Lebanon (duh) has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 63!
It was December 31st, and I took an early-morning tuk-tuk ride to the Delhi airport. I was flying to Lebanon, and had resigned my fate to a full day of travel, one which involved a six-hour layover in Dubai.
Thankfully, the flight from Delhi to Dubai was delayed by nearly two hours. On the surface, this may sound like a bad thing. However, it was a blessing in disguise. Instead of six hours, my waiting time was reduced to a measly four. So when I boarded the layover to Beirut, I wasn’t nearly as frustrated from waiting as I would have been. For those of you who have had to wait for a layover, you’ll know that it’s usually duller than a roll of aluminum foil.
I arrived in Beirut a few hours before midnight. Since I had been in transit mode for about 12 hours, I was hoping to catch a quick rest, and then see what the people in my hostel had planned for the New Year’s. Perhaps they would go out on the town. Nope. There was already a dance party going on in the hostel. People were rapidly arriving to celebrate, causing to crowd to get bigger and bigger. Half the room was dancing, and somebody was serving drinks from behind a counter. Within an hour, I was tipsy and mingling with fellow travelers. That’s it; there was no forewarning, just a full-blast New Year’s party. I had expected a few festivities, but nothing on this scale.
The room was soon full, and when it was five minutes to twelve, everyone hurried up to the rooftop to bring in the New Year. While we counted, dozens of fireworks went off all around town. Through the BANG!s and POP!s and SNAP!s I could hear people murmuring that they heard gunshots going off. It was a crazy cacophony of sound. Some people on our rooftop lit up their own fireworks, causing a deafening and colorful scene before me. For about ten minutes straight, all you could hear were explosions.
Once New Year’s was beckoned in, everyone headed downstairs to continue dancing. I swear I’ve never seen such synchronized, sensual, passionate dancing outside of a music video. I’m not much of a party animal myself, but I was entertained by just watching the action take place. It was at the same time one of the most jaw-dropping and enthralling things I have experienced. The unbridled joy and intensity was mind-blowing, and it caused the room to take on a life of its own. The Lebanese have amazing style, and pretty much anybody could have passed for a professional dancer.
Unexpectedly, I went from the chaotic (and often exhausting) country of India to a fun-loving, zealous environment. Obviously, I cannot judge an entire country based on a New Year’s party; the next week and a half will truly shape my opinion of the Lebanon. However, I could not have come in at a better time. For a country that has the Syrian Civil War knocking at its doorstep, I was shocked by how ready and willing people were to have such a good time. Whether it is resilience or a simple “I don’t really care” mentality, it is unmatched by anything I have ever seen before. I will be glad to continue exploring Beirut during the upcoming days.
Photo Credit: rabiem22, https://www.flickr.com/photos/rabiem/9229231222/. All rights reserved.
Traveling allows you to see truths about the world and humanity that were impossible to see before. A number of these truths are pleasing to behold: beautiful landscapes, diverse cultures, and delicious food. However, many of those truths are incredibly unpleasant; once you see them, you will never forget them. I’m talking about the dark side of humanity, the side of rampant poverty and corruption, as well as the animalistic drive to survive. As the most recent portion of my trip has been in India, I’ll be focusing primarily on that country. However, many things I am about to say are prevalent throughout much of the world.
The truth is, there are more desperate people in the world than I ever could have imagined. These are people who know nothing about the kind of life I live in the USA. All they see is a guy who goes to an ATM and pulls out their entire year’s salary in one go. They look at me and make assumptions about my privilege, level of wealth, and social status. To be fair, they are mostly right. I am privileged because the color of my skin. I am (inside an impoverished country) a wealthy person. Some of these people have absolutely nothing. Money is so scarce, that it starts to become the only goal in people’s lives. Let me share a very disturbing conversation that happened to me recently:
I was sitting on a rooftop restaurant with a group of fellow travelers, and our waiter began talking to us. I’ll paraphrase. In the creepiest way possible, he said “I didn't have any friends until I started making money. Now I am earning a wage and finally I have friends.”
He said this quite seriously, and it bothered me for many reasons:
1) The fact that the only way this man could make friends was by having money.
2) Anyone who befriends you just because of your money isn't a real friend.
3) Quite possibly, this is a common mentality to have, where it isn't worth being friends with someone unless they can benefit you financially. There is so much poverty, that people have to frequently resort to using others for survival. I know it happens in the USA as well, but the way this man described it sounded disturbingly parasitic.
4) There were five of us trying to enjoy a meal, and what the guy said totally dampened the mood. As privileged travelers, we could not truly relate to what the man was saying. I noticed the vibe in the room go dark all of a sudden.
5) The man stood creepily by and watched us for a good portion of our dinner.
You may think, ah whatever. Isolated incident, right?
Nope, I run into people like this on a daily basis. Men will just come over to me and ask incredibly personal questions about my financial, personal, and romantic life. The whole while, they leer at me as if they expect me to tell them I’m a billionaire playboy who throws cocktail parties every weekend. Benevolent tourists have created an expectation (at least among uneducated people) that everybody from the West is Jay Gatsby. I might as well wear a tuxedo and throw $100 bills from my hotel window. Also, too many of my fellow female travelers have been harassed while walking about. They have been groped at, stared at, and even been crudely asked for sex by passers-by.
How can I go back home and ever look at my life the same way? I've seen some really sad things: things that cannot be changed without a complete overhaul of the system.
Sure, you’d think the government could do something. No. Many governments are corrupt. It is very common for police officers and government officials to take bribes. Heck, if you have money, you can probably get away with anything. I've met several travelers in Southeast Asia and India who have had encounters with police. Not one of them ended in a conviction or acquittal; they all ended with the foreigner paying a few dollars in bribe money. I’m not saying that every single police officer and government worker is corrupt, but it is a serious problem. If you’re interested, there is a site called ipaidabribe.com, where you can get a taste of the problem’s extent.
Now, all of this stuff I said may sound negative, but I’m about to throw a positive spin around it. The above spiel is one of the reasons why you should travel. Sure, go for the beaches. Go for the food. Go for the fun. But most of all go to expand your horizons. You should see the good and the bad stuff, because it will help you understand the world in a richer, fuller way. The more you can see the big picture, the less things seem “weird” or “difficult.” You can learn to appreciate what you have, on an even deeper level.
I've always been a pretty avid thinker, but I have seen things while traveling that have entirely changed the way that I think about the world. There are things that have to be experienced to be understood. To be totally honest, I can’t find the words to put everything in writing. Some things cannot be summed up into a few words. However, by exposing ourselves to the realities of life, we can face the world head-on with an open mind. If you are already somebody who thinks outside the box, consider travel to be the next logical step in your development.
Cuba and Venezuela have been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 59!
I don’t believe I have gone an entire week yet in India without falling ill. It’s getting really frustrating, because it’s been putting a damper on my (otherwise) fantastic trip.
Within three days of arriving to India, I got food poisoning. This was the first time I had ever gotten food poisoning, and I hope it was my last. The pain was so bad, that I had to check myself into a hospital, and be given a painkiller injection. Even after building up a strong stomach from my previous four months of travel, it only took three days of Indian food to take me down. That’s a bloody shame, because I love Indian food.
Besides the aforementioned food poisoning, I have also been suffering from a series of random colds/fevers. I’ll have one for a day or two. It will mysteriously disappear, and then come back several days later. I’m pretty sure mass transit is to blame; I cannot even begin to imagine how many germs there are on a crowded Indian train. Seriously, every time I enter a general seating train (standing room only), my nose and eyes immediately begin watering. It only takes a few seconds. I blame overcrowding and poor hygiene for this. In fact, I have decided to “wuss out” whenever possible, and begin taking the higher class train cars. While they are more expensive, these tickets guarantee you a seat, and are much cleaner than the general compartments. Perhaps Indian immune systems are used to the high level of germs and contamination; I, however, am certainly not.
I recently took a 36 hour train ride from Madurai (in the south) to Pune (in central India). Luckily, I had been upgraded for free, to a decent compartment. The ride went rather smoothly, and I arrived to my destination in good health. Then I took a local (crowded) train ride that lasted less than two hours. You know what? I’m writing this blog post with a terrible sore throat. It’s no fun. I rarely ever get sick back home in the USA: heck, I’ve barely gotten sick in any countries other than India.
I really hope that India doesn’t permanently screw up my immune system. The optimistic side of me thinks that it is helping me build immunity to illness and disease. The pessimistic side thinks just feels me getting weaker and weaker. Oh well, whatever doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger, right? Or maybe not. Only time will tell.
Anyone who wants to travel to India but has a poor immune system, please consult first with your doctor. Unless you get chauffeured around by a private taxi and stay at five-star hotels the whole time, you are bound to get sick at least once (even then, I’d still count on it).
For those of you who have spent extensive time in India, I’d be interested to hear about your experience. Did you get ill? If so, how badly, and did it significantly affect your trip?
Unfortunately, I was unable to visit the northern regions of Sri Lanka, because of government imposed bans. Seeing as I only had two and a half weeks to spend in the country, I forwent trying to apply for a region permit. The time I did spend traveling around Sri Lanka was more than enough, considering my situation and personal tolerance.
I took the 40 minute plane ride to Madurai excited to begin the second leg of my Indian trip. My arrival brought about mixed feelings. Yes, it was exciting to get back to the colorful chaos that I had grown (somewhat) accustomed to. However, Madurai sucked out all of my energy; within a few hours I had already jumped onto a moving bus, and was trying very hard to not get my pockets picked in such a tightly packed space. At the railway station I purchased a long-distance train to another city (Pune), but that didn't leave for another four days. I made a split-second decision to leave Madurai that same afternoon, and spend a few days elsewhere.
The place I chose was Kodaikanal, a hill station located roughly four hours away. Filled with trepidation, I took the bus and happily zoomed out of Madurai. The bus ride was windy yet somehow comforting; I think the loud Indian blasting from the bus speakers had something to do with that. As we reached altitudes of nearly a mile and a half above sea level, I felt a chill in the air. Soon, we met the destination.
I can honestly say that Kodaikanal is one of the best places I have been in India. I was immediately met with a magnificent view of India’s Western Ghats mountain range, and an inviting atmosphere. Cold, foggy, and friendly, Kodaikanal was as much of a departure from hectic Madurai as I could have hoped. Although the temperature was brisk, the people were warm. I quickly checked into the nearby youth hostel ($6.50 for a private room with some blankets).
The next morning, I took a scenic two-hour walk around the local lake, where many Indian holidaymakers were riding pedal boats. The calm I felt during that walk tremendous; it really made me appreciate the picturesque location. Also, the air was some of the freshest I had breathed during my trip. Cold weather did unfortunately give me a cold once more, though not as bad as the one I had in Nuwara Eliya. It really bothers me that certain beautiful locations make me ill; I just cannot adapt to cold weather. Heaven help me when I try to travel through Russia…
It feels great to be back in India. I hope during the next six weeks I see many nice places like Kodaikanal, an absolute standout city.
I decided to head to the city of Nuwara Eliya, located in the hill country of Sri Lanka. It is a fantastic place, surrounded by beautiful nature. Outside the city center are lots of rolling green hills, waterfalls, and tea plantations. Upon dodging the seemingly endless barrage of tuk-tuk touts, I managed to secure myself a guesthouse, at the cost of roughly $7.50 per night. Thankfully, it was located on the outskirts of town, with plenty of trees, plants, and fresh air. While most of the country has a tropical climate, the hill country is an exception. Nuwara Eliya can get rather chilly, especially in the evening.
And so it was, I caught a terrible cold overnight. Through my miserable sniffling and sneezing, I contemplated what to do that day. The delicious home-cooked banana and coconut pancakes I ate for breakfast didn’t help my cold. Neither did the large pot of tea that I drank. After visiting the pharmacy and taking some (negligibly helpful) medication, I figured it was time to learn a bit about my surroundings. So I decided to take a bus to one of the local tea factories.
The Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre was located on a large estate, though the factory itself stood on a fairly small area of land. Many tourists were crowded around guides, who gave a brief description of the various functions of the factory. Because of my annoying cold, I remember very little of what was said. However, it was very concise and educational. Surprisingly, there was no entrance fee. I’m pretty sure that they were counting on tourists spending time and money in the gift shop and restaurant. Indeed, there were crowds of people in both facilities. Without further ado, I peaced out and took a bus back to the Nuwara Eliya. Total cost of my excursion? 50 cents.
Because of restrictively high prices, I’ve been skipping most of the sites in Sri Lanka. My traveling style doesn’t really revolve around “site-seeing,” and it takes something as essential as Angkor Wat to necessitate me blowing 2-3 days worth of budget on an admission fee. To be honest, the factory experience itself wasn’t very exciting, and perhaps I should have actually spent more money to have a good time. But you know what? It helped me forget about my horrible cold for a few minutes, and gave me the chance to spend some time with nature. It’s all good.
When I returned to my guesthouse, the kindly owner brewed some medicinal leaves in boiling water, and had me inhale the steam while covered by a blanket. No, it did not cure my cold. But it ended my night on an up note.
The day made me think a bit about the notion of “experience.” I think experience goes way beyond individual moments and places; it’s more of the collective yearning, learning, and feeling that we face all the time. Nothing mind-blowing ended up happening in those 24 hours, but I think that’s the point. It was the collective blasé of the day that caused it to stick to my brain. I’ll take it.
Sri Lanka (duh) has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 57!
I've recently hit a mini-landmark in my traveling career. Now that I'm comfortably situated in Sri Lanka, I have officially been to ten countries.
There are roughly 200 countries in the world, so I know ten means very little in the long run. However, it still means a lot to me. Less than one year ago, I had never left the United States. Now, I am ten times as well-traveled as I was before!
It's very easy to pop into a country just to pick up a stamp, but I'm not interested in that. I think that it's entirely possible to visit every single country in the world, but still have learned nothing about any of them. Therefore, I've made it a priority to thoroughly explore each place I visit. It's not necessary to visit every single city within a country, but one should at least stay long enough to get a general feel for it. What is the food like? What are the mentalities like? What can you learn from this trip?
I can honestly answer those questions for each country I have been to. Well, almost every one. I did arrive recently to Sri Lanka, and still have a lot to see and learn. However, I've allocated a solid 2-3 weeks for that. I am confident that when I leave (returning to India), Sri Lanka will have left an impression on me, just as every country has thus far.
Sri Lanka is an island nation located directly to the south of India. They had a 25 year civil war which finally ended in 2009, causing a resurgence in its tourism industry. I arrived in Colombo, the country's de facto capital, and immediately headed to a city called Kandy. My first impression of the country is that it feels like a less hectic version of Southern India. The food is very similar, and some people even speak the same language. However, it is definitely a more tourist-friendly place. Despite its relatively small size, Sri Lanka feels densely packed, with a slew of places to see.
Here's to the next ten countries!
There I was, eating dinner at a restaurant in the Maldives. The past few days had been quite boring. Not only did the rainy weather preclude me from doing fun oceanic stuff (such as snorkeling), I also had no fellow tourists to talk to. Indeed, during my stay I was the only Westerner in the hotel. Tourism was down, probably because of the rainy weather. In search of something to do, and to avoid the ridiculously overpriced hotel fare, I found myself eating all of my meals at a local restaurant. I would walk in, order my meal, and eat in silence. Sometimes there were others in the establishment, but they always spoke to each other in a local language I didn’t understand. In many ways, I felt disconnected: alienated from the culture around me. The television caused that all to change.
One thing I didn’t mention was that the restaurant had a large flat screen TV in it. People would usually sit around and watch television shows and movies, none of which were in English. Ok, whatever. It provided some mild entertainment, and kept the restaurant lively. I barely paid attention to the screen, that is, until Tom and Jerry came on.
I’m sure most of you are familiar with Tom and Jerry, but I will clarify for those of you who don’t. It is an animated American cartoon from the 1940s and 50s, about a cat and mouse who are enemies. Tom (the cat) usually tries to capture Jerry (the mouse), usually ending Tom being injured or killed in increasingly cartoonish ways. The short films are very funny, and are frequently aired on cartoon television channels.
You may ask, what makes this show so different from the dozens of others that the Maldivians were watching?
There’s no dialogue.
That’s right, folks. With the exception of sound effects and music, Tom and Jerry is completely silent. When the first episode came on, I found myself laughing uproariously; this time, it was with a roomful of people. We sat there for an hour, watching the hilarious exploits of the animated cat and mouse. For once, there was no language barrier to divide us.
Right then and there, I realized something very important. In general, we all laugh at the same things, cry at the same things, and seek the same things out of life. Sure, sometimes our culture or upbringing instills us with different values and life choices. Sometimes, language and misunderstanding creates obstacles and stops us from communicating properly. However, deep down we all want to laugh. We all want to feel good. We all want to do the things we love.
The simple act of watching a cartoon in a restaurant, made me feel a kinship to my fellow man. It reminded me that language is nothing more than a barrier for humanity, a roadblock that the greatest forms of expression can knock down.
Maldives (duh) has been added to the "Nationalities I've Met" page, bringing the total to 56!
The Maldives is not commonly included in most travelers’ backpacking trips; it is not known as a budget destination. The smallest country in all of Asia, the Maldives is an archipelago of islands located in the Indian Ocean. It is known mostly for its numerous tourist resorts, most of which take up their own island. The country offers very little in the way of budget accommodation, and mostly serves as a place for expensive vacations and honeymoons. Nonetheless, I happened to be in the area (roughly a one-hour flight away), and decided to take a much needed vacation from traveling.
The idea of taking a holiday during an extended trip may seem laughable at first, but I promise you, it is much deserved. Constant travel can be extremely tiring and taxing, especially in a country such as India. Roughly 10% of my nights have been spent without a bed: either in an airplane, bus, or train. It is not always easy to find decent accommodation, and noise and grime can really be a nuisance. I’ve been ill more times in the past few weeks than I’d like to count, probably due to a constant spread of bacteria, caused by a crowded environment. Seriously, sometimes you just need to get away for a while.
It’s truly time for me to take a “real” vacation, one spent at a tourist hotel on a small atoll in the Maldives. While this excursion is definitely the most expensive of my entire trip, there are things I’ve done to lessen the damage. For example, I pre-booked accommodation online, and managed to get a wonderful hotel rate of $25-30 per night. While this is way out of my usual $3-10 price range, it is considered very cheap for the Maldives. Flights are inexpensive from here to Sri Lanka (my next destination), so it is the perfect place to stop off along the way. I’ll only be staying here only one week, so the price won’t make too big of a dent in my budget. It is an extremely small country, so I have no qualms with spending just seven days here. Most of the country’s islands are uninhabited and inaccessible, making this one of the only places in the world where the “true” way to see it, is to stay at a tourist resort. Ah, but that’s what they want you to think.
Thank Heaven I got to stay on a residential island (Hulhumale) for one night before going to my hotel, because the Maldives completely shocked me. I arrived at the international airport, and saw the bluest, clearest ocean water I have ever seen. Seriously, it’s like something out of a fairy tale. From there I took a ferry to the capital city, Male, which is one of the smallest capital cities in the world. I was immediately impressed with the calm and laid back nature of Maldivian people. Because tourism tends to be limited to expensive hotels, the country has none of the taxi driver hustling or scams that I’ve grown accustomed to. Everything just seems so…calm. I would love to live here some day. Food is delicious and fresh, the beaches are glistening white, and the water (which I already mentioned) is amongst the most beautiful in the world.
Maybe I was expecting Maldives to be all dive resorts and five-star hotels, but I was wrong. After all, there is a population of people living here. The prices, while much higher than anywhere else I’ve been recently, are not as bad as I’d assumed. In fact, if one were to live on one of the residential islands (by renting an apartment) it would be quite affordable by Western standards. It is a shame the country has no backpacker culture, because more people should come see the Maldives. There is currently not much in the way of budget hostels and guesthouses, but I can see the country eventually developing into a more “backpacker-friendly” destination.
I am proud to pounce on another stereotype: that the Maldives is just an expensive resort country. If you come here and look in the right places, it can be a rewarding place to stay, even for the casual backpacker like myself.
I must admit, I was very skeptical about going to Goa. India’s smallest state is well known for its beach tourism, and I was trepidatious that would be overpriced, overcrowded, and no fun. Well, I’m glad to say that I was wrong. Perhaps it’s because I decided to go during off-season, but this is the most relaxing, enjoyable part of my Indian experience yet.
I decided to head to the small town of Benaulim. Compared to other parts of India, there are miniscule amounts of people here. Everything is clean, quiet, and tourist friendly, albeit slightly more expensive. I’m renting out a gigantic double room (with refrigerator and kitchen sink) for $6.50 per night. There are dozens of great restaurants and shops nearby, plus a beautiful beach.
Unlike the rest of India, which was colonized by England and (partially) France, Goa was colonized by Portugal. As a result, the state feels significantly different from the others I have been to. Christianity is more prominent, and the architecture is unique for India. Goa is sort of the “Florida” of India. Located on the country’s coastline, it is lined with beautiful palm and coconut trees.
Seriously, Benaulim is just what I needed. I’d been moving around nearly every day, and figured I would find a place to rest up for a while. This town is absolutely perfect, and is one of the highlights of my trip. I’m sure Goa gets crowded and hectic during tourist season, but right now it is Heaven on Earth.
The best experiences, in my opinion, happen off the beaten path.
It was morning I arrived in Mangalore, a fine, albeit standard Indian city. I walked about for a couple of hours, eating and checking out various guesthouses (no, I didn’t eat the guesthouses). After a while, I had an idea. Why not move on to a smaller city? Usually I would stay a few nights in each place, but as of late I’d been getting sick of big cities.
I chose a city at random: Kasaragod. It was in the state of Kerala, and took an hour by train. I disembarked and…meh. Once more, it was a fine city, but not one I felt like staying in. So I had my second brilliant idea of the day. I was going to hike to a nearby town. I hit the road, with absolutely no idea where I was going. With just a backpack and nerves of steel, I trekked for the good part of an afternoon.
Midday, I found myself in a residential neighborhood. It was fascinating, as I had not yet seen the suburbs of India. The big cities have many slums and apartments, and numbered houses are something of a rarity. So here I was, the only person on a long and winding street; it was an extremely calming, peaceful experience. The sheer number of citizens in India can be enough to drive you mad. You are constantly surrounded by people, so good luck ever finding some alone time. There’s a good reason I mentioned that I’m sick of big cities; it’s because Indian crowds are stimulating in all the worst ways.
So here I was in a moderately remote area, possibly the first white person to ever be there. A few residents were tending to their lawns, and gave me incredulous stares. As I passed by, I noticed something interesting about the houses. Some of them were absolutely beautiful: huge and polished, with a couple of cars in the driveway. However, their neighbors would often be small, disheveled, dusty-looking shacks. I have a separate article planned about the class divide in India; let’s just say for now that it’s very “in your face.”
Right as I was getting ready to throw in the towel and head back, a kindly man and woman invited me to rest by their house. I took them up on the offer, and chilled outside their humble abode (it was one of the “shackier” houses). The woman brought me a cup of water, which I pretended to drink (foreigners aren’t supposed to consume tap water). Neither of them spoke English, but we managed to communicate with a few broken words. The man, whose name I don’t remember, was an electrician. He told me of a nearby Hindu temple, and offered me a ride.
After Thailand, I’d considered myself all “templed” out. So this was the first time I had been to a temple in India. It was interesting, with many beautiful paintings of Hindu gods. We stayed for about five minutes, and then he dropped me off on the side of the road. I bade farewell to my new friend, and continued my trek.
In the end, I met another cool dude who was working at a roadside restaurant. He gave me a ride to the train station, and I ended up going…back to Mangalore. That’s right; I spent the entire day trying to escape the city, only to arrive there again at night.
Moral of the story? Hit the road, bud. Guess how much fun I would have had if I’d stayed at a hotel in Mangalore? I’d be willing to bet, zero. When in doubt, move on. You never know who you will meet and what you will see.
My name is Yonah Paley. I quit my job in the United States to travel. I also write movies and do photography. As I backpack across the world, I share stories, philosophy, and travel tips.