Monday, January 30, 2012

New Zealand!

This place is something else! I have to dash out to visit a bike shop before they close and before our internet runs out, but here are some photos:

Milford Sound

Franz Josef Glacier

Some local fauna, including the quite common Homo Photographicus

You might be surprised to learn that this place is called Hokitika

A bridge.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Finding tennis in Nelson, New Zealand

Well! We've been in New Zealand for almost a week now. We landed in Christchurch, drove to Queenstown, then went on to Milford Sound, the Franz Josef Glacier, and up to Nelson. Every day except for two, we've driven for 6-10 hours.

We'll go on from here to Kaikoura and then back to Christchurch.

Most evenings, we've stumbled into our lodging and immediately hurriedly set out to find a bar that's serving food, playing the Australian Open, and staying open late enough to finish the Australian Open. We're 2 time zones east, so the matches start at 9:30pm.

This time, we asked around and found one bar that showed it until 12:15am. We moved on to the next place that showed it until the end of the fourth set at 2:30am. Then we came back home and fought with the Internet until we got a radio feed and live scoreboard until the end of the match at about 3:30. Great match! Our man Djokovic (who I think I like because he looks like Rory from Doctor Who) outlasted Nadal in five long sets.

I'm tired! I'll upload photos of some great things in New Zealand when I have some bandwidth. (literally. we're paying $15 for 512mb/one day, and today's is almost used up. Aus/NZ, what the heck.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

An unexpected perspective benefit of traveling

is that you fear governments more. I thought I'd visit Iran, so I was at first afraid of the US government, and then I got afraid of the Iranian government. I went to Singapore, and I was afraid of the Singaporean government. (not for any good reason; ask me sometime)

Being afraid of a government is awful because the worst cases are really bad. At least with crime, there's someone there to help you out if bad things happen. But if you get Guantanamoed, you are (and I hope my casual language doesn't make light of anyone's tragedy) terribly hosed. The way we usually respond to fears of the government is to ignore them, to say "that won't happen to me, because I'm not a criminal/terrorist/vaguely-brown-person", but over these travels, I've had a chance to imagine the possibility that that might happen to me. As a result, it gets harder to ignore stuff like this.

More Australia

My family and I were in Melbourne for a couple days.
We saw a bunch of penguins near here.

Australian open! "Professor" Lleyton Hewitt beat a dude.

Cricket going on around town. I was riding a rented bike. Melbourne's bike share system is great.

It's fine. Don't worry about it.

I met up with Jay and Raph again. Did I mention what neat stuff they're doing? While they're traveling around the world, they're working on actual productive programming projects. I won't talk about specifics until they release them and conquer the world. Anyway, it was good to see them again.

Then we went to Sydney.
Sydney Harbor Bridge

Super cool art exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art: "Recorders". everything records you in some way. This bit had tape measures that would automatically extend if you were in front of them until they snapped. I love this stuff.


I like both Melbourne and Sydney. Makes me want to live in a bigger city. We are seeing more wonders per hour than I ever have before. I am tired!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

We're in Australia, which seems a lot like America

I can't put my finger on the difference between Australia tourism and India tourism without resorting to a bunch of backpacker cliches ("it's more real, man"), but heck, the trip is different in so many ways. First, instead of traveling with nobody or with friends, I'm traveling with my family. Second, we're staying in hotels and stuff. Third, we have a rental car and domestic airline tickets.

It's all different, and I'm enjoying it now. Yesterday we went to a rainforesty tourist town, but hey, we got to feed kangaroos and hug koalas. And today we went to the Great Barrier Reef and snorkeled. Life's good!

On the way out to the reef

Our boat docked with this platform, and we swam from there.

The only downside is that it's hard to get internet at a reasonable price. You know, in this backwards part of the world. I just got to post a bunch of things about Singapore though, so read about three posts down.

Further thoughts: Singapore is a city optimized for consumption.

Struggling for a headline about Singapore, I've ended up with this: I can't say it's "good" or it's "bad", but I can say that the city revolves around consumption. I've heard multiple times that people go to Singapore to eat and to shop. Food is cheap and goods are glitzy. There's a mall on every corner, each one with more posh brand names than the last.

I traded my poor-country problems (mosquito bites and bottled water) for rich-country problems (canker sores from all the sugar, upset stomach from the rich food, sunburn from too much lazing around) almost instantly.

Well, and so? I can spare you the litany of anti-consumerism, but I do want to point out that it'd be a worthy critique. Life in Singapore seems partially the hyper-Western nightmare I'd expect from a city optimized for consumption. School starts intense, with bell-curved classes where 10% of students get A's, and woe to those who fall off the good-grades wagon. Those who succeed, after completing their 2 years of National Service (military, or "kind of a bad job where people yell at you"), get high-powered, high-paying, high-blood-pressure jobs at banks, government offices, or international corporations. After marrying, they can afford glamorous apartments, but at the cost of working 7 days a week.

It seems not an easy life, nor an ideal one. I realize it's pretentious to visit a city for four days and then start leveling criticisms, but there's mine.

On the plus side, though: as Jay pointed out, maybe consumption is not the best thing to optimize for, but at least Singapore is optimized for something. Every building placement, every district, every street name is carefully chosen by the government. They cut clever deals to make the city work smoothly. ("want to build a casino? okay... if you build us a hotel, convention center, museum, performance venue, and by the way you can't let any Singapore citizens in unless they pay $100.") And so, again, Singapore works, in its own way. I complain that it's not Shangri-la, but it's worth keeping in mind that it's also not Buffalo, Delhi, or Houston.

Back in Singapore, a rich country, and now food is not just something you have to do

I had no idea! So Singapore is multicultural, sure, and you've got Indians, Chinese, Malays, Japanese, Indonesians, Arabs, Westerners, and all sorts of smaller groups mixing it up. And they all bring their best food.

A popular place to eat in Singapore is a "hawker center", which is like a food court of dozens of very specialized stands. Often the center as a whole will have a theme (like "Indian food" or "seafood"), but you might go to one stand for biryani, a different one for North Indian curry, and still another for the Singapore-created murtabak. Of course, drinks and desserts demand a stall each. This is the ideal method of food production: everyone does a couple things very very well. And it is usually quite cheap.

Here are some things that I ate:
- the aforementioned murtabak, a heavy omelet-bready thing from India. Take paratha to the extreme. Hope you're hungry.
- char kway teow, wide noodles.
- mee soto, spicy spaghetti-like noodles.
- hokkien mee, more savory noodles with shrimp.
- black carrot cake. Not a dessert, more like a sweet omelet.
- white carrot cake, more savory and less sweet than the black.
- satay, marinated grilled meat on sticks with peanut sauce.
- kaya toast, toast with sweet coconutty jelly.
- chicken rice. Chicken with rice.
- laksa, a coconut curry with noodles.
- popiah, unfried spring rolly things with some kind of pickled cabbage.
- chili crab, the "national dish". A lot of the meat falls into the sauce, which you eat with delicious buns. Not actually spicy; actually delicious.
- cereal prawns, big shrimp with crunchy cereal flakes. Why not, I suppose.
- stingray! Now here is a winner. It is like the most tender richest beef, with a wonderful thick spicy-sweet sauce.
- frogs. Like really tender chicken in a thick soy/scallion sauce, served with porridge.
- durian ais kacang, a big snow cone with some sort of creamy durian topping.
- cendol, sort of like a coconut snow cone, with some pickled green thing and sweet beans. Sweet beans.
- bubur cha cha, warm coconut soup with various things.
- peanut/sesame pudding.
- matcha shirataki crepe. A bit of Japanese there too.
- barley water, which is a little sweet and a lot tastier than it sounds.
- coffee. Thick and so black that the copious condensed milk doesn't change its color.
- grass jelly drink, which is maybe the least sweet thing I had, and thank god.
- teh tarik, like a Thai iced tea.
and let's not forget:
- fresh durian. The king of fruits! It's been a couple years since I had it fresh, and even then, I didn't crack it open myself. Wonderfully pungent, creamy, and sweet. Dangerously spiky, hard to carry through a crowd, and don't eat it with alcohol or you might have a stroke.

My friend Nick gave me a checklist, telling me I couldn't leave without trying chicken rice, char kway teow, murtabak, popiah, and laksa. This was quite helpful in narrowing down my choices, so let me make a list of my own, in case you're headed there anytime soon: stingray, laksa, hokkien mee, cendol, and by god a fresh durian. But you can't go wrong.

Nothing seemed particularly healthy; it's all meat, noodles, and sugar. And I can't see myself cooking this stuff a lot. But where it falls short health-wise, it makes up with taste in spades. Singapore will make you wish there were twice as many meals in a day.

Singapore is the greatest city I'm supposed to hate

Singapore! What comes to mind? Perhaps a few executed drug dealers? Fines for chewing gum? Canings?

Let me tell you a few more grisly facts about Singapore. Their drug policies are notoriously harsh, including mandatory execution for dealers from any country, sure. Other drug laws include imprisonment for possession, which is nothing new in "War on Drugs" USA, except that "possession" includes in your body. Singaporean citizens can be imprisoned for taking drugs in another country and then coming back to Singapore. (foreigners with drugs in their system just get sent back.)

What else? Well, 2-year mandatory military service, fine. Some "undesirable" activities, ranging from graffiti to skateboarding, are not prohibited, but they're only allowed in one tiny part of the country. (There's a graffiti park.) Another such "undesirable" activity? Public protest. A few people tried to organize "Occupy Singapore" via the internet; they were all arrested the night before the event.

It's illegal to sell chewing gum, yes. Fines for eating or drinking on the subway are $500. The P.A.P. wins all the elections. (This year, an opposition party got an unprecedented 5 seats in the 86-seat parliament.) Oh, and gay sex is illegal.

But for all this utter nonsense which ranges from kinda goofy to downright draconian, there's another side: it really works. It's cleaner than Seattle, bigger than Berlin, safe as Tokyo, and rich as Croesus. Maybe I'm only seeing one side of things after Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, and Phnom Penh, but I found it really pleasant. You can walk anywhere anytime, the metro is extensive and costs a dollar, and everything is delicious all the time. But more on the food later.

It helps that I had friends. I met Ambreen via Jay, and the three of us hung out in exceedingly posh malls and played Scrabble; I met Carrie via Brian, and she showed me around the best seafood and cocktail bar ("Bar Stories"); and I met up with Yu Hsien from Scotch'n'Soda, and we rode bikes and roamed Chinatown at Chinese New Year time. Wonderful to meet/reconnect with all of them, and one couldn't ask for more thoughtful, expert, and generous hosts. I didn't see a ton of the sights in Singapore, spending instead most of my time with these lovely folks, and I'd have it no other way.

The sights I did see, though, included the most famous ethnic neighborhoods (Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street), as well as the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel. Why is there a boat on that hotel? It's fine, don't worry about it.

I got to swim on the roof. I know people. (Particularly, Jay. Thanks, Jay!) This kind of made my month. I don't like flashy things, except when they're as awesome as the pool on top of the Marina Bay Sands.

So thanks, Singapore, for a great long weekend. Politics aside, I really enjoyed exploring a modern metropolis. I haven't done that for a while. No hawkers or tuk-tuks, no piles of trash, no dusty roads, no shady areas. In their place: cool districts to hang out at night, very specialized foods, a clean metro, and walkable neighborhoods.

I kinda can't take the heat, though.

Note: I've got a lot more pictures of Singapore; you can get them from the "photos" link above. I'm in Australia now, and the only way we can find to get connected while paying less than $6/half hour is sitting in on a McDonalds's crummy wifi. Weird when the bottleneck to blogging is inserting photos (that are already in picasa) into a post.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Khmer Rouge, what the F

After relaxing on the beach, Jay, Raph, and I made our way to Phnom Penh. Perhaps the most popular tourist sites there are the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Choeng Ek Killing Fields. A jolly day out it is not, but I heard multiple times that you really have to see them. Like visiting Auschwitz, I guess.

Of course, seeing the story of the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge taking over Cambodia in 1975-1979 is sobering and depressing. I can't imagine what these people must have felt when they welcomed the Khmer Rouge into the streets of Phnom Penh, only to be immediately forced to evacuate to the countryside. I have no idea how they'd keep on with their 14-hour days of forced labor, trying to make the rice fields triple their production while eating almost nothing themselves. To say nothing of those in the most helpless of situations, in the prisons with barbed wire over the windows so they couldn't even commit suicide, or in the trucks on the way to the mass graves. Jesus! This is almost unimaginably grim.

Pause to let these emotions sink in. I guess that is the advantage of visiting this place; you can feel real grief and sorrow, which we thankfully don't get all that often. And I guess in doing so, we honor those who suffered here.

A cell, 0.8m by 2m. You can barely lie down in this.

Tuol Sleng prison. I guess it doesn't look so bad from here. It used to be a school.

The killing fields don't look so bad either. Well, I didn't take photos of the particularly brutal stuff.

This is very terribly mind-blowingly sad. That's one conclusion you can draw from learning about this mass murder. Another one is that the Khmer Rouge was really inept at governing! Honestly, they took all the city people, declared them "New People" (inferior to countryside-dwelling "Old People"), and set them to work in the fields with only the clothes on their backs. Then they decreed that they must produce more rice than ever before, with strict quotas. How did they even imagine that this would work? City-dwellers don't know a damn thing about farming, they had no good tools or teachers, and even expert farmers couldn't get this much rice. Threatening and beating them won't get the job done.

Plus, they traumatized the people. Families were universally separated and marriages were arranged by the state (because the state is everyone's parents), loved ones were murdered left and right for crimes such as having a couple of bananas, and no trace of anything relating to their old lives was allowed.

Oh! And they demolished the education system! So even if the Khmer Rouge's plans had succeeded, Cambodia would be a nation with... a lot of rice. Guys, this is not the best of plans! This would be hilarious if it weren't unspeakably horrific.

And on that note, good night, and thank god it's not 1970's Cambodia.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Amir Hekmati, and why I'm not going to Iran

So this fellow Amir Hekmati was an American citizen who went to Iran to visit his grandmothers. The Iranian government detained him in August for supposedly being a spy and sentenced him to death a couple days ago. Story from BBC.

This is the first case I've heard that indicates that I might be in danger if I visit Iran. Every argument against visiting Iran up until now has been either a vague worry that their people hate us (false) or a statement about international politics (unrelated to my visit there, unless war breaks out while I'm there). But here is a case where an American visited basically for reasons of tourism, and now might be executed.

But there must be some mitigating factor, right? I mean, they couldn't have just picked up some tourist; there must be some reason they think he's a spy. Well, he was a dual citizen, which Iran doesn't recognize,  so they saw him as an Iranian citizen, which I'd think would make him less suspicious, but what do I know. Also, he worked for a company that made video games including one called "Assault on Iran". So that makes him different from me, right? I haven't worked for a company that Iran thinks is a "spying tool"... wait, yes I have.

Huh! Well, this raises in my mind the possibility that I might be, erm, executed, from 0% to 0.01%. Too high for comfort. Especially because I'm restricted to a group tour, which might be expensive and lame anyway.

Well, dang. Guess this adventure will be... indefinitely postponed. Hey, if you're somewhat less at risk than I am from Iran, and you're thinking about going there, please hit up Pars Travel Agency, as they've been nothing but helpful to me in getting my visa and planning my trip, and I can't even pay them any money.

What to do instead when I arrive in Dubai on Feb 22? I'm thinking either just fly on to Turkey real quick, start on my bike trip early, or hop over to Oman for a week or so first.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I'm trying not to be entirely autistic about beach vacationing

We're in Otres Beach, near Sihanoukville, Cambodia. This is a resortey area, but it is the quietest and nicest beach around Sihanoukville.
Jay: So what do you do at this beach?
Me: I don't know. I don't know what do you do at any beach. What do you do at the beach?
Jay: What do you mean, "what do you do at the beach?"?
Me: Everyone's just sitting around! I guess you sit around for a while. And swim for a while. Sometimes you have to eat some food. Then what?

But this confused spell only lasted a short time. So the food is very good, first of all. You can also drink coffee or beer. Swimming is fun. I've caught up on all my internetting. You can walk on the beach. Also you can rent things. I went paddleboarding, where you can stand up on a board and paddle like a gondolier. And we've played a lot of chess. We're evenly matched, so that is fun.

We are staying here, "Mushroom Point." It's very good.

It's a nice place! Really relaxed, quiet, not crowded. Spending only two days here is a little rushed, but I could see losing a lot of time if we didn't have a definite ending point, and there are things to do and places to go! Phnom Penh tomorrow, Singapore the next day, and then Australia.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Visiting the So O Choam School

Over two years ago, we got a bonus at Google, and some coworkers and I decided that we wanted to donate it. So we met a couple times, picked an organization, and sent them about $14000, which after Google matched it, became $28000. That organization was American Assistance for Cambodia, and that $28000 was more than enough to build a school in rural Cambodia.

Yesterday, Raph and I, along with Chamroeurn from AAfC, got to visit that school. Wow! There are 138 students who now have a place to study.

They had an opening ceremony with local officials and all the students. As one of the donors, I was asked to give a short speech. This was all a bit weird, but I guess for every school that AAfC opens, they hold an opening ceremony. This was the kind of thing I hated as a kid. I can't imagine it was fun for anyone. Well, at least it was kinda short.

But then we got to visit the classrooms and talk with the students. This was kind of awkward too (what do you ask a group of 40 9th-graders that you share no languages with?) but it was fun to just hang out with the students for a while. They seemed pretty enthusiastic. A lot friendlier and more eager than my friends and I in middle school. I got a sense that they saw this school as an opportunity, not just some dumb place they had to go.

9th grade

8th grade

7th grade

Some info about the school: it's a 7th-9th grade school, AKA "secondary." After the students finish, they can go to the high school, which is 30km away- a 40 minute drive, if you have a ride. They learn a bunch of subjects- Khmer, English, math, physics, chemistry, biology, history, and more I guess. Our money paid for the school's construction, while the teachers are paid by the Ministry of Education. (which means that the school won't stop running if the money we donated runs out.)

It's awesome that this school is here. It's way out in the sticks, 2 hours off the main road; if these students didn't have this school, I don't know how they'd get to another school. It's in the Samlot district, in the Battambang province. This was an area with a lot of fighting. When Chamroeurn asked the 8th grade class how many of their parents were (conscripted) Khmer Rouge soldiers, about 80% of the class raised their hands. This is a place that needed a school.

Some downsides: it's just 3 rooms. Few improvements, no electricity. When they asked what we should do with the extra money, we said "whatever you think is best for the school." Apparently, our lack of decision has led to the money sitting in the bank. But it's clear that the one thing that students and teachers both want most is computers, so I can ask AAfC to spend the money on computers and solar panels.

After visiting the classrooms, we took pictures and played games, as classes were over for the day. I only got about 2 hours total to spend there before we had to head back- it was about a 6-hour drive from Siem Reap, where we were staying and where Jay was recovering. But still, great to see that our money's gone to a great cause, and that they seem to be doing well.

Towards the end, the English teacher, even though he's the one doing the hard work and we just wrote some checks, approached me and said: "Thank you for giving me a school."

Lots more photos here (thanks to Raph!)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Vacation mode engaged. Oh, and I guess I saw a world wonder.

Things feel different in Cambodia. I feel like I'm on a regular ol' vacation. Given that I'll only be in this country for about 9 days, I have about as much time as I had on regular ol' vacations too. Next I'll be in Singapore for 3 days, on another vacation in Australia/New Zealand, and soon after on a guided tour in Iran. I'm switching modes, from India mode to bunch-of-vacations mode. It's different and pleasant. But fast moving! Here's what's up.

Jan 3: finally leave Bangalore, land in Bangkok at 6:40AM, meet Jay and Raph at their hostel. Skytrain to Mochit Bus Station, bumble around until we finally found a bus to Aranyaprathet, eat a waffle, take that bus, pass Cambodian immigration, take a shuttle to the bus depot, get herded onto "the last bus of the day", stop somewhere for some unknown reason, finally get to Siem Reap.

Jan 4: sleep until noon. Get out and about at 2pm. Realize it is not worth going to temples today, as they close at 6. Find and take a cooking class.
Go to the market first

Raph and Jay cookin'

Raph is proud

Jan 5: Angkor! This place is so huge. I had no idea. It has dozens of temples. Angkor Wat is just one of them; it is the biggest, but by no means the best. Bayon is another cool one, mostly because it has big faces all over it. It looks kind of like it was made by aliens. Ta Prohm is the third most famous, mostly because it is sort of overgrown and was used in the movie "Tomb Raider." (really? it takes a movie based on a video game based on a woman with big boobs to make it famous?)

After those three, there are some other ones, like Preah Khan, Baphuon, and Ta Keo. When you're zipping through them all day, it's easy to get jaded. The LP says "don't do Angkor in one day!" and I think it's not because you can't, but because you'd probably get more out of it if you took a couple days. Well, one day is what we had.

My reactions? Well, I don't need to tell you that it was amazing and that you should go there if you're nearby. Everyone else on the planet is already there. It feels a little like Disneyland- timing your visits to avoid crowds, sweating to death, etc. But the temples are so cool, it's worth it.

Angkor Wat, and this photo is the highlight of my collection


Ta Prohm

There is a dinosaur there! How did the Angkor people know about dinosaurs?

Many more photos in the photos link above! Tomorrow Raph and I visit a school (Jay is ill; wish him well!), and soon after that we go to a beach.

Practical tip: generally you ride bikes or hire a tuk-tuk driver to see the temples. As Jay cannot ride bikes (you can mock him when he gets better), we hired a driver. His name was Sam and he was pretty good. His phone number is 107691328. Also, our hostel, the Angkor Wonder Hostel, is pretty great.

A bit of reflection on India, and why I'm going to Iran

I was thinking about the top most transcendent experiences in my India/Nepal/Bhutan trip. Not the most fun ones- those would be the times I met up with my friends- but the most out-of-the-ordinary and memorable ones. They are something like this:

And I realized, these all have two things in common: a little lurch in my stomach and a sense of "yes! let's do an adventure!" Not a big lurch- these are all things that are not at all dangerous. But they each took me a bit out of my comfort zone.

I feel the same way about biking through Europe, and I feel the same way about visiting Iran.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Here is a google map of all the places I went in India.

Feast your eyes on this! I'd embed it, but it's got so many points it almost freezes my tiny little eeepc.

So what do I think about this trip through India? Beats me! I'm just starting to get perspective on about the first couple months of the trip. Give me a few weeks.

(by the way, I just fixed the "photos" link above. if you've been unable to see any recent albums, try it now.)

Monday, January 2, 2012

An Unparalleled Practice Experience in Equanimity

My meditation teacher and friend from Seattle, Ven. Dhammadinna, quite eloquently used those words to describe Delhi. These past 24 hours have been as well.

In short: I had a lot of bureaucratic run-around and got stuck in Bangalore for an extra day. In long...

6pm last night: arrive in Bangalore airport from Trivandrum, ready to head to Bangkok. My flight doesn't leave until 1:30am, but it's not enough time to go anywhere, and I'm tired.
7pm: eat a terrible Cafe Coffee Day sandwich, as it's the only thing to eat in the limbo before checkin.
10:30pm: check-in opens for my flight. I have 3 hours; what could go wrong?
10:35pm: get to immigration. I survey the 12 officers; who looks friendly? I pick the wrong one.
10:36pm: "...sir, I think you will not be flying today."

Let me explain. Remember my lengthy rant about trying to figure out the ins and outs of the "two month rule"? After literally two days online, the best I could figure is: you're not allowed to re-enter within two months of leaving, unless you get a re-entry stamp from an embassy in the country you're visiting in between (Nepal in my case). You can get that stamp if there's an emergency OR if you're just touristing in neighboring countries. The stamp says "visitor must register at the Foreigner's Regional Registration Office (FRRO) within 14 days of re-entering the country." So I tried to do so in Darjeeling, but the guy there said "you only have to register if you're staying in the same place; since you're touristing around, no need." I pushed him a bit, but he wouldn't register me. So I figured, that sounds reasonable; the registration is probably for the "emergency" case and not the "tourist" case. Heck, I don't know if I even needed the stamp from Nepal. And what can they do? I'm already back in the country. I put it out of my mind until... now.

10:38pm: he sends me to the officer at the end of the line. That officer confirms, yep, see, you didn't register, and the stamp says "you must register." I explain that I tried, but there is no reasoning with him. He tells me to wait over there.
11:30pm?: a couple times, different guys explain the same thing to me. I try all the reasonable arguments: "I tried to register", "but I just need to leave the country", "please isn't there anything you can do, I have to meet some people", and "look at me I'm pitiful". I don't know what has even a remote chance of working; obviously none of these.
11:40pm: officer #2 gives me the address of the FRRO and says "you just go there tomorrow, get the stamp, no problem." Yes problem! Goddamn...
12am: From just outside the airport, I try to contact someone at Bangkok Airways to change my flight before it takes off. Of course, they fly one flight a day from Bangalore, so there's no counter, so I have to call on the phone. Both their local office in Bangalore and their office in Bangkok are closed, of course.
12:30am: A kind Bangkok Airways representative is helping me. He asks where I'll stay. "I don't know! I'll go hunting for a hotel at midnight?" He points me to the hotel-reservations counter. I take a place as close as possible to the FRRO; it's still 5km away and costs $20. I don't have much choice.
12:35am: I take a cab to the city. Again, not much choice. It's the absurd-for-India price of $15.
1:30am: Arrive at the Hotel T.A.P. Silver Square. At least it's clean. Ignore the garbage on the stairs and the nightclub one floor below. For once, I thank God for the 11:30pm city-wide closing time.

6:30am: Wake up, snooze my alarm, then finally roll out of bed and catch a tuk-tuk. tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk. It is important that I...
7:30am: Get to the FRRO before it opens at 9am. I am the first one there. I start reading Game of Thrones on my Kindle.
8am: A couple early birds show up.
9am: The FRRO is ready for business. I get a form and a number. My number is 001. So that means I'll be out of here quickly, right?
9:15am: I talk to a fellow at the Scrutiny Desk (yes) and find out that my required documents are mostly just passport copies (easy) and proof of where I'm staying. So... my hotel. For some reason, they need proof that I am staying at my hotel for one night. And this proof comes in the form of a letter, on hotel letterhead, stating my name, passport number, and duration of stay, with the hotel manager's signature and (I kid you not) official seal. I head for the hotel to get this thing.

tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk. (I usually only take tuk-tuks when I'm in a hurry. I took a lot of tuk-tuks today.)

9:45am: Ask my hotel guy for a letter on letterhead. His printer is broken, and he has no letterhead. The other hotel owned by the T.A.P. group has letterhead, but it is 5 traffic-choked kilometers away. He does have an official seal, though! I decide to type up a thing, have him sign and seal it, and plead that official letterhead was "not possible."
10:00am: Find out that the only internet cafe around opens at 10:30. This city runs late.
10:30am: Show up there. It's some fancy-pants Reliance rent-an-office deal and the least money I can pay to type for 5 minutes and print is 225 rupees. Whatever! Okay! Please, my wallet is too heavy! Also, their computers are terrible. Well, at least I have 4 whole hours of internet. I type a thing and print. I type some other letters too ("dear FRRO, I would like to request blah blah, here is my itinerary") just in case.

tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk

11:00am: I hand the guy at the Scrutiny Desk (indeed) a stack of documents. As he paws through them, I realize I never went back to the hotel to get the manager to sign/seal that letter. It ends "Signed, (blank)". Oh god. I just bluff my way through; somehow, in about a half hour of scrutiny, he never notices or cares.
11:30am: "You go upstairs." Woo- level up!
11:31am: I go to Desk 5 and am told, no, go to the IO/ISH desk. Okay. There is a brief interlude when a lady distributes Happy New Year cake to the workers.
11:40am: IO/ISH Lady scribbles something.
11:45am: Desk 5 Guy scribbles something.
11:50am: "You go to the bank, ask for a DD. Demand Drop." What? "Demand Drop." I get the sense it's a money order. I also get the sense that I have to pay 1395 rupees ($28), y'know, because I was late registering. Because of Darjeeling FRRO guy. This is why you build money cushion into your travel budget!
12:00pm: I find a Bank of Baroda. They give me a form for a Demand Draft. (oh.) The cost, including DD charge, is 1505. Ah, but they cannot debit the money from my account, I need cash. I have very little cash, because I thought I was leaving the country. I go to use their ATM; it is broken.
12:10pm: Find another bank. Withdraw 3000 rupees. Realize that they might balk if I give them 2000 for a 1505 bill, so I look for a way to get 5 rupees change. Spy a coconut guy.
12:20pm: One delicious coconut later, coconut guy has no change. I marvel at the fact that, in the critical path to get my FRRO registration and thus to leave the country, I am trying to find change to pay the coconut guy. If you give a mouse a visa... Luckily, a nearby guy has change.
12:30pm: Get the DD. I recall that Desk 5 Guy also said I should get a xerox of the DD. Why? Was it just for my records? Well, I'll try anyway. At the first xerox shop, the guy is out, and they don't have xeroxes anyway. I get it at the second shop.
1:00pm: Desk 5 Guy sends me to Desk 2 Guy to hand him the DD. Desk 2 Guy gives me a receipt and sends me to "the desk that way." Up more stairs? Nope, the people upstairs are confused about why I'm there. I ask Desk 2 Guy again, and he says Desk 5. Well, why didn't you say so? Desk 5 Guy asks for the xerox, which I hand him, and breathe a sigh of relief that I got it. And then: "You come back, 3 o'clock." That is a good sign!
1:10pm: Eat a biryani at Kebab Palace, let slip a sigh of relief, and figure I better get on to my next task: rebooking my flight. I call Bangkok Airways. Prakash and I are having communication issues, so he invites me to just go there in person. It's near MG road, so near my hotel, but far from the FRRO.

tuk tuk tuk tuk oh shit

1:15pm: Realize I left my bag, including a few probably-inessential documents and my Kindle case. My Kindle case contains two months' worth of bottle caps and ticket stubs, and my Kindle. Not the end of the world, but ... damn! We're almost at Bangkok Airways, so I just figure I'll get it later. Now there are three major things I'm worried about.
1:30pm: Prakash at Bangkok Airways is friendly, but can't rebook me, and can only refund $80 of my $240 ticket. This is because it was for yesterday, and I just didn't show up. But but but I was trying to call, and I only just had this visa issue, and and ... to quote They Might Be Giants, "Lose, sucka! Lose again!" I would be slumping back to the FRRO, but I'm still panicking about my Kindle, so instead I high-tail it to Kebab Palace.

tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk

2:00pm: They've got my Kindle! Yes yes yes hooray thank you thank you. I don't know how to thank people a lot in a short time, or I would do so.
2:15pm: Kill time by looking up ticket-to-Bangkok prices. There is really only one flight to take, and I guess it will cost me $180. What can I do? I dawdle and don't book anything, because I'll just book after I get my FRRO stamp, just to make sure.
2:50pm: I am so excited, like a kid on Christmas, I can't wait, so I go back to Desk 5 Guy at the FRRO. He has me sign a paper, writes something in my passport, and I am done! Sweet sweet victory, and in under 8 hours too.
3:10pm: Back at an internet cafe, I find that my $180 ticket has jumped to $250. What! In those 20 minutes! There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. I figure I'll call Prakash, maybe there is something he can do. He's busy but he says he'll call me back.
3:30pm: Is there ever something he can do! I thought my ears deceived me as he said "It will be just 1500 rupees." ($30) I guess he found some loophole because it was a one-way ticket or something? Whatever, I am not asking questions. I am motoring it over to Prakash's office.

tuk tuk tuk tuk tuk (I am getting good at this by now. All the tuk-tuks have meters, but they'll actually pull the "meter is broken" nonsense and ask you to pay a higher fixed price. If they do that, just walk away instantly. They'll track you down and magically their meter will be working. Also, grab the guys driving down the street, not the ones waiting; they'll usually just give you the meter fare. The waiting guys will try to get meter + 20 or worse.)

4:14pm: Cosmic shout-out of thanks to Prakash for working this out. Ticket, FRRO paper, and Kindle in hand, I am a happy man.
4:30pm: I go back to my portable office to handle some other future airline ticket bookings. My credit cards are declined, and my frequent flyer booking has an unspecified error. Lose again!
6-8pm: finally shower, take a nap.
8:30pm: head to the airport.

tuk tuk tuk tuk bus bus bus bus

10:30pm: boarding pass in hand, I approach the immigration desk with some trepidation. A kindly older fellow inspects my passport. I explain how I went to Nepal and Bhutan for three weeks in November. He points to my FRRO registration and even the re-entry stamp from Nepal and says, as the camera zooms in for the punchline, again I kid you not:
"You were just visiting Nepal and Bhutan? Then this was not necessary!"

Sunday, January 1, 2012

It is the full southernmost point only

Ram, Nicole, and I spent a couple days in Kanyakumari, the very tip of India. There's not a lot to do besides look at the sea, but we gladly did that. I guess you could also buy some cheap junk. You could get sick and spend a day in bed (Ram did that). You could go to the Swami Vivekananda memorial rock or watch a magic show, but we just missed the timings to do both. Nevertheless, we enjoyed looking at the sea, reading some books, and nomming awesome-as-usual food.

This is so far south. Can you tell how far south it is?

One of these people is really cool.

And then New Year's happened, so we watched fireworks on the roof. That was nice.

Practical tips: we stayed at Hotel Krishna for Rs1000 for a 3-bed room, the cheapest option we could find. It's about 3 hours from Trivandrum by bus (direct or change in Nagercoil) or train.