Just a few words tonight. One of the most pressing realities of the recent adventure has been a very real and omnipresent sense of FOMO. So what if I hiked to the top of a beautiful Croatian mountain? I didn’t make it to the post-hike board games. So what if I was so tired today I thought I was going to die? I missed the island-hopping boat tour. So what if I ate fresh squid at that one little restaurant? I didn’t get the Dalmatian meat medley at Cafe Dvor. So what if I drank champagne with part of the crew? I didn’t hop in the ocean with the other group. Oh god. And on and on and on. And we haven’t even gotten to ‘So what if I did my actual job for the required amount of hours to keep my actual job? I didn’t get to hang out at the wine bar.’

HOWEVER.

I would very much like to get a movement going to oppose FOMO. So, after almost exactly one week abroad and a handful of discussions with fellow digital nomads, I feel confident moving forward with NOMO: Not Opposed (to) Missing Out. NOMO FOMO.

As long as the percentage of days I literally don’t set foot outside my apartment remains somewhere in the < 15% range, I am cutting FOMO off. (I think it's good to have boundaries. I don't want this notion to go so far that I'm like 'So what if I haven't toured the Old City yet? I've watched 37 episodes of Always Sunny in Philadelphia. NOMO for liiiiiiiiife!')

I also think it's relevant to keep in mind that whatever you did with your life on any given day is likely just fuel for someone else’s FOMO. So for the remainder of my time over here, I am embracing, as hard as I can, the thought that wherever I was, whatever I was a part of, THAT is the thing that I am grateful for. Nothing more. Nothing less. Today? Today I’m grateful for the nap and the tea and the emails home to some loves that I desperately miss even though the boat trip did looked bomb, y’all. And you know what else? Sometimes I want to hang alone on my balcony with a book and I don’t like it when FOMO talks me into a different plan. I’m an introvert. FOMO has the power to ruin my little introvert life.

All of that said, I’m damn glad I was a part of yesterday’s stunningly lovely Mosor hike. Even though I did skip the beach sunset. ;)

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*This post contains no implications the exit will be graceful*

Subtitled : Wikidont let RyanAir ruin your life with irresistibly low fares the way I let it ruin mine

Sub-subtitled : Life lessons on a Chicago subway

[What. A lot happened on my way out of the country.]

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I spent a day or two in Chicago with Michael before flying to Croatia. It was a somewhat brilliant moment between the chaos of leaving and the intensity of arriving. On the one hand, all the decisions had already been made. I’d either gotten all my shots, or I hadn’t. [I did. Except for rabies. If I get bit by a bunny in Croatia, steer clear.] I’d either packed enough underwear, or not. [Too soon to know.] I’d either moved everything out of my house, or Susie hates me now. [I hope Susie doesn’t hate me now. Sorry about the freezer rhubarb either way.] At that point, the flurry of leaving was over and the stress of a full day of Euro-travel + a whole new life had yet to commence. And so, Chicago became my deep-dish pizza oasis between Bozeman and Split.

We stayed at an AirB&B in Forest Park, near Oak Park, and spent Friday down at Navy Pier. We went out for a fantastic final date night dinner at The Publican. We drank a grapefruit Leinenkugel near the water in celebration of their 150th anniversary. For the day, I got to turn off the stress of all the upcoming solo travel between Chicago and Split. My tactical error was thinking that I could save money with a RyanAir flight.

Here’s the thing. If you book RyanAir, please please please, before you do, I’M BEGGING YOU, run the cost of all the non-included expenses that are the unspoken part and parcel of RyanAir’s brainwashing program. Here’s how the brainwashing program works: You’re a normal adult human. You see that you can fly from London to Zadar for thirty six American dollars. THIRTY SIX DOLLARS. You think about all the times you’ve spent more money on a pitcher of margaritas. You immediately buy the ticket. You don’t even care if you really plan to take that flight. Whatever. You’ll just book a different $36 dollar flight from one glamorous end of Europe to another. You’ll buy an extra one, just for funsies. Just because you can and because your mom sent you a birthday card with a fiver in it this month. You can do anything.

Things that will be a factor, the breakdown:

1) When you forget (or don’t realize) that if you don’t print your boarding pass, they charge you $60. That’s right ladies and gentlemen. If you don’t show up to the airport with a physical copy of your boarding pass, you immediately owe RyanAir TWO pitchers of margaritas and all your loose change. (This is an analogy.)

2) The bag you definitely have to check. Tack on $40.

3) The price of travel from wherever you are to wherever the RyanAir flight leaves from. The two locations are guaranteed to not be the same thing. Usually between $20-$45.

4) The price of travel from wherever RyanAir takes you to wherever you ACTUALLY want to be. Also usually between $20-45. In this case, it was the fact that Zadar is not Split, Zadar is two and a half hours from Split, and I needed to be in Split. $30 for the taxi from the airport to the bus station. $15 for the bus between the two cities.

5) Extra money for all the food / water you have to buy while this elaborate travel plan unfolds. Typically in the $10 range.

I basically have #1 and #2 dialed at this point, but I still always forget about the plethora of expensive transitions needed to ferry me to and from the RyanAir nightmare of a good idea.

And none of that even touches on the cost of the time that all of that takes. Or the toll on my psyche. The infuriating thing is that I know all of this about RyanAir. I’ve known it for a long time. I lived it two years ago. And yet. One $36 plane ticket on my computer screen literally erases all prior knowledge of how much I’m going to regret it.

So please Wikidont buy that alluring RyanAir ticket unless you’ve done the math on all the other considerations as well and it still seems like a reasonable plan. And don’t be half a bottle of wine in when you try to determine this.

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Secondly, although I know I tend to stay some version of light on here, it’s honestly because I haven’t figured out how to do the real deal stuff yet. Or it’s because I feel that the serious stuff and the ludicrousness of a RyanAir rant exist in separate spheres and I’m uncertain how to blend them. Or it’s because it’s late and I’m tired and it’s easier to skip through a travel roast than it is to address deep-seated issues like racism and privilege. Whatever the case may be, we find ourselves at the portion of this post where I was graced with an education on a late-night train in Chicago.

Michael and I were working our way back from dinner at The Publican and we overshot a train transition because we were on the wrong line. The stop we wanted to be at looked like an easy cut across if we walked, but Michael asked the gate attendant if that was a good idea and she gave us a hard no – not safe. She chatted with us for a little while about the crime in Chicago and how it’s the young guys stirring up trouble.

In Forest Park, our AirBnB was on Harlem Avenue in an area where the white population was a noticeable minority (although still a decent area). As the correct train home ran down the line, the number of people on it slowly thinned.

Five or six stops from ours, a younger black man got on the train. He was the type who would have made me nervous if I was on the train alone; he was loud, amped up, possibly drunk. And it was because that was my perception, when he got off the train and the younger black woman sitting near the door tapped on the window as he left and said to him, “You be safe out there. You hear?”, it was the exact opposite of what I expected. It was the exact opposite of my reaction. My safety crossed my mind. Not his.

That moment alone would have been enough to gut check me. But then the woman who had told him to look out for himself started talking (more or less to herself) and no matter how many news articles you read about shit going down in places like Charlottesville and how much you care or empathize from a distance, nothing’s real in the way it is when you hear it expressed by someone who sounds so heartbroken and furious about it that they will speak it out loud to a train of other silent humans. I live in Montana. I don’t often have the opportunity to deeply understand the daily struggle and omnipresent reality this is for so many humans in other places.

So we sat and listened to her talk about how she’s lost five friends in the past month. We listened to her talk about the silver spoon of white privilege and heard her be bitter about white people passing hate down to their children. And honestly, some of it felt unfair because there are plenty of white people who haven’t had everything handed to them either. And there are plenty of white people who are putting so much heart and soul into fighting hate like that. But on the other hand, it clarified this gap between that notion and the reality that there is some built-in additional ease to being white. And that it’s easy not to notice or credit it having the impact it does.

She talked about how black people are survivors. About how white people wouldn’t last in the world that she and her friends and family have had to live in. But that they’re strong. So strong. So much stronger than the rest of us – so much stronger than the ones who’ve had life handed to them on an easier platter. And it hit me hard. Because it’s true. My struggles are nothing compared to anything that woman has experienced. And when you’re surrounded by people who are in the same boat, it normalizes so that things that are mildly difficult seem like the standard for genuine difficulty. But then you wind up on a train like that and watch the gauge get reset. And you wonder if you’re going to let the lesson change you and your approach to the world and other humans, or watch it move into the past and become theoretical, simply something that you think about when you want to feel like a human who pays attention and cares about the struggles of others.

Like I said, this is a tricky thing to write about, especially as a white woman, so please grant me a little grace if it’s insensitive in a way that I don’t have the perspective to see from where I stand but that you can see from where you are. I was grateful to be shown something that night that I admittedly don’t have more than a cursory understanding of. I hope I know a little more now.

And with that, it was adios America. Thank you for the reminder of unearned privilege as I make my way to new parts of the world.

[This blog is in a constant cycle of drought / resuscitation. It is currently being Lazarus’d as I embark on a month-long trip to Croatia, followed by a month-long trip to Prague, followed by either a similar progression of countries or a return to the homeland.]

Let my life be a cautionary tale to you. If you travel too far, too frequently, or for too long a time, you forfeit your ability to be a normal person. Let that sink in for a minute before I qualify.

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Me, at Bhutan’s #1 tourist attraction, Tiger’s Nest. #2 is the local post office so I would definitely say they put all their eggs in one basket.

Your forfeit your ability to be a normal person if that definition includes replacing intense preparation for months of travel abroad with the nonchalance of a weekend trip to Portland. Did I throw in some underwear, a couple extra t-shirts, and a toothbrush? If yes, then packing = pretty much covered. I’ll buy a converter and body wash when I get to Croatia.

You forfeit normal if ‘normal’ means thinking a year away from loved ones is a devastating amount of time and ‘not normal’ is thinking a year-long exodus is simply no big deal; the people who love you will be there and love you 365 days later too.

You sacrifice normal when the great big, unexpected world starts feeling like a trip to the local grocery store. Guess what? There’s some version of Oreos & potato chips everywhere. Not only that, but if you’re American, Canadian, or Australian and you spend any significant amount of time in Europe, I promise you’ll run into other people you know while you’re there. There’s some level of inevitability to it.

This shift away from normal doesn’t happen overnight and it certainly doesn’t happen on the first long stretch of travel. But your normal does change. It moves. Your new normal creeps away from your previous normal until suddenly, three pairs of black stretchy pants in a carry-on intended to see you through an unknown number of days in Europe is just a moment of “Yeah, of course. Black leggings for liiiiiiiiife.” It’s when you understand that the mandatory amount of belongings for a human all fit in one bag.

[This post has not been edited for complete accuracy. I believe the actual outcome was two pairs of black stretchy pants, two jeggings. But the moral remains the same. I refused to bring any bottoms that won’t triple as attire / workout gear / pajamas. In a dire situation, they could probably also serve as scarves. And as a sidenote, don’t get me started on my hero worship toward the guy whose entire packing plan was toothpaste, a toothbrush, and a bar of soap in a FANNY PACK.]

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Me, in Hampi, India’s prehistoric temple playground. Don’t f with the temples and don’t piss off the indigenous goatherds, but other than that, do what you will.

There are times I miss the intense foreignness of first-time travel. There are moments I wonder if normal means committing to a place and knowing it deeply, in a way you can never understand a city you live in for a week or a month.

But feeling like the whole damn world is available?

Irreplaceable.

 

Just wanted to pop in for a moment today to wish everyone a very Happy Easter. I alternately spent the day with a hot yoga class, an Easter mass, a chair on the lawn in the sun, my family, a book, and one damn fine cocktail from Bozeman Spirits. These were good life decisions, all, even though the start of that list sounded like I was irretrievably headed down a Dr. Seuss path. I hope all your Easters were just as fine. <3 <3 <3 <3

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New Delhi, India | Day 23 | India Gate and Humayun’s Tomb

When I travel, I get braver slowly.

It’s laughable how foreign Galway, Ireland first felt upon arrival when I traveled there two years ago. But after returning to the Emerald Isle after months in Europe proper I had to sit myself down and ask myself what I was initially intimidated by. Everyone in Ireland speaks ENGLISH (comprehension not guaranteed, but the baseline language remains my own) and Galway doesn’t exactly make headlines as a menacing city. Still, I realized that I have a fairly distinct pattern for warming up slowly to the lack of jeopardy of a place.

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The line of ‘How safe I actually am’ might need to be ratcheted down a bit for India and a few of the other numbers may be a little skewed, but the pattern remained the same. And so, by Day 23 of the India travels, I was ready to do a solo excursion into the wilds of New Delhi.

Because New Delhi is where Vandana’s family lives, it was home base between all the other jaunts ’round the country. Her family members expressed an extreme lack of interest in any of the sights of Delhi but I didn’t want to miss out on any major attractions because I was too lazy or timid or lazy to venture out on my own. And so, feeling bold (a mere three weeks into the travels) decided that the proper approach was a Hop On Hop Off (referred to as a HoHo) bus tour to facilitate my newfound sense of autonomy.

Even with that my ambitions were relatively low. I figured if I made it to India Gate and Humayun’s Tomb, I could call the New Delhi sight-seeing a success.

Samaira and Suhana, Vandana’s nieces, aged 9 and 7, scoffed at India Gate. “So boring,” they said. But I was pretty into it. Among other things, it was the first place I’d been other than Hampi where there was actually room to roam. Crowded, perhaps. Packed full of vendors with street snacks, ice cream carts, tourists and elephant rides, yes. But it was also expanses of avenues and open grassy areas and I could WANDER. And eat ice cream sandwiches. Multiple ice creams sandwiches. Because when there are literally dozens upon dozens of ice cream carts, you don’t have to feel shame for repeat visits; you simply spread the wealth. WELL PLAYED, INDIA. Please take all my money in exchange for ice cream.

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After India Gate, I wound up on the bus for an hour or two. That was probably not strictly necessary but it was low-pressure and I could press my face to the glass and watch the city roll by.

I got off at Humayun’s Tomb. As a quick aside, India (Hindi) often makes me feel verbally dyslexic. I have had to google Humayun’s Tomb literally every time I try to spell it. My little American brain does not lock down the letter / pronunciation combination of that place very well. Hiyuman, Hamayuman, Huyamun, Swimmy, Swammy, Slappy, Swanson… SAMSONITE. I was way off… (Dumb and Dumber #facepalm)

A miniature bit of India trivia is that there are always two lines to get into historical places. This might even fall under the category of Travel Protip. Foreigners (THAT’S ME) have an entirely different line than nationals. And that line is always short. And that line always costs approximately 2500% more than the other line. Normally that percentage would be a massively inflated number for dramatic effect but in this case it is cold hard facts. 500 rupees for the foreigners to visit Humayun’s Tomb. 20 rupees for the nationals. At least I’m helping fund more than just the ice cream stands.

This is important to know for another reason I noticed in my travels. Tour guides will try to sell you on the fact that they can ‘help you skip the lines’ at busy attractions. This is complete nonsense because all they’re doing is hoping you don’t realize that as a foreigner you get to ‘skip the line’ anyway by going straight to the foreigner line. The ratio of foreigners to nationals in every place I visited in India was approximately 1:100. Very sneaky, would-be tour guide. Luckily I have a deep aversion to being taught anything historical about a place for 200 additional rupees and thus, through a combination of deliberate ignorance and parsimoniousness, inadvertently avoided all of that.

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This picture below is, at last, Humayun’s Tomb. (All previous ones are auxiliary tombs on the grounds.) Humayun’s Tomb was least partially the inspiration behind the design of the Taj Mahal and because it is the tomb of a king, it is the masculine representation. It has four gates, one for each of the four winds. The fascinating difference between this and the much grander Taj Mahal is that the Taj Mahal, being the tomb of a queen, is the female representation and only has three gates that lead in. This is because the female is considered the embodiment of paradise and there could be nothing greater on the far side of paradise. For a country not traditionally known for their treatment of women, I do appreciate that particular sentiment.

(I have to tell you all this about the Taj Mahal now because when I do finally write about my experience there, I promise you I will be so focused on the confusing mix of traumatization and awe I experienced that I might forget interesting historical tidbits.)

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^ This photo brought to you by travel camaraderie. When you meet the other white girl wandering around Humayun’s Tomb and find out she’s from D.C., you team up, take pics of each other, swap travel stories, and stop just shy of trying to be her best friend forever.

And with that the HoHo tour bus expanded my previously established New Delhi safety zone. Before the day’s brave lone foray it had included the rather eclectic subset of Vandana’s parent’s house, the enclave immediately outside Vandana’s parent’s house, Kahn market, The National Gallery of Modern Art, Indira Gandhi International Airport, and most Uber rides.

Which brings us to : Guess what! There are only three official India trip posts left to go! Two from Bhutan, then the Taj Mahal (truly the grand finale of my time in India), and that’s a wrap! And then we can go back to my regularly scheduled life of eating an impressive amount of breakfast food in Bozeman, Montana and grousing about snow in April.

I was doing some photo-editing tonight because I have a great idea for a post I find amusing (which is how I typically try to roll) when I was taken completely unaware by an emotional reaction to one of the photographs. It was powerful enough to prompt me to post this, without much thought, without much craft, and throw something relatively off-the-cuff on here.

(Also, I’ve had a giant glass of wine tonight (um, at least) and that makes me both more dramatic and more careless than usual.)

My dad had specifically requested more pictures of humans, because, as he put it, “That’s what I picture India as. People. People everywhere.” I have a real tendency to attempt to scrub a photograph of the humanity of a place. I’d rather have composed architectural lines where the architect, at least, was composing deliberate beauty than the unpredictable messiness of personhood, especially in quantity. If I crop out the humans, I de facto clean up aesthetics I don’t find appealing: the fanny pack, the disheveled hair, the chewing gum, the clash of unmonitored emotions, the disregard for form and function that most humans display, and so on and so forth. It’s like sweeping the litter out of a photo.

But because I know my dad is right – that it’s the faces and the nuances and the dirt-under-the-fingernails of the humans that make the layers of a place compelling – tonight I was sifting through my photographs of Agra that included the peoples.

And I came across this picture. One I never intended to take. I had been quick clicking, attempting to capture the serenity of this lovely auntie, standing half in the shadows and half in the sun, and didn’t even realize this is what I captured until tonight.

And this photograph is everything I don’t know how to say yet about my time in India.

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It’s all the things. It’s the dignified woman in her beautiful sari completely unaffected and deliberately unaware of anything else under the ancient walls of the Red Fort of Agra as all three of the men gawk at the white woman. It’s her grace. It’s the unintended capture of the head swivel always prompted by being a white woman in India, camera aimed that way or no. It’s the divide between cultures. It’s my uncertainty and foreignness, anchored by the utter implacability of the woman who has stood her ground for decades. It’s strength and courage. It’s presumption and assumption. It’s accident and revelation.

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This isn’t the picture I was trying to take either. But it stands hand-in-hand with the other, and in it she is perfect to me.

Otherwise known as haggling in India.

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Goa, India | Day 17

Gambling and haggling have a lot of the feels in common. And I’m pretty sure the house always wins in haggling too. And by the house, I mean not me. But I’m still here to tell you what I learned. Because after five weeks in India, it’s not nothing.

Sonia-in-real-life is in Conrad, Montana with her parents and I’m glad today happened before I tried to write the India haggling post because today, Saturday, the 8th day of April in the year 2017, was a case study in one end of the wide spectrum of the fine art of the barter. I don’t think there’s any confusion at home or abroad about the average American’s ability to argue their way into a reasonable deal. It’s non-existent.

I may not be an excellent bargainer, even after a month-plus in India, but the lesson of today is that I come by that failure honestly.

My parents are moving to Townsend (which is delightful for all their Bozeman children in that we can spend quality time with them by driving only 45 minutes to see them instead of 210), and today was the day of their moving sale. (Ah, moving sales. That glorious event in which you try to trick strangers into thinking all the worthless junk that you are literally willing to throw in the trash should somehow be exchanged for cash.) I showed up to help with this.

I can’t vouch for the rest of rummage sale season in Conrad, but over the course of four hours a not-so-steady trickle (more resembling a drip) of people drifted in and out of my parents garage. One old man in flannel pants, crocks, scraggly facial hair, and a Desert Storm cap actually lingered for well over an hour, but he was alone for most of that time.

Of the six people that bought things, here is a sampling of the conversations I overheard :

Man #1 : The ammo says five dollars. Would you take three?
Mom (without pausing) : I don’t really know what ammo is worth. Okay.

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Mom : How many posters do you have?
Man #2 : Eight.
Mom : Well, they’re four for a dollar… so two dollars. [Brief silence.] Unless you want to try to talk me down?

Every rule of haggling was broken in Conrad, Montana this morning and I was there to witness it.

Luckily, I’m fresh off the presses from India or I might not have noticed.

When we first arrived in India, and well before I had any haggling chops of my own, Vandana and I spent an afternoon in Udaipur buying jewelry and jootes (the glamorous little ballet shoes). This was the warm-up and it actually took me a few weeks before all the nuances settled in. For instance, I initially didn’t understand V’s overwhelming desire to go back to the jewelry store and demand a lower price for the 350 rupee earrings we’d bought when we found a nearly identical pair a few stores further down for 100. What I learned along the way when I was personally responsible for my own haggling is that every time you realize you could have gotten a much lower price you feel swindled. And stupid. And you experience a deep desire to right both those wrongs.

And thus we arrive at lesson #1 of haggling.

#1 : COMPARISON SHOP

Don’t you DARE buy anything in India until you’ve checked the baseline for that item in more than one place.

Before we really get into any of this though, I want to hammer home the point that what’s more important than any of these lessons is the burning feeling of failure when you know you fumbled one of them. Haggling is a constant emotional teeter-totter between the massive rush when you might have gotten close to a fair price and the seething regret that you can’t take back your life choices when it becomes very obvious you didn’t. There’s a very real possibility the phrase ‘never make the same mistake twice’ was coined by someone haggling in India because every single one of these fails is seared into my memory.

Picture this. I am hot, sweaty, starving, recently mashed in a crush of humanity, but finally strolling away from the Taj Mahal down the gauntlet (um, avenue) of street food and souvenir shops, when I decide that now is the ideal time to purchase more shoes from India. I stop in a shop that has a fair number catching my eye and inquire as to the price. 700 rupees, the man tells me. Nah. Never going to happen. I am VERY proud of myself for rather quickly getting him down to 500. (The rush.) I purchase four pairs. I walk ten feet and get pulled into another shoe shop. Once again, I ask price. 400 rupees, he says. Ah yes. There it is. (The regret.) He started me out lower than I’d paid for pretty much identical shoes. Le sigh. But I still bought a pair.

And here we are at lesson #2!

#2 : DEMAND DISCOUNTS FOR BULK PURCHASES. BULK PURCHASES MEAN ANYTHING MORE THAN ONE. 

Basically with each additional item purchased, you open the floor to drop the price of all the items. If you agree to a price of 500 rupees for the sequined jootes that you are dying to have and then the salesman talks you into three more pairs by jamming every glittery, brightly threaded shoe remotely your size onto your foot, you should certainly no longer be paying 500 per pair of shoes. I haven’t done the exact math on this, but my estimate in that situation is that it should have been closer to 1500. We’ll overlook the fact that 500 was too much to be paying to begin with.

A basic rule of thumb (although not applicable to all situations, such as when you know someone is already selling the same item for half somewhere else) is lesson #3.

#3 : YOUR INITIAL COUNTER SHOULD BE HALF THE ORIGINAL ASKING PRICE

This rule was handed down from the master, Vandana’s father. The man I would trust to purchase a brand new Porsche for the price of a forty year old station wagon. After a shopping excursion in Dilli Haat (an amazing open air craft bazaar in Delhi) Vandana and I both discussed how we’d rather not admit what we paid for things to her dad because we knew he would be massively disappointed in us, even though we were rather proud of ourselves. It was in Dilli Haat that I successfully pulled off my most impressive bargaining move of the entire trip…

#4 : WALK AWAY TO FORCE YOUR PRICE 

But walk slowly.

I was purchasing a scarf from a Kashmiri vendor (and I’d already vetted the relative baseline because Vandana had also bought a scarf from there), so when he told me the scarf was 1500 rupees, I looked at him and said 1000 without hesitating. (I failed at the rule of halves, but let’s focus on the wins here.) He countered with 1400. I repeated 1000. He smiled, and dropped the price to 1200. I smiled back, shook my head, and walked away. He let me get about fifteen yards before he called me back with, “Fine, fine! 1000.” The rush.

But I will close this post on a moment of regret.

I started it out setting the timeline in Goa because it was in Goa that the bargaining moment that most nags my psyche happened. It was also my first solo attempt so perhaps I’ll forgive myself. Part of getting better at the whole game is having people (sometimes in the form of nine year olds) shame you later with their utter disbelief and shock at how much you paid for something.

Long story short, I wanted beach-y dresses for the beach and I walked into the first store I came across. With very little bargaining, no comparison shopping, no bulk discounts, no saucy walk-away move, and essentially no time to even decide which patterns I liked the best, let the lady rapidly pressure me into two dresses for 2000 rupees. (That’s about $30 total. $15 each.) That sounds reasonable for America. It was way, way too much to pay in India.

But ultimately – and this is a conversation that played out more than once – if you wind up happy with what you paid for something, you won. Even if you definitely could have gotten it for half the price. And even if you think about that literally every single day and twice when you see it.

But there is one thing that is the utter counterpoint to the burning desire to squeeze every purchase down to the last possible rupee, and that is simply remembering that whether I overpaid for something in India or not, I am absolutely certain that person needed the $15 more than I. And with that acknowledgement the regret dissipates completely.

Fair warning though if you do ever decide to play in India…

#5 : LIKE GAMBLING, HAGGLING IS ADDICTIVE AF

Back to your regularly scheduled recap of the India trip…
Goa, India | Days 16 – 20

From the desolate rock heaps of Hampi, I headed to the hot crowded beaches of Goa to meet up with V and her family. A little something I learned about myself in India is that when I’m headed someplace called Goa, I fall squarely into the last of the four classic literary struggles: man vs. self. Because it’s called GOA. And it takes every ounce of my little soul to not constantly say thing like “Guess where I’m Goa-ing?” And I don’t love myself for it. Mostly because I veer straight into the freebie puns. The ones where you look at them and you think to yourself, “Don’t do it. You’re better than that.” But GUESS WHAT. Turns out I rarely am. And so, on a Saturday morning in January, I hopped a train in Hospet en route to the southwest beaches of India. Goa… Goa-ing… Gone.

The train platform that morning was crowded with tourists leaving Hampi. It was early and dark and the train was late.

Occasionally something will happen in India that would be equivalent to relative lunacy in America. As I waited for the train, watching crows crowd the telephone wires and trying to avoid the staff industriously emptying trashcans, my hotel sent the driver who’d dropped me off back to the platform to track me down and tell me I was 350 rupees short on my hotel bill. (That’s around $5.) In general, I have no problem paying bills in full. In this instance, however, I had given the hotel all the pertinent information to charge me for the missing cashew / Kitkat / beer mini-bar fees when I checked out that morning. They simply overlooked it and I didn’t realize it hadn’t gotten factored in. In America, I’m under the impression the sentiment at that point would have been good luck and good riddance, but in India the hotel called my driver, the driver found me on the train platform, and said driver tried to extract the 350 rupees from me.

Problematic things about this:

1) Are you kidding? No. You screwed up. We parted ways. Deal with the clerical error on your end.

2) I didn’t have 350 in small bills anyway, and he couldn’t break a 500. While my innate sense of fairness will chime in, in a small voice in my head that says, “Well, you do actually owe them that money even if it’s completely their mistake and it’s a little insane they stalked you down on a train platform to make good on it,” it certainly draws the line at overpaying.

3) The 180 rupees I wound up giving the guy was every last bit of my loose change and India was recently demonetized. That meant that for the duration of the day, nobody who was serving 20 rupee cups of chai or hawking 30 rupee bags of Lays potato chips could make change for a 500 either. So in spite of the fact I technically had plenty of money, I had no money.

4) It was a seven hour train ride and I hadn’t packed snacks.

5) I had left the hotel at 5 that morning to catch that train and ALL I wanted in my life was one (or twenty) thimble sized cups of the chai that were available from the men lugging thermoses up and down the platform. Their ongoing cries of, “Chai! Chai!” took on a slightly taunting tone in my ears.

And so I stood there, 180 rupees lighter, uncaffeinated and irritated, waiting for a train that was running an hour behind.

Annoying as all this was, it at least gave me a lot of time to puzzle my way through my compartment assignment (not that the extra time would prove to be useful). My ticket claimed 2A. The signs on the platform indicating which section would be where when the train eventually pulled up jumped directly from 1A to 1B. Common sense would dictate that 2A, listed or not, falls between 1A and 1B, but I didn’t want to take any chances. In India, standard operating procedure is to aggressively ask for directions, and as the train finally arrived, there happened to be a man who was obviously a guide nearby.  

He was: Good looking. Good English. Good timing. And helpful, the hallmark of India. If I had anything resembling an Elizabeth Gilbert-esque Eat Pray Love moment on my trip, this was to be the one.

He broke away from the British couple he was directing to point me down the line of cars in the right direction. We didn’t exactly pinpoint 2A but I figured he’d gotten me close enough, thanked him, and kept moving down the line. I showed my ticket and asked, “2A?” to the people hanging out the doors of the train. They indicated I was headed the right direction and continued waving me to the right. I would realize after the fact that they had no idea what I was asking, nor did they know where 2A was either.

I was running out of train and realizing conditions on that end were far from first class. I needed to be back in the 1A, 1B area.  

That’s when the train started moving.

If there is ever a genuine ‘OH SHIT’ moment in travel, it is absolutely when you still have no idea where on earth you’re supposed to be on a train, you’re dragging more than one bag behind you, and your mode of transportation just began abandoning you. In that moment the ‘where’ of ‘where am I supposed to be on this train’ disappears entirely in favor of ‘BE on the train’. Wheres can be sorted out later. I started running toward the nearest open door (it wasn’t particularly comforting at the time, but, it’s India so I was definitely not the only person jumping on the moving train as it pulled away from the station). The people standing in the doorway helped pull my bag up and I successfully leaped on the train to join them.

I was slightly exhilarated, mildly traumatized, hungry, and it was barely 7:30 a.m.

It wasn’t easy and it took some time and creativity but I eventually worked my way to the section of the train I was supposed to be on and, with great relief, took my very cramped upper bunk. Hungry or not, money or no, uncomfortable or not, I had a seat and I would get to Goa. Feeling encouraged by this, I decided to take another chance on chai.

I was in the middle of getting shot down on that front and desperately hoping the chai wallah would take pity on me and give me the chai for free the when the guide I’d asked directions from showed up in my section.

“So you made it onto the train?”

“More or less.”

As I obviously had no change and was also obviously demoralized by my inability to acquire caffeine, he paused to process the situation then quickly bought my chai. 20 rupees may be less than 50 cents but he was wholeheartedly the hero of the hour.

And over the course of the next six hours, as the train rattled through the countryside and I intermittently read and napped, he commandeered a better seat for me, shared his food, explained the demonetization of India from his perspective, disappeared to find someone somewhere in the bowels of the train to break one of my 500s, pointed out sights along the way, flattened pennies for me on the tracks when the train stopped to let another train go by, made interesting small talk, and offered me a ride with his group for the stretch between the last train stop in Vasco de Gama and my final destination of Goa.

His name was Joe and he saved the day. Nor was this to be my last encounter with Joe. 

It’s hard to write my way back through a day that exists mostly as individual snapshots in my mind: straddling my bag as I tried to stay out of the mist of toothpaste froth in the connecting section of the train as seemingly every human in that car brushed their teeth at the open sink, being handed strips of dried chocolate something or other that closely resembled housing insulation, hopping off the train to stand on the parallel set of tracks as it stopped in the middle of the countryside, being waved over to the window just in time to see a waterfall rush by below, following a backpack and a pair of camo shorts through the crowd exiting the train station, laughing as the British couple dramatically lamented their inability to buy alcohol that day due to a religious holiday.

But I did it. I wrote this blog post. So there you Goa.

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I’ve been a rockgodsuperstar at submitting things to competitions I will never win lately. The most recent of these is a 2500 character entry for a World Nomad scholarship to the Balkans…

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I initially misread the required length of the submission as 2500 words versus 2500 characters and crafted a truly lovely overarching tale of our adventure on the Scottish island of Fladda. (One I’ve written about before here.)

The entry (below) is what happens when you realize the discrepancy and try to adjust six pages worth of necessary details and story setup into one page. In hindsight, it may have gone over better as a bulleted list, i.e.,

  • Sonia and Gretchen make decision to go to Scotland
  • Sonia and Gretchen think they can somehow do this on, like, ten American dollars
  • Sonia and Gretchen make decisions based on their outrageously unrealistic budget that do not benefit them
  • Sonia and Gretchen more or less suffer for six days but they do so in a truly breathtaking place
  • Sonia and Gretchen walk away from this experience with some deep-seated Scottish wisdom that basically revolves around the notion that it’s ludicrous to not drink available alcohol
  • Under no circumstances is this ever not true
  • Still one of my favorite stories


“I have a friend who owns an island off the coast of Scotland. You can probably visit if you want.”

Words that would be responsible for a two-day trek from Galway across the waist of the Emerald Isle, over the water to Glasgow, onto a train bound up the still-brown hills of the Western Highlands to Oban, and, finally, to a bus, to a ferry, to a boat, to the island. Words that would prompt a lesson my sister and I now know to our toes.

Fladda, unimaginative Old Norse for ‘flat island’ is a tiny, rocky interruption in the ocean. We were two pale, big-eyed American girls who found ourselves on that pile of flattened, uninhabited Scottish rock, perpetually licked round the edges by the hungry Corryvreckan, with limited food and, due to some logistical gymnastics of transport and timing, an absence of beer.

Getting to Fladda is a trial. Words like Cuan and Cullipool and Alistair are meaningless until you’re wedged between a car and railing on a three-car ferry between those towns and informed that the main controversy is whether or not to just build a damn bridge. They are blank until Alistair’s wife collects you on the other side then joltingly drives you down to the water where you meet Alistair, a blond-fuzzed, red-tinged Scotsman, as you climb onto his boat.

I remember the way the wind felt on Fladda and how watching the water and the clouds expanded my understanding of beauty. I remember trying to memorize the gradients of ocean and sky: sleet gray, hard gray, bright gray, fresh golden edged, blue-green on the verge of plunging back into cold purple, periwinkle, white. Rimmed with froth and seagull cries. It was uninhibited and ancient. It was the loveliest thing I have ever seen.

But we were also bored and we sorely missed the beer, lost in the cracks between Glasgow and Fladda, that we didn’t buy. The island’s emergency supply contained a case of Guinness that for four days sparked debate about whether we had finally reached a state of ‘real need’. It taunted us, but ultimately remained untouched. And when Alistair picked us off the island our final day, the Guinness dilemma was recounted as the main hardship of the trip. To which he laughed and exclaimed, with an air of surprised Scottish disappointment, “Ye shoulda drenk tha Guinness!”

At the end of my life, if I have any words to impart to beloved humans, among them will be, “Don’t worry too much about love. You know how to love, so you will find love.” and “Always drink the Guinness.”

Hampi, India | Day 15 

In which I get legitimate exercise in India, beg my driver to buy me wine in broken English*, and have my heart broken by an old man.

* in this instance ‘broken English’ refers to how it made it through his filter, not my perfect grasp of the language

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I should have mentioned this in the initial Hampi post, but to put it bluntly, Hampi is pronounced ‘Hump-me’ without the m. I feel uncomfortable saying it correctly to English people but I also can’t call it Vijayanagara because that one is flat-out nonpronounceable. And believe me when I say I tried.

I met a tour guide on the train to Goa who told me that Hampi is the nickname for Vijayanagara – which I liked a lot and which also made a great deal of sense because it solved my difficultly understanding the difference between the two. Some light research proved this explanation to not be true (and leaves me still uncertain where and why the description of Hampi overlaps or deviates from Vijayanagara), but it’s a nice story and I’m willing to roll with it. In travel I’ve come to understand that one person’s context is rarely the full story and a stitching method is required to venture even near the edge of truth. It reminds me of Tim O’Brien’s, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” When you travel, you need all the near fictions couched as truths to warily and delicately spin into something touchable, like a snowflake that will melt if it brushes your hand or you stare at it too hard.

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(This place looks COMPLETELY fictional, right? Those are the elephant stables. For when you want to hop on an elephant and romantically gallop off into the sunset.)

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The little boys say, “Where are you from? Can I have a country coin?”

The little girls say, “Where are you from? What’s your name?”, and never ask for money.

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It’s a strange thing, but if you can walk more than ten consecutive yards on your own without appearing near collapse, people in India treat you with a bit of awe. I’m not faulting them for that. It is VERY hard to walk places in India, so they don’t have the experience of the people who roam the mountains of Montana. (But to set the stage for the secondary part of this, there is also a difference between the middle class of India who hold that opinion and the people pushing fruit carts to the edge of tourist territory every day.)

There’s a temple on a hilltop near the Hampi Bazaar (*not* the Monkey Temple), that I impressed the crap out of my driver with the speed I scrambled up and down. It was my favorite place in Hampi and it is the vantage point of the bird’s eye view photograph down to the ruins and palm trees. I considered doing laps.

In Hampi, when I wasn’t summiting tiny mountains like a goddamn alpinist, I was getting schooled in emotional lessons. India is a crash-course in soul crushing poverty where the hardest part to process is how easy it is to shut down a reaction. If anything is going to stop me in my tracks about the massive and oppressive scarcity, it’s how effortless it is to find it so overwhelming that a person simply puts it all in a place where they are only affected by it intellectually, not viscerally.

That happened to me a lot in India and I hated it. To see suffering or extreme filth and poverty and to be even slightly capable of being apathetic? I hate that. But then there were the moments that ripped my heart out of my chest.

My driver and I were on our way back to my hotel in Hospet when we drove past a skinny, leathery old man pushing a cart full of stupid tourist sun hats along the side of the road. I’d seen those hats a dozen different places throughout the course of the day and they are cheap and cheesy and I would rather die of heat exhaustion while burning to a crisp than spend money on one. But then, to see this old man walking his cart home who-knows-how-many miles, a thing he does every day in the heat, in the haze, in the hustle, to earn a handful of rupees that can’t possibly come out to more than a negligible amount of money, made my heart catch in my throat. I wanted to tell the driver to stop the car. I wanted to buy every single hat. I didn’t.

I think I will always regret that.

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On a MUCH lighter note, behind-the-scenes, Sonia-in-real-life, back-home-in-Bozeman :

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People get madder about it here though. In India, road rage seems rote, like people will phone it in but they don’t really mean it. In Montana, angry drivers legitimately have shotguns in their cars.

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