Widgets A Round-the-World Travel Blog: Devil May Care: Pallavi Archives

Pallavi Archives

In response to a New York Times Practical Traveler article on How to Beat the High Costs of Dialing Abroad, I wrote the author an email agreeing with her suggestions of a prepaid local SIM card and Skype. She'd mentioned that her next column would address data roaming charges, and I recommended that she note the Amazon Kindle 3G as a device for avoiding all data charges while abroad. My advice didn't make it into How to Beat Roaming Fees While Traveling Abroad, but did get edited into a brief letter published in today's Times.

I thought I'd expand on that a bit here, as I've already been singing the Kindle's praises all over the rest of the internet for the last few months but only Tony has blogged about it here. The $189 Kindle 3G was a generous Christmas gift from my parents, who were somewhat befuddled as to what they should give a daughter who was going to be living out of a suitcase for another seven months, and my older sister arranged for me to get it upon arriving in Hong Kong. It was almost immediately useful, but not as one might expect.

On the Amazon page selling this product, one of the features on which I'm focused is trumpeted loudly and repeatedly: "Kindle 3G, Free 3G + Wi-Fi, 3G Works Globally." As a result, most people who have considered buying a Kindle 3G are well-aware that "Built-in Free 3G connectivity uses the same wireless signals that cell phones use, but there are no monthly fees or commitments--Amazon pays for Kindle's 3G wireless connectivity. The added convenience of 3G enables you to download books anytime, anywhere, while on the go--without having to find a Wi-Fi hotspot connection. With wireless coverage in over 100 countries and territories, Kindle 3G is a great option for travelers."

The other feature, however, is easily missed, leaving the impression that the 3G can be used only for book downloads. But if you look closely, there it is: "WebKit-Based Browser - Free 3G web browsing (experimental)." The reason to underplay it is right there in the parenthetical; the browser feature is still in beta and thus far Amazon hasn't made it a major selling point. But it's what made the Kindle seriously helpful on this trip, beyond its capacity as travel guide storage. With free 3G web browsing available in most countries we visited, I could finally check email, Tripadvisor reviews, the news and a great deal more even when we didn't have Wifi.

My first realization of just how fantastic this was came on the Hong Kong subway, as I was running late to meet an old classmate for lunch. How to let him know that I'd gotten lost but now was found and would be there a few minutes after the appointed time? I knew he had a work-issued Blackberry, but I didn't have his cell number and in any case was trying to avoid using our emergency international cellphone, with its high rates, for anything other than an actual emergency. I clicked on the Experimental Features, opened the browser and went to Gmail. It was slow, especially if I didn't click the "HTML only" option, but it let me log on to my email and successfully send a message. Social disaster averted!

Using the browser, we could look up a hotel's phone number so a New Delhi taxi driver could be given directions; check on the best-rated restaurants in Granada just after exiting the Alhambra; and email my sister when we weren't sure if we had Egypt-India flights booked yet. If the internet made our type of loosely-structured, plan-as-you-go-along kind of round-the-world journey possible, the free international 3G browsing on the Kindle added that extra touch of "No need to worry about making all our decisions while we're getting Wifi -- I can look it up on the road."

I don't want to mislead anyone with my evangelism for the Kindle. The browser is much slower using the 3G network than it is on Wifi, and it can handle only one window at a time, which means you can't click on anything that pops up as a new window. The Kindle screen, built to handle text, does not show images from the web very well. The navigation, built for moving amongst text in a single size and type, sometimes gets confused by the variety of Web HTML. And all Kindles are subject to occasionally freezing up and requiring a hard re-start, though this doesn't seem to cause them to lose any data, not even the last page one was reading in a book.

Still, I can't think of anything better at a similarly reasonable price. Its sheer physical anonymity -- easily mistaken for an actual paper notebook when you have it in a protective cover -- makes it a much smarter travel accessory than flashier and more famous devices like an iPad. In Vietnam, the only country we visited that wasn't among Amazon's 100 with wireless service, an employee at a Hoi An tailor shop asked about my Kindle but quickly lost interest when she realized it wasn't from Apple but some unknown "Amazon." Capitalist brand obsession takes another victim. Speaking of which, you can also get the Kindle 3G $50 cheaper, at $139, if you don't mind having advertising running on it.

She looked at us all radiantly. "Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it."
"We ought to plan something," yawned Miss Baker, sitting down at the table as if she were getting into bed.
"All right," said Daisy. "What'll we plan?" She turned to me helplessly: "What do people plan?"

-- The Great Gatsby

With only a few days left in Malaga, we're getting into checklist mode, although this last week is especially stretched because I'm cramming two weeks' worth of Spanish lessons into one. Nonetheless, today was a good day for checking items off the list: visiting the Museo Picasso~Malaga; hanging out at the beach; trying some recommended paella.

Even with the checklist as reassuring organizational tool, however, I forgot two important things:

(1) The Museo Picasso may be one of the least-known Picasso-related sites in Malaga, at least among locals, because the building has no relationship to the artist. It's a lovely 16th century palace with marble columns and railings, built over some interesting archaeological ruins from both the Roman and Islamic eras, but its only connection to Picasso is that the museum opened there in 2003.


View of the second floor of the Buenavista Palace, which houses the Museo Picasso.

In contrast, the rest of the city center is dotted with plaques proclaiming that here is where Picasso's father was born, there where Picasso was baptized, over thataway where Picasso pere did some artwork of his own... I specifically asked my taxi driver to take me to the Museo Picasso on Calle San Agustin, to which he agreed and then tried to drop me at the house where Picasso was born, on an entirely different street. After repeatedly insisting that this was the Musee Picasso, he finally condescended to type "Musee Picasso" into his GPS, and discovered that my destination really was not Casa Natal.

(2) Malaga's city center is one of the best places I've found on this trip for strolling around on a sunny afternoon. Unfortunately, part of what makes it so nice for pedestrians is that cars aren't permitted in large sections of the area, and the taxi driver declared that the Museo Picasso was in one such area and that he couldn't get any closer. This was technically untrue, as there were roads closer to the museum. But since I lucked out finding the most direct walking route from where he dropped me, it almost certainly would have taken longer to coax him to take me to a nearer drop-off than it took to hurry to the museum by foot.


Sol y sombra in the Buenavista Palace's courtyard.

Probably the cheesiest excursion in which we've participated so far was a daytrip from Quito to visit "the center of the world." Ecuador lies on the equator, and has been drumming up tourist revenue for decades by memorializing this fact at an exhibit called Mitad del Mundo. The revelation that this exhibit is erroneously placed did nothing to dampen the showman's spirit; instead, now there are two sites to visit as part of the standard tour if one wishes to see the equator: the original, traditional one and what claims to be the scientifically-accurate one.

The latter is the much goofier of the pair. Privately-run, it features various phenomena that the guides initially tell you are peculiar to being on the equator: eggs balancing on end; water flowing both clockwise and counter-clockwise; humans becoming suddenly weaker.

Mitad del Mundo

Tony and Pallavi stand in supposedly different hemispheres at the Intinan Museum.

Of course, these aren't truly things that can happen only at the equator -- something we know both because you can do these tricks elsewhere, and because this site isn't the "real" equator either. Still, it can make for an amusing excursion, complete with a Totemic Forest and exhibits of pre-Columbian Ecuadorean communities.

Guinea pigs

Guinea pigs are inevitable anywhere that purports to depict Andean Native life.

On the Variety of Muggings

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During my first week at law school, I heard the story about a classmate who'd been mugged. I always think of this anecdote as The Most Polite Mugging Ever. The story went that he'd been out late and was walking home while talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone. Two guys came up to him and showed him a gun. He handed over his wallet, but asked if he could have the student ID back. The muggers did even better than that: they emptied the wallet of cash and gave it back to him.

I later related this tale to a conservative judge who was a lifelong New Yorker, and he was disgusted by my label for it. "That's not a real mugging. That's more like an involuntary transfer of property. Like a tax on living in New York."

For my own part, I lived for almost six years in Manhattan without encountering any crime at all. Eventually I even stopped wearing my handbag slung crosswise (strap on the right shoulder, going diagonally across my body with the bag itself on my left hip) because it made me look like a paranoid tourist.

I have become similarly more self-assured in traveling. Though we purchased money-belts at Wal-Mart before we left -- the kind you wear under the waistband of your pants -- and I used mine initially in Quito, the lack of threats offered to us made me feel this was unnecessary. The bag I was using on this trip was a dark red canvas sack on a nylon strap, borrowed from a male friend of K's who had picked it up in San Francisco's Chinatown, and it did not at all suggest that it held anything of value whatsoever.

Last week, on what was to have been our last night in Marrakesh, the bag was stolen in what I consider The Least Useful Mugging Ever.

One Stop Shop Bangkok

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Much like that of Jakarta, the upper-class and expat life of Bangkok seems to revolve around massive, icily air-conditioned malls offering both foreign brands and high-end native goods. During our month in Bangkok, Tony and I visited Siam Square at least once a week on average, whether to see "Megamind" and "TRON Legacy" on its IMAX screen or to replace some outworn item of clothing. But aside from the extraordinary queues at Krispy Kreme (I was the only person who bought a single doughnut, and the standard order appeared to be the maximum two dozen), and the comfy loveseats that were the most expensive option at the movie theaters, there's nothing very interesting about Bangkok's malls. Their near-identicality to the malls of North America is an argument for the plausibility of Let's Go to the Mall! as an international hit.

While the ratio of tourists to Thais is probably higher at Chatuchak than at the malls, I still recommend the sprawling weekend market for only-in-Thailand entertainment value. I first heard of it in a JetStar inflight magazine that offered recommendations from various cities' locals who were in the tourist business. While I never got as fond of larb moo (minced pork salad) as the PR coordinator did, she was on target about Chatuchak: "you can easily buy several items of clothing, lunch and an hour-long massage for [$50]. Massages are around 350 baht ($12) an hour -- you can't say no to such prices."

That description might make Chatuchak sound like it's just a cheaper version of a mall, but it's vastly more interesting. Set on 30 acres conveniently located near a SkyTrain station, it's divided into 29 sections where thousands of vendors sell not just clothes, food and massages, but also Buddha statues, dining tables, books and CDs, flowering plants and fruit trees... everything you'd think of wanting to take home. If I had a permanent place to live in Bangkok, I'd be furnishing my home and garden entirely from Chatuchak. Plus there's the unforeseeable items you can't find even in a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, like smoking pipes and live scorpions (for pets or for dinner). The animal section of the market must be seen to be believed: puppies, bunnies, parrots, reptiles, rodents -- any living creature that can be fit into a carryable cage or aquarium, including baby crocodiles.

The only aspect of Chatuchak that isn't 100% awesome is intrinsic to its being an open-air market in Bangkok, i.e. that walking around it can get extremely hot and dehydrating. Visiting in the early morning (around 7am) helps you avoid both the crowds and the worst heat of the day; late afternoon ought to be good as well, but some vendors already close up shop by 4pm. I have heard from other travelers to Thailand that there are cool times of the year, but late January-early March evidently is not one of those seasons, so any outdoor activity should be planned accordingly.

When Tony and I were driving into the Lakes District, on our way to the Ambleside YHA we passed a school that had a large roadside sign advertising their upcoming production of the musical "Rent." I immediately wanted to see it, because I'd never seen an amateur production of "Rent" and was especially curious to see how it would be done by a secondary school. The idea reminded me of a Sue Sylvester line from Glee: "That was the most offensive thing I've seen in 20 years of teaching -- and that includes an elementary school production of Hair." (Though "Rent" thankfully lacks the infamous nudity of "Hair").

I first saw "Rent" during its Washington DC run, when I was in my last year of high school and in town with my father to tour colleges. Having seen a stream of rave reviews from the New York press about this groundbreaking show, I'd reserved tickets far in advance and was full of anticipatory excitement to see it. I knew that the show had updated "La Boheme" by using AIDS in place of TB, and that several characters were gay. What the New York press hadn't mentioned, however, was that the dialogue and lyrics frequently make explicit references -- to S&M, masturbation, ED (remember this predates ubiquitous Viagra ads) -- culminating in the song "Contact." Watching the show with Dad, I'd winced at each sexual remark, but by the end of that song, which depicts the characters having sex complete with all the noises, I was ready to sink through the floor with teenage embarrassment.

Nonetheless, I loved the musical, bought and memorized the soundtrack, and even saw the traveling show in Houston a few years later with my parents, when I was older and less horrified to have them in the same room as a joke about an "inability to maintain an erection on the High Holy Days." Still, the minor trauma of that first viewing sticks with me and made me want to see The Lakes School's production. How would teenagers cope with not just watching such a show with their parents, but performing it in front of them?


While this hostel has turned out to be unworkable for us due to minor problems like the total failure of the radiator on the second and third floors of the building, I was inclined to like it our first night here just because we could peep out the little dormer window and see Lake Windermere.


Alas, unlike the Lake Poets, I'm more fond of bodily comfort than of beautiful scenery. Therefore we've abandoned this view for a bed & breakfast that doesn't look out on the lake, but does have working radiators and ceilings high enough that Tony doesn't have to remain in a permanent stoop.

Quito Eats

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The capitol of Ecuador is not one of the notable food capitols of the world, but we had some good meals there nonetheless. I'm afraid we didn't take pictures anywhere we ate, but we did take some photos of a place where we refused to eat: the internet-infamous Menestras del Negro.


Despite all the gawking Westerners taking photos of its signage, Menestras del Negro lacks a significant web presence of its own -- its site just has pictures of its meals and numbers to call for local delivery -- so I have no idea what inspired the monkey-with-bone-fork "Negro" logo.

Valentine's Day Dinner at Nahm Bangkok

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To celebrate Valentine's Day, we splurged on the special occasion set menu at Nahm, a restaurant helmed by an Australian with the controversial mission of "striving for authenticity" in a "decaying" Thai cuisine. In appropriate Greek tragedy fashion, Chef David Thompson recently suffered the loss of his London restaurant's Michelin star. Nonetheless, an Australian couple and their expat friends we met at Sky Bar had recommended Nahm to us as worthy of being our fancy meal out in an otherwise budget-minded stay in Bangkok. So we dressed up in some of the new clothes we'd acquired in Vietnam and set out with open minds and mouths.

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Name Dropping

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One of the few differences between the "Don't Leave Home Without..." section early in Lonely Planet's Cambodia and the same section in LP's Vietnam guide is: "Other hand things to bring are business cards, as Vietnamese deal them out like a deck of playing cards."

I had a stack of business cards from my old job, but they wouldn't be of much use while traveling, as all of the contact information was for that office. And anyway, "business cards" didn't seem quite right; I'm not engaged in any particular business at the moment, except that of traveling.

While re-reading Truman Capote's novella Breakfast at Tiffany's, I came across what struck me as a timely suggestion. My talented friend Debbie offered to letter-press the idea into lovely thick card-stock, while adding her own touch by inking the edges red and gold. You can read her design blog for the full story, including the relevant literary citation, but here's the results.


Dollar Dollar Bills Y'all

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When you hear that the majority of U.S. currency in circulation is held outside the United States, you may be envisioning piles of dollars in a Beijing treasury or under a Russian billionaire's mattress. But I've been discovering during this trip how much the U.S. dollar has become either the actual or de facto currency of various developing countries.

For example, if you've ever puzzled over the rarity of the Sacagawea coins, wonder no more: they mostly seem to have ended up in Ecuador, which retired its sucre several years ago and now uses U.S. dollars as official currency. Ecuador still mints some centavo coins for amounts less than $1, and the $1 bill is far less common than $1 coins. This change aroused the contempt of other South American countries, which at various times may have pegged their currency to that of the U.S. to minimize inflation, but hung onto their power to print bills. When we excused our clumsiness in dealing with Peruvian money to a guide by explaining that we'd been spoiled by our home currency in Ecuador, he laughed and said that the Ecuadoreans were the joke of the continent for giving up their own money and having foreigners' faces on all their bills and most of their coins.

And indeed in Peru and Argentina, people generally expect travelers to use the local currency. The one time I saw something denominated solely in dollars in Argentina was the $140 visa fee charged only to Americans. (The small town of Colonia, Uruguay, which gets hordes of day-tripping tourists on the boat from Buenos Aires, is less picky and accepts Argentinean pesos.) The same is true in Indonesia -- even when you were given a price in dollars, you were expected to pay in rupiah -- and of course in Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. Until recently, the only country we'd visited that wasn't on the U.S. dollar but where vendors were willing to accept it in lieu of local currency was Canada.

Cambodia is the first instance we've encountered of a country that nominally retains its own currency (riels), but operates almost entirely on American money. When we arrived at Phnom Penh airport on December 29 with only Hong Kong dollars in hand, the airport taxi tout directed us to an exchange service that listed various currencies, including Hong Kong's, but seemed to have bizarre prices for them. The Hong Kong dollar was at almost 8 to the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. dollar was worth more than 4000 riel, so I expected to see Hong Kong at something like 500. Yet HKD was listed as 7 and change. It took me a moment to realize that the exchange was of various foreign currencies not to riels, but to U.S. dollars.

Travel advisories on making the trip to Cambodia by crossing overland from Thailand all emphasize that one should not be fooled into exchanging money for riels at the border, despite the scam artists insisting that you'll need riels once you enter Cambodia. Visa fees and everything else can be paid in dollars.

Maybe if you aren't a tourist, you can get someone to deal with you in riels, but everything we've done in Cambodia thus far -- riding tuk-tuks and buses, visiting the Royal Palace and National Museum, buying a book in a foreign-language bookstore, getting a massage, even ordering tickets to a New Year's celebration where 95% of those attending were Khmer -- has been denominated and transacted in dollars. Occasionally a vendor will give us riels in change, because they don't have U.S. coins in circulation, so anything less than $1 will involve Cambodian bills. However, I haven't seen Sacagawea here yet.

Things Undone in Australia

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Aside from the shady neighborhoods like King's Cross in which we stayed, Sydney is the sort of city my mother, a partisan of Singapore and Dubai, would like: clean and pretty.


With the help of a pay-what-you-will tour, we saw a reasonable amount of it; we walked the Harbor and CBD, and I took the subway out to the suburb of Davidson in order to make a delivery from the original Galapagos post office. No doubt that a guidebook could find many more "must-do" holes than these, but the following are a few idiosyncratic regrets I have about our stay.

Island Paradise Update

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After a quick flight from Jakarta to Bali, we spent a couple days at The Island hostel, then took a slightly hair-raising boat ride to Gili Trawangan, one of three tiny islands off the coast of Lombok. Here we've been reading novels, giving Tony time to recover from his chest infection/cold, and contemplating the clear, warm waters as a good place for our next dive.

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The view from the bar at Hotel Vila Ombak, where we've gotten our first cocktails on this island that taste like they have alcohol. Well-suggested, John.

Scattershot of Thoughts on Leaving Sydney

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I'm writing this from the Dharmawangsa Hotel in Jakarta, where we arrived last night after a 6-hour Qantas flight from Sydney. Tony will be posting more on this hotel, with pictures, but let me just say that this is by far the nicest place we have stayed on this trip -- without being the most expensive. If you want to party like a rockstar while on a symphony-violinist budget, Indonesia seems to be the place to do it, so long as you're not a rockstar who requires bacon in his Old Fashioned.

  • The Magnum Temptation chocolate ice cream bar heavily promoted in Australia and New Zealand, including a commercial featuring Benecio del Toro, nearly lives up to the hype. They even figured out how to keep the brownie chunks from being too hard despite being in a frozen dessert. Go Unilever!

  • Speaking of Unilever ice cream, the one "foodie" experience we had in Sydney was at the Food & Wine festival, where you buy tickets that entitle you to try some of the offerings from various restaurants and producers. The only free items I spotted were Ben & Jerry's and Yellowtail wine. In the entire time we spent in this region, I never saw a single drinks menu that featured either Yellowtail wine or Forster's beer. I suspect that whole "Australian for beer" slogan is a hoax perpetrated on the rest of the planet.

Free Nights in Argentina

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Just before we left Buenos Aires, we attended a birthday party for the South American Explorers club, which we'd found to be an invaluable resource in both Peru and Argentina. In addition to offering good company and cheap food and drink, the SAE BsAs clubhouse held a raffle in which every other ticket won a prize. As members, Tony and I had gotten multiple tickets, and thus got multiple prizes. Unfortunately for us, they were all vouchers for accommodation in Argentina, of which we already had as much as we needed. Moreover, they were for dorm rooms in hostels, which we rarely used as we preferred to have a room for just the two of us rather than possibly bunking with strangers.

Fortunately for you, however, the manager of the clubhouse said we could pass the vouchers on to friends so long as we sent him an email to let him know who would be claiming the free nights. So! if you were thinking of going to Argentina for the lovely Southern Hemisphere late spring, or have a friend who is, we would be happy to have the vouchers get some use. They expire on December 15 of this year (2010), and are as follows:

* 1 voucher for three nights' stay at Pax Hostel, in Buenos Aires.

* 3 vouchers for one night's stay each, at Hostel Mendoza Inn (which is at the address Aristides Villanueva 470, Mendoza Ciudad).

Please let us know ASAP if you or someone you know would like these.

Guniganti Girls Take Buenos Aires

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With both of my sisters visiting for the next few days, I'm really focusing on what's worth seeing and doing in this city. What follows is a very tentative, front-loaded plan, because I know that all sorts of factors may alter the outcome. I've already been foiled in "listen to live jazz" tonight, because Notorious, a record store-cum-restaurant-cum-performance space, made an exception to its usual jazz-supporting policy to have a klezmer orchestra play instead. Charming fellows with a cute "Fiddler on the Roof" medley, but not a good example of Buenos Aires's famed jazz scene.

- Morning: Greet my older sister, coming off the overnight flight from Texas. This and other events will obligate being up and about before 9am.
- Noon: Recoleta cemetery. We've walked by dozens of times, but never yet gone in, though it's probably the most famous site in the neighborhood where we've rented an apartment. What better way to welcome someone to Argentina than to show her where Evita's remains lie? Nearby, we can get coffee and medialunas ("half-moons" or croissants) at La Biela, a historic cafe.
- Afternoon: Sirop Folie. I think I've made clear my views on the desirability of a cream tea, and I'll have been awake early enough to justify it!
- Evening: Tango lesson and show, along with dinner and a drink. All this has been promised for 190 pesos per person, thanks to the help of the great South American Explorers club.

- Morning: Plazo de Mayo. Another place we've walked by but not closely explored, and breakfast at Cafe Tortoni.
- Noon: Lunch at Clasica y Moderna. Like La Biel and Tortoni, it's a cafe notable, i.e. a restaurant with an interior protected by historic preservation law.
Afternoon: Shopping in Recoleta. I haven't bought much clothing on this trip, but even I can admit that my existing wardrobe, bought for both its durability through multiple washes and its cheapness that allows me to be indifferent if it falls apart, is just not working for going out in this city. When we had dinner and cocktails a few nights ago, I wore a $10 dress from Macy's with flats; the woman who preceded me into the restaurant was wearing a fur coat.
Evening: Dinner at Cafe Garcia, famous for its multi-course meals dispensed essentially at the owner's whim.
Late night: Putting the results of the afternoon shopping to use at a dance club -- maybe Tequila? KiKa? Suggestions are very welcome.

Sleeping off the previous night, getting one sister on her flight and hitting the to-dos on my other sister's list. Also, perhaps visiting Persicco or Chungo, two of the most-recommended gelaterias that I have yet to try, and another late night out.

A day in Colonia, if we can get on the boat to Uruguay. Otherwise, retreading the San Telmo and Recoleta markets for gifts and souvenirs, and checking off the missed items of this list and my sister's.

Getting Sister 2 on her flight and putting ourselves in order for an upcoming trip to Patagonia...

Before we went to Ecuador, I had never heard of Otavalo. But once there, it and Banos were the two day-trips that everyone suggested. Otavalo, aside from having its own share of tourists, is about as different from Banos as two Ecuadorian towns can be. Banos's tourist appeal is based on outdoor activities and nightlife; it's essentially divorced from the particularities of the people and their culture.

In contrast, the big draw in Otavalo is a weekly market populated largely by people from outlying towns and villages, many of them wearing traditional garb. This consists of bowler-esque hats, embroidered blouses and long black skirts with white or colored underskirts on the women; lengthy braids (allegedly signifying virility) and pajama-like pants on the men. It's no once-a-week costume for the tourists, either, as we saw several people dressed this way going about their business in town on days before the market took place. Many of the products at the market are produced nearby. Tony acquired a jaunty Panama hat that came with its own box in which to be rolled up, and I got a dark red llama wool poncho that occasionally needs to be petted back down when the long strands of wool get ruffled.


Celebrations with Gaston and Others

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Tony and I recently had all our individual special occasions (i.e. as distinct from general holidays like Christmas) in quick succession: our second wedding anniversary while we were in Quito, and our birthdays while in Cuzco.

A Break in the Avoidance of Quakes

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As Tony mentioned, we had a narrow escape from Cuzco prior to the strikes and protests that have left some tourists semi-stranded. Having signed up with the U.S. State Department to receive email alerts, I saw the following in my inbox:

September-October Strikes & Elections in Cusco

The U.S. Embassy wishes to alert U.S. citizens residing and traveling in and around Cusco, Peru of possible travel difficulties due to strikes and political demonstrations in the weeks prior to the upcoming October 3 municipal elections. The Peru Rail tourism train between Cusco and Machu Picchu will be closed Tuesday September 21 and Wednesday 22 due to transportation strikes. Travelers should be aware of possible impediments or delays to their travel in this region, particularly in the lead up to the October 3 elections, and remain flexible in their plans.

It would have been nice to get this earlier than 8:47am on Sept. 21, when Tony and I already had reached the airport, but probably the U.S. Embassy doesn't get much more notice of these things than the rest of us.

However, once we reached Lima, we had a different kind of disruption: on our first night, around 3am, we woke up due to an earthquake tremor. It wasn't particularly noteworthy -- a mere 5.9 even at its epicenter 110 miles away from Lima -- and I wouldn't mention it except it ended my pattern of earthquake avoidance on this trip.

Consider: an earthquake shook central Canada just a few days before we crossed the northern border. A tremor passed through the D.C. area the day before I arrived for a friend's wedding in Northern Virginia. Both were extremely unusual for the areas in which they occurred.

As we'll be passing through several more earthquake-prone areas after Peru, hopefully all future tremors will be as negligible as the one we felt in Lima. I woke up, but quickly fell asleep again, and in the morning vaguely thought I'd had a dream about an earthquake, until the owner of the hostel asked me if I'd felt it.

Cruising the Galapagos on the Encantada

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I swear that I'm usually a sensible researcher and purchaser of big-ticket items, but when it came to buying a Galapagos cruise for Tony and me, I fell in love with a ship, of which I saw only tiny, indistinct photos, based on its color description: candy-apple red. Somehow the idea of a shiny scarlet sailboat was so appealing, I did pretty much all my comparison shopping based on which agency offered the best price for a one week cruise on this particular ship. They were all in the same range of approximately $2000 per person, including airfare to and from the Ecuadorean mainland but not the various national park fees.

The Encantada appears to be owned or at least directly operated by a company called Scuba Galapagos, but as they were not responsive to my queries through their web form, I actually booked our trip through Voyagers Travel. I was fairly pleased with them overall, though I wish they had put us in the matrimonial cabin as they promised they would do. (In fairness, I have reason to suspect that they put in the request and this was ignored on the fly by the ship crew in order to appease the complaints of other passengers.)

The Galapagos is an expensive destination, but I would recommend it as wholly worth the time, money and trouble. As Tony's posts indicate, we saw many beautiful, extraordinary, sad and funny sights in our one week, and there was never a day that I wasn't glad I had chosen to make this trip. That said, I'm not sure I would tell everyone to book the Encantada; it really depends on what's important to you in a vacation experience.


Boozing Across America

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Particularly given the so-hot-you-could-fry-an-egg summer New York just endured, I can't say that I spent much time regretting being on the roadtrip instead of in the city. The only story I heard that gave me a twinge of wistfulness for being outside Manhattan was Frank Bruni's report on Ward III, a cocktail lounge that promises to make whatever drink a customer wants, and to save the recipe for her. In his review, Bruni declares, "There are two pronounced strains in current cocktail culture. One exalts the classics, treating them with the reverence that a gourmand accords Escoffier. The other prizes whimsy, imagination, tweaking and tinkering."

There's truth to this, though one should be aware that a bar can hold both strains simultaneously. For example, two of our favorite Prohibition throwbacks in NYC, Death & Company and Please Don't Tell, naturally emphasize old school cocktailing, but their bartenders are also willing to play with the classics upon customer request. And our absolute favorite bar in Houston, Anvil, recently swapped from a hyper-emphasis on the classics (their original shtick was a list of "100 Cocktails You Should Try Before You Die") to a menu of original formulations by their bartenders coupled with a changing shortlist of their current favorite classics.

We wrapped up our North American road trip by hanging out with family: Tony's brother Mike in Phoenix, my parents in East Texas and my older sister Prathima in Houston. We also stopped in El Paso for Tony to show me his old haunts from when the Rickeys lived there, and Austin to see some old friends of mine.

Having been burgered, we made good time to San Francisco, where Tony's friend K very generously hosted us for a week. As she was house-sitting part of the time, we got to see multiple neighborhoods and modes of living in the city, from an apartment in the Castro to a single-family home in a gentrifying Latino neighborhood.

I've always liked San Francisco, and I see new aspects of it each time I visit. This time, K introduced us to a couple of good bars, of which Smuggler's Cove may be my favorite place to drink ever: good cocktails, reasonably priced by San Francisco standards, bartenders kind enough to bring my purse up to me when I forget it, and pirate-themed!  

One of the serves-four punches at Smuggler's Cove

Useful Advice for Bed & Board

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A belated thank you to the commenter who suggested using the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives website for places to eat and AAA and for places to sleep. I was initially a bit skeptical of DDD because when I'd seen the show on the Food Network, I couldn't get past host Guy Fieri's annoying mannerisms. In online form, however, DDD is a great roadtrip resource; both of the restaurants we tried that were recomended by it turned out to be tasty and reasonably priced.

After the vaunted Music & the Spoken Word taping, I ate lunch at another SLC institution that has not been overhyped: Ruth's Diner. You get massive, fluffy biscuits as soon as you sit down, and while it's a little expensive compared to a genuine diner, the quality of food and beautiful setting in Emigration Canyon on the outskirts of town make up for that. The only problem was finding parking and getting a table for Sunday brunch, as the place was packed by noon.

A few days later, as we were driving from Reno to San Francisco, we stopped for lunch at Burger Me, which had just been added to the DDD list and hadn't yet had its episode air on TV. This meant that when we showed up at the 11am opening time, the small restaurant and parking lot were empty and we got our food quickly. Again, it might be considered a little pricy for a burger joint, but considering that it's near a California resort area (Lake Tahoe) and has very filling portions, I think it's worth the money.

IMG_0368.JPG saved us from making a significant mistake in Reno. Circus Circus in Vegas has a decent reputation, and I figured the one in Reno would be the same. It also was offering very cheap rooms. However, I thankfully checked it on raveable before booking, and the reviews there convinced us to go with the El Dorado instead, which wasn't quite as cheap but turned out to be surprisingly nice and well-kept. At least from the exterior, the Reno Circus Circus lived down to everything negative said about it. Definitely the scary kind of clown show.

I wanted to stop in Salt Lake City solely for one purpose: to see the Tabernacle Choir perform. I'd heard a lot about them, and Mormon friends advised me that Music & the Spoken Word tapings are open to the general public and well worth attending.

We reached SLC early on a Saturday afternoon, dropped our stuff at a downtown hotel, and headed to the fancy nearby shopping area to see if the Apple store had a useful case in stock for the new iPhone. No joy there, but we got lunch and enjoyed watching children play in the fountains, and came back that night to see Despicable Me. While Tony was at the hotel getting some paperwork done, I went to the not-so-fancy mall to acquire a sundress suitable to wear to church. Technically the summer performances of M&SW are at the Conference Center, not the Tabernacle, and no dress code is mentioned on the website. Still, I felt certain that I'd better be looking like Sunday morning.


Quito Catchup: Why Now?

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It may seem paradoxical that my first opportunity to sit down and catch up on blogging the North American roadtrip is on my first full day overseas, but there are a few good reasons for it:



This post brought to you courtesy of the Wifi at the Quito "Speed & Grill"

Views Along 80 West

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Reclining in the passenger seat, post-pedicure, watching Big Sky country go by.

While most rest stops on the road between Chicago and Salt Lake City are pretty dull (even the Little America one, which tries so hard), there's one that's worth visiting. It doesn't sell anything cool -- doesn't sell anything at all, in fact -- nor are the bathrooms worth writing home about. I only noticed that there was anything out of the ordinary about it when I saw a dozen children in a plain dirt field, alternately standing very still and scampering excitedly.

After celebrating Canada Day in Ottawa with thousands of Canadian strangers plus Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, we spent Independence Day more restfully with Tony's parents, cousins and family friends in Michigan. We got a break from the fast food diet we'd been developing on the road, with home cooked meals and more tasty baked goods (chocolate chip cookies, cherry pie, pineapple upside-down cake) than was at all good for me.

We then went an unintentional step further into gluttony by stopping at a Texas Corral restaurant on our way to Chicago. Tony ordered an entree for us to split, added a shrimp side, and figured he also should get an appetizer. I was skeptical, but not because of the cost. The whole meal, beverages and tax included, cost $20. 

Rather, I had looked around and remembered: we were back in non-coastal, non-urban America ("real America," as Sarah Palin would say). A restaurant order that would be just enough to stop hunger in New York or Canada was going to be way too much food for two people in Franklin, Illinois. And I was right. Our waitress kept bringing us warm rolls with containers of cinnamon butter; the appetizer filled a platter; the entree, with its attendant salad and sides, defeated us entirely. I thought it was kind of a Fifth of July moment: it's a great country that can feed its people so well for such a relatively small amount of money.

With only a couple of exceptions, people's reactions to hearing that Prince Edward Island was on our itinerary broke down neatly by gender lines.

Men: Oh. Why? What's there? Where is that, anyway?
Women: Like in Anne of Green Gables? You're so lucky!

P.E.I. Generally

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On Friday, we left Stephen King country

for L.M. Montgomery territory.

Bleg: Travel Insurance

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For as long as we're in the United States and Canada, we're covered by the COBRA extensions on the insurance we had with our employers. Once we get on the plane to Ecuador, however, we're on our own.

We need travel insurance to fill that gap, by covering any emergency medical/dental care we receive overseas, as well as our evacuation to the U.S. in case the emergency occurs somewhere with subpar health care.

So far, we've had trouble finding such insurance. Most plans limit the length of a trip to 90 days or less; we need a plan that covers close to a full year. We'd ideally also like to pay less than $1000 per person for the plan, and are willing to take on a high deductible in return. Have any readers had experience with such a plan?

Water, Water Everywhere

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The Inn at St. John, where we stayed Wednesday night, had a "European-style" setup in which bathrooms are separate and down the hall from the bedrooms, but the bedrooms have a working sink, as well as bathrobes and towels. After the slight awkwardness of washing up in a hallway bathroom and dashing back to our room in towel and robe, Tony drank coffee, I dropped Nutrigrain bars for the road into my purse, and we headed out. As recurred through the day, our outdoor plans were dampened by the fitful rain. We'd intended to walk through Portland's Old Port area, but after driving around for a bit, decided that we'd instead start the drive to LL Bean before noon.

The LL Bean campus in Freeport really does stand out, even in that area of yuppie outlets (going in and out, we passed North Face, Abercrombie, et al., along with the nicest McDonald's I'd seen since Milan*). There's separate buildings for Home Furnishings, Hunting & Fishing, as well as the original gear for hiking. We looked around the latter, but the most desirable thing found was the Archery Range. I talked Tony out of paying $12 per person for the Range's use, pointing out that in Michigan we could use his own archery set for free. There is the minor problem of finding a place for archery; my suggestion of the golf course on which we'd previously gone sledding was quickly shot down as likely to incur liability at worst, and the wrath of club-wielding golfers at best.

For lunch, we stopped at the famous Red's Eats lobster shack along Route 1 in Wiscasset. The restaurant is reputed to have the best lobster roll in Maine, and they are generous with the fresh chunks of meat in the sandwich. Still, at $15 for plain lobster with an oversized piece of toast folded underneath -- not to mention the lengthy wait to order and receive -- it tasted a little overpriced. Aside from the wallet pinch, it was a good time: the rain had stopped, and the tables set up outside Red's, shaded by trees and umbrellas, offer a gorgeous view of the water.


When looking for a place to spend the night, our default is to check, but that website heavily favors chains and has very few of the independent inns that populate so much of this area. When it does list them, they often have few or no reviews, leaving us clueless as to whether Mom & Pop's Motel is a fleapit or an under-appreciated bargain. (I have read too many articles in New York publications about people bringing home bedbugs from hotels to feel OK about just checking into the nearest quaint-looking B&B.) and lack a low-high price sorter and can make discovering the exact rate for the night quite difficult.

If anyone has a suggestion about a better way to meet our goal -- a clean, decent but not-fancy room at a low price -- please do leave it in the comments or email it to us. In particular, a website similar to with regard to highlighting non-chains, but that focuses on more moderately-priced accommodations, would be welcome. In the meantime, we'll probably be trying out AAA's recommendations and booking them through when available there, as is offering a promotion in which one gets a free night's stay for every ten nights booked through the website.

Road Trip Theme Song: Country Edition

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People have told us that this road trip will afford us a great opportunity to relax, to discover our country, to learn more about each other and ourselves. However, there is one opportunity of this road trip that no one had mentioned, but that we are enjoying very much: country music on the radio. Of everything you can get in New York -- and that really is quite a list -- you cannot turn on the radio and hear country music.

Since the genre is one of our shared favorites, and we've heard it so little in the last few years, the minivan's radio tuner frequently falls upon the local country stations scattered up the East Coast -- again, everywhere except New York. Today, I heard for the first time a Zac Brown Band song that, while not musically brilliant, is currently my front-runner for a road trip theme song. (Debb's proposal of "Roam" has the advantages of (a) working for the international leg as well, and (b) being a song people have, you know, actually heard.)



The Missing Part of the "C"

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You might notice that the roadtrip doesn't make a complete circuit of the country, but instead forms a "C" shape, beginning in New York, curving up through Canada, across the Midwest, down the Pacific Highway and coming to a stop in Texas.

For me, there's already been a kind of prelude to the roadtrip Tony and I are taking together. My parents loaned us their minivan, but as my parents are in Texas and we would be starting our trip from New York, we somehow had to be united with this minivan.

Don't Stop Believin'

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The regular TV season is over -- although there are temptations to find cable during our roadtrip -- so I think it's time to start our own adventures. These begin with selling several of our possessions, renting out others and putting the rest into storage, whether in Long Island or Michigan or Texas.

When people ask me what made me decide to spend a year traveling, there's not a single answer. Part of the motivation is a kind of magical thinking. If I go away for a year, I'll come back and everything will be better: the job market, the housing market, the political situation. And even as a non-magical prediction, I'm fairly certain that things will be different, even if not what I would consider better, when we return.

So in one way I'm trying to hurry time, or have it exert a change, but in another way I'm pushing back against time.

Things We've Seen

Things We Like