the interesting historic houses and commercial buildings dotting the city, the city palace, the Jantar Mandar and the Hawa Mahal were fascinating to explore. I thoroughly enjoyed the Jantar Mandar, an astrological observatory with a sundial accurate to two seconds, and all sorts of fantastic angles to photograph.
From there we headed on to mainly two forts: Jaisalmer Fort and Jodhpur Fort. Both were fascinating in different ways. Jaisalmer Fort is still lived in and in many ways reminded us of Zanzibar, will tiny alleys leading to fascinating slices of life within the fort. It was great to wander around and get lost. We met a few locals that were given to conversation and found ourselves on a beautiful rooftop for sunset. The lit up for after the sun went down was particularly beautiful.
Jodhpur Fort was physically, a more imposing and more impressive fort. The architectural majesty and beauty of the fort was unrivaled in the India we saw.
For all of our current lamentations about India, Rajasthan was an area we thoroughly enjoyed. It is rightfully the most well traveled part of India, it has the culture and history and tradition people come to India looking for.