30 May 2011

Vizag Hill Stations Itinerary

For curious parties, or random people doing Google searches, here is our itinerary for the trip this weekend. (See previous post for more about the trip.)

On Friday morning we flew from Hyderabad to Vishakapatnam, also known as Vizag. A driver met us there and drove us to Tyda Jungle Bells, about two hours away up into the hills.

On Saturday we left Jungle Bells and went to the Borra Caves. Then the driver took us to the Ananthigiri Hill Resort, even though we insisted that our reservation was at the Araku Valley Hill Resort. Between Jungle Bells, Borra Caves, Ananthigiri, and Araku Valley, we were in the car for several hours.

When we arrived at Araku Valley we decided we wanted to leave on Sunday instead of Monday. We went to the Padmapuram Gardens late in the afternoon since it was near the hotel.

The drive from Araku Valley to the airport took about two and a half hours on Sunday morning. We stopped for some very good South Indian coffee. The flight home was a breeze and we are happy with the decision to come home early.

Vizag accomodations: click here.
Vizag attractions: click here.

29 May 2011

We Knew When to Fold 'Em and When to Walk Away

Our vacation wasn't terrible. But we came home a day early. It wasn't what we expected and it wasn't relaxing. The good parts weren't making the lame and frustrating parts bearable enough and since Mike has Monday off from work we decided to come home while we could still salvage some of the long weekend.

Muffin had a blast. She was having so much fun that it was nearly impossible to get her to sleep at night. We saw monkeys right outside our cabin and at the camp restaurant. There were goats and cows along the road. A camp dog followed us around all day and hung out on our porch. There were bugs and dirt everywhere. It was paradise for our little adventure baby.

Packing up.

It didn't take Muffin long to go from hip city kid...

...to Lord of the Flies jungle baby.

Out for a walk.

The Tyda Jungle Bells camp was a bust so it's just as well we only stayed there one night. The trekking they advertised was walking up the hill along a road and they insisted we needed a guide. The guide never showed up so we wandered around on our own until the humidity and bugs drove us back to our cabin.

The language barrier with our driver only exacerbated some of the problems we had with him. A lot of the problem would probably be considered our fault for not wanting to stick to a planned itinerary, for wanting to be more spontaneous. That's the way travel is done here. But we insisted we had reservations at one hotel and even when we showed him the printout, he didn't believe us and drove us to another hotel, brought our reservation up to the front desk, then returned to the car to explain they have no rooms so we'll have to go to the other hotel. No kidding, that's why we didn't book there in the first place.

Muffin gets a lot of attention when we go out in public because she's so white. We're used to it here in H'bad. But out in a remote area that doesn't have a lot of Western visitors, we were mobbed whenever we left our room and it became exhausting. We were seen as the rude ones for being tired of having so many people stop us to take photos and try to hold the baby. It's one thing when it takes five minutes out of our day. But when there are several families taking that five minutes, the time adds up and we felt like we had lost a lot of our own family time, obliging other families and trying to be friendly.

Her adoring fans.
The Borra Caves were cool and we're glad the driver ignored our wishes and took us there early in the morning before too many people arrived. The botanical gardens in Araku were also quite pleasant, later in the day as the sun was going down and we were too tired to worry about being polite, declining all requests for photos with Muffin. And the scenery throughout the trip was gorgeous. It reminded us of the mountains in Burundi and Rwanda. But I think we were actually aching for some Burundians whose French was at least as decent as ours so we could get our basic ideas across rather than hoteliers who didn't speak any English at all.

But in the end, we were tired from Muffin's lack of naps. We weren't doing any of the trekking we had planned. We were spending too much time in the car between the few touristy things that we did want to see, plus the driving between hotels. (And to top it off, we were in a dry county! Not that we're huge drinkers, but we were having the kinds of days were a cold beer at sunset would have tasted very good.) On Saturday afternoon I asked Mike when do we decide to go to the airport and catch the next flight home because it wasn't fun anymore. He made some calls and we were home about thirty hours sooner than we'd planned. Muffin went down for a nap right away and then went down for her regular bedtime with no fuss.

The trip was a learning experience. We now know that Muffin is mostly agreeable (until bedtime) where ever she is and she handles all the attention like a champ. The hiking backpack worked out well. I'm not inclined to go on too many more trips, though, until she's off of bottles and formula. Washing the bottles in the given facilities was a pain. And somewhat begrudgingly we'll probably try a more "Western-friendly" location on our next trip, just to see what the difference is.

More photos on flickr.

25 May 2011

No More Teachers, No More (School) Books

I've been taking online courses since January, and as of this week I'm finishing up for a few months. I just handed in my final weekly essay. I'll do my final exam either tonight or tomorrow morning. And then I will no longer spend all of Muffin's nap times doing required reading and I will no longer spend my weekends writing essays. We leave for a long weekend on Friday. I have a list of books to read for fun over the next few months. I want to concentrate on some writing. Maybe I'll finally get the sewing room up and running. Plus, on June 1, I start working again! I used to work in the editorial office of a medical journal, JACC, and they're hiring me for a six-month contract to work from home. I can't wait to be back to my old job, even if it's only for a few months.

The summer is drawing to an end here but since I'm ending my classes for a while, I feel like my summer vacation is just beginning. Spending a rainy season on the couch with a warm laptop or Kindle sounds great to me.

22 May 2011

Yowling

Every once in a while we hear what we assume to be a cat in heat yowling outside our bedroom window all night long. We don't know what to do about it other than roll over and try to fall back to sleep, annoyed, yet thankful that it's not waking up Muffin. Last night there was yet another cat. Mike and I were both tossing and turning for awhile trying to sleep. At one point it got so frequent and so loud that I thought our cat was yowling back, but she was curled up next to me in bed, also trying to sleep.

Around 4:30 in the morning, at least one tiny little voice joined the chorus of meows.

Great. She had kittens.

We had our share of feral kittens in Bujumbura and any time we tried to help it didn't end well.

Shortly after the sun came up the cats quieted down and we forgot about them. They are still quiet tonight.

I don't want Muffin running up to help every injured or lost animal she sees, because animals are unpredictable and they have diseases. But once she's a little older, I can't see myself teaching her that ignoring crying kittens is an okay thing to do, either. There are just so many of them out in the world beyond the United States, it's exhausting worrying about them all.

16 May 2011

I Booked a Vacation

It may not seem like much, but this is a big deal for me. Mike's been on several work trips since we arrived last November, but Muffin and I have been in H'bad nonstop since Day One. Summer is almost over so we're running out of time to take a summer vacation. And for some reason it just seems physically and mentally difficult to book a trip within India, so I'm proud of my accomplishment.

We are going to a somewhat remote area that doesn't have online booking for hotels and has very little online information about hotels there in general. Every site that popped up had the exact same wording copy/pasted. Some sites call the region by its colonial name and some call it by its Indian name and it took me about a week to sort that out and realize everything I was looking at actually was in the same place. I contacted some travel agents for help and they all directed me to the Andhra Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (APTDC). Their website offers friendly online booking for hotels, but really what you do is fill out a form, then exchange many emails back and forth, then end up going into town to visit the office in person before you get some specific questions answered. They wanted to sell me a standard package tour, but in all my Google searches I'd actually been able to narrow down the names of some hotels and activities we wanted.

Visiting the office in person was kind of a drag and took longer than expected, but ended up getting me what I wanted. The woman I'd been emailing with was there and she helped me quite a bit. It was easier for me to watch her sit on the phone with the different hotels, relay the room options to me, and let me make the decisions rather than me call the different hotels and have language barrier issues and/or email back and forth with her several times. She could also advise which activities we wanted to do were close to which hotels, helping me put together an itinerary that involves as little time in the car as possible. And she booked the car for us, along with the hotels.

(Yes, more than one hotel. Unfortunately the jungle camp I really wanted only had a cabin available for one night; my new APTDC helper-friend negotiated the same price, though, for a luxury suite at a hotel for the remaining nights. We'll see how "luxury" it really is, but we're not too picky. After one night in the jungle camp with Muffin, maybe we'll be ready to have an additional star or two added to our accommodations.)

We've done a lot of traveling with Muffin, but it was all for ending up here in H'bad. This will be our first vacation with her. She adds another level of complication to the trip. I have no idea how to pack for her. Lots of diapers I guess. And socks, since it will be quite a bit cooler there than it is here. She's never worn shoes and I can't find any in this city that fit her, so hopefully thick socks will be warm enough.

In about two weeks, we'll be headed for the hills.

08 May 2011

Wearing Shorts

I've decided to ignore the social convention of covering my legs, at least while I'm running during the summer. It's not a religious thing here, aside from a few Muslim women who wear burqas. It's just a very conservative society and women should be covered from their shoulders to their knees -- or preferably ankles -- unless they want to be victims of staring or harassment by men.

Let me be clear, I feel perfectly safe. I would not be wearing shorts if I thought they put me in any danger whatsoever.

Here's the thing, though. People stare at me anyway. Men and women. Children laugh. I'm a hilarious freakshow. I'm white. I'm a woman (who's often not escorted by a man). I'm often running or walking for pleasure rather than transportation. And I often have a funny little baby with me, too. I've accepted the fact that I stand out. If I'm going to be stared at for all of these reasons anyway, I may as well be comfortable in shorts rather than leggings.

First I started wearing shorts around our yard, outside. I figured that if the neighbors were offended, well, they didn't have to look over the wall and watch me. Then one morning, bleary-eyed from my 5:15 alarm (I have to be on the road by 6:00 during this hot weather), I automatically reached for shorts, just like the old days, instead of leggings. I was already out the door by the time I realized my faux pas and I decided to go with it. That early in the morning there are few people on the road and they were already staring at me regularly. The shorts didn't seem to attract any additional attention.

I'm generally not one to have the attitude that being an American gives me the right to disrespect local customs because they're inconvenient to the lifestyle I'm used to. But it's true that Western women can get away with being less conservative, maybe because of the "we're being stared at anyway" phenomena. What really cemented my decision to continue wearing shorts though was seeing a young Indian woman out for a walk one morning, wearing the same color shorts and t-shirt as I was. If she has the confidence to do it, I should too. (And it's already in the 80s at six in the morning. My legs were burning up, being swathed in spandex.)

06 May 2011

Adventures in Veggie Shopping

Much like going to the farmers' market in San Francisco or Dupont Circle to check out the fresh produce before heading out to the grocery store, here I have to go to a fruit stand and a vegetable stand to find the best produce before I take my chances on the grocery store produce aisle.

Finding the best "Western" produce is a competitive sport. I only just discovered the secret of the produce stand a few weeks ago. I usually send my driver out for groceries or make one stop at the grocery store and settle for what's there. But now that it's a little easier to shop with Muffin in tow, I love our weekly trek to Star Fruit and Tarkari Vegetables. The veggie ladies give Muffin carrots to play with. Star Fruit is a tiny, jam-packed shop and Muffin pokes and grabs at any fruit or customers within range. (And because people love babies so much here, they don't mind a little grabbing hand from the whitest baby they've ever seen.)

The best thing about Tarkari -- they almost always have green leaf lettuce. At most stores you can only get iceberg lettuce, which I detest. But Tarkari has green leaf lettuce and -- get this -- with a little washing it's perfectly safe to eat! We can have salad again! The first day I discovered the lettuce, there was an Australian woman in the shop who told me to take what I wanted because she was going to buy all of it. Competitive lettuce shopping indeed. When I found fresh basil after weeks of not seeing it, I was the one who bought the whole stock (and then I had my housekeeper make about a gallon of pesto). And I'm sorry other expats, but I also cleaned out the thyme and rosemary at qmart a couple weeks ago.

The prices at the grocery store aren't prohibitive for most expats, like they might be for local shoppers. It's certainly more convenient for one-stop shopping. But what I like about the smaller stands is that the fruits and veggies are local. They are fresh. They are ripe. They may have traveled from another state in India, but few things came on a plane from another country.

You do need to wash everything, but that's one of the benefits of having a housekeeper. She washes and cuts everything up, which makes it much more likely that we'll actually eat all the fruits and vegetables that I buy.

Muffin's been enjoying the local watermelon lately.

Cross-posted at What I Eat.

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