Monday, October 15, 2012

Day 5 - The Neverending Dinner

The work weeks are tough to deal with. Right after work at around 5:30am, the Indian team usually goes to sleep since all their family is also sleeping when they get home. After they get their 7-8 hours of sleep, they wake up and run errands, eat, or do normal daily tasks that we Americans probably do after work. Then after dinner, they head to work, when they aren't the most refreshed from a full night of sleep. I finally experienced this today, and boy was it tough to finish the work day today.

Still trying to adjust to the difference in schedules, I woke up around 11AM, getting about 5 hours of sleep. I spent the next couple of hours working and surfing the web. At around 4:30pm, my colleague picked me up so I could meet with the rest of my Accounting team for a dinner prior to work. We got there at around 5:30pm. Unfortunately, I came to town during a very important local election, which would occur tomorrow. Due to the importance of this election, alcohol was not served yesterday, today, and won't be served tomorrow. They declared it a dry day when we got to the restaurant - no beers or cocktails for me!

The dinner was a buffet, but it would only start at about 7:30pm when everything was set up. We ended up having some mocktails, sheesha, and pre-starters. The first question a waiter usually asks is "Veg or Non-Veg?" to accommodate for the strong practicing Hindu or more lax worshipper. Half of us decided on the Non-Veg while the other half opted for the Vegetarian option. While I was eating, I assumed the pre-starters were the appetizers, and the starters were the actual "buffet" we were paying for. I stuffed myself only to realize at 7:30pm that the real buffet started. Everything looked good, but unfortunately, I couldn't get myself to eat more than a couple bites of the actual meal.

Work was terribly difficult to get through, as we all had food coma by the time the shift started. I definitely caught a couple of my colleagues dozing off... I guess that's the difficulty of working a grave yard shift, here in India, and also anywhere else in the world. 

The Neverending Buffet with my colleagues

Lebanese Prawns

Vegetable Starters

Local Peanut Vendor

Local Fruit Vendors

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Day 4 - Delhi to Dehradun

Since I got an abundance of sleep over the past few days, it was effortless for me to wake up at 7am in the morning, something I am not usually able to do during the week. The hotel provided a continental buffet of breakfast items from India as well as the West.

Afterwards, I headed to the Radisson hotel near the airport to have a short meeting with one of our Chartered Accountants for my company, who work on our India side of our business. Man, does it get confusing trying to learn about the India governmental restrictions on operating a business in the country! But I guess it would be the same for an Indian to learn about our procedures here in the USA.

My flight was soon after the meeting, and I headed to the airport to catch the flight to Dehradun. It took 30 minutes to fly to the city located north of Delhi. I arrived at the Jolly Grant airport, which was about 45 minutes drive away from the heart of Dehradun, or the "Doon Valley." My colleagues were there to greet me, and we drove through the only highway to reach the city. Along the way I saw a vast network of forests (or what they call 'jungles' in India).

We reached town where I had some South India cuisine, called Masala Dosa. It resembled a quesadilla, but with peas, potatoes, and spices mixed together to comprise the inside, instead of the cheese you would get in a quesadilla. It was a simple, but delicious first meal here.

I checked into my hotel at around 5PM, which was not very kempt, reminded me of my backpacking days... and three hours later, I was at work! My Indian counterparts work the night shift to allign with Los Angeles working times. Although I was tired from the travel and lack of sleep, the first working day was not to difficult to get accustomed to, probably because I was excited to meet everyone.

Touchdown Dehradun!

The Surya Namaskar - a series of yoga positions to salute the sun.

Masala Dosa, a South Indian dish.

My Accounting Team!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Day 2-3 Revisiting India

I forget how exhausting long travel can be. These next few days were a transition day from NY to Delhi. I took a flight at 3PM Saturday in New York, and arrived in Delhi at 2PM. The flight was surprisingly hiccup-free and pleasant. Air India has some spacious economy class seats, and it was easy to rock to sleep to the vibration of the airplane, but that's about as much as I really did for the next 14 hours - sleep, eat, work a bit on the laptop, and watch "Dark Shadows," which was surprisingly mediocre from the expectations of a Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter/Tim Burton flick.

Upon arrival in Delhi, I almost forgot that I would have to stay thick-skinned against the scammers. I inquired about getting a SIM card and were quoted high prices for hefty "minute" packages, but all I wanted was an emergency 100 minute plan. Even though this would be covered by my company, I still felt like I had to just walk away and go somewhere else to get a better deal. Saving money for the company I guess...

Walking out and hiring an airport taxi was also an ordeal! I thought that getting a "licensed" taxi from the airport booths would be hassle-free, but of course, the taxi drive drove away from the airport, didn't turn on the taxi meter, asked me if I'd pay a flat 1200 Rs fee instead, and tried to drive me to other hotels, in hopes I'd switch rooms and he'd get a commission! I refused, instead demanding that he turn on the meter, pretended I had a phone with service, played a couple of my voice messages to provide a little leverage in power, and he still drove to other hotels, asking me if I had already paid for the hotel I was going to. He ended up pretending not to know where the hotel was and had to call them to get the directions. After a waste of another 15 minutes and extra mileage on the meter, I finally arrived. He printed a receipt for the mileage with the airport fee of 80 Rs. I paid a little extra for tip, and he still tried to scam me another 80Rs as if I didn't read the receipt which clearly charged the fee already. I called him out about it and he acted dumb.

I love you New Delhi!

The rest of the day was spent at the hotel, which was close to the airport, but really not near anything worth exploring. People stay at these airport hotels for any layovers before heading to other areas in India. I felt out of touch with the real India, since it really just accommodated the business traveler, but I'll get my share of real-er India soon.

Always loved the welcoming decor upon arrival at the Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi!

An edible Air India Meal

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Day 1 - the Big Apple (NYC)

Setting out one more time for an international trip around the world, with major differences from my last trip:

1) This trip will last 3.5 weeks, as opposed to 7.5 months
2) A majority of this trip is for business.
3) I have a bigger budget this time, and a per-diem stipend!
4) All flights and locations of travel have been predetermined and pre-booked.
5) I will have to lug around a large roller suitcase, instead of my beloved backpacker sack.
6) This is more of a vacation than an adventure.

I was lucky enough to find a job quickly after I settled back in Southern California, and even luckier to find a position with a global company with offices in Brazil, India, and China. After eight months of working, I was given the opportunity to travel to our India and China offices for a couple weeks to meet the team and provide operational solutions to some of the inefficiencies we face as a small company.

Since I would already be in the area, I decided to take an extra week off to visit SE Asia once more, and also see the Taj Mahal in India, one thing I missed last year. I should knock on wood... Trains have been booked to and from Agra, and it's on the itinerary, but travel in India can be sporadically inefficient and unreliable, so who knows? I booked a flight on Kingfisher Airlines, but the bankrupt company kept revising my departure time that I finally had to rebook a flight at the last minute. Employee unrest has prevented the company from operating effectively...

The first leg of my trip was a quick stop in New York to visit my friends in Brooklyn. I hadn't been back since New Years, and I still have dreams of living in this city one day. Plus, a flight from Los Angeles to India would be too much for me to handle, from one side of the world to the other. The flight from NY to Delhi alone is already 13 hours! LA to Delhi would be 18+ (including a guaranteed layover somewhere).

I packed last minute, reusing some of the travel supplies that I brought along with me last time. Just looking at some of these items that were tucked away in my backpack behind all my other crap in my closet brought back wonderful memories of my last trip.  There were still a couple things I had to purchase though, including another travel adapter, new backpack (my durable North Face backpack finally ripped at the zipper), and some toiletries.

Took a Thursday Red-eye straight from work to the Airport and arrived in NYC at 5:30am next morning. It took about 45 minutes to go through security at old, reliable, LAX, and everyone had to go through those full-body scans, something new to me. I thought it was a "random" lottery, but I guess TSA is getting a little more voyeuristic these days.

I met up with my good friends Eric and David and just reconnected for the next 24 hours. Surprisingly, I stayed out and about until the AM, something I didn't think my 26 year old body could do these days. We dined, walked around Williamsburg, shopped in Soho, dined, shopped some more, dined, and had a couple cocktails by the end of the night. As long as I'm staying active throughout this trip, I'll be happy!

JFK Airport - New York

Union Station - Los Angeles

My good buddies - David and Eric

Friday, February 10, 2012

Backpacking - Taking the Essentials with You

After over half a year traveling with one backpack full of necessities (and some deadweight), I figured I should advise others on what some of the essentials are when planning a long-term trip while carrying (or wheeling) your belongings with you.

There were definitely things I was glad I brought, things I threw away along the trip, things I wished I had, and things I kept, hoping I'd need them along the trip.

TOP 20 Essential Items

1. Coghlans Pegless Bungee Clothesline
If you plan on washing your clothes on your own as you travel for long periods of time because you want to save money or because washing facilities are unavailable, this is a very functional, effective, and adaptable clothesline to dry your clothing. Using 2 yellow elastic bungee cords wrapped around each other, clothes can easily hang in between the cords without the need of clips. Staying in hotels and/or guesthouses, it was easy to find places to attach the clothesline, whether it be on doorknobs, chairs, or towel racks.

2. Elgin Travel Alarm Clock
The alarm clock is small enough and lightweight to carry throughout your trip, and is reliable for the days you need to wake up to catch a plane or bus ride. The clock folds to a compact size that prevents the user from accidentally clicking the buttons. When the clock is unfolded, the case serves as a stand. The blue glow of the screen is easy on the eyes, especially when your eyes are accustomed to the darkness. Uses 1 AAA battery, which I did not need to change in 7.5 months. The alarm was loud enough to wake me from sleep without scaring me. Only quirk about the clock was the snooze function, which allowed me to sleep only an extra 4 minutes before the alarm went off again.

3. Maglite AA Mini Flashlight and Holster
Definitely a good buy for times when you need light (or torch) while walking around the city in the dark. It's produces a strong light considering the size, which is maybe about 1 foot in length. Heavy, but durable. I did not need to change the 2 AA batteries over 7.5 months. The light also comes with an extra lightbulb built into the flashlight in the case that the lightbulb burns out. The holster was unnecessary, in my opinion. I used it mostly when I was in hostels and didn't want to wake others up by turning on the main lights, and when I was trekking the jungles in Nepal at night.

4. Eagle Creek Travel Gear Hidden Pocket
I purchased two different hidden pockets, one that went around my waist and one that wrapped around one of my calves. These were great to separate your money and keep it hidden from potential pickpocketers. The calf pocket was more secure, but took longer to personally access. In addition, you could only wear the calf pocket with non-slim pants, and not in shorts, which you would probably be wearing throughout your visits to the hot and humid regions of the world. I ended up only using the calf pocket when I wore pants through the airports. I wore the waist pocket almost every single day of my trip and it provided easier access to my funds, while keeping it a little more safe than an ordinary wallet in my back pocket.

5. Pillow cover and duvet cover (from Ikea)

It is highly suggested for you to purchase any pillow cover and a cheap duvet cover if you plan on roughing it in cheap and potentially unsanitary hostels or guesthouses. I used an old duvet cover that I purchased for less than $10 at Ikea. That way, if you are ever in a potentially dirty room, sleeping in a bed with sheets that seemingly haven't been washed properly, you could always use the thin sheets of the duvet cover as a sleeping bag. The cover could also be used as a thin blanket if you ever need it.

6. Combination Locks 

Combination locks are essential to keep your bags secure while walking through the streets or while they are in transit on a flight from one country to another. I particularly liked the MasterLock cable luggage locks because of the flexible cable, which made it easier to attach to my bags. It is a TSA-accepted lock, which means you can lock your bags and the TSA would not have to cut it open in the event that they need to search your bags. Note that if your main traveling bag is a 40+ liter backpack, chances are that there won't be a way for your to lock your bag with a lock. I used my locks mostly to lock my small day backpack and for lockers at hostels. It was also a little difficult to turn the combination dial on my locks after a while, which could be due to wear and tear or rust.

7. Compressible Storage Bags

I didn't purchase the storage bags shown above, but they provide a visual of the type of bags I am talking about. These bags are incredible at minimizing the amount of space your clothes fill inside an already small backpack. I ended up purchasing about 4 of these bags at a Japanese knick knack store in Malaysia. Put all your clothes in a huge zip lock back, roll the bag so that the air goes out a one-way valve on a corner of the bottom of the bag, and air does not reenter unless you open the zip lock bag to access your vacuum sealed clothing.

8. Amazon Kindle

Lightweight and compact, this device is essential if you plan on reading throughout your travels and intend on keeping your reading materials afterwards. I met a couple of backpackers who purchased books and wanted to keep them after reading them. They ended up carrying a stack of books with them throughout their travels instead of shipping them back, which created added weight to an already heavy backpack. I purchased the kindle with free 3G access, which made it simple to download any new books I wanted in most of the places I traveled to. I also tend to read more and faster when I read on a kindle, since I feel that I don't really know how far away I am from finishing a book, which makes it less likely that I will put it down from discouragement. My kindle unfortunately broke while I was in Nepal, and I had to resort to purchasing physical books, which wasn't a big deal, as long as I didn't keep the books after I was finished or I shipped them back home. Also, I found out through my travels that there were plenty of free book exchanges in hostels where you could swap a finished book for a new one, saving you some travel money.

9. Netbook
Essential for numerous reasons - to maintain contact with people back home, to blog, to store pictures, and to  keep up with current events. While it was a slight pain to lug a mini laptop around, it was one of the easiest ways to stay in contact with friends and family through facebook or skype. Most of the hostels and hotels I stayed at offered free or inexpensive internet access, which made it more convenient and worthwhile to have a  netbook with me.

10. Insect Repellent

Mostly for my travels in Southeast Asia, mosquitoes were prevalent in all the hot and humid areas. It is difficult to find a potent and effective repellent without the DEET eating away your sensitive skin, but I think it's better than constantly scratching bug bites throughout the day. No insect repellent will be 100% effective and you WILL get bitten numerous times, but I'll use something that will decrease the number of overall bites.

11. Unlocked International SIM Cell Phone

Having an unlocked international SIM phone was convenient when contacting couchsurfers and hostels/hotels. The price of SIM cards varied in different countries, but I usually spent anywhere from $5-$40 in each country to have the minutes/internet access for the duration of my stay. Having internet access made it easier to navigate a city as well, especially those uneasy moments when you first arrive after a flight or train/bus ride. The navigation also helps to reassure you that you aren't being scammed by a taxi driver who might drive around in circles, running up the meter.

12. Alice Park Flap Wallet
Not particularly necessary, but I loved my Alice Park wallet since I used it everyday. Slim and heavy-duty, it was easy to hold some of my cash and a couple of my credit cards in the wallet in the front pocket of my pants. I got it soaking wet a couple times, but it dried and was useful again and again.

13. Apple iPod Touch (16G)

Preferably with good speakers to block out any outside environmental noise...especially when you are stuck in a loud Karaoke bus in Thailand, or on any various night at a hostel where drunk backpackers are bound to come back during the wee hours of the night. Having my own music made me feel less lonely and more at home during the times I was by myself. Music was my companion.

14. iHome Rechargible Mini Speakers
These were stolen about 3 weeks into my trip, but I did get a chance to test them out for a month prior to my travels, and the quality of the sound in this little speaker was exceptional. I ended up having to boot up my computer to use the speakers while I was in my hotel room, which was a hassle. I am 100% certain I would have used these speakers throughout my trip had they not been stolen :(

15. REI MultiTowel Lite Large Towel
For the times you are not provided a towel from the hostel you are visiting. This towel is lightweight, thin, but super absorbent. Also, the material quickly dries, which is helpful when you don't want to pack a damp towel in your backpack as you continue along on your travels.

16. Flight 001 Passport Cover
Not really essential, but I found it nice to have a passport cover to keep your passport in good condition. It's better to have it in pristine condition when going through customs. Who knows what type of problems you could face with a wet, dirty, or torn passport in another country?

17. Johnson and Johnson Baby Wipes

I was especially thankful to have these when I was sweating my ass off in the humid and dusty countries I visited. A quick way to clean and cool off.

18. Zip-Loc Bags

Good for organizational purposes and also to pack your toiletries for your carry-on baggage at the airport.

19. Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer

You never know when there won't be water, soap, napkins, or a bathroom available...

20. American Apparel Tri Blend Tank Top
Probably the one shirt I used the most throughout my trip. It made me cool in every sense of the word :) The breathable and lightweight material made sweating tolerable, and it was one of the items that was quicker to dry when I hand washed my clothing. It lasted throughout my trip and I still wear it to this day.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Back to Reality...

The whirlwind tour of the world has officially come to an end. I arrived back in Los Angeles last Wednesday, happy to be back, and feeling accomplished in all that I experienced throughout the past 7.5 months. It felt amazing to walk through the airport at LAX, anticipating the reunion with my think, it was months ago that I was in the same airport on my way to Vietnam for the first leg of my trip. The first things I enjoyed on my first day home were seeing my parents, grabbing an IN-N-OUT burger, finally having clean laundry, and listening to music in decent speakers in my room.

I had a wonderful homecoming in New York before Christmas, where I spent a little over 2 weeks at my friends' apartment in Brooklyn. I think I was just happy to be in a comfortable and familiar environment, that I really didn't take the time to sight see. We went to Soho almost every other day to have a meal or go window shopping during the Christmas and New Year season. I decided to cook a Christmas dinner for the boys in Brooklyn. One of the dishes was a "Hungarian Mushroom Soup" that I found a recipe for online. It required 2 cups of chicken broth, but I ended up added 2 cups of chicken boullion...which ended up destroying the soup, making it inedible, unless you wanted to develop kidney stones while drinking the salty "soup." Cooking just isn't really my thing...

New Years was spent with my friend EJ at Times Square. We didn't want to camp out in the wee hours of New Years Eve to get a good spot, so we took the subway to the side streets a couple blocks west of the ball. There was no way to get closer since all the streets were cordoned off, and we couldn't walk further away from the ball because once we left a zone, we would not be able to reenter. We spent the 2 hours walking around the block numerous times to keep warm. Luckily, the weather in the city wasn't too cold, despite it being Winter. In the end, we were able to see the ball for about a minute, but once the countdown started and the ball dropped, it was blocked by the buildings around it. It was anticlimactic, but still something I could cross off my bucket list.

After New York, was a one week trip to San Francisco to see some of my other friends before heading back home. It was the last stop on my tour, and immediately entering the city, I already felt like a stranger, even though I'd been to the city numerous times in the past. All that changed once I saw everyone at random points throughout my stay. San Francisco and New York, two beautiful cities I wouldn't mind spending a couple years working and living in...