Blog #14 - Kiwi Crazy for Camping!

After our week in Sydney, we headed toward the end of the earth – a place folks rarely visit due to the long distance and cost, but a place we’ve had our eye on for some time, to be conquered the only way it can be … by campervan, cross country … this is the real Lord of the Rings land, called New Zealand.

After our week of high-living in Sydney, we hopped on a Virgin Airline flight and we were in Christchurch before we could even blink.  Since we were scheduled to arrive very late we decided it would be wise to stay near the airport to make things easy.  We knew from the next day forward things would be challenging as we’d be living our of our campervan. 

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So after landing at around 1 a.m., we called for our shuttle bus, and we bought a Vodafone SIM for the iPhone while waiting.  Our shuttled showed up at 1:05 a.m. and we were at our hotel one minute later!  Too funny!  We could have walked!  Christchurch isn’t as big as it looks on Google Maps. 

After a restful sleep at Sudima Airport Hotel, we were off on our campervan adventure!  One problem, if you can believe it, is that we didn’t have a campervan. 

So, the first thing we did on the first day of our 18-day campervan adventure of both the South and North islands was to take a long walk around the Christchurch airport to a few campervan rental places to see what kind of deals we could get. 

You see, the summer has just ended in New Zealand, and so off-season prices were just coming into effect.  Also, since we intended to drive the van one-way up to Auckland (the opposite of what most tourists do), we were hoping for some free-market magic. 

The first place we stumbled upon was Jucy Rentals.  All of their vans were super cute, painted bright green and purple, with 1920 pin-up girls emblazoned all over. However, the place was busy.  Jucy informed us that everything was booked out.   Oops.  Now we were getting nervous.  What if our second choice for vans was also sold out, how would we get around New Zealand??

You see half the fun about travelling for this length of time is not pre-booking everything, and just winging it as you go.  We have the time and its hard to plan ahead for everything.   Plus, Steph has been tasked with the mission of being more spontaneous (at Vince’s request), so this is a character building exercise for her, too.  :)

We kept walking and got to the place we figured we’d end up.  It was called “Spaceships” (hey, the other two budget campervan companies are called Escape and Wicked – what a country…).  Well, at Spaceships there were many vans to choose from. 

Some cheap; some expensive.  Some with fridges; some with only coolers.  All in all we were impressed by their service and extra time they spent with us answering our many reasonable questions, and few ridiculous ones.  They had the patience of saints.  

Finally we decided on a very basic model, that was equipped just with a cooler, water jug, double bed and table top gas burner.  Sweet as! (…btw, this is a very well-known saying in New Zealand, and is not a typo!). 

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The cost for this “older” van (which was cleverly named The Rocket) was only $14 per day, because (i) it was off-season, and (ii) they were having a 50% off deal if you were willing to relocate it to Auckland.  SCORE!  

It worked perfectly.  We signed the appropriate paperwork and we loaded into our new home for two and a half weeks.  Yippee…we were good as gold (another Kiwi expression).

Our first stop with our new home on wheels was going to be a local “private” campsite right in Christchurch, just so we could get comfortable and run a few errands before we hit the open road. 

Before we go much further, we should explain something.  In a campervan you sleep in your car, however, you’re not allowed to camp just anywhere.  This is known as “freedom camping”, and while it’s permitted in some places (namely, in the middle of nowhere), it’s generally not permitted in places that have artificial light, asphalt,  or people with teeth. 

So generally, every night you have to find either a campground or trailer park. 

Some campsites are “5 star rated” and outfitted with showers, pools, kitchens and some frills.  These are often regarded as Holiday Parks and they will run around $30 - $40 per night.  The other option is to find a basic campsite that are usually provided in the national parks in the middle of nowhere but close enough to town.  These are called DOCs (Department of Conservation sites) and they cost from $6 to $10 per person, but their facilities are usually limited to washrooms, nothing else!

So we have come up with a cost-saving plan!  We’ve agreed we’d stay in a Holiday Park every third night or so, so that we can do laundry and get a proper shower, and the rest of time we’d try to stay in DOCs with the other hardcore backpackers we’re pretending to be.  It’s working OK so far, kinda.  Without counting our first night (not fair), the current score is Holiday Parks 3, DOC 2.  Ah well, we’re trying at least. 

Also, we’ve come up with another money saving strategy with food.  Because we are equipped with some basic kitchen tools, we buy enough groceries every two or three days for all breakfasts and dinners, but lunch we eat in a restaurant.  It may seem silly to eat in a restaurant once a day when we are fully equipped to cook, but at the end of the day, we find local food to be part of the experience, and we don’t think we’d be able to do NZ lamb or NZ mussels justice on our little joke of a stove :).

So, with laundry done and showers taken, we were ready to get on our way.  Our first stop on the road was Lake Tekapo, where we spent the day, before heading to Mt. Cook for the night. 

Lake Tekapo was exactly as described to us…fantastic!!  The water was the colour of the most beautiful turquois precious gem.  It was very strange and unlike anything we had seen before.  Apparently glaciers had something to do with it – creating a lake full of rock dust over thousands of years.  Well, the way the light hit the water – it was just crazy.

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While visiting Lake Tekapo, we trekked the local mountain to check out the views from above.  This was called Mt. John.  Great workout and spectacular views, they actually had a café at the peak for those peckish…so cute.  As well the University of Canterbury had installed a series of observatories.  We were unable to stay until the evening but we could only imagine how nice it would be to stargaze from up there.

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After spending four hours exploring the area, we headed straight to Mt. Cook to set up camp and get some rest for the next day.  We were going to tramp Hooker Trail….hahaha…that’s just funny to say!  We arrived at Mt. Cook with the sun just setting, grabbed the first DOC spot we could find, boiled some water for tea and relaxed in the back of the van, watching videos and stargazing at the southern starfield through our sunroof that is so conveniently positioned above our pillows.

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These vans are brilliant.  So much so we have decided to bring the idea back to Canada and build our own when we get home.  Mark our words…Steph & Vince’s crazy campervan will happen!!  And hopefully all of our Toronto friends don’t disown us for being so corny. 

BTW, we recognized none of the stars.  Is that the big dipp… uh, no.  Maybe that’s Orion..  uh, no.  This is the southern hemisphere!  Neither of us had ever seen any of these stars before, ever!  So Vince downloaded an iPhone app to try to learn whats going on down here.

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Ok, enough about this campervan:  we wake up in Mt. Cook, which is this super small, barely a village, nestled in the crotch of 10 to 12 mountains.  It had some of the most breathtaking views and was a great place to trek as many paths and bridges were have been constructed for campers to enjoy.  Of course as mentioned earlier, we decided to tramp the Hooker Trail.  We chose this one because we read in our guidebook that after a one and one-half hour hike you will end up at the bottom end of a huge glacier at the base of Mt. Cook (Hooker Glacier).  Neither of us had ever seen a glacier in real life with our own eyes, so we jumped on the opportunity.  Just fab! 

After two days in a row of hiking and sleeping in basic campsites, we were now ready to splurge a bit and head down to the adventure capital of NZ, Queenstown, the birth home of Bungy Jumping (invented by AJ Hackett) and see what all the hype was about. 

Well, OK, so imagine Disney World for adults on crack.  This is Queenstown.

It is a plethora of crazy extreme sport activities and tourist attractions, all of which are extremely pricey – you have to choose wisely and figure out what are the “must do’s”, and what can you skip.  We made a list of our must-do activities, and even still it blew open our budget.  So, since Queenstown, we have now declared New Zealand a “budget free zone”!

After a six hour drive we arrived at our holiday park just north of Queenstown (which we did pre-book as we really wanted to stay right there on the Shotover River -- Vince had in his head we were going to Jet Boat down it). Vince wanted to Jet Boat, downhill mountain bike, kayak and go wine tasting.  Steph wanted to ride in a helicopter, bungy jump and sky dive..hahaha…just kidding. 

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We both agreed to try Jet Boating, we booked this in on our first morning and then decided to go twice as we loved it so much.  Check it out for yourself…so much fun: http://youtu.be/tCRetXCdNBA

That very afternoon we went downhill mountain biking.  This was definitely super unsafe and crazy but heck, you might only live once.  Also, it was highly recommended from our friends in Sydney as a must-do. 

So, imagine going up a mountain in a gondola with your bike attached to the outside and then having to ride down the whole thing with only a helmet and some knee-pads.  It was so hard, and so scary.  We both started slowly, and with minimal falls, we got down four runs in the few hours we had.  We were on the Green runs the whole time, and Vince tried a some Blue sections. 

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Steph fell four times.  Reason?  Left turns.  After a first fall on her left side, something about those left turns just spooked her. 

Vince chipped a tooth.  Reason?  Chocolate doughnut at the snack shop.  Seriously.

Super cool fun though.  Also, silly us managed to fit in a single luge run at the top of the hill.  Yes, we were wearing WAY more protection than necessary! 

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What a day!  So jam packed with action and fun but to end it, Steph needed to calm her nerves and so we did our own self-guided wine tasting at the local wine shop.  This was a great way to try the wine from the Otago (local) NZ region, mainly whites of course.  We were thinking of our white wine loving friends from Toronto the whole time. 

Queenstown was a blast we highly recommend it to anyone who likes extreme sports and has recently won a lot of money playing the lottery.  Super expensive!

After Queenstown, we headed toward Milford Sound, a destination Vince was gunning for, in particular, to go sea kayaking.  It’s a cool way to experience the beauties of Milford away from the usual tour boats, and its also tons of exercise. 

One of the great things about Milford Sound is that it’s so remote.  But this is also a problem.  The closest DOC campsite is an hour away from the water.  This means that in order to get into a kayak at 7 a.m. (we previously thought Vince could only get up this early for golf), we’d have to stay much closer to the water.  So we booked a campervan spot at Milford Sound Lodge (a private holiday park) just up the road from where we needed to be, and we were poised and ready to go.  The lodge also turned out to be terrific. 

The next morning we were off with our tour provider, Rosco’s Milford Kayaks.  Steph in the front, Vince in the back, in a sea kayak!

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All went fine (after Vince learned to steer ;), and throughout the day we conversed with a few seals, and we even paddled under Stirling Falls! 

Milford Sound is big -- not the biggest, but it is big.  At one point we saw a plane passing overhead, and just as it looked like it was about to go behind a mountain it actually passed in front!  The plane, a four seater (max.), which looked to us no bigger than a fly, was actually flying inside Milford Sound.  Totally crazy, and it instantly put the huge dimensions (mountain peaks approx.. 1500 meters high, fiord approx. 1000m width) into perspective.

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It took five hours, but we managed to paddle the whole length of Milford Sound all the way to the Tasman Sea.  This was the kinda-hardcore “Morning Glory” trip we were hoping for.  Lucky for us, it also included a water taxi back to the dock (which was great, because after five hours on the water, we all needed to answer another type of natures call :).

What a nice day and a great way to end this weekly blog.  Until next time, happy travels and happy adventures.  You must really think about coming to New Zealand….it’s surreal.  We highly recommend a visit as well as doing it by campervan.  So smooth! (Kiwi expression for cool).

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Blog #13 - Spent Many an Arvo Tramping Around Sydney!

We’re back from vacation!  Thailand that is… 

Last we wrote to you, we were in Thailand for a two-week beach vacation, recharging our batteries, relaxing and detoxing from our month-long adventure in India. 

The break in Thailand was sublime and exactly what we needed.  Almost every day on Samui we did yoga and massage, and we worked really hard at detoxing and getting healthy at the Spa Resort.  No photos, no blogging, no moving, just four wooden walls of a bungalow on beautiful Lamai beach on Koh Samui.  One night we saw a cockaroach the size of a mouse in our bathroom, but hey, at least he left the seat down!  Ok maybe we took a few photos, like the one below on our scooter tour on the last day :)

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We got to Samui by way of Surat Thani, which is a not-so-small town on the mainland, and we did this because (i) we’ve got the time, and (ii) flying through Surat Thani is about half the cost of flying direct to Samui. 

We saved a lot of money this way on the way out, too.  We went from Surat Thani to KL for only $35 bucks!  Yes, this now means we’ve been to Thailand twice, and Malaysia twice… but we did it because the Air Asia flight from KL to Sydney was only $200!

Well, our Air Asia flight to Sydney was on the red-eye.  We flew overnight, in very tightly packed economy seats, and arrived somewhat cheery and bushy tailed the next morning (Vince couldn’t keep his eyes open).

Upon arrival our luggage was sniffed out by very keen “bio security” Beagles.  I wonder how much they pay them?  Following the twenty minute inspection, we were graciously greeted by our host Peter at the arrival gate and were happily whisked away to one of the many gorgeous suburbs of Sydney called Cherrybrook to recoup, settle in, and make our plan of attack.  We only had one week in Sydney to try to experience everything Australian.

Did we mention this was our first time in the Southern Hemisphere? 

Well, aside from Vince’s ‘natural’ sense of direction messed up because “someone put the sun in the north”, it was all pretty much the same.  Except for the drains spiraling the other way, of course… ;)

Now we should explain a few words we picked up while visiting Australia -- the first is “cracker”, which means great, or fantastic, or awesome, so we think.  Our second favourite word is “arvo”, which means, simply, afternoon.  People text it more than they say it.  Either way - love it!  Then our next favourite word is “tramping”, which is just a quirky way of saying hiking.  (Get your minds out of the gutter!) 

But we did plenty of tramping around Sydney, as you can read below.  ;)

Shortly after landing, we had to get straight to a chore: applying for our China visas.  In order to minimize the drama, this time we went with an agent.  These magical people have an office just across the street from the consulate office, and turned our visa applications around on time.  It cost dearly, but when you have a small window of time to play with - basically, you gotta pay up.

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Ok so back to Sydney: on our first night we took a quick jaunt down to the famous Sydney Opera House to get a looky and film a birthday message to Steph’s second Dad, Bob Aldred, who turned 65 that day.  We hate missing special occasions.  For this one we spruced it up with the help of some friendly locals.  You can check it out for yourself:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkocICYEvj4 

This is when we started to fall head over heels for this city.  We both began to realize that that this was a special place.  The people were friendly and happy, and actually talked to other people!  It was very different from anywhere we had been so far (well, except perhaps Toronto twenty years ago ;).

The next day we dove straight deep into the city culture: we went straight to an AFL game (Aussie Rules Football).  It was very much on a whim.  Vince managed to buy tickets on his iPhone and scan both of us through the gate the next day.  There were even “special event” shuttle buses to and from the central train station – so smooth: this city just works!

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As to Aussie Rules, for those who don’t know, it is a highly athletic game that is played only in Aussieland, really.  It’s a mix of soccer and rugby.  The field is oval (same as a cricket field) and uses a smallish version of a rugby ball which players must either kick or punch (the ball, not each other…) in order to pass it, or try for a goal, which, much like a field goal in American football, is a shot through the uprights at the opposite end of the field.  We were also told that you can’t go to an AFL game without having some food at the stadium.  In addition to hot dogs, there was some middle eastern pizza-like foldover called Gozileme, and the obligatory “meat pie”, which was, in short, awesome.

Sydney is divided into several amazing neighborhoods, much like Toronto and New York – each has it’s own sometimes funny name, and certainly distinct personality.

We’ve never explored a city with such gusto as we did Sydney.  We tramped, tour-bussed, ferried, trained, or bussed all over the place. 

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We loved the Rocks, near the main harbor.  It was super-trendy and yuppy-like with street markets and chic restaurants.  Comparable to Toronto's Distillery District.

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We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Surrey Hills where we got to take in some comedy and also see our friend Kirsty Mac perform.  She was so funny, we laughed so hard for her entire set.  A-M-A-Z-I-N-G! 

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We even made our way to the Sydney fish market on our tour bus day.  When the bus announced “fish market” Vince said, hey you want fish?  And just like that, there was lunch.  Oh did we mention the food is out of this world in Sydney?  In particular the seafood.  We’ve never eaten so healthy and clean when out at restaurants (nor could we in many other cities).

So we have mentioned tramping already, but we should be specific in case you are interested in visiting. 

As per Peter and Gaye’s recommendations, we did the “Spit to Manly” walk (10km), which took a whole day and ended with a ferry ride back to the city, landing right next to the opera house. 

A few days later we did the “Bondi Beach to Bronte” walk (6km), which was like being teleported to the set of Baywatch.   

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On our last day, we really ventured afield and went to the Blue Mountains to see the “Three Sisters” and do the Prince Henry Walk (10+km).  The nature, scenery and surroundings were just to die for.  Exercise never looked so good and our feet have never been so sore.  Remember to get a good pair of hiking boots before you go down under.  Best investment we have made so far.

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The day before our “Bondi to Bronte” walk, we were lucky enough to have been invited to stay in Bondi overnight by our friend Kara,  just 14 kilometers from the city centre.  She was so gracious showing us around, and with fine taste introduced us to a very cool and high quality Italian restaurant on the north end of the beach.  Thanks again Kara!

Last but definitely not least, Steph even snuck in a brief visit to the International Chartered Accountants of Australia (ICAA) and saw Jayne, her work buddy, for a quick tour and coffee.  Thanks Jayne!  Its so nice to see friends abroad and catch up. 

We wish we had more time to see everyone we know in Sydney, but with time restraints there were not enough hours in our days.  Sorry if we missed you :( hopefully we will meet again real soon somewhere else in the world. 

What a magical week and what a memorable visit.  We loved being hosted by Peter and Gaye.  They were so generous and so much fun, we were quite sad to leave.  We can’t wait to visit again soon.  Thanks Peter and Gaye!  I’m sure we’ll have the chance to host you in Toronto in the very near future.

Well enough gushing for one week.  We’re now in New Zealand as we write this.  We’re here for the next three weeks, touring in our campervan, but we have already realized this isn’t nearly enough time for this place.

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We hope we have convinced you to choose Australia for your next vacation.  If so, we kindly suggest you begin playing your local lotteries now.  Even if you have money to burn, Sydney is expensive.  A pack of chewing gum costs $3.  Bottled water, also $3 (ahem, this is 10 times more expensive than Thailand).  Bus, train and ferry rides ranged from about $4 to $10 depending on the journey. 

As to food and drink: a bottle of beer in a bar is about $8, a soup can be $12, and a proper main at a not-fancy restaurant is going to be at least $20-$30.  Notably, the VAT (i.e. sales tax) is built-in to the above numbers, and tipping isn’t really a thing here – so if you slice 30% off these numbers, you’ll end up closer to Toronto / New York prices anyway…

Either way, and even though we only scratched the surface, we feel Sydney is certainly worth the time and money.  It is a hidden gem, and a magical place.

Oh, and before we forget and speaking of magical…  Vince’s sister had a baby girl while we were in Sydney, and we are both now Uncle Vince and Auntie Stephie for the first time!  Congrats to Daniella and Mark!  We will never forget this week and can’t wait to meet her in September upon our return.  Real magic!

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Blog #12 - Can we have a Chaat? I'm feeling a bit Barfi!

Well we made it!  After 22 days on our own in India with no major issues or permanent trauma we made it back to Delhi and met up with our good friends Ritu, Jay and their two boys Soheil and Akul.

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In total contrast to how we’d been traveling, from this point forward we were going to taken care of in 4-star style inside the wonderful framework of a set vacation.  We met them in Delhi just a day after we left Varanasi, and we still had images of chalked naked men burning in our brains.  It was wonderful to see their familiar faces in the hotel lobby in Delhi.  From that point forward we’d have friends with us who speak the language who could take on locals who cut in line, or insist on taking photos with ‘the blonde’… thanks Ritu for being Steph’s bodyguard!

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Starting from Delhi all six of us were set to go on a five-day “golden triangle tour” of Agra and Jaipur where we’d be chauffeured around in a fantastic white minibus with beautiful fake hardwood floors.  It was heaven.  This would be followed by several nights in Jay’s and Ritu’s ancestral town in Punjab.

Important for us, this would be the first time we took a road trip with children (Ages 8 & 10): a very good test of parenthood for us, no?  Now, do you think we passed?  We think we did, but truth be told we were more like an aunt and uncle on the trip so it was an easy test to pass.  Also, Soheil and Akul are both very well behaved boys, and quite the interesting conversationalists.  Overall it was a ball of joy.  The kids were so much fun and many immature laughs were had.  Mainly by Steph, of course: she will never grow up!

On the first day we toured Old Delhi and ate like people were chasing us.  Food was everywhere and certainly the theme of the next eight days.  We ate with reckless abandon as we were now traveling with a former local (Jay, also a chef).  Jay knew exactly what to order, and from where.  And so we tried everything. 

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Just counting the desserts alone we had Jalebi (like a syrupy funnel cake – see photo), Gulab Jamun (think of a heavy TimBit soaking in syrup), Ras Malai (so very hard to explain well: texture is that of a thin kitchen sponge and it has a flavor of sweet milk), and lastly Barfi (not what you think) and Chaat (Golgappe, technically…and super-nasty (I mean, it’s an acquired taste…)).  It was all very yummy, as well as very fattening.  The only ‘gastro’ issue we had the whole time was from some tainted ice cubes we believe a certain restaurant served us.  It knocked out half of us but mostly Vince who became very close friends with every loo around the golden triangle.

On day two we headed to Agra to see the magical Taj Mahal.  Chalk up another landmark destination for us on this crazy world tour!  It was wonderful, so beautiful and big, and pristine, and most definitely the highlight of our trip to India.  We just loved it, as did the Parhars.

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Day three we ventured to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, and explored its labyrinth palaces, and took both an elephant ride, and a camel ride.  At dinner we watched Rajasthani traditional dancing while we ate.  What a treat!  We even had some time to get our shop on, well only Steph and Ritu did, and as a result everyone got a new set of genie pants.

After two nights in Jaipur and a total of five on the road it was time to wrap up the golden triangle and head back to Delhi for our train to Punjab.  We were booked on the famous ‘superfast’ Shatabadi Express, that would have us arriving in Punjab around 11 p.m.  Neither of us have ever been served this much food on any kind of vehicle before.   And between the main course and dessert, someone went up and down the aisle with bananas.  It was a long day of travel, and was tough on the boys, but after twelve hours of recuperative sleep at Jay’s parents house in their village outside of Jalandhar, we woke up with water buffalos, goats and stray dogs all around.  We think we may have been the first westerners ever to stay in this village.

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It was a very restful three days, and a great experience to be folded into small village life, and see, up close, how it operates and lives.  Many Canadians of Indian descent are from Punjab and our stay with Ritu and Jay allowed us a privileged look into their history and motherland.  We spent the three days visiting relatives, learning their homemade recipes (yum!), eating our faces off (of course), setting off fireworks (local pastime), and touring (principally we went to see the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar). Our driver, Sona was amazing and a ton of fun with his crazy Bungra tunes, and fast driving.   

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It was a wonderful time, and we felt privileged to be welcomed by Jay's folks and Ritu's relatives over the duration of our stay.  These are memories we will cherish for years.

We returned to Delhi by overnight train from Jalandhar, and boarded a flight later that day back to Thailand.  Our plan is to sit on a beach and ‘detox’ from India until April 5, before we head toward Australia and New Zealand.  We are going to take a break from everything for the next two weeks.  To keep you amused in the meantime, we have put together a list we like to call "Vince & Steph's India Reflections".

Now we hope we don’t sound too “complainy” about India.  Just a week after leaving our memories have already begun to soften and we’re just laughing at all of the below.

India can be simultaneously wonderful and horrible, and there is simply no place like it.   Listen!  If you can travel to India, you can travel anywhere.

#1 – Staring – Steph is a total circus attraction in India.  If people aren’t asking for a photo, they are staring at her.  The Indian stare, delivered from either a man or woman, is a true examination.  They are curious and want to know more, without asking.  And it doesn’t matter if you stare back.  For fun, one day we put a camera on Steph’s shoulder during a minute rickshaw in traffic and we captured the following photos.  See how many eyeballs you can count!  ;)

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#2 – Language - the good news is almost all Indians speak English.  The bad news is Indians don’t really speak English the way you do.  There is an entire book on this phenomenon titled “Speaking of India”, which goes into detail.  For example, a simple “yes” from an Indian doesn’t really mean what you think it does – many Indians say yes when most other English speakers would say “sure”, “uh-huh”, or “OK”.  It just means they heard you – it doesn’t really mean “yes”!  On more than one occasion Vince threw up his hands and declared that this country would be easier to travel if nobody spoke English – that way it would be impossible to be misled!

#3 – Signs – a “hotel” is often just a restaurant.  Roadside restaurants looking to increase their profile just call themselves hotels.  There are no rooms and you wouldn’t want to stay in them even if there was.

#4 – Amenities – will often disappoint.  Swimming pools won’t be chlorinated (i.e. will feel like slimy lakewater); gyms will be closed; TVs will broadcast the static channel; and WiFi, if offered, will be in the lobby only and may or may not actually even work.  You learn not to take anything for granted.

#5 – Spitting – all men and some women seem to think that the ground is their own personal hanky for letting go of a multitutude of different bodily fluids, anywhere, anytime and no matter who is around.  They ceremoniously hork and make noises to inform you of this action before they do it (at least there is a warning) and then they lauch as far as they can.  We wonder why it took us so long to discern that the red marks all over the road pavement are the offings of Paan, which is basically Indian chewing tobacco, but flavoured (sometimes like roses…).  Yummy!

 #6 – Public Urination – related to #5, above.  When you gotta go, you gotta go right?  Well in India, for men at least, anywhere you won’t be hit by a car can serve as a urinal.  On a related note, most roadside restaurants don’t have bathrooms.

 #7 – Cutting line – we’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating.  It does not matter how long you have been waiting, of if you’re actually talking to the person on the other side of the counter, desk, or other paperwork-barrier.  Persons arriving after you will almost always jump in and take over with the clerk without regard to your presence.  And if you blink, they will cut and they will get in front of you.  Steph tried (or maybe she is at the end of her rope) to teach folks some manners about how to queue.  It didn't work.  But it was fun to watch them squirm when confronted/corrected. 

Hey, did you hear the one about the Indian guy who took the train to his anger management class?  He never made it.  :)

Blog #11 - India Can Be Varanasty, But We Still Loved It!

We are definitely getting into the groove and adapting to how things work here.  Every town has its own mix personality and attractions, so it’s hard to get bored or tired of this fascinating country. 

Last we left you we were rolling out of Mundalai Tiger Reserve by bus and were on our way first to Mysore (nice), then Bangalore (quite fine), to be followed by Varanasi (totally crazy).

Mysore was very nice, and while we were there we cranked up our inner tourists and got to most of the main attractions inside three days.  Although the people in Mysore (mainly the rickshaw drivers) weren’t as friendly as we had hoped, it didn’t affect us too much as we spent most of our time in our own little world, either near our hotel or going to and from the attractions. 

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Our favourite attraction in Mysore was definitely the zoo.  It is over 100 years old, and afterward we discovered that it is the best in India.  Near the zoo was a city nature park where we burned a few more hours, and hung out with peacocks up close, at full ‘peak’! 

Overall it turned out of be a “recharge that batteries” kind of stay.  Which was fine by us as we had traveled a lot lately and Varanasi was quickly approaching.

However, on one occasion we did learn why this city could genuinely be called “my sore”.   We both wore flip-flops on the day we visited the Mysore “Ambas Vilas” Palace.  Whether due to religious reasons, or sometimes just in order to minimize wear and tear, you are often required to remove your shoes before entering a building.  Not a problem so far.

After we were done touring the cool tiled palace, we were spat outside at the back – not back to the main entrance.  We were in the actual back.  Aside from a museum, a temple, and a few souvenir shops, the only other thing to do was walk back around the palace to the main entrance where your shoes were.  Re-entry to the palace was not permitted.  Please remember we were barefoot.  As was everyone else.  Oh, and it was noon without a cloud in the sky. 

Oh India.  We were a little in disbelief but they don’t call this “Incredible India” for nothing.  We start on carpet, but of course the carpet comes to an end at a point, and then we are on dark interlocking stones.  It was warm, at first.  Then hot.  Then really really freaking hot – such that our reflexes took over both of us and steered us screaming straight into the closest shade.

Perhaps our western toddies were just not used to it.  It was like a scene from a 'Just for Laughs', and the joke was on us, running from shade to shade, with people pointing and laughing.  Health and safety is not a huge concern in India but when our giggles turned into cries of pain the joke was over and we really began to feel this was some strange kind westerner abuse.

We made our last dash across paving stones (bad) and carpet (not as bad) back and arrived at the shoe storage booth, the attendant said to us with a smile, “small tip, small tip?”, to which Vince responded, “Here’s a tip - run some longer carpets!” 

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The soles of our feet were sore for a few days following :(.  So that’s our sore spot about Mysore.  Oh well off to Bangalore, by train!

This was the first train ride Vince paid for entirely online.  We logged in, picked the train, train time, and seating class and printed out our ticket and just showed up with our passports.  It was a small leap of faith, and it worked!

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As for Bangalore, it was far better than other travelers had us believe.  Bangalore is also called the Garden City, as the city is lined with beautiful trees and green space all over.  It’s also called the silicon valley of India, as it is loaded with high-tech firms.

We’re still kicking ourselves for not spending more time there.  But since we already had a flight booked out of town the next morning all we could do was spend half a day.  Both of us are capable of traveling fast, so we ramped up the intensity to make the most of our time, and we left with an overall good impression of the city. 

The first stop on our whistle-stop day was the science museum, which was very retro, but also pretty cool, and which brought back many childhood memories for both of us.  Their interactive science experiment booths needed a lot of maintenance, but their chain-reaction “Rube Goldberg Machine” was Steph’s most favourite thing in the world. 

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After a short stop at the science museum, we went straight to one of Bangalore’s many malls and shot down an item Vince didn’t even know was in the cross hairs of his bucket list.  Vince discovered that there is a flight simulator in the Forum Mall in central Bangalore.  For about $25 (a quarter of the price it would cost back home), Vince got to “fly” a Boeing 737-800 from, and back to, the Dubai airport, with the (necessary) help of a qualified, uniformed, co-pilot! 

We don’t know if Vince has what it takes to actually be a pilot, but he did land the plane himself (with the co-pilot’s help on throttle), and only three flight alarms went off during flight (each of which the co-pilot dealt with).  Haha, what fun!!!

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Alarms or not - Vince was so in the zone that after the simulation was over he actually was afraid to fly the next day (and it didn’t help that our flight to Varanasi was on a Boeing 737)!  But by the next morning his acute fear of flying had subsided, and it was time to run to the airport to get to Varanasi. 

We had no idea what was in store but we were as ready as we’d ever be.

After a hopscotch flight that landed in Calcutta, then Lucknow (all on the same plane), we landed in Varanasi.  We had arranged for a driver, but as you can guess by now, he was nowhere to be found.  India airport drivers 2, Vince ‘n’ Steph 0. 

We won’t go into too many details as to how we got to our hotel, but let’s just say it wasn’t pretty: it involved many cellphone calls, a ‘guy’ who showed up and showed us the way to the pre-paid taxi booth, a dodgy ‘receipt’ made out fully by hand for the same price our ‘guy’ quoted, and then four different drivers in succession, whose ages ranged from 14 to 50 - the last one of which didn’t know where we were going.  That led to some serious talking from the back seat…

But we got there, and the place was great.  The Marilyn Guest House is just a two-minute walk from the Ganges River.  It is a clean, friendly, family run business, with a very hard working chef!  We were not impressed with how we got there, but after a quick nap, we were happy that we’d be staying there, safe in one place for the next four days in this holy Hindu land and all its crazy energy.

If India had a “Texas”, it would be Varanasi.  This is where much of what you’ve heard about India is not only true, but amplified.  Yes, cows roam the streets in India, but in Varanasi there are always a few within view, and not only do they block traffic but they block pedestrian alleyways, too.   

We took two boat rides along the banks the Ganges – the centerpiece of any visit to Varanasi – one at sunset and one at sunrise.  Both were entirely different experiences.  At sunset we got an orientation of all the different “ghats” (steps) that lead into the river, and watched the Shiva ceremony from the boat after sunset. 

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The next day we however saw the ghats in full action.  At sunrise thousands of Hindu faithful partake in their ritual washing in the river, and whether we wanted to or not, we saw several “sadhu” men getting dusted in white powder, from head to toe.  We don’t really know why we took this photo, but as you can see we’re not the only ones shooting ;)

This is definitely a place everyone needs to see once.  Preferably on a day you’re feeling particularly ‘connected’ to the universe and not in a 5-star mood.

We’re wrapping this up just as we leave Varanasi.  We’re on our way back to Delhi by air where we will (hopefully, fingers crossed) be picked up by a car and meet our friends Ritu and Jay and their children for a week-long set tour of Agra and Jaipur, and then some time in their home-state of Punjab.  We’re looking forward to it as it’s about time we put this India trip on auto-pilot! 

So good-bye for now until next week with more Luciani fun!

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Blog #10 - Everyone Should Gobi to India Raita way. That's a Naan Negotiable!

Last we left you we had been destroyed by Delhi, were melting in Kochi, and overall had been a little battered and bruised by our first week of India.  

Well, we really turned a corner this week and are happy to report that India has been wonderful and fascinating, however it's definitely the most challenging place we have ever traveled.  When you can get through a whole day without going through overwhelming feelings of dread and/or frustration, it is very empowering!  

Week two has been such a good week for us.  The only thing still making things hard is the lack of internet and ability to keep in touch with our family and friends.  We're not home sick, but it would definitely make things easier to be able to message people whenever we wanted.  Ok enough with the griping...on with the adventures!

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So we departed Kochi going south on the Kerala state bus.  This was the first bus trip in India for us and we were a bit nervous, as things here are not so obvious, nor is there as much English as we thought there would be.  We had our fingers crossed during our bus ride that our bus was actually heading to Alappuzha.  Once there our plan was to sail the backwaters of Kerala.

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Ok - so we've explained in a previous post that we like to take situations and attack them in a way where we 'hack' them (i.e. win!).  This means we are always looking how to have a five star experience by paying one star prices.  All while preserving maximum flexibility, of course.  

Well the backwaters were definitely a win for us.  Most tourists pay big bucks to cruise the backwaters in their very own private houseboat.  Super duper cute, we should mention, and it certainly looked comfortable.  But Vince found a way to cruise the backwaters for 9 rupees per person.  We arrived in time to board a government run jetty (or ferry, as North Americans would call it), and we rode the backwaters with the locals (and a few tourists) for two and a half hours toward Kottayam, taking in the sights from the front of the boat.  It was serene, quiet and beautiful, all for about 40 cents CAD.  Wow...what a bargain!

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We thought our boat would go all the way to Kottayam, but about 10 km outside of the town the boat had to dock as the channel was overgrown with crazy-dense vegetation, and dozens of ducks, totally blocking the route.  Quack.  Normally this would freak us out, but since we've been in India we've learned to grip the wheel a little less tightly, so we just let go and let India take us where it wanted to.  We jumped off the boat, and, standing on mound of dirt between two ricefields we negotiated a reasonable fare with a rickshaw to take us into Kottayam town.

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Our plan for Kottayam was simple.  Arrive late, take it easy for the night, and  prepare for our next adventure the next day: the Indian Railway System!  Since we had just finished a long day of traveling, and knowing we were going to spend the next day on the train, we thought we'd go upscale a little and book a hotel with a restaurant and a rooftop pool to enjoy the city from above and relax and recharge.  Well, India wins again.  The hotel was not up to North American standards.  The pool wasn't chlorinated (slimy) and the shower was cold.  And to top it off the hotel was having a 'sale' where if you checked-in after 6 pm (we did) and checked out before 10 am (we would), the price would be less than half of the regular rate.  However, not for us.  We booked online :(.  Honourable mention goes out to the food at the restaurant...it was fantastic.   

We woke up refreshed and ready to ride the train.  Our plan was to go north to Coimbatore.  

To get to Coimbatore, we took a 5 hour regular train ride, where we met the cutest Indian couple who informed us theirs was a "love marriage", and they humored us as Steph entertained them with Britney, Gaga and Katy (they only knew Justin Bieber!).  

It was great fun but there was not a lot of actual conversation as English was limited.  We did drink a lot of nice tea, however...

By now you're probably asking yourself where are these places and what's so important that we have to jump on buses, boats, rickshaws and trains all in a 24 hour time frame. What's the rush?

Well Vince caught wind of this steam-driven 'toy train', called the Blue Mountain Express, that runs on old vintage narrow tracks up to a hill station called "Ooty".  

The train is one of three similar steam locomotives that still run in India, and all are famous.  To climb the steep tracks, this one uses a rack and pinion gear system to engage the track, and with that it pulses its way uphill through some of the most beautiful country you have ever seen.  

So we made getting on this train the prime focus of the rest of our time in south India.  We were ready to hack this legend and make Luciani history no matter what!

But alas, this goal would have to be achieved in stages.  

You see, the Blue Mountain Express train is tricky one to catch as it starts in a place called Mettapulam (50 km north of where we we'd be staying, in Coimbatore), only runs once per day, at 7 a.m., and all reservable seats are sold out months in advance.  Great...

However, upon arriving in Coimbatore we were told that 'general' tickets go on sale every morning when the ticket booth opens, so if we lined up before it opened, and smiled nicely at the station master, he might just grant you a golden ticket.  It was a shot in the dark, literally, because we woke up at 4 a.m. to take a taxi up to the train station!

It worked!  At around 5:40 am the mustachioed station master gave us (and a few other blinky tourists) the nod, and we were able to buy general tickets for 10 rupees each.  We were then packed into the train like cattle.  In stark contrast, the taxi ride was 1000 rupees, but who cares, we were in!

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We could not believe how it all came together.   We were on our way to Ooty on the famous Blue Mountain Express.  This train line was even featured in a BBC special, one very excited Brit told us on the way up.  It was truly magical and worth every effort.  The cameras were alive the whole ride, and other than Vince taking a quick twenty minute involuntary nap (4 a.m. remember), for several hours (at an average of 10 km/h), our faces were glued to the windows admiring the 'fairytale-like' surroundings, above and below.  It was spectacular.

We rolled into Ooty and scheduled ourselves for four days in the area to take it easy, enjoy the temperate climate, and hike around to get some much needed exercise. And it was such a relief from Kerala's blanket heat.

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This is when the corner got turned and our frustration for this country flipped to awe.  We booted around Ooty, walked in the streets freely, and on one day we summited one of the major hills.  Ooty is a major tourist attraction for the area, and we can see why.

We stayed in town for a few nights, and for our last night we splurged and stayed at this crazy terraced hillside resort that had incredible views (and a very committed Ayurvedic masseuse).  Everything in Ooty was amazing and we would highly recommend a visit to this hard to reach place.

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For our plan moving on, Vince had read that you could stay overnight in a lodge in the middle of the nearby Madumalai Wildlife Sanctuary (only 2 hours by bus from Ooty, and almost exactly halfway to Mysore, our next destination).  

It is something westerners rarely do but really should.  To book it we just walked into the Tamil Nadu's forest ranger's office in Ooty, got terrific service and advice, and paid our 750 rupees ($14 CAD) for one of the four lodges near the park main gate, right on the banks of the main river going through Madumalai.

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Well, what we thought would be just an interesting stopover to break-up the ride to Mysore left us totally surprised.  

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The amount and diversity of wildlife we saw in just a few hours of arriving was unbelievable.  We felt like we were living in a zoo.  Our welcoming committee consisted of monkeys (everywhere), several deer drinking and an elephant bathing in the river across the road from us, and the odd wild boar roaming around (generally in strange places - including between us and the dining hall..!).  We even took a safari deeper into the park .  Our vehicle was approached by a large family of elephants, and Vince 'spotted' a leopard (in fact, Vince was the first on the bus to see it but he yelled 'cheetah, cheetah, cheetah!' - ah well, it still worked -- the bus stopped ;).

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After the one night (which could have easily been two), we woke up in the forest, walked back to the main road, grabbed a chai and water at the 'canteen', and we caught the next bus to Mysore.  

After three days in Mysore, and one afternoon in Bangalore, we will be flying to Varanasi.  We're looking forward to it all and curious to see if all the stories of Varanasi are true...we'll let you know!

Blog #9 - Frustration and Worry vs. A Good Spicy Curry

We arrived in India from Singapore, with our eyes wide open and a mix of excitement and nervousness pulsing through our veins.  The first stop on our month-long crazy Indian adventure would be Delhi. 

Well, the drama started even before we took off, in the line to board our plane.  Just as a small gap opened up between us, with Steph ahead, it was immediately filled by a cunning and curious Indian man of roughly Vince’s size and build.  He invaded both of our personal spaces.  So much so that Steph just thought it was Vince.  In fact, he was so quick for a second Vince even thought it was Vince.  We soon realized (and Vince remembered from his last time in India) that budding (or “cutting line”) is a national sport here, and that the halo of personal space is much smaller.

Upon boarding the plane things didn’t get much better.  We discovered our window seat was being occupied.  We tried to explain that it was our seat, but the woman seemed not to speak English.  So we just let it go and switch seats to accommodate her.  However, by the end of the flight she somehow knew enough English to discuss the customs arrival card with us.   

All of the above in such a short period of time caused us to flip between taking long controlled breaths, and giggling like kids.  It also led us to the adoption of our first code phrase “in control…”, which we have continued to used, in particular, when dealing with something super-frustrating that calls for saint/guru-like patience, which in India, is all the time.  We got it from the Muppets movie we watched on the flight over.  You only need to watch the first twenty seconds to get the idea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rQdiJoGoTxU

We arrived in Delhi late at night, which is never a good idea with arriving anywhere new (no matter how cheap the flight ;).  However, we booked with a well-rated mid-range hotel, and arranged with them a pick-up from the airport.  We did this partly because you can’t always rely on taxi drivers to exactly follow your instructions in some countries (India included).  Oftentimes, they will take you for a tour of various other hotels, and clothing and/or souvenir shops, in hopes that they can make a commission.  So having the airport pickup gave us one less thing to worry about.  

As we came out of the terminal, we saw lots of drivers holding signs with names, but no “LUCIANI”.  Since our flight was early, we waited almost an hour with many hungry drivers cajoling us, staring us westerners down, when finally our guy arrived holding a sign with our names.  Awesome!  Then he tried to get us to pay for his parking.  Not awesome! 

Did we mention we had booked in advance a mid-range hotel?  So, here we go…

We drove in the dark for about 45 minutes through the highways and roads of Delhi, taking in the sights and smells on route to the neighborhood of Karol Bagh.  When we arrived, we were ushered down a dark alley to a small door that looked like it was connected to a dungeon.  This was not good.  It had the same name as the hotel we booked, but we recognized none of it as the pictures online did not match reality.  We were not comfortable as we followed our driver up the narrow stairs to the reservation desk.  In the ‘lobby’, three stories up, we were greeted by a pair of guys who were polite but otherwise not helpful.  They tell us to wait.  We ask a few questions but we can’t discern any information in the replies we get. 

Then comes in an older man, the innkeeper.

He informs us there is no room for us (even though he received our booking, fully paid in advance though a third party website).  A part of us was relieved at first, as we are definitely not standing in the hotel we want to sleep in, however, panic soon set in as it was closing in on midnight and we did not have anywhere to stay.  But, hold on, the innkeeper says – lucky for us there is another hotel just down the street for no extra cost and nothing for us to do, just walk over there and all will be fine.  

Now, reading up on “Delhi scams” on the plane ride to Delhi was probably not a good idea as now our backs were fully up and we were two seconds from calling a cab and the police and having whoever showed up first take us to the nearest five-star hotel.

Instead we took turns looking at each other, then him, then our driver (who just wanted to get paid), for at least 15 minutes, as we tried to assess the situation.  After enough of that awkwardness, we felt we had made ourselves heard, and we agreed to at least go look at the other place.  We were bracing ourselves for the worst.  We let him take us to the other hotel (despite our gut instincts, as the bait-n-switch is a common scam), based partly on advice a wise friend once told us: in India just wake up every morning and accept that you’re going to be scammed, otherwise you’ll go bonkers (thanks again for the advice Phil)!

Well, we were led to an amazing hotel!

It made no sense.  This was not how the scam was supposed to work.  Indeed it was just around the corner, however it was clean and bright and probably one or two stars upscale from the place we had officially booked.  The first night was shaky as we had our guard up for anything strange, however, the shock wore off as we got to know the staff, and we ended up staying for the entire three days for which we were booked.  Thank you Olive Inn! 

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The next day we woke up ready to conquer Delhi.  Vince had this idea that we were going to walk to the metro (subway) like the locals and take the train down to the city centre, Connaught Place.  As we started to walk, it became very quickly apparent that there was no way this was going to be easy, or pleasant task.  Put simply, two foreigners (including one blonde), can’t go more than a block without being harassed by a team of rickshaw drivers.  They would pull up beside us, corner us, get out of the ‘car’ and talk our ears off about this and that and how they respects us that’s why they keep dropping the price, etc. etc.  One guy even stalked us at a distance, and would reappear every time we turned a corner.  At one point it looked like we were leading our own parade down the street – all we needed was a baton to twirl and our own marching band.

After twenty minutes of harassment, having no map or WiFi (I know, we’re spoiled) we assumed we were not going to make it to the metro (nor would we want to) so we retreated back to the hotel to regroup, specifically, the shop next door called Karachi Sweet Shop.  After two teas each, we could think again. 

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The store was run by an awesome, calm, well spoken guy, Amit, and the sweet shop had been in his family for over sixty years.  Not only did he speak great English, he also wrote down a few Hindi expressions for us to use that would deter the aggressive attention.  He gave us advice on where to go and what to see, and even arranged for a private driver for the rest of that day and the next day to see Delhi.  He even let us use his cellphone because our SIM card application was being processed.  AMAZING!  Thanks Amit for all your help and also feeding us the best desserts, Samosa and Poori.

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So, let’s highlight a point mid-way: in India many things don’t really work well, or quickly, or even at all. 

For example, when we needed to book our flights out of Delhi, it took us hours.  We started by trying to use the internet (credit cards got blocked), and then we called using our driver’s cellphone (call dropped).  Finally we put up our hands and said “drive us to the airport!”, and with that we started our city tour at the domestic terminal ticketing office in Delhi.  We were much relived to get at least one task done so we could enjoy the rest of the day.

When we returned later that night to the sweet shop, Amit shared with Vince a funny story - after we left for the airport, his friend who had witnessed all of the above turned to him and said “that guy married a western girl?”, to which Amit replied, “that guy is not Indian!”.  As you can see, it didn’t take Vince long to blend right in with the locals.  Too bad for Steph, she sticks out like a sore thumb.  So much so, she has become a bit of a circus freak with line-ups of people wanting to snap her picture.  Line-ups…no joke!

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India is the most frustratingly fabulous place you will ever visit and if you can let go and just let it lead you, you are way better off than trying to fight it.  Remember, India always wins.

Ultimately the three days in Delhi went quickly.  We visited a lot of the famous sites and got some great photos.  We left aside some of the sights however as we are planning to return to Delhi to meet up with our friends, Ritu and Jay to do an organized Golden Triangle tour, starting on March 13.  Yeah Taj Mahal…here we come :)

With our flights good to go, the next day we flew to Kerala (in South India) to stay for a few days with the parents of Vince’s friend Shaju.  

We were very much looking forward to borrowing Shaju's mom and dad for three days and share “retired life” with them for a while, as we continued to acclimatize and sort out our next moves around this crazy country.

We stayed in Kerala three days and ate home cooking and walked the small town and just relaxed (and napped) in the crazy heat.  It was great.  With Mr. Mathew’s help we even managed to get a driver take us on a tour around Kochi one day.

Special thanks to the Mathew family and the Chummar family for letting us barge in with only a days notice and letting us stay in their apartment.

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While we were there we figured out our whole India itinerary.  For now we would head to the famous Kerala “backwaters” and then venture north to try to get a seat on the Nilgiri Express which it one of the rare “toy trains” in India that is really hard to get a ticket. Wish us luck!

In summary so far, India definitely builds character and tests a relationship and can make you experience a whole new level of frustration...but even still, we highly highly recommend coming here at least once.  No matter how hard your day is here, there is always the best ever curry waiting for you at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Its truly an unbelievable place to be.

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Blog #8 - Hear the Roar of the Merlion!

So enough self-pity from us.  Last we left you we were licking our wounds from ‘roughing it’ too hard in Kuala Lumpur.  After we left KL things really turned around for us.  For the past week or so we’ve been in Penang, and then we were off to Singapore.   Why Penang you ask?  Well, let’s just lay it out in a few words of advice: when travelling in southeast Asia, avoid the lunar (Chinese) new year. 

Everyone is on holiday, and it goes on for about two weeks.  Officially stores and services shut down for a few days only, however, the bigger issue is that as a traveller you’ll be (as we have been) competing against the locals for accommodation and travel all through this time.  It’s common for those celebrating to reunite with family, and to book holidays and travel plans months in advance.  So, this rendered our usual laissez-faire “walk-up” approach futile.  We found all convenient, comfortable, and/or desirable modes of travel all booked up.

Our original Malaysia plan was to visit Langkawi, an island on the west coast of Malaysia.  Steph’s sister Julia and her husband Lincoln had their wedding there two years ago, and furthermore, it simply has the best beaches in Malaysia.  But, when we sauntered into the train station to arrange for tickets we discovered that we were idiots.  There were almost no trains, or buses, to Langkawi.  And even if we could manage to get there, every hotel, resort etc., on the island was booked solid.

This was a little disappointing as we were ready for some beach time.  We  researched other islands, such as Pangkor, Tioman, and a few other small ocean specks that show up on a map.  But nothing was working. 

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Finally we decided we’d go to Penang.  It was a large island with lots to do, had beaches, and we had heard from another traveller that Georgetown was great, too.  So a few days later we got out of KL.  We found seats on an overnight train to Penang, and yes, were seated upright the whole way (like good little soldiers – the sleeper cars were sold out, remember?).

We arrived in Penang early morning, somewhat destroyed from sleeping only a few hours with our heads on the serving trays in front of us, and went straight for our hotel.  Our hotel was a bargain, but mainly because it was undergoing massive renovations.

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We enjoyed exploring Penang Island.  Traffic, if you can believe it, is a real issue on the island, but we found a way to get out of the town and into nature.  As part of our healthy living plan, we looked into doing a climb up Penang Hill.  We had done some hiking earlier in the trip and have become familiar with steep terrain, but this was like no other.  It was 6km to get to the top, along a mix of trail and road (the road grade was 30%!).  It was crazy hard but very rewarding when we hit the top.  We were sweating sheets and getting looks from people who had just came up on the train.  We took the train back down, but before we did we soaked in the view of Georgetown and the Straits of Melaka over sunset.

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After three days on Penang Island we were getting anxious to get out of Malaysia.  We will have fond memories of Malaysia, however we must say, as tourists it was not our favourite (but perhaps we’re being a bit unfair as we were trying to ‘wing it’ through Chinese new year).

We went from Penang back to KL overnight in seats and arrived in the early morning, all groggy once again.  But a few hours later we boarded a “massage bus” for the five hour ride to Singapore.  Yes, we were massaged by our chairs as we slept like rocks.  We rolled in to Singapore soft as Wagyu beef.

Singapore is clean and filled with a wonderful variety of food.  We absolutely loved this place.  So much to wander through and explore.  The sidewalks are wide and clean (as chewing gum and J walking is illegal).

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When we arrived in Singapore we were fully refreshed and made our way straight to our hostel.  Since accommodation in Singapore is super-expensive, to keep our costs down we decided to try to ‘rough it’ for our first two nights, and then spend the last two nights in a budget hotel.  But there really isn’t any “roughing it” in Singapore.  Even in a hostel.  It was very clean, had in-house laundry and fast wi-fi in the common area.  Our room was in a co-ed dorm, that was laid out “Japanese style”, which was interesting.  Basically each person or couple got their own little cubby-hole.  We were on the top bunk.  Steph’s favourite!  :)

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Vince has a friend, Edwin, who lives in Singapore, and he graciously showed us the city (none of the usual tourist sites), and also took us out for dinner with his family at their local hawker centre.  If you haven’t heard of a “hawker center”, it is an organized street food bazaar, and is basically a work of self-organizing genius.  This puts all mall food courts we have ever seen to shame.  The way it works is dozens of vendors with short menus (they tend to specialize in only a few dishes) sit shoulder-to-shoulder and serve up cheap food all day long, and run it out to your seat quickly.   There is a wide variety of food, so we ordered as a group and ate as a big family.  We even ate grilled chili sting ray…sorry Phil!

Singapore is very very safe, we discovered that wandering at night is not only so much cooler and comfortable but also quite romantic. 

 One evening we explored the Marina Bay complex, and we found the foodcourt has a skating rink!  It was artificial ice, and some of the locals were trying to learn to skate on the stuff when we took to the ‘ice’.  It was almost unfair.  

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Afterward we took in the best “water and light” show one could imagine, which takes place at the edge of the bay two times per night.

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We are truly in awe of the architecture and details each area of this city has.  Bridges are works of art.  Malls should be photographed, and hotels/office building look like sculptures.  It’s not the “concrete jungle” we were expecting to find – in fact, surprisingly, there is a lot of green in Singapore, even in the city proper.  To top it all off, Steph’s friend showed us a great time way above the city to enjoy the beautiful birds eye view in five star styles on our last night.  Thanks again Wui San!!

We are definitely going to come back to Singapore sometime in the future (after we win the lottery ;) to truly enjoy this fantastic city.  What a place!  And to top it all off it even has a mascot.  And Steph loves her mascots.  Go Merlion Go....ROAR!  

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Well we have packed up now and kissed the Merlion goodbye and have got our game-faces on for India.  We are anxious and excited to venture somewhere completely different.  Coming from Singapore, we know we’ll be up against some extreme culture shock, but it will be a good challenge for us which you hear all about on the next blog entry.  Ciao ciao for now!

Blog #7 - From Rags to Riches, in just 3 Days

Well, you can’t always be having an above-average time.  This past week we were in Kuala Lumpur, and while we’ve been impressed by the city, this week’s experience has been a lesson for both of us, mainly, about ourselves. 

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When we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, we had no idea what to expect and we didn’t have very much of a plan.  However we were not worried, as we both had heard very good things about ‘KL’. 

Also, we were starting to get much more comfortable with the idea of “roughing it”.  In our last two nights in Hanoi, we stayed for a very reasonable $14 per night, which got us a large private room in a very reliable hostel. 

So in an attempt to continue keeping the money in our pockets, Steph found a room in someone’s home in KL, also for only $14 a night.  It was billed as “the cheapest clean room in KL”.  What could go wrong?

Well, just about everything.  The room was clean, that was true.  However the good news ends there.  To our surprise the room had no air conditioning (well, maybe we didn’t read the fine print…;).  As to the bathroom: let’s just say the good news is it had a shower.  The bad news is the bathroom was a shower.  There was no sink.  We did a double, then a triple-take, but yup, every time we looked, no sink.  Just a non-flushing toilet, standing all alone.

It had a handle, but it was connected to nothing.  When you were finished your business you were supposed to use a couple pail-loads of water from a nearby reservoir to flush the toilet, or, as Vince (ever the inventor) discovered, you could just point the (nearby) shower in the general direction of the toilet for a while.  Same result!  :)

We had seen “manual” toilets in public bathrooms already, so it wasn’t a total shock, however, to have to do this in your own private bathroom felt a bit too, um, rustic.

So, for each of the days we were at ‘Chez Flop’, we left first thing in the morning, and returned last thing at night.   The house owner was friendly, as were the other guests, but we didn’t see much of them, we didn’t hang out there at all, and overall, we never really turned the corner on this place.  It won.  We lost. (Sorry folks - no photos, wanted to forget this one...quickly!!)

The self-discovery for us this week was that while perhaps we’re not too old to backpack, we are too old to truly ‘rough it’.

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We did stick it out for the full three nights we had booked, however after three days of spending almost all our waking hours in self-imposed exile from our budget room, we took our savings and went straight for some 5-star healing.  No need for paper-rock-scissors.  We enjoyed the weekend in a discounted room in a business-oriented downtown KL hotel, that neither of us had heard of before, and even discovered their in-house band - http://youtu.be/Wr1AGRN2ULw ...awwww classy!   

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 Other than learning we are spoiled and that we like a bit of luxury, we did really enjoy Little India, Chinatown, Batu Caves (Hindu shrine built into a cave just on the north edge of the city) and the continual little references to our favourite city on earth (other than Toronto of course)…New York City!  Kuala Lumpur has a ‘central park’, a ‘times square’, and an “I heart KL” sculpture.  As you can see, Steph is really missing her 5th avenue babes (you know who you are ;).

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 Overall we would probably give this city a five out of ten on an ‘explore and enjoy’ scale.  It was a very easy city to navigate, however it wasn’t very pedestrian friendly, as we normally love to walk for entire days around each destination.  KL is quite spread out, with too much priority given to cars (i.e. too many man-made walkways and overpasses, mega-malls, shopping complexes and chain restaurants).

Malaysian food thus far hasn’t really impressed us compared to Thai or Vietnamese cuisine but there is a lot of variety here, which is nice.  Our new favourite restaurant is Nando’s for Portuguese chicken.  Who knew that we’d go this far for something you can get in Toronto! 

 All in all, we are really glad we were able to visit Kuala Lumpur and see it for ourselves, as no experience on this trip is an experience not to have.

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Currently we are waiting in the train station at “KL Sentral” (not a typo) preparing to board an overnight train to Penang, north of KL.  For the next few days we’ll be exploring Georgetown and getting some beach time in on Batu Ferringi, before we reverse direction back to Singapore. 

To all those who celebrate it, Happy Chinese New Year!

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Blog #6 - Feeling Hanoi'd? Why not take Ha Long weekend!

After our short but wonderful Nha Trang beach vacation had come to an end, it was back to business for us.  We had to get to Hanoi fast, in order to allow time for us to get our Indian visas. 

You see, in addition to our earlier lesson about the sometimes-enforced-requirement of “evidence of onward travel”, we have now also discovered another nitty-gritty fact: while on the road, it can be difficult to obtain some visas.  Some embassies only want to deal with their local residents.  To our dismay, we learned that the Indian embassies in both Malaysia and Singapore indicate that non-residents “have to obtain their visas in their home country”.  Ouch. 

Lucky for us, the Indian embassy in Hanoi is not as restrictive as its southern friends and would process our visa applications as Canadians for a small surcharge (of course).  Their turnaround time is “5 – 7 days” – not bad!   However we didn’t leave ourselves a lot of wiggle room, time-wise.  A while ago, we jumped on a seat sale, where we had booked an amazingly cheap flight from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur.  So this left us with a time crunch. 

We had to get to Hanoi! 

Now, taking a bus or train from Nha Trang to Hanoi would take 35 hours.  There was no way.  That was precious visa processing time!  As a hybrid solution, we found the last sleeper bus out of Nha Trang, to Danang, where we could catch a very reasonable $35 flight up to Hanoi later the next morning.  A great, cheap solution that would get us up north quickly (and a third of the cost of flying straight to Hanoi). Winning!

All that had to happen to make our plan work, was the bus had at arrive in Danang no later than 10:00am.  With the bus scheduled to arrive at 6:30am, this should be a breeze…right?!?

What could go wrong? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LW5e9zqTNNQ

Yup you guessed it, the bus broke down, was 5 hours late, and we missed our flight. Losing!

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But everything happens for a reason.  We took the half-day fate had given us and quickly fell for the town of Hoi An, which is 30 minutes south of Danang.  It is small, and oozes of “cuter than anything” French colonial style.  Also, our hotel, which we found on Agoda from Vince’s iPhone while on the (broken down) bus, gave us the best and most attentive service we’ve had in Vietnam.  They helped us print flight tickets, format Word documents, and followed us basically everywhere we walked in the hotel.  We think it may have been run by a cult.  They were so nice, it was almost creepy -- to the point where they’d yell out both our names at the sight of our flip-flops coming down the stairs:  hello Stephen and Vincent!!  (yes, Steph took on the name of Stephen for the day: trust us, it was just easier that way).

The next day we were on a flight to Hanoi, so we were back on track.  Yippee!

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Hanoi is quite further north than Nha Trang or Hoi An, and it was gray, cold and chilly. Our beachwear in the airport got us a few smiles, and didn’t go unnoticed on the bus ride into town.  A very friendly older man seated next to Vince began to gesture toward his legs, laughing.  Then he pinched some leg hair.  Whether he was commenting on Vince’s shorts, or his Italian leg-dreadlocks, we will never know.

The very next morning we went straight to the Indian embassy with our applications filled out and ready to go.  It was Wednesday, and the projected “ready” date for our visas was Tuesday.  Perfect.  (A little too perfect for Vince’s appetite, but hey, that’s what buffer days are for! :))

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So we explored Hanoi for two days, saw the sites, watched water-puppets, experienced the amazing street food, and had the odd glass of Bia Hoi (which is fresh daily-brewed beer they serve for thirty-five cents a glass)!  Hanoi is a great city to explore and we really enjoyed it.  But being in a noisy city for a week straight can be a bit much, so we thought we’d skip town for the weekend. 

We had our sights set on Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay and its many islands is considered to be a natural wonder of the world.  From Hanoi you can book an overnight cruise for about $175 per person.  These cruises usually begin with a three-hour bus ride to Ha Long Bay City, half a day cruising, one night on the boat, and then another half day cruising back, to hop back on the bus. 

Totally reasonable, but us being us and trying to ‘hack’ every place, we decided to figure out a way to do it better, and on our own. 

 So Vince spent a night researching and found a way to get us to the Ha Long bay island of “Cat Ba” for only ten dollars, per person, each way.  The journey was expected to take 4 – 5 hours.  One of the better known (…for being sketchy ;) bus companies offers a daily “bus-minibus-boat-bus” ticket from Hanoi to the Island of Cat Ba. Check out the route: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O6eKbEhPg4

Three buses, one boat, eh?  Now I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong!  We got there no problem!  And we stayed in a luxury, totally empty, $29 per-night hotel.  Since this was off-season, this was at least 50% off the normal room rate (but still about triple what other travellers were paying…).

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We were there for a total of three nights.  On our first day of our self-made long weekend, we took a day cruise into Ha Long Bay and kayaked into caves.  On our second day, we rented a scooter to boot around the island and explore, including to Cat Ba national park.   See:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bGOl5fJHpds&feature=youtu.be

All for about half of what the all-in cruise would have cost, and better.  Winning again!

While we were in Cat Ba, we also met a very fun and adventurous 20-something couple from the U.S. named Mollie and Joe, who were full of laughter and great stories.  They were on the same bus as us, and were also ‘hacking’ Ha Long like us, however, they always seemed to be able to do it for one-third our cost!  Haha…ah well, maybe we’re too old to ‘really be’ roughing it. ;)

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We’re now back in Hanoi and just this morning we picked up our Indian visas.

As we book our taxi to the airport tomorrow morning, we’re a little emotional, sad to say goodbye to Vietnam.  This was a fantastic three weeks, and we will cherish every memory, from the beaches to the food, to the traffic.  And as a side-effect we’re now both superkeen to re-watch Vietnam war movies from years ago, and compare them to sights and stories we saw and heard here. 

We highly recommend Vietnam to anyone who wants something challenging but certainly rewarding in a vacation.  We’re signing off for now.  Goooooood Morning Malaysia, here we come!

Blog #5 - We Will Miss Saigon, Pho Sure!

We left off last week after we had crossed the Vietnam border from Phnom Penh in true gangsta style - by speed boat. 

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When we entered Vietnam, we were very excited to immerse ourselves with Vietnamese culture and food - Cambodia was great for scenery, but not so much in the kitchen, and we both knew we loved ourselves a good bowl of Beef Pho.  We had heard the best things about the cuisine in Vietnam, and we were also looking forward to being in a single country for a long stretch of time, in order to absorb every essence of what makes the place tick.  Until now we had been jumping around a little too quickly.

As we got closer to landing in Vietnam, we began to pass more and more fisheries along the Mekong River.  And alas, to little surprise, the main food in town: fish!  (Basa fish, in fact – a major export of the area and available at a fish stick near you. ;) 

We floated into our new home for two days, Chau Doc. 

Chau Doc is a small, busy little town with hardly any English and very few tourists, however for a night it served as a great little first introduction to Vietnam – in particular the food, the people, the traffic.  Arrgh, the traffic.  More to come about that.

But the highlight of our short stay in Chau Doc was the “cyclo” ride we both took (in a single cyclo), to “Sam Mountain”, only five (long) kilometers from Chau Doc.   We looked ridiculous.  And it was clearly too much weight for our cyclo driver to handle.

Oh well – the experience was worth the humiliation -- the views from the top of the mountain, across the misty rice paddies and waterways at sunset, were gorgeous. 

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Chao Doc was the perfect send-off before we braved the big bad Ho Chi Minh City.

Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) is a land of scooters, and it is busy and bustling all the time.  And if we thought we understood Vietnamese traffic from our two days in Chau Doc, um, well, this was boot camp.  Simply put, scooters are everywhere (alleys and sidewalks included) – the population of 8 million apparently gets by on 5 million scooters.  

The trick to negotiating the traffic in Saigon (or anywhere in Vietnam for that matter) is to pick a ‘soft spot’ in the stream of traffic blasting past you and walk slowly, straight into traffic, at a steady, even pace.  This way, each bee in the swarm can see you, size you up, and judge whether to pass in front of you, or behind you.  And they do.

What you don’t want to do is try to avoid each scooter you see, in a bunch of jumpy stop-and-go movements (like in Frogger).  If you avoid one, you’ll probably just step in the way of another.

In many ways Vietnam traffic is the opposite of football: if you move slowly in a predictable path, you won’t get tackled. 

There really is no other way to cross the road in Vietnam.  Traffic lights are only at the very biggest intersections.  And even if you were to wait for a break in traffic, you’re more likely to have a friendly local take you by the arm into the mayhem before you have the chance.  :)

By the end of our time in Saigon we got very comfortable with this concept and we began crossing zen-like through some seriously thick traffic.  Always steady and slowly, and after a day or two, fearlessly and as part of the entire organic mess.  Check it out - http://youtu.be/ZAIICXo5KjQ

Our little hotel in Saigon was located near Pham Ngu Lao street in District 1, and even though we had no windows (let me see that brochure again…) it was perfect and just what we needed – reliable, clean and comfortable.

Pham Ngu Lao is basically the backpackers’ district.  One could guess this is what Bangkok’s Khao San Road might have looked like maybe ten or twenty years ago, before Burger King showed up.  There are tons of travelers and locals out on the street, all simultaneously checking out and creating the scene. 

On our first day in Saigon we did a full city tour that included stops at the War Remnants Museum (which documents the “American” war, as it is called here), and Notre Dame cathedral and the old post office. 

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During the day, and perhaps because the cost of the trip was so little ($7 each!), we were taken to a lacquer art showroom for a lengthy stop, and also to a coffee shop.  At the coffee shop we both sampled the famed “Weasel” coffee (named after animal used in its production…;).

While in Saigon we also did a day-trip to the nearby Cu Chi tunnels.  This was an enormous eye opener.  Neither of us suffers from claustrophobia, however, walking  folded over at the hips, knees bent, in a a dark hot tunnel that is only about three feet high (and only as wide as your shoulders) will test anyone’s limits.  We couldn’t believe North Vietnam soldiers lived in these tunnels during most of the war.  We could only make it through a forty meter section before we had to take an escape port (…and the section we walked through had been enlarged for tourists!).

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Of all our stops thus far, Saigon was our favorite.  It was certainly the most walkable (once you got to know the traffic ;).  We even discovered a little-known travel secret: some of the ritzier hotels offer day passes to their facilities, for a small fee (compared to the price of the room!).  So we took some money and had a 5-star afternoon and enjoyed a resort’s pool and gym.   Overall, it was a great, reasonably cheap way to get away from the mayhem on the streets.

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Now we are all about trying new things and new experiences, so after we said goodbye to Saigon, we boarded our first overnight sleeper bus to Nha Trang and its lovely beaches (several hundred kilometers north).  The “seats” on these sleeper buses are double-high and recline to a near-horizontal position.  It’s a great way to travel if you’re a deep sleeper (and if you traveling with a light sleeper who can watch your stuff ;), because after you’ve slumbered, you wake up at your new destination in the morning, ready for breakfast!  No need to pay for a hotel.  And you meet a ton of other travelers, too, which is great.  Compared to the train, the bus is not luxury travel, but you can’t beat the value ($7 bucks each, for a 10 hour ride!).  And we made a new friend along the way, Kleber, who was holiday from his English teaching gig in China.

So after 10 hours in the bus, we rolled in to what we can only describe as Southeast Asia’s version of Hawaii: Nha Trang is gorgeous, with a beautiful 20 km beach spanning across the whole town, and a backdrop of mountains in the distance and rocky islands across the bay. 

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 We jumped off the bus, checked-in, rented bicycles and immediately went to explore the glorious surf. 

Neither of us had heard of this city until recently, however, the secret is quickly getting out.  The entire place is under construction, and it is booming.  Also, English is the third language here, after Russian -- Steph was approached in Russian several times, and handed a Russian menu a few times while we were in Nha Trang.  Awkward!

As we finish writing this week's blog, we are still in Nha Trang, after having finished a fun boat cruise to a few of the islands in the area, and we're just about to board another sleeper bus northward to Hanoi.  We hear Hanoi is quite different and that the weather is a lot cooler up north.  So far we already miss Nha Trang and Saigon!

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Blog #4 - Angkor my Heart in Cambodia

Well we finally made it to Siem Reap. 

As you may recall from our last blog, we had some trouble getting out of Bangkok, but it was definitely worth the effort. 

The minute we arrived in Siem Reap, we knew we had to make our way to the Angkor Archeological Park, and more specifically Angkor Wat.

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Many people had told us it was magical and a definite must-do, but to be honest we were not expecting what we found.  It was spectacular and so vast, and certainly one of the wonders of the world. 

For our first day at the park we hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us around - just to get our feet wet.  This way we got an overview from someone who knew where to go and what to see.  It was a day filled with stairs, stairs, and more stairs – climbing, exploring, and great moments of awe.  We just loved it. 

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At the end of our first day at Angkor we went to get some well-deserved foot massages, and rest our knees.   Other than Vince’s masseuse hitting on him (and trying to make someone jealous…grrr) it was fabulous day.

The next day we returned to Angkor by bicycle! 

This was much better for our knees, but really tough on our bottoms.  But it was certainly a great way to see Angkor, up close, since there are so many different temples, gates, walls, ruins and other sights to see.  A bicycle strikes a good compromise between speed and ‘closeness’.  Check it out: www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6wNb54F9nQ

After three days in Siem Reap, one Khmer meal (we do not recommend the Cambodian cuisine) and a bunch of "Anchor" beers, we had gotten our fill and it was time to venture to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and biggest city, which we had heard so much about from other travellers. 

To get there we booked some “first class” bus tickets for $12 USD (yes, for both of them).  Now, we must warn you that first class in Cambodia is not what one might expect.  Yes there was “air con”, and yes there was a bathroom, but the air con was very “light” and the bathroom door was held closed by a cinder block.  Yes, on a bus.   

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Our bus ride also included an after-dark stop on a country road for emergency maintenance.  Scary, yes, but it could have been worse.  Even though we were in the middle of a rice field on a dirt road somewhere far outside of Phnom Penh, with nothing but the stars above and bugs hitting us like hailstones, our phone still had better service than it gets in downtown Toronto.  After 30 minutes and the help of Vince’s head lamp, the bus was fixed and we made it safe and sound.

The next day we found Phnom Penh to be a very cute riverside city, albeit with crazy motorbike traffic and tons of energy (both in the bars and on the patios of the many restaurants).  This time we decided to stay in a hip youth hostel in order to get a bit of a different experience and see what it was like to be in our 20s again.  Well, it was fabulous, with amazing drinks and hip hop playing all day - a total contrast to the mayhem outside, and a needed oasis in the city (Eighty8 Backpackers – thank you!).  

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Of course, we visited both the Killing Fields and S-21.  This made for a very heavy day for us, that stirred a lot of questions and talk. It is definitely an experience neither of us will easily forget.  After such a recent tragedy, it was amazing to see the resilience and be touched by the warmth of the people of Cambodia.  Their smiles are contagious and Phnom Penh is beautiful.

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On our last day in Phnom Penh, we had heard that Jackie Kennedy Onassis actually stayed at the famous Le Royal Hotel on her way to fulfill her dream of seeing Angkor Wat in 1967.  In fact, they named a drink after her and still serve it (the “Femme Fatale”).  And during “happy hour” it was actually affordable on a backpacker budget!  So of course we put on our best clothes and went for a tipple. 

We thoroughly enjoyed Cambodia, much more than we thought we would.  We will keep it in our hearts for years to come.

To leave Phnom Penh we took a speedboat down the Mekong, across the Cambodia-Vietnam border and down to Chao Doc, Vietnam -- we’ll talk more about that next week, but for now check this out: while we were waiting for our visa papers to be processed after we crossed into Vietnam, the draft of this week’s blog got blown into the water!  Or so we thought!  By fluke, the paper got caught on its way down, and with the help of a very chivalrous fisherman … well … you can see the video for the rest. www.youtube.com/watch?v=xmTYYy_wmAw

Blog #3 - Tuk Tuks Without Borders

Well our time in Thailand has come to an end.  We’ve ventured out on our own to Cambodia to explore Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) and Phnom Penn. 

Earlier this week we said good-bye to Miranda and Phil in Bangkok, and booked our bus to Siem Reap.  We were so excited to see a new country and really get our feet wet on this world adventure.

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At 7:30am on the morning of January 10th, we stood eagerly at the lobby of our hotel, Sleep WithInn waiting for our bus pick up.  One hour went by, and then a second hour went by.  Finally we walked over to the tour office where we booked the trip to let them know that we were stood up.  They informed us that the slip of paper on which our order was written was lost in the wind somewhere between their office and the bus company.  Hahaha…really!?!  It was starting to feel like Bangkok had a hold on us and was not going to let us go!  So what do you do when you’re thrown a curve ball in Bangkok?  You take your hotel deposit (1000 baht) and bus ticket refund (700 baht) and go get massages, ride the river bus for a few hours, watch the sunset, and go get Indian food for dinner….duh! 

So a small hiccup on our Cambodian holiday, but we managed to book a hotel for the extra night in Bangkok, push our Siem Reap reservation by one night, and find a new travel agent  “Mr. Thai” to book a new bus ticket.  “No problem Lady, I get you there one million percent”.  That sounded like an iron clad contract to us so we were back on track.

We waited in our new lobby at 7:00am on January 11th, and nothing was going to stop us now.  The bus came on time and picked us up with five other passengers and we were on our way to the Cambodian border.  The ride was pretty uneventful but we did meet an interesting Australian Muay Thai boxer named Steve who was also going to Siem Reap to fulfill his dream of seeing Angkor Wat.  He definitely made the time fly by with his funny stories and romantic talk about his new fiancée, who he had just proposed to four days earlier, and who had to return to Australia.  It was super sweet but you could tell he was lonely.   We were OK with being his girlfriend for the day. :)

After a few hours, as we approached the border the bus turned in at a roadside “restaurant” and we all got off. 

Now, after a long journey, a lot of information was being thrown at all of us by a friendly guy who spoke excellent English.   He motioned us to take a seat, and we did, as he handed us two blank visa applications.  By the time we had written down our names, we were alone.  And everyone we arrived with on the bus had disappeared on the back of a pickup truck (Songtao).  I guess we were special.  Lucky us.  We were told they were going to the ATM. 

Some background: a Cambodian visa is obtainable at this border crossing, and we knew this.  And we knew it should only be $20 USD.  However, we weren’t at the border.  We were at a restaurant.

After several uncomfortable minutes of negotiating with Mr. Roadside Restaurant, talking about money conversion rates, line bypasses, (and Steph being her usual battle-axe self ;), we were able to get our Cambodian visas through him for a reasonable ‘service’ premium over the official price (his opening price was $45 USD: we paid $35).

Although we were still ripped off, we felt a minor sense of accomplishment in getting the price down a little and in making Mr. Bordertown a little uncomfortable.  He definitely felt the wrath of Summerhill, gloves off and elbows high and justice for all.

It would become clear to us that in order to better put on the “hard sell” they simply separated us when it came time to process Cambodian visas.  We are weaker as individuals then all together – a smart tactic on their part.  However we ended up paying less than everyone else on our bus - score one for the Luciani’s! 

After our own Songtao ride to the border, we lined up to exit Thailand, and then a few hundred feet away we lined up again to enter Cambodia. 

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The space between was like a Western movie set, full of casinos, dust, vehicles of all kinds (both motorized and human-powered), except instead of horses, there were Hondas. 

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All told it took three hours to get through, but then we were greeted on the other side by some really funny Cambodian welcome wagons a.k.a. bus drivers.  We and our newfound friends all made it through around the same time, so we were off once again on a new (to us) rickety smoky bus.  There was no way this bus was going to make a four hour trek to Siem Reap so after five minutes, with Steve swearing and tired of the journey so far, we pulled over into the Poi Pet Bus Terminal where they transferred us onto a five star bus…haha…not really…just a non-smoking bus. 

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Our day was definitely out of the movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles.  After twelve hours, rolling into Siem Reap we were sweaty and tired and ready for bed.  But alas even this bus was not destined for our hotel, and we were dropped off in the middle of a busy intersection next to a line of “free Tuk Tuks”.  By now we knew better, so we cut straight to the chase and paid our tuk tuk driver $3 to go straight to our hotel, the Golden Butterfly Villa.

What a day and what an adventure.  To be honest, we actually found the whole ordeal tons of fun and the hotel was the prize at the end, welcoming us with complimentary drinks, snacks and a complimentary massage on arrival.  For dinner, we went to Molly Malone’s to get our Miranda-recommended Greek Salad and French Onion Soup and went quickly to bed, dreaming about Angkor Wat in the days ahead (day 1 was today!).

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Blog #2 - Getting Off The Grid

We managed to do it.  Aside from what we stored, all the stuff in our lives now fits into two backpacks and two carry-ons. 

The road to here has been a lesson in “stuff” – mainly, in letting go of it.

Without noticing, our small apartment had become filled with DVDs, CDs, books and other paper, two kitchens’ worth of hardware, and many dozens of things of varying sentimental value, all of which went before the court of “trash, donate, take or store”.

We think we did pretty well considering one of us has an affinity to keeping EVERYTHING, and the other can’t stand any sort of clutter.  We will let you guess who’s who in that scenario.  So to avoid tears from either of us (hahaha) we chose to store a lot of things.  After all, we do intend to return to Toronto, and we don’t want to have to start from scratch once we return.

Aside from dealing with plain old “stuff” stuff, unplugging our lives from the grid was a take-no-prisoners process that began well before we left.  A prudent person going on a trip would book flights, get travel insurance and make a trip to a travel medicine clinic, however, with us you can add the apartment, car, jobs, furniture (thank you Craigslist), income tax and financial planning, and a myriad of other things (right down to unlocking Vince’s iPhone – very important in order to stay connected when you can’t find WiFi!).

And even though we put a lot of thought into packing we’ve already said bye to two sweaters, a pair of Steph’s flip flops, and a strange toy Vince brought that no world traveller has any business carrying around (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9U3xFu0MIdo).

OK so we did it, we felt we were officially off the grid and finally able to hug our family and friends and head out to the airport.  There was nothing left in our way: we were officially nomads.   Now our goal was to get to Ko Tao, Thailand in one piece.   

Leaving Toronto, our first flight was to Chicago for an overnight stop.  It was uneventful except for the side-trip  our backpacks took onto the tarmac where they picked up tons of de-icing fluid.  They were a gross and greasy mess when they came down the baggage carousel, but at least we got them back.  The baggage customer service desk offered to dry clean them but that would have required us to stay 3 days in Chicago putting us back on the grid.  No way, we were quite happy to keep on trucking, grease and all.

The next morning we arrived early at the airport for our connecting flight through Hong Kong to Bangkok.  Three hours early in fact (a first for Vince ;).  And we’re glad we did as we spent most of that time dealing with Cathay Pacific, who wouldn’t let us check-in without proof of onward travel from Thailand.  They claimed this was Thai law.  Another attempt to get us back on that grid!  All we wanted to do is to wander southeast Asia with no particular schedule.  After exploring other options, and arguing a little, under duress we bought two fully-refundable tickets to destination anywhere (out of Thailand).  We got on our plane and were back in business.

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And as you might have predicted, upon arrival at Bangkok we were rubber-stamped without a bat of an eye.  Man what a scam!  More research and a phone call to the airline might have helped us avoid the surprise – but ah well, lumps taken and lessons learned.  We felt totally “jammed” by Cathay, but at least they were kind enough to give us rain ponchos upon arrival at Hong Kong when we had to disembark in the rain to run for our last flight to Bangkok.

After a late arrival in Bangkok, and early rise, we rushed to the train station to learn that the train we were planning to take south to Ko Tao was full.  So were the next three.  This is high season.  The only real alternative to us at the time was a sleeper train / bus / ferry combo, which departed at 7:30 pm.  Neither of us had been on a sleeper train before, however we knew we were going to take one sometime this trip – so why not now?  Steph was cool; Vince was nervous.  Either way, it certainly is easy to make a decision when there are no other alternatives!

So instead of travelling that day we spent the day exploring Bangkok.  It turned out the sleeper train was for the best.  Thanks to jet lag we both slept like rocks, from about 8:30 pm to 2 am local time, and arrived at Chumphon at about 5 am.  From there we hopped on a bus, then a ferry, and arrived at the island of Ko Tao by mid-morning.

And then we slowed down.

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We are now writing this after spending several very relaxing days exploring Ko Tao, its beaches, surrounding islands, and night life (happy new year’s!), with our good friends Phil and Miranda.  Vince tried to keep up to Phil on the motorbike without much luck.  And even though this is a scuba diver’s paradise, we chose to snorkel instead.  We love being different, but you already know that.  Well we should go now, on a bus to Bangkok (as this post is being written) where we will spend 3 days before heading to Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Ciao Ciao for now,
Steph & Vince

Blog #1 - Pre-flight Checklist

Our around the world trip will be starting any minute!  It's a rollercoaster ride that neither of us have been on, and the butterflies and anxiety are starting to set in as well as the questions. How long will we be away for? How much will this cost? Will there be jobs waiting for us when we return?

Neither of us have done anything like this before.  We will be homeless in one more week, and the uncertainty, lightness and excitement is palpable.  Despite all of the questions, we're so happy to be taking this adventure together.

We hope to expand our minds, open our passports, and make this the best lesson that we never learned in school.  But before any of this can happen, our pre-flight checklist still includes: moving our stuff from the condo into storage, finishing our backpacks, changing our mailing addresses and saying goodbye to all our friends. 

So check back soon!  Our official departure date is Dec 27, and we'll be bringing in the new year from Thailand!