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You Can Do It Too

beach A lot of people assume that I support my travel habit with some hidden disposable income somewhere that I covertly draw from when no one is looking, or that I am a trust fund child on the loose. An ex-boyfriend of mine once accused me of having a secret bank account I refused to tell him about. Not so. The fact is that many people have an inflated idea of what traveling really is in a monetary sense. In 1997 my husband spent less than $900 over a period of 6-months traveling India, and while that level of budget madness is sadly no longer possible, you can still manage to spend very little while seeing a great deal. All it takes is a little patience, some ingenuity and a bit of imagination.

 Get Creative:

When buying your plane tickets look into alternative airports, and similarly, alternative transport. Often times your cheapest option is something you don’t ever think of. Do a little research about where you want to end up and how other people get there; you might find that flying into a country or city altogether different from your final destination and hopping a bus, boat or train can save you hundreds of dollars.

For instance, I travel too and from Thailand on a regular basis. When I am working in the south of Thailand it often makes more sense for me to fly into Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia than Bangkok. A train from either city to my final destination is an equidistant and a similarly priced journey, allowing me greater variety when choosing flights. Likewise a flight on Air Asia from either city to Phuket, or Hat Yai (two cities that I frequently fly into) is roughly the same cost.

Another good example is Central America. A lot of people arrive through the obvious large ports of entry, Guatemala City, Belize, San Jose, etc. Whereas I have found that, it is often hundreds of dollars cheaper to fly into Cancun, Mexico and catch a bus south. This sort of knowledge comes with experience and luckily, if you don’t have your own, you can access other people’s by way of online blogs like this one or sites like the Lonely Planet Thorntree Forum, Tripadvisor and other travel related pages.

With a little pre-flight exploration you can save yourself hundreds on transport, which, along with accommodation, often makes up the bulk of any trip’s expenses.

Be persistent and be flexible:

Don’t buy the first plane ticket you search out, unless it’s a ridiculously awesome deal. Check budget booking sites like Kayak.com and Travelocity.com on a regular basis, air fair changes from day to day and is often at its cheapest mid-week, early afternoon and within 6 months of your departure date. Play with different combinations of dates, times and destinations, if you have a few days leeway in your travel plans you are a lot more likely to find a cheap deal. In similar fashion, if you have to book your hotel online ahead of time check out sites like bookings.com, asiarooms.com or agoda.com and check often, there are always new deals popping up. However as long as you are not arriving in the middle of the night, you will often find better deals on accommodation once you’re on the ground, especially in bargaining cultures like India, Indonesia and Thailand (though not at peek travel times like Christmas or Easter).

Pay attention to local festivities and peek seasons:

 Find out what’s going on where you’re headed. Local holidays, carnivals and festivals can mean a huge discrepancy in the price and availability of food, transport and accommodation. Likewise seasonal highs and lows will affect what you pay for things. During the annual camel fair in Pushkar, India you will run up against heavily-booked hotels at double or even triple the regular price, while traveling the west coast of Thailand in the low season means easy bargaining and cheaper digs.

Pack light:

Carry as little luggage as possible. I know girls that will travel with their entire bathroom and half their wardrobe, including 4 pairs of shoes and a blow dryer, for a 3-week vacation. Think before you pack. What do you really need and what will you actually use. Traveling light will save you money. Equipped with only a backpack you are capable of using public transport rather than springing for overpriced airport cabs, it also decreases the likelihood of theft and/or loss of luggage and allows you to take internal flights without paying the ever-increasing excess baggage fees. Plus it’s just easier!

Think outside the box:

If you are on a short trip you are likely not going to get too far outside the heavily touristed areas, in some places this is difficult even on longer journeys. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get inventive. Don’t go falling for those glossy package deals and the flashy poster-advertised mini-adventures you see on every street corner. Forced fun is a false experience anyway. Instead do a little digging. Find local guides and boat captains, book with companies directly rather than through an agent or your hotel and whenever possible go for the independent exploration angle. Often guides are a luxury, not a necessity, and armed with a map and a rental bike you can go it alone at a much lower cost and have a farm more unique experience.

Manage your inner party persona:

One of the easiest ways to watch your money dwindle is by drinking it. If alcohol is a must on your vacation consider the local 7-11; grab a six-pack and head to the beach. If that’s not enough for you, keep your eyes out for the worldwide Happy Hour phenomena. In most places, in Central America and Southeast Asia especially, you can often get a good deal if you go in for an early start.

The Lonely Planet is a guidebook not a bible:

The guidebooks published by the Lonely Planet and other travel franchises are a great resource when beginning your travel research. They are also useful for last minute, late arrival necessities, but don’t get too attached. There is only so much space in a guidebook so suggestions are just that, suggestions. Don’t be afraid to find your own restaurants, hotels and tour guides. Sticking strictly to Lonely Planet recommendations means that you are literally following in the footsteps of thousands of others, step by step by unimaginative step. It also means you are missing out on some great grub, cheap deals and fascinating experiences.

This is India: Agra

IMG_0350Oh. My. God. The smell!

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. No, literally, I think I did. Not even the seven layers of scarf around my mouth and nose can mask this kind of eye-watering stench. It is like nothing I have ever smelled before. Far beyond the regular Indian stink of urine soaked trash, this new smell is somewhere between rotting diaper and eggy sewage, a hint of sticky curry-perspiration and a definite undertone of animal. Not the live kind.

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My husband and I are coughing into one another’s shoulders, gasping into days-unwashed sleeves for a whiff of even half-fresh air and yet our rickshaw driver doesn’t even seem phased. His round, grinning head just nods slightly to the putter putter of his bicycle wheels as he squints back at us with a happy smirk and an “Ah, yes, welcome, welcome, Agra verrrry beautiful!”

No its not!

My initial thought was to spend a few days in Agra. Sipping Chai from a rooftop café, playing endless rounds of lazy backgammon with my husband and I’d get around to the Taj whenever I got around to it. But its 7:30 am on our day of arrival and after ten minutes of being here all I can think about is leaving. But first we kind of have to see the sights, after all we’ve come this far. We make a mad dash.

India_Agra_Uttar_Pradesh_squalorPerhaps it is because I have spent the early hours of a hot December morning traipsing through the halls of

Cambodia’s Angkor Watt, or because long ago I devoted some serious adolescent energy to climbing 200-something stairs to the top of the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan in Mexico. Or perhaps it’s the Fifty-dollars it has cost us to get in (more than we would normally spend in three days) but for me the Taj is astoundingly unimpressive.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful building but it’s just that, a building.

As the gates open we are ushered through from the foul, sullied streets of a crumbling Indian town to a pristinely surreal world of cold marble and golf-green like lawns. It’s an oddly disquieting sensation, though I do relish the momentary relief from odors unknown.

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It appears that people really only come to the Taj for one reason. The photograph. The majority of the foot traffic on the grounds is concentrated on the area just inside the second gate, a small bench overlooking the long walkway, on which Princess Diana was famously photographed. Lines form and tourists eagerly await their turn to strike a pose, finger atop the Taj’s bald dome in an unimaginative play on perspective.

Heading to the back of the compound we encounter one of India’s many filthy rivers and the stink returns. Looking over the exterior walls of the Taj grounds we watch thick black tar-water oozing by. A dead dog here, a floating rat there. I can’t help but recall the photograph a friend recently showed me from his last trip to India, taken from this very spot. In it a small dog attempts to drag the bloated corpse of a rotting man from the river’s inky shallows.

After an hour or so of sliding on socked feet across the shiny marble floors and taking photographs from every angle possible, my husband and I loose interest in this over-hyped world wonder and go for lunch.

This is India: Varanasi

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Urine.

It’s the first thing I notice stepping off the train, the overwhelming, nauseating, wet smell of days-old urine.

It is the middle of the night and surprisingly chilly, outside the station it’s cloudy and dark. Years of experience have taught me that 3am excursions in the streets of poor cities with all your worldly possessions on your back, is a recipe for some less that agreeable encounters. Here in Varanasi this is even more true than usual. Finding transportation, which would in this case be an arthritic, bicycle-powered rickshaw, almost certainly overpriced because it is in the wee hours of the morning, is only the first hurdle we face. Transport can only take you so far here, we will eventually have to navigate the cow-poop encrusted, maze-like, pedestrian-only allies of the city, and in pitch darkness, searching for a hotel where we aren’t sure we’ll get a room. In addition to tricky transport conditions, this part of India is known for colorful characters, scam artists and late night robberies.

For this reason we have little choice but to spend the remainder of an already frustrating and sleep deprived night on the piss-covered floors of the Mughal Sarai Train Station. Having already lost a camera, computer, two pairs of fake Ray Bans, a pullover in desperate in need of a wash and my reading glasses, to petty midnight train theft, we are weary of our loaded bags and the $10,000 in salary payouts (from a contract we recently finished in Thailand), burning a hole in my husband’s pocket.IMG_0295

Who is stupid enough to travel with that much cash on hand? Apparently we are.

This is a new low in my travel experience. While I have stayed in some pretty down and out joints, sharing a mattress with bedbugs, sleeping in someone else’s dirty sheets, and calling a foam-flat on a dirty floor a bed, I don’t think I have ever spent the night on a piece of refrigerator sized Styrofoam on the floor of a public train station. And this isn’t just any train statin, this is a rat-infested dump filled with rotting oranges, vicious monkeys and what seems like the city’s entire population of vagrant crazies. My husband and I take turns “sleeping”, counting down the hours until we can escape from the ever-present stink of urine and the feeling that we’ve just crossed some sort of line where our dignity is concerned (and yet in retrospect it was a valuable and eye-opening experience summed up simply by “shit, this is how some people live”).

And so goes our first night in India.

IMG_0073Thankfully the sun finally rises, the streets come to life and at last we are free. We are reassured of our decision to tough it out at the train station when we find that almost every hotel, hostel and guest house in town is full. Apparently when my husband said he had checked the dates of local holidays, he hadn’t. We have inconveniently arrived during Diwali, the many-days-long, festival of lights and one of the most important Hindi holidays. As you can imagine, this generates a huge influx in local tourism.

But sometimes negative begets positive and we finally take a room at the only hotel with an available space, despite the fact that it’s about double our desired budget.

We love it.

The Ganesh Guest House is located in a labyrinth of hallways and alleys that seem to lead nowhere, but eventually end up somewhere. It is a clean, colorful and a perfectly placed refuge in the chaos that is Varanasi. The rooftop restaurant overlooks the Gangers River and a set of winding stairs leads directly down to the famous Ghats, a series of stairs dropping into the water.

Now that we are settled, I need a new Camera. It would be a crime to travel here without one. Luckily India is one of those strange places that is as ancient as it is modern and while you can eat fire-cooked curries out of banana leaves and sip hot chai from a hand-pinched clay cup, you can just as easily find your way into the most well stocked Cannon store imaginable.

Finally restored to my prior self, camera attached at the hip I can now explore the city.

Varanasi is disgusting place and it’s my favorite place in India. Cliché as it may sound, there is nowhere is the world as raw as this. It’s a city of life and death, of false holy-men, medical curiosities and gold-glitter pilgrimages. It is the hotbed of all that is sacred in the Hindi world and yet somehow one of the most glaring examples of pollution, overpopulation and a complete disregard for those very wonders that are held so dear.

IMG_0276Take the Ganges, holiest of the holy, here is a river thought by Hindus, to be the liberator of the endless cycle of life and death, a dunk in which, supposedly brings the bather closer to nirvana. Yet in the early hours of the morning it doubles as the city dump yard, a convenient toilet and a cow washing station. Despite being the most unsavory body of water on earth (due in part to the fact that it is where bodies are burned after death) it serves as a place to wash your teeth, scrubs your balls and clean behind your ears. Uniquely it is also a dirty-diaper dispensary and compost disposal. Coming from the world of compulsory recycling, antiseptic toothpaste and a don’t-look attitude towards death it is confusing to me how something so revered can be both bathtub and burial ground. But this is why Varanasi is so great, because I just don’t get it and I never will.

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On this particular occasion, both to my great relief and morbid disappointment there are no floating human corpses. A few cows and a dog, but nothing so grotesque as I had been expecting after hearing my husband’s stories of charred cadavers and skull goblets. Instead the river today is just a stinky, slow moving cesspool of mucky mystery.

But Varanasi isn’t all death and dirty water, its also one of the most colorful examples of life, both literally and figuratively. There are people everywhere. A striking young woman lays freshly cleaned Sari’s to dry in the dirt along the Ganges while gangs of children partake firecracker contests nearby, screaming at tourists to get out of the way before the tiny blasts blow apart chunks of dried cow dung and mashed trash balls. In the market pathway a man holds the head of a dying cow in his lap (he will do this for three days straight), caressing its muzzle and muttering in its ear. Down by the water a group of old women sit side byIMG_0040 side forming dung patties for cooking fuel while at street level a man in a floor-length pink Lungi chases a goat out of his shop. My husband is approached repeatedly by the same crooked-walking boat captain trying to sell him a river ride and small girls materialize from nowhere with colorful pots of skin paint and attempt to decorate on my hands. As evening draws near groups of holy men and gurus, fake and real, model dramatically while tourists pay for pictures. In Varanasi, as in much of India, life is lived backwards, upside-down and totally in public.

For me a day on the streets of this mystic city is as confusing as it is thrilling and leaves me with a full memory card and the desperate need for a shower.