Day 3: Learning about our driver
I am experiencing a different type of jet lag or perhaps I am just getting more sleep than usual. I am asleep by 9:00PM but then I wake up at the crack of dawn. Today we were leaving Munnar to head to Thekkady. Therefore, I took advantage of the extra time in the morning to write and pack. I headed to breakfast at 7:30AM with the hopes of it being ready. Without fail, breakfast was not ready until 8:10AM. Abe had asked us to be ready by 8:30AM to start our 3.5 hour journey to Thekkeday. Unfortunately, we were a little late.
All of the roads in Kerala are windy, which makes sitting in the backseat of a car for four hours quiet difficult. Abe was a great driver and took a lot of care when making turns, However, the roads were terrible and barely drivable. There were several times that Abe had to stop the car and either assess which way was best or move some of the stones. He said that the massive floods that occurred during monsoon season made the roads like this, Abe said they were the worst floods the area has seen in 100 years. Unfortunately, the Indian government has elected a not so great prime minister (Abe compared him to Trump but said he was not so bad). The Prime Minister has refused to help repair the roads in Kerala. He also refused to allow foreign aid to help the people. Abe said part of the reason is that the people in Kerala do not obey Hindu law - they eat meat amongst other things. The ruling party is Hindu and thus, this creates conflict for the people in Kerala. So, fixing the roads, houses and other damages has been left up to the people.
There was a point in which the car started leaking oil. Abe thought it was because the car scrapped the bottom on one of the rocks. We quickly had to find a place to bring the car. He was upset that he was cutting into our time but we assured him it was okay. Luckily, it was just the cap to the oil. It was fixed in less than 10 minutes and our journey continued. Can you imagine driving into a Firestone or something similar without an appointment and be finished in 10 minutes? I cannot - Welcome to India.
During our ride, I got to learn more about Abe, India culture and life. He had been working for the tour company, Iris Holidays for approximately five years. He went to school (and he is indeed very knowledgeable) but a good job is hard to come by. Abe said the floods have drastically affected the business in the area. He has only had four trips since August and has nothing lined up for the future. Being a driver, you do not make much. He said he and his family have experienced very tough and crucial times. As you can imagine, if you are out of work periodically, this can have an affect on your income.
For our four night/ five day tour, it cost us Rs. 40,000 (about $550). This included our hotels, breakfast, Abe, gas, and our luxury house boat for one night with all meals included. Diesel is about $3.78 a gallon. Doing the math, a driver makes very little since our hotels cost about $50/night, There is also a fee paid to the tour company itself. I estimated that Abe probably makes Rs. 400/day at the low end and maybe Rs. 1,000 at the high end. That is not much at all. The poverty line is about $1.25/day, which equals Rs. 90. You might think that Rs. 1,000 is a lot but he has only received one trip this month. Therefore, he is making just above poverty for the whole month. As someone who has had a relatively comfortable life, I cannot even think about not having enough food on the table.
Thinking about the poverty that Abe faces, I couldn’t help but think back to when we left our wallets with him. We left him with more cash than he makes in months. Our passports, driver’s licenses, credit and debit cards and thousands of dollars in camera equipment. He could have taken everything and left us stranded. Selling our cameras would have eased his financial troubles for years. Just the cameras alone would have provided him with a comfortable income enough for four people for 2.5 years. He didn’t even touch our bags. They were in the exact same place that we left them and everything intact. I felt awful that I even questioned him - you can’t really blame me as it was nerve wrecking. However, looking back at how I felt in the moment made me feel like an awful person. My hobby expenses were more money than he would see in a long time.
Abe’s financial problems are even worse at the moment. His family is trying to find a husband for his 23-year-old sister. He explained that once the girl becomes 21, her dowry becomes the older brother’s problem. He said with all of his responsibilities, or obligations as he calls them, he cannot afford to marry himself. Right now, he is 26 so maybe his time will come later.
Another problem for Abe is that his parents’ home was devastated in the floods. He has applied to the government for some aid to help build a wall to prevent mudslides but they have not answered his request. It has been a few months since he has applied and still, no word. For now, his family has covered the devastated section of their home with a tarp and other plastics. His backup plan is to take mud and fill bags (his way of creating sand bags since they do not have access to sand). This will at least prevent more devastation when monsoon season hits again.
When we first met Abe, my ignorant self wanted to ask him if he had been to America. However, I did not and there was no need. During our car drive, he told us that it was impossible for most Indians to travel - and now I understand why. He said, his only chance of going to America or anywhere else was only a dream. It would never come true. And here I am, sitting in his car where I have traveled across the world to have a vacation. Hearing him tell me this made me want to sink into my seat and blend in with the fabric. I know that Abe would not treat me differently because I can travel but it really makes you appreciate what you have. As Americans, we are always complaining that what we have is not enough. We want the newest cell phone, the newest car model or the biggest house. But no matter what, we all have more than what we think. I am fortunate to have the ability to travel but it is important to be modest and remember that others do not. If I’ve learned anything so far, it is that I must remember to be grateful for all that I have. I have both White and American privilege. This is a privilege that I must remember to be thankful and ashamed. This is not something many others can say they have - even in America. The take home message should be to be modest and help others achieve the same standard of living that you have to the best of your ability.
It is important to note that Abe did not tell us a sob story about how poor his family was. He spoke freely and as a matter of fact. He only told us these things because we were asking and kept prying. We wanted to know how much one needed to survive comfortably. It was our own doing and he responded candidly. He did not tell us stories to make us feel bad as others might have done. Abe had shown me repeatedly that he is trustworthy and strays away from greed.
The first night that we stayed in Munnar, Abe went back to his parents’ house. He had to take a bus as he could not afford the gas to get there. However, our adventures ended so late the previous night, he told us he stayed at the hotel. What this means is that he slept in his car. We had skipped lunch the day before and I do not think Abe ate dinner. When I had offered to get him a snack his answer was, “It’s okay, I am working”. Can you imagine that? His job is solely to drive me around and wait for me. It is a lot to take in sometimes.
An aryuvedic experience ...
Next, Abe drove us to an Ayurvedic spa. He had said the one in our hotel was not authentic. I am sure that this was a ploy to get us to go to his friend’s spa so that he could get a cut but, we had to trust him. The spa was not as you would picture it. It was a small door in a small town village and the name was hidden. He ensured us that this was the most famous treatment center in the region. Apparently, there were no lockers so we had to give Abe all of our stuff!!!!! Yes, that meant all of our cash, passports, credit cards, and expensive camera equipment. It was nerve wrecking! We had no choice but to hope for the best and that our vacation was not ruined. Otherwise, we would not have to opt not to do the treatment and I was really ready to experience it.
Aaron and I were taken into separate rooms. I was told to undress completely! The woman, who barely spoke English then put a paper underwear around me. All of her commands were, “sit, stay, roll over”. That was the extent of her English. I am not sure if it was how the Ayurevdic treatment was supposed to happen or if she was just inexperienced. My massage consisted of her rubbing oil everywhere (and I mean everywhere) but she didn’t really give me a “message”.
I chose the hair treatment option. Aaron had told me it was not a good idea as it would be hard to get the oil out of my hair. He was also afraid of what it would do to my hair since it was sensitive. My response was, “it is a part of the experience. I want to do it”. He shrugged and said, “okay good luck”. The girl PULLED on my hair to the point where it was falling out everywhere. I kept asking her to stop and be gentle but this translated to harder! I think I lost more hair during this process than I would have normally. After the oil massage, I was told to sit in this weird pod-like structure. I think this was their version of an in-room sauna. It was very uncomfortable as it closed around my neck so that my head was sticking out. I sat in it for about 20 minutes. After this, she dripped oil all over my far head and hair. Apparently, this was the hair treatment and not what she did earlier. In addition, they don’t take the oil out of your hair as I thought she would. Instead, she wrapped a cloth around my head and said goodbye your treatment is over. “Great”, I though. Not only was Aaron right but now I had to deal with the oil.
I got dressed and nervously headed outside. My treatment was longer than Aaron’s and I was not sure I would find my driver or Aaron at the end. Luckily, everything was okay. Our passports and wallets were safe and Abe, our trusty driver was sitting in the car with Aaron. Phew! That was a relief. To my amusement, Aaron also had oil in his hair. Therefore, there was no avoiding it and she would have pulled on my hair even if I did just the normal option. In a way, it made me feel better but I wish I had my lost hair back on my head.
At this point, it was late and dark. Abe had a hard time driving us back to the resort as the roads are terrible and it was hard to see. He was a very safe driver though. It took us about an hour to get back even though it was only 20-30 km away. That speaks along for how the roads are. We were exhausted. We went to eat dinner (again at 7:30PM but it was not ready to 8:10PM - starting to see a theme here). We were so tied that we passed out before 9PM. A day well spent with excitement and adventure.
Of note, the grounds of the hotel were lovely. However, if you stay here do not expect it to be overly luxurious. The rooms were decent but the towels and linens were stained. It was not exactly clear if they were clean. We shrugged this up to the “Indian experience” and chose not to complain.
** The names of certain people have been changed to protect their identity
Day 1: Our journey to get to India was quiet the long one! After a 5-hour drive, we arrived in New Jersey at 2am on Thanksgiving day. Our Thanksgiving meal was rushed as we were still scrambling to get our itinerary completed for a trip.... a little last minute, I know. After stuffing ourselves with a delicious meal, we headed to the airport to start our trip: EWR > Munich > Delhi > Cochin.
On our plane from Munich to Delhi, we met a really nice gentleman named Arun. He was an Indian now living in Germany. He had so much knowledge and was really well traveled. We talked to him the entire 8-hour journey. He warned us that ATMs hardly work or have money inside them (due to corruption and changing of currency). This was probably the best advice ever! Because, as soon as we got to Delhi, I had a really hard time finding an ATM that took my card. I tried all of the ATMs in the airport and I had no luck. I even called the Chase "free" 800-number on the back on my card. Well, in India, there is so no such thing as a collect call. It cost be $5. Boy, I wish that I had known how hard it would be to get cash out as I would have brought dollars. After we said our goodbyes to Arun, we really wished we had exchanged numbers. He was fun to talk to and would have been a great contact.
We arrrived at our resort around 2:00PM. Although we said we would refuse to go to sleep, we passed out. We woke for dinner and then went back to sleep.
Good night, India.
Sometimes, the picture is worth more than the words.
Dancing in Fire at Le Merce
We landed in Barcelona on the 25th of September, which was just in time to hit the tail end of La Mercé. This festival is held in Barcelona every year and is filled with lots of activities from wine tasting to dancing. The festival, which runs for about 5 days in late September, has been celebrated yearly since 1687. The religious origins honor the Virgin of Grace, patron saint of the archdiocese of Barcelona, and Saint Eulalia. The word merce has many meanings such as service and mercy, which speaks to the diversity of this festival.
Tired and jet lagged, we didn't get to experience much of the festival. However, we did wake up in time from our mid-afternoon nap to partake in Correfoc, which means fire runs. In this ritual, individuals dress as devils and light fireworks while chanting and running through the streets. Everyone is encouraged to join the parade and take part. By the way, it was raining but that sure didn't stop us - nor anyone else.
Most foreigners, and even some Americans, are surprised to hear that I have not traveled to all 50 states. Actually, I have been to more countries than I have been states in the US. Europeans forget that each state is as big as some countries. Just like traveling to different countries, the food, people and culture differ from state-to-state. Therefore, I've decided that perhaps we should get passport stamps each time we venture into another state. Well, that would make crossing state lines quite difficult, but I definitely experience culture shock every time I leave New England and the east coast.
My dad, my stepmom and I headed out to Ohio for a Bridal Shower. You can say it was like some kind of family road-trip. When I am not in the car, I like to think that I like road trips but the moment they start, I cannot wait to get out of the car. Driving on endless roads is not something I enjoy....especially when the scenery stays the same. I think I started to complain about 45 minutes in!
Our first stop from Pennsylvania to Ohio was right off route 80 at Trucker World. Have you been there? It looked like something in a movie. It was Disneyland for truckers!!! There was a saloon, clothing shops, truck repairs, restaurants (if you can call them restaurants), arcades etc. I'm sorry I didn't take a picture. Apparently, it was trucker appreciation week. They had a live band from New Orleans, a cook out that served jamabalya and alligator, and lots of activities. Boy, was it a sight to see.
Exploring the city of Lisbon
Ivan and I and another couple from Penn State took the cp.pt train from Porto to Lisbon for about 30 euros. You need to make a reservation in advance as seats are assigned. We paid for the express train, which was supposed to be 2 hours and 35 minutes but it ended up being closer to 4 hours. There was free wifi but it didn't work very well so don't count on it if you need to get work done. With half of our day lost because of transit, we decided to immediately head out to see the sights.
I was very hungry since I did not have time to get breakfast in Porto, and at this time, it was already 4PM. As suggested by our AirBnB host, we went to the Time Out Market for a quick bite to eat. It was quite expensive and the food was not too good. I would recommend to stop by to see the market but to eat somewhere else.
The year, the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB) held their annual meeting in Porto, Portugal. Thanks to my advisor, I was fortunate enough to attend and experience a trip that was filled with science, beauty, love, and adventure.
To minimize expenses, myself and another graduate student traveled over 36 hours to arrive in Porto, Portugal from State College, PA. After about 30 hours, we attempted to drag our heavy suitcases through Lisbon while we awaited for our train to Porto. Exhausted and hungry, we did not make it far outside the train station. However, we were able to stumble upon this marvelous wonder, which during 90s degree heat, came with a much needed splash of water.