For several days now, I've been stuck in Mataram, the capital city of the Indonesian province of West Nusa Tenggara. Located on the island of Lombok, Mataram has a population of over 400,000. It is a local center for industry and education, and sees very few tourists compared to other areas of Lombok. I'm here awaiting my visa extension, which has taken about four days to process.
At first, the prospect of waiting around a city for nearly a week was depressing. There are relatively few things to see around Mataram, and I felt my time could be better spent checking out some beautiful beaches or stunning volcanic scenery. I must reveal, however, that these past several days have been just what I needed. Let's take a look at why this is, and what my experience in Indonesia has been like thus far. To do this, we will rewind back three weeks, to October 18, 2019.
I flew into the island of Bali, not knowing what to expect. Conventional wisdom said it would be crowded with tourists, clamoring for spots on many of the beaches. My plan was to spend just a week or two in Bali, then make my way east to some of the other islands. Between my stays in Kuta, Ubud, and Padangbai, most of my fears were confirmed.
Droves of sightseers had taken over Bali, mostly short-term holidaymakers from Asia, Australia, and Europe. Amidst the local culture and regional poverty had sprung up numerous five-star resorts, Western restaurants, and tourist offices at every corner. I've never been to Cancun, but I'd imagine Kuta attracts a very similar crowd as that Mexican city. Ubud, another highly popular Bali destination (much of that due to its inclusion in the book/movie Eat, Pray, Love) has way more tourists than local people. For a city famous for its culture, Ubud sure has a hell of a lot of shops and restaurants catering to other cultures from around the world.
A common argument I have heard is "Well, the mass tourism is a good thing, because it helps the economy." There is a well-reasoned response to that:
Although tourism makes up 80% of Bali's economy, something like 85% of that money is in the hands of non-Balinese investors. In fact, believe it or not, there is now even a Trump hotel in Bali. Vice News did a great article explaining how many local people have been hurt by rising costs due to tourism, and the massive amounts of water being consumed by resorts and hotels (leading to shortages). Yes, I'm sure many residents have profited and are doing great due to the tourism sector; however, it is not all peaches and cream.
So yeah, Bali was a bit disappointing, but that's not to say there was nothing to love. Much of the local culture and cuisine is still there, though one needs to wander away from the tourist strip in order to experience it. One thing that really struck me in a positive way was the architecture (Balinese buildings are gorgeous and have a very distinct look to them). I've also heard that certain areas in the north of the island are still relatively free of tourists; perhaps I shall have to return and check some of those places out.
After recovering from a nasty bout of Bali Belly, it was time to leave the island and head to Lombok. No sooner had I reached my destination then I took a ferry to check out some of the nearby Gili Islands, an archipelago located off the northwest coast of Lombok. It consists of Gili Trawangan (by far the most touristed and "party vibe" of the three), Gili Air, and Gili Meno. Of the Gili Islands, I visited Trawangan (commonly referred to as just "Gili T") and Meno.
The Gilis were wonderful for snorkeling, and with no motorized vehicles to be found on the islands, were quite relaxing. Trawangan had far too much partying (not my cup of tea), but Meno was tranquil and quiet. Gili Meno is thus far one of the highlights of my Indonesia trip: not too many tourists, beautiful beaches and water, and a laid back local vibe. On my first day there, I sustained the worst sunburn of my life, which I have been nursing most of my time here in Mataram.
Which brings us back to Lombok's capital city. This is truly the first time in Indonesia where I'm without fellow tourists. I've spent the last few days trying regional cuisine, watching movies, working out at the nearby gym, and soaking in the atmosphere of the city. I have even made an Indonesian friend! While Mataram isn't an especially beautiful or interesting city, it feels for once that I am truly in Indonesia. Sure, meeting other tourists is an integral part of traveling to any country. However, sometimes it is nice to take a break and get to know an area the way local people do.
I feel refreshed and ready to continue my journey through Indonesia. Bring it on!
New Zealand has a landscape totally unique to itself, and lots to offer to the enthusiastic backpacker. The scenery, especially in the South Island, cannot be beaten. If you are a fan of hiking, camping, trekking, or outdoor activities in general, and want to do it easily and safely, this country is for you.
Out of the 18 (and counting) countries I've been to, New Zealand is by far the easiest one to travel in. The infrastructure is good, crime is low, buses run on time, and every tourist town has a dedicated information center. It is extremely simple to book activities and arrange accommodation, whether you are camping, staying at hostels, or going a more luxurious route.
For what you get in ease of travel, you pay for in cost. Being a Western country, New Zealand isn't exactly a cheap tourist destination. However, I was able to keep costs reasonably low, by cooking most of my meals and staying in backpacker dorms. Additionally, I didn't pay too much for activities, because one of my favorite activities, hiking, is totally free! If you love taking short, beautiful hikes, the country will be a paradise for you.
Before getting into a cost breakdown, a couple of things should be noted. First is that New Zealand is undoubtedly a car country. While I found it easy to get to most of the places I wanted via buses, there are countless sites that cannot be seen without the use of a personal vehicle. Every once in awhile, I managed to hitch rides with car-owning friends that I met at hostels. However, the rest of the time, if something wasn't within walking distance of the town, I was shit out of luck. If you are coming here for an extended period of time, definitely consider buying or renting a car (though once again, I had an amazing time even without one)!
The other thing I should mention is that I traveled the off-season. The high season is December through March, and while the weather will likely be much better, prices for various things (hostels, etc) will be higher. I specifically chose September/October to travel in because it would be less crowded, prices would be lower, and the temperature outside wouldn't be completely awful. Maybe it's just that I got lucky with the weather, but I do not regret at all traveling during the off-season. I was able to spend less and deal with smaller crowds.
In total, I spent 39 days backpacking through New Zealand. I went as far south as Te Anau/Milford Sound and as far north as Auckland. Here is a breakdown of what I spent during those five and a half weeks (all costs will be described in USA dollars, NOT New Zealand dollars).
Food - $607.17
I spent the largest share of money on eating, and there is a simple explanation as to why; I ate out one meal per day. Many backpackers cook all their meals, but not having a car to store things in, I couldn't be fussed to prepare all of them. So I bought groceries most of the time but spent a fair amount eating out. Without having done this, I could easily have shaved hundreds off the cost. Oh well.
Accommodation - $519.49
There's not much that can be helped about this one, and for most people, this will constitute the lion's share of spending. I always stayed in hostel dorms, averaging about $14 per night. Not terrible, considering New Zealand is a Western country!
Transport - $368.31
I learned my lesson very early on, that booking bus tickets one by one would be too expensive. So I bought a "flexipass" from Intercity (NZ's main bus company). By booking a certain number of road hours, I was able to pay less per kilometer than if I'd paid individually for tickets. One thing to keep in mind: the more you buy upfront the cheaper it is. I could have saved even more had I bought a larger block upfront.
Activities - $177.89
This is a tricky one, as activities tend to be very expensive in New Zealand. A tour of Milford Sound set me back $80 and entry into Hobbiton was $54. A lot of people do things such as skydiving and bungee jumping, and these can cost hundreds. Thankfully, my free hiking "habit" led to this category costing not so much.
Miscellaneous - $74.89
Includes mobile data, laundry (quite expensive), toiletries, and other random expenses.
Average daily cost of $44.81. Despite freaking out a bit initially about how expensive New Zealand was going to be, I came out slightly under budget. I spent less than $45 per day, and I'd say that's excellent for a country like this. For a more comfortable time, you might want to budget a minimum of $50 per day, though this depends on what sorts of things you are planning on doing.
As I took the ferry from Picton, I realized this was it. This would be my last chance to see all the people I had met and places I had gone to in the ten months I spent in Wellington. Sure, I could always come back some other year, and keep in contact with various individuals. But it wouldn't be the same: the right people in the right places. Although I spent only three days in Wellington as an actual backpacker, I made sure to see as many old faces as I could. It had only been three weeks away on the South Island. But it already felt like a lifetime.
There were so many things I had missed during my time in Wellington, but I wouldn't have time to see them all. So I spent one day visiting the Weta Cave, tourist hub of the eponymous VFX and prop company (responsible for helping produce Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Another day, I went to my favorite restaurant, Great India. I had their $12 lunch special for the last time, and savored every last bite. I stayed at the hostel which had been my home for nearly a year, and hung out with the few long-termers that remained.
After Wellington, I went to Napier, a cool Art Deco styled city in Hawke's Bay. Then came Taupo, home to New Zealand's largest lake. There, I hiked to some waterfalls and later spent an afternoon checking out a thermal walkway full of steaming craters. A few days later, I headed to Rotorua, a city whose geothermal activity comes with a distinct sulfuric smell. I spent a good chunk of a day there hiking through a beautiful Redwood forest (planted at the beginning of the 20th century, not indigenous to New Zealand). At the peak of the trail was a beautiful view of Rotorua and its glorious steaming geysers and hot springs.
Hobbiton was the one touristy thing I felt compelled to do, so I booked a hostel in nearby Matamata and bit the bullet. Indeed, most of the things I was afraid of going in (heaps of tourists and endless fan lip service) were true. However, I still felt that I got some inspiration from visiting the movie set. As an aspiring movie director, it simply blew my mind that a set like this could be built. Hobbiton is essentially a small village built into farm hills, and the attention to detail is astounding. It feels like a real, lived-in place, and gave me a new appreciation for this kind of intricate set design.
The list of places I didn't get to see in the North Island is too large, so I won't even attempt to write them out. However, I will say the biggest thing I was unable to fit into my itinerary was the Tongariro Alpine Crossing (a long walk that passes over active volcanic terrain). The weather was way too cold to do the hike solo, and I would have had to pay $200 NZD to do it with a guide and alpine gear. Oh well, better luck next time!
The past few days have been spent lazing about in Auckland, trying lots of local eateries and relaxing. Tomorrow, I will be flying to Bali, Indonesia, in what promises to be a very different adventure from the one I have just concluded. I hope to follow up soon with a breakdown of my costs in New Zealand, so you, fellow traveler, can start planning your trip to this beautiful country!
The vast majority of New Zealand is made up of the North Island and the South Island. Today I'll be talking about my experience in the South Island, the larger of the two.
I had made peace beforehand that, no matter how hard I tried, I wouldn't be able to see everything within a three week time frame. So I booked my flight to Queenstown, bought a bus pass (essential for bus travel through New Zealand), booked a hostel, and set off. In the past 20 days, I made my way from Queenstown to Picton. Along the way, I also visited Arrowtown, Te Anau (and Milford Sound), Wanaka, Franz Josef, Hokitika, and Nelson. It was glorious.
After ten months stuck working in Wellington, and having the country hyped up for ever for me, I had a feeling that maybe, just maybe, I would be underwhelmed with New Zealand. Sure, it would be beautiful. But I've been to plenty of beautiful countries, and everyone seems to think the one they are currently in to be the prettiest. Within 24 hours of beginning my trip, however, I realized how truly misguided my concerns were.
New Zealand really is one of those drop-dead gorgeous countries, the kind where simply looking out the window of a bus can take your breath away. From the first hike I did in Queenstown (where at the peak I was treated to a stunning mountain view of the city), I realized this was going to be a memorable experience.
It was the first bus ride I took, however, where things kicked in full force. We were headed to the South Island's southernmost region, Southland. It was probably the most picturesque drive I've ever been on, with mountains, rolling green hills, and flocks upon flocks of sheep. The experience didn't end there, however. The very next day I took a cruise to Milford Sound, a fjord with countless waterfalls, cliffs, and wildlife. I was very lucky to have great weather during those days; even though I was traveling off-season, I got to see blue skies and crystal clear views.
The South Island is a hiker's paradise. I don't think a week went by without me going on at least two hikes. Some highlights: visiting Franz Josef glacier (which sadly, due to climate change has receded quite a bit in recent years), tracking glowworms at night in a forest, and visiting the famous Pancake Rocks during a bus stop through Punakaiki. There were also scenic lakes in Wanaka and Te Anau, as well as a teal-colored gorge near Hokitika.
There were also some added benefits of traveling off-season. New Zealand tourism can get very busy starting around December time, but I never had trouble booking a bus or finding a bed in a hostel. Prices were a bit lower at this time of year (September), and the dorms were rarely crowded or noisy. A couple of the hostels even served free homemade soup at night! This gave the few of us travelers an opportunity to hang out and be social. Nothing brings people together like free food.
In the next couple weeks I'll be exploring a bit of the smaller, more densely populated North Island. This is the island that has active volcanoes, so that should be fun!
The "working" part of my working holiday visa in New Zealand is over; cue the "holiday." After ten months of living and working in Wellington, I finally met my savings goals, quit my job, and headed back on the road. I'll be spending five weeks traveling through this gorgeous, stunningly beautiful country. I've begun near the bottom half of the South Island, and will be slowly moving northward.
This past year has been pretty emotionally draining, to be frank. It's the longest I've ever been away from the United States, and was spent pretty much the entire time in a backpacker hostel. Because I was working a full-time job during the week, and working reception at the hostel on weekends, I didn't really get a chance to go out and do much. It was just work work work work work.
On paper, I guess I accomplished most of what I set out to do. I produced and directed my very first movie, got a full-time job in Wellington (at a camera shop), and saved enough money to do some traveling as well. Because I was also working for accommodation at the hostel, I ended up saving around three-quarters of everything I earned. Here's a general idea of what I was able to save during my working holiday visa in New Zealand:
My 35-hour per week job at the camera shop paid $18.50 NZD per hour (that's a little under $12 USD). Including holiday pay, which was an extra 8% in each paycheck, my take home after taxes was about $585 each week. On average, I was able to save about $420 from each paycheck. That's about $1680 per month in savings (a bit over $1000 USD per month).
Now keep in mind, I didn't pay anything in rent. I don't drink much, and I didn't have free weekends to go out and spend a lot of money. I did still go out to eat several times per week, however, and went to the movies whenever I felt like it. Because my job was a ten-minute walk from the hostel, I didn't have to pay anything for transportation. I most certainly didn't own a car, because that would have been an extra hassle, and more of a financial burden.
A large chunk of the savings went toward making my film, then the rest went into savings for travel, with a bit put off to the side for my retirement account. I probably don't save anywhere near as much as I should for retirement, but I do put in some effort.
So here's the question: was it worth it?
That's a really tough question to answer. On one hand, I got to live in a different city, work some really chilled out jobs, and meet a lot of interesting people. There was also the short film project, which seriously helped me learn more about what it takes to produce and direct a movie. It also gave me the opportunity to work with local talented artists, and gave me some new perspectives on things.
On the other hand, I don't feel as if I progressed quite as much as I would have liked. After all, working in a city for a year is working in a city for a year. Whether it is in New Jersey, California, or New Zealand, a job is a job. When I have full-time work, I tend to put off doing fun things, until I quit that job, and then go into full swing enjoyment mode when I leave. It's probably not the healthiest mindset, and that is something I'll have to re-examine in myself.
As far as cities go, Wellington is a really charming one. The weather can be all over the place, which is definitely my least favorite thing about it. However, infrastructure is good, the city center is compact, and there is a huge number of restaurants, buses, and things to do.
Living at a backpacker's hostel for ten months has left me with mixed feelings. I probably wouldn't have been able to meet my savings goals without it, and I met lots of wonderful and cool people. However, the lack of privacy can be frustrating, as is the inconsistency of who is staying there. At least when you sign a lease for an apartment, you know who you'll be living with for the next year! At hostels, people come and go like the wind. One week you'll be chumming it up, the next, it is time to say goodbye.
Now I'm back on the road, to finally travel through the country I had patiently ignored. After the five weeks in New Zealand, I'll be flying to Indonesia. I'm really hoping to take the opportunity to see a lot of amazing places, and work on some creative projects I'd been putting off. It can be depressingly easy to lose track of what you want to accomplish in life. It's been hitting very close to home just how quickly procrastination can make time go by.
Although I am unsure of what the future holds, I know that it is far better to figure it out while enjoying the benefits of travel. One can feel lost in life behind the desk of a dead-end job, or one can feel lost in life while hiking through a beautiful mountain range. The truth is, we don't really know where we belong until we feel it. I choose to take another step forward.
Thank you to all who have continued to read this blog. I hope to have more content in the near future!
Until next time,
Hi everyone! I know this isn't strictly related to traveling, but I'd like to share with you a project that I worked on this year, while living in Wellington, New Zealand. It is my first short film, called "Saturday and Sunday Afternoon."
I plan on traveling through New Zealand starting in September, and there will be more blog posts to come. For now, though, here is something to keep you busy!
For those of you who are unaware, I have been on a working holiday visa in New Zealand for the past five and a half months. Nearly the whole time has been spent in the country's capital city, Wellington. I've been working and saving up money, while planning upcoming ideas for the future.
You might be wondering, what is this working holiday visa?
New Zealand offers a special visa to citizens of more than 40 countries, allowing them to travel and work within the country for a period of one year. There are a couple of catches. You must be within the ages of 18-30 (though the age limit is now 35 for citizens of a few countries), and have enough money to be able to support yourself, and for a return plane ticket. Citizens of the UK and Canada are able to apply for a 23 month version of the visa. Some countries, such as the United States have unlimited application spots. However, many countries have quotas in place, allowing only a limited number of applicants (for instance, only 1000 Chinese citizens can get the visa each year). The visa also allows one to study abroad, though the length of time is usually restricted to six months.
How have I been supporting myself?
After a week and a half of asking around, I managed to land a job working for accommodation at a hostel. Every morning at 10 o'clock, I would change the sheets of people who had checked out, and vacuum the floors. While the job didn't pay, it helped stem the flow of spending that was eating up my savings. Eventually, I was upgraded to running the reception area on weekend evenings. It's a cushy, easy position that has allowed me to pay zero in rent for the past several months!
The search for a proper paid job took longer than expected. I kept handing out resumes to businesses I was interested in, but to no avail. After quitting a particularly terrible job after just two days (run by racist twats who claimed they refuse to hire black people), my adrenaline kicked into high gear. I reached out to a local camera shop, and SUCCESS! They were looking for new employees. Roughly two months after I arrived in New Zealand, I began working full time at Wellington Photographic Supplies. The job enabled me to save up the money necessary to direct my first short film (something I had been planning to do for quite some time), and save some extra for future travel endeavors.
What's life like living at a hostel?
To be completely honest, working and living at a hostel has taught me that I really don't enjoy living long-term in hostels. The party atmosphere just doesn't connect with me, and the lack of privacy (along with having to share kitchen space with dozens of other people) can be frustrating. However, it has allowed me to save far more money than I would have had I rented a flat. Sometimes, you need to decide what is more important: your life goals, or your comfort. I'm seriously considering doing a working holiday in Australia next, and will not want to stay so long at a backpacker's accommodation. However, for this year, it has only catapulted me closer toward getting done what I've been wanting to do.
And what about New Zealand? It must be a gorgeous country, no?
While Wellington is a lovely city, with beautiful shores and aesthetic hills, it may surprise you to learn that I have yet to explore any of New Zealand and its beautiful nature. I do have an itinerary and a trip planned for the near(ish) future, so stay tuned! There is something about working seven days a week that re-sparks one's desire to get back on the road.
Peter Weir's 1998 film "The Truman Show" is rightfully considered a class act in filmmaking and storytelling. It chronicles the plight of Truman Burbank, an optimistic but naive middle class man, who's life also happens to be a television show. Unbeknownst to Truman, the world around him has been fully constructed. Everything from the sun (an extremely bright spotlight) to the people in his life (paid actors) has been manufactured to bring entertainment to TV audiences, while also keeping our titular character oblivious to his situation.
A huge amount has been written about the film, which explores the notion of free will, the existence of a creator, American consumerism, and the rise of reality TV. What I want to touch upon specifically, though, is Truman Burbank's desire to see the world. As a serial backpacker and advocate of travel, I believe "The Truman Show" to be one of the greatest (if not THE greatest) pro-traveling movies of all time.
From a young age, Truman has dreams of being an explorer. He wants to discover new lands, sail the oceans, and see the world. His elementary school teacher tries to quash his desire by telling him there are no places on Earth left to discover. However, the passion sticks with Truman well into adulthood, even after he has gotten married and bought a house.
A main plot point in the movie revolves around Truman's desire to go to Fiji ("You can't get any further away before you start coming back."). He tries convincing his wife, Meryl, that they can save up some money and go abroad for a long time. She immediately shoots down his ideas as childish, emphasizing life goals such as paying off their mortgage and having children. Nothing Truman says or does can convince her otherwise.
Later, Truman decides to take matters into his own hands by booking a flight to Fiji. The travel agent's office contains a comically large poster of an airplane being struck by lightning, with a slogan reading "It Can Happen to You!" Even the subliminal messaging around him tells him not to follow his dream.
The satire of "The Truman Show" serves to point out what sorts of barriers and messages we use to keep order within a consumerist society. Truman has a great job, a beautiful house, a loving wife, and a seemingly perfect neighborhood. Yet there is something deep inside struggling to come out. He has always had passions and goals, but life found a way to get in the way. I think many people can relate to such frustrations: of moving toward socially expected goals, while neglecting who they really are and what they really want.
In the film, travel serves as the poignant wake up call to Truman. As he maniacally attempt to drive himself and Meryl to Atlantic City, she asks him why he wants to go there. He responds: "Because I never have! That's why people go places, isn't it?" Although his endeavor to break free is thwarted several minutes later, the attempt sparks a sea change in Truman's behaviors and attitudes. Now that he has attempted to break out of his bubble, he can sense the possibility within grasp.
Travel can be scary yet liberating, because it forces us outside the world we have carefully constructed. Too often, people push off their dreams due to fear and uncertainty about what will happen. Yes, there are cases where one has too many responsibilities to attempt such a thing, but the case of Truman Burbank is not one of them. There is a massive conspiracy at hand trying to stop him, but that is not enough to hold him back. I can promise that the same conspiracy is not working against you.
If you have that desire and the ability to pursue it, go travel the world!
Be like Truman.
I don't usually like saying a country is "friendly" or "unfriendly." After all, there are good and bad people everywhere, and few regions fall into neat boxes like that. However, I'm going to break my rule when it comes to Nepal. Overall, this country was FRIENDLY as hell. While Nepal is quite a poor nation, I found the people to be generous, welcoming, and laid back. Compared to neighboring India, there was a relative lack of tourist scams and hassle. Moving from place to place was easy and convenient.
Nepal was the perfect place to relax my brain, and work on personal projects. While trekking, I continued practicing photography, and got some much needed exercise. There's something about climbing thousands of meters in elevation that stimulates the body and the mind, and challenges one to think outside the box. While in the capital, Kathmandu, I completed writing my first feature screenplay. I've never mentioned this on the blog, but it is my life's ambition to become a film director, and this was a huge first step. Writing a screenplay is to date one of the most fun and challenging projects I've undertaken. This gorgeous country afforded me a peace of mind that helped me express exactly what I needed to put into words.
While Nepal is by far one of the cheapest countries I've ever traveled in (if not the cheapest), the price comes with a caveat. Most tourists don't come to the country just to bum around and do nothing. Meaning, if you just want to relax and eat momos and stay in your hostel, you'll spend barely anything. However, you will likely be going to Nepal to do activities, be they trekking, national parks, or visiting historical sites. Activities come at an extra cost, which I will get into in the category breakdown.
I spent 25 days in Nepal, and managed to travel from the western border (Mahendranagar), until as far east as Kathmandu. Here is a breakdown of what I spent over those three and a half weeks:
Food - $181.82
While food was once again my biggest cost overall, it was relatively cheap. Meals could be had for $1-2 almost anywhere. The big exception is while trekking, where meal prices are inflated from 3-6x. A standard serving of Dal Bhat (Nepal's national dish) is usually 150 Nepalese rupees (approx $1.30). While doing the Poon Hill trek, it jumped to 400-600 rupees. Nonetheless, coming from a western country, food in Nepal is quite cheap and filling. Just stay away from the tourist restaurants in Pokhara.
Miscellaneous - $86.57
Includes everything from mobile data, to ATM fees, to haircuts. One thing to note, my debit card was discontinued by my bank (due to an unfortunate ATM scam in Pokhara), and I had to pay for a costly Western Union money transfer.
Activities - $77.07
Trekking permits and national park entry fees were accounted into this, as well as a single movie ticket I purchased in Kathmandu. Depending on what percentage of your trip will be spent trekking/going to national parks, this category can be much more expensive.
Transport - $72.04
Local buses are on par with India in terms of cost. The only thing that sucks about Nepal is that Uber (and Ola, India's ridesharing app) is not in operation. When taking a taxi or rickshaw, you always have to haggle, and will likely pay higher prices than locals.
Accommodation - $63.71
This one takes the cake, folks. Nepal is by far the cheapest country for accommodation I've ever traveled to. I never paid more than $5 for a hotel or hostel room during my entire trip. Rooms on the Poon Hill trek were free (in exchange for us eating all our meals at the guesthouse).
Average daily cost of $19.25 per day. You can have a great time in Nepal for $20 per day, a cheaper backpack bumming experience for $15 per day (or lower), or trekker's paradise on $30 per day. It's your choice.
Photo Cred: Nick McNamara
Traveling in Nepal has been a pleasant experience thus far, a quiet inverse to India's crowded, chaotic disposition.
Upon crossing Nepal's far western border near Mahendranagar, I was shocked to find a lack of hustle and bustle. Insanely crowded roads and aggressive rickshaw touts were nowhere to be seen. It took me less than 24 hours to realize I was in a very different place, culturally. The geography, religions, and foods were similar to those in India, but the society was different. Things moved at a slower pace. Buses and shops closed and stopped running earlier. People were still curious about the white man from America traipsing about their town, but there was far less leering than in neighboring India. I must say, the lack of overt scams made me slightly suspicious.
These differences might have something to do with the smaller (and less overcrowded) population of Nepal. I'm no sociologist, so I can only speculate. However, I have yet to visit the capital city, Kathmandu, where I have no doubt the pace and sense of claustrophobia will pick up.
In the first week of staying at Nepali hotels, I learned an interesting tidbit about budget accommodation. Many of the cheaper hotels were run by liquor wholesalers, who seemingly rented the rooms as side hustles to their lucrative businesses. I say "lucrative" because alcohol seemed to be available everywhere. This once again stood in contrast to India, where alcohol is banned in a few states, and consumption is not super common. Sadly, one hotel owner informed me that alcoholism is rampant in his region of Nepal.
I had made arrangements to meet up with a friend for a few days, to visit Bardiya National Park. It's the largest national park in Nepal's Terai region and is home to over 600 species of animal, including rhinoceros, tiger, elephant, crocodile, and dolphin.
At 6 P.M. on a Wednesday, I picked my friend up from the Nepalgunj airport. We were on our way. Two and a half bumpy rickshaw hours later, we arrived at our lodge. It was located right outside the park, a mere ten-minute walk from the entrance. Our tour guide, Baba, greeted us with excitement.
"Tomorrow we will see a tiger!"
I knew that tiger sightings were quite rare, and had doubts that our one day in the park would yield exciting results. However, we responded enthusiastically, hyping ourselves up for the following day.
We awoke at 6 in the morning, changed into hiking clothes, and ate a quick breakfast. Baba was full of the same eagerness he had greeted us with the night before. He had spent 17 years tracking tigers in the park and was trying to break a personal streak of successive sightings.
We were handed packed lunches and wooden walking sticks, then were led to the entrance of the park. Some monkeys lazed about outside the forest. A quick sign in with the park security was in order, and we were off. Into the woods.
Almost immediately, we had to take our boots off to cross a river. The other side was dense forest and grassland, mostly removed from civilization. It felt a bit dangerous being on our own out there. Hopefully, the guide wouldn't allow us to be eaten by some savage jungle beasts. "Look!" he exclaimed, pointing at the ground. My friend and I stared down. "Tiger tracks!" Mere minutes into the hike, and it was on.
What happened in the several hours following, I can only describe as a tedious game of "hide and seek." Only we were the ones hiding, in order to seek a tiger. Baba would often bring us to a river bank, and instruct us to wait silently for a couple of hours. Whenever we spotted some deer (a common animal in Bardiya), the hope was that a tiger would come to attack, showing its feline mug. When nothing happened, he would lead us to our next destination, through trees, fields, and tall grass. Every once in a while, we would stop to pull leeches off ourselves. The whole ordeal was tiring.
Halfway through the day, we finally spotted some wildlife. Baba handed us a pair of binoculars, and sure enough, there it was! A rhinoceros was bathing in a distant river, ostensibly keeping cool from the 90-degree weather. We stayed and watched the rhino for an hour or so. I wish I could say the experience was more exciting, but the animal had no interest in coming any closer.
We knew time was running out, and so did our guide. In a last minute stroke of adventurous bravura, Baba led us far off the trail, into some rugged grasslands. The tall stalks whipped against our faces as we went deeper and deeper into the wildlife terrain. "Stop!" commanded Baba. He instructed us to hide behind some grass, and wait.
Ten minutes later, a deer came trotting out into the open. This time, however, there was something off about the way it was walking. The deer would take a few steps at a time, look around nervously, and trot some more. My heart was pounding fast. Something was up, and this deer knew it!
Baba walked slowly out of the grass and whistled for us to join him. "Yes! He exclaimed. "There is a tiger, there is the king!" He handed us the binoculars, and sure enough, walking out of the grass was a Bengal tiger. Our mission was accomplished! Now, all we had to do was avoid being eaten.
The tiger stuck around for no more than 30 seconds. Our guide tried getting closer, and the creature noticed him and ran away. No photos of the orange cat would be taken that day, but it didn't matter. We had come to the park to see a tiger, and indeed, we did. We later found out, that out of a dozen or so groups that trekked in the park that day, we were the only ones who saw a tiger. Baba had done his job admirably, and we were pleased.
That's the end of the story.
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write music and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.