Author Archives: Rebecca Anne Nguyen

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About Rebecca Anne Nguyen

Founder of TheHappyPassport.com, solo female travel cheerleader, author of 175 Ways to Travel Today.

A Taste of Thamel Kathmandu

Street art in Thamel

I kind of suck at traveling because I’m lazy. I don’t do enough research, or rather, the things I end up researching never end up being the things I see.

I like wandering around foreign cities and getting lost. As romantic as that sounds, I usually end up finding out about really cool shit after I’ve left a city, and regretting my complete lack of investigatory ambition.

I’ve been in Thamel Kathmandu for over 24 hours and have yet to explore the city at all. This is because in addition to the travel books I’m ghostwriting, I have a shit ton of other work that needs doing.

As glamorous as it sounds to be a digital nomad who’s location independent, at some point you have to, like, work.

After arriving in Kathmandu Sunday night, I have spent the better part of Monday and Tuesday holed up in my room at the Holy Lodge guesthouse, strapped to my laptop. The smell of incense wafts in through the screenless windows, and my thoughts drift from the article I’m writing on small business taxes to the wonders that await me in the streets below.

 
A dog digs through garbage just outside Thamel

A dog digs through garbage just outside Thamel

Harmonic motorbike horns and Western music serve as the baseline for the melodic clinking of hammers on asphalt. The exciting symphony tempts me outside – when my client set this deadline, he didn’t actually mean it was due today-today, did he?

Thamel Kathmandu is the winding, labyrinth-like neighborhood that’s one big eye roll for cooler expats living in less touristy areas of the city.

Last night’s saunter around my guest house revealed bustling streets filled with backpack-clad Nepalese students, backpack-clad backpackers, and a constantly changing mix of locals, cows, motorbikes, taxi cabs, and one mysterious, ginormous Western women adorned in a delicately woven head scarf, an Indian sari, and a menagerie of glittering jewels.

Delicious hygiene food!

Delicious hygiene food!

I’ve never been so struck by a stranger on the street. She was easily over 6 feet tall, built like a linebacker, with bright blues eyes and the confidence of a Greek goddess.

No one could have possibly stood out more amongst a city of Nepalese, who tend to be thin, chestnut-skinned, with willowy limbs and eyes that make you feel like you’re tumbling through dark chocolate.

The Goddess floated on top of the riveted gravel, her sari and veils clinging to her like she was born wearing them. I would’ve bet money she was from Cincinnati.

Thamel at night

Thamel at night

The temperature today is a balmy 65 F and I have to laugh at the images I had about Nepal before coming here – I had pictured myself leaning with all my might into icy, 90-mile an hour winds as I desperately attempted to navigate snow-capped mountains and shield myself from the blinding cold with a yak-hide Snuggie.

But it’s quite warm, the windows in my room are open, and the endless rooftops stretch out beneath the sun like lazy, belly-up cats on worn carpeting.

And yet there’s something about Thamel that feels like a mountain ski resort. If a black cloud of smog and a wild, meandering herd of cattle suddenly descended upon Vail, Colorado, it would be probably look and feel something like this.

After being in Thamel Kathmandu for 24 hours, here is what I’ve learned:

  • A “departmental store” is like a Nepalese Trader Joe’s, where you can find everything from peanut butter to face wash. The main one in Thamel is staffed with honest (if dreadfully bored) young women who are used to foreigners handling rupees like Monopoly money. The guy in line in front of me handed the cashier way too much, and I was impressed when she handed the correct change back without missing a beat. (What did I expect, that she’d pocket the rest? Perhaps.)
View from the Holy Lodge rooftop terrace in Kathmandu

View from the Holy Lodge rooftop terrace in Kathmandu

  • You don’t have to negotiate for most things. Prices are listed in convenience stores and on menus. If there is no price, you better ask before you buy or risk getting slammed after the fact.
  • A bottle of water should cost 20-25 rupees. Any more is a rip off.
  • Recent travel warnings having to do with violence in Nepal are complete BS. The people seem to be happy and peaceful, and I can’t imagine any sort of political demonstration impacting a foreigner negatively, except for some buses not running or shops being closed. The big red travel warning on Wikitravel has so far proved ridiculous.
  • You can easily eat for $1.50 in Kathmandu – probably less if  you’re more ambitious than me. I found a great little Indian restaurant called Sandesh Lumbini Tandoori Dhaba. It’s right in Thamel, about a 2-minute walk west of the Holy Lodge Guest House. I don’t quite know how to tell you what street it’s on, because hardly any of the streets in Thamel seem to be marked. Even if they were marked, they’d simply wind until they joined up with another street, and then there would be real confusion.
The best Indian food in Thamel

The best Indian food in Thamel

Thamel feels safe, even cozy, and while I’m not usually one to cower in the tourist part of town and surround myself with a bunch of other foreigners, being in Nepal for the first time is cause for major culture shock. When it feels like you’ve stepped off the plane onto another planet entirely, it’s nice to spend a few nights listening to bad Eagles cover bands and eating French fries.

Don’t be afraid to ease yourself in to another country – you don’t have to try all the crazy foods, become best friends with a local family, and volunteer to milk someone’s cow all on the first night.

Have you been to Thamel Kathmandu? What’d you think? Where do you go?

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, availableFebruary 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. A "departmental store" is for peanut butter and tampons, not for discounted work blouses.

2. Don't pay more than 25 rupees for bottled water!

3. If you're on a budget, grab a full (delicious) Indian meal at Sandesh Lumbini Tandoori Dhaba for $1.50.

4. Travel warning, schmavel warning. I traveled in Nepal during a time when WikiTravel said DO NOT TRAVEL TO NEPAL and had no problems (and saw no demonstrations, protests, or violence).

5. Don’t be afraid to ease yourself in to another country - you don’t have to try all the crazy foods, become best friends with a local family, and volunteer to milk someone’s cow all on the first night.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Extreme solo travel in the Indian Himalayas

“If you’re bored with life, if you don’t get up every morning with a burning desire to do things, then there is more to life than you have yet to realize.”

The morning light finally hits my tent and I poke my head out for a look around. The sun has risen above one of the many 6,000m peaks in the vicinity, warming the high altitude air considerably and tempting me out of my sleeping bag.

I put on wool socks, long underwear, and a large down jacket before venturing out. Mornings above 5,000m are never warm, even in the middle of summer.

I start my stove and prepare my daily breakfast of oatmeal as I munch on a few Indian crackers. I am starving – yesterday was one of the toughest days of cycling yet, but by the time I finished setting up my tent I no longer had the energy to make a proper dinner.

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After sleeping twelve hours I feel refreshed and alive. Plus, every moment cycling is always worth the effort and the exhaustion I endure. Every single painstaking breath I take at this altitude is worth waking up to the rocky and desolate beauty of the Indian Himalayas.

There are no trees, no birds, and no humans. The only sound I hear, beside the quiet hissing of my stove, is coming from the small trickle of water running along the rocks beside my tent. I know I am the only living creature for kilometers around. The altitude has created a stark rocky landscape where nobody and nothing can survive, and with it, a haven for mountain loving cyclists.

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It’s late, just past 11am by the time I pack up my tent and slowly start on my way, but I don’t mind. I would spend months camping here if I could.

I continue climbing the pass I spent all day inching up yesterday, cycling on the dusty unpaved switchbacks they laughingly call a road. My speedometer occasionally flickers to a depressing zero, the device doesn’t believe a cyclist could seriously be going slower than 4km/h.

Little does it know that this snail’s pace has become my new normal over the last few weeks while traversing Ladakh and Spiti, the high altitude mountainous regions of northern India, where I’ve reached an altitude of 5,600m while cycling over the highest motorable pass in the world.

solo-travel-solitude-6

Though I only have a few kilometers left on my journey, I know it will be another hour or two until I make it. I’m no longer shocked how long a few measly switchbacks can take in these conditions, and I couldn’t think of anywhere else I would rather be.

Just before I reach the top I come to a nala, a small stream that flows easily over the rocky road as if it wasn’t a road at all (which it’s most definitely not).  I have encountered many streams such as this one along the way and I usually push my bike across, soaking my socks and shoes as I walk through the ice cold water.

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This time I decide to cycle through the stream in order to stay dry.

I’m halfway across by the time I feel my bike tipping dangerously, and suddenly my bike and I take a plunge straight into the freezing water.

So much for staying dry.

I eventually reach the top of the pass, wet but content, and decide to dry off in the sun as I prepare a noodle soup to go along with my cookies and peanuts.

It is late in the afternoon, so after eating quickly I pry myself away from my relaxing picnic site and head on down the path’s steep descent.

Though I have always envisioned descents to be the “fun part” of cycling, in reality, going downhill is mentally taxing and the death grip I use on my handlebars leaves me with hand and arm pain that lasts for days.

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There are definitely more enjoyable descents than those done on rocky cliff-side unpaved roads, but probably none more astounding or terrifyingly thrilling.

There is no one and nothing around, I’m alone in the middle of the Himalayas. In fact, the region is so peacefully quiet that I sometimes forget that I’m not alone in the world. It is the feeling of solitude, blissful, wonderful solitude.

 

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is a currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

Have a question about solo travel for Shirine? Post it below!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

9 Reasons You’ll Lose Weight Traveling

Forget your fear of packing on the pounds after a 10-day Caribbean cruise. Where you’re going, there are no all-you-can-eat buffets, thousand-calorie cocktails or cheese lover’s pizza.

Hell, there probably isn’t even cheese.

Where you’re going, my friend, is to a magical land of effortless travel weight loss, where the very foods you eat and air you breathe will melt the pounds away faster than you can say “How can I do this at home?”

Here are 9 reasons why long-term, international travel will help you lose weight (sometimes whether you like it or not.)

1. You’ll get sick

Ok, I hope that it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting you try and get food poisoning.

That being said, you probably will get food poisoning at some point during your travels. If not the full-blown, coming-out-both-ends version, you’ll at least get traveler’s diarrhea as your stomach attempts to navigate the rocky waters of so many foreign invaders being dumped down your gullet.

The good news is that once you’ve recovered (as a mean, lean, 10-pounds-lighter version of you), your system will be able to handle just about anything.

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Best crab ever or worst food poisoning yet?

Get sick early in your trip, and you can relax the rest of the time you’re traveling. Hell, after my Exorcist-like episode in Nepal, my immune system is so strong I don’t even have to wash my hands anymore.

Kidding. Kind of.

2. The food is fresh

Meet your dinner.

Meet your dinner.

That chicken you’re eating never saw the inside of a truck, was never shipped anywhere, and was never frozen. In fact, she probably lived about a block away from the restaurant you’re eating in right now.

In the absence of hormones, preservatives, and the chemicals we’re used to ingesting when we eat at home, the body begins to deflate at lightning speed.

You can even choose “bad” foods – like fried foods, and bread – because somehow even those are less fattening.

My theory is that all of the ingredients used in Southeast Asia, and even in developing areas of Eastern Europe, are just “closer to home” – the butter was churned a few doors down, the flour was milled at a local farm, the milk came out of someone’s friend’s cow a few hours ago.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that freshness is much more important than the ingredients themselves when it comes to losing weight. Pancakes in Los Angeles make me fat. Pancakes in Vietnam do not.

3. You’re constantly active

travel-weight-loss-4

When you’re traveling, the majority of your time is spent doing stuff, seeing stuff, then getting up early the next day to go do and see even more stuff.

A lot of the time, the coolest stuff can only be accessed via exercise. That is to say, in order to experience what you’ve come to experience, you must first hike to the stupa, climb the waterfall, kayak down the river or cycle across town. In a lot of cases, there simply are no non-exertive (read: motorized) options available.

Even if you’re not into exercise or adventure travel, you’ll end up exercising more than ever simply by going to see cool stuff in whatever town you’re in.

I mean, you’re not going to not see the largest Buddha statue in Vietnam, just because it’s at the top of 200 steps, right? Right.

4. You’ll eat less

Hungry? Here ya go.

Hungry? Here ya go.

People eat less in other parts of the world. In Nepal, dahlbat is served 2x per day, and there’s rarely snacking in between.

In many of the Asian countries I’ve visited, it seems that locals simply don’t eat that much, at least by Western standards. One or two meals per day is the norm.

In Taiwan, on the other hand, people seemed to eat constantly, but it’s always something small – a smoothie, a handful of nuts or seeds, a chicken foot. The eating habits of the entire country make a great case for the whole metabolism-boosting theory.

And yes, a chicken foot.

What surprised me most was how easy it was to fall into the routine of infrequent eating. In Taiwan, I ate less because I was a) a big chicken, and b) too afraid to try a big chicken (foot).

In my subsequent travels, I’ve found it really easy to adopt the eat-to-live habits of those around me.

Again, I’m no scientist and no diet expert. All I know is that when I’m around people who eat less, I eat less, and when I eat less, I lose weight.

5. You’ll feel like a heffer

I feel ginormous.

I feel ginormous.

So….Americans are fat. We all know this. We see the reports of epidemic obesity on the nightly news, we joke about our portion sizes, we marvel at the mesmerizing 500-pound creatures who tend to frequent state fairs…

But it’s not us, right? We’re normal. We could stand to lose 10 pounds, sure, but we’re not overweight.

And then you step off the plane…..

I’m not saying you should lose weight. However, being around people who are infinitely more fit than you are does something to your psyche.

I believe that people are like fish – we adapt to our environment. Put us in a big fish bowl with lots of space, we’ll eat more and grow large. Put us in a tiny space with other tiny fish, we’re sure to follow suit.

Besides, it’s impossible to feel sexy next to gorgeous 90-pound Thai women who manage to make that weight look not only healthy, but like it’s the epitome of femininity.

You may not be inclined to shoot for double digits, but you may very well be inclined to shoot for your own healthy number.

6. You’ll have to wear a swimsuit

travel-weight-loss-9

High heels and model pose are optional.

It’s not hard to never wear a swimsuit at home, but when you’re traveling, there’s always a pool, a sauna, or a midnight skinny-dipping opportunity that seems to be calling your name.

You’re not going to want to feel gross in your swimsuit – especially next to all the tiny local girls!

7. There’s no dairy or wheat

things this delicious actually CAN be good for you

Things this delicious actually CAN be good for you

This reason applies specifically to Asia, where dairy and wheat are rarely used in traditional cooking. You won’t even notice they’re missing either, as you try all sorts of fresh, flavorful, delicious dishes that’ll make you say “Laughing Cow, Schmaffing Cow.”

Rice is no longer your side dish, it’s your God.

It’s your go-to ingredient for everything from noodles to soup to – well, to actual rice. Especially in Asia, you can trust that just about everything is made from rice, meaning you’re essentially removing wheat and gluten from your diet without even trying.

When you eat “naughty” foods you love from home, like noodles and desserts, you’re actually eating rice whether you realize it or not.

Your daily diet will consist of fresh meats or tofu, vegetables, seafood, fruits, soups, and rice, instead of bread, cheese, pizza, and sandwiches. You won’t even be tempted by those foods because a) they won’t even be available, or b) they’ll be available but crazy expensive.

After a little while, you’ll start to feel so clean and energized that indulging in dairy or wheat just makes you feel bloated and lethargic. Who needs ice cream anyway when you can have mango sticky rice drenched in coconut milk? [insert Homer Simpson donuuuuuuuut noise here].

And the best part is that this massive diet change happens naturally – without you having to “try and be good.”

8. You’ll hate the food

Hungry?

Hungry?

I hope this doesn’t ever happen to you, but it’s happened to me. While I didn’t relish spending a month in Taiwan subsisting almost entirely on Ramen noodles, I did lose 10 pounds.

If you hate the food and can’t find anything you like, losing weight is inevitable. [Sidenote: I absolutely realize that there is delicious food in Taiwan and that it’s one of Asia’s greatest culinary destinations. Unfortunately, due to a massive attack of culture shock,  I just didn’t realize it while I was there.]

What’s remarkable is that in the West, we’re so used to being able to get whatever we want to eat, whenever we want it. But in many parts of the world, that luxury simply doesn’t exist. And if you don’t speak the language and can’t ask for what you want, you’re even more shit out of luck.

But look on the bright side – those rumbling hunger pangs are going to make that bikini look better than ever.

9. You’ll sweat your balls off

Sweat stains are SO hot this season.

Sweat stains are SO hot this season.

Have a wedding coming up and want to shed a few pounds? Fly to Siem Reap in April. Or try Taipei in August. You’ll be sweating all day and night. If you’re lucky enough to have AC, you’ll sweat the second you walk outside. Don’t worry about looking like a disheveled jerk, either – everyone rocks sweat stains during the hot season.

I’ve never been good at losing weight, and I’m a notoriously inconsistent exerciser. But since I’ve been traveling in Asia, I’ve lost 10 pounds without even trying. Food poisoning kicked off the slim-down, but fresh food and the local lifestyle have kept the weight off.

Have you ever lost weight traveling? How did you do it?

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

You will automatically lose weight while traveling abroad (especially to Asia) because:

1. You'll get sick
2. The food is actually fresh
3. You’re constantly exercising whether you like it or not
4. You’ll eat less because everyone around you eats 1x per day
5. You’ll feel like a heffer next to all the tiny local girls
6. You’ll have to wear a bikini every other day
7. There IS no dairy or wheat
8. You'll hate the food
9. You'll sweat your balls off

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Checking in to the Holy Lodge Guest House in Kathmandu

The upper roof as seen from the rooftop terrace

My taxi driver rounds a corner and finally stops in front of a two-story red brick building sandwiched between its neighbors, their roofs jutting out into the smoky air like a bulldog’s underbite. This will be my guest house in Kathmandu for the next four days.

It’s been nearly 2 hours since we left the Kathmandu airport on a ride that should normally take only 20 minutes, and nearly 48 hours since I left Los Angeles.

I’m exhausted and happy. Me, the driver, my bag, and all of my hopes and fears make their way into the Holy Lodge lobby, an outdoor courtyard restaurant that gives way to a reception desk and a mysterious-looking staircase.

I thank my driver for the two hour joyride from the airport and pull out a 1000 rupee note to pay him the 650 rupees I owe. “Do you have change?” He blinks at me, frowns. (for those of you counting, that’s my third decisive frown since arriving in Nepal 2 hours ago.)

No change.

I look helplessly at the reception desk attendant, a sprightly kid with enough energy to fix the country’s electricity problem. “I pay now, you pay later.” The kid hands some money to the driver, who glares at me fiercely.

I get the impression that he’s not making the 650+ rupees he’d hoped to, and that the hotel will come out the winner when I eventually fork over the cab fare upon my departure.

We ascend the mysterious staircase to my room, the energetic Nepali kid carrying my blue beauty while I lug my purse and laptop case behind him.

He slings my bag to the ground in front of a door on the second floor, and digs an enormous, cartoonish-looking key from his pocket. The key is so large, in fact, that I begin to wonder if it could’ve possibly been stored in his pants pocket.

I’m relieved to see that I’ve been placed in a private room, as promised. The shared bathroom is on the same floor, with a separate toilet and shower. (This will prove slightly awkward later, whether I’m in the shower while my German neighbor is pooping, or vice versa.)

At least I have a....view?

At least I have a….view?

The room is small and clean, with two twin beds outfitted in what seems to me to be some kind of traditional Nepalese handwoven blankets. I’m in. My things are tossed one Bed A, and I’m about to toss myself on Bed B, when I remember there is a very hopeful, expectant-looking young man standing in the doorway.

I can’t bare the thought of tipping people when I don’t know how much to tip. After being forced to tip before even getting into the taxi, then leaving my driver hopelessly disappointed, I couldn’t bear the thought of doing it wrong again. I also wanted to stop spending money until I could a handle on the exchange rate.

“Thank you so much. I will tip you at end, big tip when I leave.”

There’s that stunted non-English again. His face falls. Crap, I’ve done it again. That’s like 3 times in a just as many hours.

I am a disappointment to the entire nation of Nepal and I’ve only just gotten here.

It’s so confusing, so disheartening to not know whether you’re actually being an asshole, or whether you’ve just protected yourself from being taken advantage of.

Maybe Mr. Energy is pissed because he’s used to getting a tip, and I’m the one moron who’s not biting. Or maybe he’s pissed because I didn’t fall for his act. Throughout my time in Nepal, I will be faced with the same dilemma over and over again, and I’ll never quite know the answer.

 

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Have exact change for your taxi driver so they can’t play the “I don’t have change” card.

2. Have a few small bills in a separate pocket so tipping is easier.

3. Just tip the guy, even though it’s not customary, because YOU will feel better about yourself (this only applies to when you first start traveling - after awhile, not tipping starts to feel more natural, for better or worse.)

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

The Truth about Solo Travel and Safety in India

“The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.”

“You can’t leave! Stay one more week. No, one month! No, no, stay one year!”

This family, like many others in the country, tried hard to get me to permanently move into their small farming village. When I announced it was time for me to continue my journey after two weeks of enjoying their astounding hospitality, they tried everything they could to get me to stay.

During my visit I had been presented to every family member and neighbor in the village, and I still couldn’t walk down the little dirt paths that connected the houses without being invited in for tea, a meal, and a night’s stay.

Shirine as an honorary Indian

Shirine as an honorary Indian

It didn’t matter that I didn’t speak more than a few words of Hindi and they didn’t speak a word of English; I was still treated like a queen. They fed me a new delicious dish every night, explained their traditions as different festivals arose during my stay, and brought me along to not one, but two traditional weddings.

Best of all, I was completed adopted into the family I was staying with. I called the girls my sisters, and the grandmother my ‘gramma.’  I truly felt part of the family.

All of this took place in India, the last country on earth you would expect a solo twenty-year old female (and a blond haired, blue-eyed one at that) to cycle across, especially given the current stories about safety in India circulating on the news.

safety-in-india-2

And those stories aren’t false. India is unfortunately a land of gang-rapes, ignorance, inequality, and fear. It is also a place of kindness, vibrant colors, innovation, hospitality, and happiness.

Unfortunately, the media only paints half the picture of this diverse country, so I am here to tell you the truth: the beautiful, chaotic, horrible, and wonderful truth about India from the perspective of a solo female traveler.

There is no better and no worse place for a solo female than India.

You will be treated as second class, as that is still how women are viewed there. You will be harassed and stared at incessantly with an evil, soul-piercing stare found no where else in the world. You will probably begin to avoid men all together, and you will learn how to stick a rock in each pocket, just in case.

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But it is all worth it. As a solo female you will be taken in by the wonderful women who call this chaotic country home. They will invite you to cook with them. They will teach you to make roti, a small circular bread, over an outdoor wood stove, and laugh at you as you attempt to eat rice with your hands for your first time.

They will dress you up in their traditions clothes, suits and saris alike, and you may even receive a few as gifts as I did. If you get lucky, you will spend a day or two cutting grass with the ladies, and you will surely end up spending at least half the time just drinking chia in the shade and dancing with them. They will introduce you to their neighbors, their families, hell, just about everyone they know.

safety-in-india-4

You will connect immediately with the children in every village and will quickly realize that children everywhere in the world want the same thing: to laugh, run, and play. The women’s place in India is in the home, and so, as a female, so is yours. By traveling solo you will experience the real India and the beautiful heartwarming hospitality it has to offer to us women.

So don’t be deterred by the media and their take on safety in India. They only know half the story.

safety-in-india-1

Go for it. Travel through India alone and soak it all up. Take the opportunities that present themselves and appreciate them to their fullest. Cook with the women, run with the children, and learn to appreciate your position as a woman. Visiting India is a life changing experience you will never regret.

Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.

Have a question for Shirine? Post it below!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

What you've heard about India is true - it can absolutely be dangerous for solo female travelers.

At the same time, it is perhaps one of the most rewarding, life-affirming places a solo traveler can visit.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

How NOT to get your visa in Nepal

I think I'm gonna like it here...if they decide to let me in.

After landing in Kathmandu, I follow the other passengers into the customs area which, along with the rest of the airport, is straight out of the 1970s. I half expect to see Ben Affleck and the cast of Argo  sweating in an interrogation room.

I’m surrounded by wood paneling, green paint, papers scattered everywhere, and ancient looking-security scanning machines. Did I just see a chicken pecking at the torn cover of someone’s passport? (Later, I actually will see a cat that very much lived inside the airport and survived on chocolate crumbs fed to it by Chinese tourists.)

It’s easy to miss the immigration documents that need to be filled out – they’re sort of scattered all along a ledge, and you have to scour to find the form that’s in your language.

I’m well-prepared with my passport photo, my travel itinerary, and the address of my hostel in Kathmandu. The good folks at the Holy Lodge have sent a driver to pick me up – I am to look for the man holding a sign with my name (the second time in my life I’ve had to ‘find my driver,’ and no less thrilling.)

visa-in-nepal-1

The only thing left to do is to hit the ATM, exchange rupees for U.S. dollars, and pay for my 30-day visa.

A Most Incorrigible ATM

Except the ATM is broken.

It never would’ve occurred to me that the ONLY ATM in an international airport would be or could be out of order. Then again, I’d never been to Nepal.

I start to panic. I have a little bit of American money, and some Chinese Yen. Together, they might add up to the $40 USD I need to get my visa. I approach the man at the exchange counter, offering him my Yen. He frowns, handing it back to me.

“No,” he says, simply.

“No?” I panic, eyes widening in terror.

“Too small,” he insists.

He means I don’t have enough Yen to make the exchange worth his while, or at least that’s what I assume he means. I suppose he could be talking about the tiny ball of courage that’s slowly dwindling down to nothing in my chest. Either that, or my boobs.

Panic attack

What am I going to do? I don’t have enough money to enter the country! I’ll have to live in the airport forever! Maybe they’ll send me back on the plane to Kunming and I’ll have to live in China in a muddy village and never have any heat or hot water or WiFi or….

I approach the least scary-looking man at one of the two immigration desks (there are only 4 guys serving the entire airport).

“Is there another ATM?” I squeak.

He glances at me sideways, immediately suspicious.

“It’s downstairs,” he frowns. I’m 2 for 2 in the frowning department.

‘Downstairs’ turns out to be outside the airport, meaning I would have to exit the premises and enter the country without having been approved to do so.

“Soooooo…..can I go? I promise I’ll come right back!”

“Passport” he demands, holding out his hand.

“I leave with you, then I come back?” This fractured sentence marks the beginning of what will become my “Nepalese English” – a slow, stunted, grammatically incorrect way of articulating what you want that may or may not make it easier for non-English speakers to understand you.

Either way it makes you sound like a moron and in a matter of a few weeks, I won’t be able to turn it off.

“Passport” he repeats. Not knowing what else to do, I leave what amounts to my life in the palm of a Nepalese immigration official, and hightail it downstairs in search of the ATM. I don’t realize at the time how potentially stupid of a move this is.

A giant mass of men

Downstairs, I feel every cell in my body ignite, my survival instincts gearing up for a fight. A giant mass of mostly men faces me, yelling and shouting and vigorously waving signs. I don’t know whether to look for my driver – if he’s even there – or ask directions to the ATM, or –

“Taxi, madam?”

Crap! Someone is talking to me. This is not good. I need the ATM, I need….

“Where are you from?”

I keep walking, but give in and make eye contact with…one of the most beautiful humans I’ve ever laid eyes on.

The owner of the voice is some kind of gorgeous dark angel; thin and wiry with caramel-colored skin and shining chocolate eyes. He knows I’m fresh off the plane and delights in my obvious uncertainty.

“I….I need the ATM.”

“This way,” he smiles, guiding me past the dog pack of other drivers. I’m grateful for his help and instantly suspicious. Do I have to pay him now? Is he going to rob me? What’s a good tip for someone who may or may be about to mug you, anyway?

One of my favorite things about Nepal is the fact that ATM machines are housed in what amounts to glass phone booths, complete with doors that close. The doors don’t lock or anything, but there’s something comforting about creating a barrier between your money and the scary world outside.

"Taxi, madam?"

“Taxi, madam?”

I withdraw around 10,000 rupees ($100 USD), fumbling with my card and the cash and the currency convertor app on my phone. My beautiful friend is patiently waiting for me, a fact that makes me extremely nervous.

“I must go back inside,” I explain in Nepalese-English. He follows me like a puppy, and I feel I may never shake him, not for the entire month I’m in Nepal.

“If my driver not here, I come find you” I promise before ducking back inside the airport. I approach the frowning exchange counter clerk again, and am this time met with success. Armed with 50 Real American Dollars (why must you pay for a Nepalese visa in American dollars, anyway?), I march back upstairs –

HOLY SHIT, MY BAG!

No luggage, no cry

Out of the corner of my eye, I see my gorgeous blue beauty lying prostrate on the airport floor, having been dragged by an unknown party off of the revolving carousel and placed ON THE GROUND ALL BY ITSELF – not stacked next to other bags, not piled upon fellow luggage friends, just lying there, alone, begging to be taken.

I practically sprint to my bag and tackle it like an overzealous football player. It doesn’t occur to me that nobody is interested in stealing my bag (which is most certainly the case). I saddle up, breathing heavily from what seems like a near theft and an even bigger fail than my lack of cash.

Getting my visa

With all of my ducks in a row, I am gifted with a 30-day visa in Nepal and am allowed to officially enter the Federal Democratic Republic.

I’m slightly alarmed to see that my visa is only good for 30 days, including today. For some reason I thought the day I entered would be a freebie, but nope – my visa is only good through the day before I fly to my next destination. I guess I’ll have to worry about that later.

A virgin negotiator

I brace myself to exit the airport once more, preparing for some harsh negotiations. I’ve read that everyone here – from the taxi drivers to the guest house owners – will try to rape you on prices if they can. I know this, I’m prepared for this, but I’m also a huge chicken and a big pushover.

Our flight was delayed by an hour, and it took me at least 30 minutes to deal with the visa fiasco, but my driver is still somehow waiting for me, holding a handwritten sign with “REBECAH BOS” in magic marker (close enough on the spelling – if there is an actual “Rebecah Bos” out there, sorry for stealing your taxi.)

The baggage brigade

Amidst the chaos we somehow find each other. He is flanked by a posse of assistants who grab my bags and take off towards a waiting car in the parking lot. I’m flabbergasted and nervous, making sure to keep pace behind the them. The sun is setting over the city but I don’t have a second to take in the soft pinks and blues as they morph into pale yellows, framing the brightly-painted buildings in glorious twilight…

Wait..that's not my taxi, is it?

Wait..that’s not my taxi, is it?

“Some tips?”

A hand is shoved in my face, its fingers gesturing wildly in the universal symbol for “Give me money.”

I’m pissed. I could’ve carried my own friggin’ bag. The posse wants money, and I have no idea how much to give them. I glare at the request, but acquiesce and fish around in my purse for a small bill.

Taking a wild stab, I hand the guy a 5-rupee note, hoping he’ll go away.

“This is very small” he complains. He’s right and everything, but he’s not my driver and I know he’s taking advantage of my shell shocked-ness.

I trade him for a 20-rupee note. He’s still not happy, but gives up.

And we’re off. I ride sans seatbelt, any working knowledge of the Nepali language, or any idea of where I’m going.

This is fucking awesome.

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This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. The arrival documents you need to fill out might be on the floor - look for the one written in English. Oh, and bring your own pen!

2. Have at least $50 USD IN CASH to pay for your visa

3. Assume the ATM will be broken. Better yet, assume there IS no ATM and do your exchanging before you arrive in Nepal.

4. People will try to carry your bag. You don’t have to let them, but if you don’t, you should still toss them 20-30 rupees to leave you alone. (Unless you are very strong and very brave.)

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

A Vision of Everest

The 3+ hour flight from Kunming, China to Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal, is a friggin’ walk in the park compared to the itinerary of the past few days. After a 14 hour flight followed by a 4 hour layover followed by another 4 hour flight and a 14 hour layover, I’m spent. 3 hours is nothing.

It’s the middle of the afternoon and a beautiful day to fly. We soar above the clouds, streams of sunlight caressing the plane wing’s crusted paint job. In the distance, enormous, whipped clouds stretch up towards the heavens, their tufts forming mountainlike peaks that almost remind me of…

Wait just a dang second.

Those aren’t clouds….those aren’t clouds at all! Those are actual mountains peeking up through the clouds, with one mountain in particular stretching her pointy head what seems to be just a few inches higher than her jealous, slightly inferior neighbors.

I don’t know it at the time, but I’m staring Mt. Everest in the eye. We haven’t even begun our descent, which means we’re flying at around 30,000 feet. And I’m just about eye level with the Earth’s most enormous offering. She’s beautiful.

I hadn’t planned on climbing Mt Everest in Nepal. Instead, I suddenly and unexpectedly find myself approaching her from above. Every cell in my body sings as a single thought courses through me: “This is God. God made this.”

I’m forced to tear my eyes away as the plane slices through thick pillows of cloud and suddenly hovers above the ancient city of Shangri-La.

Kathmandu pulsates lazily beneath me, its bright pinks and yellows lining a mysterious valley that looks at once unearthly and inviting.

Each building bursts with its own personality, balconies and rooftops reaching in every direction like teeth in an unfortunate mouth.

A warm haze seems to cling over everything like the top of a sheer circus tent. Mountains stand stark and majestic, protecting the bustling warmth below from outside invaders.

And yet we invade, we descend, and I step off the plane into another world.

One of the most disappointing feelings for me when traveling is that “just like home” feeling. If I travel for 48 hours, I expect to not only see and smell some insanity; I expect to feel like I’m on the other side of the earth.

Kathmandu does not disappoint. We deplane outside and are bused to the terminal. The air is warm and carries an intoxicating scent-cocktail of incense, burning garbage and fragrant spices. The sun shines brightly and I can’t help thinking something along the lines of “I’m in Kathman-fucking-du.”

When you first enter Tribhuvan Airport, you immediately know you’re in Nepal. The entryway into the terminal is filled with hilarious signs that simultaneously welcome you to – and warn you about – the country:

“You’re in Nepal now. Things take longer here”

“Be patient and relax, we do things our way.”

“Welcome to Nepal. Namaste and get over it!”

I’m instantly in love.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available February 2015 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Do everything humanly possible to fly into Kathmandu during the day - ideally, a clear day. You can and will soar above Mt Everest and see a breathtaking view from the plane.

2. Have your camera out when you enter the KTM airport - the hilarious signs posted everywhere are definitely worth snapping.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

7,895 ways to leave your lover

Me contemplating if I should get paid to travel or stay with my love?

Holy shit. I just found out that I’m leaving my love and not coming back.

At least not for a few months, which – let’s be honest – knowing me could easily turn into a few years, if not forever.

After all, since I first left home at 18, I’ve never lived in the same city for more than 4 years at a time (in truth, it’s probably more like 3.75). And don’t even get me started on apartments. (“A lease for an entire year?!”)

I won’t bore you with the details, but I’m seriously tempted to make an infographic of my Milwaukee to North Carolina to Syracuse to Miami to Chicago to Los Angeles tendencies. (note to self: hire designer to create infographic of said tendencies. Include embarrassing stats regarding my multiple [read: FOUR] moves to and from LA).

I guess I’ve been a closeted nomad for the past 14 years, transferring from college to college, city to city, apartment to crappy apartment. It could be suggested that I was running away from something (and you don’t have to have a psych degree to know that it’s been – duh – myself.)

But this time, something’s different.

This time I will get paid to travel.

I’ve been outside the U.S. several times – a month studying in England, a romantic 10-day trip to Paris, and a smattering of random jobs that took me to places like Vancouver, Bucharest, and Taiwan. But that was back in the Dark Ages, when my work in the entertainment industry kept me shackled to the City of Angels like a Prisoner of War who’s been converted by her captors. I loved LA. I couldn’t leave.

But international travel – the kind that involved a backpack and months in Europe and lots and lots of hostels – always beckoned, an unrealized dream I’d placed quietly on a dusty shelf in the back of my heart. The dream of my career took center stage. Once I was rich and famous, then I’d travel.

Then, through a series of mind-blowing events that I’m sure will rear their gorgeous heads at some point in these writings, I made an incredible transition from actress, producer, reluctant waitress and sometimes writer to writer, writer, and full time writer.

Suddenly I had money. Suddenly I could work from anywhere. Suddenly people were paying me to write for them, and God was laughing his ass off as if to say “See?! This is what I’ve been trying to get you to do your whole life.”

Flash Forward to 2013, about 18 months into my new life and career.

I’ve been hired to ghostwrite a series of travel books, and have spent the past several months writing about Vietnam from a tiny studio apartment in Los Angeles, which I’ve shared with my sweetheart, two cats, and the comings and goings of some very gregarious neighbors. Wait, gregarious is the wrong word. I meant douchebag. Douchebag neighbors.

Here are the cats, my non-virtual assistants:

My  support staff

My support staff

Every day I spend hours researching and writing about Vietnam, only to develop a severe craving for pho, and before I know it I’ve abandoned my computer for happy hour at PHO 999, the nearest Vietnamese restaurant (luckily there’s bomb Vietnamese food in LA or I would be shit out of luck in the craving-fulfillment department.)

So when it was revealed that my love needed time, and space, and distance, and maybe some more time, I knew there a way to give him more than he ever dreamed possible. Why don’t I go quite literally halfway around the world and stay there indefinitely? Why don’t I go 7,895 miles to be exact?

kathmandu airport to thamel

The books I’ve been hired to write are travel guides for India, Nepal, and a smattering of countries in Southeast Asia, including Myanmar (Burma – yowza!).

While my online research skills have become somewhat pathetically fine-tuned over the past few years (I write about anything and everything, from small business tax write offs to the chemical composition of essential oils to other topics with which I have no personal experience), wouldn’t it be 700 times better to write a travel guide from the actual country you’re writing about?

I made my client a deal. I’d write the book for the exact same rate, but I needed the money up front. This way, I could book flights, get visas, book accommodation, and take care of all the other zillions of expensive details leaving the country entails.

And then, a remarkable and terrifying thing happened.

He agreed.

My boyfriend is thrilled for me, (thrilled I’ll be leaving), which I’m taking as a sure sign it’s the right move. (“You’re going halfway around the world and I might never see you again? Suh-weet!” – not exactly the foundation of a fulfilling relationship, IMHO.)

I will go, he will breathe, I will scratch my travel itch and see the world for as long as he needs. That’s right – I’m journeying to Nepal, followed by Laos, India, Cambodia, Thailand, and who-knows-where-else, because my boyfriend needs some space.

Hey, at least I’m going on someone else’s dime. The sheer awesomeness of that alone is not lost on me. And yet it’s with a somewhat heavy heart that I’m off to book my appointment for vaccinations, and research flights to Kathmandu – one way flights, that is, that will take me 7,985 miles away from him.

Or maybe, just maybe, 7,985 miles closer to myself.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. If he needs space, give him some. At least 7,895 miles, to be exact.
2. You really can get paid to travel the world. I'm doing it, and I have basically no experience and a skill set that's mediocre at best.
3. Cats make great assistants.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Culture Shock in Kunming, China

“KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.”

I’m awoken from a dead sleep when – “KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.”

Ok, ok, Jesus.

I fling the door open, still half asleep, and see my driver from last night standing with another man, both of them frowning at me seriously.

The driver cues the man, who takes a deep breath and announces “LETS. GO.”

They both regard me, satisfied with their English instructions. I get the feeling new guy has been recruited by the driver because of his mad English skills.

“What time is it?” I ask.

They look at each other, and the new guy answers deliberately, proud as punch, “Ten. Oh. Clock.”

And then again, in unison, “LETS. GO.”

“Ok, ok, I’ll be right down.”

Christ almighty. I’m not sure if they mean “Hey, wake up, get ready, we’re leaving in 30 minutes” or “We are leaving in 2 minutes with or without you. Good luck.”

I throw clothes on in a frenzy, sloppily pack my bag, and make it downstairs in time to climb back into last night’s workhorse of a van.

It’s only after the third massive jolt and hitting my head on the roof of the shuttle that I finally manage to look out the window – holy CRAP.

I’m amazed at what I see – we’re descending from a steep hilltop, the twisting dirt road winding around a ramshackle cluster of dilapidated homes that double as small shops, restaurants and garages. A man squats in the mud, slurping a bowl of steaming noodles from a tray while stray dogs trot past like back up dancers in a Broadway musical.

I inhale dirt and bright colors and cement and wetness; everything wet and dirty and cold. “This is poverty,” I think suddenly, a bit taken aback at the obviousness of my own epiphany.

The shuttle makes its way out of the small settlement (neighborhood? ghetto?) and reaches for the highway like a teenager who can’t wait to leave home for college.

One of the other shuttle passengers makes small talk, excited to practice his English. I’m not quite sure where he came from (and btw, where was he last night when I needed him?), but I appreciate his friendliness.

The large, sweeping facade atop the main Kunming Airport building stands stark against the sky like an ancient temple. I wonder at such beauty, such superior design adjacent such filth, such destitution. The wings of the temple seem to mock the people living their lives just a few miles away, breaking their backs to eat a few noodles in the mud.

It’s cold and misty, but I can just barely make out a few rolling hills in the distance. Large signs adorn the airport, advertising all of the incredible adventures one can have in Kunming and the surrounding regions – see elephants and tigers in our SAFARI PARK! Take a hot air balloon ride over this AWESOME RIVER! Indulge your senses at our MOUNTAIN SKI LODGE! Live with NO HEAT and eat your breakfast IN THE MUD!

Oh wait, that last one’s mine.

What a curious, curious place. I remind myself that in every city around the world, the area nearest the airport is almost never the nice area.

Would I have ever, ever stayed in that hotel had I seen it in broad daylight? Probably not. My room was freezing, yes, but it was clean, and I was picked up and taken the airport in plenty of time to catch my flight.

So no, there are not “hotel stands” at the Kunming airport, at least not that I could see. But yes, you can simply walk outside and get a hotel. And apart from a bumpy shuttle ride and the sudden appearance of a few deep thoughts about poverty and governments and inequity and fairness and irony and entitlement and “we have it so much better than we realize,” you’ll probably get through it in one piece.

Just be sure to bring enough cash.

UPDATE: THERE IS A HOTEL INSIDE THE KUNMING AIRPORT! I don’t know how I missed this the first time, but there is an expensive hotel that doubles as an hourly lounge. It’s on the second floor. Go to the main arrivals area on the second floor and take the glass elevator up two stories. A proper hotel room is around $90 USD. You can also hang out in the lounge and pay by the hour, but I’m not sure if there are showers. The room was overpriced but very nice and it was worth it to not have to get a cab and deal with the hassle of leaving the airport.

Have you ever been to Kungming airport? What was your experience like?

photo credit: arup.com

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Be sure to ask what time you'll be leaving for the airport in the morning - it may have nothing to do with what time your flight leaves, and everything to do with when the shuttle driver feels like leaving.

2. You can stay inside the Kunming Airport and avoid this entire fiasco!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

TRAVEL FAIL: Near Kidnapping in Kunming

I land in Shanghai, China around 4:30pm local time, which to me feels like 1:30am, and immediately have the same damn problem as last year – I can’t connect to the WiFi.

For some reason, the good folks who designed Shanghai Pudong International decided that only Chinese people should be allowed online.

That is to say, in order to access the awesomely free airport-wide WiFi, you have to have a local Chinese phone number. Last year, when I first discovered this problem en route to Taiwan, I ran into several other bewildered Westerners who asked me what the solution was.

Some of them were approaching locals in the airport and asking to use their phone numbers. The mere thought of approaching a stranger in a foreign country and asking for their phone number gave me hives, so I simply went without, even though I had a shit ton of work to do.

This year is exactly the same, except instead of a shit ton of work to do, I absolutely, positively, must look for hotels in Kunming China.

My layover in Shanghai is about 3 hours, and I’ll land in Kunming at 12:30am local time. I then have a 14-hour layover (!) before my final flight to Kathmandu and I absolutely, positively refuse to spend it hunched over uncomfortable metal chairs, attempting to sleep and failing miserably. After a 14-hour flight followed by a lay over followed by another 4 hour flight, I will have a hot shower, dammit.

It wasn’t until I checked in for my flight at LAX that I learned that I would, in fact, be able to leave the airport in Kunming. I was not able to find a straight answer online, so I’m telling you now – if you’re American and don’t have any kind of weird restrictions on your passport (you know, like you’re on the CIA’s most wanted list or something), you should be able to leave the airport if you have a brief layover like mine.

"Hot water" means room temperature

“Hot water” means room temperature

The visa you’ll be issued will most likely be a temporary 24-hour Chinese visa. The reason for my confusion was the fact that technically, I would be in China for more than 24 hours. But I guess unless you’re leaving the airport, the time doesn’t count. If you have a layover and can show that you have a flight out of the country, you should be fine to leave the airport.

A lovely China Eastern Airlines flight attendant in Los Angeles assured me that there would be “many hotel stalls” to choose from when I landed in Kungming. The way she made it sound, I’d have a cornucopia of hotels from which to choose, and I’d be able to negotiate a fat deal when I landed. I was somewhat reassured, but still a bit uneasy as I laid down for a brief nap before boarding my flight to Kunming.

By the way, I was surprised and a bit confused to be ushered through customs in Shanghai. I wasn’t leaving the airport or “entering China” until I got to Kunming, so why did I have to go through the whole process, basically leave the airport terminal, then go back through ticketing and security only to end up right back where I started?

Finger licking good

Finger lickin’ good (these are mushrooms, btw. Mushrooms.)

Well, since I had flown internationally and entered China from the U.S., the customs thing had to happen at my first point of arrival. Then, once I got to Kunming, I’d be able to walk right off the plane and leave the airport without dealing with customs at all.

This might sound very obvious, but after a long flight and several Valium, it was extremely confusing to me. I tried to explain to several airport officials “No, I don’t need to go through customs, I have a connecting flight. Connecting, I say!”

If this happens to you, just listen to the nice man and do what he says.

Oh, and be sure to get some Yen, because your hotel most likely will not take American Express.

Arrival in Kunming and Near Kidnapping

My flight lands safely in Kunming. I’m fucking exhausted but can’t let my guard down yet – I don’t know where the hell I’m sleeping. I don’t have much Yen left after buying an overpriced dinner in Shanghai, and my tired eyes struggle to locate an ATM.

At the same time, I’m also keeping my eyes peeled for this grand bazaar of “hotel stands” I was promised. I picture table after table strategically placed in front of glossy billboards – the Ritz Carlton Kunming. Or maybe The Hilton – Southwest China. I also imagine there will be so many attendants clamoring for my business that I’ll be able to get a luxurious room for oh, under $30 USD.

I follow the signs to baggage claim. My blue beauty of a backpack arrives and clamors into my arms, already dirty and abused from the long trip that’s not yet over.

Why don’t I see any hotel stalls?

I walk and walk, look and look but don’t see anything that looks remotely like a place where one might book a hotel room.

Fuck.

I walk outside. Maybe I can ask for a taxi to….the nearest hotel? Bad idea. The nearest hotel could be 50 miles away, according to the cab driver who’d then charge me some astronomical amount and leave me stranded. Besides, what if I paid for a cab, found a hotel, and there were no rooms available?

My kingdom for some WiFi!

As it...should be...?

Suddenly, a very thin, very smiley Chinese woman approaches me. I’m immediately on guard, looking for the scam.

“Hotel?” she asks.

Crap. I don’t know what to do. Could this be too good to be true?

She elegantly opens a tattered brochure, which shows decent-enough looking rooms. I’m so tired.

“How much?” I ask.

“200” she answers.

I do the math – it’s just over $32 USD. This’ll do.

I nod in agreement, and she grabs my arm, ushering me towards the parking lot. The very dark, very deserted parking lot.

She makes a phone call, and then we wait.

And wait.

Alarm bells start to go off. I’m under the impression we’re waiting for a shuttle but it’s been a little too long. And it’s a little too dark. And we’re way too alone.

Should I get out of here? Wouldn’t it be a great, great scam to have a really friendly, really sweet-looking woman preying on hapless looking Westerners who are jet-lagged and shell shocked? Maybe they’re going to throw me in a car and rob me. Maybe they’re going to throw me in a car, rob me, slit my throat and throw me in the river!

I should run! I should hide! I should find a Ritz Carlton!

Suddenly a group of 4 Chinese men walk towards us. Oh no, it’s her gang! They’re here to steal my shitty Dell laptop and my debit card and what little cash I have!

And just when I’m about to bolt – as best one can bolt with an awkwardly large blue backpack strapped to oneself – a dinky looking minivan pulls up and we all get in. The woman waves, the driver takes my bag, and we all brace ourselves for the 10-minute race to the hotel.

It’s pitch black but I know a last-minute lane change when I feel one. We’re driven up a winding hill and I’m trying to recall my brother, the expert trekker’s, advice – “Always know where you are. Always have a map. The worst thing you can do is get lost and have no sense of direction.”

The shuttle comes to a halting stop atop a tilted gravel mound. We pile out and are ushered through a nearby doorway. It’s so late. I’m so tired.

I have no idea where I am.

I’m the only foreigner and the only woman, and am graciously allowed to check in first.

No one speaks a lick of English, but the price has been agreed upon and I’m ready to pay, Visa in hand.

Everyone frowns at my Chase debit card, shaking their heads and speaking in rapid Mandarin. Of course. Cash only.

I dig in my wallet and present what Yen I have left.

More frowns and shakes.

“Do you have an ATM?”

Of course not. What do I do, what do I do? I have never wanted to sleep so much in my life.

Suddenly, in my exhausted stupor, an idea yawns itself down the pipeline and I’m suddenly reaching back into my purse and pulling out the only other thing I have to offer – $40 American Dollars. In Cash.

Eyes bulge, and shaking heads suddenly begin nodding. This is more than enough for the room, and I patiently wait to be provided with change.

Instead, one of the 4 men who’s been advising the transaction (together with the driver and the hotel receptionist) pulls a Chinese note from my fingers and adds it to the $40.

They all look at me. I’m paying too much, but it seems pointless to try and argue over such a small amount. Besides, I’m the asshole that’s paying in the wrong currency. I didn’t even see which note he took from me – am I paying $50 for a $30 hotel room?

Maybe.

A paper is filled out and I am asked – through the collective translation powers of 6 different people, what time my flight is tomorrow.

“2:30” I answer.

The receptionist writes it down, then frowns, looking at her watch. They all stare at me.

A shuffling of papers occur, my boarding pass is handed over, and “2:30” is crossed off and replaced with “14:30.” Oh yeah, that whole military time thing that everyone else in the world does except us. (Why can’t we get on board with that, by the way? And don’t even get me started on the metric system as a whole.)

The driver grabs my bag and leads me upstairs. Godammit, what am I supposed to tip him? He leads me to an enormous, freezing room with three – THREE – beds. I imagine myself snuggled up with the four Chinese businessmen from downstairs.

“Just me?” I ask, worried.

The driver blinks, confused.

I point to myself, then touch each bed individually. Then point downstairs. I think he gets it.

“No no,” he says, pointing to me and handing me a key. I give him what I desperately hope amounts to a respectable tip, take an enormously disappointing lukewarm shower, and bury myself under a layered sandwich of comforters which I’ve crafted from the other vacant beds.

And I sleep. Oh, how I sleep.

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. If you're in China for less than 24 hours and have a departing flight to another country, you'll be granted a temporary visa to leave the airport.

2. You can't access WiFi in the Shanghai or Kungming airports unless you can score a local mobile phone number - try offering to buy someone coffee in exchange for using their number.

3. There won't be an ATM when you need one. Bring plenty of cash.

4. Study exchange rates before you go so you're familiar with the exchange rates the second you land.

5. Hotels in Kungming are dumpy right near the airport, but there is actually a nice (expensive) hotel INSIDE the airport - take the elevator to the 3rd floor. A room will cost around $65 plus a deposit which you'll get back the following day. You can also rent a spot in their lounge by the hour

6. Don't waste money on bottled water when there are tons of filtered water machines throughout the airport

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

I Want You + I Love You = Let’s Break Up

“Have you ever broken up with someone when you were perfectly happy?”

He thinks for a minute, nods.

“Yep. This girl in college. I was moving away and it would’ve been a long distance relationship, so we decided to just be friends.”

Which is what we’re going to be when I leave my lover and travel to the other side of the globe for an indeterminate amount of time. Except the kind of friends that don’t talk to each other. Like, at all.

There are a lot of things contributing to my going to Nepal, but the main thing is that we can’t be together right now. If we stay together right now, it means disaster in the future. And we both want to be together in the future. Calling it quits for now seems like the only way to give the relationship a chance. It sounds counterintuitive, but we both know it’s true. And it sucks.

I knew we wouldn’t be able to “keep in touch” either. The idea of Skype-ing once a week after spending 24/7 with someone is like getting chocolate once a year – it’s not enough, and simply serves to remind you of how much you fucking miss chocolate in the first place.

Besides, I’d been down that road before when I went to Taiwan. Balance is not my strong suit, and as my sweetie so astutely observed as we walked slowly, deliberately toward our final dinner out together, “You’re kind of all or nothing.”

It’s true. I can either be traveling, and throw myself into a new country like a golden retriever into a swimming pool, or cower in my hotel room, nervously awaiting the arrival of that golden hour when the person back home finally wakes up and can console me in my culture shock and lonely grief.

No, I wouldn’t do that again. If I was going to Nepal – and I was, most certainly, going to Nepal – I would be there fully. I would have to let him go.

Tonight we’re both in good spirits. It’s a holiday and we’ve decided to spend it gorging ourselves at a hotel buffet. We swim through the hordes of people like hungry dolphins, balancing plates like magician’s assistants, our eyes bulging at the cornucopia of lobster, shrimp, prime rib, a crepe station (!)…

We eat. We drink. We’re merry.

I long to say something meaningful, to beg him to reconsider, to make him make me change my mind.

But it’s too late. And there’s no point. And instead we laugh, and enjoy each other, and tuck the pain of the coming weeks and months in our pockets for safe keeping.

I miss him when I’m with him, so I can’t imagine how much I’ll miss him when I’m not.

I’m terrified.

In the morning, he brings me coffee while I pack the rest of my things. We wait outside for the car to come pick me up. It will drive me to the shuttle, which will drive me to the airport, where there is a plane waiting to swallow me whole and take me away from him.

It’s raining, a bizarre Los Angeles phenomenon that seems perfectly suited to the occasion. My waterproof backpack proudly shields my menagerie of clothing from the light mist as if to say “See? I was a good investment.”

The car arrives, and the poor, baffled driver looks at the ground, embarrassed as we hug and kiss and cry one last time. My tears flow freely and he is silent as I climb into the cab.

My love stands stoic in the rain, watching the car pull away, waving in a way that says “Have the time of your fucking life” and “I’m sorry I couldn’t be in the place you needed me to be” and “I’m so relieved you’re finally going,” all at the same time.

20 minutes later he calls. It’s finally hit him. He’s devastated.

Once, when we were having a discussion and I was hurt and crying, I asked him why he was so calm and collected. And he said, “Because right now it’s your turn to be sad. We can’t both lose our shit.”

The generosity of this remained a mystery to me until this moment, when suddenly I had to be the strong one.

“It’ll be ok.” I said. “I love you,” I said.

A few hours later, it’s time to board. This is the last call I make before suspending my phone service, which Verizon lets you do for up to 3 months without billing. (If you do this, keep in mind that you have to call from a different phone to do it – I used a payphone.)

The final goodbye. I call and he is at the gym. His voice is different now. He is distracted. Happier. He is ready to let me go.

It’s a good thing the doctor prescribed me Valium for the 14-hour flight to Shanghai. I thought I’d need it to help me sleep, when in actuality it will be a numbing elixir, a potion to calm the swirling, churning waters of my stormy ocean heart.

Goodbye, my love.

Gulp.

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The Real Cost of Travel Abroad

This girl makes much less money than you, and even SHE'S going

I have just a few weeks to prepare to leave the country indefinitely and am starting to figure out the real cost of travel abroad.

The idea that travel is astronomically expensive is a bunch of hooey – like so many things, it’s all in how you do it. I’m going to Nepal, where I can stay in a guest house for less than $5 USD/night and easily eat for under $10/day.

The real cost of traveling abroad, at least from what I can tell right now, is getting there. And it’s not just booking the flight. As I’ve started to figure out what the hell I need to do, and get, and buy, and get rid of, a ton of hidden costs have popped up.

The flight – $1,045.10

I’m going to Nepal, followed by Thailand, India, Cambodia, and who-knows-where-else. A lot flights from the U.S. to Asia originate in Los Angeles, and luckily that’s the gritty fairytaleland I already call home.

If I had just booked a true one-way flight (LA to Kathmandu), the ticket would’ve cost even less. But I booked a flight from LAX to Kathmandu, and then another flight from Kathmandu to Bangkok.

That’s two flights around the world for about a grand – not too shabby.

However, I’m flying coach (ugh!) and the flight to Kathmandu is going to be a bitch – three flights in total with multiple layovers, one of which is 14 hours.

Without the added flight to Thailand, which was around $400, I could’ve gotten to Kathmandu for between $700-800 one-way.

I booked with Priceline and will be flying China Eastern airlines. There was probably an even cheaper way to fly, but I’m no travel hacker. At least not yet.

Vaccinations – around $300

I went to WellnessMart, M.D. in Santa Monica to get vaccinated before leaving the country. There are a bunch of recommendations for what you should get depending on where you’re going in the world and what you plan on doing once you get there. (Hanging out in a big, modern city? That’s one set of shots. Hanging out in a remote village with no indoor plumbing? That’s another.)

The diseases you might get in Nepal are somewhat different than what you need to watch out for in the countries I’ll be going to in SE Asia.

I’m kind of a cheapskate, so I wanted to spend the least amount of money possible without, um, dying.

They recommended I get vaccinations for Typhoid Fever and Hepatitis A for Nepal, and the same for SE Asia but add Malaria into the mix. There isn’t a vaccination for Malaria but they’ll give you prescription meds for prevention.

These seemed to be the 3 biggies, and the most dangerous, but it was also recommended that I get vaccinated against Rabies ($895?! Fuck that!), Hepatitis B (in case I want to sleep with prostitutes or do drugs that require a needle), and Japanese Encephalitis.

I chose not to get vaccinated for any of those. I hope I don’t regret it.

(Oh, and if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m so-obviously-not a doctor and this isn’t medical advice and you should consult your own doctor, make your own decisions, blah-blah-disclaimer-don’t-sue-me, etc).

I also got antibiotics for “traveler’s diarrhea,” and some super-scary anti-mosquito lotion (mosquitoes carry malaria).

The only thing more scary than getting malaria is the idea of using this lotion.

I’m still not sure if it’s supposed to go directly on my skin. Apparently the ingredients in it were outlawed for use as pesticides within the U.S…..but damn if it don’t kill dem sqeeters!

cost of travelIt was also recommended that I get a probiotic, a flu shot, a tetanus shot, and maybe rethink my trip in general (kidding, they were very nice.)

When all was said and done and I was thoroughly terrified of the places I’d be going, I walked out of the office with a very swollen left arm and a wallet that was $300 lighter.

Visas – $40, for now

Nepal lets Americans get a “visa on arrival,” which means you can deal with it at the airport when you get there. This was a huge relief to me because anything having to do with a visa tends to stress me the F-out.

Thailand also allows for a visa on arrival, as does Cambodia, so I’ll cross those bridges when I come to them (I might mean that literally since I’ll be entering Cambodia over land instead of flying.)

Travel Insurance – $187 for three months

I hate spending money on things like vaccinations and insurance – preventative things in case something happens. It always feels like such a waste of money.

But then my mom told me this story about a friend who’d gotten food poisoning in Germany (Germany!) and ended up with a $20,000 hospital bill. Ok, ok, I’ll get traveler’s insurance.

Luckily it’s not that expensive and it’s covers a lot – if I have to go to the doctor or the hospital I can, and if the country I’m in (Nepal…?) has shitty healthcare or can’t perform some surgery, they will airlift me (in a helicopter! Wheee!) to the nearest city or country that can. This is called “medical evacuation insurance” and apparently it’s super important to have.

Stupid Passport Photos – $26

Don’t go to CVS and spend $13 for two stupid passport photos! I read that I was going to need a zillion passport photos for all these visas I’d be getting, and ended up getting 4 pics at CVS in the photo department. I wanted more, but they were so friggin’ pricey!

Listen, there is nothing special about passport photos. If you have a printer and photo paper just print them yourself and cut them to 2 in x 2 in. Also, after spending $26 I learned that most airports have photo booths right at customs for this very purpose. CVS, what a crock.

Storage – $0

Thanks to a life of vagabondry, I don’t have a lot of stuff. There are a few pieces of furniture and 2 boxes stored in a basement in Milwaukee (I hope my former landlord forgets they’re there and I can just store my stuff for free indefinitely,) and one suitcase that’s going to end up tucked away in my sweetie’s closet.

In exchange for hanging on to this for me, I’ve promised to lie and say I’m “just a friend” if I return in 5 years to collect my things and he’s married to someone else and it’s awkward.

Backpack – $200

Nomadic Matt has become my go-to website for all things travel, and since Matt uses an REI backpack, I wanted an REI backpack. Listen, I’m a sucker and have never bought a backpack before, and you certainly don’t need to spend $200 on yours.

But since it’s the only piece of luggage I’m taking, I wanted to make sure it was sturdy, and waterproof, and could fit the few (very few) things I’d be able to bring with me. It’s big, it’s blue, and it came with a really pretty fake yellow flower that will help me identify it at baggage claim. I’m happy. (Go on overstock.com though and get yours for cheaper.)

"This backpack was really f*^!^ expensive"

“This backpack was really f*^!^ expensive”

Unlocking my iPhone – $0

I spent HOURS trying to figure out if my iPhone was locked or not (I have an iPhone 5). You need an unlocked iPhone if you want to use your phone abroad (that means calls and texting but also data).

If your phone is locked, and your carrier is Verizon, it means you can only use Verizon’s network. But calls on Verizon’s network in a place like Nepal are 3.8 gajillion dollars per minute. It’s better to get a prepaid SIM card and use the local network of the country you’re visiting.

SIM cards for dummies: digression

I knew nothing about SIM cards before this month, and they sounded scary and very technical. They’re so not! Your SIM card is a tiny little card that lives in the side of your phone. You’ll see a skinny little slot with a tiny, tiny button. It’s so tiny that you need a paperclip or something pointy and sharp to press it in. Push the tiny button and the SIM card pops out.

Practice. You will do this when you arrive at your destination, and you will bravely pop like you’ve never popped before.

Back to this whole unlocking business.

  • I found sites that would unlock your iPhone for $150.
  • I read that some services would unlock your iPhone for $50-70.
  • Then I read that all 4G phones are unlocked, but didn’t know if my phone was a 4G phone.

(and may I just say that I dabble in web design, know my way around WordPress, and can even code some shit. But for some reason, when it comes to my phone, I’m like a 3-year old trying to open a juice box. Just. Can’t. Figure it out.)

Finally, I called Verizon, afraid they would charge me a lot of money or tell me “YOU CANNOT UNLOCK YOUR PHONE, LOWLY CUSTOMER! AND IF YOU DO, WE’LL KNOW ABOUT IT AND THE CELL PHONE POLICE WILL ARREST YOU!”

Me: “Um, I think I might need to unlock my iPhone? Because I’m traveling?”

Guy at Verizon: “Sure, no problem.”

Me: “Oh wow, you guys can do it for me? I don’t have to go online?”

Guy at Verizon: “Of course we can do it.”

Me: “Isn’t it illegal or something?”

Guy at Verizon: [laughing] “What?”

Me: “Don’t I have to pay like $150 and it’s illegal and I shouldn’t be telling you any of this?”

Guy at Verizon: “Hold please.”

Crap. Now I’ve done it.

After a one-minute hold that seems eternal:

Guy at Verizon: “Rebekah? Your phone is already unlocked. All 4G phones are.”

Me: “But is the iPhone 5 a ‘4G phone’?”

Guy at Verizon: “Yep.”

Me: “Thanks.”

Glad I didn’t spend $150! I read online that in order to test if your phone is locked or unlocked, you should swap SIM cards with someone on another network and try making a phone call. Well, I tried doing that and it didn’t work. So I still don’t know if Guy at Verizon was right.

I guess I’ll figure it out in Kathmandu. (holy shit, I’ve always wanted to write that!)

Toiletries, contact lenses and girly shit – $260

Everyone always says “don’t bring it with you, buy it there.” Well, after my nightmarish experience in a drugstore in Changhua, Taiwan, where everything was written in Chinese and I seriously couldn’t tell if I was buying conditioner or coffee creamer, I’ve learned my lesson.

I went back to the passport photo rapists at CVS and stocked up on tiny shampoos and soaps, wet wipes, sunscreen, tampons, etc etc. I’ve read that toilet paper is hard to come by in Nepal, so made sure to get a few packs of tissue as well.

I also ordered a 6 month’s supply of contact lenses and this amazing oil I use for my skin. It’s a good idea to stock up on anything medical or health-related that might be hard to come by abroad (anything you’d normally get from the eye doc, the dermatologist, your shrink, etc.

Grand Total to leave the country and never look back (at least not for a few months, that is):

$2,158.10

Surviving once I get there? That’s going to be another story entirely (and hopefully much cheaper!)

 What was the cost of travel for your last trip?

How much do you have budgeted for your next trip?

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Travel is not expensive.
2. TRAVEL IS NOT EXPENSIVE.
3. Vaccinations, on the other hand, are f*&! pricey.
4. Malaria-busting mosquito repellent may or may not give you blood poisoning.
5. Yes, you do absolutely positively need travel insurance.
6. Girl, don't even think about making calls with your cell phone when you're abroad. You need to get a SIM card once you're there. It's cheap and easy.
6. Unlocking your smartphone is easy and free through your service provider - do NOT pay a third party to unlock your phone!!!

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Travel Packing Tips for the Reluctant Nomad

Fit everything I own into these two bags? Suuuuuure.

Mom, don’t freak out. I’m not not coming back, I just like to rhyme whenever possible. It’s good for SEO.

I have to pack for a trip to at least four countries over a period of at least 3 months and I’m only bringing one backpack and one laptop bag.

What’s a girl to do with restrictions like that?

Luckily, I don’t have that many clothes to place on the sacrificial altar, so killing my babies shouldn’t be too difficult (except those gorgeous DSW boots…I just bought those, damn it.)

Here are my travel packing tips after having to consolidate everything I own into 2 bags.

I hauled out everything I owned and began placing it all into piles on the bed – a “no” pile, a “maybe” pile, and a “yes” pile, based on weather, the mosquito factor, and the likelihood of having to look cute.

By the time I finished, I’d narrowed everything down to two of everything:

  • 2 long sleeve shirts
  • 2 t-shirts
  • 2 sweaters
  • 2 jackets (leather and heavy winter)
  • 2 dresses (one sun, one that I could wear should I be invited to a fancy dinner. Or a Nepalese Cinderella ball.)
  • 2 sports bras
  • 2 real bras
  • 2 pairs of pants
  • 2 pairs of sweatpants/workout pants
  • 2 pairs of underwear

Kidding. I allowed myself room for a smattering of socks and underwear, enough to last me for at least a week without doing laundry.

The garments marched two by two into my lone, cavernous bag, which had suddenly become a veritable Noah’s Ark of international travel.

Make sure to roll – not fold – your clothing when packing. Keep the stuff you must get at quickly (hand sanitizer! clean underwear!) in an easily accessible pocket.

Bra Pod! Step 1

Bra Pod! Step 1

Bra Pod! Step 2

Bra Pod! Step 2

Matt recommends getting tiny little Elf locks (like a padlock, not long flowing hair) to secure your bag. I am not doing this. I hope I don’t regret it.

In addition to my Noah’s Ark wardrobe, I am bringing

  • A bunch of girly toiletries
  • Some makeup
  • Prescription medications (anti-malaria, anti-diarrhea, etc)
  • My laptop
  • My iPhone 5
  • Chargers for said electronics
  • Noise-cancelling headphones
  • Batteries for said headphones

I dumped all of the medications out of their bottles, put it into plastic baggies, and labeled them with a Sharpie to save more room.

I also got an iPhone case that doubles as a battery, so when my phone is about to die on the plane, my phone won’t die on the plane!

This was about $50 on GroupOn and is already making my battery life longer than my boyfriend’s face after I made a joke about getting laid in Nepal. (Ohhh, so you don’t want me, but nobody else can have me either. Got it.)

Think your phone is about to die? Think again!

Think your phone is about to die? Think again!

And the piece de resistance of what I’m bringing to Nepal – VALIUM.

I have never taken Valium before, and I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t considered it earlier because I loathe flying. Absolutely hate it. Everyone always seem to be chewing gum in my ear or snoring loudly or shoving their elbows into me or trying to talk to me when I want to sleep.

I can’t sleep on planes to save my life, but I need to sleep on this flight. If I don’t, I may be awake for over 48 hours straight, and I think that will be really bad for my skin.

Valium face.

Valium face.

My itinerary is as follows:

11:30am Friday – Fly from LAX to Shanghai Pudong, 14 hours (last year’s flight was only 12 hours – is the difference because of daylight savings time?)

4:30pm Saturday – Land in Shanghai and enjoy a four hour layover after my 14 hour flight.

9:00pm Saturday – If you’re keeping track, I’ve now been traveling for 18 hours, and have probably been awake for over 24. The solution? Get on another 3-hour flight to Kungming, China.

12:20am Sunday – Land in Kungming, China. Endure a cruel 14 hour layover.

2:30pm Sunday – Fly from Kungming to Kathmandu, another 3-4 hours. With the time change I should arrive in Nepal around 4:30pm on Sunday.

The two biggest problems about this itinerary are as follows:

1. I CAN’T SLEEP ON PLANES.

2. I don’t know if I’ll be allowed to leave the airport in Kunming, which means I may have to spend 14 hours in the airport.

Last year when I flew into Shanghai, I had a similar lay over and was allowed to leave the airport with a visa that was only good for 24 hours. But this time I’ll be in the country longer – first Shanghai, then Kunming.

Coffee and Valium, the breakfast of champions

Coffee and Valium, the breakfast of champions

The airport in Kunming is new and the information available online is confusing. One website talks about lounges, and even showers, right in the airport. Travel forums are filled with people asking the same question as me – can I leave the airport and get a hotel? If not, are there really showers in the airport?

I still don’t know. I guess I’ll find out when I get there (Yikes! I need a plan! A plan, I say!)

In the mean time, my Valium is tucked inside my Noah’s Ark menagerie, and as my sweetie helps me try on my packed pack for the first time, smiling at me tenderly before kissing my forehead, I wonder if I’m making a huge, huge mistake.

What’s your weirdest travel packing tip?

photo credit: diytrade.com

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Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Roll up each individual item of clothing to save space.
2. Take exactly 2 of everything (except underwear - take a bunch of that)
3. Dump medications out of their bottles and put them in labeled plastic baggies to save space.
4. Get a battery-powered charger for your Smartphone (try GroupOn - they should be around $50)
5. You miiiiight want some Valium for the plane.
6. Just when you think you've eliminated all extraneous items from your bag(s), get rid of more. When you're running to catch a train in 100-degree heat, you'll thank me.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

Welcome to Kathmandu, SUCKAH!

I have just gotten off the airplane from Kunming, China, and have somehow made it into a taxi outside the Kathmandu airport.

I’ve researched a lot about getting from the Kathmandu airport to Thamel, but that doesn’t stop me from practically missing my driver altogether. But we finally connect, my bags are hoisted into one of the tiniest cars I’ve ever seen, and we’re off!

My driver immediately begins swerving around other cars and motorcycles before we’ve even left the parking lot. I’m jolted to the right and left, thrilled to not be wearing a seat belt. This is exactly what I’d imagined – chaotic roads, constant near death experiences, and the cacophonous honking of horns invading my eardrums at every turn.

We weave through side streets until we come to a main road, and just as I’m musing “Oh, they drive on the left here! That must be because of the British influence in India, and -”

SCREECH!

We swerve right and begin driving directly towards oncoming traffic. At the last second, the driver swerves back to the left and we continue on.

The strangest part about it is that I feel completely safe and utterly free.

I brace myself against the back seat window, confident that my driver’s aggressive nature means he has a lot of experience driving in Kathmandu.

I relax completely, much to my own surprise, and finally allow myself to take in the city….

First impressions

It is twilight, and the last twinkling strands of sunlight are setting over the ancient city of Shangri-La.

People are everywhere, walking up and down streets that vary from paved to rocky dirt roads. Cars and motorbikes weave and wind as quickly as they can through traffic-choked thoroughfares, being careful not to hit any of the….oh my GOD, is that a cow?

kathmandu-airport-to-thamel-2

Cows are everywhere, jauntily strolling down the middle of the street, or parking themselves in the middle of the sidewalk to kick it in front of their favorite food stall, or convenience store, or radio repair shop.

Bicycles weave in and out of traffic, the music of their tiny bells attempting to compete with the cacophony of horns.

My driver lays on the horn about every 3-5 seconds, but he doesn’t seem upset. The horn seems to mean “Here I come! Don’t hit me and I won’t hit you! Thanks buddy!”

Because there is no ill intent, everyone honks. Constantly.

My brain searches in vain for patterns in the faces of the people, in the ways they dress, in where they seem to be going. The search is in vain – there is no rhyme or reason to these bustling, pulsating, loud, electric streets.

I see women balancing perfectly folded stacks of clothing on their heads – and walking with their hands occupied by some other task entirely.

I see young teenagers, dressed in dark, shiny Western clothing, texting on cell phones from the steps of their family shop, their mothers squatting behind them, shucking beans into large baskets.

I smell incense and garbage and smoke, and soon begin to choke on the exhaust of the vehicles surrounding us.

Every sense is accosted simultaneously, and I feel happy and tired and thrilled.

The Starbucks Street

We eventually make our way down a street that looks different from the others. It’s a wide boulevard flanked with two-story malls and high end shops.

“Starbucks” points my driver, proud as punch, though I don’t see an actual Starbucks Coffee shop anywhere.

kathmandu-airport-to-thamel

A KFC does not a Starbucks make.

“Very nice” he says.

The street seems to be the city’s attempt at the exact kind of Westernized commercialism I was excited to have a break from. Don’t get me wrong, I love me a skinny vanilla latte as much as the next girl, but I was so excited to be somewhere where people never took their coffee to go, and certainly never inquired as to whether the syrup was sugar-free.

I make a vow to avoid this particular street like the plague.

Welcome to Thamel

The streets begin to wind and twist, and it starts to feel like we’re going back the way we came.

Dark faces, chestnut faces, Indian faces and Hmong faces begin to dance with white faces, Western faces, tourist faces. This must be the place.

In the past, I have felt alternately relieved to tears to see blonde hair (Shanghai), and repulsed and insulted to see blonde hair (Taipei). (I have nothing against blondes, btw, it’s just a stark indication of an American, European, or other fellow Westerner in your presence).

I now feel neither comforted nor threatened to see my countrymen and women strolling around a place that I, too, have journeyed to.

Perhaps this is because I still see mad amounts of locals out of the street – packs of young Nepali boys walking arm in arm, mothers driving scooters, their infants slung casually over one shoulder, and impossibly skinny humans carrying impossibly large, heavy-looking bundles on their backs.

I have officially arrived on what seems to me like a completely different planet.

This post is an excerpt from My Week With Deepak: A memoir of Nepal, available November 1, 2014 from THP Publishing. To pre-order your copy, click here!

SUBSCRIBE now for solo female travel tips and get your FREE copy of 175 WAYS TO TRAVEL TODAY! Enter your email address below to download your copy of the book now. 

Quick+Dirty Takeaway

1. Don’t arrange for a tax beforehand unless you can find one for under 500NPR. The airport to Thamel should cost 450-550 rupees, no more.

2. Allow time for traffic, especially in the late afternoon. Nepalese work on Sundays, so there is a definite “rush hour” in Kathmandu.

3. The airport is only about 20 minutes from Thamel, but in traffic this ride can take up to two hours.

4. Kathmandu is INSANE AND AWESOME.

Want to dig deeper? Go for it!

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